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.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Power outage illuminates our dependence on routines

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel August 11, 2008)

The power at our house went out on three separate occasions recently. The first two outages were relatively brief, but the third lasted eight long hours. About 90 minutes into that final blackout I was struck by a shocking realization: I'm inordinately dependent on electricity.

Before the storm, I hadn't thought of myself as such a plugged-in person. More eclectic than electric, my self-image revolved around someone comfortable with basic needs and at ease with her surroundings.

I suppose that's still true, as long as those surroundings and needs include an on-the-grid house with working electricity and high-speed Internet access.

The lightning strike happened about 5:30 p.m. Although the electric company responded quickly, repairs weren't completed until 2 a.m. That meant from about 8 p.m. on we were literally left in the dark.

Fortunately, I wasn't caught completely unprepared. From years of summer storms, I have learned to secure a stash of emergency supplies. Candles and flashlights -- even one or two with batteries that work -- were on hand, together with plenty of food in the pantry. Our gas oven depends on an electric pilot, so it's useless during outages. Not so with the stovetop, however. The top burners flicker into action when lit by a match.

Water is essential. Because ours comes from a well powered by an electric pump, I keep at least a dozen bottles in a low cupboard with more in the freezer. Rather than buy bottled water, I use recycled 64-ounce juice containers filled from the tap. During outages, water is invaluable when one of us gets thirsty, needs to brush teeth or flush the toilet. Plus, the frozen bottles help keep food in the freezer from thawing.

Three of us live at home these days, and no one lacked essentials during this recent outage. The only things missing were the comforts and conveniences of modern-day life -- running water, air conditioning, lights, TV, microwave, computer and Internet access.

And yet, despite this less than severe situation, a strange languor set in after sunset when candlelight was our sole illumination. The house felt empty and eerily quiet. Without the refrigerator working, no electric hum filled the air with ambient noise. Absent also was the glow of LED lights emanating from the usual collection of electronic equipment.

Thinking back, I'm surprised by how inconvenienced, lost and impatient the outage made me feel. My comfortable patterns -- evening routines of making dinner and TV watching, cleaning up the kitchen, checking for e-mail and reading in bed before going to sleep -- were replaced by frustration and boredom. Many times that night I forgot the power was off and tried to turn on the faucet. Repeatedly I entered the kitchen intending to get something out of the fridge before remembering I shouldn't open it. How accustomed I'd become to living life a certain way.

I didn't enjoy this forced reduction of societal trappings. Although I'm a proponent of conservation and of living more harmoniously with nature, I have no desire to turn back the clock or rid myself of modern conveniences. Rather than seek fewer technological attachments, I wish we'd prioritize the development of efficient and affordable alternative energy systems. When power goes out -- as it does so often during summer storms -- homes should, at the very least, be backed up by alternative systems that maintain basic appliances.

We live in the Sunshine State after all. Why isn't more effort made to harness the sun? It seems crazy to me that we continue to pour billions of dollars into tapping environmentally harmful fossil fuels while the development of safe, clean sources of renewable energy idles by the wayside.

The three power outages we experienced last week might have blacked out the lights but they illuminated my thoughts. They made me realize how much I enjoy my comforts and appreciate my routines. More importantly, they reaffirmed my conviction that alternative energy systems are essential if we want to maintain the lifestyles most of us have come to depend upon. If more people take the time to tell our lawmakers to support the development of solar and wind power, perhaps the future will remain bright for everyone.

Side note: In last week's column, I mentioned that muscadine grapes are now ripe at local you-pick farms. Several readers wrote asking for more information on how to find the two farms mentioned in the article. Tommy Free's Lake Apshawa Farm & Nursery is at 18030 W. Apshawa Road, Clermont, 325-394-3313. Tracey and Fred Estok's Howey-in-the-Hills farm, Valley View Vineyard, is at 22370 County Road 455, 352-243-4032. Before going to any you-pick farm, always call ahead for hours of operation and fruit availability.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The red pentas is that one plant that can do it all

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel August 4, 2008)

If I had to pick one plant -- one flowering plant -- to place in my yard, I'd choose Pentas lanceolata, also known as star flower or star cluster. It's available in lavender, white and multiple shades of pink, but my choice would be a red pentas -- full size, not dwarf -- and I'd be sure to position it right outside my window.

If I were limited to only one plant -- and I hope I never am -- I'd want that plant to have multiple assets.

Ideally, it should bloom profusely year-round, grow without needing much care, attract wildlife, work well as a cut flower and have a wonderful fragrance. The pentas fulfills all those preferences but the fragrance.

Planted in loamy, moderately moist soil, a small one-gallon potted plant will turn into a compact, bloom-covered shrub in a single summer. Although it has a tendency to get leggy, that trait can be turned into an advantage. Pruned blooms can be used in cut-flower arrangements -- they're long-lasting, upright and cheery -- and can be turned into starts.

To propagate pentas, all you have to do is trim the bloom and most of the leaves off a soft-stemmed shoot and dip the stem in rooting formula before pressing it into potting soil. When kept in a shady, moist location, the cutting will develop roots that will soon grow deep and strong enough to sustain the plant on its own.

I like adding pentas to bouquets, but what I like most about this perennial bloomer is its amazing ability to attract hummingbirds and butterflies.

How hummingbirds and butterflies know when a pentas has been added to the landscape is one of nature's great mysteries. All I know is that this inexpensive, common landscape plant acts like a magnet to fluttery fliers.

Pentas is the host plant for the Sphinx moth, a hummingbird look-alike that comes out at dusk to feed.

Pentas is also a nectar source for more than a dozen members of the lepidoptera family, including several varieties of swallowtails, the orange-barred sulphur, monarch and the Gulf fritillary.

But the pentas' most outstanding attribute is the way it attracts real hummingbirds -- the smallest birds in the world. I never tire of watching them flit about the yard in search of food.

Hummingbirds are feathered jewels that weigh about as much as a penny and hatch from eggs the size of jelly beans.

Although they can see a wider range of colors than people can, these small birds with large brains are partial to red, the color of most nectar-producing blooms. With wings that beat an average of 80 times a second and speeds up to 30 miles an hour, they seem to appear out of nowhere to hover above the star-like clusters of red pentas blooms.

Appearing simultaneously methodical and manic, a hummingbird zooms to a pentas shrub. With its long, needle-like bill and specially adapted tongue, it buzzes systematically from one blossom to another before zipping off.

The entire feeding process -- which may include stops at dozens of blooms -- is over in seconds, but to maintain their body weight, these agile fliers have to eat every 10 to 15 minutes during waking hours.

In volume, a single adult hummingbird consumes eight times its body weight daily.

The single red pentas outside my office window is a constant source of delight and entertainment. When I'm not enjoying the sight of a butterfly landing on the rounded flower heads, I'm anticipating the arrival of the fast-flying hummingbirds that have claimed my plant as their own.

If for no other reason than the opportunity it provides to watch some of nature's most fascinating creatures, adding a pentas to the landscape is a must.