The day after Christmas my mom, aunt and I dropped one of my uncles off at the airport. It was sad to see the gathering of relatives begin to thin out so soon, but in the meantime I still had my two teenage cousins and my other uncle and aunt to fill out the family circle.
After the airport us ladies headed on out to Dunedin while my father, uncle and the two boys went golfing. Now personally I’ve always thought of golfing as the unconquerable domain of men of a certain age who are profoundly grateful at the thought of a sport that involves a motorized cart. However, it was my cousins who were most animatedly excited about this outing. The mysteries of the teenage mind never cease to amaze me.
As I said, my mom, aunt and I were off to Dunedin. We first stopped at the farmer’s market – a surprise treat, as we didn’t know it was on that day – where my mom said hello to her friend the Cheese Lady. The Cheese Lady, if this isn’t already apparent, runs a cheese stand. She also graduated from my mother’s alma mater, Penn State, though in a different year. Nevertheless once the two of them realized they were both Penn State alumnae an unshakable bond was formed. It constantly amazes me how enthusiastic Penn State alumni are to each other even when they appear to have little else in common. On the other hand, given that their alumni population is so much higher than most other universities, I suppose they also stand a much greater chance of running into one another now and again.
Following this we went to our first wine tasting of the day. Locally made fruit wines are becoming increasingly popular in Florida, and like wine makers everywhere they like to get you in to sample the goods. No need to wait for an announced wine tasting; many Florida shops now have them every day. Fruit wines tend to be sweeter than regular wine, sometimes to the point of a cough syrupy flavor. These ones were not bad, though – the fruit flavors stood out in the blend without tasting like Slurpee mix. My favorite was a chocolate-raspberry dessert wine. I normally don’t go in for those, but here the sweetness really struck the right note, and I was surprised how well the chocolate flavor stood out.
When we’d finished our retail excursion in Dunedin we drove through Clearwater and down through the different beach communities. If you don’t already know about this, Clearwater is one of the largest bastions of the church of Scientology.
As we were driving through, we passed a large Winter Wonderland laid out in a vacant lot. All the communities we drove through still had their decorations up, but here was a complete little village of wintry scenes including several stations of Santa’s workshop.
We oohed and aahed until we noticed a large sign proclaiming that the whole thing was sponsored by the church of Scientology, who had chosen a strange, loopy (no pun intended) cross as their symbol, as though it were made of two interlocking mobius strips. Below this sign was a large yellow banner proclaiming, “Something CAN be done about it,” though not specifying what “it” might be.
After some hasty internet research it turns out that this is the motto of something called the Volunteer Ministries, what might be called the evangelical and service arm of the Scientologist church. I also learned that a Winter Wonderland has been sponsored by the church of Scientology for many years at the corner of a prominent intersection in Hollywood.
All of this began to take on a bit of a sinister aspect, so I rapidly turned my attention to another wine tasting when we got to John’s Pass, a beach community with a large boardwalk along a narrow cut of water between the Gulf of Mexico and the Intracoastal Waterway.
This one, like the first, was in a small shop selling expensive and largely decorative items. Unfortunately their wine wasn’t very good and the lady behind the counter was both snippy and unhelpful, behaving as though questions about the wine – even simple queries about where exactly in Florida the wine came from – were shameful admissions of ignorance. She even told one group who mentioned an odd taste to one of their samples that “it must have been something you ate before you came in.” Florida can be a very strange place.
A little later we came across another wine shop which actually produces their own wine in the same facility. Unfortunately the vat room was closed for the day but we could see the giant stainless steel tubs through the glass doors. At the end of this session we decided we’d had enough wine so we moved on to some ice cream and called it a day.
Speaking of unusual things in Florida, I forgot to mention that as we drove from the airport toward Dunedin we passed the much-unexpected headquarters for Shriners International. I’ve always felt kindly disposed toward the Shriners for their devotion to child welfare as well as their most excellent fezes. To my great surprise (another bout of internet research later) I learned that the Shriners are an offshoot of the Freemasons. You must be a Master Mason in order to join the Shriners.
Sadly I cannot be a Shriner, as I lack the essential reproductive equipment so central to the principles of the Freemasons. It’s a shame, because I really like those fezes.
Reading about all this reminded me of the time I went to visit the Masonic Temple Museum in London becuase it happened to be very near another museum I was visiting that day and had the unimpeachable virtue of being free of charge.
The Museum is actually a small part of the large Freemason’s Hall building, designed by Sir John Soane, whose former home is now the museum I’d just been visiting. I highly recommend both museums, though please be advised that the Freemason’s museum is up many flights of stairs and down many narrowing, winding passageways (this is how I remember it, anyway.)
On the day of my visit, much to my surprise, there was a large and important ceremony due to take place in the temple. I’d been warned at the registration desk not to tarry too long, for the museum and the rest of the building would close early for the ceremony. As I wandered through the endless passages trying to find the museum (actually it was well marked, it just took a long time to get there) I kept passing doors, either already ajar or hastily opened as men tumbled hither and thither, where the brothers were dressing in their formal robes. I began to suspect I was the only non-Mason in the building, and advanced with caution.
I was the only one in the museum for a while. I found the contrast between the heavy stillness of the museum and the restless bustle outside unnerving. The museum itself was a single large room, about the size of a smallish ballroom. I did enjoy the exhibits. Masons, it seems, go in for a lot of pomp and circumstance and several of their ceremonial artefacts lay quietly gathering dust on the shelves. The place was full of jeweled pendants, chalices, heavily embroidered flags, that sort of thing.
Given the Masons’ reputation for secrecy I was surprised (though probably shouldn’t have been) at the straightforward explanations for many common Masonic symbols and ritual tools. They had a couple of mildly (and I stress mildly) entertaining interactive exhibits, but what really caught my attention was all the shiny stuff. Jewels, sashes, flags, giant silver cups. I wandered around probably looking like a small child in an expensive shop: not touching anything though desperately wanting to try it all on and ponce about with the swords.
Right near the end of my perusal a tour group came through, interrupting my fanciful daydream. This was probably a good thing, as it stopped me from standing in a room alone and giggling to myself, as I am wont to do. I listened to their guide for a while, though I can’t claim to remember anything he said, and shortly after they left I decided to beat a hasty retreat. As I’ve already mentioned Masons have a repuatation for secrecy and a suspicious cast of mind towards females; the building was large, confusingly laid out, and chock-full of excitable Masons in all their highest of high ceremonial gear. I wasn’t going to stick around to find out what sort of retribution they reserve for those who accidentally discover the mysteries of the inner sanctum by stumbling down the wrong stairwell!