Monday, December 5, 2016

Recycling is for the birds!

Birds are loving their new birdbath. Male and female cardinals, Eastern mockingbirds and even little palm warblers regularly stop by to take a drink and clean their feathers in the shallow water.

Eastern mockingbird having a sip of fresh water

By all the activity it generates, you might think my new birdbath was a pricey purchase designed by experts in the birdwatching community. 

You’d be wrong.

Measuring just under a foot long, about six inches wide and a little less than two inches deep, my black Styrofoam ‘birdbath’ is nothing more than a repurposed piece of packaging material that originally contained asparagus. Asparagus is a vegetable my husband Ralph and I eat frequently but every time I unwrapped the spears from their cellophane covering, I was left with a sturdy piece of black Styrofoam that was no longer needed.

I knew I could recycle the Styrofoam or throw it away but the material seemed too good for either of those options. So I did what any frugal hoarder would do. I put it aside in an unused space in a cabinet. And that’s where it stayed until I had accumulated so many black Styrofoam platters that I no longer had room in my cupboard to fit any more. think I have enough?

Fortuitously, around the same time a nested stack of Styrofoam filled up my cupboard, a little birdie helped me hatch an idea.

I was standing by my desk looking out the window when I noticed a blur of bright red feathers splashing water in a puddle on a table where Ralph and I had placed several potted plants. Water that had leaked out of the containers had formed a small puddle on the tabletop that the bird - a male cardinal - was using as a bath. Fascinated, I moved closer to the window and watched quietly until the bird finished bathing and flew away. A few minutes later, I went into the kitchen to retrieve one of the Styrofoam platters and took it outside.

Creating a repurposed birdbath doesn’t get any simpler than this.

I merely placed the clean platter on the table, filled it with water and surrounded it with a few small garden statues and a piece of driftwood so it would look more natural and be less likely to blow away. A pair of cardinals discovered it the next morning.

Female cardinal checking out the birdbath

Since then, more and more birds have frequented my make-do birdbath. I don’t know if it’s the shallow depth that they like, the black color or the mere fact that they now have a puddle-sized protected place to bathe and sip water. The repurposed Styrofoam platter sits on a tabletop in the shade of a lush pink hibiscus. Birds usually land on the hibiscus first then fly down to the water. I regularly replenish the liquid, remove dropped blooms that land in the water and replace the Styrofoam every month or so with a new piece of packaging material. 

If you also enjoy backyard birdwatching but hesitate to spend money on fancy equipment, consider using a object you’d normally throw away. And if you don’t like asparagus, it’s not a problem. Many other vegetables also come pre-wrapped in Styrofoam platters. Veggies for people. Fresh water for wildlife. Less detritus for the landfill. A repurposed Styrofoam birdbath is a win-win-win solution all around.

Monday, November 28, 2016

These boots are meant for walking...except when they need repairs

Nobody could mistake my husband for a clotheshorse.

On a scale of 1 to 10, Ralph’s interest in fashion is a minus 4. His wardrobe consists of about a half-dozen ratty tees and an equal number of ripped, frayed or stained pairs of shorts. He calls these items “work clothes” and doesn’t mind that they look a mess. I call them unacceptable for anything but work and insist he set aside at least one unstained shirt and intact pair of shorts to wear when we go together to town.

My husband owns one pair of pants — ‘Why would I need any more?’ he asks — worn only when he’s pruning trees. For chilly weather, he has a couple of old sweatshirts, a fleece vest and a knitted hat.

My practical spouse dons appropriate attire to prune trees 

Although he’s about as far from a fashionista as one can get, that doesn’t preclude him from having specific preferences. Consider his work boots.

A few weeks ago, I walked outside, only to stumble upon a jumble of footwear prominently parked on the concrete pathway.

“What’s going on, Ralph?” I asked. “Are your boots having a party?”

The footwear in question — six pairs of steel-toed, ankle-high, lace-up boots in various stages of disrepair — are made by a company my husband discovered about 12 years ago. He loves those boots. They provide just the right support and comfort he needs in a work boot. Unfortunately, they’re no longer being made. The manufacturer went out of business a few years ago, and my shopping-adverse spouse has been unable to find a suitable replacement.

I couldn't help myself...had to arrange Ralph's haphazard display into a circle on the walkway

However, practical guy that he is, Ralph stocked up before the company bottomed out. Over the last decade, when one set of boots became too worn out to wear, he’d go up to the attic, open a new box and break in another pair. But even the most pragmatic planner eventually works through his stockpile, and that’s what happened the day I chanced upon his stash of worn-out footwear outside on the walkway.

“I’m letting them dry,” Ralph said. “I just caulked them, but they need to sit in the sun for a while to dry.”

Now I’m no carpenter — that’s my husband’s bailiwick — but I thought caulking was to smooth gaps in wood, fill cracks and seal seams. I mentioned this bit of insight to Ralph, and he simply smiled. “That’s right,” he said. “It works on shoes too.”

I suppose it makes sense that a fellow whose wardrobe consists mainly of raggedy items wouldn’t have a problem covering his feet with heavily-caulked boots. As long as it works, what does it matter?

And it did work.

After a few hours in the sun, the caulk hardened, and his boots were functional again. I won’t go so far as to say that they were as good as new — that would be overstating. But they’re usable, and for now, that’ll do.

Maybe some day in the not so distant future, I’ll make Ralph put on that one unstained shirt and untorn pair of shorts and insist he go into town to shop for new boots. If he’s lucky, my picky spouse might even find another pair he likes almost as much as the ones he has now. If that happens, I expect he’ll buy more than one pair because when you find something you like, you stick with it. And I’m sticking with him. I married a man of many talents. He may not be the sharpest dresser on the runway, but he’s a sharp thinker, not to mention the least clothes-minded person I know.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Practice mindfulness - eat a pomegranate!

Pomegranates. Do you eat them? I do.

During the last few months of every year, pomegranate fruits begin to appear in the produce bins at local grocery stores, and I eagerly buy them. I don’t add them to my shopping cart just because they’re pretty, although the shiny, round, hard-skinned, red orbs are attractive enough to be Christmas tree ornaments. I hand the cashier money because I like the way pomegranates taste.

The edible part of this Middle Eastern native fruit are its seeds, also known as arils. Cutting a pomegranate in half reveals masses of small, dark-colored pea-sized arils, each one covered with a slippery, juicy pulp. Biting into a spoonful of seeds yields a mouthful of sweetness tempered with just the right amount of tartness to produce a flavorful punch combined with a satisfying crunch as the seeds are chewed.

With 200 to 1,400 seeds per fruit — pomegranates vary from the size of a small navel orange to the girth of a medium-sized grapefruit — a single pomegranate lasts for about a week in our two-person household. Maybe less if I fail to practice self-control.

As much as I look forward to pomegranate season each year, I wasn’t always a fan. When I was growing up, I recall neither eating one nor even trying one when I was a young adult. My introduction to this seasonal delicacy happened within the last decade when, out of curiosity, I decided to give one a try.

I’ve always been curious about different foods. When I see an unfamiliar fruit or vegetable in the produce bins, my interest is piqued even if I have no idea what the item tastes like or how it’s prepared. These days, learning about unfamiliar foods is easy, thanks to Google and YouTube. Type ‘How to eat a pomegranate’ into the computer’s search bar and more than a million instructional videos and Web page results appear.

I’ve watched a good many ‘how-to’ videos on the subject, but my preferred method remains a slow and pleasant process by the kitchen sink in which seeding a pomegranate forces me to practice patience.

While standing over the sink, I cut the fruit in half and proceed to squeeze the juice of one cut half at a time into a large bowl. As the juice drips into the bowl, numerous seeds fall in as well — but not all the seeds. To extract the remaining arils, I use my fingers, which is where patience comes into play. Poking and probing dislodges the seeds. Then, after they’ve fallen into the bowl, I poke around some more to find and remove any white membranes that have adhered to the seeds.

If I’m not careful and fail to focus on what I’m doing, seeds will fly off, and juice will splatter everywhere. However, if I pay attention to the task at hand, my kitchen stays tidy as tasty morsels fill my bowl.

Seeding a pomegranate promotes mindfulness. Separating the seeds from the spongy, white membrane in which they reside takes time. It takes me about 15 minutes from start to finish to fill a bowl with edible seeds and juice from a single pomegranate. Fifteen minutes is not a lot of time, but in our hyper-active lives, we’re often too preoccupied to allow ourselves even a quarter-hour of contemplative practice.

That’s all the more reason to do so, especially during this time of year when pomegranates are plentiful in the produce section. There are many ways to practice patience but few provide the added benefit of tasty, nutritious fruit to eat when practice time is done.

Try a pomegranate. Pick the biggest, reddest, firmest fruit you can find. When you’re ready to eat it, settle down by the kitchen sink for 15 minutes of quiet concentration. Relax. Have fun. Focus on what you’re doing, and enjoy the moment. When you’re done, you’ll be rewarded for your effort by not only having a clearer mind but by having a big bowl of pomegranate seeds to eat by the spoonful.

Delicious — mindfulness doesn’t get much better than this.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Enjoying the wonder and joy of the moment

It was a cool November afternoon.  Few people were on the beach in New Smyrna as Ralph and I were biking along the sand at low tide.

While Ralph was going for a swim, I watched from the shore and noticed dozens of birds far out in the water flying over and landing on the water.

They were obviously feeding on some kind of fish, which must have been swimming in large schools.  I'm not sure what kind of birds they are or what type of fish they were after but I had fun watching them nonetheless.

Sometimes it's not as important to know exactly what's happened as it is to just enjoy the wonder and joy of the moment.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Frog-eating Phoebe

Unperturbed by the sound of an ultralight airplane flying overhead, this little Eastern phoebe standing on top of a bluebird house devours the frog it just caught.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Wham! Whack! Thump! Thwack!

It was late afternoon. The sky was still light although the sun had begun its determined descent toward the western horizon. I stood looking out my kitchen window considering options. My husband Ralph was still outside working in his garden, and I needed to take a break from the computer. I figured there was a good half-hour or so before dinner — enough time to devour another chapter or two of Jodi Picoult’s latest novel, “Small Great Things.”

It wasn’t a difficult decision. I grabbed my camera, phone and the travel mug of tea I’d been nursing for the last few hours, picked up my current read and went outside. Plopping myself down in one of the chairs by the lake, I positioned my items on a table so each would be within reach if needed and settled in for a relaxing bit of outdoor reading time.

That’s not what happened.

Before I even had a chance to open the book, I heard the familiar rattling call of a Belted Kingfisher in flight. Looking up, I saw the foot long, grayish-blue, white-banded bird making a beeline to one of the mid-lake posts that we’d installed long ago for waterbirds to have a place to rest, preen and eat their catch. 

Instinctively, my hand reached for the camera. As the Kingfisher landed on one of the perches, I zoomed in for a closer look and was surprised to find a large fish clamped tightly in the bird’s strong, two-inch-long black bill.

As its name implies, Belted Kingfishers are royally good at catching and eating fish. With an unusually large tufted head, these 10- to 14-inch long inhabitants of fresh and coastal waterways throughout North America have been dining on fish in our lake for years. Despite their familiarity with me and our property, the pair of Belted Kingfishers that call our lake home remain remarkably wary of humans. If one of the birds happens to see me when we’re both by the lake at the same time, it immediately will change course and fly to as different a part of the lake as possible. Good thing I don’t take such actions personally.

That’s why on this occasion I was startled to see that the kingfisher not only landed on the mid-lake platform when I was outside but seemed so oblivious to my presence.

I suspect its judgment was hampered by more immediate matters such as how it was going to devour the giant fish it was carrying in its pincher-like bill. I switched my camera from still-shot to video mode and watched the action. The action was brutal.

Wham! Whack! Thump! Thwack! 

Over and over, the kingfisher hammered the dying fish against the wooden platform until blood dripped from its silvery, scale-covered body. Once the fish was decidedly dead, the predator proceeded to reposition its catch for swallowing. Little by little, the bird turned its meal around until the fish’s body rested completely within the grasp of its bill. It was only then that the actual process of eating began.

Goodness, how it swallowed! I’ve watched snakes separate their jaws to consume frogs much bigger than their mouths, and I’ve seen Great Blue Herons eat snakes. But this was the first time I’ve actually watched, moment-by-moment, the steady, sure effort of a Belted Kingfisher eating a fish that looked way too big for it to swallow.

When the deed was done — after a vast expansion of its throat and several burp-like movements — the Kingfisher flew away. By then, the sky was already beginning to darken. Evening had arrived. I picked up my travel cup of now tepid tea, juggled the cell phone, camera and book in my arms and made my way back inside. The Belted Kingfisher had already had its dinner. It was now time to make my own evening meal. And, no, fish was not on the menu.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Cast your ballot for Mother Earth!

There’s at least a little optimism in even the most pessimistic person. We go to sleep at night expecting to wake up the next day. We drive our cars, expecting to arrive at our destination. We make plans for the future assuming the future we imagine will be there when we’re ready.

A new day dawning

But what if it isn’t? What if tomorrow’s world is turned upside down? What if the result of the upcoming election causes mayhem with further-reaching repercussions than most of us can imagine?

I am an optimist by nature but the upcoming presidential election has me anxious about the future. So much is at stake. Our planet is in danger.

I feel like we’re not just electing a leader of the ‘Free World.’ We’re electing to have a world at all.

The victorious candidate in tomorrow’s presidential race faces unprecedented challenges. Earth’s very essence is under attack by a combination of lethal forces. Climate change. Environmental degradation. Terrorism. The threat of nuclear wars and biochemical warfare.

I don’t want to push the panic button. But I don’t want a president to push it either. I want a leader who understands balance. We stand on a precipice of pronounced precariousness. I want a strong leader who knows how to hold steady without being overbearing, overacting or tilting the balance of power.

All too often as election day nears, I find myself seeking solace in nature to escape the onslaught of political rhetoric.

I step outside to watch the sunrise. Every morning it rises in the east. But on some days the sky is so cloudy, I can barely see it. Still, I know the sun’s there spreading warmth and light on all parts of the planet no matter how minute or seemingly insignificant.

That’s how I want my president to be. I want a leader of indiscriminate light. A person who will illuminate the future instead of cloaking it in darkness. I want a leader with the power and presence of mind to persevere through problem times. Someone who stays bright and true spreading light and warmth even during days when the sky is filled with clouds. 

In need of light...

I’ve been voting in elections for more than 40 years but I’ve never been this scared before of the potential outcome. That’s because the outcome of this election is not just about what’s best for you or for me. It’s about what’s best for our children, our children’s children and for all the animals and plants that have no voice - no vote - in what the future will bring. This election is about what’s best for our planet.

For them - for all of us - I urge you to vote. Tomorrow is election day. Go out and cast a ballot for Mother Earth! 


Monday, October 31, 2016

Less mess = Less stress

When I was a little girl, one of my regular chores was to clear the table after eating. Our meals, especially evening meals, were always family affairs. It was, after all, the 1950s and 1960s. We were a family of four.

When my father and older brother finished eating, they would push out their chairs, leave their plates on the table, and retire to the TV room to watch sports. It didn’t matter what season it was. Some type of game, match or team event inevitably demanded their immediate attention. While the males were in the other room yelling directions to the players, my mother would be in the kitchen tidying up, and I was expected to join her. It was my responsibility to clear the table and help out in the kitchen.

It didn’t take me long to realize that if I lingered over my own meal, picking away and chewing slowly, my mother would get tired of waiting and do much of the table clearing herself. However, no matter how slowly I ate my food, I could never avoid my next job — drying the dishes.

In the kitchen, my mother positioned herself behind the sink where she dutifully washed the dirty plates, pots, pans, glasses and silverware before stacking them on a countertop drying rack, which, to my continued puzzlement, was never actually used for drying. 

My mother, Goldie Levy, in the kitchen after a holiday meal
Yardley, PA - April 1959

The rack was merely a temporary waiting station, waiting for me to do my job. My job was to pick up each item right after it was deposited and wipe it completely free of any droplets of moisture with one of the striped dish towels hanging beneath the sink. I was then expected to put each piece away in the shelf, drawer or cabinet where it belonged.

I never liked drying dishes or putting them away. I always wondered why they couldn’t just air dry on the drying rack. And why couldn’t I be the one doing the washing at least some of the time instead of my mom?

Fast forward 50 years.

I do the dishwashing now, and I like it. I like washing dishes so much that at our beach house, I had my husband Ralph remove the perfectly functional dishwasher that came with it.

“We don’t need it,” I said, and he agreed. “We can use the space for something else.”

We still have a dishwasher in our Groveland home, but I can’t recall the last time I used it. Probably when all the children and grandkids visited. But even on the rare occasions when we have a full house, I still prefer to suds up the cotton washcloth and clean the dishes by hand.

To me, dishwashing is a kind of meditation. Just as making the bed in the morning starts my day on a saner note, cleaning the kitchen after mealtime clears away mental as well as physical detritus. I find the entire process of cleaning up after a meal to be one of the best indoor ways for me to release tension and restore order. I don’t even mind clearing the table like I used to as a child. I’m happy to tidy things away, wipe down tabletops and counters and make our eating area look attractive again.

A tidy table.  A well-balanced plate full of good food.  A book to read.

Somewhere along the path to adulthood I realized that internal harmony often results from the removal of external stresses. Less mess equals less stress.

I doubt if my oldest daughter understands my compulsion to handwash dishes any better than I understood my own mother’s when I was a child. Amber is a mom with two young kids and to her, a dishwashing machine is an essential weapon in her housekeeping arsenal. But perhaps someday when her young children are grown and living off on their own, she’ll realize the peace and pleasure that comes with doing certain domestic chores.

Hot water and sudsy soap washes away more than just dirty dishes. It degreases the mind of stained thoughts as, one by one, a stack of clean kitchenware air dries on the kitchen counter. Visual proof of a job well done.

Dishes air drying on the dishrack
Another meal, another mess cleaned up