Skip to main content

Snowbirds, Snow Leopards, and Other Exotic Beasts

It's February! How are your New Year's resolutions holding up? I am slaying my goal to BE BESTIAL, and it is making me feel like a natural woman.

When the record-shattering Midwest polar vortex struck during the record-smashing government shutdown, instead of going into hibernation mode as we would normally do, this time my family took a harrowing chance on migration--and we made it! And sweet baby Zeus, it was satisfying. We took the snowbird route from Michigan to Florida, traveling with my parents and brother to visit my mother-in-law (Nonna) in Pasco County. Nonna is no longer a snowbird, having settled permanently in the Sunshine State; she has now evolved into a snow leopard (explanation to follow below).

The timing of our trip could not have been better. We slipped out and back into Michigan right between two catastrophic winter storms and two government shutdowns, and we managed to take a long vacation during the school year with no more than two absences on record for our daughter--because only TWO of the past NINE school days have not been canceled for snow, ice, and/or severely subzero temperatures. We were very fortunate to escape and return precisely when we did. Travel was so difficult in general during this time that we enjoyed less-than-full flights and heavenly weather at the height of tourist season in Florida--with nobody in line at Busch Gardens. There were times when they let us just stay on the roller coasters without getting off, over and over again. Miraculously, no one barfed--except my husband, after one night of doing shots with his mother--she had homemade limoncello and a handsomely appointed liquor cabinet. Oops.

Anyway, when we arrived at Nonna's happy home in the subtropics, we wasted no time in gloating like savages from the hot pink front porch.

My daughter posed by a snowman planter while I stretched my snow white legs clad in mom-length cutoff shorts over a pair of paving stones in the shape of our frigid home state.

And speaking of front yard savagery, Nonna keeps a Halloween inflatable dragon with flapping wings and glowing "fire" in its belly operating at all hours of the day and night (except when we pulled the plug for a better night's sleep). Her name is Baby, and she is sporting a pink neck bow to masquerade as a seasonally appropriate Valentine's Day decoration.

Nonna has absolutely no more flying feathers to give about anything other than loving life at this point. She has lived through many hardships: abandonment by her alcoholic father, a traumatic attack by a rabid dog in childhood, single motherhood in her teens, domestic violence, near-fatal miscarriages, the loss of her only daughter the same year she found out her first husband was gay (followed by a quick divorce), caring for the great love of her life (my father-in-law) with all of her heart and soul and bodily strength after a severely disabling traumatic brain injury, losing him to an early death, also caring for and losing her mother to a lengthy struggle with dementia, and surviving her own major injuries and health issues. She is now fit and strong, having lost approximately 100 pounds, gone through joint replacement and other major surgeries to fix herself up, healed from alcoholism and disordered eating, and acquired a personal trainer who has helped her get into better shape than most of her friends who are decades younger.

In recent years, Nonna has dyed her hair the blonde shade of her own infant locks, purchased a sexy new wardrobe, and developed a habit of going out dancing all night long at reggae clubs. (But no later than 2:00 a.m. on Saturday nights because she has to be up for her Byzantine rite Mass every Sunday morning!) Almost every day, she volunteers at her church, the local historical society, the gardening club, or with a program that teaches English to refugees. She keeps a lively social calendar--dates with various men, outings with girlfriends, trips and parties and benefit dinners. Next week, she'll be hosting her bestie since forever, a mid-Michigan judge many years younger than herself who immigrated from the US Virgin Islands and is now fostering a beautiful, lively toddler. The two bosom buddies often dream of moving in together after both are retired--on an island in the Caribbean. I can absolutely see that happening. 

I know that Nonna would hate for me to reveal this, so please don't rat me out, friends, but her current age no longer begins with a "5" or even a "6." She credits her youthful vibe to liberal use of sunscreen, which I'm sure helps, but I have to believe it's 99% attitude. She isn't looking for another marriage ever again and isn't even that interested in exclusive dating, but her #1 squeeze at this time is a Colombian professional dancer who is younger than her eldest son.

Which brings us to the term "snow leopard." Before our trip to Florida, I had a chat with my writing partner and snarky, sexy romance author Meika Usher, about the definition of the term "cougar." (I know, I know, we should be past this as a society and stuff, but we raunchy authors love a conversation about dirty word definitions.) We determined that man-candy-lovin' Meika is too young to be called a cougar for dating a guy just a few years younger (I believe "puma" is acceptable now that she has passed the 30 mark), and also that "cougar" isn't a descriptive enough word for my fabulous mother-in-law and her truly epic love life. I said, "What do you even call an elderly woman who--" and Meika looked me dead in the eye and suggested, "Snow leopard."

I literally died, and then the perfection of this coinage gave me life all over again, so here I am writing about it. Thank you, Meika!

Nonna is an inspiration. Her home is filled with things like vases of peacock feathers, boas, antique furs and silks, jewels, fans, parasols, faux Moroccan gilt screens, and stripper shoes. It's a little girl's dress-up dream. In between rounds of skinny dipping in Nonna's privacy-fenced-and-screened pool, my daughter created a series of beautifully bestial fashion designs in an activity book she'd brought with her.

Being at Nonna's house makes me feel a bit like Cleopatra. The men who knew Cleopatra described her as not having the most beautiful face they'd ever seen but having an attitude that made her irresistible nevertheless. At Nonna's house, I feel languorous and beautiful by osmosis. Who wants to spend their vacation wrestling with makeup brushes and hot tools? A chaise lounge in the sunshine makes you feel like an instant goddess.

My husband and I celebrated our 13-year elopement anniversary by walking downtown for lunch at a Cuban bistro. It was misting rain outside, but so warm and glowy and laid-back. I scrubbed my face, put on a little concealer and mascara, dressed in a pair of faux snake sandals, a pair of athletic shorts, a slip, redneck braids, and $5 earrings from a souvenir shop.

...earrings which, for most of the trip, I wore with other rainbow-colored accessories also purchased from souvenir shops. Like a basic beast.

My Hawaiian-shirted husband and I blended in with the foliage like well-camouflaged predators feeding upon our beef empanada and cubano sandwich.

Part of being bestial means getting in touch with your body, so we didn't feast upon rich meats every day. It also felt good to follow Nonna's lead and enjoy local fruits, vegetables, and simple home-cooked meals. After all, devouring plants is just as bestial as eating meat. The giraffes and elephants at Busch gardens exhibited a mighty appetite for wholesome greens.

We almost made it through our whole vacation without sampling our family's nutritional kryptonite, ice cream, but Hellas, the big Greek restaurant at Tarpon Springs, served unicorn ice cream, so...!

The big Greek restaurant also featured a dumbfounding waitstaff of Hella hot big Greek manz. I don't think I have ever been in a room with so many devastatingly attractive men in my entire life. While the surrounding areas of Florida are mainly populated by variations on #FloridaMan and #FloridaWoman (as seen on Twitter and TV), the Greek settlement of Tarpon Springs boasts a population of tall, stacked, gorgeous hunks in sharp attire, who all have the same sultry Mediterranean accent no matter how many generations of their family have been born in the United States. I love my husband, who is obviously a handsome man, but.

It took Nonna for-flipping-ever to walk to the restroom and back to the door, not because of her replacement hip but because she cannot pass by a godlike dreamboat without chatting him up, and there were about a dozen of them between the facilities and the exit. Greeks, by the way, are known for eating a lot of vegetables, much like the majestic giraffes at the theme park. These were helpful observations for me to make. Monkey see, monkey do.

I ate all my vegetables on this vacation, soaked up all the sun I could without burning to a crisp, immersed myself in nature at every opportunity, and slept like a lion.

I did not follow the news (besides checking the weather in my hometown frequently to laugh at the misfortunes of others). When my parents turned on the State of the Union address on their condo TV, I told them to shut that garbage off, and they did, and we all laughed and watched no more TV.

It was refreshing.

As if we were all raised by wolves, we frolicked in the sea and sand and forests and fields and spent lots of quality time with family without bothering to check Twitter or read too much of the daily paper.

My daughter experienced her first amusement park and had the pleasure of doing so with her uncle, my brother, who is the best person in the world to take to an amusement park. He'll go on anything and everything, never tires out, and never gets queasy or scared.

I am most grateful to my parents for funding and arranging this family trip, to Nonna for hosting us at her home, to my husband for linking my family to his, and to my daughter for her sheer love of living, which I suppose she gets partly from her Nonna.

We thoroughly enjoyed our escape into the sunshine, and we are also happy to return to the familiar comforts of home and our little kitty beast, who missed us dearly.

In conclusion, as my daughter says whenever someone asks her a question, "Meow!"


Popular posts from this blog

35 Great Things About Turning 35

The prime of life starts at 35! It's the best-kept secret from younger people, but your 35th birthday is a major cause for celebration. For mine, I have made my own listicle of 35 reasons why experts agree that 35 is the best age to be:
You get to say, "I'm 35." The number 35 carries so much more gravitas than 30, but you're only a few years older. At 34, I've started fudging my age--by adding a year. People automatically take me seriously, and if they don't, at least they tell me I look young for my age. (Eye roll, hair toss, "whatever.")  35-year-olds DGAF. Inner chill reaches new heights at 35. Despite its #2 status on this list, it's the #1 response I hear about what's best about hitting 35. My gorgeous friend Nerlie was beautiful and resilient and wise beyond her years in high school, but now, at age 35, she gets to fully enjoy being herself on her own terms. She writes,  "I've survived so much that I don't waste time o…

$Monday: Immigrants! (F Yeah!)

There may not be an I in TEAM, but there is an I in TEAM AMERICA, and it stands for IMMIGRANTS! (F yeah!)

Our nation is rich in immigrants, and they are more likely than native-born Americans to work harder for less money. They also come here with generally healthier lifestyles and different experiences than anyone born here has had. In other words, they bring value into our lives.

So support businesses owned by immigrants. Have your car fixed, your house painted, your dinner cooked by immigrants. Shop at grocery stores run by immigrants.

Food that comes from, or is at least somewhat inspired by, the traditions of another country is always interesting. It might be healthier. It might be exciting. It's probably inexpensive. And you get a little bit of a cultural experience without having to travel. You can stay in your hometown and expand your world at the same time.

My favorite cookbook, Thug Kitchen, often gives me a friendly reminder that it's a joy to visit an Asian market …

TBT: Another Woman's Treasure

The world is drowning in extra stuff. And some of that stuff is really nice, if you go looking for it in wealthier neighborhoods. Estate sales and higher-end, coordinated garage sales are still great opportunities to replenish a home or wardrobe, especially when you need a lot of things all at once. When I first moved into my house in 2007, I found furniture, clothing, shoes, dishes, linens, and more in the front yards and garages of my wealthier neighbors at the annual spring garage sale.

Not every year since then has been quite as good for shoppers--you can see how the economy affects how much people spend on new things they don't even bother to use. If you need specific items, you may need to try a few different sales to hunt down all your treasures.

"Naked lady parties," or clothing swaps with friends, can be another fun way to try out new fashions (for free!) while cleaning out your own closet. To this day, most of my clothing is second-hand.

And I'm proud to sa…

TBT: Cosmopolitan Fashions

Back in the early years of the millennium, I wrote this post about wearing clothes and accessories made by people of many different cultures. This has become a big topic lately, and I've learned a lot over the past 15 years about cultural misappropriation. I have always cared about dressing ethically, and now I am more knowledgeable about the issues. I would (or do) still wear most of the items shown below, because they are non-ceremonial items, produced and sold by people of the cultures represented in the styles, and offered to the general public (sometimes in tourist shops, specifically for outside visitors to shop). The one garment I show myself wearing in this post that I never owned is the Congolese dress I modeled while volunteering to sell Fair Trade handmade clothing, accessories, fine arts, and crafts. (Because African prints carry complex meanings in the U.S., I don't feel right about wearing something like that in my daily life.) I realize that purchasing items fro…

$Monday: Own Your Moneymaker

Ladies, gentlemen, humans of every gender and sexuality or none whatsoever, take care of your reproductive health. Nobody has a right to your sexual or reproductive choices but you, and knowing that all the way through your guts and juices and bones is essential to financial wellness. Reproductive autonomy is economic power.

How many children to have and when to have them can be the most financially significant decisions of a person's entire life. This is obvious.

But so is sexual autonomy, aside from reproduction. In any culture that controls human sexuality through shame, people (especially the disabled, children, and women, but all people) are at risk of being manipulated--sexually harassed, exploited, traumatized, or threatened--using the lever of public shaming over one's body and/or sexuality. These manipulations cost people jobs, productivity, creativity, confidence, social power, and physical health.

Kidnapping and rape survivor Elizabeth Smart is a great resource for e…

TBT: Grow Your Household... Laterally!

As a "poor and fabulous" 25-year-old who branded myself the "Recessionista Genie," I bought a beautiful and spacious house in a desirable suburb with my husband at the very moment when the housing bubble burst, when we were making under $40K a year total and drowning in student loan debts. Home prices hadn't quite plummeted to exciting lows yet, but the door also hadn't slammed shut on the ridiculous lending practices of the bubble times. We were approved for an unimaginable six-figure home loan with no money down (we didn't even pay closing costs), and we took it. We were tired of living in a moldy, drug-soaked apartment building in a high-crime downtown neighborhood, and we were willing to do just about anything to escape living in a cesspool of filth and sickness. Our secret to success? Filling the house with roommates to help pay the bills and share meals.

We lived with at least one roommate at a time for about four years, until we had an exceptiona…

TBT: Choose Health

Remember the swine flu? Now we're talking about coronavirus. There will never be a time in our lives when there aren't any disease outbreaks, or when we don't have to care about pollution in our air, water, and food. We're all stuck here together on Cruiseship Earth arguing about things like whether to vaccinate or "choose life." Ultimately, none of our personal choices will matter if we all get taken out by plague or poisoning. So we need to choose health, together, collectively, for each other and for each other's babies, or else none of our individual choices will ever be worth a plastic bag in a whale's belly.

Here's what I wrote back in The Time of Swine Flu:

Choose Health
Cultivate health from the inside out and the outside in!

Everybody's talking about the swine flu, so I figure this is a good time to bring up the health situation for us un-wealthy folks. Part of the reason this flu has become such a problem is that people did not rece…

$Monday: Save $5K a Year + Healthcare by Eating In

Learn to cook--or make someone else do it. Do you have a man, a child in upper elementary or higher, a roommate, or a good friend you see regularly? Delegation is possible. Without giving up quality time with your favorite people, going on a home-cooked diet can upgrade your life and save you thousands of dollars every year.

Me, I love cooking. It's one of the sensual pleasures of my life. So anytime I can make the time, I cook for myself and my family and sometimes for my friends or my daughter's friends. I love colorful spice jars and crushing things with a pestle and squishing my hands into dough.

If you don't love cooking, you can make a deal with others in your life to make it happen.

I have a single lady friend who enjoys cooking but struggles with meal planning and grocery shopping for one on an irregular schedule. She wanted to get back into the habit of cooking and eating healthy meals, so she used a short-term subscription to a meal kit service to make it easier.

$Monday: Poop Your Problems Away

Grandma always said eat your fiber. And now Grandma is in her 90s and still sharp and chic, so I've baked this whole grain banana bread with flax seeds to share for her birthday.

This week's bougie financial advice was inspired by last week's birthday cake binge. I bought a sheet cake for my daughter's party, and the children only ate 2/3 of it. I was happy to take the rest home, because I enjoy having a sweet treat with my morning coffee. For a week after the party, I started each day with a little piece of birthday cake and a latte. Dreamy, right? This proved to be a lesson in what happens when you make a habit (even for just one week) out of a special occasion treat when you're used to a fairly healthy lifestyle and you're over age 35.

Holy poop.

Like Homer Simpson, I refused to stop eating the treat before it was gone, so I soldiered on through a spiraling cycle of indigestion, fatigue, anxiety, lowered productivity, and sleep trouble.

But but but CAKE.


TBT: Destroy your lawn.

When I first bought my house in 2007, I couldn't wait to tear up the land and start a vegetable garden. I'd never created or maintained a garden before, but that didn't stop me. My grandpa gave me an organic gardening book and some tools handed down from Great-Grandpa, an immigrant who had relied upon sustenance farming to keep his family alive. Although I made a lot of mistakes and encountered unexpected challenges (as always happens when growing a garden), I kept it going for a few years and was able to make some of my daughter's baby food from veggies I grew from seed.

During those years, I grew tomatoes, potatoes, corn, green beans, carrots, herbs, pumpkins, watermelons, sunflowers, squash, and strawberries. I spent hours in the sunshine and fresh air, digging in the soil. It was a lovely way to spend time and energy, and I'm glad I accomplished what I did on a less-than-ideal piece of land and learned the lessons that I did.

When my daughter entered the toddle…