Thursday, February 21, 2008

Spring cuts winter short in Florida

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel February 17, 2008)

It's February and, while snow and icy rain may be covering much of the country, in Central Florida spring has sprung.

If seasons can be judged by the way plants respond to weather conditions, then winter is officially over in my neck of the woods.

Just look at mulberry, willow and maple trees to confirm the obvious: The bare tips of their branches swell with the promise of summer. The chokecherry, which must be among the least patient of trees, has been cloaked in a flush of young leaves for weeks. Its verdant garb presents welcome dabs of color to the still-somber winter landscape.

Three of the traditional seasons -- winter, spring and fall -- are condensed in the Sunshine State. Summer, of course, takes up the slack, stretching languidly across most of the year.

Around the end of December, deciduous trees begin their seasonal transformation. Pockets of color light up the landscape with autumnal displays of brown, auburn, orange and scarlet. But a Florida fall is short-lived. Most autumn leaves land on the ground by mid-January and winter -- what little winter we have -- is more likely to be counted by days than by weeks or months. Nighttime temperatures intermittently dip into the 30s or even the 20s but bounce back to the mid-60s and 70s during daylight hours.

I suppose that's why I was confused as I rode along Florida's Turnpike the other day. It seems like only yesterday I was driving along the same stretch of road admiring the autumn foliage.

"Are those red leaves I'm looking at autumn leaves or spring buds?" I wondered.

It didn't take too many miles before I answered my own question. They were new leaves. The warming days of early February must have sent maple trees into unfurl-the-leaf mode.

The young leaves of maples are a welcome sight. Bright crimson -- perhaps even more cheerful than their autumn counterparts -- they provide a leafy headdress for the branches and trunk.

There's something hopeful about spring leaves. With their uniform shapes and soft but vibrant hues, they give an impression of both confidence and innocence. There's expectancy inherent in each unfurled bud. Innocence lies in their relative purity. New leaves begin their lives untouched by bug or beetle. Caterpillars haven't chewed holes in them yet or built their tented hotels. Even birds' nests are a rarity until later in the season when the leaves have grown broad enough to provide protection and cover.

Gazing upon a springtime woods spotted with deciduous trees is like watching a room full of babies. As breezes ruffle their tender leaves, the trees shiver with excitement. Shimmering in the sun, their joy and anticipation of days to come is almost palpable.

Driving along the turnpike, looking out at a sea of trees, I find my thoughts drifting back in time to rides taken with my oldest daughter when she was just a child. Of my four children, it's my daughter who comes to mind when I look at spring trees. So many times we drove these same roads, and Amber, who is especially fond of the soft green color of young chokecherry leaves, would comment on the landscape view. Maybe it's the artist in her. Now a grown woman and accomplished muralist, Amber captures on canvas the magic that lasts so briefly in nature.

It won't be long before spring will be over. New seasons will emerge, not just the regular ones -- summer, winter or fall -- but a multitude of mini-seasons that highlight particular fruits, fragrances and flowering plants. Each period of time will have a special meaning, unique in its individuality and in the memories it triggers.

Time passes, as it should, and everything -- children and trees alike -- goes through a growth cycle, forming new leaves, shivering in the breeze and, ultimately, developing maturity.

No matter what month it is -- February in Florida with springtime beckoning or an August crush of summer heat -- how fortunate we are to be along for the drive, enjoying the view, savoring the moment.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Readers share their ways of making world better

Simply Living

(First appeared in the Orlando Sentinel February 10, 2008)

Have you paid your "daily dues" today?

That's a question I asked readers just before the start of 2008.

In that column I wrote, "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."

I asked readers for suggestions -- what things have you done to make the world a better place? The response was enthusiastic.

Joanne Wolverton wrote:

"I use my own canvas bags at the grocery store instead of all the plastic bags they normally use to pack your groceries. I wish other people would do this. Even if they took their own plastic bags to the store for loading the groceries, it would save on using the new ones.

"I also save all the larger bags I get shopping elsewhere to line wastebaskets. And of course, I return all other plastic bags to the store for recycling. Also, of course, all newspapers and cans and bottles are recycled."

Barbara Hansen offered several suggestions, but her hottest tips concerned the thermostat:

"Turn your thermostat up or down at night, or better yet, install a programmable one. No need to keep the living area and kitchen cool at night when no one is using them. Probably the biggest change to our finances was seen with the turn down of the thermostat -- also the biggest adjustment as our kids like it cold. Also, we hope to install at least 2 water barrels this year to capture our seemingly scant rain."

Many readers shared a suggestion made by Robert H. Moody of Fruitland Park:

"One way my wife and I have paid our daily dues is in the laundry. We have been married for nearly 44 years and always hang our laundry on our clothesline to dry in the sun. We have an electric dryer but only use it in inclement weather. The sun-dried clothes always have such a fresh, clean smell. I wonder how much money we have saved in 44 years of hanging our clothes in the sun to dry?"

Robert, I did some calculating using today's rates. Assuming you used a 5-kilowatt electric clothes dryer three hours each week at 10 cents per kilowatt hour, you would have spent around $1.50 per week, $78 per year or approximately $3,432 over the course of the past 44 years. Not only has your willingness to use the sun's power to dry your clothes conserved energy, but it also saved you a pretty penny in the process.

Joe and Kathy Lepley of Mount Dora tapped another source of energy savings by focusing their efforts on conserving water:

"We decided to see if we couldn't save some of the water we had been letting go down the drain and get double duty from it. Examples of water we now recover and reuse:

"We catch the water we run into the shower waiting for the hot water to arrive from the hot water tank using a small plastic waste can that holds 2-3 gallons of water. We then use this water to flush the toilet or I use it to hand-water plants.

"We catch the rinse water in a plastic dishpan when we hand-wash dishes, pour it into a five-gallon bucket we keep outside the back door and use it to hand-water plants.

"We also catch the water we use in the bathroom sink to wash/rinse our hands using a shallow plastic basin that fits in the sink. We then add it to the water saved from the tub or put in the bucket for hand-watering.

"The cost to do this was minimal -- two plastic wastebaskets (one for each tub), two plastic basins that fit the bathroom sinks, a plastic dishwashing pan. We have been surprised at the amount of water we save for reuse each day! I would estimate that it is easily five gallons per day. That may not sound like much, but that's just for the two of us. A family of 3-4 would obviously save much more."

Sunday, February 3, 2008

I finally learned to have a peaceful and solitary lunch

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel February 3, 2008)

My husband and son are well trained. Come lunchtime, they know better than to interrupt my dining with idle chatter, business talk or rhetorical questions.

When I sit down at the table -- a clean, pretty table free of distracting clutter -- I want my focus to be on eating and eating alone.

A slow, quiet, mindful meal is my objective.

After decades spent eating on the run, having meals cut short by phone calls, work demands or a child's needs, I find myself insisting on calmness at suppertime. I've finally reached a stage in life where meals have earned their own time slot. The kids -- no longer babies -- are independent enough to fix their own food.

Work no longer dictates that I be in the car during lunchtime, and the ever-present tugs of family life have subsided sufficiently to permit the occasional breather. A lovingly prepared repast has regained its status as an event in and of itself.

This period was a long time coming and now that it has arrived, I'm fiercely protective of its presence.

These days, lunch is about experiencing the flavor, texture and taste of each morsel being devoured. It is a chance to push the pause button on life and savor the moment.

I didn't arrive at this Zen-like state of food awareness without effort. Several layers of life-in-the-new-millennium had to be shed before the first "in-the-moment" meal could be consumed.

And in the beginning, there was the phone. . . . It had to be turned off.

But turning off a phone is a surprisingly difficult thing to do. The very thought of doing so invokes a slew of "what ifs."

What if someone important is calling? What if it's a business call or a question that needs to be answered right away? What if it's a customer who will go elsewhere if they get a message instead of a real person? What if it's an emergency -- one of the children in trouble or an elderly parent who needs help?

Well, it could be any of those things. But the reality is, they all can wait. After all, a meal -- even a slowly savored, calmly eaten one -- takes an unexpectedly short time. How short? From the time I sit down at the table, to the time I wash my dishes in the sink, less than a half hour has usually passed. Surely, whoever is calling can wait 20 to 30 minutes.

Once the phone is on silent mode, a welcome freedom settles in. Just knowing that no calls will disrupt the dining experience encourages relaxation. And a meal eaten without stress or anxiety is a meal that will be better digested.

Author and certified nutritional consultant Lori Lipinski agrees. In her online article "Seven Tips to Enhance Digestion . . . And Get the Most Out of the Foods You Eat," Lipinski said, "Eating when under stress or in a hurry inhibits the production of hydrochloric acid and enzymes that are necessary for proper digestion."

Lipinski may be right, but it doesn't take an expert to explain the obvious.

Food eaten slowly when you can concentrate on it is less likely to produce that all too familiar feeling of internal discomfort. I know it does for me. Plus, a peacefully consumed meal makes me feel grounded and more in the moment -- qualities too often lacking in our on-the-go, must-get-everything-done-right-now world.

So, when midday comes around and my stomach is sending out hunger signals, I look forward to my lunchtime routine. I go into the kitchen, clear away any leftover morning mess and set about preparing my food. It's a good feeling to know ahead of time what I'm going to eat and the fashion in which it is going to be consumed. I eat variations on the same basic meal each day -- a bun-less garden burger with melted cheese and avocado, sweet potato, tabbouleh and half a baked potato accompanied by a glass of water. A cloth napkin and place mat add to the pleasant atmosphere.

With my husband and son trained to respect my need for peace and quiet, all that's left to do is enjoy my meal. There'll be plenty of time for talk and phone calls during the rest of the day. But for now, for at least a few precious minutes -- I can disconnect with the rest of the world and concentrate on the task at hand. Let the feast begin!