Sunday, February 18, 2007

Music in your ears can change your life


By Sherry Boas

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel February 18, 2007

I’m a slow learner when it comes to technology. My usual pattern is to resist change until I eventually give in to whatever new device has captivated the country’s collective mentality.

My husband is different. Ralph comes from a long line of gadget-lovers. Especially when it comes to music. So, in the early 90s when Steve Jobs introduced the world to Apple’s iPod, my music-loving husband was among the first to step aboard the digital bandwagon.

Back then, an iPod cost $399, was about the size of a pack of cigarettes and just about as addictive. Ralph was quickly hooked on his magic 6.5-ounce music machine.

“It’s changed my life,” he repeated so often I considered it his mantra.

Late into evenings, holed up in his office, I’d find him cataloging old LPs, reel-to-reel recordings, cassette tapes and CDs. He transferred them into digital format, learned how to use music editing programs and downloaded songs he didn’t have off the Internet. The result of these nocturnal endeavors was a bulging computer anthology of our family’s favorite tunes, carefully arranged by my organized soul mate into files, folders and playlists.

Ralph was soon able to put on headphones, plug in his iPod and go outside to work, exercise or do chores accompanied by an endless stream of his favorite songs. Hours of what used to be mundane activity suddenly flew by to a melodious montage of old folk music, show tunes and soulful serenades by French pop artists of a bygone era.

I listened half-heartedly to my husband’s gushes of approval as Apple developed new and improved products. Yet, I remained constant, certain – despite his efforts to persuade me otherwise - that no iPod was in my future.

Wrong. It took 11 years but, eventually, I too joined the digital music generation.

Last year, when I finally bought an MP3 player, I didn’t purchase an iPod but selected one that offered an FM feature, important for my daily fix of NPR programs. Since then I’ve discovered, like Ralph did so many years ago, the simple pleasure a personalized playlist can bring to routine tasks.

Vacuuming is almost pleasurable when accompanied by sweet sounds wafting through my headphones. I exercise longer to the beat of music and enjoy the stimulation I get listening to downloaded podcasts when I’m traveling.

I especially appreciate an MP3 player’s virtues in the car since having one makes me a safer driver. Since my Zen player – an MP3 player produced by a company called Creative - contains hundreds of tunes, I no longer have to switch CDs. That means it has eliminated the need to divide my attention between driving and fumbling around in the CD stash in search of decent disc to pop in the player.

And while I have no desire to completely replace birdsongs with love songs, I can now enjoy the option of covering my ears with headphones and listening to a little music when I go for a walk.

Unlike my husband, I can’t say having an MP3 player has changed my life. But it has made certain tasks more enjoyable and less tedious.

Apparently, there’s a large group of people who agree. The other day I was driving along Plant Street, parallel to the West Orange Bike Trail in Winter Garden. Although it’s purely an estimate, I’d guess that 75% of the people I passed were plugged into some sort of listening device.

An argument could be made that MP3 players distract people from the natural surroundings but I wonder how many of those folk wouldn’t be outside at all if not for their digital sound systems.

And who knows, maybe a few are even like my husband - chanting their own version of the iPod generation’s mantra: It’s changed my life.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

BYOB - Bring your own boxes to save oil, trees

By Sherry Boas
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel February 11, 2007)

The people who work in my local Publix probably know me as that odd person who answers “neither” when asked at the checkout if I prefer paper or plastic bags.

For the past couple years I’ve been doing my small part to help the environment by taking my groceries home in a box. Using a cardboard box to tote groceries is such a sensible choice; I don’t understand why more people don’t do the same. Boxes are sturdy, durable, and easy to pack and unpack. In the store, the right size box easily fits into a shopping cart and in my car it keeps my groceries from crushing or falling over as I drive.

I’ve been using the same two boxes for at least six months and neither shows any signs of wear. Of course, opting for boxes versus plastic or paper bags caused me to become something of a box connoisseur. Whenever I pass a stack of cardboard containers, my eyes always scan them for size, shape and durability.

My favorite choice for those quick trips to just pick up a few items is a recycled tomato box. If you ask the folks at your local vegetable stand, they’re usually glad to give away empty boxes – after all, it saves the store owner from having to break the boxes down and pay the trash people to take them away.

A tomato box is approximately 11 inches wide by 15 inches long and 9 inches deep with built-in handles on the two short sides. Empty it weighs about 8 ounces and is light enough – even when packed with bottles, cans and produce – for a person of small stature to carry with ease.

For longer shopping forays, the cardboard container I like best is a retired banana box. Though banana boxes are bigger than tomato cartons, they also have handles built into their sides for ease of lifting. A banana box fits neatly into a shopping cart enabling me, as I tool around the store, to stack my groceries right into the box. Although heavier to carry when full, a banana box can still be lifted out of the cart when it’s time to head home, especially if you take advantage of the bagging person’s offer of help.

Stored in a car’s trunk or, as I do, in the back of my van, a box takes up little space. Even when a stop at the supermarket is not on my to-do list, having the boxes in the van comes in handy to keep all the items I’m always carrying – library books, snacks, a clipboard, etc. – from scattering all over the floor during trips around town.

One day I brought my box into Publix, did my shopping and proceeded to the checkout counter where a new cashier, who happened to be a native of Ireland, helped me.

“This is the way it’s done in Ireland,” she said after realizing I’d brought along my own tote. “Where I’m from, everyone brings their own bags to the store.”

In 2002, the Irish government introduced a levy called PlasTax. After the tax was installed, each consumer buying items at retail stores was taxed 15 cents for each bag they used. Of course, shoppers where free to bring their own bags with them and not pay the tax and that’s what the majority of shoppers did. In the first year alone, the BBC news reported that public consumption of plastic bags decreased by 90 percent.

Convert that to energy and it means a yearly savings of approximately 430,000 barrels of oil and thousands of pounds less greenhouse gas emitted into the atmosphere simply by switching from plastic bags to alternative methods of toting home groceries. If American shoppers, who use more than 50 times the amount of plastic bags than Irish shoppers do, were to adopt similar changes, we could save at least 300 million barrels of oil per year. Imagine what an impact that could make in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

We’d also be saving wildlife. According to Sierra Club research, hundreds of thousands of sea turtles, dolphins and whales die each year when they mistake plastic bags for food. The same thing happens to cows, goats and other foraging land animals. Finding alternatives becomes even more important when you consider that according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, plastic bags can take up to 1,000 years to break down.

If you think paper is a better option, think again. It takes four times the energy to manufacture paper bags than it does plastic. In 1999, the American Forest and Paper Association reported that Americans used 10 billion paper grocery bags. To produce that many sacks, 14 million trees had to be cut down.

Ireland is not the only country solving problems caused by paper and plastic grocery bag usage. Single-use plastic bags are banned in Taiwan, Bangladesh, Kenya, and in parts of India and Hong Kong. Denmark combats the problem by taxing the retailer instead of the consumer and, several other countries, including the UK, Scotland, South Africa, Switzerland, Vietnam, Australia and China already have, or are in the process of initiating a similar tax on plastic shopping bag usage.

I didn’t know these facts when I started using a box instead of bags. I simply liked the ease a box provided and appreciated not having so many plastic bags to deal with at home. I may be that odd person at the checkout lane carrying her groceries in a cardboard box, but I’m also the one walking to my car with a smile on my face knowing that the little thing I’m doing is making a difference to the world in a mighty big way.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Back Roads Turn Up Delightful Surprises

By Sherry Boas
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel February 4, 2007)

I love back roads. Given enough time to get from Point A to Point B, I’ll always opt for the least direct route. I do it because no matter what unfamiliar two-lane road I select, I inevitably see something memorable.

That’s what happened the other day when an appointment took me to Apopka. Before leaving my house, I did the obligatory search on Google Maps for directions, consulted my Orlando-area road atlas and filed away mental notes of my destination’s general location. Allowing myself a good half-hour extra time to account for errors, I set off for my appointment.

It was a great trip. Rather than take the 429, a far more direct passage, I meandered through downtown Winter Garden, eventually following side roads paralleling the highway. When I turned onto S.Binion Road, my eyes swept the landscape, taking in the large agricultural operations covering expansive sections of this still rural area. Unexpectedly, about halfway between Winter Garden to the south and Apopka to the north, I came across a park spanning both the left and right sides of the road. Since the hour for my appointment was imminent, I passed the park by, promising myself to stop in on my return route.

About two hours later that’s just what I did. The sign out front said Magnolia Park, Orange County Parks & Recreation and although it was a little after noon on a weekday, the 56-acre lakeside park was relatively quiet. I noticed a couple of cars parked on gravel-covered parking lots but didn’t see a single person walking about. As I traveled slowly along the paved road that looped through the well-manicured landscape, I noted various picnic spots and play areas – a basketball court here, children’s playground there, a sand volleyball area, dog walk and even a rollerblading trail. But it wasn’t until I rounded the bend on my way toward the exit that I struck gold.

There sitting in front of the sign stating Magnolia Park Campground – Registered Guests Only - was not one but three huge peacocks. Peacocks, in a park? And are they registered? I don’t think I’ve ever seen peacocks before in any of the parks I’ve explored in Florida and I’ve been to quite a few.

I wasted no time parking my car and getting out. I was eager to get a close-up view of these large and beautiful birds. It didn’t take long to realize there weren’t just three peacocks settled contented by the campground area, but 10 male and female birds perched on fence rails, pecking in the dirt for seeds or bugs, resting in the shade and looking far less surprised to see me than I was to see them.

A quick trip over to the park office answered several of my questions. According to staffer Mike Dudley (cq), who has 20 years experience with the Orange County park system, the peafowl – males are called peacocks, female are peahens - took up residence at Magnolia Park eight years ago.

“Someone dropped them off,” he said. “They were imported from India and I guess someone didn’t want them anymore so they brought them here and they’ve been here ever since.”

Although lovely to look at with their beautiful iridescent blue-green plumage and the male bird’s tufted crest, peafowl are actually nuisance birds, at least according to Dudley.

“They’re messy and they’re noisy,” he said.

While the birds were silent during my short visit, Dudley is right about their noisiness. After listening to a recording of a peacock’s call on Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s online library of sound and video clips (, I totally understand why some consider their sounds to be more shriek than sweet birdsong. (cq - website)

Despite their screeching vocalizations, I found the magnificent birds at Magnolia Park to be an unexpected delight. They reinforced my belief that beauty and wonder can be found in the least likely places and that sometimes the back road is the most direct route to pleasure and surprise.