Freelining with Mike Freeman: Goodbye, Little Friend

Goodbye, my little friend. 

  I watched you this morning, rubbing against my feet, crying to be fed, knowing I couldn’t feed you for hours. 

What I didn’t expect, as I walked out the door into the bitterly cold morning air, leaving you behind in my warm house, was that I wouldn’ t see you again. 

I’m sorry for that. I wish I could have hugged you one last time. 

Goodbye. 

In all my years, I’ve noticed one unmistakable trend: stray cats have an uncanny ability to find me. They wander into my yard, and they seem to instinctively sense that I’m neither a threat or someone to be feared. A few of them have approached me cautiously at first, eyeing me nervously, until I put a bowl of food down and the connection goes off in their heads: Michael equals an end to hunger. They start coming around more often. Pretty soon they’re a mainstay in my yard. 

A few of them I’ve even adopted; Others disappear after a few weeks. This always surprises me. I get into the habit of feeding them on a daily basis, figuring I’ll never be rid of them … and then one day they don’t show up. They just vanish. Did they find a permanent home? Wander into another neighborhood? Get bored with my selection of canned cat food and move on? Or meet a tragic end, such as being hit by a car? I have no way of knowing. They never send me a postcard to explain what happened. 

Getting those scared strays to trust you takes plenty of patience on my part, but every once in a while, a cat comes along and expresses no fear or anxiety around me whatsoever. They’ve discovered that I leave food out for my own cats, and they like what they’ve discovered, and they develop an almost defiant attitude, as if they want food, and they want it now, and what are you waiting for! I have no clue if they’re used to other neighbors feeding them and their sense of entitlement is based on previous acts of generosity among my fellow cat lovers, but in any event these particular cats do have a remarkable ability to spot within me a devoted fan of their sad cries. 

That happened with this one black cat, a male, who wandered into my yard a few months ago. My own four cats live outdoors – or they did until the cold spell came on – and I’d bring their food out to them, kind of like a waiter at the finest feline restaurant. If you have cats of your own, you know they often times howl to be fed, but then eat about half of what you give them. Regular meals can do that to a cat. 

This black kitty, though, had a voracious appetite. He could finish off whatever I put in front of him, then move on to what my own cats were having and nudge them aside. He wasn’t bashful, that’s for sure. And he took a quick liking to the meals I served, and, as it turns out, to me. His appetite for food was second only to his desire for affection and attention. 

 

This hungry stray found good food -- and plenty of it -- at Michael Freeman's Colonialtown home.

He took to sleeping on my front porch – leaving me with the inescapable impression that yes, I had been adopted by him (cats don’t look at it the other way around).  

So he became a fixture at my home, wandering off during the hot afternoons to find a shaded tree near my house to sleep under. Whenever it was time to feed my own cats, he’d come running, rushing ahead of the others. Every morning, he was crying outside my front door – again, at the front of the line to be fed. Sometime he’d wander into my home and jump on the couch and catch a  … well, I hate to say cat nap, but ….  

This happy stray shares a couch with Michael's cat Heather.

In any event, we were an item, this black cat and I – sometimes he would come in the house, jump on the couch and climb on my chest and sleep there, purring happily as I pet him. I have no idea how long this would have gone on, but someone kept urging me to have this cat fixed so he wouldn’t leave a trail of little baby kitties in the neighborhood to be fed. I agreed, and the appointment was set … for today.  

I wasn’t supposed to feed my little stray friend after 10 o’clock on Tuesday night, so I didn’t – although he cried every time I walked in the kitchen, sounding every bit like an animal that hadn’t eaten since Reagan left office. And, with the coldest temperatures in recent memory blanketing us, I had no qualms about keeping my stray friend indoors for the night to be sure he’d be around for his … operation. With the cold night winds blowing, I put him on my bed and climbed under the covers … and it was immediately clear that my friend had discovered paradise, curling up next to me on what may have been the most comfortable sleeping arrangements he’d experienced in a long time, if ever.  

This morning was tough. I had to lock my friend in the bedroom while I fed my own cats – he wasn’t supposed to get anything to eat or drink before his operation. He cried and cried at the door like the room was on fire, and I wasn’t surprised; he knew that morning was the traditional feeding time, and he knew the sound of canned cat food being opened. It was tough listening to his cries, because he was acting the way he always did – hungry, hungry, hungry.  

I left him there as I headed off to the gym, knowing someone else was doing the dirty work of loading him into a cat carrier, and taking him to the vet for the big operation that all cats needs, male and female alike. What I didn’t expect was the call a few hours later that my little stray friend never got that operation.  

As a precaution, the veterinarian had tested him for numerous illnesses, and the results for feline leukemia came back positive. There was nothing that could be done to treat the illness, so my friend concluded that the most humane thing to do was to have the cat put to sleep.  

And that was it. My little friend was gone. I hadn’t even gotten to say goodbye.  

I know from personal experience that a lot of other stray cats will wander in and out of my life in the years ahead. Some will be among the ones that eye me nervously at first, not quite sure if I’m friend or foe; others will be like this black stray, and instinctively recognize they’ve got a winner here.  

I’ll bond with some of them, and not with others. It always works out this way.  

I’m just sorry I was bonding so quickly with this one black stray. Any cat that demands as much affection as he did always wins me over. Cats are so fickle – rubbing against you one minute, scratching you the next. This one wasn’t like that. If I had affection to dish out, he was ready for every second of it.  

Goodbye, my little friend. I’m sorry I wasn’t there for a final goodbye.  

Your warm purr always made me smile.

Contact Mike Freeman at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

Panic in the Steam Room

There are a lot of Christian churches in Central Florida. But are they all open to different viewpoints and lifestyles?

I’m not prone to panic attacks.
Normally.
The last few times I’ve gotten panic attacks, it was for a remarkably good reason. Example: I was on the highway, and something was going terribly wrong.
The first time, I was in the center lane of Interstate 4 in Central Florida, and my car instantly died. Just like that, gone. There was a truck to my right, but mercifully it sailed past me and I was able to steer my car into the right lane, then the breakdown lane, without incident. My car was indeed dead. And as I sat there, trying desperately to start it, my heart was pounding furiously, and sweat had soaked my brow. But the crisis was over.
The second panic attack happened on U.S. 17/92 in Orlando. I was heading south in the right hand lane, and traffic was slow, so I moved to get into the center lane. As I did a woman in the left lane suddenly came charging toward me.  We came very close to colliding, but I managed to quickly cut back into the right as she zoomed off. Again, nothing happened, but in those few seconds, I panicked.
I consider those pretty normal reactions to a potentially dangerous, even life threatening situation. It’s like being on a plane when it suddenly hits turbulence. We all get jittery, even panic a bit, when the turbulence lasts more than a few minutes. You’d either have to be the calmest cookie in the world, or in a coma, to avoid that kind of reaction.
No, for me, true, genuine panic attacks are different — and rare. They happen when you panic in a situation where, under normal circumstances, you never would; where there’s positively no reason to get scared.
But I did. And it happened in the weirdest place.
I was at the local YMCA, where I exercise every morning. I was in the locker room, wearing just a towel, and I walked into the steam room, for the first time. I sat down, in the sweltering heat … and then it happened.
A big burst of steam came pouring through the vents, blinding me. It blanketed the entire room. And in those few seconds , I had my first non-rational panic attack in a long time.
I jumped up and got out of there as quickly as I could. And I haven’t gone back in there since.
It wasn’t the heat that did it. I enjoy the hot, dry heat in the sauna quite a bit, and go in there daily without feeling the least bit uneasy. No, it was the steam room that got me worked up. And I know this sounds crazy, but I felt like I was locked in a gas chamber.
You’re right, that does sound crazy.
I was born in the early 1960s, two decades late for the Nazi gas chambers; and although I visited Poland two years ago, I never made it to Auschwitz, although there are daily tours that go there from Krakow. So I couldn’t even say I’ve been to a gas chamber and have a visual sense of what one looks like. 

The Holocaust Memorial and Resource Center in Maitland has exhibits that record the Nazi brutality against the Jews.


But for reasons I can’t even fathom, as I sat there in the steam room and as all that blinding steam poured from the vents, I truly felt scared — like I wouldn’t be able to get out of there, and that steam was going to suffocate me.
I have no idea why.
Maybe it was spurred in part by a subconscious empathy for a group that did experience this Holocaust. I don’t know. Maybe a sense of reincarnation?
When I was growing up — not to change the subject, but …. — I was raised in a non-religious family. Historically Protestant, my parents had no interest in religion and never taught me to pray or brought me to church.
For those conservative “values voters” out there who consider this a form of child abuse, you’ll be happy to know my parents’ values were fairly conservative nonetheless. My parents, father in particular, worshipped capitalism and lived by the philosophy of Keeping Up With The Jones. So I was raised to believe in hard work, getting a good education, selecting a profitable career, then owning a big home and new cars, taking at least two vacations a year to someplace nice. When I told my father at a young age that I wanted to be a writer, he was very positive — positive I’d fail, positive I’d starve all my life. But I’ve done pretty well, and he seems happy with my career choices at this late date.
An odd thing, though: throughout my middle and high school years, this non-religious kid growing up in a heavily Catholic city often got told I was more religious than I pretended to be. My teachers and classmates in particular informed me of this again and again: they told me I was Jewish.
Some of it was humorous, as when they told me my long nose, oval face and Eastern European looks (??) gave me away. But there were moments that were less fanciful and more depressing, including the time as a news reporter that I snuck into a closed union meeting. I was there to cover a vote on a contract calling for a salary cut. The local mill that employed these workers was in serious financial difficulty and the two owners — who were Jewish — insisted that a pay cut was the only way they could stay solvent. Two of the workers recognized me as being a reporter, and they were none too happy to see me; they accused me of being paid off by the mill owners to write negative articles about the union (I wish — I could have used the extra dough) and then told me to “go back to Israel where you belong.” Confronted with this kind of stupidity, I mostly kept silent.
Despite the city’s strain of anti-Semitism, I found myself increasingly drawn to Jewish writers — Franz Kafka, Jerzy Kosinski, Roland Topor, Arthur Miller. I think I related to their dark tales of social alienation — not as a Jew, since I was from a non-religious Protestant family – but, most truthfully, as a shy, withdrawn high school geek who probably had the central photo in the dictionary definition of “introverted.” I understood alienation, and experienced it, even if it was based more on social acceptance than religion.  I was also drawn to the works of Jewish filmmakers like Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, for similar reasons. I emphathized with the lonely, isolated nomads, outcasts and exiles in Polanski’s cynical films, and loved the neurotic schlemiels that Allen played, like Miles Monroe in “Sleeper,” who is so cowardly he gets beaten up by Quakers.
But for years, religious wasn’t as important to me, so I mostly ignored the subject. That’s changed for me: atheism doesn’t appeal to me, because it’s mostly against something, and not really a belief in anything. But at my age and having been raised with no religious instructions whatsoever, I feel like someone who suddenly decides to sample classical musical, but has no clue what to listen to. 

Do Christian churches truly have the GPS that Michael Freeman in looking for?


So where do I go from here? That’s hard to say. I have thought about becoming Jewish and wondered, was it destiny all along? Maybe my old classmates and teachers recognized where I was headed, rather than who I was at the time, and just didn’t see the difference back then. 
My Jewish friends have offered up some amusing comments when I mention the possibility of converting. Before I could say “Oy ve!” or belt out a line or two of “Hava Nagila,” at least one of them warned me that I’d have to give up eating shellfish. I think I’ll survive.
I haven’t gone down that journey yet, and who knows if I will. I have friends who insist that their Christian church would be perfect for me – particularly since, they insist, their church doesn’t have a political litmus test. If I wanted politics, I’d join one of the major parties; I don’t need to attend a church to get spoon fed my views. (Voltaire had it right when he said God created man in His image, and then man returned the favor). 
And what would be my main reason for going down this path? To be a part of an extended family. For someone from a very small family, that’s important to me.
But sometimes I wonder if that gut level panic attack I had in the steam room wasn’t in some ways a psychic, even spiritual, connection, just my way of saying that my high school classmates and teachers may have been right all along, that I hadn’t fully recognized what they were seeing. Time will tell.

Michael Freeman in an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..

What is that upside down building? Wonder Works rides out a tough economy with new exhibits and a popular dinner show.

ORLANDO – If you’ve driven past Pointe Orlando, you’ve probably seen it plenty of times and know it as the “upside down” building. But outside of wondering if the property got ripped into the sky by a hurricane before it crashed back onto International Drive, have you ever stepped inside Wonder Works to check out what’s in there?

If you haven’t but are planning to, said Michelle Davis, you’re in for a treat. 

“We’ve got over 100 different attractions here,’ said Davis, a sales representative for the attraction at 9067 International Drive. 

That’s a lot of exhibits to check out under one roof, although as Davis is quick to note, if you’ve been to Wonder Works before but haven’t returned in a while, consider going back. The Wonder Works team is still adding on new attractions, including a new collision course that allows guests to walk high above the ground, guided only by ropes. 

It’s a challenging – and fun – obstacle course that only Wonder Works could come up with, she said. 

Wonder Works employee Matthew Ventura show how the Laser tag Arena works.

“We have recently opened the ropes challenge course, and it’s been going great,” Davis said. “We’re the only indoor ropes course in Central Florida.” 

Wonder Works has enough exhibits to offer – old and new – that the property impressed the president of the Central Florida Vacation Rental Managers Association when the trade group recently held its monthly meeting there. 

“A lot of us are going to be amazed at what goes on in this building,” said David Leather, president of CFVRMA, which represents many of the short term vacation rental homes in Central Florida.  

 

David Leather, president of the Central Florida Vacation Rental Managers Association, says his members should encourage their guests to visit Wonder Works.

“Hopefully, this will be on your list of places to tell your guests about,” Leather added. 

That kind of support could prove enormously beneficial to an attraction like Wonder Works. Vacation homes are one of the fastest growing aspects of the hospitality industry in this region, an appealing alternative for tourists who come here for extended stays with their family. Vacation homes appeal to these families because they offer more space – multiple bedrooms, a fully furnished kitchen, a game room and private pool – than a hotel or motel room does. 

Initially popular with British and other European tourists who came to the local theme parks for stays of a month or longer, the popularity of the vacation home has been growing with American tourists as well. 

And if vacation home managers let their guests know what Wonder Works has to offer, that could mean more business at a time when the sluggish U.S. economy hasn’t spared the tourism industry. A high unemployment rate nationally and in Florida has meant less disposable income for people going on vacation – assuming they can afford a vacation at all. 

Kelcey Nolan, Wonder Works’ sales manager, said the attraction has thrived, despite the recession. 

“We are actually doing very well,” Nolan said. “We have managed to balance out and run even.” 

Why? The diversity of what they offer, combined with competitive pricing, Nolan said. 

“We’re an affordable attraction,” Nolan said.  

You never know what to expect at Wonder Works.

It doesn’t hurt that Wonder Works is close to the popular Pointe Orlando plaza, and the nearby Orange County Convention Center, which attract both tourists and national and international business travelers. 

“We’re within walking distance of the Convention Central and the row of hotels,” Nolan said. 

Wonder Works’ attractions include The Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show, which is performed nightly at 6 and 8 p.m. Billed as “Orlando’s funniest dinner show,” it combines comedy, magic, audience participation, and a meal that includes pizza, salad, popcorn, cake, and unlimited glasses of soda.  

Love both comedy and magic? Wonder Works has a dinner show for you.

“We’re extremely proud of our dinner show,” Nolan said.  “It’s kind of like a stand up improv. We can accommodate up to 25 guests at one time.” 

Wonder Works is also home to more than 100 science-based interactive exhibits, and as Nolan pointed out, they appeal to people regardless of their age. 

“It’s fantastic for families,” Nolan said. “It’s geared toward guests of all ages.” 

New to Wonder Works this year is the rope collision course. 

“It’s three stories of obstacles and challenges,” Nolan said, and it’s also right across from another new exhibit, the 4D Theatre. 

“We give you 3D glasses before you go in,” Nolan said. “You go through as if you’re on your own roller coaster.” 

Wonder Works also has a Laser Tag Arena, where games are played for seven and a half minutes, and there are tournament and team plays. 

To learn more about Wonder Works, call 407-351-8800 or log on to www.wonderworksonline.com.

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