Monday, February 23, 2009

He puffs and stomps, she ignores it - sound familiar?

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel February 23, 2009)

'You've got to see this," Ralph said as he rushed back to the house from the nursery. "The sandhill cranes are out here and one of them is bobbing up and down."

"Ooh!" I exclaimed. "I bet it's doing a mating dance. I'll grab my camera and be right there."

Two minutes later, I'm outside. My bare feet carefully avoid red-ant hills as I squat down in a grassy spot about 50 feet from the birds. The cranes -- perhaps the same pair that roosts nightly on a small exposed sandbar in the lake -- are along the water's edge slowly trolling the shallows for food. Every few minutes one or another stops feeding to survey its surroundings.

Squatting is uncomfortable so I eventually settle into a sitting position and play with the zoom until I have the birds tightly framed in the viewfinder. Within minutes, I'm enjoying a front-row seat at a show of avian amour.

The male bird, slightly larger than his female counterpart, leaves the shoreline to walk toward a mounded earthen berm. With his mate following, the large birds hop up the hillock and settle onto the flat weedy surface.

After a quick peek over his shoulder at his partner, the male fluffs out his tail feathers and extends his impressively broad wings. Turning so his rear end faces his mate, the crane proceeds to jump up and down, flapping his wings in the process.

After four leaps, he switches tactics.

A slender blade of grass is now the subject of his attention. As if the blade were a snake intent on devouring eggs instead of a slim weed bending in the breeze, the male proceeds to peck at it repeatedly. For good measure, he also pounces upon it twice as if telling a potential predator, "You're not going to bother my family!"

In all of 19 seconds, the show is over. The male bird immediately reverts to normal behavior, meandering along the ground in search of food. But what a 19 seconds it was!

In that short time Mr. Sandhill Crane showed his missus how big and strong he is and how protective he can be of his family. Was his partner impressed? I don't think so. Throughout this dazzling display of male virility and protective prowess, the female crane paid little to no attention. Basically, she ignored him.

When it comes to demonstrations of showoff-y masculinity, humans and birds have much in common. The males of both species occasionally act like fools.

I made a video of the sandhill crane mating dance and posted it on Facebook. My friend, Stephen Scarlato in New Haven, Conn., watched it and left the following post: "I showed Bridget (my girlfriend) this video. Her reaction: 'That's totally us, as birds.' That is, one dancing around extravagantly, one totally ignoring . . . :)"

How often have women watched men try their hardest to impress them with boisterous behavior, self-proclaiming boasts and blatant brags?

Puffing out their feathers and stomping up and down might turn a few heads, but women often respond to such displays by rolling their eyes, shaking their head and hoping with all their might that their hormonally charged partners won't do something stupid such as get in a fight.

Sure, we want a life mate who will protect and defend us, but virility has its limits. Strength is important but so are tenderness, sensitivity and compassion.

Maybe birds have it easier than humans. With needs so basic -- food, water and a safe nesting place -- they can afford to act extravagantly -- even foolishly -- at times, stomping on blades of grass and leaping into the air with wings spread wide. If their mate ignores them, well, there's always next time.

They have the luxury of spending all day, every day with the object of their attention. Sandhill cranes are monogamous and mate for life.

I felt privileged for the chance to peek into the world of these fascinating birds and ponder the wonders of another way of life.

People are certainly not sandhill cranes, but we're not as far removed from our avian counterparts as some might like to think. We can learn much by watching wildlife -- not only about the animals we observe but also about ourselves.

Monday, February 16, 2009

A few right words can show the love

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel February 16, 2009)

A few days ago, I was talking to one of our customers while her husband helped my husband load bamboo plants onto the back of their trailer. While the men busied themselves with tractors, tarps and tie-downs, we women made small talk about our children, homes and garden projects.

After telling me about a waterfall her husband had built in their backyard, she made a comment that surprised me.

"I have the best husband," she said. "He can do anything, fix anything and build anything."

"I'm afraid I have to correct you on that," I replied. "My husband is the best husband there is."

We sat there laughing, two strangers of a similar age who have both been happily married for many years.

My customer's words surprised me because they are so rare. Casual comments about our partners are far more likely to include complaints and criticisms than compliments and praise. We don't think twice about telling complete strangers our mate's bad habits, unpleasant mannerisms or unacceptable behaviors but we seldom share tales of their kind actions, loving gestures or admirable qualities.

Why is that? Why is it easier to disparage the people who are dearest to us rather than laden them with praise?

Valentine's Day was this past weekend, and people across the country took advantage of the holiday to proclaim their love with cards and gifts. But do we really need a designated day to announce our affection? Shouldn't our entire lives reflect the affection we feel for our partners?

I've been married to my husband for 38 years and I never tire of singing his virtues. Ralph isn't perfect but he comes mighty close. He's smart and handsome, strong and gentle, hardworking and playful. His easygoing, patient nature is the perfect counterbalance to my often emotional, erratic self.

We work well together, agree on important issues and share the same priorities. Our marriage is full of soothing patterns and exciting surprises. The gratitude I feel for our shared life only increases each day.

I expect most people in relationships feel similar affection for their partners. Characteristics and qualities may differ, but beneath all the layers of everyday life is the undercurrent of love upon which unions are built.

I wonder how different the world would be if more people -- like my customer the other day -- expressed appreciation for their partners instead of reverting to the far more common words of mockery and ridicule.

Media rules the world. We are constantly told how to look, act and think. On Feb. 14, the powers that be tell us now is the time to express our love. Buy a present for your sweetheart -- the more expensive the gift, the deeper your love.

I'm sorry, but I just don't buy it.

Love isn't measured by dollars and cents. It's not something that can be purchased over the counter or ordered from a catalog. Real affection -- true caring and devotion -- is expressed every day by kindnesses large and small, by actions, reactions, by hugs, kisses and -- most importantly -- by words.

Saying "I have the best husband" is one person's way of acknowledging the passion that can remain in a marriage even after 40 years have come and gone. My customer might not have realized it at the time, but she gave her husband an early Valentine's Day gift when she visited our nursery last week.

I'm not referring to the purchase of bamboo plants to add to their landscape. The present she offered was far less obvious. Her five little words stated in a matter-of-fact tone was a gift so grand, it deserves to be passed on.

Give someone you love a hug. Tell them you care. Valentine's Day may be over, but the future is just beginning. Fill your tomorrows with declarations of love. When all is said and done, it's the only gift that counts.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Few days of chill a small price to pay for this sun-kissed paradise

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel February 9, 2009)

If my favorite color were tan, I would be ecstatic when I look out my window. The recent cold snap has leached most of the green out of the garden, leaving behind an ecru landscape. Hibiscus, pentas, gingers and impatiens withered up when the temperature dropped. The plump leaves of ground covers such as wedelia, wandering Jew and spider plant turned to mush, their bright colors faded to dull blackish-browns. I expected the bananas to succumb to the cold - most winters they do - but during this freeze, unexpected trees were also affected.

Tropical fruiters such as the carambola tree, papaya, mango and pineapple were badly hit, but so were normally hardy plants such as Surinam cherries and mulberry trees. Even emerging fruit on our loquats and our neighbor's grapefruits were damaged when the thermometer dipped to the mid- to low 20s.

It really got cold.

In past years, such an extensive kill-back would have brought me to my knees. I would have bemoaned our fate.

"What are we going to do?" I would have wondered. "Everything looks terrible!"
I don't do that anymore.

Despite the recent cold snap, I am taking it in stride. I've lived in Florida long enough to know how quickly the weather will warm up, how soon new leaves will appear and how pretty the landscape will look again. The beauty of it all is that none of these changes will take long to happen.

Florida is a state of immediate gratification. Instead of lasting for months, winter lasts for days - sometimes only for hours.

Plants that look dead often spring back to life once the sun has been shining on them for a couple of weeks.

When I moved here 21 years ago from gray Cape Cod, I was awe-struck by all the sunshiny days. I hadn't realized it until I moved away, but Cape Cod was a rather dreary place to be. Winters were long, chilly and raw. Springtime was exciting but it was also muddy. Even during summer, when the weather finally warmed to the 70s and 80s, we rarely experienced more than two days in a row without overcast skies.
By contrast, the sun hardly ever disappears from Floridian skies. Even now as I look out upon the cold-decimated landscape, I can imagine how vibrant everything will look a couple months from now.

The suddenly tan landscape acts as a reminder of things I like best about Florida - the quick turnaround of seasons, the rapid resurgence of all things botanical, the inevitable warmth that's never far off.

For the moment, the only thing I'm doing about the cold damage is waiting it out. There will be time enough in March to trim back dead branches and rake up fallen leaves. Right now is the time to appreciate how good we have it.

Unlike family and friends in other parts of the country, we're not blanketed by snowdrifts, driving over ice-slicked roads or withering under a shroud of gray skies and nose-numbing winds.

We're merely experiencing a sliver of the shivers most Americans deal with daily. A few days of chill and the loss of some greenery is a small price to pay for the nearly semitropical climate Central Floridians enjoy most of the year.

That is not to say we should resist complaining when the thermometer dips. Bemoaning the weather - whether it is too cold or too hot - is human nature. The important thing is to keep it in perspective.

Even in the midst of one of the coldest snaps on record, Florida weather is a wondrous thing. Accept the present, anticipate the future and appreciate how lucky we are. Warm days are ahead. That's a given.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A sweet addiction


My son says I’m addicted and maybe he’s right.

If the definition of an addict is someone dependent on a substance, then label me hooked. My drug of choice, however, is not a drug at all. It’s a zero-calorie, zero-carbohydrate, plant-based sweetener that – unlike sugar - doesn’t induce a dangerous spike in blood sugar. The product is stevia and the way I see it, my dependency upon it is a positive addiction.

Stevia is a member of the Compositae family of herbs – the same family as asters, sunflowers and daisies. The indigenous people in Paraguay and Brazil have used the leaves of this small shrub for hundreds of years to sweeten beverages and medicines but it wasn’t until the 1970’s that other countries began to incorporate the naturally sweet leaves into food products.

The Japanese were the first to jump on the stevia bandwagon. About 30 years ago Japan approved the use of stevia to enhance and sweeten foods and its use quickly became widespread. Today it represents 40 percent of that country’s sweetener market. Although China, India, Israel, Australia, New Zealand and Canada have recognized stevia’s taste-enhancing benefits, it wasn’t introduced to the American consumer until 1996. I discovered stevia a few years later and have been adding it to my daily cups of tea ever since.

Unlike Splenda, Sweet N Low or Equal, stevia is not an artificially derived chemical product and unlike sugar, it neither raises blood sugar levels nor adds calories. Fresh picked stevia leaves are 30 times sweeter than table sugar while a purified extract made out of the leaves can be up to 400 times sweeter. Stevia comes in both a powder and liquid form and even though both types share space in my pantry, my latest favorite is the liquid form.

“Why bother pouring it into your tea?” my son asked the other morning while watching me prepare my morning brew. “Why not just inject it directly into your veins?”

I may be addicted but I’m not that far gone.

Mainlining stevia is out of the question but that doesn’t mean the herb’s medicinal qualities are without merit. In Paraguay and Brazil, members of the Guarani tribes have historically used stevia as a remedy for heartburn. Recent research suggests it may also be beneficial to treat hypertension, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. Such claims are impressive but that’s not why I use stevia. I like it because it is sweetens my tea without adding calories or potentially dangerous chemical additives.

Apparently, several major beverage companies like those features too. In an attempt to cater to the demands of health and diet conscious consumers, both Coca Cola and Pepsi are in the process of developing stevia-sweetened drinks. Coca Cola will market a version of Sprite during 2009 as well as two flavors of Odwalla juice while Pepsi’s stevia enhanced offerings will include Sobe Lifewater and a Tropicana Orange drink this year.

The only drawback that I can find to stevia is its high price tag. A four-ounce bottle of Stevia Clear Liquid manufactured by Wisdom Natural Brand under the name of SweetLeaf Sweetener costs $14.95. It took me just over two months and about a hundred cups of tea and homemade stevia-laced lemon and limeade to use up the liquid in that bottle. At that rate, a year’s supply of the naturally sweet liquid would cost about $90. That’s a fair amount of money but I don’t mind spending it because it enables me to enjoy my favorite beverages without worry about added calories or health concerns.

Prior to the 20th century, a typical American consumed only 5 pounds of sugar a year. Today we ingest 135 pounds of the refined white powder annually. Not surprisingly, health problems have increased too. Sugar has been linked to a number of health concerns including cardiovascular disease, cancer, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, periodontal disease, depression and allergies.

America’s obsession with sugar makes my addiction to stevia seem minor by comparison. If more people got hooked on positive food choices – whether it is switching from white flour to whole grains, cutting back on processed foods, eliminating hydrogenated oils or reducing their sugar intake - we’d be a far healthier nation.

Being addicted isn’t always bad. The problem isn’t the addiction itself – it’s what you choose to be addicted to.