Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Prayers, Penance and Purgatory

To slightly misquote the famous part of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's speech in Washington humpity dumpity years ago, last night "I Had A Dream".

Ok so it wasn't as historic or even memorable a dream as he had but, as I rarely remember my dreams, I feel the need to get it down 'on paper' as it stirred long dormant memories - which dreams tend to do I suppose.

Back when I wore short pants and people laughed at my glasses and hairstyle (no, not last week, Daphne) my mom and dad took me to Lough Derg. If that sounds like a lovely day trip to a scenic Irish lake where we paddled and boated and generally had a fabby time, then you'd be as far from the reality of the trip as you could possibly get.

Oh the lough (or lake) WAS beautiful and we did go out on a boat but there endeth the fun and enjoyment. From that point onwards, for 3 days, we had the 3 P's mentioned in the title of this post.

An Irish Catholic has 2 pilgrimage sites within his or her shores and both need to be visited and experienced, Mecca like, at some time in their lives. Amazingly I went to both before my 18th birthday but Lough Derg was by far the most memorable for reasons that will become obvious in a moment.

Lough Derg is the second largest lake in the Republic Of Ireland and out in the middle of it lies Station Island, the location of St. Patrick's Purgatory, where pilgrims have been going to pray, meditate and perform penance for over 1,500 years.

"It is said that, during his missionary work in Ireland, St Patrick went to the island in Lough Derg and stayed in a cave there. During this time, he was subjected to many temptations and was given a vision of hell - hence the name sometimes given to the island: St Patrick's Purgatory".

Given a vision of hell ? I'd no idea Big Brother was being shown back in his day !! You live and learn.

Purgatory is the 'place' betwixt heaven and hell where your soul goes when you've not been quite good enough to go straight to Heaven, but haven't been bad enough to go to Hell either.
A bit like Fox tv.

One of the many issues I've had with Catholicism over the years surrounds this idea of purgatory and the various ways The Church has invented to give you a spiritual version of a 'get out of purgatory free' card. Actually it's anything but free for the simple reason that one never knows how long one is doomed to spend in purgatory. So devout followers simply say prayers and do penance in the hope that they are shortening whatever time they may rack up there after death.

It's a bit like having never ending mortgage repayments. You pay and pay over the years but in reality you're only ever paying off the interest and, much as you'd love to get rid of it, the principal is a distant dream (or nightmare) just over the horizon. The horizon here being death.

Of course that doesn't stop the devout from trying. My sainted mother had hundreds of little prayer cards gathered over the years from gift shops at places like Lough Derg and Knock and basically any religious location where 2 or more pilgrims would congregate. Most had very specific 'rewards' like if you said the prayer on the card so many times, you'd have 3 weeks knocked off your time in purgatory. Awesome.

Needless to say most card holders would be saying the prayers every waking minute, which is why you'd often see them in cars looking as if they're talking to themselves. Can't waste valuable praying time you know.

Even as a teenager with serious questions about being a Catholic mounting up, I used to wonder if people would swap prayer cards ? I mean why say one that only gives you 3 weeks off your time in purgatory when others might give you a month or more ? Maybe with a free trip to the buffet thrown in ?

But back to Lough Derg.

"The reasons why people make such a pilgrimage are as varied as the people making them. Some may be seeking a way of showing repentance - some may feel that their spiritual life has become flabby - others may simply feel a call to face the challenge of the exercises of the island - still others may go and have no clear idea of why - simply knowing that it is something they have to do.

The classic Lough Derg Pilgrimage lasts for three days. The pilgrim undertakes to begin fasting at midnight on the first day and travels to the island by boat during that morning. Once there, they remove all footwear - for the pilgrimage is undertaken barefoot.The pilgrim then begins a series of "Stations" - a series of prayers - gestures - walking - kneeling - all conducted in silence".

You're probably starting to see why the place is so 'memorable'.

Ok so you've been fasting (only water) since midnight on the day you get there. At 10pm on that first evening you start 24 hrs where you stay awake. So in other words you don't even get the benefit of sleeping through 7 or 8 hrs of the fasting period. The fasting lasts for the full 3 days of the pilgrimage but you are allowed one meal of dry toast and black tea or coffee per day.

Lough Derg is probably the only place in the Northern Hemisphere where there isn't a Starbucks.

So by 10pm on day 2 (by which time you've probably been awake for 36 hours or more), when you CAN go to sleep, the noise from hundreds of empty pilgrim's stomachs is enough to wake the dead.

You know, I feel a retail opportunity is going a-begging. There are many smaller islands nearby and one at least should be bought by an enterprising McDonald's franchise so that illicit midnight boat trips could be made to fill up on speciality VHM's (Very Happy Meals) like a McPrayer & Fries or a McPenance Muffin with Egg and Bacon. Hmmmmm.

In between not sleeping and not needing to go to the toilet, pilgrims fill the time by walking around circular outdoor stone beds, called stations, on their bare feet whilst praying.....probably for a McPenance & Fries with or without the bacon.

I know I'm being quite irreverent here and I don't mean to upset any devout Catholics at all but I'm just telling it as I look back on it now. Even at the time I didn't appreciate the fasting or the lack of sleep and felt that I'd not really done much of anything up to that point to warrant this penance.

I have since then of course !! Maybe it was penance for future acts and in that case, fair enough I say. My feet had healed and my stomach was full again after the first meal stop on the way home and I'd managed to catch up on my sleep during Mass on the 3rd day. So as penance goes, it wasn't really that bad.

So why did I dream about it last night ? I've as much idea about that as I have about why places like St. Patrick's Purgatory exist. And I'm not going to try and work it out either. A dream is just a dream, as Hans Christian Shakespeare used to say.

Maybe it was a sign. A message. Maybe I'm being called back to do another 3 day pilgrimage to Lough Derg.

Yeah right. I'll go when I can get a Bigmac from the neighbouring island and wash it down with a skinny cinnamon dolce latte.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Vrooom, Vroooom, Bigmac & Fries, Vrooooooooooom.

Yesterday Clair and Mary picked me up (no mean feat) and we went the few miles to the Sebring International Raceway for a look around.

This track is where the "Annual 12 Hrs of Sebring" race is held and I'll be here for it this year as it takes place from 12th -15th of March. Yes I know that's more than 12 hrs but don't be silly.

On Mon,Tues, Wed there will be testing for the American LeMans Series and there will be an admission charge to get into the race track so, knowing how tight I am, Clair and Mary took me when admission was free and we might still see some cars going around.

And we did.

Not many, but enough for me to get more experience with some of the manual settings on my camera.

Once again using the premise that you might only get one shot so make sure you get it, I initially set the camera to it's 'speed' setting and when the first car came along, I snapped this photo of it.

Of course there is no impression of speed here as the automatic shutter speed was 1/2000th of a second but like I said, I wanted to come away with at least one decent photo of a car.

A car. This was the only car on the track and thankfully it went around a couple of times before pulling into a McDonalds' drive thru and the driver had some lunch.

Well I donno where it went actually but I know there was so little action on this part of the track that I was glad I'd got any photos at all.

I took one more with the same settings when it came around again and then decided to go to manual and lower the speed setting to get a pan shot which would blur the background and yet, hopefully give a sharp image of the car.

And so I waited, and waited, and waited. But the car never came around again.

Damn that McDonalds' drive thru.

We drove to another part of the track and suddenly heard revving engine noises again and saw another car approaching our viewing spot. This time I was ready for my pan shots.

I didn't know what speed to use and so hoped I'd get several chances to go through the range.

My first attempt was to use 1/80th sec but that was just too slow for me to get a well focused shot of the car. Also my panning technique with the zoom wasn't very good as I was finding the image of the car was either too close or too far away when it was coming past me and I really needed to settle on the best distance and stick with it.
Then I could've concentrated on the panning technique.

The shot above was taken at 1/125th sec and was the best I got before the car stopped coming around but as it was taken at the very start of the panning movement. The background isn't blurred enough to give the impression of speed that I wanted. The next photo in the sequence WAS taken as it passed me but sadly the car was so out of focus that I erased the image immediately.

There was a small airport next to the race track and many light aircraft were coming and going while we were there.

I'm sure it gets very busy on race days as I've seen the airports near F1 race tracks and for a short period of time, they can almost rival Heathrow or JFK for takeoffs and landings.

Only 2 air craft came close to our location; one was a microlight but it was still too far away to see clearly and then there was this helicopter.

Seeing as there were no cars to photograph, I had to snap something !!

We moved position again - this time to a part of the track used by smaller cars whose drivers were at the start of their careers, if indeed a career was in their futures.

A standard saloon was being used as a pace car and the pace was slow, very slow. There were about 5 or 6 cars being led around this way and I quickly realised that although their slow speed made them easier to photograph, that same slowness meant that panning would STILL not give any impression of speed.

As proven by these last two photos.

The cars look as if they're parked, for goodness sake !

But still, the trip to the track had been great on a number of levels. For a start, I got to see it at last. For another, I did get to practice with various camera settings. I saw a few different cars and it did give me a taste for going back to see an actual race. Maybe THE race in March.

So thank you, Clair & Mary. And maybe the trip was good for you too. Maybe you found the bike you've been looking for ?

Saturday, January 26, 2008

A Word In Your Ear

I had a serious man to dog chat with Pixie this afternoon.

We've not had many opportunities to be alone together since her life threatening back surgery last October and I thought the time was right.

Many people, including total strangers, had shown concern about her recovery and I'd done my best to give updates via this blog. I wasn't sure she appreciated this. I also felt she needed to be told about a few things that she had to work on as a priority. I know, but it had to be done.

She was doing some therapeutic one leg push ups in her cozy blanket covered bed out in the Florida room whilst soaking up the sunshine that was streaming in through the open windows.

I sat down beside her and told her a few home truths. I wasn't brutal, but I didn't mince my words either.

She paused and listened intently. I reminded her how serious her surgery had been and that even though it cost a lot of money, everyone was happy that it had been done and that she was well on the road to recovery.

That seemed to please her.

But I reminded her that it wasn't all good. I said I didn't like bringing it up at this time but it had to be said - that she still sometimes left us little 'presents' when we didn't take her out in time.

Now I know what you're thinking. Why embarrass her ? Why not just pick up these 'presents' and say no more about it ? Well it couldn't go on. Someone had to be the 'bad cop' and I'd stepped up to the plate.

I told her that was ok but that she really needed to work on that part of her recovery as it wasn't very sociable. I didn't labour the point. I just told it like it was. There. Out in the open. Clear the air, so to speak. Mano e dogo.

I thought she got the message. I really did. There was a definite look in her eye that said "I'll really really try and not poop in the house any more."

I felt I'd got somewhere. That we'd somehow bonded and moved on to a higher level of understanding. It felt good. I felt good.

I got up off the floor and went to go up the steps back into the living room.

As I got to the top step I heard a slight noise behind me; well not so much a noise as a wheeze. A series of wheezes if fact, coming rapidly one after the other.

It reminded me of something, something from my past. A cartoon. Yes that was it. A cartoon character noise. In a flash it came to me. Muttley !! Muttley with the wheezy snicker that usually meant he was up to no good and that he'd got one over his master, Dick Dasterdly.

I swung around and looked at Pixie and I knew, I just knew that on this new level we'd gone to, that she was still the top dog.

Friday, January 25, 2008

A Pirate's Life For Me

Every year, at Christmas time I think, our school would put on a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta and one of my favs was "The Pirates Of Penzance" which gave me the title for this post. As it was an all boys school, female roles in these operettas had to be played by the prepubescent males - although I'm not sure how Mr. Donnelly managed to find himself a female role every year as he was in his 50's.

I guess he just liked to dress up.

Anyway the subject of pirates is uppermost on peoples minds at the moment as down the road in Tampa, tomorrow sees the start of a huge festival called Gasparilla which celebrates the legend of one Jose Gaspar, a pirate (maybe) of these parts.

We here in sunny pirate free Buttonwood Bay have our own celebrations to remember Jose and given that we aren't in a position to build a pirate ship or do much else which requires huge quantities of water, we had a pirate themed dance on Wednesday night with a parade to come tomorrow. Who says we don't live on the edge here. What ?

Mixing Gilbert & Sullivan with a bit of good old British pantomime tradition, suspect or not, some of the men went as wenches and some of the women went as pirates.

At least I think that's what went on. Probably best not to ask.

So here is a wench (Debby) and a pirate (Mary), although as we can plainly see, both women are, well women.

It was all good clean fun, as my parish priest used to tell me.

The music was a mix of country and western meets the 40's, 50's and 60's but then it is hard to fill an evening with pirate related songs. Buttonwood Bay residents don't want to do sea shanties and climb the rigging with plastic swords in their mouths - man, I'd have paid to see that though.

No, the DJ knew his audience as as long as there was a song you could line dance to thrown in every few minutes, he knew he'd not be lynched - or made to walk the plank.

Line dancing ? What's that all about ? Dozens of people starting off like regimental soldiers on a parade ground at arms length apart and then slowly moving from side to side and backwards and forwards with mostly overlapping foot movements all done with a precision that puts Riverdance to shame. That's not dancing is it ??!!

At other times, Fred & Ginger wannabes would be gliding around the extremities of the dance floor no matter what style of music was being played at the time.

This was particularly bizarre, and somewhat unnerving, during the twist dance-off which just happened to be won by a couple of women based on the volume of audience applause.

And they say old people are conservative !

Everyone had to bring their own nibbles and drinks and as I went around the tables taking photos, I saw everything from hard core spirits to strange flashing glasses filled with God knows what. Our friends, Marty and Eldy, at our end of the table had brought some Baileys so I was a happy pirate in more ways than one.

The DJ was doing his best to keep our brain cells moving as fast as the feet on the dance floor. So between every few songs he'd ask a trivia question and stand back so as not to be trampled by the onrushing hoards of walkers and oxygen tanks as potential winners would fight to get to him.

The questions were either sport or music related and the one constant was that they were all from sepia days when you bought your music in sheets and got football results relayed via semaphore from grounds around the country.

I didn't stand much of a chance although names like Perry Como and The Andy Griffiths Show were known to me but only just. Where I really had no chance was on football questions as although I enjoy the modern game and even know a few quarterback names, I know sod all about ye olden days of American football when the ball was still round !

But first and foremost it was a dance and here we see Clair and Mary - dancing.

I think.

I learned that if you have an ear ring on your left ear, you are a swarthy manly pirate type. If you have it on your right ear, you've either dressed yourself in a rush and made a major fashion faux pas or you're slightly to the right of Dale Winton and prefer Liberace to Johnny Rotten.

Of course if you wear ear rings on BOTH ears, then you ARE Dale Winton.

The dance was pirate themed but the quantity and quality of costumes varied enormously. Many wore nothing. Nothing pirate related I mean.
Most wore a mix of bits and pieces garnered from local stores as well as clothing they had created themselves.

A very few went the whole nine yards, or fathoms or whatever, and wouldn't have been out of place as extras in a Hollywood swashbuckling B-movie.

I'd fallen into the category of 'not really gone to a lot of effort but still wanted to be a part of it all' and even this was mostly thanks to Marty and Eldy who had given me a pirate headscarf (or bandana or buff or whatever you want to call the thing) which, combined with my beard that I'd allowed to grow to a decidedly scruffy length just for the occasion, at least made me feel like I wasn't totally out of place.

At these events I often feel as out of place as a college graduate at a Paris Hilton fan club meeting. But sporting my colourful buff and hiding behind my facial undergrowth (or overgrowth), I felt a confidence that didn't entirely come from copious swigs of Baileys.

The highlight of the evening came with the contest for the best pirate and wench.

Now as I've mentioned before, this wasn't a clear cut male/female divide as females stepped forward as pirates, a few of the wenches clearly needed a shave and of course there were those who appeared in both lineups !!

It was a very confusing night and if you care about such things, I'll let you scan the participants and work out who was what.

I planned to go along the line taking a close up of everyone but this soon became impractical due to the way the contest was being judged. Every participant was individually pointed out and would get cheers and much applause relative to their popularity and costume.

It soon became evident that those who stepped out of line and waved a sword or in some way encouraged the crowd would get louder cheers and applause. I think it comes under the heading of "milking the audience" and some were better "milkers" than others.

In any case these unexpected movements played merry hell with my photographic technique as in a dimly lit room, the autofocus had a hard enough time finding a point to focus on without these points leaping around like high school cheerleaders.

I just gave up and enjoyed the spectacle.

In time honoured fashion, it came down to an almost final 5 and then down to a final 3. I have to say the cheers were equally split amongst them. In fact they had to go around them again to get repeat cheers before the eventual winner was picked. Here is the final 5 lineup and the pirate in the middle became the winner.

I'm not sure what swung it for him.

Maybe it was the sword. Maybe it was his hook.

In any case he was the pirate king for the night although I'm not sure what, if anything, he got as a prize.

Beads seemed to be the favourite handouts, followed by t-shirts and so I think we can safely say it was done for fun and not for any financial gain.

My personal favourite was the gent below as for one thing, his face was just 'piratey'. He reminded me of John Neville in the title role of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

Yes I know that wasn't a pirate movie but I can't make him look like Johnny Depp so go with me on this.

But 'The Baron' didn't win and so in my opinion the contest was fixed. Booooooo.

Then it was time for the wenches to come forward and the cheering and clapping procedure for each contestant was repeated.

Sadly (or maybe thankfully) I missed the shot when one of the 'male' wenches made a bold and somewhat desperate move for attention when it came to his turn to be singled out.

He stepped forward, pulled down his already low slung red and white striped shirt and exposed his chest clearly hoping to gain more cheers and louder applause. He got the desired result but I'm sure many aged female residents got little sleep that night as the image of his hairy chest would've remained long after the party was over.

This is a photo of the final 3 and the winner was the wench on the left.

Again I didn't agree as for me, she was a bit too posh. Call me traditional but I think anyone who has a parrot somewhere on their body, male or female, deserves to win any contest.

Squawk, who's a pretty loser, squawk.

Being a Buttonwood Bay dance, it ended at 10pm as hot cocoa and slippers were waiting at homes everywhere.

Now I'm not one for putting photos of me on this blog. I'm not even used to having photos of me TO put on this blog. But lets face it - how often will I get the chance to be photographed wearing a pirate buff ?

My t-shirt was themed as well as it was one I'd picked up in St.Lucia a few cruises ago and showed the islands of The Caribbean.

Ergo I was, drum roll please, one of the "Pirates of the Caribbean." I hear the groans already.

I handed my camera over to Clair and asked Debby to join me and this is the result.

The St.Lucia lettering and map of the islands got chopped off but hey, it doesn't matter.

The Gasparilla Dance was over for another year........or should that be y'arrrrr.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Another Pixie Update

Went to a pirate themed dance last night within the park and I'll post about that later. Y'arrrr.

A few kind readers (including you, Leigh) have asked for an update on Pixie as I've not mentioned her for some time.

As regulars know, Pixie is 'our' long haired miniature dachshund and soon after we all arrived here in Buttonwood Bay last year for the start of our winter season in Florida, she blew a disc in her back which paralysed her back legs.

Since the surgery her recovery has been very slow but at least it has been progressive. In the initial weeks we saw improvement every few days as nerve recovery and therefore movement returned to her legs. She'd wobble and fall over, but week by week, with the aid of medication and regular physiotherapy (provided by our good selves) she was becoming more and more like Pixie of old.

The last few weeks have seen the outward signs of improvement slow down as you'd expect by now. She rarely falls over (except when doing abrupt u-turns on the slippery kitchen floor) and can move quite rapidly when out for short walks.

I wrote about the special 'pooping' sling we'd made for her in the early days so that we could hold up her back area to allow her to pee and poop (as control of these functions were slow to return and she still hasn't mastered them completely). Well last week we were able to dispense with the sling and we are back to using her normal leash anytime we take her out.

Her gait was a bit bizarre for a few months as sensation slowly returned to her legs and she waddled with a pronounced hump in her back with both back legs moving in a very stiff and unnatural way. The vet said the fact that the 'nerve sensation' hadn't been totally restored to all parts of her legs meant that she was 'feeling' for the ground as she walked rather than sensing it was there - and the strange gait was the result.

That has mostly gone now and she walks and moves almost like she did before. It's still obvious to anyone that she's not 100% by any means but compared to how she was after the surgery, it's almost miraculous.

Personality wise, she's Pixie again. Yes, now and then she'll not let us know she needs to go out and leaves us a small deposit, probably because she's not sure herself. It's a small price to pay and I'm sure that will become less and less frequent over the next few weeks.

The fur on her back is VERY slowly returning and she looks 'normal' unless you get up close to her. She only walks short distances before putting on the brakes but we're gradually building this up as it helps her recovery a lot. We now do the walking instead of the therapy which is easier for all of us !!

And that's about it. Leigh, in your comment you mentioned about trying to stop your dachshund jumping up and down. That's hard to do BUT vital. We knew about the potential back issue with this breed but as with a lot of things, we thought it would never happen to Pixie !!

We've (and Pixie) have learned the hard way and it's been a very worrying and expensive lesson. This has been one of my reasons for documenting her story on here as I'd hate this to happen to anyone else - although I know it will.

Thank you all for your interest and concern. That comes from Pixie too.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A Walk On The Wild Side

I'd not walked around the park here for quite some time and yesterday, with nothing better to do, I decided to take my camera and see what new photos I could take.

Buttonwood Bay isn't exactly big, but it seems that each time I explore it, there are new sights to see.......and photograph. It's just that kind of place. Most of the owners put up cute hanging signs or flower baskets, have gnomes or other figurines in their front yards and generally personalise their places to overcome the uniformity within the park.

Considering the flooding reports that have been coming, soggily, out of the UK recently, I thought it pertinent to show this little hanging woodcarving to display my solidarity with my countryfolk and suggest what they need to build to survive further flooding !

It's kind of bizarre to see it hanging here in central Florida where we're more likely to be carried off by a rogue twister than submerged by a deluge of biblical proportions.

Mind you, if all the lawn sprinklers came on at once, it would be a close thing.

I have no good reason whatsoever for including a photo of this lawn ornament - apart from the fact that it's cute too and I like it.

That was obviously enough for the houseowner to have bought it and who am I to disagree.

It was a windy day yesterday and most figurines on poles were twirling around merrily which added to their visual delights.

By now I'd reached the Nature Trail and set off along it as it's usually a good route along which to see 'things'. These 'things' can range from critters which scurry out of the undergrowth (it's a jungle along there) to man made objects of the variety shown in the first 2 photos.

Sometimes the two combine - as they do here.
I know the bird looks real but it's not. I'd love to have claimed it was real as then we could've been impressed with the bravery of the little lizard and you'd have left me comments asking if it got away.

As it was, he, or she, was in no danger.

No lizard was harmed in the making of this blog post.

The end of the Nature Trail comes out onto the internal park road furthest from the main entrance and I could fill an entire post with photos of the many decorative figurines and statues that can be found in the front yards there.

This little girl caught my eye as the house owner had placed her in amongst some lovely complementary blue flowers to bring out the blue in her eyes.

Well ok they are colourless stone eyes but in my mind they are blue. I was temped to use photoshop to create her some real life 'eyes' but in the end, I decided that would have been just too creepy.

At the far end of this road is the starting point for the other internal park trail and this one skirts the canal which leads to the large lake which is such a scenic area of Buttonwood Bay.

It's along this canal path that I've always found the birds that I've photographed so often for this blog. Yesterday was no exception and after the slightly cooler weather we've had here in Florida, they were out in force.

This big fella was a new type to me. My Leeds friend, Daphne (who is always willing to search her Ladybird Book Of All Things Feathered) tells me it's an Anhinga and I've no reason to doubt her research.

I just have a problem saying it quickly !!

It can be found in Southern States and South America and so it's in it's rightful place, I guess.

It was a pretty bird when perched on a post, as in this photo, but it was keeping it's odd appearance a secret at this point in our relationship.

When it is hunting fish or even when disturbed by avid photographers, it can extend it's neck to prodigious proportions relative to how it looks normally. It wasn't all that keen on my presence and as well as extending it's neck which showed off the pelican type pouch under it's head, it also made loud warning noises to show that it wasn't to be messed with.

At the time I thought it looked more like a snake than a bird and so I was pleased to read later that the Anhinga is also known as a Snakebird.

Well obviously.

When it's in the water, it's really in the water and often swims with only the neck above the surface. When swimming in this style the name Snakebird is apparent, since only the coloured neck appears above water and the bird looks like a snake ready to strike.

The Anhinga's feathers are not waterproofed by oils and can get waterlogged, causing the bird to become barely buoyant. However, this allows it to dive easily and search for fish under the water. It can stay down for significant periods.

After realising that it's warning squawks were not having the desired affect on my presence, it decided to use the old 'sod you I'm going to get on with my wing drying routine' and ignored me completely.

I sat down on the top step of the dock to show I was no threat and was able to watch this routine up close.

The Anhinga had beautiful feathers and when opened, it caused the neck to extend and so I saw the head pouch much more clearly.

It held this 'Karate Kid' pose for ages, letting the hot sun completely dry out it's wings and body.

After a while, when it became obvious that the show was not likely to end anytime soon, I got up and left it to it.

I mean I like birds well enough but I have a short attention span when they don't move !!

It's just not what a bird is supposed to do.

Where the canal channel meets the lake, I saw the usual birds doing the usual things.

Being a windy day, it was perfect weather for flying and even better for soaring.

Sadly I didn't get any photos of soaring birds so you'll have to make do with these.

I got to the wooden pier which goes out into the lake and it is a haven for perched birds. I scared all of them away just by walking out to the end of the pier but I knew they'd soon be back.

The covered structure at the pier end has wooden seating for looking out at the lake - especially popular at sunset time. Yesterday, however, I wanted to face the other way and so I sat backwards on the seats facing the way I'd just come, giving me a partially hidden view of the pier itself as I knew the birds would soon return to perch on or near it.

Several mainly black birds arrived first but bypassed the pier and landed on the water lilies close by. They then proceeded to have a bathing session by dipping their heads into the lake and scooping the water up and over their bodies.

It was fun to watch them from my hidden vantage point and they hopped from one large lily pad to another like some sort of choreographed Riverdance for birds or maybe it was their version of water chess.

Then they all left the pads and flew the few feet to the pier and began the preening and drying out process.

When the sun shone on them, I noticed they weren't jet black at all but had several subtle yet distinct colours - mostly on the top half of their bodies.

They were also noisy talkative birds and rarely stopped squawking at one another.

I guess they were females.

Moving swiftly on, I left the lake and walked back home via the tennis courts which are next to the larger of the 2 heated pools in the park. I'd never stopped to watch any tennis games here before and yesterday I decided to give it a try.

The standard was quite high and I took the opportunity to try out various camera settings to get some action photos.

In this photo it looks like there are 2 balls in play - an idea that ties in somewhat with my previous post !!

Closer inspection shows the player is simply holding a ball in his hand while preparing to hit the approaching ball with a deft sliced backhand.

One cannot fault his technique of keeping his eye on the ball, something that is fairly critical in tennis and something that Geoffrey Jones would be wise to do from now on (again see previous post).

After a few games, I left the court and made my way back to the house.

On my 2 hour walk around the park, I'd taken two photos in particular which sum up life here in Buttonwood Bay.

It may need to be explained to UK readers that here in the US of A, vehicles only need licence plates on the back and so the front can have nothing at all or more often than not, it can have a vanity plate, custom plate or personalised plate.

Whatever you call them, they can 'contain' just about anything you want, from the christian names of the normal occupants of the vehicle (Chuck & Mary Beth for example) to a witty comment about life in general or the state you come from.

This was one I saw on the front of Roger and Mary Ann's vehicle in the park yesterday. It was parked on their driveway as I was walking past and it was too good a shot to pass up.

It leads me nicely to the final shot for this post and once again it sums up life here for us retirees who, although we may never have to work again, still like to do our bit for society. Well someone has to keep an eye on our dwindling water reserves and what better way to do it than from a sitting/rocking position with our fearless pooch in our arms.

Just why said pooch needs a multicoloured sun visor is something you'll have to take up with the owners I'm afraid. I'm off for a well earned nap.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

New Balls Please !

It seems appropriate that at a time when the first tennis Grand Slam Championship of the year is taking place in Australia, that a phrase well used during a tennis match should also be used on the other side of the a courtroom in Liverpool as it happens.

There is also another tie in here as things that take place in Australia are often referred to as happening "Down Under" and that brings me nicely to the story that unfolded in that courtroom in Liverpool.

Still with me ? Ok. The story goes as follows..............

Amanda Monti, 24, flew into a rage when Geoffrey Jones, 37, rejected her advances at the end of a house party, Liverpool Crown Court heard.

She pulled off his left testicle and tried to swallow it, before spitting it out. A friend handed it back to Mr Jones saying: "That's yours."

Monti admitted wounding and was jailed for two-and-a-half years.

It's not often that a news story moves me to tears, but this one did. And then some. I think the most superfluous statement came from 'the friend' though. I mean for one thing I think Mr. Jones would've noticed he was down to one testicle and also, how many others at the party needed to check to make sure they had a full complement ??

"Fred ?" "Nope, got mine, pal".

"Harry ?" "Sorry, not mine either".

"George" "Well lemme check now. Nope, all accounted for"

"Geoff ? GEOFF?" "Awww shit. I think it's mine"

There are a few other points to remember though. It was at a party. Alcohol was most likely involved and it took place in Liverpool. Well there ya go, then.

And what did the single testicled Mr. Jones have to say about it all ?

In his statement, Mr Jones said she grabbed his genitals and "pulled hard".

He added: "That caused my underpants to come off and I found I was completely naked and in excruciating pain."

The court heard that a friend saw Monti put Mr Jones's testicle into her mouth and try to swallow it.

She choked and spat it back into her hand before the friend grabbed it and gave it back to Mr Jones. Doctors were unable to re-attach the organ.

Pulled hard ? I just can't imagine HOW hard ! I found myself in tears again. Ouch !!

Obviously in this part of Liverpool two things need to be uppermost when you think you'll meet up with an ex-girlfriend at a party.

1) Keep your hands on the family jewels at all times or you'll end up with a solitaire.

2) There's a lot to be said for male chastity belts.

Oh and if there is a buffet included, that prune that doesn't taste much like any prune you've ever had before, probably isn't.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

World's Largest....................

Largest what ?

Ball of twine ? Skyscraper ? Waistline ? I'm in America remember, so it could be anything.

Claims for 'the largest', 'the biggest', 'the fastest' etc should be settled these days by looking at The Guinness Book Of Records but the online version doesn't mention the particular 'largest' I saw yesterday.

It was the largest golf green in the world........maybe.

We went to the Spring Lake Golf Resort just a few miles north and east from sunny Buttonwood Bay which has two 18 hole and one 9 hole courses. We played the Cougar Trail course (18 hole) and next to it was the Panther Creek course, also 18 holes. It's this Panther course which has the largest green and unknown to me, I took a photo of it before we even set off from the clubhouse area.

We drove to the clubhouse and dropped off our clubs which were whisked away by eager staff to our pre allocated carts.

I've never seen so many golf carts outside of our park here as on these courses, walking is not an option. I soon found out why !!

After registering in the clubhouse, we settled into our carts to await our tee time. This gave me the opportunity to nip over to the practice putting area for a few putts to both get a feel for the greens and to have a bit of a look around.

There were some people up putting already so after my practice, I went back to the cart for my camera and returned to take a few shots of the area.

This was the photo I took and I only took it to show the practice area. I know now that the green across the water, mostly to the left, is the largest green in the world and is at the end of the par 3 9th hole on Panther Trail.

I should imagine many players find the green quite easily in 1 but then take 3 more putts or more to get into the hole.

In case you didn't take the link above, the green is 42,000 sq feet !!

While I'm talking about the Panther course, it also has one of the longest holes in the US if not the world. It's the huge par 6, 800 yd, 6th hole and hopefully we'll get to play that course another day.

Anyway we set off to play Cougar and like I said, I found out right away why a cart is needed. The distance between holes is enormous and to keep play moving along, a cart HAS to be used.

As for the course itself, well for a rank amateur player like me, it was a strange combination of easy and difficult. There was little or no rough and in fact if the ball drifted off the fairway, it usually settled on top of lovely spongy grass that was a joy to play from. Now and again the ball would sink down into this grass and then it was a more difficult shot just to get it out.

There was water around every hole and some of the bunkers (sand traps) wouldn't have been out of place at St. Andrews. But the fairways were flat and even a topped drive would roll for quite a distance.........a huge bonus for me !

Many holes were dog legs and a better player than me could've 'taken them on' and improved their chances of getting a par or even a birdie.

I always wimped out and took the safest route and so I'd usually be over par long before getting to the green. Oh it was all good fun and a grand day out. It was slightly colder than usual (mid 70's) and for some bizarre reason we'd both been given carts with no plastic windscreens and when going at full pelt, there was quite a cool breeze.

I forgot to mention that our foresome was made up of myself and Debby and our friends from last Thursday's game, Clair and Mary.

Clair is the self proclaimed 'Golf Leader' as he's played lots of golf - as can be seen from his semi professional posture on this hole.

Actually when I stepped up to this short par 3 hole (the 2nd but our 11th as we started on the 10th - if you follow that), I was all for throwing my ball into the water that faced me from the tee. I've not got a good track record of getting over water and this was quite a daunting stretch in front of me.

Clair went first and I think he only just cleared the water - which only added to my apprehension.

After taking that shot of Clair, I'd left my camera down behind the tee and gone to take my drive. Clair had picked up the camera and took this shot of me and I'm glad he did as this became my fav hole up to this point.

If you click to enlarge the photo, you may see that despite the fact that I'm peering at the far bank, my ball is visible if you pick the first palm tree on the left and go up to the top of the image.

This is because it took off like a rocket and easily made it to the far side, close to that big tree on the left. From there I chipped to the far side of the green and holed a long putt back to get my first ever par in Florida !! Hurrah.

A historic moment indeed. (before anyone comments, I've checked and, gramatically speaking, it wasn't 'an' historic moment !)

Taking a line down from that same palm tree to the land on my side, I'm also happy to see my green coloured tee still in the air as it became a sub challenge for me to keep this tee all the way round......and I did.

We went back and over a picturesque wooden bridge to get to our balls and this gave me a chance to take a photo to show just how wide that stretch of water really was.

I'm sure if I'd known that, I'd never have managed to hit my ball over it. The foreshortening effect from the slightly elevated tee was definitely to my advantage - ignorance was bliss in this case.

The woman's tee was on the other side and completely took out the water for them. Of course there was nothing stopping Mary and Debby from using 'our' tees but........they didn't. Cluck, cluck !!

After I'd got my par and done a happy dance, I got an 8 on the next hole, the 3rd. As it was a par 5, that was excusable and didn't dent my new found confidence. The 4th was a short par 3 but with water to the left, encroaching onto the fairway so that it needed a careful tee shot to avoid it.

I somehow managed that, found the green and two putted to get my 2nd par in the last 3 holes.

Sadly my game, unlike the fairways, went downhill after that and my next three scores were 8,8 and 7.

In my defence, and all golfers have awesome defences, the sun was setting and right in my eyes, I was quite tired by then AND I'm basically crap at golf.

I'd only lost one ball in 13 holes up to this point but on those last 3 holes, I lost one more just because the low sun made it almost impossible to find a ball that wasn't sitting up in the middle of the fairway, a place I'd not found in several attempts.

Our 'golf leader' suggested we call it a day with 2 holes to play and we unanimously agreed. The sun had set, we were getting chilled and those last 2 holes didn't seem inviting in the gathering gloom.

And I was busy taking sunset photos anyway.

Once again I had to disagree with Mark Twain's comment that "golf is a good walk spoiled."

I mean if you're not a golf lover or even a sport lover, I think you'd still have to agree that it takes a lot to find something better than being outside with friends watching a sunset like this.

And as for walking, well Mr. Twain obviously never made it to the Spring Lake Golf Resort near Sebring, Florida - where walking is most definitely discouraged and by 6pm last night, I was very glad it was.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Golf - At Last

I've been visiting Florida ever since 1989 and have probably racked up 10 or more individual trips here for varying lengths of time from a few days to the 6 months that I manage now.

And until yesterday I'd never played golf here.

I went with 3 Buttonwood Bay friends (Clair, Mary and Carl) to the grandly named Harder Hall Country Club just a few miles up the road in Sebring. What's with this whole country club business ? What makes a standard golf club a country club ? It sure has a nice ring to it.

Temple Newsham Country Club. Gotts Park Municipal Country Club. Yep, classy. These 2 Leeds clubs would certainly benefit from the name change.

We pass the stunning Harder Hall every time we drive into Sebring as it's both huge and impressive........and very very pink Knowing nothing about it, I was hoping it would've been the club house but having seen it up close, that would've been asking a lot. It was an 134 room hotel before it fell on hard times (or Harder times) and now lies empty and ripe for investment and development.

The golf course that takes it's name from the hotel is just across the road and has a much less impressive structure as it's club house. There isn't much info about it online but here is a link with a few details.

We got there 2o minutes before our tee time of 2:15pm which gave us plenty of time to sign in, pay the green fees and still have time for a few minutes on the practice putting area. It cost $22 and that included a golf cart so I couldn't argue with that deal. Normally I'm not keen on using a cart as I like taking the chance for a bit of a walk.

Yesterday I was very glad we had them for several reasons. It was over 80F, the course was 6300 yds long and it was totally new to me. I also knew I'd be making it even longer with my usual zigzag progress from tee to green with a few excursions into water hazards and sand traps thrown in.

I'd already made the decision to leave the woods firmly in my bag of borrowed clubs and only use irons. I don't play golf regularly and to stand on the first tee of a strange course with a loaner driver in my shaking hands was just too much for my fragile confidence to take.

Quote : "I was hitting the woods just great. But I was having a terrible time getting out of them"

So I was overjoyed to smack a 3 iron pretty well up the middle of the fairway of the 1st hole and relaxed from that point onwards. We were out to have fun and fun we had.

I liked the course. It had a little of everything although I could've lived with a little less water. Given my past history with water on golf courses, I was not looking forward to the numerous hazards on Harder Hall. Being in Florida of course, these water hazards had extra hazards of their own and basically any ball hit into them, stayed in them.

I discovered this myself when on one of the opening holes I topped my ball and it became a worm killer. It shot along the grass straight into a water hazard......but only just. Anywhere else I'd have explored along the edge of the water line and probably managed to find and extract my ball without too much trouble. Clair got to the water hazard just before me and walked back to the fairway with the out for that snake !

SNAKE !!! I'd never seen a real live snake in the wild and so I said "show me, show me." At that time I no idea Clair hates snakes and so my asking him to show me the snake was probably quite an ordeal for him. Sorry Clair.

Now it was no anaconda but it was still a snake and I wasn't going to get close enough to find out if it had a liking for UK ankles. I looked at it from two club lengths, decided not to give it a poke in case it was the rare but vicious flying snake of central Florida and moved back onto the fairway to drop a new ball. It was welcome to the old one.

From then on, any time a ball went into a hazard, it stayed in the hazard. As a result, that was the only wildlife we saw. No more snakes and sadly no gators at all. Maybe next time.

But we had lots of fun and that's what it was all about. We got in all 18 holes before we needed miner's lamps to see by and I was half way down the 17th hole when I reached 100 shots - so that wasn't too embarrassing all things considered. The challenge now, assuming I'm asked again, is to beat my score every time.

I was looking for a clever and amusing quote about golf to finish with. I found this site that gives dozens and couldn't pick just have a look if you want and take your pick. It wasn't relevant to yesterdays game but I love the one about the Ku Klux Klan.

I've made up my own though. The sentiment isn't new and I've probably thought of it based on something similar I've read somewhere but the exact wording is all mine so don't even think about suing me.

"Golf is a four letter word that often inspires others......other four letter words that is".

Catchy eh ??

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Food Glorious Food

Still on a food theme, I like food. But I'm very picky.

Now I know that millions of people all around the world would love to have the opportunity to be picky about what, indeed when, they eat. But a bit like Amy Whinehouse going on tour and actually being sober for a change, that's not something I have much control over.

So I'll leave the guilt behind for now and just tell it like it is - I'm a picky eater.

Salad items - just lettuce, tomato and onion.
Fruits - just apples, oranges and bananas.
Fish - just salmon and whatever goes into 'fish and chips' fish.
Meat - just about anything from a cow, pig, lamb, fowl, deer, wildebeest (you get the picture).
Veggies - what are those ?

Add a few basic necessities like eggs, milk, chocolate covered raisins, bread, tea, chocolate covered raisins, rice, pasta, baked beans, chocolate covered raisins...........

Ok you know what ? Maybe I'm not as picky as I thought I was.

But I draw a line in the sand with some food items - and believe me no one wants to eat them after you do THAT.

Pickles. Who the hell invented pickles ? More to the point, what were they thinking ? Lets create a slimey green tubular thing that can be sliced and added to a perfectly good sandwich to make it taste like crap. Every sandwich from a Club to a Whopper comes with pickles in America. Sometimes I get distracted in a restaurant and forget to order my sandwich without this abomination and I have to send it back. Oh and don't try and bring the sandwich back to me having just removed the pickles. Oh hell no. Like a snail out on a moonlit walk, those pickle slices have left a NASTY trail on my food. No, no, no. A new sandwich please. Sans pickle.

Parmesan cheese. You have GOT to be kidding me. I can smell that vile stuff from the next restaurant. And people actually drizzle it on their food and eat it. How ? Have they never been round the back of The Dyslexic Highmanway pub at closing time on a Friday night ? Or how about the men's toilets at Elland Road after a home game.

Yes people, it's the SAME smell.

Anyway my list could go on and that's not what this post is about. I'm just letting you know, dear faithful reader, that there are a few, just a few, food items that shall never pass my lips. And a few more that will never pass my nose. I've known this for a long time and can live with it.

Today I learned of a few items that I don't even want to THINK about, never mind have them anywhere near my nose or, God forbid, my lips. Unfortunately I read the article about them like a deer trapped in the glare of a car's headlights. I so wanted to look away but couldn't. I so wanted to take the 'back' option but couldn't. I so wanted to not throw up, but did.

In Beijing, China, (a country near Australia), you can imagine they sometimes eat strange food items. Come on, the idea can't be new to you. Think about your last local Chinese restaurant meal and later that same night when you spent most of your sleeping hours on the toilet seat ? Ah NOW you're with me. Well if they cook like that in your country, what must they like to cook in their OWN country !

"Appetizer sir ? How about Russian dog penis ? No ? Ok".

"Russian dog testicles ? Very nice with rice. No ? Ok".

"Snake ? Very potent. They have 2 penises each. Good value. BOGOFF deal in fact. No ?"

I'd be on the floor by now. Well my head would be. My ass would be in the air and I'd be creating my own parmesan cheese. "There ya go, Mr. Wong. Drizzle THAT on your dogs bollocks".

"Ahhhh you need a drink, sir".

"Hell yes I need a drink".

"Deer blood and vodka cocktail ?"

"What the hell is WRONG with you people !!!!"

This would all be taking place in The Guolizhuang Restaurant which claims to be China's only speciality penis emporium. I have little reason to doubt this claim.

And you thought The Golden Coral was bad ? I saw no bull perineum on it's extensive menu.
No sign of a penis either. Not even heavily disguised in the dessert section. Nope, it doesn't hold a candle to the penis paradise that is The Guolizhuang Restaurant.

In the unlikely event of me EVER getting a gift card for that place, it'll be re-gifted faster than you can say "circumcision." I just can't think of anything worse than seeing a donkey penis lying on my plate.

Oh hang on, yes I can. A donkey penis with a pickle on it.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

No Wonder I Was Hungry !!

Seeing as I'm in a nostalgic mood these days, at least on this blog, I think it only right to point out that 78 years ago today, food rationing was introduced in Britain.

On January 8th, 1940, bacon, butter and sugar were the first foods to be rationed. WWII had been going for a few months and the Government felt that the supply ships bringing these goodies from johnny foreigner were likely to be targeted by the little guy with the silly tash and sillier haircut.

Damn him.

My parents loved their Sunday fry ups and this shortage of bacon played merry hell with the menu. It basically reduced it from an artery clogging Ulster Fry to a slice of lard encrusted soda bread.....without much lard. Oh and not a lot of soda bread either.

( Yes an Ulster Fry rates an entry in Wikipedia but I felt the link above was more fitting as it shows a photo. A picture is worth a thousand calories and all that ).

Of course, aged and decrepit as I now am, even I wasn't around in those early days of rationing.
It did affect me, however, as it wasn't lifted until 14 miserable years later in July 1954 by which time I was 2 years old and desperately in need of my first proper Ulster Fry. I'd had enough of rationed breast milk (the secret state 'breast police' were everywhere and were Very keen on enforcing the strict guidelines) and was ready to get my lard the more direct way.

A good Sunday fry up was a huge part of my culinary upbringing after that and it often made sitting through Fr. Murphy's interminable sermons a little more bearable knowing that the leftover fat from the previous Sunday would soon be let lose on the calorie busting items in the frying pan.

Actually being in a farming community we may not have suffered from rationing as much as the townies. I'm sure we had plenty of eggs and milk although bacon would've been harder to come by. Mum did all her own baking of course and probably used whatever ingredients she had to compensate for those that were in short supply.

Her flourless bread was the toast of the family, if not the actual best bread to try and toast. We had to set the grill to it's 'burn to a crisp' setting in order to get the bread to stay firm enough to remove it from the grill pan.

Yes times were hard but we were British and would not be defeated. If Hitler had only known that he didn't have to bomb the heart out of London to defeat us. Never mind the V1's and V2's.
Never mind the Luftwaffe. All he had to do was put the squeeze on the supply of tea bags from our colonies in India and Ceylon and we'd have surrendered after the first week.

The man just didn't know his enemy.

Nostalgia Revisited

In June last year I wrote a post about nostalgia and the UK music charts and mentioned the very first single I ever bought............"Mirror, Mirror" by Pinkerton's Assorted Colours.

Back in those sepia days, before colour was invented by Dulux, I had just become a teenager and bodily things were dropping at an alarming rate. It started with my voice and went south from there. I was a 3rd year in boarding school and life was great.

Oh who the hell am I kidding ??? Life sucked like a big sucky thing. I'd been introduced to bullying a couple of years earlier and by my 3rd year, I was a career victim. By late 1965, I'd taken it to a new level as I found myself being bullied by other victims ! Now THAT sucks.

Music was my comfort. It was my escape from a world of hurt. In those pre MP3 days, I strapped sheet music to my ears and sang the songs myself. And then I wonder why I was bullied !

I remember most of my tormentors, I mean my classmates, were split between those who were fans of The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. Of course going to a Catholic boarding school, The Stones were evil incarnate and Mick Jagger was the spawn of Beelzebub - which made them very popular with those of a rebellious disposition. I wasn't popular enough to be rebellious but I didn't like The Beatles much either and so I nailed my colours, ironically enough, to a little known, 5 piece combo called Pinkerton's Assorted Colours.

It was that bloody autoharp. It's unique sound got to me and I've never heard anything like it since then. Back then we were isolated in the school, part way up a mountain and many miles from the nearest town. If we boarders wanted anything, we had to ask a 'day boy' friend to buy it for us in the outside world and bring it to school whenever they happened to remember.

As it was my virgin record purchase (not my Virgin record purchase as Mr. Branson was only 2 years older than me at 15), I was all a twitter until Kevin O'Neil, a day boy from Ballymena, finally got off the bus with my single in his hands. He'd not had a chance to get to the shops himself for a few days and every morning that he stepped off the bus without it, my little heart would break again.

I vividly remember getting it in my sweaty fingers, the bright orange Decca cover looking a bit crumpled from being in Kevin's school bag for some time. I didn't care. The vinyl disc inside was all I cared about and I couldn't wait to get it onto my super low-fi mono record player at lunch time.

When I wrote about this song back in June, I'd not managed to find a version of it on YouTube or anywhere else for that matter. A couple of months later, some kind soul did put it up on YouTube and I was going to provide a link to it here when I found an even better video on some Myspace site. Typical......wait for years and you get 2 at once. The YouTube audio quality is much better but the Myspace site is my winner for the sole reason that it shows the actual vinyl record in all it's Decca glory.....cover and all. The pictures of the group are just a bonus.

Actually I'm not sure if the image of the record on the video IS "Mirror, Mirror" as the blurred words don't seem to match the title, or the group for that matter. Maybe someone with better eyesight than me can leave a comment. If you don't know what the 45 in the top right corner of the Decca cover means, ask gramps.

In any case I'm as happy as a spotty teenager to have found this link and once again I can drift back to 1965/66 (I think it was released in late '65 but reached it's highest chart position in Jan '66). It's odd to think I can sit here and listen to it wearing shorts as in those days, even though I was 13, my parents insisted I wore short pants then too.

I'm beginning to think the bullies had little option but to make me a victim !!

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Arcadia Revisited

Today we went with our friends Mary and Clair to another of the Florida arcades which seem so popular round these parts. It had been just under a month since we went to one for the first time and I was more than ready to go again.

We again went south and east from Buttonwood Bay for the hour long drive to Okeechobee. This time there was slightly more to see along the route, but not much. We passed the Sebring Race Track where the "12 Hours of Sebring" is held every year. It's not exactly up there with the 24 hr Le Mans race but it's probably a few steps up from the lawn mower races I mentioned in a previous post.

We also passed the place where I'll soon be having my first ever airboat ride. I can't wait.

The Triple Sevens Arcade is one of three in the town of Okeechobee, on the edge of the huge lake of the same name. The name Okeechobee literally means 'big water' and this is appropriate as it's the 2nd largest freshwater lake in America, second only to Lake Michigan. For comparison purposes, Lake Windermere in England covers an area of 5.7 sq miles.

Lake Okeechobee covers an area of 730 sq miles.

Unlike The Great Wall Of China and Simon Cowell's head, it CAN be seen from space. Well with a good pair of binoculars anyway.

The town has a population of around 6,000 but as with most towns here in the US of A, even sparsely populated ones can take up a large area and take some time to pass through. So it was with Okeechobee and it took us several minutes to get through it to the arcade.

As with the 'barn arcade' we went to last time, this one didn't look very appealing. It was part of an almost derelict strip mall and we managed to get there 40 minutes before it was due to open.
We stood around like desperate gamblers awaiting our 'fix' and thankfully the owners arrived and opened up 15 minutes early. I wonder who has the keys for The MGM Grand in Vegas ??

It was much the same inside as the other arcade with about 50 or 60 machines. Once again to get around the gambling laws, no cash money can be won. The machines all use cards and if you end up with $10 on the card, you can exchange it for a $10 card for The Golden Coral - a regional buffet style restaurant chain. If you win $20, you get a $20 WalMart card. And so on.

Desperate not to 'win' a card for The Golden Coral (well have you ever eaten there ??), I played with a total lack of financial responsibility not seen since I hit the gift shop at The Kennedy Space Centre in 1989. Any time I got down to only $10 in winnings, I'd add more money to my card. Towards the end of our stay, I dipped below $10 and was prepared to lose the lot when I suddenly hit a winning streak and won 725 credits twice in about 5 plays. 725 credits = $7.25 and so I'd won $14.50. Hurrah.

After 3 hours of enjoyable fun, I left $10 down. I'd also had 2 hot dogs, 2 cans of Dr.Pepper and assorted crisps and cookies - all free.

Technically the house won.

In the ways that matter to me, I think I just came out on top.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Gentlemen, Start Your Engines !!

You don't NEED to be a petrol head to know the significance of that 'command' but it would help.

A friend popped in today with a copy of the events calendar published by the Sebring Chamber of Commerce - and what a busy little town we have here, to be sure (with another to be sure - for any Irish readers).

From pig fests to pancake breakfasts, the events run the full gamut of excitement from A to Z (that's Zee for the US and Zed for the rest of the world). Having read what's on offer, I doubt I'll have time to blog till April as I'll be so busy eating till I'm obese or watching everything from Corvette parades to live cataract surgery seminars. Eh ?

Speaking of cataracts, a couple of standout events caught my eye.

January 19 - Snowfest 2008 presented by Florida Ridge Big Brothers Big Sisters, at Lakeshore Mall (Food Court Entrance), from 10:00am to 4:00pm. Two mountains of freshly blown snow, one for the little tykes and one for the big kids!

For a start I love that the food court entrance is mentioned - everyone will know THAT door !! Then there is the snow. Freshly blown mark you. None of that stale old snow they've recycled from Snowfest 2007. Oh no.

I'd like to go there and see this uber fresh snow and even if it's all a bit boring and nothing like mountainous enough for my taste, well there is always the food court to take my mind of it.

The other event is even more bizarre but actually something I've heard about and even seen briefly on UK tv as a news item. Yes we do it too.

March 31 - Avon Park, FL STA-BIL 12 Minutes of Avon Park Hosted by Florida LMRA at Avon Park Mower Plex.

Not quite so easy to fathom this one out - until it hits you that LMRA just has to stand for the Lawn Mower Racing Association. Course it does. Oh I've always wanted to see this, I really have !!!

Avon Park is a town just about 10 miles up the road from Sebring so it's fair enough that Sebring mentions it in it's events calendar. If not, I'd never have known that there was a lawn mower race held there just about every month. In my Firefox browser drop down favourites menu I have the 2008 F1 schedule, the 2008 A1 schedule and from now on, the 2008 LMRA schedule. I wonder if Sky Sports would cover it live if I emailed them ?? It's gotta be better than Bull Riding.

The photos I've seen of it show the racers in full dash across the track towards their powerful machines in true classic Le Mans fashion. I was quite upset to learn that the blades are removed from these racing mowers as I felt that the opportunity to take out the opposition in a way not sanctioned by any other racing association would greatly add to spectator excitement. I mean where would chariot racing have been without the wheel blades ? Might as well just have raced with covered wagons.

Even so, these bladeless lawn flateners can still attain speeds of 50mph and so there has to be some potential for blood, guts and various body parts to come hurtling towards the packed stands. Well I hope they have stands. The Avon Park Mower Plex sounds like a grand enough stadium to have stands. It calls itself 'the nation’s first dedicated lawn mower racing facility built on city property' and so I'd hope it has stands. It must also have lights as these races start at 6pm and at this time of year, it's dark at 6pm.

Ok picture the scene : 35 lawn mowers racing at 50mph around a grass track in a stadium - IN THE DARK.

Ohhhh I'm there blades or no blades, I'm so there.

I'm going to look at my Flymo when I get home and see if it could be 'souped up' to take part in such a race. A couple of serious problems spring to mind right away. It's electric and so the extension cable would have to be lengthened just a tad and it's also a 'push me' model and so to get it up to full 50mph racing speed, I'd have to be the one to get it there.

I know I'm competitive, but I'm afraid those days are well behind me.

So as usual I'll watch others having all the fun. Damn these slow old legs of mine. Maybe they'd introduce a Senior Race. It would need to have frequent pit stops of course and not for filling up either. Quite the opposite. That's when my more than adequate, British built, bladder would come into it's own and I could stay out on the track much longer and so develop enough of a lead that an emergency stint operation could be performed to get me over the finishing line.

Hurrah for the Brit.

Lawn Mower Racing. It's the future.

Racing at grass roots level you might say. Or not.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

This Isn't What I Signed Up For.

Depending on when you read this post, the temperature panel over on the right side of my blog site may amaze you or, if a couple of days have passed, simply puzzle you as to why I'm writing this post in the first place.

The forecast cold snap arrived overnight with a vengeance and I needed an electric blanket on my bed. We awoke to a living room where the temp was 49F (9C) and although we've known it was coming for over a week now, it was still a shock. Deb just opened the fridge door to help warm up the room !! We're passing Pixie around as she's the nearest to a hot water bottle we have here. I'm on my 7th cup of coffee as the mug warms my hands. My feet are resting on ice cubes to warm them up. I'm surfing porn sites so my laptop will heat up too.

Yes we have a furnace but when we bought the place just over a year ago, the previous owners told us they'd not used it for years and it would have to be serviced before we used it. A furnace ? In Florida ? Nah.....we'll save a few $$$'s too by never using it !!

Damn our penny pinching ways.

I realise this is wimpy talk as the rest of the northern hemisphere countries, including even 99% of America, have had MUCH lower temps for some time. Jeez these temps would seem positively balmy for the folks in N. Dakota, Maine and numerous other states close to the Canadian border.

But come on. We're in south central Florida for goodness sake. The area is full of orange groves just outside the park. Probably not anymore. Oranges and frost don't go together. They were spraying water on them to try and ward it off.

I'd have to think it should be a good day to get free roadside chilled orange drinks though !

I'm off to fire up the bbq and climb up inside it. Can someone turn me over after 20 minutes ???

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Off To A Bad Start ?

A few hours into 2008 and Leeds have already dropped a place in the league, after a 3-1 home defeat to.......Oldham. Not Barcelona or Roma or Bayern Munich mind you. No, Oldham.

I'm not sure what statistic is worst. First home defeat of the season or the first time we've lost 2 league games in a row or even that the slide down one place has allowed Doncaster to go above us !!! DONCASTER. Oh dear god what am I saying !!!!?????

They're all pretty tragic.

I can't even go out into the sunshine to have a consolation swim in the park pool as it's a totally miserable UK-like day here. It's been throwing down those proverbial cats and dogs for hours and it's 'here for the day' as we'd say back home. Overnight tomorrow it's due to get down to 29F. What's going on ??? We might have icicles dangling from the palm trees. Residents walkers could become hazardous on the black ice that might coat the park roads.

It's just not on. Global warming my fanny pack. We're heading for another Ice Age I tell ya.
(Mind you the sequel WAS pretty good but I'm not sure a trilogy is on the cards).

So all in all things have been a bit gloomy in normally sunny Buttonwood Bay today. As you can see, I'm still typing the name of the park cause I get more blog hits that way.

I'm still nursing a hangover from all the New Year's Eve par-tays I went to as the booze was flowing and life was sweet for young financially independent swingers like wot I am. No ? Ok maybe not. Not even close.

I almost went to bed before 11pm but thanks to wanting to watch the end of a Top Gear show I'd downloaded a few days ago, it was suddenly 11:44pm and I thought......what the heck. Lets see the Big Ball Drop and THEN go to bed.

Earlier I'd watched the wedding of the year on Coronation Street ("what about ye then Liz"? - as Jim would've said) and was prepared to see in the New Year with whatever stirring show ITV was prepared to put on for my entertainment. It's the only live UK station I can get here.

In sepia days this often meant something involving Scotland as if they had the monopoly on such things in the UK. We'd have Andy Stewart and his kilt twirling croonies dancing around like Riverdance trainees when the tide went out. Thankfully those days are over but UK tv companies haven't really found anything to fill the gap.

ITV have just given up. Last night they had a live Take That concert and the group name seemed to sum up their attitude. The 2nd ITV station had the Coronation street rerun followed by Monty Python's "The Meaning Of Life". Very traditional.

Auntie BBC had some sort of dubious entertainment show until 15 mins after midnight when they assumed everyone who had been sat at home watching with them had finally trapsed off to their lonely beds and so they slapped on the really seasonal movie offering.........."Point Break"........all about the LA surfing scene. Brilliant.

Oh I sorely miss those twirling kilts !!

Anyway from 11pm onwards, I went all high tech and had 2....yes 2 streaming webcam views on my laptop and was also watch things live on tv from Times Square. One was from my fav cam outside Sloppy Joes in Key West and the other was from the Las Vegas Strip - two places where they know how to see in the New Year.

So as the countdown closed in on midnight and 2008, my eyeballs got a good workout switching between the tv set and the webcam views on the laptop. 10-9-8-7-and so on..........the NY ball hit the dirt and it was HAPPY NEW YEAR with streamers and fireworks and weapons of mass destruction going off in a cacophony of financial overspending.

But what about Las Vegas and Key West ? Well the crowds seemed subdued to say the least. A few handshakes between the pickpockets who were taking a well earned rest for a few minutes and that was about it. But of course. D'oh. The 30 second internet delay !!!

Sure enough at 00:00:30, the revellers in both towns suddenly went bananas and much hand waving, kissing, hugging and general gaiety broke out. In Key West some of this actually went on between consenting heterosexuals but of course, they were in the minority. This is Key West we're talking about here.

And so it was all over for another year.

The Harbour Bridge in Sydney was basking in a new afternoon heatwave while hundreds of city employees were getting paid time and a half to clear up the mess.

Tiananamen Square in Beijing was enjoying a new morning while hundreds of city employees were getting paid peanuts to clear up the mess.

Red Square in Moscow was greeting a new dawn while hundreds of city employees were lucky to have a job at all clearing up the mess.

Trafalgar Square in London was still in darkness while hundreds of city employees were ringing in sick and saying let the mess stay for a few more days.

No change there then.

An so on this first day of a new year, when resolutions can be made and broken by lunchtime, when thoughts of renewal and good intentions seldom last till suppertime, I've decided on posting a photo of something a lot more durable if also intangible; something definitely new and exciting. An image of the joy and happiness when a first time grandma gets to hold the latest addition to her family.

Somehow this miserable weather and even Leeds losing at home don't seem to matter as much.

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