Monday, December 29, 2014

Holiday Fun; Prezzies! The Red Guardian; Great Weather


It's been a busy holiday season, with multiple dinners with our gourmet club and other friends. Out of town visitors are especially fun. Here we see Michele Uss and Suzanne with Michele's sisters, Marlene and Randy over for a visit. They and Suzanne had a great girls' gabfest on spiritual topics while I nibbled on some of the yummy Christmas cookies, fudge, Silverbells, and cheesy crackers that had shown up from special friends (thanks to Lynn, Reve, Donna and Jan!)








Christmas also brought more opportunities for Rudy to help open presents. It's almost as much fun as chasing squirrels. Suzanne's mom Ruthie was most appreciative of Rudy's help in opening her gifts...















One of my favorite surprises was from Mike and Beth Pasakarnis - The Thinker's Thesaurus, which provides "sophisticated alternatives to common words"... such as "hugger-mugger" instead of "confusion", or "villipend" instead of "disparage". But my favorite word to date is "opsigamy" instead of "marriage late in life"... the book goes on to elucidate the usage by describing the situation (I'm also thinking of some past-65 Villagers) where honeymoons would not be in Buffalo or Niagara Falls, but Sunset City or Viagra Falls. My Lovely Bride will be ecstatic when I use this abstruse and gelastic verbomania...








Speaking of desirable presents, I only get My Lovely Bride the most exotic and special gifts. One of my favorites (and hers too, I hope) was a new down sleeping bag for our six week hike (pilgrimage) next year. Don't worry, it wasn't her only present. I also got her a compass so she won't get lost if we're not  together...


 

Her favorite gift to me is shown here. I asked her to model this ultralightweight rain poncho, because she's getting one also. Seems it rains a lot on the Camino in October, and we'll be doing 15 mile days, potentially in moderate to heavy rain for hours at a time, and these ponchos are critical in keeping dry. ("Suzanne, wouldn't a taxi do even better?" Smack!)













In the background of the above photo, careful observation reveals a new painting hanging just to the left of our front door. Titled Red Guardian, our good friend and spiritual artist Barry Mack out in Portland, Oregon, painted this piece recently, and when Suzanne saw it online, she fell in love with it. At that time, she didn't know what Barry had written on the back regarding its meaning... "The Red Guardian stands by the Aspirant, Patiently assisting them in their passage Into the doorway to Higher Consciousness... With the Red Guardian we are able to ascend And realize that all conditions or circumstances are subject to Divine Will. We discover our Path is protected and The Light will prevail." It is fitting that it now hangs just outside the room in which Suzanne gives readings and meditates ... the doorway to Higher Consciousness.  For more on Barry Mack and his exceptional art, see www.BarryMackArt.com






Just as an aside, here is how the Red Guardian arrived at our door - packed in an enormous wooden crate, safe from the most difficult roads and airline turbulence imaginable. DHL even gave us a 30 minute heads-up so we could make sure we were at home to sign for the delivery. And even better, I got to use my power tools to open the 69-pound crate, which was sealed with 16 long wood screws.








While walking the puppies along the shore of Lake Sumter the other evening, we were blessed with a lovely sunset. It was also a pleasantly warm evening, and as we witnessed this rose-colored sky, we thought of our friends in cooler climes like Alberta, Colorado and Minnesnowta, and hoped that our 70 degree weather continued for a few more weeks. We know that winter will eventually come, but it's been ages since I've seen that snow shovel... 

 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Modern Communications; Fall Colors; An Island Home; Big Blue; Road Trip! Top Sergeant Bob; Poor Army; Gators; Bob's Trike Tractor


I was making some changes to Suzanne's mom Ruthie's utilities the other day when the electric company rep said that she had to speak to Mrs. Smeltzer directly. Suzanne got on her cell to Ruthie, and we were able to "patch" the utility with their customer while I held up two handsets; it was just a little bizarre. I think Alexander Graham Bell (who made the first telephone call in 1876 with the words, "Mr. Watson - come here - I want to see you.") would be impressed by how his invention has developed. 










Now, for all you Northerners who think Fall Colors don't exist here in sunny, warm Florida, take a look at this photo taken on December 20, 2014, here in The Villages. Our bald cypress trees (Taxodium disticum) do in fact change colors before shedding their leaves in December/January. The bald cypress is the state tree of Louisiana, and is widespread throughout the south, particularly in swampy areas and along rivers. They have long been used for making shingles; Kerrville, Texas, and Kissimmee, Florida, are both known for their cypress shingle production in the 19th Century. Another interesting fact is that scuba divers have located a submerged cypress forest under 60 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico; the trees have been dated as about 52,000 years old, and are so well preserved that when cut, the wood still has a fresh cypress sap spell. (Had our ancestors not driven SUVs back then, perhaps sea levels would be much lower today...)





I've found a beautiful, uninhabited island to visit... okay, maybe not in this lifetime, but maybe if I'm ever reincarnated as a one-inch tall Lilliputian. This small rock lies near the cypress trees in the preceding photo along a tiny stream here in The Villages. I envision pitching my tent on the hillside at left, building a tree house in the towering green seedling and launching my kayak for fishing expeditions in the stream... okay, maybe I'd better plan on airdrops of food supplies... 



 


"Big Blue", in this case, does not refer to either the New York Giants or to Michigan's football team, but rather to the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) we watched standing sentinel on a rooftop near Sumter Landing, a couple of miles from our house.He may have been looking for his next meal, or simply loitering while digesting a fish or frog, but he looked a noble figure in any case. American Indians thought that herons symbolized patience and good luck, but some tribes also portrayed them as restless loners, since herons are usually solitary except during mating season. 





While one can find beauty in nature even in a suburban environment, as the previous three entries prove, My Lovely Bride and I were ready for a road trip. We enlisted our good friends Bob and Jan, who also have a motor coach, to spend 3 or 4 days with us at Hillsborough River State Park northeast of Tampa. Here we are with camp set up, surrounded by towering pines and yes, cypress and oaks as well; and lots of squirrels for Rudy and Gretchen... our Itasca is on the left and their Thor on the right.

 


One of the first orders of business was going for a 5 mile hike on a loop of the Florida Trail, which paralleled the Hillsborough River before turning back into dense, jungle-like forest. I made the mistake of letting Top Sergeant Bob set the pace, and for an old guy, he really impressed me with his speed. (In a past life, Bob worked for Julius Caesar as a centurion marching his cohort across Europe.) We finally got Bob to stop for a break on this comfy log... Some historic trivia: the original width of the Appian Way, Rome's major highway, was designed at 13 feet to allow six legionnaires to march abreast with full battle gear. Speaking of full battle gear, you my note that My Lovely Bride is wearing her new pack, loaded with the same weight she intends carrying on every training hike leading up to our Camino trek next year.


 

Biker Chick also dragged me out twice for cross-jungle adventures on our mountain bikes.  There were trails to follow, but the canopy overhead was almost as dense as the forest beside the trails, and they were rooty and frequently studded with bits of karst limestone, making the ride quite bumpy. I felt like one of James Bond's martinis, shaken, not stirred, by the end of our rides. (As you can see, Suzanne is wearing her Navy jersey, in honor of the Naval Academy's 13th consecutive victory over the West Point in the Army-Navy game last week. Sorry, Colonel Cunis, I had to mention that, and yes, we are so looking forward to the meal you lost in that bet with My Lovely Bride.)






Meanwhile, My Good Friend Bob had taken a walk along the Hillsborough River, and when he returned, suggested that I should go for a swim. Somewhat surprised, we walked down there to find a ten foot long gator lurking just fifty feet away, waiting for anyone bold enough to ignore the sign...


Here's a close-up of the same gator. Most of his mass in underwater, so you don't have a feel for the size of these critters until...













you are out kayaking and see another big one on the bank as you are paddling by... what really gets your attention is that he's looking at you like you're a piece of filet mignon and he hasn't had dinner in a week. Fortunately, as long as you stay in your boat, there is little to fear from these guys, so I gave him a wave and we paddled on.









We found serenity and natural beauty galore, and very few other paddlers, since we were visiting mid-week. The water was so still that Suzanne was able to get great pictures with perfect reflections. 


















On our second bike ride, we found a great old tricycle tractor that Bob, a former farmer, plans on restoring and putting in his front yard here in The Villages... if he can just get past the community covenants against lawn ornaments. 










Finally, I have to share a very appropriate birthday card I received from Bob and Jan... the inside greeting read, "The world is your territory just waiting to be marked!" 















Monday, December 15, 2014

A Great Birthday; Berns; Parking Hall of Shame; EnSuzyasm; Wild Sunbathing; A Parallel Universe?


I recently celebrated (not sure that's really the most accurate verb in this case, but it will have to do) another birthday. My Lovely Bride gave me a bunch of prezzies, including this shirt, which displays man's development over millions of years from an ape to the pinnacle of evolution - that of a humanoid being owned and led by a Dachshund. Believe me, that is indeed the ultimate proof of success in natural selection, and Rudy in particular reminds me of it every day.






Did I mention that Rudy and Gretchen are Master Present Openers? At first our little boy dog performed solo in this capacity, but now we find that he has trained his little sister as well. This is what the living room floor looked like after just 5 minutes of work on their part...














Suzanne also took me out to lunch to Hemingway's at Havana Country Club, where we enjoyed a delicious fish meal, which is not the same as fish meal... English is such a peculiar language.  









That evening was My Lovely Bride's final performance with the Flute Choir. Their Christmas Concert was held at Seabreeze Rec Center, and it was a spectacular event enjoyed by everyone.









 
On Friday we motored down to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa for a special dinner out with our friends Bill and Gayle Hancock. Suzanne's brother Brent had told us about Bern's Steak House, and we decided to make the trek down to the big city and see if the 5 star reviews given to this restaurant were accurate... and they were! We all agreed that the steaks and the onion soup were the best any of us had ever had.




Bern's also has the largest private wine collection in the world, around 500,000 bottles. That is not a misprint. We got a brief tour of the cellar, only a miniscule part of which is shown here. (They actually bought a hotel across the street to house the main part of their collection.) I wanted to sample the really good stuff, but when our waiter mentioned that one of the more expensive bottles went for $15,000, I decided that I was quite content without tasting that vintage. All in all, it was a memorable event, not just a meal, and we hope to return one day just to make sure the chef is consistent...





While out for a w-a-l-k in t-o-w-n with Rudy and Gretchen one cold and foggy morning, we happened upon this Hyundai parked just in front of our car. You may note that some miscreant had parked almost four feet from the curb (kerb for you Brits). It was one of the worst parking jobs ever, but all I could say was "Isn't that interesting..."









Speaking of walking (and hiking), My Lovely Bride is getting more serious about our training program for the Camino Santiago next Fall. We are taking weekly hikes around The Compound (the inmates' term for The Villages), complete with 15-20 lb backpacks, and I know she plans on increasing both the frequency and the length of these forced marches as the months pass. Her "EnSuzyasm" never fails to impress - and exhaust - me. 













While on that particular hike, we were passing a Recreation Center just a couple of miles from our house, when I looked at an unclothed sunbather relaxing on the side of the retention pond about 50 feet from the parking lot. This svelte native Floridian was just waiting to meet some unsuspecting golfer looking for his errant ball, or for a golf cart driver taking a stroll along the pond shoreline... I called the rec center to report this non-taxpayer, and a rather bored receptionist only woke up when I said "... and it's about five or six feet long... you might want to have someone relocate it."



There are a plethora of small ponds around our community, and an early morning reveille allowed me to find nice lighting and colors at this one in the Village of Amelia, only a mile from the house. It was still cool, so the critters were not yet out sunbathing.









Finally,  I have to briefly recount a bizarre experience at one of our Villages clubs. These are mostly innocuous events, but I had been told that one particular meeting (which shall go unnamed for reasons which shall become obvious) would be interesting. I attended and listened in stunned silence while several speakers spoke about the potential for the National Security Agency (NSA) to record and listen in on innocent civilians' cell phone calls and Internet surfing under the guise of fighting terrorism. Several conspiracy theorists believed (and stated out loud) that the NSA might even want to know about your gynecological history (or perhaps my potential for flatulence?), and we should all hope that in the next election, the forces of Good will conquer the Evil Intelligence Empire and disband the NSA, CIA, DIA and probably even the Military Industrial Complex. I felt that I was in a parallel universe where lessons from history, logic and common sense had been vacated for mass hysteria and absurd paranoia. I tried saying under my breath, "Isn't that interesting..." and managed to keep from laughing out loud until I could return home and be cleansed in a cloud of sage and a scalding shower...  I should also mention that in my capacity as a naval officer for 26 years, I worked with the intelligence community on thousands of occasions, and the NSA in particular during a four year period, and I found them all to be totally professional and dedicated to protecting our country and obeying the law.
                               

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Winner in Indiana; Dinners with Lawyers? New Gear! Troll? Trail Work; A Jazzy Night Out


In my last post, I mentioned the creepy-crawlies that I wanted to "take out" with my grandfather's Winchester Model 94 .30-.30, and that My Lovely Bride convinced me that shooting them would be considered gauche by our neighbors. Well, it's a good thing I took her advice for a change, because when the pest control expert arrived, he identified the creatures as Oleander caterpillars (Syntomeida epilais), non-toxic and never known to have attacked and killed a human being. This was reassuring, so we granted the caterpillars a reprieve, and are hoping to see their metamorphosis from caterpillar to pupa to moth. Congratulations to Dale Hilliard of La Otto, Indiana, a Navy shipmate of mine aboard the battleship USS IOWA (BB-61), who correctly identified these caterpillars, and who (with His Lovely Bride Becky) will be taken out to dinner when we visit Indiana next summer. I had no idea that a retired Navy Operations Specialist Master Chief Petty Officer (OSCM) who spent most of his life at sea could be so knowledgeable about bugs...




Life is a learning experience, that's for sure. For example, I never would have thought that I could actually enjoy the company of lawyers, but sure enough, it's happened twice this month. (Maybe I should buy a Powerball ticket...) Our dinner out at Belle Meade CC with our good friends Joseph and Elizabeth (who live on the aptly-named street "Inner Circle") was great fun, and I even got some good legal advice from Joseph which may be very useful in estate planning. (Unfortunately I forgot my camera that evening.) The second dinner was with Suzanne's Lovely Mom Ruthie and our friend Gail, a Public Defender. She also gave me some legal advice that I hope I never have to use, unless I decide to stick up a 7-11 to increase my financial net worth. 



Suzanne is getting Really Serious about next year's planned pilgrimage on the Camino Santiago in Spain. She even ordered new boots and backpack so she can start training properly for our epic trek. Here she is trying on her brand new, right-outta-the-box Osprey Aura (is that an appropriate name or what?) while camping out in our RV last weekend. Her backpack looks small, but she hasn't loaded it up yet, and it should carry everything she needs for 5 weeks of hiking on the Camino. (No, she did not go to sleep in her new Aura, but she admits to being tempted to do so...)







Ms Drill Sergeant got me up way too early for a hike in Ocala National Forest to test out her new gear. The forest floor here is sometimes very wet, and parts of the trail are built on a boardwalk, which also helps keep you out of the way of the alligators and venomous snakes (water moccasins, rattlesnakes and copperheads) that populate the area.





 



We hiked from the Salt Spring Recreation Area, and got in a respectable 5 miler to confirm that Suzanne's new boots and pack fit properly. She decided not to strike out cross-country through the swamp (a procedure known as "bushwhacking") due to the dense undergrowth. You can only see 25 yards or so, and trying to hike through this stuff is ill-advised, to say the least.








As soon as we returned home, I had to prep for some volunteer work doing trail maintenance with the Florida Trail Association (FTA), not far from where we had been hiking. When I reminded My Lovely Bride of this, she responded, "Ah, the Troll returns to the Forest!" I was not nearly as amused by her humor as was she... but then she wasn't amused when I mentioned that there would probably be naturists on the trip... Smack! "Oh, sorry, my dear, I meant naturalists!"


 
Common sense told me not to mention either of these comments to my new FTA friends, a very nice group of folks whose average age (excluding the Two Old Guys, John at 77 -shown here repairing the DR trail mower- and Der Blogmeister at 67) was about 22. Matt, the team leader on the far left, had recently run the Ocala Traverse - 66 miles from one end of the Ocala National Forest to the other, in 14 hours... Ooh Rah!!! The youngest of our group asked when I had retired from the Navy; when I said, "1994", she said, "Gee, that was before I was born." Sigh... 





It's amazing how quickly plants grow here in Florida. The trail section we were clearing had been worked a couple of years ago, but already it had overgrown in many places and even the painted blazes on the trees had faded away. Here is the crew in a rough section. Our job was to clear the trail a consistent 4 feet wide and 8 feet high. 









The DR trail mower leads the way down the center of the trail and then the brush mower operators using enormous weed-whacker-like tools with heavy-duty rotating razor blades the size of pie plates clear the sides of the trail. Then the infantry moves in, lopping and sawing overhead branches and cleaning up the debris (which means picking it all up and throwing it well off the trail). It's heavy work but very rewarding. Here is Yours Truly armed for battle with the brush and vines that insist on overrunning the Florida Trail. And where did I get my brush mower training, you ask? Well, a 22-year old slip of a girl who knew a lot more than I about trail maintenance was kind enough to show me the ropes. 








 
I have to briefly describe our dinner on Monday night... in a past blog I mentioned that I am not a kale or quinoa fan. Imagine my surprise when our meal (vegetarian, of course) included kale. The meal was delicious, and the kale was actually quite good, but I have warned My Lovely Bride that she is not to put it on the menu more than once every sunspot cycle. If you'd like to join me and other FTA members on a hike or trail maintenance project, please let me know, or contact FTA directly at www.floridatrail.org. You can also make a charitable donation on their website if you're not into brush mowing. (Maybe if you send a big check I can have chicken on our next trail project!)  Seriously, this dedicated group of young people (Ashley, Shane and Abby were from the Youth Conservation Corps) and one other Old Guy (John is also a Villager, by the way) were delightful people and extremely hard workers. If I worked with these folks regularly, I might become a real woodsy person! I regretted having to leave early for my next event...


... which was the Jazz Lovers Club Christmas Party. Here is our group; it's bring your own dinner and adult beverage affair. Did you know that sushi actually goes quite well with Zinfandel and Pinot Noir? The Hancocks even brought a bottle of 100 point Pinot Noir... even better than my bottle of Manischewitz Concord Grape. (From left to right, Bob, Judy, Bill, Gayle, John, Sue, Suzanne, Moi.)








The music at these events is first class, and both times that we've attended, it's been a full house. The band was superb, and the vocalist was not only a fabulous singer, but also quite easy on the eyes...








  

Here are our good Navy friends Bill and Gayle Hancock, seen dancing cheek-to-cheek. Bill learned his dance steps as a Naval Academy midshipman, which is perhaps why Gayle wears steel-toed pumps. Other Jazz Club friends Bob and Judy are in the background trying to stay out of Bill's way. 









Even Der Blogmeister and His Lovely Bride got onto the dance floor, and successfully completed a couple of circuits without any collisions or bruised toes. 












Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Ahoy Cruisers; Moving Day! Creepie-Crawlies; Award Breakfast; Buen Camino?


We recently had visitors from another world. Kind sorta "extraterrestrials", because they have given up life on land for the opportunity to travel the oceans aboard a small sailboat - they are called "cruisers". Anthony and Annette Baker are friends from DC who are living aboard their beautiful Morgan 44 sloop Magnolia and cruising the East Coast of the US from Maine to the Bahamas. During this year's ongoing southbound voyage, they stopped in Vero Beach and came to visit us here in Central Florida. We tried to entice them into The Villages lifestyle by taking them to the newest country club, Belle Glade, but no luck... they are now headed back to sea, and are enjoying every minute of their adventure afloat. 



Note for non-sailors: cruising offshore aboard a sailboat with just the two of you aboard isn't quite like taking a Holland America cruise with 2,000 other passengers and 800 crew to cook your meals and run the ship. It's a 24/7 operation, and both of you have to know how to operate the boat and trim the sails in any weather and sea conditions, which are often "exciting" and physically demanding. Here we see Magnolia at anchor on a sunny day in light winds; now imagine her at 3:00 AM in a thunderstorm with 45 knot winds, rolling and pitching like a bucking stallion...



Back ashore, one of the most exhausting events in a Villager's life is Moving Day. Fortunately, that doesn't occur nearly as often as thunderstorms do for sailors, but Suzanne's Lovely Mom Ruthie recently moved from Steeplechase in Oxford, FL, to Sumter Grand, a brand new residence on Highway 466A right here in The Villages, only 4 miles from our house. A nice trio of strong young men packed up all her gear and furniture into a moving van and got her set up again in less than 6 hours.









We had a fabulous lunch courtesy of Sumter Grand; Ruthie was one of the very first new residents here, and you can see by the photo that the hanging lamp over our table hadn't yet been unwrapped, the building is so new! At the end of the day, we felt that we should ensure the dinner menu would be adequate for Ruthie by sampling it ourselves... the Paella and Filet Mignon were both judged superior, and my chocolate Ganache the best I've ever had.







Back at our homestead, however, things were not going well. Just as I was settling in for a well-deserved and long-overdue nap on the couch, Suzanne said, "Ty, you had better come look at these bugs on the lanai screen." I replied, "Sweetheart, they are probably just gnats or mosquitoes." "No, Ty, you should come see them... they are four ugly, nasty creepy-crawlies about three inches long." And you know, she was right. Being an old Navy guy, I'm on good terms with sharks and barracuda, but I'm not used to bugs like this. I know you're not supposed to get too close to potentially poisonous critters like this one, so I said, "Let me grab my Grandpa's Winchester Model 94." For some reason Suzanne was reluctant to let me expend four .30-.30 rounds on the beasts, probably because of the noise disturbing some of our neighbors, so I called Massey Services to come get rid of them. (I really do prefer taking care of things like this myself, but she seemed adamant.) Maybe I should have a contest to name them...






Speaking of contests, Quiz Winners Bob and Jan Blythe accompanied My Lovely Bride and Der Blogmeister to First Watch Cafe for their Award Breakfast. Another great meal; food seems to be a common thread on this blog...










Finally, I have to say that My Lovely Bride really caught me off guard the other night. I was working at my computer, and Suzanne said, "Ty, there's a movie here that we should watch together; it's a spiritual film called The Way." Even though we had no popcorn, I agreed, since it had an interesting plot, location and scenery. When it was over, she said, "I think I want to do that; with you." I was stunned. What "that" is, is a 500 mile long pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago from the French border to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain, where the remains of the Apostle Saint James (the Greater) are interred. You make the pilgrimage on foot. Carrying all your stuff in a backpack. So, next September will find us heading out on the most physically demanding adventure of our lives. We will be following in an ancient tradition, because for about 1,000 years, pilgrims have been making this journey, during which your personal, inner quest is as important as the pedestrian part. Meanwhile, we have to get into shape for hiking 12-15 miles a day for 35-40 days. We have already started our early morning hike/training regimen, as this photo of Miss Sunshine proves. As for myself, I am telling my feet that it won't be so bad... but they are already grumbling. Wish us luck... or as they say along the pilgrimage, Buen Camino!