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.