Sunday, December 30, 2007

Celebrate the new year by helping the environment

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 30, 2007)

With the exception of birthdays, anniversaries, Halloween and April Fool's Day, I'm not a fan of most celebratory events. There's something about the intense commercialism surrounding all American holidays that spoils their meaning, souring my attitude in the process.

But when the new year comes around, I take exception to my long-standing rejection of all things generically festive. There's something momentous about the start of each annual cycle that captures my attention like no other holiday. It warrants appreciation, and I'm glad to oblige.

A new year invites reflection. It presents another chance to get things right, to start over, to wipe fresh the slate and letter it anew with fresh ideas, goals and wishes.

During the past few weeks, I've been mentally reviewing 2007. My thoughts have drifted back over time and ahead to the future. Throughout this introspective journey, I've found myself pondering a two-word phrase -- daily dues. It could just as easily be spelled daily do's, as in things to do every day, but daily dues -- payment made for services rendered -- is equally appropriate.

In this world, circa 2007-2008, where catastrophic problems totter precariously, it can be all too easy for feelings of hopelessness to overtake us. Questions such as, "What can one person do to stop climate change?" or, "What can be done to end the war in Iraq?" seem impossible to answer.

Rather that backing away from these imponderables, burrowing our heads in the sand or giving up hope completely, there is another option. We can face the new year with an optimistic can-do attitude. It may sound singularly simplistic and Pollyanna-ish, but it has been proved over and over again that people can make a big difference with small steps.

Each of us has the power to make the world a better place. We can do it in tiny ways -- one kind word or good deed at a time -- or by methods that are more magnanimous. It doesn't matter how we go about contributing to world betterment; the important thing is to do something. That's where daily dues come in.

Imagine if, in exchange for our existence, we had to pay a daily fee. But the payment couldn't be made with money -- it had to be paid with actions. We had to do something every day to make the world a better place. Daily dues -- daily do's.

Here are a few examples:

*In the bathroom, we could turn off the faucet while brushing our teeth. That simple step will save four gallons a minute or 200 gallons a week for a family of four.

*In the kitchen, rather than throwing kitchen food scraps into the garbage or down the garbage disposal, we could collect them in a countertop bucket to be emptied into a backyard compost pile. Compost piles convert household wastes into valuable soil while preserving space in our already overburdened landfills for objects that, unlike kitchen wastes, are not biodegradable.

*In the bedroom, instead of turning up the thermostat on those chilly winter nights, we could get under the covers with someone we love. Snuggling not only saves energy; it gives energy to the people involved. From spouse to children to pets to a good book -- cozying up under the covers is a far more rewarding way to generate heat than dialing up the temperature gauge.

*In the laundry, we can switch from hot water to cold. A simple turn of the dial results in big-time energy savings. Cold water uses 90 percent less energy than water that must be heated. Ninety percent is huge. And detergent made for cold water still cleans. Buying phosphorus-free detergents also protects the environment from unnecessary pollution.

*In the yard, we could stop bagging and throwing out grass clippings. Grass clippings contain valuable nutrients that when left in place, feed the lawn. If leaves must be raked, spread the piles around trees, shrubs and garden plants. Used as mulch, they prevent weeds from growing while adding nitrogen to the soil. Grass clippings are a free-for-the-raking way to fertilize our landscape plants without using harsh chemicals.

*In our automobiles, we could slow down and gain fuel efficiency. It's hard to maintain a steady 55 mph when everyone else is zooming by at 70-plus mph. It helps to know that by driving within the speed limit, we not only are driving more safely but also are saving money and taking steps to decrease our dependence on fossil fuel. At 65 mph, a car is 12.5 percent less fuel-efficient than at 55 mph. Up that to 75 mph, and the fuel loss is even greater. A car going at 75 mph is using 25 percent more fuel than the one going 55 mph.

There are so many ways to pay our daily dues. It doesn't matter how we do it, just that we choose to do something for the environment every day. With a new year about to begin, we are at the perfect point to introduce new patterns. Ante up today and begin to pay your daily dues. The world has been immensely kind to us, especially here in America.

Isn't it time we gave a little something back?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on ways to pay our daily dues. What types of things do you do every day to make the world a better place? Send your ideas to me via e-mail at the address below.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A great book for holiday, or any time, gift-giving

Simply Living

Authors Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein present an unconventional pose on the backcover of their recent book, Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar . . . Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 23, 2007)

It's often difficult to find the perfect gifts for people we love. My brother's 65th birthday is rapidly approaching and for weeks I've puzzled over what to give him.

Thanks to my local library, where I'm constantly browsing the racks in search of a good read, I stumbled upon the perfect present, Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein's entertaining tome, Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar . . . Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes. (Abrams Image, 2007)

The authors, whose 50-year friendship began when they were philosophy majors at Harvard in the late 1950s, combine their love of musing with the desire to amuse. After college, Klein went on to pursue a career in comedy, writing material for such legendary jokesters as Lily Tomlin, Flip Wilson and David Fry, while Cathcart worked in health care, including many years spent managing a hospice for AIDS patients.

Although their post-college lives diverged, the friends remained close. They even vacationed together. Every year they bade their wives and children goodbye so they could spend a couple of weeks thinking and talking about projects. The concept for Plato and a Platypus emerged during one of their annual get-togethers.

Divided into 10 chapters with titles such as Metaphysics, Logic, Ethics, and Relativity, Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar uses humor to explain difficult philosophical concepts in entertaining and easy-to-understand ways. Consider this offering under the chapter titled Ethics:

Armed robbers burst into a bank, line up customers and staff against the wall, and begin to take their wallets, watches and jewelry. Two of the bank's accountants are among those waiting to be robbed. The first accountant suddenly thrusts something into the hand of the other. The second accountant whispers, "What is this?" The first accountant whispers back, "It's the fifty bucks I owe you."

The bank robber story is an example of "situation ethics" in which the ethical thing to do in any situation depends, as Cathcart and Klein explain, "on the peculiar mix of factors in that situation." The authors propose that, "paradoxically, however, it is sometimes by ignoring the specifics of the situation that we create the opportunity for self-serving action." That's what happens in the bank robber anecdote.

The 143 jokes and occasional cartoons in Cathcart and Klein's 200-page study make learning fun. Neither completely a joke book nor an educational text, this one-of-a-kind mini-book (the page size is a compact 5 by 7 inches), is suitable for men and women of all ages and backgrounds. While some of the jokes are on the edge of bawdy and others dance around political correctness, a significant number fall into the completely clean but still hysterical category.

One such ditty presented to illuminate the relativity between finite time and eternity goes like this:

A man is praying to God. "Lord," he prays, "I would like to ask you a question."

The Lord responds, "No problem. Go ahead."

"Lord, is it true that a million years to you is but a second?"

"Yes, that is true."

"Well, then, what is a million dollars to you?"

"A million dollars to me is but a penny."

"Ah, then, Lord," says the man, "may I have a penny?"

"Sure," says the Lord. "Just a second."

It didn't take me much longer than a second to realize that Plato and a Platypus is a special kind of book with an infinite capacity to entertain and illuminate. With a price tag of $18.95, it's also affordable.

If you can use a bit of laughter -- and who couldn't? -- or, if you're struggling to find the right gift for that hard-to-please someone, consider this handheld version of a Harvard philosophy class.

What happens when you mix corny jokes, one-liners and vaudeville humor with some of life's greatest lessons? You get an extraordinary read you'll want to share with as many people as possible. It's a funny-bone tickler with teeth. And that's no joke.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Some spiders like to eat cockroaches and other bugs you don't want in your home

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 16, 2007)

Spiders. If you think they're creepy, you're not alone.

Arachnophobia -- the fear of spiders -- is one of the most common human phobias. It doesn't matter if the offender is a harmless garden spider or a more sinister black widow; the mere sight of these eight-legged creatures is enough to trigger a primordial panic button in many men and women.

That's too bad, because spiders are a far cry from the monsters people make them out to be. If bugs are the enemy, spiders -- which are not insects -- are the good guys. As a group, these invertebrates consume more bugs than birds do.

Take cockroaches -- go on, take as many as you want.

In our house, we enlist help from spiders -- specifically Huntsman spiders (Heteropoda venatoria) -- to keep our house as cockroach-free as possible. Floridians who want a bug-free house welcome these 3- to 5-inch long spiders with open arms -- well, maybe not exactly open arms, but at least with an open mind.

Unlike most arachnids, Huntsman spiders won't leave dust-catching webs in hard-to-reach corners. They are web-free spiders that capture their prey with a combination of stealth and speed. And capture they do. Wherever Huntsman spiders reside, cockroach populations decrease along with other pesky home invaders such as palmetto bugs, crickets and silverfish.

The only drawback to these dedicated hunters is their unexpected size -- they look like hairless tarantulas. Encountering one late at night when you're still half asleep en route to the bathroom can a surprising experience to even the most spider-friendly person.

Fortunately, these cockroach-consuming Goliaths have no interest in people. Their focus is on bugs. Around people, they are inherently shy, rarely appearing during daylight hours.

It is not surprising that house spiders are wary of humans. People bombard spiders with an irrational brutality completely out of proportion to the presumed threat. Armed with whatever weapon can be quickly found -- brooms, fly swatters, rolled-up newspapers or aerosol containers of poison -- people pursue these harmless bug eaters with an irrational passion.

What is it about spiders that turn even the gentlest souls into ruthless killers?

It's probably their reputation. When it comes right down to it, spiders are victims of bad public relations. Yes, a few unsavory sorts present a danger, but to be afraid of an entire species for the sins of some makes no sense at all.

Consider dogs. Pit bulls and Rottweilers are like the canine equivalent to widow and recluse spiders because bites from each have been known to inflict bodily harm. The brown recluse can be found in Florida together with three kinds of widow spiders -- the Southern black, brown and red widow. Although recluse and widow spiders have the potential to hurt humans, they usually don't unless provoked.

But dogs -- oh, my goodness! Every year dog bites injure 4.5 million Americans. That's one injury every 40 seconds!

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Veterinary Medical Association, of the 25 breeds involved in the 238 dog-related fatalities in the United States between 1979 and 1998, pit bulls and Rottweilers were responsible for more than half.

If we applied the same reasoning toward dogs as we do toward spiders, we'd grab a can of poison and spray every canine in sight.

Of course, that would never happen. We'd never attack an entire species because of the dangerous actions of a few. Or would we? We do it every day to spiders, and yet the threat spiders pose to people is minute by comparison to the risk of dog attacks.

Statistics on spider bites are not as well tracked as those of canines, but according to Terry W. Thormin, acting curator of invertebrate zoology at the Royal Alberta Museum in Canada, in America 5,000 medically significant cases of spider bites occurred from 1989 to 1993. That's about 1,250 bites per year, barely a fraction of the 4.5 million tooth marks left by man's best friend.

What does it all mean? It means the threat from spiders is practically nonexistent.

Yet, people remain terrified by the mere sight of these benign bug catchers. Most of us would rather fill the air with noxious poisons than permit one tiny spider to go about its business keeping our homes free of cockroaches, flies and mosquitoes.

I have never understood why spiders terrify so many people. Like any predatory animal, invertebrates have their place in nature. The more we learn about their habits, the more likely we are to replace irrational fears with informed appreciation.

The way I see it, it's not spiders that present a problem but people who use poisons to kill each and every spider, cockroach, wasp, ant, fly or silverfish in sight.

Would we really rather breathe in air contaminated by potentially harmful chemical compounds than coexist peacefully with household spiders?

Life is too fragile for indiscriminate killing.

No matter what or who the perceived enemy may be, it's time we said no to irrational fears and hello to more educated choices.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Autumn in December

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 9, 2007)

Swamp maples are among the first to bare their true colors.

With the first hint of cool weather, the leaves on these low-lying trees begin to unpeel their verdant masks. Uniform green transforms into red, gold and yellow. The makeover is gradual but steady. Before long, familiar tones are displaced by a multihued mosaic, and I find myself wondering, "What month is this, anyway?"

I love autumn -- even when it waits until December to arrive.

Every year about this time, I get my fix of autumnal foliage. I know that Florida isn't Vermont and that seasonal changes in the Sunshine State are far subtler than they are in New England, but that doesn't make them any less special. A colorful collage awaits my applause around every corner.

"Good job! Well done," I silently exclaim after passing a particularly rousing display on the edge of a wetland.

After a hot, dry summer, I have an unfathomable thirst for any splash of color.

From sycamores with their brittle brown-paper leaves to golden rain trees and cassia bushes, December presents a veritable palette of botanical pleasure. There's even a hint of harvest ahead as oranges ripen, loquats flower and great mounds of acorns crunch underfoot.

Autumn has arrived, but its entry is gentle. It catches you by surprise.

I'm used to understated autumns, though. When I lived on Cape Cod, fall was a muted occasion. Marsh grass faded to a dull gold. Leaves turned colors, but soft yellows, shy oranges and dusty browns predominated. The shocking scarlets and ruby reds associated with a New England leaf-fall are not the norm in coastal climes.

Florida is similar to Cape Cod in that way. Autumn arrives like an afterthought.

"I'm here. I'm finally here," it seems to say with a blush of apology.

But an apology isn't necessary. Every tinted leaf is a welcome addition to the visual landscape. No matter how late in the year it arrives, the magic of the moment is always stunning.

Of course, we all know that the changing of leaf colors is not really magic but a biological process dependent upon a green pigment called chlorophyll, a process called photosynthesis and the right proportion of sunlight, moisture and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Leaves are mini-food factories converting sunlight, rain and CO2 into a nutritious substance called glucose. Plants use the glucose -- a type of sugar -- to grow and prosper. In nature's omnipotent wisdom, more glucose is converted during times of extreme sunlight than can actually be used. The excess is stored. When the days grow shorter and sunlight is less available, plants enter conservation mode. In response to the winding down of food production, the chlorophyll-rich pigmentation in leaves diminishes. As it does, oranges and yellows -- colors the chlorophyll had been masking with its heavily green overtones -- begin to appear.

When we look at the orange leaves on a maple tree in autumn, what we're really seeing are the tree's true colors.

I wonder if that's how it works with people too. Are we one color on the outside, another within? Are there brilliant streaks of russet, orange or bright yellow hiding beneath our surfaces too? If so, when will they appear?

When I take a drive and pass a particularly brilliant display of leaves, I absorb what I can of the autumnal beauty. Like the trees, I store the excess in a special reserve to be tapped on days when a bit of sweetness is needed to brighten my mood.

Autumn in December. It's like getting a gift at the end of the year, an unexpected gift full of surprise and beauty.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Love, commitment mean more than formal papers

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 2, 2007)

Society tells us that our wedding is the most important day of our lives.

I never felt that way.

In 1972, when my husband and I got married, we drove down to the justice of the peace in Hyannis, Mass., for a brief ceremony attended by a handful of family and friends. I wore a maroon corduroy mini-dress that my husband's mother had sewn for me -- at the time, it was my favorite outfit -- and Ralph borrowed a sports coat from his father to wear with a pair of his regular slacks. I can't remember if he wore a tie, but I rather doubt it.

As far as we were concerned, our wedding day was a day like any other, except on that mid-December afternoon, we formalized on paper a commitment we had already made to one another during the two years we had been living together.

The way I see it, it's not the ceremony that's important, but the promise that's made to the person you love.

I've been giving much thought to weddings lately because our oldest child is about to be married. The wedding she and her fiance have planned will rival ours in casualness -- a small, simple, nontraditional affair outside at our home.

Although Amber is not the only one of our children to enter into a serious long-term relationship, she will be the first to marry.

As parents, we've been active participants in our children's transition from infancy to adulthood. With the usual mixture of delight and trepidation, we've watched their progression from helpless infants to helpful adults. Although there have been many overwhelming moments, in retrospect, I think the early years were the easiest.

Yes, we endured seemingly endless nights of interrupted sleep and medical emergencies that took our breath away, but when our children were little, they were so easily comforted. Loving arms, warm kisses and reassuring words worked wonders to bridge the distance between tears and smiles. Babies calmed, toddlers quieted and pre-adolescents actually listened to what we had to say with willing acceptance.

But that changed -- as it is meant to do -- when the kids matured. From being the all-powerful problem-solvers in their early years, we became proactive guides on each of our children's independent journeys through the teens and young adulthood.

We helped them navigate through educational and work choices, long-distance adventures and at-home crises about everything from money to mortgages to medical mishaps. Some of the most difficult periods happened when one or another of the children was involved in romantic relationships.

"There, there. Everything is going to be all right," didn't have the same power to mend a 20-something's broken heart that it did a 9-year-old's skinned knee. Yet, somehow, we all survived. That alone is remarkable. Old loves faded. New loves were found. As parents, we stood on the sidelines filled with gratitude and relief, thankful the foundations we laid were strong enough to withstand yet another emotional earthquake.

Maybe that's why now, with a child on the cusp of a marriage, I find myself being so pensively reflective. All the romantic wrong turns have led to this place of loving kindness. You don't need an elaborate ceremony to cement such commitment. A few words spoken in a grove of bamboo surrounded by the people who care about you is more than enough to frame the future.

It's an amazing process, this passage of time. Children are born; they grow up, meet people they love and make a promise to be there for each other in times of difficulty and moments of delight.

It's not any one particular day that matters most, but how we live our life every day that is truly important.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Caterpillars are worth it when they become monarchs of the air

Simply Living

(First published in Orlando Sentinel November 25, 2007)

Caterpillars are gobbling up my plants, and I don't mind a bit.

I'm not bothered because the hungry nibblers are the larvae form of monarch butterflies, beautiful orange and black-winged wonders that will soon be flitting through my garden, brightening the landscape with their regal presence.

Monarchs -- the same butterflies famous for their much-documented migration patterns -- are strong fliers, but when it comes to eating, they're just plain finicky. The plants that supply the nectar they need to survive are in the genus Asclepias. We know those plants by their more common names of butterfly weed or milkweed.

Milkweed is one of those wonder plants that thrive on neglect. It grows, blooms, self-propagates and attracts swarms of butterflies and bees without much, if any, human attention.

A gardener who has introduced milkweed plants to the landscape need only sit back and admire the cheerful orange-yellow flower heads and the wildlife attracted to those blossoms. It's not even necessary to turn on the sprinkler because milkweed is like a horticultural camel -- it can withstand long periods with limited water.

If you're wondering, "What's the catch?" there is one: caterpillars.

This leggy wildflower is a botanical magnet for monarch butterflies that come for the nectar and remain long enough to deposit their eggs on the undersides of the plants' thin leaves, stems and blossoms.

Monarchs are single-source egg layers. The only plant that will do as a depository for their eggs is milkweed. That's because, when the eggs hatch, the only food the emerging caterpillars will eat are milkweed leaves.

It takes three to 12 days for the tiny white eggs to hatch. The resulting caterpillars are curious-looking critters with black, yellow and white bands ringing their stubby bodies.

Two long black filaments extend from behind their heads and two shorter ones from their abdomens. Although caterpillars don't have vocal cords, they do very well at expressing a message.

Their distinctive coloration and those black filaments transmit the warning, "Stay away!" to birds and other predators.

It's a message worth heeding. When the caterpillars chew on milkweed leaves, they consume a toxic substance in the plant that doesn't bother them but is distasteful to their enemies.

Two weeks later, after eating a diet of nothing but milkweed leaves, the larvae are ready to enter the next stage of their development, the jade green chrysalis or pupa.

Ten to 12 days later when butterflies emerge from the chrysalises, the toxin from the milkweed leaves will still be in their systems. This makes the butterflies equally as unpalatable to avian predators as they were during the larvae stage.

The monarch butterfly's metamorphosis is a wondrous process. And to think we can witness this remarkable transformation by simply adding milkweed plants to the landscape.

There are eight kinds of Asclepias -- milkweed -- that grow in Florida. None are natives, but all are invaluable additions to the garden for anyone who enjoys the sight of butterflies fluttering through the air.

While monarchs are the only butterflies that totally depend on milkweed plants for their survival, many other winged creatures seek out this humble wildflower for its nectar. Plant a few milkweeds in your garden and you are likely to see soldier, queen, swallowtail, painted lady, American lady and fritillary butterflies.

During the day, hummingbirds might flit from blossom to blossom, and just before dark, a hummingbird moth is likely to navigate the evening air for a nectar nightcap.

It is amazing how much beauty revolves around such an ordinary wildflower. With a lone flower head topping each stem, milkweed isn't particularly showy. It has no profusion of blooms and is leggy and, at times, even scraggly-looking.

To say it's a messy flower would be an understatement. When the seedpods open, white fluff flies everywhere. Hundreds of feathery parachutes, each attached to a single black seed, are as likely to settle on lawn chairs and porch screens as they are in flower beds. Yet, despite several false landings, enough seeds survive to warrant the label nuisance plant.

Wildlife sees past all that. Animals and insects are keenly aware of truths people often overlook. Beauty has many layers. Plain can be powerful, and something as ordinary as a lowly wildflower can be extraordinarily essential.

Caterpillars are gobbling up my plants, and I don't mind a bit because there's a promise of beauty in each denuded stalk. From egg to larvae to chrysalis to butterfly, monarchs seek milkweed for sustenance and support. By cultivating this modest plant, I'm following their lead. If it's good enough for royalty, it's good enough for me.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Moving to a new room can change outlook

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 18, 2007)

For 16 years, my office has been in a 9-by-12-foot room on the south end of our house. It's a small, warm room, the place to gather on chilly winter mornings.

Large picture windows overlook a garden that -- regardless of how much I neglect it -- remains on the fly-by list for assorted winged creatures. Butterflies, birds and bees are attracted to a colorful collection of flowers. The plants in turn, provide shelter to snakes, anoles, frogs and small mammals. Gazing out my office window guarantees interesting observations -- a snake climbing a metal pole, an owl resting on the trellis, a hummingbird flitting from one blossom to another. The view from that window has been a continual source of entertainment and inspiration.

While wildlife have no difficulty finding their way to the garden, the room itself is off the beaten path, and that's fine by me. As a work-at-home parent who raised four home-schooled children, I learned long ago the importance of personal space.

My ability to successfully cope with whatever life hands me is directly related to a certain amount of physical separation from the people I love the most. I've never needed much distance, but some place -- a designated space to recharge -- has always been a mainstay of my sanity. Having a home office that's not in the main traffic flow provided the right proportion of accessibility to aloneness.

My office has been my sanctuary. Until recently.

Of late, it has become more repository than refuge. Stacks of this, mounds of that and paper -- piles and piles of paper -- have found their way onto all available surfaces, including a large expanse of floor. Instead of walking into my office to find much needed peace, more and more often the feeling I'm struck with is repulsion. How can I work amid so much disarray?

The answer is, I can't.

Drastic methods were needed. So I moved.

One evening when I must have had more caffeine in my system than usual, I took my computer, printer and the bare necessities of my craft and moved them into what used to be my oldest son's bedroom.

Like many parents of grown children, we have a number of rooms in our house that are in transition. Bit by bit in the months (and sometimes years) after our three oldest kids moved into their own houses, Ralph and I reclaimed those spaces for other activities. One became a computer room for my youngest son, the other a nicely appointed guest room. The last space in want of transformation was my oldest son's bedroom. He had already removed his furnishings, leaving behind a delightfully sparse, clean and empty room.

I was drawn to that room like ants to honey.

Every time I'd pass it -- it's on the main corridor between the kitchen and living room -- I'd look in longingly. Such a lovely space, all empty and open. No clutter. No mess. No anything at all but pale purple walls promising calmness and order.

I wanted that desperately. So, I took it.

During the past week, I've settled in. While admittedly basic, my new office is functional and, so far, that's enough. I placed my desk against the window -- another large expanse of glass -- and now look out on a different view. Instead of the familiar scene outside my old office window, my gaze is directed toward a tall sycamore tree surrounded by a smattering of orphaned plants. I look at the tree and imagine bird feeders hanging from its limbs, the squirrels competing with goldfinches for an afternoon snack. Beyond the sycamore are shell gingers, climbing roses and honeysuckle vines covering a clay wall.

Although I'm still adjusting to the sights, the change of scenery has been an unexpected benefit of my new surroundings. My eyes seem glad for the change, eager to explore and absorb each nuance of this fresh landscape.

Another perk has been the location. After years of self-imposed isolation, I'm finding it surprisingly convenient to have an office in the thick of things. Now when I'm in the kitchen fixing food, I'm just a step away from checking e-mail or browsing the Web.

Time to exercise? My new office is uncluttered. There's plenty of room to stretch out on the floor, lift hand weights or attempt a pull-up on the chinning bar my son left behind.

Although the plan was to empty everything out of the old office and give it a thorough cleaning, what happens afterward is fuzzy. Originally, I intended to move back into my old office once it was reorganized, but for the moment I've put that plan on hold. This new space is so pleasant that I might just make it permanent.

I've come to realize it doesn't take much to change your perspective. Something as minor as the relocation of a home office can result in a refreshed outlook and a realignment of fixed notions.

Like most people, I'm a creature of habit but occasionally -- say, once every 16 years -- it's a good idea to shake up the system. This past week I moved my office and gained much more than a new place to sit and type. I've changed my perspective and couldn't be happier.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Grass carp eat lake weeds for 17 months and grow huge

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 11, 2007)

At first, I thought it was a gator. It was that big.

I was walking around the north end of the lake just before dark. The shallow water there is dotted with tufts of grassy weeds and is clear enough to see straight to the bottom. It was a still evening. The lake mirrored the sky just the way I like and I was taking my time, admiring the view.

Suddenly, I heard a loud splash and saw ripples in the water. My immediate reaction was to stop and gaze directly toward the spot in the water. The ripples receded, but moments later it happened again. Something large and white emerged from the lake -- not in a jumping motion but with a determined upward lift. Whatever it was had an agenda -- to reach a grassy tuft and pull a single blade down into the water.

I've watched enough alligators in the lake to know there was something unquestionably nonreptilian about this creature's movements. If not a gator, then what, I wondered? An otter? A large turtle?

No to both. It was a fish. A very large fish.

After months of wondering where they've been hiding, I've finally found my triploid grass carp. And my, how they've grown!

In May 2006, we stocked our 12-acre weed-clogged lake with 75 10- to 12-inch-long triploid grass carp. Grass carp are grazers whose diet consists entirely of aquatic plants. Triploid is just a fancy way of saying the carp are sterile. They can't reproduce and make more carp. We bought the fish from a hatchery in Center Hill after receiving a permit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Our objective in stocking the lake with grass carp was to control the weeds. Choosing fish seemed like the most viable option. The other choices -- mechanical removal or chemical applications of herbicides -- just didn't fit our budget or lifestyle. Using triploid carp did, although the idea that weed-eating fish could possibly consume all the bladderwort floating about seemed highly implausible. Our doubts lingered as time passed and, while the weeds diminished substantially, the fish were nowhere in sight.

"I don't understand why I never see them," I often lamented. "I'm on the water just about every day, but I never see any carp. The alligators, ospreys and otters couldn't possibly have eaten all of them up. So where are they?"

News flash: They're there!

Although the carp have managed to elude my observation during the past 17 months, they haven't ignored the lake's vegetation. Those babies can eat! And get big.

The fish I observed were between 18 inches and 30 inches long. With their beady eyes, wide mouths, white underbellies and black-tipped tails, the carp reminded me of small sharks cruising the shallows in search of prey.

In June, when I wrote about stocking our lake with triploid grass carp, some readers responded with words of caution.

"I thought you would like to know," wrote Bud Simmons of Tavares, "grass-eating carp are not always the 'perfect solution.' "

In his e-mail, Simmons explained that about 25 years ago grass carp were added to Lake Fairview in Orlando to control weeds and grasses that were clogging that waterway.

Within a couple years, the weeds were gone. All the weeds.

"They cleaned the lake completely out," Simmons wrote. "The baby fish had nowhere to hide. Within five to six years the fish population in the lake crashed."

According to Simmons, the lake eventually had to be poisoned to kill the carp then restocked and replanted with aquatic vegetation.

At my small lake, we're almost a year-and-a-half into our fish-conquering-weeds project, so it's too early to tell if the Lake Fairview situation will be repeated.

Ryan Hamm, a biological scientist with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, doesn't expect that to happen.

"We're conservative with our approach when we permit stocking of triploid grass carp," Hamm says. "While it's true that grass carp are more of a wild card than an herbicide treatment, in most cases, they won't overgraze lake vegetation."

I hope he's right.

So far, I'm delighted with the progress being made in our fish-versus-weeds experiment, but more time is needed to tell if my enthusiasm is justified.

Meanwhile, my family can once again enjoy refreshing swims without becoming ensnarled in annoying weeds. As an unexpected benefit, we've also gained a new form of entertainment. We can sit on the bank and watch the antics of fish that look like sharks, eat like cattle and perform acrobatic movements like Baby Shamu.

Triploid grass carp are a force to be reckoned with, and that's no fish tale.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Bobcat's visit raises natural question

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 4, 2007)

I went outside to feed the birds today and saw a bobcat.

He (or she) was about 200 feet away, resting on the ground in front of the compost pile.

Compost piles are wildlife magnets. The odiferous porridge of kitchen wastes attracts mammals large and small. I've watched foxes and raccoons explore these bins of human detritus, but this was the first time a bobcat showed interest in the family dumping ground for avocado pits, eggshells, burnt rice and apple cores.

The bobcat, a tawny mass of cropped fur and pointy ears, looked comfortable. Like an oversized house cat who had just polished off a hearty meal, he rested contentedly on the matted grass. We eyed each other from afar. I squatted low, to appear less threatening. The cat simply stared in my direction, tufted ears at full attention, assessing the menace.

Reluctant to miss anything, but eager to immortalize this special moment, I rose slowly and slipped back into the house. Unfortunately, my camera wasn't hanging on the hook next to the kitchen door as I assumed it would be.

Not wanting to waste precious time searching the house, I eased back outside. By then, the bobcat had risen, but remained in the same place.

The feral feline must have realized (correctly) that I was harmless, because he proceeded to stretch with a long, leisurely gee-I-wish-you-hadn't-disturbed-me arch of the back. Standing my ground, I watched in awe.

Moments later, the object of my attention ambled off toward a more sheltered environ. There was nothing frantic or fearful about his movements. His graceful gait was slow and steady. I watched as he rounded the corner, disappearing from sight. Wanting more, I followed in his wake, moving as quietly as my bare feet would allow.

As I approached, I noticed the bobcat had paused beneath the overhanging branches of a nearby mulberry tree. The low-hanging limbs of the leafy fruit tree provided a tangled web that blended perfectly with his reddish-brown fur. When I rounded the corner, the cat caught sight of me. He responded by moving toward the woods. My eyes followed his trail for an instant before he vanished into the brambly undergrowth.

My one-on-one moment with nature was over. My only photographs were mental snapshots of the bobcat's movements. I rushed back inside, eager to share my experience with Ralph and Toby.

Although this was the first time I've seen a bobcat by the compost pile, it was not my first sighting. On at least a half dozen occasions, I've chanced upon bobcats on the property. Each encounter has been spectacular, a cherished gift. But these experiences concern me, too. I'm not scared for myself or for the safety of others, but for the bobcats themselves. Every peek into the waning wilderness reminds me of what we have to lose.

So much untamed land has already been developed. What will happen to the bobcats, bears, deer, foxes and coyotes when people eliminate even more woods to make way for shopping centers, residential communities and industrial complexes?

The Florida panther is endangered. According to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS), only about 100 of these magnificent mammals remain in the wild. About a million bobcats roam throughout North America. In Florida, they are neither endangered nor threatened. But how long can that last?

Bobcats are solitary hunters. A male needs about 4,900 acres of field and forest in order to supply its carnivorous needs. A female needs 2,900 acres. That's so much land. While these dog-size consumers of rats, mice, birds and rabbits can adapt to eating out of compost piles, foraging through trash cans and licking the remains of pet food bowls, it's unlikely suburban residents will welcome their arrival to the neighborhood. Any nondomesticated creature that wanders into suburbia is more apt to arouse panic than peaceful observation and gratitude.

That's not how I feel. I'm grateful for any chance to see a wild animal -- large or small, on foot, wing or water.

I went out to feed the birds today and wound up feeding my own insatiable appetite for wildlife encounters. The few minutes the bobcat and I shared made an impression that will last for years. Will moments like this continue to happen? I don't know, but I hope they will. I hope time is gentle to bobcats and the many other creatures whose fate relies heavily on the course of human actions.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Kids grow out of Halloween -- sigh

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 28, 2007)

With Halloween such a significant date on the family calendar, I had no idea that someday the 31st of October would arrive with no accompanying fanfare.

This year it has happened. My youngest child has outgrown trick-or-treating!

Halloween has always been our family's favorite holiday. Ever since the kids were toddlers, we would dress up in crazy outfits and try our luck begging for sweets. I made costumes out of cardboard, paint and papier-mache.

We fashioned mimes, gypsies, witches and ghouls out of old clothes, scarves and hats. Everything was impromptu and thrown together, but it always worked. The last day of October was a much-anticipated time of fun and candy, in that order.

Of course, half the fun -- maybe more than half -- was sorting out the bounty once it was gleaned. After a night canvassing a nearby neighborhood, (that's what you do when your own abode is out in the sticks) we would return home with bulging bags of goodies. With costume parts strewn around the living room and makeup barely removed from little faces, each child would spread out a large towel on which to empty his or her weighty bounty.

Stacks were created -- sucking candies in one section, candy bars in another, a third pile for Smarties and another for Tootsie Rolls, M&Ms and assorted chocolates. There was even a separate section reserved for rejects -- candy too yucky for even sugar-deprived kids to find appealing.

Once each child had his or her stash sorted, the true action began. Trading.

So serious were the transactions being negotiated that you would think you were on Wall Street instead of a candy-cluttered living room.

"I'll give you two Reese's Peanut Butter Cups for five packages of M&Ms," someone would offer.

Swift came the reply, "Throw in a Mars Bar and you've got a deal."

When the kids were young enough to be tempted, we would offer up coins in exchange for their sugar-laden treats.

"I'll pay you a nickel for every piece of candy you give me," my husband would suggest.

That worked for a few years, but eventually candy trumped cash. When you live in a household where foods containing refined sugars, artificial colors and preservatives are usually taboo, a chance to eat quantities of forbidden fruit is difficult to resist.

My husband and I were hardly uninvolved observers during Halloween activities. Not only did we sample the collected spoils, but we also enthusiastically participated in their gathering.

We would dress up in silly costumes and accompany the children on their door-to-door rounds. Most of the time, I'd be a witch -- my alter ego. But during years when my husband came along, my costume was designed to complement his. I would dress up as a businessman, complete with painted-on mustache, beard, briefcase, suit and tie. My husband, whose real beard and mustache cover most of his face, would spend a few hours once a year as a woman.

On top of his mop of unruly hair, without making any real effort to conceal his own dark brown locks, we would place a platinum-blond wig. With a significant amount of effort, he would squeeze into a gaudy flower-print dress that fell just above his hairy calves. Stuffed into the bodice were two plump, round and strategically placed beanbags. The costume was completed with his white socks, sneakers and a large purse to hold any candy he was offered.

The treats poured in -- literally as well as, um, "figure-atively." Ralph's get-up never failed to elicit a reaction. With shy giggles and suggestive cat whistles, an evening spent canvassing suburbia in his company was anything but dull.

But that was before our youngest son turned 15. It's not cool to go trick-to-treating with your family when you're 15. Duh. Anyone knows that.

Whoops! My bad. Add it to the list of other infractions I've committed as a parent of a teenager.

The way I see it, I'm at the edge of a precipice -- steps away from falling into yet another parenting abyss. My kids are no longer little, but young adults. But they're not yet parents themselves, which means no grandchildren are in the picture. Without little kids to legitimize play, certain types of cavorting feel inappropriate and out of place. Trick-or-treating on Halloween, an activity that has defined our family for a quarter-century, will be put on hold this year.

That's OK. It's only temporary. And sometimes, it's good to take a break from tradition. Besides, why pound the streets in search of candy when there is so much sweetness in our everyday lives? Happy Halloween, everyone! Enjoy your treats.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

'Green' product hype can be tarnished with experience

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 21, 2007)

Green is everywhere. It's the buzzword of the moment -- a media darling that, when attached to a product, is a surefire ticket to increased sales. The use of the label "green" has become so ubiquitous that you can find "green" offerings in everything from meat to moisturizers, tea to toiletries, beer to light bulbs.

I'm suspicious.

As much as I am an environmental advocate, I can't help but wonder how much hype is being mixed with fact to produce a green slush of misinformation.

Consider compact fluorescent light bulbs.

About a year ago, after repeatedly hearing how inefficient incandescent lights are -- they use only about 10 percent of their consumed energy to make light -- our family began to consider alternatives. The most highly touted option was compact fluorescents (CFLs), an improved type of light bulb that drastically reduces carbon dioxide emissions because it uses 75 percent less energy and lasts up to 15 times longer than its incandescent cousins. Although initially more expensive than regular light bulbs, CFLs' long life makes them not only a "green" choice but an economically viable option for consumers.

"Just do it," we reasoned and went on a spending spree at The Home Depot's lighting department.

How pleased we were with our "green-ness." What a good deed we had done for the planet, for Mother Earth.

But was it? Are CFLs really the panacea they're purported to be?

When our family unscrewed all our old light bulbs and replaced them with compact fluorescents, we had no idea we were inviting a toxic chemical into our home. Do you know each CFL bulb contains about 4 milligrams of mercury? What happens five, seven or 10 years from now when these save-the-Earth bulbs finally burn out? Or worse still, what happens not if, but when one breaks?

The Environmental Protection Agency cautions consumers to leave the room immediately if a CFL breaks and to stay away for at least 15 minutes so the mercury vapors will have a chance to dissipate. When you return to clean up the mess, you'd better not use your bare hands or a vacuum. The EPA advises against it. Wear gloves and use cardboard and sticky tape to clean up fragments of glass. When you've done all that, put the remains into a plastic bag. Put that plastic bag into another bag and take the whole toxic, dangerous mess to a CFL-designated recycling center. What? You don't know where a CFL-designated recycling center is? That's not surprising, because such disposal sites are few and far between.

Gosh, I wish I had known this before I went out and retrofitted my entire house to make it more "environmentally friendly."

Would I still have done it? I'm not sure.

Weighing the pros and cons of incandescent versus CFL bulbs in relation to the environment is confusing. The inefficiency of incandescent bulbs causes more carbon dioxide to be released into the atmosphere, and that's a bad thing for the planet. But CFLs contain mercury, and that's bad for the planet too. Broken or used CFL bulbs that don't get recycled will wind up in a landfill where they have the potential to contaminate water, air and eventually the food chain. And what about the threat presented if a CFL bulb breaks at home? Will exposure to 4 milligrams of mercury harm an adult? How about child or infant?

About 30 years ago, when the whole-food industry was in its infancy, the words natural and organic began to attract the same type of media attention green does today. Back then, my husband and I owned a small country store in Wellfleet, Mass., where we sold an eclectic array of whole foods and healthy-lifestyle products. We strove to stock the store with the best products available -- unadulterated, minimally processed grocery and nongrocery items. It was always a challenge. There were constantly companies eager to thrust the latest "miracle food" on the unwitting public, claiming to be one thing when they were actually another. We saw our job as shop owners to separate the proverbial wheat from chaff in a constant effort to uncover the truth.

The same thing needs to be done now in our rush to save the planet.

For a quick buck, charlatans will eagerly attach themselves to whatever cause strikes the public's fancy. In the 1970s, it was health foods. Today, it's the healthy-planet movement. The question is, how do you separate truly good products from impostors? The wheat from the chaff?

By realizing that there are shades of green.

When I go for rows in the early morning, I'm constantly struck by how many different shades of green frame the water's edge. From slash pine to willow to water oak to persimmon, no two types of tree are quite the same color. That's how it is with products too. Instead of accepting at face value whatever a manufacturer claims, it is our job as consumers to do our own research and ask questions. Anyone who stands to profit from selling you a product should be listened to with caution.

I have no doubt that our planet is in a danger, and I believe we all must do our part to lessen our impact on the environment. But before we rush out in an effort to retrofit our lifestyle, we should make a point to investigate the facts. Just because a company says its product is green, that doesn't make it true. There are shades of truth as varied as the shades of trees. Sometimes green is not nearly as eco-friendly as it seems.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Oh, to end years of nap-envy

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 14, 2007)

I'm jealous. I have been for years.

It's all because of my husband and our bed -- but wait, it's not what you think.

There's no Other Woman involved. My nemesis is that elusive seductress Sleep.

My husband has the uncanny ability to take naps whenever he's tired. It's a "gift" he has nurtured for as long as I've known him. And, for all those years -- 37 come December -- I have been envious.

How does he do it? More to the point, why can't I?

We lie down in the afternoon together -- the same bed, the same time. We're both tired. We both close our eyes. He falls asleep. I get up.

In our many years together, I can count on both hands the times I've successfully taken a daytime nap. When it has happened, I've either been overwhelmingly exhausted or on the edge of illness. You could persuasively argue that those times didn't really count, and I'd agree.

Suffice it to say, daytime sleep doesn't come easily to me as it does to my dear husband.

How I wish it did.

Ralph wakes up from his midday siestas totally rejuvenated, bursting with energy.

"I feel like I have two days in one," he often proclaims. "I wish you could take a nap, too."

So do I, Ralph. So do I.

When I lie down during daylight hours, my head barely touches the pillow before waves of data ripple through my mind.

I try to rest. I really do. I close my eyes and nestle into the pillow. But my mind wanders, curling around thought after thought after thought. I'm more likely to mentally sketch out the first chapter of a book during naptime than surrender myself solely to sleep. Thinking about napping, assuming a prone position and closing my eyes is about as far as I ever allow myself to go.

Not Ralph. He gives himself over completely to the goddess of dreams.

Lie on bed. Put head to pillow. Close eyes. Sleep. It's his no-fail formula.

It must be genetic. Of our four children, two have inherited their father's uncanny ability to catch forty winks at the proverbial drop of a hat.

The other two are more like me. They find it nearly impossible to enter dreamland when the sun is shining. Let it be noted that we're not a family of insomniacs. None of us has trouble falling asleep at night. It's just pre-dusk slumber that some of us find elusive.

That doesn't mean we get enough rest.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, 50 million to 70 million Americans suffer from inadequate sleep, and I'm probably in that category.

Experts say adults need to consistently get seven to nine hours of sleep at night in order to function at optimal level. Unfortunately, the norm is 6.7 hours of nighttime rest. Because so many of us don't get enough sleep, we are often tired in the daytime. Without a nap to refresh us, that weariness takes a toll.

A study done in 2005 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration attributed 100,000 car accidents to sleep-impaired drivers.

The NHTSA reports at least 1,550 deaths and 71,000 injuries caused by driver fatigue -- probably more because it is difficult to document.

I can't help but wonder how many tragedies could have been prevented if more of us had prioritized sleep or allowed ourselves to take regular naps.

Recently, much research has touted the benefits of nap-taking.

In 2002, Sara Mednick and her colleagues in Harvard University's psychology department discovered that people such as my husband, who take 60- to 90-minute naps, gain the same degree of learning and performance improvement as someone who has had an eight-hour night's sleep.

Four years later, Mednick published a book on the subject: Take a Nap! Change Your Life (Workman Publishing Co.; 2006).

In it she explains how napping "increases alertness, boosts creativity, reduces stress, improves perception, stamina, motor skills and accuracy, enhances your sex life, helps you make better decisions, keeps you looking younger, aids in weight loss, reduces the risk of heart attack, elevates your mood and strengthens memory."

That's a long list of benefits. Even if only a few of the 14 perks Mednick attributes to napping occurred, some daytime shut-eye would be a worthwhile use of time.

Not for me, though. Not yet anyway.

If I'm a dedicated student and practice the 16-step relaxation techniques Mednick explains in her book, and if I take to heart the encouragement my husband offers, perhaps one day my "in-nap-ability" will be a thing of the past.

Maybe then I'll finally experience the exuberant sense of renewal Ralph feels after his midday siestas.

When that day comes -- if it ever does -- I'll be joining the ranks of illustrious individuals such as John F. Kennedy, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill, Bill Clinton and Lance Armstrong who credit much of their boundless energy and ability to cope with responsibilities to regularly scheduled daytime snoozes.

When I learn to nap, I'll no longer need to feel jealous of my husband. Thirty-seven years is a long time to harbor sleep-envy. The time is ripe to put that bad baby to bed.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Health takes birthday breather

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 7, 2007)

I just finished eating several walnut-raisin rugallah, a gift to myself for my birthday. It's not actually my birthday -- that happens a few days before Halloween -- but about five years ago, I decided that birthdays were too important to warrant only a single-day celebration. They deserve an entire month.

So, that's what I'm doing.

On Oct. 1, to kick off the festivities, I bought a small box of rugallah, a cream cheesy, buttery pastry with far more saturated fat than I'd normally permit my ingredient-conscience self to sample. Not only did I savor every bite of the white flour, flaky treats, I did so without worry.

That's part of the deal. No fretting about empty calories or the buildup of artery-clogging fats is allowed. Such concerns are not permitted in October, the month of my birth.

The banishment of bad feelings is a co-tangent to my monthlong celebration. Along with permission to eat anything I fancy comes a pass for guilt-free indulgence. That means that many foods I love but no longer eat because I know they're not good for me are up for grabs during October.

High on that list is Brie cheese, another heavy-fat food with few redeeming qualities other than its sublime texture and nirvana-inducing taste. For the past few Octobers, I've purchased a wedge of Brie to eat with slices of crisp new apples. Usually, thanks to judicious nibbling, one wedge will last for several weeks.

The same is true of maraschino cherries, another treat on my bad-for-your-body-but-good-for-your-mouth list. Red Dye No. 3 is the culprit there but, for an entire month, I turn a blind eye to cancer-causing chemicals and savor the flavor of juicy red cherries popped into my mouth straight from the bottle.

My final indulgence is candy apples. I don't mean the caramel kind, but the real thing -- bright red, shiny and extremely sticky. There's no denying that candy apples are a terror to teeth. Made of sugar, sugar and a bit more sugar mixed with some artificial colors and, oh yes, an apple, they may not be high on the good nutrition list, but they sure are yummy. Not only do they tickle my taste buds, they trigger fond memories that transport me back to my childhood in Bucks County, Pa.

When I was little, my parents always took me to Styer Orchards in October. There, among freshly baked pumpkin and pecan pies, were barrels of fragrant apples fresh off the tree. If I close my eyes now, I can almost smell the aroma that used to fill that open-air farm stand.

High on a glass counter where the cashier waited, stood the candy apples, lined up like glimmering gems on a stick. My mother always let me pick one as she paid for our other purchases and I would eat it in the car on the way home. That was back in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Thanks in large part to Styer Orchards and candy apples, I perfected the ability to make sweet treats last for as long as possible. Often I was still licking the apple's candy exterior when our family's Rambler sedan finally pulled into the garage.

It is much harder these days to find a good candy apple. Especially in Florida. The prepackaged ones in the grocery taste terrible. A candy apple is nothing if the apple inside is not fresh, firm and crispy.

Years ago there was a confection shop in Church Street Station -- back when there was a Church Street Station -- that had wonderful red candy apples. But that store is long closed. Since then, I've only found tasty candy apples once or twice at carnivals or county fairs.

I'm not fond of birthday cake, and could care less for champagne or fancy wines. My idea of a celebratory treat is to indulge in the foods that fill me with pleasure, and part of that pleasure is the memories certain foods invoke.

Most holidays celebrate events or accomplishments made by other people. There's nothing personal about them. That's not how it is with birthdays. It doesn't matter how old you are or how much you dread the adding on of years, a birthday is your day -- the only one you have.

So, take my suggestion and give birthdays an extension. Permit yourself a treat and then give yourself another one. Indulge in the little luxuries that are normally denied. For me it may be edible treats, but for you it might be something entirely different -- a spa visit, a weekend getaway, a relaxing massage, a new book or jewelry.

Everyone deserves a free pass now and then to do whatever the heart desires. What better time for personal pampering than during the month of your birth.

For the next few weeks, that's what I'll be doing. Birthdays come but once a year, but there's no law saying they have to end in 24 hours. Savor the moment. Make it last.

After all, it will be 11 more months before another year passes, and that's simply too long to wait for a bit of rugallah, Brie cheese, maraschino cherries and a bite into a perfectly delicious candy apple.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

3 feathery amigos give wing to hope

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 30, 2007)

A well-known saying suggests, "Birds of a feather flock together." But what about birds that aren't alike; do they "flock together" too?

In my lake, they do.

Every morning I see them -- a white ibis, a little blue heron and a tricolor heron -- three totally different water birds with little in common except for a diet dependent on aquatic life. Yet, day after day, these three long-legged fish-eaters flock together like the best of friends.

Are they? Can wild birds be best friends with birds of a species different from their own?

I don't know why not. Dogs do it. Cats do it. In practice, these domesticated animals take "flocking together" to the extreme. They not only become fast friends with members of different breeds but also are often "friends with benefits," creating completely new breeds in the process.

But that's not what the birds in my lake are doing.

These three water birds are simply spending their time alongside each other doing what herons and ibises do in the wild -- hunting for fish.

They're not fishing in conjunction with each other -- there's no team effort involved in an attempt to channel fish into one section for easy capture by all.

They're just being feathery critters companionably working alongside one another in an independent but decidedly congregate fashion.

When one bird flies to a new stalking ground, its two cohorts spread their wings and follow. I've watched this happen over and over.

The lake I live by covers about 12 acres. There's plenty of room for these three predators to pursue their prey in separate areas, but they choose not to. Instead, they gather in one tightly clustered space until one of the threesome decides it's time to find new hunting grounds.

I wonder about this as I go for my morning rows. As I'm paddling, I watch the trio shift from one area of weedy shoreline to another. No one bird seems to dominate. There's no obvious leader and yet, there's a bond -- some mysterious bond -- that connects these three feeders one to the other.

Usually a great blue heron is fishing at the same time and, on occasion, a great egret will stop by to pursue a meal. But these larger birds seem to be loners. They demonstrate no attraction to the three smaller birds in their search for food.

If my observations are any indication, the bigger blue heron and white egret seem to prefer hunting on their own.

Is this decision to congregate a size thing? A competition? Or does some less honorable emotion, such as greed, envy or jealousy, motivate the little blue heron, the tricolor heron and the common ibis to spend so many hours in close proximity to one another?

I'd like to think the answer to that question is none of the above.

Like their human counterparts, I imagine the three birds to be friends who frequent the same watering hole each day.

Putting their differences aside, they have chosen to focus instead on what they have in common -- a love of fresh fish and a desire for a safe place in which to hunt their prey.

Maybe the birds silently communicate while combing the shallow water for edible tidbits.

Perhaps their conversations, if they have them, revolve around the weather, the diminishing water level or the preponderance of people overpopulating their habitats.

Who knows if my imaginings are true or merely the anthropomorphic ramblings of a bemused mind?

What I do know for certain is that watching these three different birds coexist so harmoniously in the lake fills me with hope.

We humans are an intensely diverse group. We come in a seemingly endless array of sizes, shapes and colors. Our backgrounds are as varied as our preferences and needs.

Like the birds in my lake, some of us are more at ease at the water's edge while others prefer the high ground. There are those who plunge forward eagerly regardless of the water's depths and others who hold back, timid and shy.

Despite these disparities, we have much in common. We all need food and a safe place to hunt for the things that matter.

If only people could put aside our differences and stand side by side in compatible silence with those who look different from us. If only we would learn to follow our separate paths while being respectful of others seeking different truths.

A lake is not the universe at large but a microcosm of the bigger picture.

Observing the birds that frequent the aquatic world outside my front door gives reason for pause. I can't help but wonder -- if birds of such different feathers can find a reason to flock together, maybe someday people will too.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Ignore old guilt, pick up a book and read

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 23, 2007)

Guilt is a nasty emotion. It's a draining, limiting, self-deprecating waster of time, and everyone knows time is too precious to waste.

I wonder then, why do I squander so much time feeling guilty for things I have no reason to feel guilty about?

Like reading.

There are few pastimes I enjoy more than sitting down with a good book. Reading ranks high on my Favorite Things To Do list, jockeying for position with writing, rowing, cuddling and spending time with my family.

It doesn't matter if it's fiction or nonfiction, classic or chick lit, biography, mystery, short story, poetry or historical novel -- give me a book that catches my attention and I am cheerfully hooked.

But when I sit down during daylight hours to indulge in this literary passion, my conscience -- guilt's eager emissary -- fills my head with chatter before the first page is turned.

"Should you really be spending your time on such a solitary, self-indulgent activity when there's so much else to be done?" it questions. "Rather than indulge in a book, shouldn't you occupy yourself with something more productive and useful?"

Evil taskmaster that it is, the persistent voice inside my head reminds me of dishes still in the sink, weeds waiting to be pulled and laundry to be put away. It even taunts me with images of "little extras" I could do with that time instead of reading. "Use those minutes productively to benefit others," it suggests. I could bake a pie for dinner, pen a handwritten letter to a friend or help my husband in the nursery.

"Instead, what are you doing?" my inner voice insists. "Sitting inside on a perfectly lovely day, feet propped on an ottoman, a steamy cup of tea on the end table and a book in your lap. You should be ashamed of yourself."

Or should I?

Is reading really a nonproductive, useless activity?

I don't think so.

Every book I've ever read has added to my personal storehouse of knowledge and experience.

Reading broadens horizons, opens the door to creative thinking and introduces us to new concepts, diverse perspectives and unexpected ideas. It allows us to entertain fantasies, explore options and exercise reason.

Through the printed word, we learn to compare and contrast different points of view, travel to faraway places, reach back in time or jump ahead to the future. Reading is as much a gateway to understanding as it is passive entertainment.

When I read, I reap rewards immeasurable.

Tell that to my conscience.

For some unfathomed reason, my conscience thinks reading is only justifiable at specific times or for a specific reason. For instance, according to some unwritten moral code, my conscience thinks it's OK to open a book at night before going to sleep or during those rare occasions when I'm home sick and unable to do little else but pick up a book or watch TV.

If I'm waiting in line or stuck somewhere with nothing else to do, it is deemed not only sensible but also an efficient use of time to have something to read.

And as a reward for work well done, reading tops the list.

Example: I've just completed a writing assignment, the house is clean, dinner is in the oven and I've helped several customers at the nursery today.

"Good work, Sherry!" my conscience applauds. "Now you can read."

No! That's not how it should work.

I want to be able to read anytime I feel like it without enduring pangs of guilt. I don't want my reading time relegated to reward-only moments or a pre-sleep activity when my eyes are too weary to finish more than a chapter.

I want to be able to say, "Shoo! Leave me alone!" to that nagging voice inside my head when it tells me to put down my book and pick up a sponge. I want to be able to prioritize reading and remain firm in my stance.

Do other people have this problem? Has our society's Puritan work ethic forced many of us to think fun can only happen after all the work is done? If so, perhaps it's time for some mental reorganization.

I'm not campaigning to diminish accomplishments, just to reshuffle them. Setting goals and making lists are important parts of my daily life, but I feel just as strong about downtime. Playfulness is an essential element of healthy living that we adults all too often disregard. Somehow we've allowed ourselves to believe we don't deserve to feel good, to have fun, to relax until after "all the important stuff" is completed.

Well, what's with that? Fun is important too. It has just as much right to happen before the toilet gets scrubbed as after.

In addition to being mentally stimulating, reading is a playful, relaxing, rejuvenating and fun activity. It's a stress-buster, pure and simple.

So, here's my plan -- next time I sit down in the middle of the day with a good book and my inner voice begins to chatter, I resolve to ignore its annoying rants and needling missives. I shall concentrate instead on the pages before me.

Hello, book. Good-bye, guilt. End of story.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Just breaking bread with longtime hero is fulfilling

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 16, 2007)

Each of us has someone - if we're lucky, several someones -- we look up to.

It could be a personal hero or role model -- a person who, by his or her own example, has been as an inspiration, a driving force in our life. Our relationship to them may be very personal. They could be parent, teacher or close friend.

For others, there may be no relationship at all. A hero could be a historical figure, a distant relative, a modern-day celebrity or a fictional character from a book.

Whoever they are -- real or imaginary, from the past or the present --something about the way they live their lives has touched us in a way no one else can.

This summer I was in close proximity to one of my personal heroes, Pete Seeger.

A folksinging legend of world renown, Seeger's persona is as closely interwoven with social, environmental, political and labor concerns as it is to his music.

In mid-June, my husband, daughter and I traveled to Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.,to attend the Clearwater Festival, a celebration Seeger initiated more than 30years ago to raise public awareness about the sorry state of the Hudson River.

In the 1960s, the Hudson was a mess. Ripe with raw sewage, toxic chemicals and garbage, the river was unfit for human use. Dead fish littered its shores.

Seeger, who lives with his wife, Toshi, in a riverside town, was determined to make a difference. In 1966, he joined forces with a small group of friends and neighbors to build the Clearwater, a replica of a 19th century cargo boat that once traveled the river. It was Seeger's hope that the beautiful wooden sloop would attract attention and help raise community awareness of the Hudson's problems.

It did. Today treated water from the river is drinkable and fish once again swim in its depths.

Much of the river's recovery is attributed to the efforts of Seeger and a dedicated team of supporters. A few years after the Clearwater was built,Seeger launched a music festival on the shores of the Hudson to further the cause. This year's festival drew more than 15,000 people who came to enjoy song, dance and a wide range of educational programs.

Some, like me, came to get an up-close view of the man behind the movement.

At 88, Pete Seeger, is as much the beacon of hope and inspiration today as he was in his earlier years. Although his voice is weaker than it was 30 years ago, that hasn't stopped him from singing. He still goes onstage to share songs with the audience, encouraging them, as always, to sing along "in harmony."

During the festival, when he wasn't performing, Seeger mixed with the crowd, cordially chatting and shaking hands with those who approached him and standing in line alongside festival volunteers at the meal tent.

I got my moment on Saturday afternoon when Ralph and I found ourselves unexpectedly seated next to Seeger and his wife for our midday repast. I was literally rubbing elbows with my hero.

It's an odd feeling to suddenly be physically close to a stranger who has been so important in your life. Ralph encouraged me to take advantage of the moment.

"Tell him how much he means to you," he urged.

But I was suddenly struck shy.

I didn't need to talk to Seeger to feel fulfilled. It was enough simply being in his presence. By watching him do everyday things like eating a meal and chatting with his wife, I felt as if I had already gained a small insight into the man behind the legend.

Seeger was just a person, a regular person, eating lunch. No different than you or me, yet so much more.

Through his music and longstanding mission to live harmoniously with nature and all of humankind, Seeger has influenced many. Songs such as "If I Had a Hammer," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" and "Little Boxes" have become apart of our cultural heritage.

His tune "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" found its way into dictionaries as a slang reference to the Vietnam War while, to this day, oppressed people around the world sing the hauntingly beautiful "We Shall Overcome."

Despite his age, Seeger has a voice that continues to resonate with passionate concern for the environment, the Earth and all creatures that live on it. There is something about the simple lyrics he sings with such gentle strength of conviction that never fails to move me. I find his relentless optimism inspirational. His steady faith in the essential goodness of people always lifts my spirit when daily events do their best to bring it down.

All too often, we wait until people die to sing their praises.

I don't want to do that with this man who has meant more to me than any stranger I know. Though I was too shy at the Clearwater Festival to tell him so, I had much to say.

So here's to you, Pete Seeger: Thank you for showing me how one person can make a difference. It's a lesson I live daily and believe in wholeheartedly. I remain ever grateful for having learned how something as simple as a song can change the way people seethe world and for realizing, by your example, that harmony is not just a way of singing. It's a way of living.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

With crisis past, it's time to get back to the water


(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 9, 2007 )

I haven't been out on the lake in my boat for more than a week, and I miss it.

Sometimes life gets in the way. When patterns get broken, it's often hard to restart them.

Things come up -- serious issues that take precedence over seemingly less urgent tasks and rituals. Too easily, the truly important matters take a backseat to the moment's crisis.

I miss the lake and my morning rows through still water. I miss watching the mist rise as the sky brightens and watching the birds hunt for food at the water's edge. The turtles that surface alongside me have always been as much a part of my joy as the changing skyscape.

Beautiful views wherever I look -- upward, downward and to every side.

My morning rows enable me to start the day with calmness and pleasure. Time spent alone surrounded by so many natural wonders yields a lightheartedness and ease that linger for hours. For me, rowing has always been a mood-enhancer and confidence-builder. It's a sure shot in my arsenal of weapons for whole body-mind health.

I don't know why I haven't started again. The crisis that caused me to put those much-loved patterns on pause has abated. There is no longer an excuse keeping me inside during those mystical post-dawn hours. Still, I resist jumpstarting the routine. Why is that?

Why deny myself something I so obviously crave and enjoy?

Maybe because it is so much desired. In bygone days, I found it difficult to accept pleasure. Sure, I could dish it out, but allowing myself to receive delight was a whole other matter. A dedicated giver, I was the first to offer a soothing touch, a kind word or a helping hand. But accepting pleasure was untested territory.

"Me . . . worthy of excessive goodness? Goodness, no."

That's how it used to be. Fortunately, I worked through that silly stage and came to appreciate not only my worth, but also my value. I recognized and came to believe that I deserved to feel good as much as the next person.

"Accept pleasure" became my mantra. I even went so far as to post those words as hand-lettered affirmations in places where I was sure to see them. I remember placing one placard right by the kitchen sink during the period when my three oldest children were toddlers. Back then (did I mention this was ancient history?) the dishwashing arena was the center of my domain. If a sign was to be noticed, no real estate was more suitable than the sink backsplash.

Although I eventually outgrew the need for constant visual reminders, I occasionally slip back into old patterns. I forget the importance of pleasure-yielding activities such as taking a walk or working in the garden. Sometimes, the very things that make me feel most fulfilled are the ones I have the most difficulty initiating.

Like going for a row.

My rowboat has been so long unused that water from the few brief downpours we've had has formed a stagnant puddle in the boat's bottom. Before I can push off from shore, it will need to be tipped over and emptied out.

Similarly, my mental state has filled up with stagnating thoughts. Anger, hurt and hard feelings have settled like scum upon my mental floor. They need to be poured out, my thoughts washed clean and refreshed.

When a boat is launched, it's called "casting off."

I can't think of a more appropriate term for what I need to do. The time is ripe for some casting off to happen on these home shores. I'm eager to return to rituals that gave me peace and cast off unwanted feelings of worry and fear.

A new dawn is breaking. I'm eager to welcome it again with the steady beat of two oars being drawn through still water.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Prolific wildflower has beauty of cosmos


(First appeared in the Sentinel September 2, 2007)

What is it about wildflowers that makes them so alluring?

Is it their hardiness and tenacity, their practicality or unpretentiousness? Whatever it is, these dwellers of roadside ditches, sidewalk cracks and untamed fields are special.

Wildflowers are take-charge plants with a perpetually positive can-do attitude. No half-heartedness for these bright bloomers. Wildflowers are nothing if not willful. They have one job to do and they do it with passion -- self-propagate.

About 20 years ago I drove by a yard flush with orange-hued flowers. My reaction was immediate and intense: I wanted some.

Not only was I awe-struck by the beauty of these bright-faced bloomers, but I also was bowled over by the informality of the floral-strewn lawn. The yard had a casual, no-fuss look -- the exact effect I was seeking for my own landscape.

Unable to rein in my enthusiasm, I knocked at the homeowner's door to proclaim my appreciation of and admiration for the yard. I was rewarded with smiles and a handful of seeds to take home and plant in my own fertile ground.

One thing about wildflowers, they are designed to survive.

The seeds of these particular plants look like thin brown spikes. Stiff and pointy and about half an inch long, they are perfectly suited for transportation by wind, water or the fur of a passing animal. But I made it effortless for these purveyors of future life to grow. I tossed the seeds onto rich organic soil and kept the ground moist.

Without any further encouragement, every seed I was given germinated.

Within days, multiple sprouts had emerged. Once begun, there was no stopping them -- not that I wanted to. Less than a month after being haphazardly sown, my yard yielded an eye-popping display of blossoms.

At the time, I had no idea what the flowers were called. The blooms looked similar to cosmos, but they were bright orange. Cosmos blossoms are typically white and shades of pink. Where cosmos leaves are lacy and delicate, these flowers' leaves were long with narrow lobes. The leaves, as well as the flower hue, bore more of a resemblance to marigolds, but the flower face didn't.

Responding with the witty inventiveness writers are famous for, I labeled them: orange flowers.

For years afterward, orange flowers dominated my (then) Kissimmee landscape.

Fast forward to 1992.

Our family moved to a location about an hour north of Kissimmee. Recalling my earlier germination success, I gathered a bucket of orange-flower seeds and took them with me.

With the exception of a few trees, our new property's landscape was barren. Years of citrus farming and mining for peat by previous landowners had left the ground devoid of most nutrients. Eager to correct the situation, we began an aggressive campaign of soil augmentation. As a result of our ambitious efforts, we had lovely pockets of humus, soil rich enough to support a variety of large and small plants.

It took many years to fully enhance the soil. During much of that time, I was too busy rearing children and working or too tired from rearing children and working to do much gardening.

The bucket of seeds I had saved from our Kissimmee garden sat on top of the spare refrigerator in the garage for years. Many years. By the time I finally got around to sowing them, the seeds were no longer viable. Not a single one sprouted.

Even wildflowers have their limitations.

It wasn't until this year that my son Timothy reintroduced orange flowers into the landscape. During the 20 years since I first discovered them, my favorite wildflower had become domesticated. Timmy found the plants not by a roadside or in someone's flowerbed, but at a garden center. They were even labeled with an official moniker: Cosmos sulphureus.

Thanks to Timmy, my garden is once again flush with flowers. Placed in combination with purple Mexican petunias (Ruellia brittoniana), my orange cosmos make eye-catching maintenance-free foundation plantings.

As they did in Kissimmee, these vigorous bloomers thrive on neglect. They grow. They flower. They self-seed. The cycle is repeated with or without human intervention. Of course, with a little extra attention -- mulching with grass clippings, the addition of compost to the soil and the occasional deadheading of spent blossoms -- they do even better.

Sometimes it takes a bit of absence to appreciate something special. My garden was without orange flowers for 16 years, long enough for me to truly treasure their reappearance.

Now that they're back, I don't ever want to be without them again. Considering the powerful urge of wildflowers to self-propagate, I doubt if that will happen. I hope these willful wonders will be an essential element of my landscape for many years to come.