Wednesday, March 16, 2016

We Leap into Fun-Filled February

This year is a leap year, so we were able to squeeze an extra day of fun into February. When last I wrote, we were expecting a visit from old friends from our teenage days who had recently moved to Ft. Myers, Florida, from the Baltimore area. We had reconnected a few times over the past 40 years, right after our kids were born, and after Jessica and Alex moved to Baltimore for eight years. David and Karen lived just a few miles away from them and had us over for dinner several years ago. They sometimes came to our kids’ parties in Baltimore. Since the advent of Facebook, we have been able to communicate and keep up with each other’s lives, and the lives of mutual friends much more easily. Karen and David were able to leave just ahead of a large storm front of torrential rain that was moving through most of Florida for several days, so in their two-and-a-half hour drive northeast to us, they encountered only light moments of rain. We had a lox and bagels lunch ready for them when they arrived. After they had settled in for a bit and the rain seemed to be letting up, we decided to take a drive over to Animal Kingdom Lodge to see the two facilities, Kidani Village and Jambo House and watch the free-roaming wildlife. The weather was much less than optimal while we were there, but we were able to see an interesting array of animals, including giraffes, zebras and wildebeests. Because many were somewhat motionless in the constant drizzle, David at first, thought they weren’t real. Then some zebras and giraffes strolled by. We wandered around the magnificent resorts and Karen let me know that she would adore touring the many and varied hotels here as they had not been to the parks for many years and had no idea of the vast size and diversity of the Disney World complex. We went from there to the Boardwalk Hotel, where the setting encouraged us to reminisce about our teenage days at the Jersey Shore. Then, we hopped aboard the Friendship Cruisers and circled the lagoon. Eventually, we disembarked at the Swan and Dolphin Hotels and had dinner and drinks in the lounge at Blue Zoo in the Dolphin. We came out just in time to watch the Symphony in the Stars fireworks over Hollywood Studios from in front of the massive fountain at the entrance to the Dolphin. Hopping back on the cruiser, we were able to see some of the IllumiNations fireworks over Epcot as well on our way back to the Boardwalk. We returned home with two totally exhausted, but happy guests.

In the morning, during breakfast, we were reminiscing about a mutual friend, Mitchell, that none of us had heard from in many years. David suddenly remembered that it was his birthday and I thought it would be a great idea for his two long lost friends to call him. We knew he lived in southern Florida, and we tracked him down on Facebook and White Pages by narrowing his name to two possible people. The first try was correct and he seemed as pleased as anything to hear from the two of them on his birthday. He said that the phone call made his day. After breakfast, David and Karen were raring to go again, so we headed out to Disney Springs, formerly known as Downtown Disney, to see some of the new attractions there. We walked from the parking lot at one end near the Cirque du Soleil, La Nouba, tent-shaped arena to the boat dock at the other end of the complex. Among the highlights were watching Disney-themed candy and chocolate apples being hand dipped and decorated, posing with awesome hogs at Harley-Davidson, viewing the vintage amphibious car-boats that ply the lagoon, watching mini car races and posing with huge installations at the Lego Store, sampling free chocolate at Ghirardelli’s, and just generally wandering in and out of the many interesting stores. At the end, we hopped a boat back to our starting point near the House of Blues. The rain was on and off the whole time, but in typical Florida fashion, we also saw bursts of sunshine and blue skies. From there, we continued on to Abracadabra so that they could enjoy the unique experience of nitrogen ice cream. They were quite contented with the experience of ice cream as lunch. We traveled home after that to prepare Shabbat dinner, as it was Friday and we were expecting additional guests besides Larry and Ken and Randi. Ken and Randi were also hosting guests for the weekend, Betty and Tony, who were the parents of their daughter, Jamie’s, former long-time boyfriend, Michael. With David and Karen’s help, we all had a fantastic dinner which included homemade challah, homemade guacamole, black bean soup, seared tuna, potato latkes with sour cream and applesauce, and warm sesame dressed spinach salad. For dessert, we had carob brownies, peanut butter cookies, chocolate mousse crepes, and mince pies that Ari had brought from London. After dinner, Larry went home, but the rest of us continued to the Grand Floridian where we enjoyed the orchestra in the lobby for a little while, and then viewed the Wishes fireworks over the Magic Kingdom from the outdoor terrace. It was a wonderful evening that we all spent together!

When Saul and I arose the following morning, Karen had already finished cleaning up the kitchen from the previous night. I had left the crystal stemware and pots and pans that didn’t fit in the dishwasher so that we could get to the fireworks in time. The kitchen was spick and span and ready for us to prepare breakfast. After a leisurely breakfast, they hurried back home to prepare for guests that were coming to visit them the next day. Saul and I cleaned up, packed an overnight bag, and headed down to Bal Harbour in North Miami to visit our cousins, Willie, Bob, and Abe—the ones who had just visited us. They had called shortly after leaving us to invite us for Shabbat, but we had made the plans with David and Karen months earlier. We arrived, after a pleasant three-hour drive, in the early evening to a warm welcome from the three brothers. We had not seen Willie for many years. The condo where we stayed, which belongs to Willie and his wife, Jane, is one of the most beautiful and spacious seaside condos we have ever encountered. After chilling out while overlooking the ocean from the comfy outdoor terrace, we piled into Bob’s rented minivan to travel a short distance to Little Havana in Deerfield Beach for a congenial meal of whole grilled fish and pitchers of margaritas. I was feeling very mellow by the end of the evening.

In the morning, we rose relatively early to beat the breakfast crowd to the nearby best Jewish deli outside of New York that we have encountered in many years—Mo’s Bagels and Deli. It may have even been better than the ones in New York. We sat down to a large complimentary plate of delectable assorted Danish. Our waitress, a zoftig, sassy, and extremely efficient lady, saw that our every request was met. Our breakfasts were huge and delicious with the best toasted bagels and breads anywhere. Even the coffee was incredible. Saul and I, so starved for good bagels in Central Florida, ordered two dozen to take home with us for the freezer. Returning to the condo, we changed into bathing suits and headed downstairs to our waiting, “customized” lounge chairs on the beach. Willie needs only to place a phone call for everything to be prepared for us. The weather was not great, but acceptable considering the fact that another huge rainstorm was on the way. We lounged for a few hours, waded into the Atlantic for a bit, took a long walk on the beach, schmoozed with our cousins and a friend of Willie and Jane’s from the condo. Willie had left us for a while to honor a previous date to golf with some friends. When he returned, we all showered, Saul and I packed our bags, and we walked to dinner together at a nearby Italian restaurant, Carpaccio’s in the beautiful mall, Bal Harbour Shops, down the street from the building. Because the storm was arriving before morning, Saul and I had decided to leave right after dinner to avoid a long drive in teeming rain. Alas, an hour into the drive, Bob called to remind us that we had left our two dozen coveted bagels on the kitchen table. Mmmpf#@&$%!! At least the rest of our drive went well and we arrived home shortly before midnight.

We used the opportunity of the ensuing rainstorm the next day to relax and do a bit of deep cleaning of our house. I also began a job on the computer for the last client I have left that did not transfer to Jessica when I turned my desktop publishing business over to her last year. Also, during that day, Larry’s sister Susan and her husband Ted arrived to take up temporary residence in their new house in Florida for a month. Ari arrived in New York for a Legal Tech convention, but was unable to connect with members of the family while he was in the U.S. for a week.

Somewhat recovered, we met Ken and Randi and Tony and Betty for an afternoon at Epcot the next day. Meanwhile, work continues on our pool and spa. The whole procedure is fascinating to watch, but it is progressing in true Florida snail-like manner. The results so far have been more beautiful than Saul and I could have imagined, so we are trying to be patient and laid-back about the process.

We used the following day to make the rounds of the places where we shop to restock our pantry. We returned to find most of the plumbing done for our spa and the following day, we watched as they blew the gunite concrete onto the rebar form that was created. I was really happy that we were home when they had begun creating the form, because it was protruding too far into the pool and not what we had discussed at all. By fixing the problem at the right time, we avoided huge complications. On Friday, we prepared Shabbat dinner for Susan, Ted and Larry. We had rainbow challah, homemade chicken soup with homemade dumplings, warm sesame dressed spinach salad, roasted asparagus, roasted cauliflower, mah po tofu, black and white rice, and jumbo peanut butter oatmeal cookies.

Our neighbor, John, was celebrating his 70th birthday that Sunday and his children made him a party in their new home. John and his wife are in the process of buying, through lease-purchase, a ranch-style home just down the street from his two-story home, which is just down the street from us. The party gave us an opportunity to meet some of our neighbors that we had not met before. When we returned home, Saul and I prepared dosa batter, because Susan mentioned that while they were in India during their extensive trip around the world, they had encountered Southern Indian food and specifically dosas, and loved it. We spent that Monday with Susan, Ted and Larry at Epcot. In the evening, we celebrated Saul’s birthday a bit early with Ken and Randi at Johnnie’s Hideaway.

Larry had guests, mutual friends, Don and Diane, visiting overnight the next day. Larry dropped them off at our home as we were finishing installing a new kitchen fixture which we ordered from Overstock. When we were done, we met Larry with Susan and Ted at the Edgewater Hotel in Winter Park where they treated Saul to dinner for his birthday. The food was wonderful, as usual. Larry dropped off Susan and Ted at home after dinner and joined Don and Diane, and Saul and me at Hollywood Studios where we all viewed the magnificent Symphony in the Skies fireworks. It was a chilly night, but we weren’t outside for very long.

The celebration of Saul’s 69th birthday continued the next day when the whole group of us had the sumptuous, African-themed, buffet dinner together at Boma at Jambo House, Animal Kingdom. We always look forward to the food, impeccable service, and lush atmosphere of this amazing restaurant. It was as good as ever.

For several years, Saul and I have been wanting to visit Bok Tower Gardens, about a 45-minute drive from our home. Somehow, we have never found the right day for a visit, but it was on the top of Ted’s list of things to do in Florida. He had visited this memorable place on a family vacation to Florida as a child, only 79 years ago! As we had been led to believe by many long-time residents here, it was definitely worth the visit. We arrived on an absolutely gorgeous day and were bowled over by the acres of manicured gardens, water features, and especially the colorful, mosaic beauty of Bok Tower itself. We had arrived just in time for the afternoon concert that rings out from the tower’s world-famous carillon, a diverse musical program played by a renowned carillon musician. A viewing station was set up outdoors, under the trees, where the actual performance could be seen live on a closed-circuit screen. Following the performance, we wandered the grounds, taking photos and enjoying the beautiful setting and weather. We stopped on the way home at a thrift shop, where Ted and Susan bought some folding tables and glassware. Then we stopped for a light bite of lunch at Ovations. Shabbat dinner that evening was a last-minute affair. There was no time for homemade challah, so we made do with two ciabatta breads from the freezer. Most of dinner came from the freezer, except that Susan made biryani rice and I had made cod lamaize in the morning before we left, which we ate on lettuce leaves. Ken and Randi joined the five of us for dinner. Saul and I went to services the next day.

On Sunday morning, I baked a Presley Bella cake, set it upside down to cool, and joined Larry, Ted and Susan at Epcot. Ken and Randi invited us to their home for dinner that night. I convinced Susan to linger at the park and that we would make her spring rolls at Randi’s house together. Randi, as usual, had a delicious array of food waiting for us (artichoke dip, brie en croute with blackberry jam and pecans, crudités with sour cream dip, medjool dates, tapenade with chips, etc.) to which we all contributed our yummy leftovers: cod lamaize, guacamole, shrimp ring, assorted cheese board with fig jam, fresh chick peas. For dessert, we had the Presley Bella cake iced with mascarpone.

The fun part of our spa and pool renovation got underway on Monday and Tuesday. Saul and I spent several hours in rapt attention as our crew began to add the decorative tiles to our spa. On Tuesday, February 16, Ken and Randi treated us to an incredibly delicious birthday dinner at a mystery restaurant, recommended by their neighbors, for special occasions. None of us had ever dined there before, and they kept it a secret from us until we arrived there for our reservations. The restaurant turned out to be Chatham’s Place, a central Florida long-time fixture that deserves its excellent reputation. While the menu looks somewhat ordinary, the food was anything but, and the waitstaff are the type of pleasant and efficient professionals that even the finest restaurants in the world have trouble hiring and maintaining. As impressive as the food was, we were almost as impressed by the professionalism we saw all around us, not to mention the old-world-style ambience that is usually so pompous, but was warm and inviting here.

We had been taking things easy with just short evening walks in the parks as Saul was due to have cataract surgery on his left eye at Celebration Hospital on Thursday. The results were absolutely amazing! After undergoing a 15-minute procedure to replace his cloudy lens with a custom-manmade one, his vision was so improved that he is now free of his heavily-corrected trifocals (which haven’t been improving his vision much for many years) for the rest of his life. He hastened to schedule his right eye to be done as quickly as possible. He has been dependent on his glasses for so many years that he is still pushing them up his nose even though they are not there. I am delighted to see his face all the time, especially driving, without them. On Friday, February 19, we enjoyed Shabbat dinner with Susan’s best friends, Julie, Christine, and Mary, who had arrived from Chicago to visit Susan and Ted for the week. We had a great time getting to know them and sharing some of the delights of living here near Disney with them. Saul was still recovering from his cataract surgery and they all were very helpful preparing and cleaning up after dinner. On Sunday, we caught up with Haley and Erik, and their friends, Binky and Joe, who had been staying with Ken and Randi for a long weekend beginning on the previous Thursday. We were joined, also, by the daughter of Ken and Randi’s old neighbors Art and Eileen, Marcia, who was in town to run the Disney Marathon. Saul and I broke off eventually, while the rest of them went to dinner in the park and finally were able to complete the process of “drinking around the world,” which had been rain-delayed last time. Saul and I had dinner at The Grand Floridian Café, with Larry, Susan and Ted and their friends and spent the rest of the evening with them listening to the orchestra in the lobby of the Grand Floridian and viewing the Magic Kingdom’s fireworks from the terrace outside. On Monday morning, before the kids flew home, Ken, Randi, Haley, Erik, Binky, Joe, and Marcia came over for a huge breakfast. Ken and Randi picked Marcia up from the Art of Animation Hotel, where she was staying. I made a carob cake for which Joe had been pining since his last visit. I also tried a new trick that I learned for making a dozen poached eggs at a time in a muffin pan, and it worked like magic! We had home fries, lox and bagels, and benedicts with mousseline sauce, a type of hollandaise that I hadn’t made in years, along with all the usual trimmings. Everything worked out beautifully and easily with very little effort.

On Tuesday, February 23, Saul and I drove out to Jacksonville for an afternoon appointment with an assigned nurse practitioner at the Mayo Clinic. How this happened to come about is a long story. Two years ago, I scheduled colonoscopies for Saul and me, literally back-to-back, when we were up north. We had not yet chosen a team of doctors in Florida, and decided to go back for our yearly check-ups, etc. and get them all out of the way at the same time. I was about a year overdue for a colonoscopy, and Saul was a few months early. The night before our prep, the gastroenterologist’s office called to say that, because I was not yet 65 and on Medicare, they had been notified by our insurance company that my procedure would not be covered. It would have cost us over $2,000 out of pocket just for the basic procedure, let alone any complications that might arise. Since I had no symptoms, I opted to wait the eight months until I was eligible for Medicare, and I spoke about my situation with the gastroenterologist when he gave me the “all clear” after Saul’s colonoscopy. He felt, based on my history and lack of symptoms that it would be okay to wait. In July, a few months after I turned 65, Saul and I selected an internist from nearby Celebration Hospital and we had our first check-up in Florida. He recommended the gastroenterologist in the suite of offices next door to his in the hospital. I was shocked after my colonoscopy to find that three large polyps were removed, one of which was described to me as pre-cancerous. The gastroenterologist set up an appointment for another colonoscopy three months afterwards, on January 11, to make sure everything was still clear. At the end of December, I received a phone call saying that the appointment had to be cancelled because the doctor was not available, but the procedure could be rescheduled with an associate. I opted to wait until my doctor returned and told them to call me on short notice if they had a cancellation. I called in January and was told that she had not returned. Saul and I went in to our new internist for 6-month check-ups at the end of January and he told us that it was a big mystery as to the circumstances of her “disappearance.” After calling again to try to schedule the follow-up colonoscopy, I got the distinct impression that she would not be returning. At that point, I decided, on my own, to contact the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. Ken had been there for treatments of his condition and couldn’t say enough about how wonderful and efficient was his care there. When I called the number he gave me, the whole thing fell into place easily. Under the circumstances, my internist was more than happy to give me a referral, and once I was registered at the Mayo Clinic, everything happened very quickly. I was given an immediate initial appointment and was on the schedule for a colonoscopy there on March 15. We were, indeed, extremely impressed with the efficiency and personal care we received on our initial visit there. The nurse practitioner, upon hearing my story, set up a more comprehensive colonoscopy at an even earlier date of March 8. The story has a very happy ending because the gastroenterologist who performed the procedure was a large polyp cancer specialist and he found no significant problems and told me I need not return for another procedure for three years. I was so happy that I made the choice to have the procedure done at the Mayo Clinic because I can now put the whole thing out of my mind with confidence. Still no word on what happened to my first doctor. We found the most wonderful restaurant when we left the Mayo just a few miles away in quaint Neptune Beach. As the sun began to set, we had a sumptuous, beautifully-prepared meal on the patio of North Beach Fish Camp. Afterward, we walked the block to the ocean and strolled in the sand before heading home.

Susan and Ted returned to Chicago on the morning of February 25, and Randi’s sisters came for a visit. We spent the evening together in Epcot. They joined us for Shabbat dinner on February 26. That evening, after dinner, as a surprise to their children up north, the three sisters flew to Philadelphia for a planned family get-together. After we went to services with Larry the next morning, we stopped by an open house at a hydroponic farm to view strawberries being grown above ground and went to lunch together at Bates New England Seafood. In the evening, we met Ken for dinner at D’Oro Palazzo in Posner Park and then went to see the movie Deadpool at the Cinépolis Theater. It is one of the goriest movies I have ever seen, and I spent half the time with my hands over my eyes and the other half laughing my head off, a weird combination that I have never experienced before. I’m glad we went, but I never want to see it again. Saul and I spent all of that Sunday cooking to use up and preserve a lot of the extra food that Susan and Ted had left behind and the food that we had left over from all the entertaining we had been doing.

On leap day, we rewarded ourselves with a day of leisure and pedicures. In the evening, Saul and I parked at The Contemporary Hotel, walked the quarter mile to the Magic Kingdom, and strolled around for a few hours. The weather was beautiful. The next day, I picked up pasteurized eggs to see if they would work in the mousseline sauce to make preparation safer and easier, and they worked like a charm. I have now perfected an amazing and easy breakfast—poached eggs, napped with mousseline, on roasted red peppers atop crispy polenta rounds. The recipes will soon be appearing on my recipe blog.

Work has continued on our pool area, and over the last week, we have enjoyed watching the work progress while catching up with chores around the house. I finished my publication. We went to see Kung Fu Panda 3, with Larry on Mexican food and movie night Tuesdays, which was very cute and a great antidote to Deadpool. We made Mickey Mouse shaped poached eggs with a cute silicon muffin pan that the sisters gave us as a gift when they came for dinner. We made rice pudding with extra milk that Ted and Susan had left. On March 3, the Flower and Garden Show began at Epcot, and we took our evening stroll there and have attended two concerts since—The Orchestra, with former members of ELO, and Starship with Mickey Thomas. Both concerts were fantastic! I was on a special diet for three days before my colonoscopy, so no special birthday meals out. For two days before the procedure, I was on a clear liquid diet. We stayed in a beautiful Holiday Inn Express and Suites in Jacksonville overnight before my procedure while I prepped. After I got the good news, we packed our suitcase, and immediately headed over to North Beach Fish Camp again to break my fast and celebrate. It was just as good the second time. We were home sleeping soundly in our own bed by 10:00 p.m. A few days ago, on March 9, we went with Larry, Ken, and Randi to Bahama Breeze for early bird dinner and then, sans Ken and Randi, walked on to the Magic Kingdom via the Contemporary Hotel where Saul and I embarked on the “Pirates Adventure” where we received five different treasure maps and activated various secret animations throughout Adventureland. Then the three of us found a great spot to watch “Celebrate the Magic” and the Wishes fireworks over Cinderella’s Castle. Larry picked us up on Thursday, March 10. Saul drove his car to a new breakfast place for us, Big Tom’s Diner, which was excellent and inexpensive. It made up for the recent disappointment when we went to Egg City and discovered that our beloved grits were gone, replaced by a watery, tasteless, cheese-less version. From Big Tom’s, where we were privileged to see a nest of American bald eagles in a nearby tree, we headed to Plant City’s huge annual Strawberry Festival. We strolled around the grounds for a few hours and had a custom trivet made. We bought a gorgeous flat of freshly picked berries and a large bunch of strawberry onions. When we returned home, to our pleasant surprise, the pool had been cleaned and resurfaced, and the screen enclosure expansion was in the process of being completed. Saul and I spent most of the day on Friday preparing some new recipes for Shabbat dinner, which was just the two of us and Larry. Ken and Randi had traveled to south Florida to visit Randi’s sisters. We made strawberry shortcake, fried onion rings, guacamole, and vegetarian French onion soup, in addition to the usual homemade challah, and tossed salad.

On Saturday night, we received a request from relatives in Israel to please, as a favor, proofread a master’s thesis written by the husband of Saul’s cousin Sylvia’s daughter. The paper was highly technical and impressive and took the two of us together most of the day yesterday to proofread. With the energy we had left, we made three batches of hamantashen dough in preparation for Purim next week. The men were here to grade our property today and our contractor promises to have our pool ready for swimming when Elaine, Jess, and our two youngest granddaughters arrive for spring break next week. Sami will be leaving for Germany on Friday to visit her exchange student who was here over Thanksgiving.

All good things have been happening this month! May the fun continue!

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