Monday, December 29, 2008

Simply Living: Turtle encounter raises questions

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 29, 2008)

We saw her at the same time. My son Toby was downstairs, looking out. I was upstairs, looking down. A turtle was laying eggs about 20 feet away from the house. We rushed outside together into the waning daylight.

"That's amazing," I said, inching closer to snap a picture. "I don't think I've ever seen a turtle laying eggs before."

Before we arrived on the scene, the hard-shelled reptile had crawled out of the lake and made her way up the rough ground toward a grove of bamboo. Before she got to the thicket of tall canes, she must have found a piece of ground she liked and began the process of reproduction. By the time Toby and I arrived, 14 eggs about the size and shape of slightly elongated pingpong balls lay on the ground around the turtle.

I wondered aloud, "I thought turtles lay their eggs in holes. Why isn't she digging a hole?"

The turtle, oblivious to the presence of two curious observers, had made a meager attempt at nest building. A small patch of grass was scratched away to reveal bare soil, but the scratch marks were just that: claw marks in the dirt. The indentation was hardly what one would consider a hole of egg-holding proportions. The turtle, apparently unperturbed by this obvious glitch in the evolutionary process, had proceeded to lay her eggs.

"Do you think we should do anything?" I asked Toby. "Maybe we should at least cover the eggs with dirt when she's done."

My 16-year-old son was adamant that we remain observers.

"We should let nature take its course," he insisted.

And so we did. After watching the turtle for a few more minutes and snapping about a dozen shots on my digital camera, it was getting dark. We left the turtle alone with her clutch of exposed eggs and returned to the house.

First thing next morning, I went back out.

As I expected, the eggs were all gone. Although a few remnants of shattered shells were scattered on the ground, one or more animals had obviously treated themselves to an easy meal.

"I should have at least covered them with a box," I lamented over breakfast.

My son again responded with analytic neutrality.

"No, you shouldn't have. The turtle laid her eggs and other animals ate them. That's what happens. It's the cycle of life."

Quite the mature statement from my almost-adult child.

Although I accepted Toby's pronouncement and went about my day, something about the turtle episode continued to nag at me. Why didn't the turtle make a better attempt to cover up the eggs she laid, and more importantly, why did she choose this time of year to lay eggs in the first place? The end of December seems like an inauspicious time of year to produce offspring. To find answers, I pulled some reference books from my library and went online. The books and online information helped me identify the turtle as a Florida red-belly, Pseudemys nelson, but they left my other questions unresolved. Still eager for answers, I called Peter Pritchard, preeminent turtle researcher and former Time magazine "Hero of the Planet."

After describing the reptile Toby and I observed, I asked the Oviedo resident and founder of the private Chelonian Research Institute if it was normal for a red-belly to lay eggs in the winter.

"I'm not sure why it was trying to nest now," the zoologist said. "The Peninsula cooter and the chicken turtle are only two winter nesters. Red-bellies usually lay their eggs in the warm months."

"What about the eggs?" I asked. "Is it normal for a turtle to leave eggs on the ground instead of digging a hole and burying them?"

Again, he answered no.

"Something must have messed up," he said.

Florida red-bellies normally lay their eggs in a hole about 6 inches deep. Sometimes they use old alligator nests or decaying vegetation. What they don't normally do is leave their eggs unprotected on open ground.

I then asked Pritchard the question that had been bothering me most.

"Do you think I should have tried to bury the eggs instead of just letting nature take its course?"

His reply took me by surprise.

"If it were an intact world, we could let nature take its course, but there are so many interruptions to offset the balance. If you had dug a hole and buried the eggs, they would most likely have hatched."

I felt terrible. A bit of effort on my part might have saved the lives of 14 turtles. It also may have prevented predators from discovering the eggs.

"If you had picked up the eggs to put them in the hole, your human scent would have replaced the turtle scent and deterred raccoons and other predators," the scientist explained.

So much for the notion of letting nature take its course.

If I ever come across another turtle laying eggs without first digging a hole, I'll take Pritchard's advice and lend a hand. But, as Toby reminds me, by doing that, I'll prevent another animal from having a meal.

Finding our place in nature is no easy task. Sometimes you just have to follow your heart.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Transitions and Trees

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 22, 2008)

If you had told me in 1992 that one day I would be aggressively selecting trees on our property to prune or cut down, I'd have thought you were crazy.

When we moved here nearly 17 years ago, trees were a rare and precious commodity. On the entire 50 acres, we had only a small thicket of scraggly willows, a handful of mature pines, two large oaks and a scattered assortment of oak seedlings.

We weren't accustomed to a treeless landscape. Before living in Florida, our home was on 5 wooded acres in Cape Cod, Mass. Before we could build a house on that property, we had to carve a homestead out of a dense forest of locust and oak trees covered by a snarly web of bull briar, poison ivy and wild grape vines.

Hand by vine-scratched hand, we cleared a home site. Living in the woods made us feel sheltered and secure. Our new property in Florida, although filled with promise and raw beauty, left us feeling vulnerable and oddly exposed.

To remedy the situation, one of our first priorities was to do massive plantings. Looking back on our efforts, I find it amazing how much work we did. All I can say is that we were young, a bit foolish and full of gusto.

We began by mounding earth around the property perimeter to create an immediate buffer zone. On top of those berms, we installed dozens of transplanted hedge bamboo divisions.

Unfortunately -- here's where the young and a bit foolish part comes in -- we neglected to irrigate the transplants or enrich the soil. One by one, we watched the divisions succumb to the heat and poor soil.

As we quickly learned, even hardy plants such as bamboo need at least a little TLC to survive. Only a couple dozen of the original plants made it through that rough beginning.

Our next major undertaking was the planting of pines -- we hand-planted 4,000 seedlings. Although slash and sand pines can tolerate unirrigated, poor soil, they can't overcome improper planting techniques. Unfortunately, that's what Ralph and I provided. I don't know how many of those tiny trees survived, but it wasn't many.

Once we realized all our hard work had resulted in yet another failure, we hired a professional to come in with the proper equipment to do a follow-up planting. At last, a wise decision. Almost all of the 11,000 trees in the second planting survived. Today they blanket the ground with a dense carpet of pine needles.

Through the years, we never stopped planting. I can't begin to tally the number of bamboos we added to the landscape -- they have to be in the thousands. Open groves of running bamboos and thick clusters of clumping varieties have provided us with privacy and beauty.

The pine trees we planted have sown generations of babies, while the once waist-high oaks grew into towering monsters. If I hadn't seen it happen, I would never believe the thick-trunked trees that cover the property are less than 20 years old. They look like 100-year-old behemoths.

Those oaks have been the main target of our recent culling activity. Branches were infringing on the driveway, getting too close to the house and shading out other plants that we wanted to grow. The most sensible solution was a chain saw. Let the games begin.

On the first day of cutting, my husband asked, "Which trees should we trim?"

With the merits of pre-emptive culling in mind, my reply was decisive, "Take that one out entirely and trim the side limbs on this other oak before they grow any bigger."

He looked at me with surprise, wondering what had become of his tree-coddling wife.

I'm not a ruthless person, but I've come to appreciate the virtues of careful pruning and selective culling. It's amazing how much a physical landscape can change in a relatively short time. Mental landscapes too.

Although I still value their assets, I no longer see trees as permanent fixtures. I try to view them instead as renewable resources. For certain plants to grow, others must go. It is immensely reassuring to know nothing goes to waste. Culled trees become brush piles that shelter small animals, eventually decomposing into rich dirt that supports new growth.

I never thought I would see the day when we'd be thinning out a forest. It took us 17 years to make it full circle, but eventually that is what happened. From Cape Cod woods to Florida fields, barren sand turned into a leafy landscape in the blink of an eye. With the exception of children, there are few things better than trees to measure the passage of time.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Good old spider plants -- they just can't help but thrive

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 15, 2008)

If you're an indoor gardener you probably have a spider plant, and if you have one spider plant, you probably have others - many others.

Not only is Chlorophytum comosum one of the easiest houseplants to grow, this South African native also is a prolific producer. As the potted plant matures and root space decreases, spider plants compensate by producing babies.

The offspring - known as plantlets - develop at the end of slender long stalks. All it takes is a pair of scissors and flowerpots filled with potting soil to create an explosion of young, verdant plants to give away to friends or disperse around your house.

But why restrict this grass-like perennial to ceramic containers and hanging baskets? Spider plants adapt to exterior landscapes with effortless ease. Shady spot, sunny spot, dry soil or damp - Chlorophytum comosum can handle them all.

An amazing ground cover - it even flowers. At the end of the long arching stems, small white blooms present a pleasant contrast with the green or variegated white/ green foliage.

If you're looking for an "ignoreme- and-I'll-still-thrive" plant to surround a tree or fill a flower bed, spider plants are one way to go.

I saw my first outdoor display of this common houseplant 22 years ago when I lived in Kissimmee. One day while biking by a neighbor's house I realized the plants forming a tidy mass alongside the house's main entry were the same type of greenery that once graced my college dorm room.

"Are those spider plants?" I asked incredulously. Her affirmative reply got me thinking. A couple decades later, I find my own home edged by the same plants I once admired.

Of the 200-some species in the genus Chlorophytum, only a few are commonly cultivated by home gardeners. In my yard, a wild variety with solid green leaves competes for space with the more familiar green and white spider known as "variegatum."

In the landscape, spider plants require even less attention than their houseplant counterparts. I believe all plants deserve the best start possible, so mine began their outdoor life in soil enriched by compost and peat applications. Although an irrigation system is in place, not all the spider plants are covered by the sprinklers. But lack of water is not enough to deter the life force in these hardy evergreens. Those not getting regular soakings still reproduce, sending multiple plantlets out into the world to set down their own roots and continue the cycle. The most frequent maintenance my outside spider plants require is a periodic pruning with a sharp pair of snippers.

That used to be a task I didn't enjoy. Not because it was difficult, but because it made me feel bad. Each time I pruned, dozens of young plants were whacked to pieces. I felt like a killer with a carbon steel blade. I wanted to save them all; to root up the plantlets and find each a new home. But how many spider plants can one use? Inside or outside, eventually you reach a point where enough is enough.

I reached that point a few months back. Despite being severed from their botanical umbilical cords, the plants, I realized, still fulfilled a useful purpose. They wouldn't grow up to become more ground covers, but they would decompose in the compost pile and turn into rich soil. Last week it was time once again to take out the hedge clippers. My walkway had all but disappeared beneath a web of spidery plants. With aggressive strokes, I hacked back the prolific growth infringing on the pathways. I'm pleased to report that the end result was surprisingly satisfying.

If you're looking for a low-work houseplant that doubles as a ground cover, Chlorophytum comosum is the way to go. In a world already crowded with people and buildings, adding a bit more greenery to house or yard - even greenery that has to be hacked back occasionally - is a worthwhile thing to do.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Some treats take drudgery out of endless errands

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 8, 2008)

I'm not a big fan of shopping, but that doesn't mean I don't shop.

Several times a week, I drive into town to do errands. Sometimes, it's as if I'm constantly running in and out of stores, buying this, returning that and, in the process, checking items off a seemingly endless to-do list.

Chores aren't fun, but someone has to do them.

All partnerships have their divisions of labor. In our marriage, my husband handles the finances and is the official "fixer." No matter what breaks -- and, as any homeowner knows, there is always something needing repair -- he can make it better. He's a regular MacGyver that way.

My part of the deal is to be in charge of most household chores, do the shopping and prepare the majority of meals. I'm also the delegated "go-fer." Ralph has about as much desire to leave home as a turtle has to abandon its shell, but that doesn't prevent him from needing things in town. Often, he requires hardware for one of the many construction projects that are a constant in our marriage.

"Would you pick up a couple 1-inch slip-by-slip CPVC couplings when you're in town?" he might ask. Or he may say, "Get me a box of 3/4-inch galvanized screws and, while you're there, pick up another pressure switch in case the pump goes out again."

My competence in construction hasn't improved much in three-plus decades, but those errands to Home Depot, Lowe's and Ace Hardware have vastly improved my knowledge of the plumbing, electrical and carpentry lexicon.

Other stops usually include the bank, a postal store, the grocery and produce market, a gas station, library, thrift shops and a run into one or another of the big-box stores for assorted sundries. I leave home with a checklist and, determined to make the best use of my limited time, dutifully map out the most efficient route.

While most errands fill needs, two of my regular stops are purely for pleasure. Going to the library and popping into one of several thrift shops are rewards I give myself for performing the more perfunctory tasks. I believe jobs well done should warrant compensation -- but not necessarily the monetary kind.

I'm not one to want new shoes, expensive jewelry or fancy gadgets. The mere suggestion of going to a mall is enough to make me want to crawl away and hide. I find fun browsing the library stacks for this week's perfect read or trolling through the musty aisles at secondhand stores for that special bargain. Thrift shops stock an eclectic mix offering endless possibilities.

Part of the fun comes from not knowing what treasure may be sitting on a shelf when you happen to drop by. Yesterday I found a stained-glass light fixture for only $5. Of course, installing it will generate another project that will undoubtedly require another trip to the hardware store. The circle continues, but I can't complain.

I have one other way of rewarding myself for completing the chore of running errands. I take the slow road back home. It takes a few minutes longer but the scenic route allows me to relax and reflect -- something that's harder to do when driving on multilane highways.

Recently, I discovered a new incentive to make my "go-fer" outings even more enjoyable. While driving I listen to audio recordings of my favorite books. At 13 CDs per novel, it can take weeks to complete an unabridged book, but the anticipation only adds to the allure.

Life is full of pleasant and unpleasant duties. The trick is to find ways to make the best of those undesirable tasks. Thrift shops, libraries and slow rides home while listening to stories have helped turn my less-than-fun chores upside down. Who knew going to town with a long list of errands could actually be fun?

Monday, December 1, 2008

Mexican sunflowers prove beauty can emerge from blah origins

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 1, 2008)

The area above my kitchen sink smells wonderful. It's not from a new air freshener or dish soap. The delicious fragrance is due entirely to a large bouquet of Mexican sunflowers that my daughter, Amber, picked the other day.

What a cheery gift that was. The gold-hued daisylike flowers give off a sweet aroma that smells mildly of honey. It's an outdoorsy odor evoking images of garden benches, long walks in the woods and strolls along country roads.

I took from Amber her handful of happiness and placed it in a large green vase on the counter where, whenever I clean up the kitchen and wash dishes, I can inhale a bit of nature. Sweet smells to ease the drudgery of housework.

Mexican sunflower, also known as Tithonia diversifolia, is a gangly plant that grows as broad as it grows tall. The three near my son's garden are approximately 10 feet tall and equally as wide with dozens of yellow blooms in various stages of maturity.

It's an undeniable space hog. Native to Mexico and Central America, this perennial bloomer looks and grows like a giant weed. To some people -- my husband included -- that's all it is.

"Do you really want to keep that plant?" he asked a few months ago when we were redesigning the area where Tithonia was growing. "What do you like about it?"

What's not to like? It's a "neglect-me-and-I'll-still-thrive" plant that blooms profusely. The flowers, which appear anytime from late summer through early December, are huge, measuring up to 5 inches across. Although it seems to take forever for the first buds to open, once they do the plant produces a steady display of eye-catching blooms that flower continually for at least a month.

Although they are supposedly bothered by snails and slugs, I've found these drought-tolerant plants to be undaunted by insect pests. With their giant blooms and pollen-filled stamens, Tithonia attracts far more beneficial bugs than pest problems. Bees and butterflies are constantly flitting from one bloom to another. The only care we give it is an annual addition of rich soil and heavy mulch.

"But it's ugly," my husband insists. "It's scrawny and sprawls all over the place."

He's not completely wrong. A non-blooming Tithonia won't win any beauty contests. But take the same plant in season -- when its marble-size buds are beginning to burst open -- and my, what a showstopper!

A Mexican sunflower in full bloom will knock you off your feet. Ralph's right that it takes up space, and the branches on this multistemmed perennial do have a propensity to bend down, take root and expand the plant's already broad profile. But that's a good thing, isn't it? Ease of propagation is an acknowledged horticultural asset.

I took advantage of that asset a few months ago when we were about to dig up the large Tithonia growing near our bananas. I had given in to my husband's request to replace the flowering bush with Angel Mist, one of our favorite clumping bamboos, but before we moved the sunflower, I decided to hedge my bets.

I clipped off about a dozen stems and stuck them in pots in case the transplanted Tithonia didn't make it. Wouldn't you know, the transplant took and the starts all survived.

Now, in addition to the relocated Tithonia -- which was literally dumped into a ditch and still managed to produce blooms -- our collection includes three large specimens my son planted last year and the 12 cuttings growing (overflowing) in the nursery.

The other day, Ralph pointed to the cuttings and asked, "Where do you want to plant them?"

"Well," I said as I pondered his question, "I want them to be someplace where I'll see them when they're blooming. Somewhere big enough to let them sprawl and far enough away that I won't mind how they look when they're not in bloom. Across the lake. That would be good."

And that's where they're going. Next week, the plan is to dig up a big area across from our house, fill the hole with organic matter and plant all 12 plants in one spot.

If successful, not only will I be able to enjoy the delightful sight and smell of a Mexican sunflower bouquet on the kitchen counter, I'll soon be soaking in the spectacle of hundreds of golden blooms reflected in the calm water of the lake.

Beauty is not an all-or-nothing deal. Sometimes, the prettiest flowers appear on the most gangly, rough-textured, common-looking stalks. The contrast between what you see and what you get is what makes the result so exciting -- a burst of beauty out of something so blah presents a plethora of breathtaking possibilities.

If Tithonia isn't a plant worth saving, I don't know what is.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Simply living: The ebb and flow of life on lake over the years

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 24, 2008)

Every night like clockwork, an osprey roosts on our lake. When I say "on" our lake, I mean that almost literally.

To explain, I have to go back seven years.

In 2001, Central Florida experienced the final year of what turned out to be a three-year drought. Water levels everywhere had dropped dramatically. Throughout the region, shorelines receded and sections of formerly submerged lake bottom were suddenly exposed.

The water shortage was particularly noticeable on our small lake, which was created when peat was mined from boggy areas years before we bought the property. Even in times of abundant rainfall, some areas of the lake are surprisingly shallow, while others are extremely deep.

During the 2001 drought, our family watched as an island of peat began to appear directly in front of our house about 100 feet off the shoreline. By that time water levels had dropped by about eight feet.

We knew the peat island existed because we had discovered it while swimming and boating. However, prior to 2001, the landmass was entirely submerged. During times of normal rainfall, my husband could swim out to the island, hold his breath, go underwater and stand on the peat. When he did, those of us watching would only see his fingertips stretched up above his head.

All that changed with the drought. Suddenly, large portions of the peat island were exposed. We weren't the only ones to notice the change. Otters, turtles and alligators discovered the island and a pair of sandhill cranes ultimately claimed it as their own. The cranes built a nest and proceeded to raise a family on the soggy strip of heavy, black earth.

Shortly after the crane baby grew up, rain began to fall. Water levels started to rise. The turtles and alligators found other places to bask in the sun, and the otters disappeared completely. Dry times were over. However, before everything reverted to how it once was, our oldest son pounded a tall bamboo pole into the peat island.

Seven years later, the bamboo pole remains. It marked the spot during high winds and hurricanes, through other droughts and times of abundant rainfall. These days, about a 5-foot length of the inch-diameter pole rises from the waterline. The cane must have caught the eye of a passing osprey because one day while I was cleaning up after dinner, I noticed the bird sitting upon it.

"There's an osprey on the bamboo pole in the middle of the lake," I yelled to my husband, Ralph, as I ran to get the binoculars.

Apparently, ospreys don't elicit the same degree of passion in all people. My husband reacted to my burst of wildlife-directed enthusiasm with a monosyllabic grunt.

"That's nice, dear," he seemed to say.

Fortunately, I had enough enthusiasm for us both. An osprey had chosen our lake to spend the night! How cool was that?

"Maybe he'll return," I reasoned. "And, if he likes it, maybe he'll stay and build a nest."

I've always hoped someday an osprey would discover our lake and build a nest here. Suddenly it seemed possible --even likely -- that would happen.

It did happen, sort of. Every day since, the osprey arrives at dusk to perch on the tip of the bamboo pole. Each morning at dawn, he flies off to places unknown. I love that an osprey has finally discovered our lake but wonder why he doesn't stay.

"I bet he would build a nest and stay if he had a platform," I mentioned to Ralph one day. "Could you build him a platform?"

Ralph could and he did. A few days later, I rowed my agreeable and capable husband out to the middle of the lake so he could pound a new pole into the peat island. This pole -- the same height and a few feet away from the other -- has a 9-square-foot wooden board mounted on its top. I could hardly wait to see what would happen next.

What happened was nothing. The osprey kept coming back but he has not, as far as I know, shown any interest whatsoever in Ralph's clever construction.

Was the experiment a failure? No. The osprey has yet to discover the platform's merits but another bird has. Each morning, shortly after the osprey leaves, a lesser blue heron flies in and lands on the plywood. Throughout the day, the heron stands there doing whatever lesser blue herons do when they're not out hunting for food.

I wish I could report that the osprey has built a nest and is raising a family in the middle of our lake, but that is not how it turned out -- at least not yet. I'm still hopeful that one day some bird will decide a platform rising five feet above the water is an ideal nesting spot. Until that happens, I'm sharing a lake I love with two large water birds who seem to love it too. That alone is reason to smile.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The beauty of a compost pile is that anything can happen

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 17, 2008)

About four months ago, my husband, Ralph, and I built a new compost pile. The cinder-block depository for our family's table scraps and yard waste is set into a hillside and, because I can see it from my office window, I didn't want the structure to be ugly.

After digging out a 16-square-foot section and stacking the blocks in a squared-off "U," I surrounded the gray edifice with colorful flowers. I planted a coral-colored hibiscus and tri-colored impatiens in the ground while pots of ivy, pink chrysanthemums and a jade plant were set strategically around the sides.

Thanks to the flowers, a few small statues and some solar lights, an area that could have been an eyesore became an attractive focal point instead. It's soothing to sit in my office and gaze up the hill at the cheerful blooms and garden art.

A few weeks ago when I went out to dump the day's kitchen waste, I noticed some young sprouts popping up amid the scattering of eggshells, apple cores and leafy remains of prior meals.

At first, I wasn't sure what kind of plants they were, but, a few days later, when the first pairs of leaves appeared, it was obvious that the pile was supporting a healthy crop of young papaya, impatiens and tomato plants.

I love volunteer plants. We humans think we're so essential, but plants that pop up unexpectedly put us in our place.

"We don't need your help," they seem to say. "We're doing just fine on our own."

Whether blown by the wind, carried on animal fur or sprouted out of food deposited in a compost pile, volunteer plants are the epitome of independence. Often more robust than their store-bought counterparts, these self-sown wonders of the plant kingdom stretch toward the sun with unbridled determination to live and thrive.

With so many seeds sprouting in my compost pile, I had some decisions to make. Should I leave them alone, move them to a real garden, bury them under a stinky slosh or pull the sprouts out?

I couldn't make up my mind, so for several days I did nothing at all. Well, not exactly nothing. When I took out the compost, I carefully avoided dumping the waste on the sprouts.

However, as more days passed and the young plants grew larger, less space was left to dump the compost. Then I realized one tomato plant had grown considerably larger than the rest.

"Ah-ha!" I thought. "Survival of the fittest." My decision was made.

Leaving the tall plant alone, I pulled out the small tomato sprouts and packed a heavy mulch of grass clippings around the big guy.

I pulled out the sprouting papayas but kept the impatiens. I can never have enough flowers but my need for more papaya trees is limited.

Another week has passed and my volunteer tomato looks better than ever. To support its leggy limbs, I've encircled the plant with four slender bamboo poles and supplemented the soil with a thicker layer of mulch. Someday soon I should be able to dump household scraps in the compost pile and walk back home with fresh-picked tomatoes.

Beauty and utility, practicality and whimsy -- who can say which belongs where? There's no rule book for creating a home landscape. It's up to each of us to decide how we want our yards to look.

After years with a purely functional compost pile, I'm delighted to finally have one that is pretty as well as practical.

Compost pile or garden? It's hard to tell the difference and sometimes, that makes all the difference in the world.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Those crazy red birds - they've turned windows into battle zones

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 10, 2008)

I'm surrounded by crazy red birds.

There's one by the kitchen bay window and another pecking on the narrow glass in the hall. A third guards the double-hung above the laundry sink while a fourth has claimed the picture window in my old office.

TAP. TAP. TAP. Fly away.

Return a few minutes later.

TAP. TAP. TAP. Fly away again.

The house windows have become battle zones. Their reflective surfaces are ground zero -- sites for constant attacks. Welcome to what I call TDS, Territorial Domination Season, the time of year when male birds demonstrate supremacy by smacking their heads against glass panes to scare away their reflections.

These fierce fighters of feathery fortitude have no idea they're engaged in unnecessary battles. The bright-colored, brash, ostentatious birds don't realize the perceived intruders are themselves.

"Silly bird," I tell a cardinal whose face is pressed against the kitchen window. "Your battle is futile. Save your energy for other struggles, real struggles yet to come."

He doesn't listen. Even if he could, my words wouldn't resonate. Birds are driven by instincts so strong they defy logic and empirical evidence. So what if -- after being repeatedly pecked -- the enemy returns whenever the cardinal looks at the window. To the cardinal there's a foe. That's all that matters.

It's hard to ignore a bird when it intentionally flies into your window. This year cardinals are the culprits, but a few years back our house was surrounded by male towhees equally determined to defend their territory.

I learned during the towhee period that if a male bird is set on bashing his head against a window there's little a person can do to thwart those efforts. Curtains and window shades are useless. Taping pieces of newspaper to the interior glass doesn't work either. For a while, I thought keeping the window open might help, but ultimately it didn't. The birds merely moved to stationary parts of the windowpane while bugs took advantage of the openings.

In the past 16 years, I've become rather possessive of wildlife in my area. When birds repeatedly smack their tiny heads against the windowpanes, I wonder about their health. Do their crazy actions result in headaches? How about concussions? Do birds get stunned?

In North America, more than 100 million birds die from head strikes each year, according to the Bird Conservation Network and other wildlife authorities. Many others suffer head traumas, fractures and internal bleeding. Most of those deaths come when birds mistakenly fly into windows but some, like the cardinals in my yard, meet their demise while defending territory from their own reflections.

Why do birds persist in such painful, pointless and possibly fatal behavior? The answer in one word is: testosterone.

During spring and autumn, certain male birds experience what scientists call gonadal recrudescence. Surging male hormones send a message to the bird's brain. "Fight!" it shouts. "Defend your turf! Strut your stuff! Stop intruders!"

It's a good thing people aren't like that. Wait a minute . . . maybe we are.

We may not peck repeatedly at our reflections in glass, but at times we fly off the handle, act irrationally and engage in combat against perceived enemies. We humans like to think we're above such basic instincts, but in reality we're as affected by hormonal surges as our feathery friends.

You don't have to look further than a sporting field, gaming board or video console to find testosterone-filled warriors defending turf they've designated as their own or engaged in combat against supposed enemies. Sports and video games may be harmless ways of venting aggression, but what about more serious outlets for surging hormones?

Consider domestic violence, road rage or, dare I say, war?

Every season has its pluses and minuses, and I suppose one minus of Territorial Domination Season is the unnecessary war that male birds wage against themselves.

Short of covering the outside of my windowpanes, my only choice is to accept the unacceptable.

I can do that with birds, but how about with people?

TAP. TAP. TAP. I don't think so.

TAP. TAP. TAP. Fly away.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Your one vote counts in this election: I learned the hard way

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel November 3, 2008)

Tomorrow is Election Day, and I hope you're planning to vote. This year's presidential race looks like it is going to be close. Your one vote may really help to get the candidate of your choice elected.

What? You doubt whether your one vote makes that much difference?

Think again. Speaking from personal experience, I know just how important one vote can be.

The year was 1968. I was a junior at Pennsbury High School in Fairless Hills, Pa. It was election time for the student council and I -- a wispy young thing with strong principles and plenty of optimism -- was running for vice president.

My opponent was Jeffrey Lipps and neither of us was a part of the "in crowd." We were both good but not great students and, although we shared a moderate amount of involvement in school clubs, neither of us was particularly athletic or super-popular. I cannot remember why I decided to run for office, but I imagine it was because of a perceived injustice. I was the kind of kid who found it practically impossible to sit idly by when I thought something was not fair.

My campaign included handmade signs, posters hung in the hall and a speech before the student body -- a little more than 1,000 kids -- that caused my stomach to do flip-flops and my mouth to go dry.

After what seemed like an endless campaign, Election Day finally arrived. It was time to cast our votes for the students who would become the next school leaders. I don't recall where we voted -- in homeroom at our desks or in voting booths in the auditorium. What I do remember -- and this is one of those vivid memories etched onto my mental hard drive -- was the strong feeling I had immediately prior to casting my vote.

"Voting for myself would demonstrate pomposity," my still-maturing 16-year-old mind reasoned.

The fair and equitable thing to do would be to vote for my opponent. It would demonstrate strength of character, moral impartiality and plain, old-fashioned good neighborliness. It was the high moral ground that led to success.

Wrong. It led straight to defeat.

I lost the election. Jeffrey Lipps won. And it wasn't as though he won by a landslide. If he had, the entire episode might have been easier to accept. No, when the votes were tallied, my honorable opponent won by a single vote. My vote. My freely given, selfless (translation: STUPID) show of camaraderie was the deciding factor that enabled my opponent to win the election.

We learn many things in high school that stay with us forever. The lessons I learned during my junior year running for office remain with me today. Every time I enter a voting booth to cast my ballot for a public official, a little voice inside my head whispers, "Remember high school: Every vote matters."

While I hope my candidate wins the 2008 presidential election, I have no idea who will be victorious. One thing I'm pretty sure of though: when John McCain and Barack Obama step into their respective voting booths to cast their ballots, neither one will do what I did so many years ago and vote for his opponent.

It may have been shortsighted or unwise for a 16-year-old to vote for her opponent in 1968, but in 2008 an equally foolish move would be to stay home and not vote at all. Get out there tomorrow and exercise your constitutional right. Cast a vote. No one should be indifferent when one vote -- one single vote -- can make all the difference in the world.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Bountiful Fig Crop is Welcome Event

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 27, 2008)

For the first time ever, our fig trees have produced more fruit than my husband can eat.

Along with red raspberries, blackcaps, blackcaps and ripe apricots, fresh picked figs top the list of Ralph’s favorite fruits. For breakfast, he likes to cut them up into little pieces to add to oatmeal. For a mid-day snack he makes a sort of open-face sandwich out of a piece of whole wheat bread topped with almond butter, bee pollen, cider jelly and fig slices. And throughout the day, he munches on fruit plucked fresh from the tree.

Most people are not as well acquainted with the delicate flavor of this most ancient of fruits as my fruit-loving, health-conscious husband. The only time they may have tasted a fig was when it was either processed into a snack like Fig Newtons or offered up in its dried state during holidays. That’s unfortunate because fresh figs are marvelous. Unlike their tough and chewy dried counterpart, the fresh fruit is mild flavored, soft and sweet.

Yet, despite these attributes, figs are not a staple of the produce aisle. Perhaps that’s because its soft skin damages easily or maybe it may be due to its inability to ripen off the tree. Unlike apples and bananas, which can be picked before they reach maturity and ripened over time, figs must stay attached until they are ready to be eaten. That presents problems for grocers who want produce to withstand extended transportation, storage and shelf time. None-the-less, every year from late summer through December, a small number of figs make their way onto supermarket shelves.

In past years, our family eagerly anticipated fig season so we could supplement our meager supply of homegrown fruit with store bought delicacies. I’d bite the bullet and spend $6 a pound for a small container of Brown Turkey, Mission, Calimyrna or Kadota figs (CQ all names). I had my rationales down pat:

· Even at $6, a pound of figs costs less than a bottle of wine, fresh fish or a better cut of meat.

· As a splurge, figs are far cheaper than dinner out, a movie or even a box of popcorn at the movies.

· Figs are just as sweet but less expensive and better for you than a fancy dessert or a box of chocolates.

The cashier would take my money and I’d deliver the goods to my waiting family. Ralph would immediately sort the fruit into piles of most and least ripe. The ripest fruit were eaten right away with the remainder stored in the refrigerator in the hope that they’d last for at least a few more days.

The supermarket run was fun but growing your own is way better.

Ralph planted his first fig trees just over 30 years ago on Cape Cod. Because these deciduous members of the mulberry family are sensitive to cold, each winter Ralph would partially dig up the short, stocky trees, tip them over and cover the top with a heavy layer of mulch. This work-intensive technique enabled the trees to survive harsh freezes, but didn’t result in fruitful harvests. What it did do was prolong our anticipation of a seasonal crop.

“Maybe this will be the year (pick any summer from 1976 to1987),” we’d optimistically muse, “when the trees will be mature enough to finally produce a crop.”

Apparently, they never reached that precipice of fruit-worthy development because in all our years of Cape Cod living, I can’t remember eating a single homegrown fig. What can I say? We were young. We were eager. We were stupid.

Our move to Florida in1987 presented new opportunities for fruitful explorations. No longer challenged by snowy weather, we had expectations of bountiful harvests. Unfortunately, we failed to realize that Florida’s mild climate presented problems we had not anticipated – namely, soil-inhabiting, multi-celled creatures called nematodes.

Nematodes, more commonly known as round worms, are members of the 20,000-strong phylum Nemata. While some types of nematodes act as beneficial controls for annoying pests like Japanese beetles, fleas and plant-eating grubs, others are a fruit-grower’s nemesis. When nematodes attack fig trees, immature figs drop off before they have a chance to ripen. That means even before other threats to a fig’s viability – threats like birds, squirrels, snails and slugs - have a chance to ruin any ripening fruit, tiny soil born organisms will destroy them.

After years of trying one type of fig tree after another, Ralph finally latched onto a nematode-resistant variety developed at Louisiana State University in 1991 called LSU Purple. It’s been figs from those trees that, this year, produced more fruit than we can eat.

Having too many figs is not a problem to someone like my husband. In addition to the various ways he enjoys eating them fresh, Ralph has been experimenting with different ways to preserve his plentiful crop. Usually, he freezes them but one day I came into the kitchen to find a batch of figs on the stovetop being boiled up into a kind of bare minimum jam. I had my doubts how his no-sugar, no-pectin concoction would taste but it only took one lick of the spoon to turn me into a believer.

I may politely say “No thank you” whenever Ralph offers to make me one of his patented fig-laced, bee pollen, almond butter and cider jelly sandwiches but when it comes to offers of fig jam on toast or fresh figs off the tree, I’ll answer “Yes!” every time.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Whatever your age, revel in the present moment

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 20, 2008)

From my father's perspective, at age 96, I'm just a kid. It doesn't matter that my head hosts more than a few gray hairs or that my eyes are surrounded by bags on the bottom, folds on the top and a whole nest of crow's feet on both sides. Looking at me from his stage of life, I'm still wet behind the ears. A kid and a young one at that.

That's not how my son perceives it. From the sage perspective of one who has seen 16 summers come and go, I'm old, ancient, practically prehistoric. I was, after all, raised in a time when -- GASP! -- iPods did not exist, information was found in books instead of online and you had to actually get up off the couch and walk to the TV if you wanted to change channels.

The world in which I grew up is almost as difficult for my youngest son to comprehend as it was for me, when I was his age, to imagine the unhomogenized, gas-lit world of my father's era.

When my father was growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., a man wouldn't think of leaving the house without a hat. Milk with the cream on top was delivered to your door in glass bottles and if you wanted to tell someone something, you wrote them a letter and mailed it with a stamp that cost 2 cents.

Times have certainly changed. Stamps now cost 42 cents and, for all practical purposes, e-mail has replaced handwritten letters. Milk made from soybeans is nearly as commonplace as milk from a cow. And the idea of dressing up before leaving the house is as outdated as 78-rpm phonograph records. ("What are they?" my son might ask.)

I've pondered these generational "gasps" as I await the approach of my 57th birthday. As it turns out, I'm smack-dab-in-the-middle of my youngest child's age and that of my father. One is 40 years my elder, the other 40 years younger. The middle ground I sow produces its own crop of distinctive perceptions.

For starters, I don't feel old. Then again, I'm no spring chicken. My body is saggier, draggier and baggier than it was in my 20s, 30s or even my 40s. My once limber legs now orchestrate a cacophony of clicks, creaks and cracks whenever I squat down and attempt to stand back up. In order to see anything clearly, I'm obliged to wear bifocal lenses, and my deteriorating bones prevent me from daring to do certain activities I would have jumped at in my youth.

But it's not all bad news. Ever since my memory began waning, it's become easier to pick out books to read and movies to watch. Even if I've seen them before, I can enjoy them again because, for the most part, I can hardly remember anything that happened. And as for romance, well, let's just say the old adage "practice makes perfect" is absolutely true. When I think about all the things that could go wrong in life, I'm amazed how many of us live as long as we do. As I navigate through the early years of my second half-century, the accumulating miles do not upset me. Instead, I'm thrilled to still be rambling along the well-trod road. The way I see it, life is as full of pleasure and potential as we want to make it. The trick is to seek out those treasures as we make the journey -- to focus on the scenery instead of the potholes -- to have fun along the way and enjoy the ride.

Sweet Sixteen days may be a thing of the past, but the precipice upon which my 96-year-old father stands is still distant. Who knows what the future will bring? The only thing certain is that the present is here. And, since my birthday is also almost here, I'm ready to do some serious unwrapping. Give me the present and I'll open it with care. No matter how old or young we might be, today, this one moment in time -- the present -- is one gift everyone shares.

Monday, October 13, 2008

It's subtle, but Florida offers fall sensations -- no need to wander

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 13, 2008)

My daughter Jenny, who lives in western Massachusetts, says New England's autumn foliage is about to peak. Scarlet-colored leaves cover the limbs of trees lining the street in the quaint town in which she lives.

She has been riding her bike a lot, which is a perfect way to appreciate the crisp air and bright autumn colors. I've been tempted to visit -- to book a flight and spend a weekend surrounded by pumpkins, apple cider and a palette of leafy color. But I know I won't do it.

As much as I'd like to see my daughter and spend a few days re-experiencing a Northern autumn, I'm as anchored to home as the bamboo in our nursery is rooted to the ground.

I've become stodgy in recent years. Home draws me in and holds me secure. The surprising thing is, I'm totally content with that. I have my patterns, my routines and everything in its place the way I like it to be. It's a comfort zone so familiar and cozy that few places can tempt me to leave it behind.

Books have been written about all the places you should see and things you should do before you die. Those aren't books I'm drawn to read.

Sure, travel has its benefits, and there are, without doubt, some amazing places in the world that would be fascinating to visit. I've seen a few -- not many, but a few -- and enjoyed those trips immensely.

But I'm at a point in my life where most of the things I want are right here where I am. The way I see it, counting the sources of your contentment is at least as important as compiling a collection of must-dos.

Autumn in Florida may not be the same as it is in New England, but a seasonal transition still can be experienced. Daytime temperatures have taken a dive, and accordingly, diving into the lake takes more courage.

When I go for my daily swim, I no longer walk fluidly into the water. By the time October's cooler weather has arrived, I have to either be very hot from a hard workout or brace myself to get wet above the waist.

Lakes are not alone in reflecting lower temperatures. The plant world projects a vivid response. Although more subtle than the blatant hues of a Massachusetts October, the foliage around our property also changes color.

In recent days, I've noticed yellow plumes of goldenrod swaying in the breeze alongside the purple flowers of Southern fleabane and white blooms of climbing hempweed (Mikania cordifolia).

Beautyberry bushes are suddenly loaded with clusters of dark-violet fruit, and a two-toned cloak of coral and yellow tops golden rain trees. Not to be outdone, the once-green leaves of woodbine, better known as Virginia creeper, now appear on the trunks of whatever trees they are climbing like angry red fingers clutching tightly.

While Jenny is enjoying bike rides around town, I'm going for rows, picking bouquets of cosmos and firespike, taking walks around the lake or sitting on the porch admiring the view. No matter where you live, October weather commands appreciation.

This is the time of year to take a lawn chair outside and park yourself in it. Look up at the clouds. Follow the butterflies. Enjoy the antics of squirrels gathering acorns, the cooing of doves. Watch brown and green anoles climb onto plant leaves while a breeze tickles your face.

Bold colors make it obvious that autumn has arrived, but there are seasonal stories to be found in more subtle signs as well. You don't have to live in Northern climes to enjoy autumn. You don't have to travel to live a full life.

If I were writing a book of things to do before I die, I'd focus on seeing -- really seeing and appreciating -- all the wonders and beauty that surround us each day. That alone would be momentous. That alone says it all.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The sweet, sweet papaya - a fruit, a salad, a renewal

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 6, 2008)

Until I moved to Florida in 1987, I had never tasted a papaya. Back then, if you had handed me a large, oblong, green-skinned fruit with an orange tint and asked me what it was, I might have guessed, "Some kind of melon?"

In a way, I would have been right. Although not actually a melon, papayas share many characteristics with cantaloupe, Crenshaw, Persian and casaba melons. All have soft flesh, seedy centers and a fairly thin, inedible outer skin.

The edible inside portions range from pale yellow to an orange-red and have a smooth texture, mild flavor and natural sweetness. One difference: Melons grow on vines, while papayas grow on trees.

We've grown papayas for about 20 years and now have 26 trees planted around our property. All but four -- those my husband bought from a south Florida nursery -- started as seeds scooped out of other papayas. We cultivate them not only because our family likes the fruit's delicate flavor, but also because papayas are so easy to grow.

You don't need a green thumb or much space to raise these fast-growing, prolific fruiters. Papayas are upright plants that rarely top 20 feet. They also come in dwarf varieties, like the four Ralph recently purchased. These bear fruit on a plant less than 6 feet tall. The dwarf varieties' short sizes make them much easier to harvest.

Most papaya trees have a single trunk shaded by an umbrella-like, leafy canopy. Sometimes, however, multistemmed plants develop. The fruit grows in clusters near the top of the trunk. If left alone, papayas will ripen on the tree, but they also can be picked partially ripe and brought inside to complete the process. On our taller trees, we must climb a ladder to reach the fruit.

I used to plant papayas near the house, but I don't anymore. Its large leaves grow at the end of long stems, and as the plant matures, the lowest leaves and their attached stems yellow and fall off. So a leafy mess is always littering the ground underneath the tree. More mess is left by overlooked papayas that ripen on the tree and drop off.

Fallen fruit attracts squirrels and other rodent family members. They like to nibble through the soft skin to get at the inner flesh. I like papayas but not rats, so my compromise is to plant fruit trees a good distance from the house.

To start a papaya tree, begin with a ripe fruit purchased at the store. You can tell a papaya is ripe if the outer skin has turned from green to a yellow-orange. Cut it in half and scoop out the peppercorn-sized, gray-black seeds. The plant's seeds and even its leaves are edible, but the soft flesh is the main attraction. If you want to grow papayas, eat the fruit and save the seeds for planting.

Before planting, some people say you should first rinse and dry the seeds, but I don't do that. I simply take handfuls of fresh seeds and toss a few into each spot where I want my papaya trees to grow. Choose an irrigated spot that gets plenty of sun and has soil enriched with compost, cow manure or potting soil, and you increase germination chances.

With the seeds dispersed, sprinkle more soil on top and tamp the area down. In about two weeks, young plants will emerge. That's a good time to either thin the sprouts out to one plant every 10 feet or transplant the seedlings to different areas.

It takes less than a year for young sprouts to develop into fruiting trees. The tree not only looks exotic, but yields a versatile, highly nutritious, mild-flavored fruit. Unripe papayas can be cooked like a vegetable. The ripe fruit can be juiced or eaten like a melon. Seeds can be ground up like pepper and used as a spice or made into a salad dressing. Even the leaves can be steamed like spinach.

Papayas are rich in the enzyme papain, which aids in digestion. They are very low in saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium and calories but high in vitamin A, vitamin C and potassium.

For centuries, indigenous people around the world have used all parts of the plant for medicinal purposes. The roots have analgesic properties. The seeds are anti-inflammatory and used to soothe stomachaches and treat fungal infections. The unripe fruit has been used to treat high blood pressure, and ripe papayas applied directly to skin sores are said to provide immediate relief.

I haven't tried any of these folk remedies myself, but I appreciate any plant with so much potential. Cantaloupes may be more familiar to Americans than papayas, but around the world, papayas reign supreme. The next time you're at the grocery, look for these oblong-shaped, orange-tinted fruits and give one a try. If you like the taste, don't toss the seeds -- plant them instead.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Along came two spiders - and not the itsy-bitsy variety

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 29, 2008)

The eight-legged crowd apparently considers the area directly outside my office window to be prime real estate.

During the past two weeks, two spiders -- a black-and-yellow argiope and a golden silk spider -- have staked their claim on this shaded bit of airspace. Both constructed intricate webs that link the underside of the soffit to the picture window, as well as to various garden plants. A cherry tomato's spindly vine acts as an important anchor for each web.

I'm accustomed to looking out of my office window and seeing butterflies, birds and bees. I'm used to following the antics of gray squirrels and catching the occasional glimpse of brown and green anoles as they leap from leaf to leaf.

Every now and then, I watch rabbits nibble succulent blades and field mice bravely dart across a stretch of mulched ground. But in all the time I've lived here, I've never had the opportunity to observe outdoor spiders in their natural habitat on a day-by-day basis.

That is, until now.

The first observation I've made since the spiders set up house is that both are huge. There's nothing itsy-bitsy about them. Imagine a toddler's hand with splayed fingers. That's about the size of the golden silk spider, also known as a banana spider or golden orb weaver.

Actually, two golden silk spiders have taken up residence outside my window -- the gigantic female and her diminutive opposite-sex counterpart. The female spider is six times larger than the puny male. He's so small and nondistinct that I didn't realize he was living in one remote section of the female's web until several days had gone by.

The web, woven by the female, is an asymmetrical orb that spans a 6-foot wide stretch. When struck by the sun, it shimmers with a rich yellow sheen like spun gold. It is from the web's glittery appearance that Nephila clavipes gets its common name, golden silk spider.

I've watched as strong winds have whipped through the golden silk spider's web and as the irrigation sprinkler has sprayed across it, but neither damaged the web. That's probably because the silk produced by these giant spiders is stronger than Kevlar, the fiber used in bulletproof vests.

While the golden silk spider and its web are certainly marvelous in a look-but-don't-touch sort of way, the black-and-yellow argiope and its web are similarly stunning. There's a tiny male argiope living on the outskirts of the female's circular web. Like the golden silk male, he's also a scrawny critter.

The black-and-yellow argiope, Argiope aurantia, is also known as a "writing" spider because it weaves a bold series of connecting white "Xs," called a stabilamenta, in the middle of its web. The female arachnid places herself near the top of the stabilamenta, where she patiently waits for prey to fly into the sticky substance.

While the noticeable crisscrossing pattern acts as a warning to birds that might destroy the web by flying into it, the pattern doesn't seem to prevent mosquitoes, beetles, moths, grasshoppers, flies or bees from becoming ensnared. Recently, I watched as the spider caught, wrapped and consumed a black beetle and medium-size fly. The entire catch-and-devour process was completed in minutes.

Watching these two amazing critters from the comfort of my indoor viewing station has been entertaining and edifying. Some people like to go to movies, sporting events, shows or parties for enjoyment; I sit back in my swivel chair and watch spiders and other wild critters go about their daily lives.

I don't know why these two huge but harmless spiders chose the 8-foot span in front of my office window to set up house, but I'm glad they did. Our country might be in the midst of a major housing downturn, but in my neck of the woods we're caught in a web of explosive growth. The residents may have eight legs, but they keep the mosquito population at bay. That's a sticky situation I wouldn't want to do without.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Appreciating family and recalling tree-climbing days - all because of avocados

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 22, 2008)

If Timmy were here, he would have shimmied up the avocado tree in Paul and Jean Hays' backyard like a monkey.

My limber son has no compunctions about scaling tall trees without lower limbs. He would have climbed up into the high branches where clusters of the green-skinned fruit hung, plucked those dangling delicacies and plunked them to the ground. That's what he did last year, and Paul and Jean were appreciative.

"He reached all the avocados we couldn't reach," said Paul, a retired Quaker Oats employee who moved to Royal Highlands with Jean 11 years ago. "He must have helped us collect hundreds of avocados."

But my 26-year-old son isn't here this year. About six months ago, he moved to Seattle to help his 91-year-old grandmother with her own set of gardening, household and yard chores. His departure left behind a cadre of friends like the Hayses, people who had come to appreciate and depend upon Timmy's generous, gentle and quirky nature.

In lieu of my son's assistance, Paul e-mailed me last week, hoping that my husband might share Timmy's tree-climbing ability.

"I will be calling you regarding the avocados soon, if Ralph is still willing to get the big ones from the top," he wrote.

Recently, I stopped by their south Leesburg home to scope out the situation.

"Goodness," I told Jean and Paul, as I looked at the tall avocado tree in their well-manicured backyard. "Timmy climbed that without a ladder?"

Paul assured me he did, and knowing my son, I can picture it. Think Tarzan -- a young man wrapping his legs around the trunk as he maneuvered upward. Timmy's that kind of guy. Just after turning 18, he spent four months hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. Given the choice of tree limb or lawn chair to sit upon, Timmy would choose the tree every time.

"I'll have to come back," I explained to the Hayses after picking a couple dozen avocados that could be reached from a 6-foot ladder. "I'll bring Ralph or my daughter with me next time. Either of them could climb up and get the ones on top, but I'm afraid I can't do it."

My visit to the Hayses' house made me realize that my tree-climbing days are a thing of the past. I used to be like Timmy. There was a time -- granted, it was a LONG time ago -- when I, too, shimmied up bark-covered tree trunks to perch upon branches hidden by leaves. There were no avocado trees in Pennsylvania, but we had plenty of oaks, sycamores, willows and crab-apple trees. I remember perching in the crab-apple tree in our backyard to gather pocketfuls of the small, tart fruit.

Crab-apple trees are prolific bearers, and so are avocados. One mature avocado tree will provide a family with all the fruit they can eat, plus plenty to give away. The avocado Timmy's friends have is a Hass avocado, a type predominantly grown in California. The Hass fruit is much smaller than Florida varieties, and it has a thick, bumpy skin that's dark green.

Florida varieties have a thinner skin that is smooth and a much brighter, lighter green. But no matter which kind is grown, avocados seldom ripen on the tree. They need to be handpicked after reaching an appropriate size and then ripened inside on a windowsill or pantry shelf.

Jean and Paul received their tree as a gift shortly after they moved to Royal Highlands. It was only a few feet tall when their friend gave it to them, but now it's about 20 feet tall and quite broad.

"It took a couple years before we got any fruit at all," recalled Jean. "But now, it yields more fruit than we could possibly use."

If Timmy were here, he'd not only help Jean and Paul by reaching into the uppermost branches of their tree, collecting the fruit and distributing it to friends. He'd whip up a large batch of guacamole to share with everyone, too. My tree-shimmying days may be a thing of the past, but I can still cook. As soon as my daughter or husband takes over Timmy's job and picks the rest of the Hayses' fruit, I'll get busy in the kitchen. One large bowl of guacamole coming up.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Web is handy when all you can get live is pity-Scrabble

Simply Living

(First appeared on September 15, 2008 in Orlando Sentinel)

I've been playing a lot of online Scrabble lately. Instead of moving wooden tiles by hand, I've been sitting in front of a computer screen typing word plays on a keyboard. I had no idea online Scrabble could be such fun.

Thanks to the broad reach of the World Wide Web, any time of the day or night, someone somewhere shares my enthusiasm for creating bingos -- that's Scrabble terminology for high-scoring seven letter words. About a month ago, I joined ISC -- International Scrabble Club -- and now have at my fingertips an endless supply of word-loving compadres.

Since I began playing, I've competed against people from throughout the United States and Canada. My most distant opponent lives in Kuwait. I lost that game.

Knowing how much I love Scrabble, my daughter's boyfriend, Brett, a tournament player and Scrabble Club organizer who lives in Massachusetts, suggested I try playing online.

"It's easy," he said, but I didn't believe him at first.

Experience taught me that most new computer programs involve a steep learning curve. The idea of adding yet another task to my already heavy computer load seemed too overwhelming to consider.

So I didn't.

For several months after Brett's suggestion, I continued to beg my 16-year-old son to play with me. Every now and then -- emphasis on "then" -- he relented and played. It felt more like pity-Scrabble than anything.

"All right," he could have been thinking. "I might as well give her a little attention. She's been asking me to play with her for weeks."

Despite his lack of gusto, those games were always fun. Toby is a terrific player and, while his teenage ego requires him to believe he is far better than me in just about everything, when it comes to Scrabble, I feel we're well-matched. But time takes its toll and after he refused my umpteenth request, I reconsidered Brett's suggestion.

One day I took the plunge.

"Show me how to play online," I asked my youngest child.

As a young math-loving, chess-playing person, Toby has an intuitive ability to understand such things. For several years now he has been a member of ICC, the chess equivalent of online Scrabble, and both programs operate similarly.

After a few basic instructions, I was ready to begin. I picked out a "handle" -- the online name I would use -- and selected the type of game I wanted to play. My choices included the number of minutes I wanted each match to last, whether I wanted to be penalized for using nonacceptable words and whether I would play against anyone or only players who met certain pre-selected criteria. So far, so good.

That first game remains a blur. I recall being scared I would do something wrong. I was confused in the beginning and I'm pretty sure I lost. Fortunately, Toby stood by to guide me along.

"Quick! Quick!" I panicked right after the game began. "How do I rearrange the letters on my rack?"

"You can move them with the mouse or right click alongside the rack and they'll be rearranged automatically," he responded calmly.

Although I didn't think it would happen, I started regaining my composure by the fifth or sixth move. Virtual Scrabble began to make sense. I've learned more new words in one month than in all my previous years of playing and I eagerly anticipate the day my rating breaks 1,000. Toby says I'm addicted and he's probably right. The other night I woke up from sleep and was unable to lie back down without words flashing through my mind, my body restlessly tossing and turning.

"I'll get up for a little while," I told myself as I wandered down the hall toward my office.

"Maybe I'll sign on for a few minutes just to see if anyone's playing."

At 3 a.m., three wins, one loss and four bingos later, I made my way back to the bedroom. I'd gained a few points and added the words "sware," "cadi," and "fou" to my burgeoning vocabulary. I also fell asleep as soon as I hit the bed and slept like a baby. If that's what being addicted is all about, sign me up. Wait -- I'm already signed up. Good, then let the games begin.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The ordinary becomes extraordinary through Florida visitors' eyes

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 8, 2008)

Sometimes we forget how extraordinary our surroundings are, and it helps to look at the familiar through another person's eyes. That happened the other day when a young couple from Spokane, Wash., accompanied their relatives on a visit to our nursery.

While their companions concentrated on choosing the best plants to provide a privacy screen, the young couple -- they couldn't have been more than 21 or 22 -- took in the semitropical, Central Florida surroundings with childlike curiosity.

Their first question -- "Are there alligators in the lake?" -- was a typical, first-time-in-Florida query. I would have mistakenly pigeon-holed them as non-outdoorsy, timid types had they not followed up with another question.

"What kind of spider is this?" they asked, pointing to a spiny-backed orb weaver that had strung an intricate web between an irrigation spigot and bamboo cane.

I could tell by their voices, postures and rapt attention these two were not intimidated by nature's minutiae. I love it when I meet people like that. Too often, adults -- even some children -- are so frightened by spiders, snakes and other creeping, crawling critters that they lose all perspective and act irrationally.

We all know sane, peaceful individuals who turn into screeching killing machines when they encounter one of nature's smallest creatures. Instead of learning about these fascinating and often beneficial critters, they go ballistic. They grab whatever object is handy -- shoe, bug spray, shovel or fly swatter -- and go into destroy mode.

Fortunately, that was not the case with my Spokane visitors. They were eager to learn all they could about the unfamiliar.

Looking more like a miniature crab than an arachnid, the spiny-backed orb weaver's compact, oddly shaped black-and-white body is distinguished by six pointy, red spines. Although quite small -- less than one-third-of-an-inch long and barely a half-inch wide -- this harmless, insect-eater's bizarre appearance differentiates it from other spiders.

Because it is frequently found in gardens -- as I am -- I've grown accustomed to seeing this spider and rarely pay it much attention. But the young couple paid attention. The backyard beauty that I had come to see as ordinary was far from common to these Pacific Northwest residents.

"I've never seen anything like it," said the woman as she peered at the spider waiting mid-web for a mosquito to trap.

That could have been the end of it -- one weird-looking creature to demonstrate the unique Southern landscape. But at that point, another insect caught their attention. They reacted with simultaneous squeals of surprise.

"What's that bug?" they asked, pointing at a large, fuzzy-looking orange thing scurrying across a sandy stretch of ground.

"Oh," I responded matter-of-factly. "That's a velvet ant. Be careful. They sting."

My response may have been understated, but there's nothing run-of-the-mill about a velvet ant's appearance. Like the spiny-backed orb weaver, this is a one-of-a-kind critter in Florida's insect world.

Nicknamed "cow killer," this colorful member of the Mutillidae family is a good example of a look-but-don't-touch critter. Although it resembles and moves like a cuddly wind-up toy put into motion, the inch-long insect is really a wingless wasp with a potent sting. According to legend, a velvet ant's venom can kill a cow, and while that's probably a stretch, I'm not about to put it to the test.

From a respectful distance, we watched as the bright-orange-and-black insect followed a fast-paced path to an underground burrow, where it was most likely bound to either lay eggs or find food. It must have been a female ant, because its elusive male counterpart has wings and is slightly larger.

For a few minutes, the three of us stood side by side, captivated by the velvet ant's determined trek through blades of grass and over bumpy ground. I don't know what my visitors were thinking, but I could tell they were fascinated. So was I.

It's easy to take things for granted. Repetition has the tricky ability to rub the shine off novelty. When I moved to Florida, I was completely awed by torrential downpours that ended as quickly as they began and by the sight of rain pouring down on one side of the lake and not the other. Eventually, I grew used to these things.

I even grew used to rainbows. Imagine that -- taking rainbows for granted. But it happened. A little bit of time and a lot of repetition turned the extraordinary into the ordinary.

That's why I'm glad my mind-set has been rebooted. I don't know how long this fresh outlook will last, but thanks to two crazy-looking bugs and a couple of curious tourists, I'm enjoying a fresh perspective -- seeing my surroundings as if for the first time.

Florida's a wild and crazy place filled with some weird and fascinating creatures, and I'm here to enjoy every minute of it.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Have some patience -- and the best pineapple you ever tasted

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 1, 2008)

We just finished eating our third freshly picked pineapple of the season. Delicious.

Homegrown pineapples are not only sweeter and more flavorful than their store-bought counterparts -- they are ridiculously easy to grow. Just cut the leafy crown off a purchased product -- you have to do that anyway when you're slicing it up -- and instead of tossing it into the trash, plant the crown in the ground. You don't need special soil or miracle fertilizers.

Pineapple plants like ground that is sandy and well-drained -- probably the same kind of dirt you have in your backyard.

Before planting, some people say you should either cut away any existing flesh or, at the very least, make sure all soft fruity parts are completely dried out. It's probably good advice, but I'm too impatient to wait several days for a callus to form and I'm too lazy to strip away existing soft flesh. I prefer the "hurry-n-bury" method -- quickly cut off the crown and rush outside to anchor the stiff, spiky leaves in the sandy soil.

One thing that shouldn't be hurried is deciding where to plant your pineapple. While the severed crown may be only six or eight inches tall and about half as wide, remember: it is going to grow.

As the plant develops, this Brazilian native will extend its leaves upward and outward. At maturity, a single crown will require a space that's about 3 feet wide by 2 feet tall. And consider those leaves. Pineapple leaves look and feel like green, serrated swords. Ouch!

The first time I planted a pineapple crown I placed it in a convenient spot right along our front walkway. Mistake. As the plant grew, so did its pointy sharp leaves. Make sure you place your young starts a good distance away from where any bare-legged people might pass by.

Homegrown pineapples are tasty, but people who insist upon immediate gratification should avoid growing these relatives of bromeliads and Spanish moss. It takes a minimum of 18 months, often longer, for fruit to develop. Even then, after all that waiting, you only reap a single edible pineapple from each crown planted. But that's all right. One bite into a slice of the pale yellow fruit and you'll be glad you waited.

Homegrown pineapples are so flavorful chiefly because gardeners have the luxury of waiting until a fruit is completely ripe before twisting it off its stalk. Commercial growers can't do that. Like most fruits grown for market, pineapples are harvested well before their prime when their waxy outer rinds are still a dark murky green. This common practice may extend the fruit's shelf life and prevents spoilage during transportation, but it doesn't do much to enhance the pineapple's heady essence.

Until I grew my first pineapple, I didn't know its bumpy outer skin turns bright yellow when the fruit is ripe. From years of shopping, I'd learned that (A) a golden tint to the rind is good and (B) leaves that are brown and shriveled are bad. The entire rind on a naturally ripened pineapple is the color of summer flowers -- sunflower yellow or daffodil bright. Add in the seductively sweet scent that accompanies a mature specimen -- an aroma that evokes images of a tropical beachside paradise -- and you can imagine how rewarding it can be to grow your own.

It's not only people who appreciate the taste and smell of this herbaceous perennial. Opossums, raccoons, squirrels and foxes share a fondness for the ripening fruit. With their sharp teeth, wild animals can do what people cannot -- chew their way through the tough outer skin to get at the juicy inner flesh.

That's what happened to the first pineapple I picked this year. I eagerly watched as the rind became more yellow each day. After about a week of anticipation I asked my husband, "Do you think I should pick it today?"

"Give it one more day," he suggested confidently. So I took his advice. And he must have been right because that night, a sharp-toothed furry critter confirmed his assessment by taking a large bite out of one side of the fruit. Sure enough, when we picked the slightly gnawed fruit the next morning -- after cutting around the gnawed spot and giving it a good washing -- we were awed by its sweet, juicy flavor.

I don't know why the animal stopped at one bite but I'm glad it did. Sharing is important, but when you've waited more than 18 months for a few mouthfuls of flavor, it's hard enough to divvy up the bounty with your family, let alone with an opossum or raccoon.

Pineapples are a never-ending pleasure. Each harvested fruit provides a crown that starts the whole process all over again. All it takes is one store-bought fruit to begin the cycle, so give it a try. The next time you buy a pineapple, don't toss the top -- plant it instead. It's a sweet and easy thing to do.

Monday, August 25, 2008

As she hands over the car keys to son, they both become freer

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel August 25, 2008)

"When the brake lights go on in the car in front of you, prepare to stop."

"When you are entering a road and the sign says 'Yield,' slow down and wait until you can enter the road safely. You don't have the right of way -- no matter what everyone else is doing. When the sign says 'Yield,' you yield."

"Keep a good two to three car lengths between you and the car in front of you."

"Stay in the right lane. Only pass when necessary."

"Maintain the speed limit. If the sign says 35, go 35, not 50."

"Use your rearview mirrors. Get in the habit of checking them frequently."

"Drive defensively. Be on the lookout for potential problems and try to think ahead about how to solve them if they happen."

For the past 11 months, I've been spewing snippets of automotive wisdom while my teenage son steers the family minivan along Central Florida's highways and byways. As our family's designated driving instructor, my job has always been teaching our four children the ins and outs of automotive navigation. For the most part, it has been a pretty smooth ride.

The oldest three passed their tests -- maybe not always on the first try, but eventually -- and went on to become competent, careful drivers. Each has proved his and her mettle on everything from clay roads to rain-slick -- and snow-slick -- highways. Our oldest son even spent a few years as a professional driver, earning money for his vehicular skills as he crisscrossed the country.

It didn't matter which of our children was behind the wheel during their training periods -- certain situations always evoked moments of lip-biting fear. The claustrophobic sensation of being sandwiched between two 18-wheelers comes to mind, as does that first trip off two-lane roads onto multilane highways with cars whizzing by at 80 MPH.

Along with the expected insecurity and trepidation we also have experienced many moments of surprising pride and elation. The day a child realizes you can actually release one hand from the steering wheel without losing control of the car always evokes smiles of pleasure and amazement.

I tried -- quite often successfully -- to stay calm during the first few months when whichever child I was teaching took curves too tightly or didn't brake as soon as I thought he or she should when we came to a traffic light. I did my share of armrest clutching and sympathy braking -- ramming my right foot down on the floorboards with the deluded notion that it would help us stop sooner. And, yes, I occasionally yelled.

Saying "Watch it!" or "What are you doing?" may not have helped my kids learn faster, but it enabled me to release pent up tension that is part of the process of teaching someone a new skill.

These days a new tension has worked its way into my subconscious. When my youngest child receives his drivers license, I realize he won't be the only one embarking on a new stage of life. With the passing of the car keys, the gift of freedom and independence also will be mine. Because my daily schedule no longer will be dictated by another person's needs, it will be up to me to chart my own course. After almost 30 years of driving others around, my chauffeur's cap will be removed once and for all when my teenage son takes the car for his first solo ride.

It may take some time to adjust to new patterns but, like driving itself, the upcoming transition is both exciting and daunting. Like I've told my children during many driving lessons, "When you're behind the wheel, you're in charge of where you go and how you get there. When to stop. When to start. To speed up or slow down. You alone make these decisions, so act wisely and stay focused."

Those are lessons my son and I will both be practicing in the weeks and months to come.

Monday, August 18, 2008

New appreciation of life ascends 13 steps up the clay wall

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel August 18, 2008)

When we built our house 16 years ago, the spot we selected was on the slope of a steep hill.

The soil was thick orange clay, and to create a road to the garage, we had to cut away some of the hill and terrace the land into a series of steps. The result was a stark clay wall about seven yards behind the house that leveled off about four feet before stepping up again for another short climb.

To reach the upper area, Ralph cut a 13-step stairway into the hard soil and smoothed it over with concrete. My office looks directly at those stairs and the narrow path above them.

Initially, the area we call "the clay wall" was raw and ugly, but after years of planting vines, shrubs and gingers at its base, the wall disappeared behind flower-studded greenery. Over time, the once-barren hillside became lush and verdant. Huge oaks now cover the sloping land, their long limbs reaching down to brush the leaf-littered ground.

It was in this relatively untended spot that, on two separate but equally thrilling occasions, I recently saw first a coyote and then a bobcat walk along the pathway at the top of the clay wall before pausing at the head of the steps.

When the coyote came, I was alone in my office working on the computer. Although my eyes were focused on the monitor, the animal's movement must have triggered an unconscious awareness, because I looked up just before the coyote reached the spot where the path meets the stairs.

I'm embarrassed to admit it was my own loud calls to my husband and son that scared the critter away. Apparently, even if a person is inside a building a good 25 feet from where a wary coyote pauses to survey the landscape, cries of "There's a coyote at the top of the stairs!" can be heard by the animal's finely tuned ears.

The tawny-toned hunter turned around in his tracks and scampered off into the woods -- but not until he looked directly at me with large, probing eyes as if to say, "What did you do that for?" How foolish I felt to have reacted in such a typically insensitive, loud human way.

In retrospect, I wish I had reached for my camera and snapped a few pictures to share instead of trying to call my family into the office to see the animal themselves.

Fortunately, when the bobcat came by a few days later, my 16-year-old son was already in the office with me. It was Toby, not me, who spotted the stubby-tailed predator. With a calm voice that wouldn't scare away a fly, Toby announced, "Look. A bobcat."

Sure enough, standing right where the coyote stood a few days before was a beautiful spotted wildcat. Like the coyote, the bobcat paused when the level path it was taking met the top of the stairs. It too chose that spot to sniff the air and survey its surroundings. I wasn't screaming this time, so it wasn't scared away. Assured of its safety, the bobcat ambled along the narrow, grassy path.

I wish I could say I snapped some wonderful photos of the animal as it stood at the head of the stairs surveying its surroundings. Unfortunately, I didn't.

Cameras, even close-at-hand digital devices, take time to turn on and get ready, and in that time the bobcat moved out of view. But I wasn't ready to give up. Toby and I, now joined by my husband, quickly stepped outside to see where the bobcat was heading.

It was heading directly toward us.

Even though we were making a concerted effort to stand still and be quiet, the animal's sharp ears and acute sense of smell noted our human presence almost immediately.

Like the coyote before him, the bobcat gave one long, final gaze at these pesky people before retreating rapidly into the dense wooded undercover.

These two recent sightings got me thinking. I've seen bobcats and coyotes before on the property -- not often, but frequently enough to know the land we live on is part of the territory they also call home. I also know that, despite being predators, both critters are not above foraging through compost piles for edible tidbits.

Putting two and two together, I decided to build a new compost pile at the top of the steps. Perhaps a depository of aromatic scraps would draw more animals to this spot of close observation.

It has been about a week since the compost pile was completed. Although the only wildlife I've seen so far has been squirrels and birds, I remain hopeful that someday a bobcat, fox or coyote will stop by to check it out.

My attitude about the clay wall has changed dramatically, especially since the coyote appeared. Sixteen years ago, what began as an eyesore has turned into an attractive -- if somewhat unkempt -- landscape feature. More recently, that same clay wall has become a focal point of both the yard and my imagination.

It doesn't take much to change our perspectives. From ugly to lovely, unkempt to well tended, small steps can make a big difference in our everyday world.

In my case, 13 small steps up a solid clay wall have made a big difference in my daily life. From an area once ignored to one much adored, my office view has become much amended.