Monday, April 27, 2009

Even adults should make a little time to play

Simply Living

Every day I play — sometimes for a little while, sometimes longer. I make a point to make time each day for a bit of lighthearted, joyful expression.

Children play constantly, as we assume they should. When my now-adult son was young, his daily shower was less about washing than it was about wishing. He'd stand under the steamy downpour with small plastic animals that magically transformed into talking adventurers involved in complicated quests. Ralph and I would listen from our nearby bedroom and smile wistfully, knowing how fleeting such moments can be. Soon our child would grow up, too big for fanciful dialogues with imaginary playmates, and playtime would be over.

For most of us, playtime ends when adulthood begins. Why should it? Being grown-up doesn't preclude the need for moments of fancy. It might mean that we need them more.

Stress-inducing situations constantly besiege the adult population. In the past week alone, my husband and I have grappled with the increasing rates of our family's health insurance, our pregnant daughter and son-in-law's struggle to secure a desired home from an online auction site before their baby is born, the breakdown of our refrigerator and numerous other less major, but still stress-provoking, problems. We've dealt with each of these issues in addition to our normal workload — just another typical week in the life of modern American adults.

Fortunately, amid all the mental clutter, we also took time to play. I doubt if I could handle the stresses of everyday life as successfully as I do without a daily break (or two or three) to reshuffle my mind set.

A 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that adults who regularly played cards or board games, did puzzles, read, wrote, danced or played musical instruments reduced their chances of developing dementia by up to 63 percent. What a simple way to maintain mental health! Although play is cheaper and safer than medicine, we routinely shrug it off as an insignificant, unnecessary indulgence.

Society tells us that play is for children, not for adults. I don't agree.

Reading is one of my favorite ways to unwind, but it's by no means my sole method of addressing stress. I play Scrabble and do Sudokus and crossword puzzles. I garden, watch the birds, jump on the trampoline, walk around the lake and go for quiet rows across still water. I also spend intimate time with my husband. It's a type of play often overlooked as a component of adult health. That's unfortunate because for adults, the physical element of a loving relationship provides such amazing benefits. It reduces stress, strengthens the immune system, improves cardiovascular health, reduces pain, acts as an effective sleep aid and increases self-esteem. It's also a great way to burn calories. But that hardly matters to a society that's too embarrassed to discuss the topic seriously.

I look back on my childhood and the young years of my own children with great fondness. Memories galore spring to mind of my own playtimes and, more recently, of the playful adventures of my now grown-up children. As I watch the people I love mature, I can only hope they manage to maintain many of the whimsical ways of their youth. It doesn’t matter if those ways manifest themselves on some athletic playing field, within the pages of a novel, through music, online activities, tactile explorations or through any of the many other avenues we grownups use to diffuse the everyday stresses of normal life.

The important thing is to make play a priority.

We are never too old, too sick or too weary to take a break from the serious work of being an adult. Play is too important to disregard, disdain or dismiss as ridiculous. Just the opposite — it might be the most serious and important form of self-help we can choose.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Lakeside living brings back childhood memories Living by water brings calm to adult routine

Reflections of the clouds and trees are among the many pleasures of lakeside life.

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel April 20, 2009)

For 34 of my 57 years, I've lived next to lakes. On countless mornings, I've watched a steamy mist rise over still water. In the evenings, I've enjoyed the play of color in a lake's glassy surface as the sun sinks toward the horizon. I've listened to the rhythm of raindrops intruding upon a lake's flat surface and admired the reflection of clouds on its ripples. I've seen ospreys soar overhead, ducks swim by and herons stalk fish along the shoreline. My sense of self is interwoven with the ways of water.

I grew up in Yardley, Pa., by Silver Lake, although "Brown Lake" would have been a more appropriate moniker. The 10-acre mud-bottom pond was about 25 feet in front of the house my parents bought when I was an infant. I have no idea why my parents chose that particular place to live. My father couldn't swim, and neither of them ever expressed an interest in water activities. I, however, was enthralled from the start by Silver Lake's many charms.

Every day for my first 17 years, I ate my morning meal in the kitchen next to picture windows overlooking the water. How my mind wandered as I crunched spoonfuls of raisin bran and avoided drinking my milk. I watched the wind blow across the lake's surface and imagined myself being swept away to other places, other times.

Silver Lake gave me freedom. In winter, I skated across its bumpy ice. In summer, I swam in its muddy waters. I waded in its shallows and waited patiently for sunfish to swim into my cupped hands. They always did, and after holding them close for the briefest of moments I always let them go. Their urge to live was too strong to ignore.

On my 13th birthday, my parents gave me a small aluminum rowboat, and after that I proceeded to spend as much time as possible in that boat on the lake. Most of the time I rowed, but sometimes I put the oars down and simply let the wind carry me along from one end of the lake to the other. I drifted along both mentally and physically. My perspective changed when I was on water. Instead of being a child inside my parents' house, I was an adventurer on a quest — far enough away to feel separate and whole, yet close enough still to go home for supper.

I moved away from Yardley when I went to college and, although my parents remained there for several more years, I met my husband while still an undergraduate, and we rarely returned. It wasn't until Ralph and I moved to our current property 17 years ago that I realized how much a part of me those memories of Silver Lake had become.

Our home now is also by a small lake, about the same size as the one in Yardley. Both homes are close to the water with ever-changing, expansive views. In Yardley, I watched Canada geese fly overhead. In Florida, I see sandhill cranes, ibises, wood storks and herons silhouetted against the sky. In my Lake County pond, sunfish don't dot the shallows, but plenty of bass do. I sit in the kitchen eating my own home-cooked meals — no longer accompanied by the dreaded glass of milk — watching with delight as birds fill their stomachs with tasty treats plucked from the water.

I'll never tire of living by water. No matter how many times I gaze over a lake's shimmering surface, there's always something different to see.

For my first 17 years, wave after wave of gentle persistence shaped me into the person I eventually became. It took a while, but for the past 17 years, I've returned to a place very similar to my childhood home. There's a symmetry in how things worked out. They say you can never return to your youth, but in a way, I have. Thanks to lakeside living, I've gone back in time. Water — that most basic of elements — is mine for the taking, and I take it in gratefully every chance I get.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Screech owls return to old nest in mailbox

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel April 13, 2009)

In bird hierarchy, screech owls trump wrens. At least that's my conclusion after watching the nest-building activities of both species.

It began with wrens.

A pair of Carolina wrens — cheery, chatty little biddies with an upbeat attitude and a do-what-it-takes work ethic — constructed a leafy home inside an old mailbox we mounted a few years back under the front porch eaves. Working industriously for an entire day, both male and female wren converted the metal letter receptacle into a soft-sided cavern of plant fibers, grass and leaf litter. Unfortunately, their ambitious efforts were in vain. Shortly after the nest was completed, an Eastern screech owl swooped in and commandeered the space, sweeping away most of the wrens' work in the process.

I had a feeling that would happen. Screech owls are repeat nesters. When a nesting site proves successful, the couple — screech owls tend toward monogamy — return to it annually.

For the past two years, a pair of these diminutive owls with tufted ears have claimed that mailbox for their own brood-raising activities. Although small for owls, screech owls are much larger than the tiny wrens. Displacing them probably wasn't an issue.

As disappointed as I was to see the wrens' work destroyed, I was pleased to have the owls back. Their presence has become a reliable indicator of spring's arrival. When the weather warms, I find myself listening in the evening for the owl's plaintive wail, a series of quavering whistles descending in pitch.

"WhheeeeEEeeeeeee ..." the screech owl sings to the darkening night. "WhheeeeEEeeeeeee ..."

Vocalization is the Eastern screech owl's calling card. If you are outside at dusk and hear what sounds like a small, weak pony whinnying mournfully, you're probably standing quite close to an adult screech owl.

Although the cry is a haunting sound that conjures images of creaky stairways and cobweb-cloaked halls, it is actually a means to mark territory or attract a mate. In the case of the birds living in our converted mailbox, the twilight whinnying probably tells others, "This area is taken. Stay away."

The wrens got the message and went off in search of a new nest site. What's odd is that the same thing happened a year ago. Last spring, Carolina wrens — also lifetime-maters that return annually to previous nesting sites — built an elaborate structure in the same mailbox as they did this year, only to have the entire nest — eggs and all — flushed out when the screech owls appeared.

How could birds smart enough to return to the same nesting spot annually neglect to remember that large predator birds had previously commandeered their space? Nature is full of mystery and contradiction. I suppose innate abilities go only so far.

Watching the nest-building developments of the two species has been interesting and thought-provoking. Despite their similarities — mating for life, returning to previous nesting sites, a fancy for old metal mailboxes — wrens and screech owls have decidedly different ideas of how a nest should look. The little songbirds like a tightly woven, tidy nest that will provide their offspring with a safe, soft and cozy spot to develop, while screech owls couldn't care less about such amenities.

Their idea of home is a hollow hole, period. End of discussion. After sweeping out most of the wrens' nest — the lazy birds didn't even bother to get rid of it all — the owls proceeded to lay eggs directly on the floor of the metal mailbox. Because they are hunters, maybe they don't feel a need to create a protective space. Perhaps they figure their talons, keen hearing and sharp eyes will provide the protection necessary to raise their young.

Whatever their reasoning, I'm looking forward to watching the development of a brood. It takes 28 days for screech owl eggs to hatch and another 32 days before the owlets fly off on their own. That means I have about two months ahead of exciting bird watching. Last year, I never managed to see the hatchlings. Maybe this year I will.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Broken stuff gets schooled in hard knocks

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel April 6, 2009)

The other day, our computer connection wasn't working, so I did what I usually do when something around the house breaks or is not functioning properly: I called my husband.

"Ralph," I yelled from my office to his. "The stupid computer is not letting me get online."

I have an admittedly fickle relationship with the computer. When it works, I love it. When it stops doing what it's supposed to do, my love turns sour. By the time I called down the hall for my husband's assistance, I had already entered loathing mode.

"I don't know what's wrong," I complained to my ever-patient and capable partner. "I tried rebooting, defragging and emptying the temp files. Still, I can't seem to get online. Do you think you can fix it?"

He said he would try.

I went about my work doing tasks that didn't require an Internet connection and eventually abandoned the computer completely to do errands in town. I was gone for three hours, and while I was away, my husband labored over the computer problem. Most of that time, he was on the phone seeking help from the phone company's technical-support crew.

A lower-level employee told him to type in a series of unintelligible letters and numbers in order to ascertain the speed at which the computer was communicating with the telephone company through the DSL line. About an hour after following various commands, none of which worked, she transferred my husband to a higher-level technician.

The new tech-support person suggested going to to determine the Internet connection. Of course, Ralph couldn't do that because the problem he was trying to resolve was our inability to get an Internet connection.

The technician then tried to determine how strong — or nonexistent — our connection was by putting Ralph through another series of exercises typing the word ping followed by various number and letter combinations. When he finished following these cryptic instructions, the technician concluded that from his end, our connection was fine.

"Unplug the router and plug the computer directly into the modem," the tech guy directed.

Bingo! It worked!

"There's your problem," the responder said. "Your router must be bad. Buy a new router."

I happened to be at Walmart when Ralph called to give me the news.

"Good, you're at Walmart," he said. "Go to the electronics section."

Following his directions, I found the correct router and put it in the shopping cart.

"It costs $49.95," I told him. "Should I get it?"

His response was, "Wait a minute."

In the background, I heard a muffled banging sound.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"Just a little percussive maintenance," he replied.

"Ah," I mused, "percussive maintenance, my husband's response to most electronic problems."

About 30 seconds later, Ralph's voice filled the phone.

"The router's working," he said. "I shook it a bit and gave it a few taps, plugged it back in and we're good to go. You can put the router back on the shelf. We just saved 50 bucks."

"It's working?" I asked with surprise. "You fixed it with a few taps and a shake?"

I don't know why I was so astonished. My husband may be the gentlest man around, but he has no compunction about punching components if that's what it takes to make them function again. He has been applying what he calls "percussive maintenance" to stubborn electronic problems for years.

Radio not working? DVD on the fritz? Toaster stuck? Computer acting up? Ralph's answer to them all: A good whack will put them back on track.

I hate to admit it — it goes against my sense of propriety — but his method is effective more times than not.

"Maybe there's dust in there, and a light pounding moves it around," he explains. "Or it could be loose wires or a poor connection, and the shaking puts things back in place."

His explanations seem lacking, but I can't deny the effectiveness of his hard-handed approach.

There's a $50 bill in my wallet thanks to my husband's ability to think outside the box. On the subject of percussive maintenance, label me pro-pounding.