Sunday, May 24, 2009

Music can fill your soul, lead to soul mate

Jenny and Brett listen to Bill Staines perform their pre-wedding concert.

Simply Living

(first appeared in Orlando Sentinel May 25, 2009)

During the early 1980s, most children grew up on songs from Sesame Street and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. That wasn't the case in our family. Our three oldest children — all born between 1979 and 1983 — were more likely to have memorized the words to "Abiyoyo" and "The Marvelous Toy" than "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"

Tofu, brown rice and freshly picked veggies may have nourished our children's bodies, but folk music fed their imaginations. We listened to the recordings of dozens of artists, but one musician stood out from the rest — Bill Staines. We discovered this New England singer-songwriter at a Boston coffeehouse shortly after his career took off in the '70s, and it was like chancing upon a kindred spirit. His sensitive lyrics, soothing melodies and gentle presence resonated with our homegrown, country lifestyle. By the time Ralph and I were ready to start a family, Staines had already produced several albums, all of which we owned and loved.

If you had visited our much-lived-in Cape Cod home during those early years of our marriage, one of Bill Staines' recordings would probably have been playing. His music was a trellis on which our daily routine was twined. Songs such as "Bridges," "Roseville Fair," "Annie Drew" and "So Sang the River" filled the air and wound their way through our subconscious. We sang along while fixing meals, folding diapers or weeding the garden. Ralph tape-recorded the songs each child favored and, at night, they fell asleep listening to a continuous loop of their favorite tunes.

Given such a background, I was not surprised when my second-oldest child called from her home in Northampton, Mass., about six months ago to make an announcement. Jenny and her fiancé had booked Bill Staines for a private concert the night before their wedding.

"He's available," she said excitedly. "We're thinking of having the concert in a little chapel across the street from Brett's parents' house."

Brett's family lives in the village of Leyden, Mass., just south of the Vermont border, a few hours away from Staines' hometown of Dover, N.H. It turns out that Jenny and her siblings weren't the only children weaned on a diet of folksy tunes. Brett and his brother were, too.

"One of my friends knows the words to all of Bill Staines' songs just like I do," Jenny mentioned a few years ago during a phone conversation. "He grew up listening to Bill's music just like we did. Bill's performing in town this weekend, so Brett and I are going to go together to see him."

That was one of the first times Jenny mentioned Brett, but it wasn't the last. After the concert, the two friends continued to spend time together. A few months later, they finally realized that folk music was just one of many common interests. Friendship grew into love, and a wedding date was set.

Now that two of our four children have entered married life, I often think about what makes a marriage work. Marrying your best friend certainly helps, as does being kind, respectful and patient with each other. It's important to laugh and play frequently and agree on values and priorities. And don't underplay the importance of music. Music is a combination of poetry, philosophy and adventure. Songs tell us stories that transport us to places and times we could never experience otherwise. You can disappear into music — lose yourself and return, gaining energy and insight in the process.

I'm delighted to know that my daughter found a life partner who grew up appreciating the same folk artists she did. Music provides such strength and support. The simple framework of a three-minute tune can steady values, encourage dreams, broaden views and stabilize character. Having Bill Staines perform at my daughter's pre-wedding concert was a gentle way to begin a marriage — with harmony, sweet rhythms, melodic interpretations and lyrical inspiration.

Songs for today that will last a lifetime — they're the beginning steps up a ladder of love.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Watermelons minus water equal tasty treat

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel May 18, 2009)

"I just ate the most delicious watermelon," my daughter told me last week. "I asked the guy at the produce stand to pick out a good one, and he really knew what he was doing."

Despite my best efforts, I never know what I'm doing when choosing watermelons. A ripe melon should sound hollow when tapped, but my aging ears must lack acuity. To me, one thumped melon sounds like another.

Another much-touted technique is to select a melon with a flat yellow patch on its underside. A yellow or cream-colored spot purportedly indicates ripeness, while a white patch means the melon is still green. My success rate with that method is about 50-50.

I've tried pressing my thumb into the indentation left by the stem. If the impression gives, the melon is supposedly ripe. Sometimes that works; sometimes it doesn't. My less-than-stellar record at judging ripeness has affected my desire to buy watermelon. Why waste money on an oversized edible that takes up valuable fridge space without yielding a reliably flavorful reward?

My attitude changed when I discovered drying.

Have you ever tasted dried watermelon? Unless you have a home dehydrator – an inexpensive kitchen gadget readily available in stores — the answer is probably no. You won't find dried watermelon lining the shelves of your local market alongside apricots, pineapples or any of the other more common dehydrated delicacies. That's unfortunate because dried watermelon is manna for the mouth! Evaporate the liquid — watermelons are 93 percent water — and what remains is the sweet flavor of summer fun.

My son Timmy was the first person in our family to try dehydrating slices of the pink flesh. Before Timmy's experiment, we used to juice unwanted melons, but juicing is a messy process. Although the liquefied drink is tasty and refreshing, the work involved is hardly worth the effort.

But dried melons, now that's a different story.

"Oh, my gosh!" I moaned after my first bite. "This is unbelievable!"

After three to six hours of drying, a chunk of watermelon about an inch thick and a few inches long turns into a flat red slab. Although seedless melons are obviously better suited to dehydration, fruits with seeds also can be used if the seeds are first removed. The dried product can be refrigerated or frozen for later use, but in our house, that rarely happens.

"It's so good, I can't stop eating it," I told my husband this morning after finishing off one full rack and beginning another.

I hadn't planned to dry that melon. We purchased it for a family outing, and although nine of us attended the picnic at Rainbow Springs in Dunnellon, most of the melon went untouched.

"Not a very good one, is it?" Ralph asked after slicing off a sliver and giving it a taste.

For the following three days, the bottom shelf in the fridge grew stickier as the volleyball-sized orb took up valuable space. My annoyance grew each time I opened the door.

"Why do I keep buying these things?" I muttered to myself. Then I remembered the dehydrator.

It took my husband about 15 minutes to cut the melon's flesh into bright-colored chunks and layer them on five of the dehydrator's plastic racks. He switched the power on and a stream of warm air immediately flowed through the cylindrical container. The dehydrator ran for about three hours before Ralph turned it off for the night. In the morning, he switched it back on.

I shuffled toward the kitchen, still rubbing sleep from my eyes, when my senses grew excited. My ears picked up the hum of the motor while I inhaled the aroma of summers past. I lifted the dehydrator lid to uncover a rack filled to perfection with nature's own candy.

I ate the dried equivalent of about half a watermelon that day. I'm a sucker for sweets, especially the make-them-yourself, all-natural variety.

Watermelon season is just beginning, and although we try to pick the ripest fruit, it's easy to misjudge. It's also easy to correct our mistakes. When concentrated, even the blandest melon is sugar-sweet. Seek the essence and discover excellence. Now's a great time to give drying a try.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Mother's Day for feathered friends, too

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel May 11, 2009)

This year, Mother's Day was for the birds — and I mean that in the nicest way.

The two sandhill cranes that live on our lake have finally become parents. Although it was their second attempt this spring to create a family, the days leading up to Mother's Day found the devoted couple attentively tending to their offspring.

In March, the same cranes laid eggs and took turns incubating them, but a predator managed to slip in and steal the clutch before the babies hatched. I thought that was the end of this year's parenting attempts. Fortunately, I was wrong. Three weeks after the first eggs disappeared, the birds resumed nesting — same nest, two new eggs, one more chance to make baby cranes.

By the beginning of May, just in time for Mother's Day, the cranes' desire for a family was realized. Mama Crane began strutting her stuff with two fluffy-feathered babies by her side. How exciting!

I've been watching the sandhill cranes for months. In February, I managed to capture on video their mating dance, the male bird's short but provocative demonstration of his strength and virility. In March, I followed their nest-building activities and listened to their bellowing cries as they made it clear to other sandhill cranes that our lake was their territory and theirs alone.

Strong instincts?
I waited hopefully as two large eggs sat in the birds' roughly constructed nest and sighed disappointedly when I looked through my binoculars one day and discovered that the eggs were missing. By the time April rolled around, I didn't know what to expect. Everything I had read suggested that cranes do not reproduce twice in one season. Apparently, the cranes must have missed that memo. Either that or their parental instincts were exceptionally strong.

Maybe I identify with the sandhill cranes more than most because my own childbearing experiences did not go as expected. My first attempt to create life also ended prematurely. Despite the sadness of our long-ago miscarriage, Ralph and I never abandoned our dream of a family. Within a year, I was pregnant again and gave birth to the first of our four children. Twenty-nine years later, my oldest child is married and about to become a mother herself.

Common thread
The circle of life is an awe-inspiring phenomenon. It doesn't matter if the subject of that cycle is people, plants, birds, mammals, insects or tiny one-celled creatures. Regardless of our differences, the desire to reproduce and nurture new life is one thing we all have in common.

As I watch the sandhill cranes go about their daily routine with their babies by their sides, I feel a special connection to not just the birds but to mothers everywhere. Despite our physical diversity and biological differences, mothers share a universal need to impart knowledge, overcome struggles and avoid danger. Bottom line: We want the best for our children.

Being a mom is no small task. It might just be the greatest work a female of any species will ever do. Sandhill cranes go about the business of parenting free from Hallmark reminders of a job well done. They do it because that's what nature intended. That's what nature demands. Their reward comes not from receiving gifts but from giving life. Isn't that what being a mom is all about?

Monday, May 4, 2009

Pulling weeds yields crunchy culinary gems

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel May 4, 2009)

I go a little crazy over freshly picked food.

Consider betony, Stachys floridana.

Betony is a low-growing, square-stemmed plant in the mint family. That's the same lineage, Lamiaceae, shared by basil, mint, rosemary, sage, savory, thyme, lavender and coleus. In our yard, betony grows with abandon around irrigation spigots and in the enriched soil surrounding our fig trees.

Above ground, this Florida native forms a verdant carpet topped with small, rather nondescript clusters of pink blooms. Below ground, masses of white tubers stretch in every direction. The bulbous, peanut-sized nuggets attach to greenery by a series of stringy roots. A tenacious plant, betony is not at all shy about invading garden spaces. Its aggressive growth pattern is reason enough to label it a weed.

But it's such a tasty weed.

Although all parts of this versatile herb are edible, I'm partial to the tubers. Mild-flavored and slightly sweet, with a water chestnut-like consistency, the bite-sized rhizomes produce a satisfying crunch when munched raw. Ralph recently weeded around the fig trees and returned with an overflowing bowl of betony.

"Yum!" I said in anticipation and turned on the tap to fill the sink. Because they grow underground, the tubers require a good pre-eating soak and scrub. It's a pleasant enough process, and I usually nibble my way through the task.

As anyone who gardens knows, there is nothing as flavorful as fresh-picked fruits or vegetables. Any food eaten minutes after being plucked, picked or — in the case of Stachys floridana — dug from the earth, is sweeter, crunchier, and more energy-rich than produce that had to endure transportation and storage. Betony is no exception.

That first batch disappeared quickly.

"Where's the betony?" my husband asked a few hours later as he stood before the open fridge.

"They're gone," I embarrassedly admitted.

"You ate them all? You didn't save any for me?" Fortunately, he sounded more astonished than annoyed.

"They were so good I couldn't help myself," I explained before realizing how little that justification helped my case.

A few days later, my husband brought in another batch. This time I dutifully set aside plenty for him to enjoy later. Rather than devour a whole bowlful in one sitting as an unnamed glutton might do, Ralph is a prudent eater. He nibbles on one or two tubers with a meal or as a snack.

However consumed, betony is a welcome addition to the pre-summer diet. The tubers are ready to eat in April and continue producing quantities of below-ground growth for months. That's part of the problem — it's so prolific. Although it's not listed as an invasive plant by the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council, many people understandably label it noxious. I empathize. If I didn't enjoy eating the tubers so much, I'd consider it a pest plant too. Sometimes I do. When it appears in unwanted spots, we attack the bed with shovel and rake and hope for the best. Inevitably, we miss a few roots, and from them a new crop develops.

Betony exemplifies the confusion over good plant vs. bad plant. Do a plant's many assets outweigh its disadvantages? What makes a wildflower a weed?

On its plus side, betony's medicinal properties have a rich history. "This is a precious herb well worth keeping in your house," wrote Culpeper in the 17th century. In ancient Rome, the chief physician to Emperor Augustus wrote a treatise that proclaimed betony a cure for 47 diseases. Today, over-the-counter betony supplements are purported to strengthen the nervous and cardiovascular systems, relieve headaches and aid digestion.

On its negative side, betony is difficult to get rid of without resorting to potent herbicides.

I asked Linda Roberts, executive director of the Florida Wildflower Foundation, to weigh in on the wildflower-vs.-weed question.

"It's just a matter of knowledge, tolerance and taste," she responded. "People like me who enjoy natural beauty will see these as wildflowers. However, those going for the manicured-lawn look will see them as weeds. We have so many beautiful wildflowers in our midst. People need only to learn to appreciate them for what they are."

If you already have betony in your garden or lawn — and it's likely you do — rather than struggle to eradicate the pest with poisonous chemicals, consider readjusting your perception. Betony is undeniably a weed. But it's a weed that provides free food for the taking. Dig up some tubers and try them. You might find yourself going a little crazy over freshly picked food too.