Monday, June 29, 2009

Rain, rain: Unnerving or mundane

The view from the porch on a rainy day.

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel June 29, 2009)

I've been enjoying the summer rains. The steady tattoo on the metal roof is a soothing sound on a hot afternoon.

I didn't always feel this way. When we lived on Cape Cod, rainy weather made me nervous. The house we lived in had two large skylights, and one of them leaked. I never knew when it would happen. Sometimes it would rain like crazy and we'd have no problem at all. Other times -- maybe when the rain came from a certain direction or with enough force -- water would work its way through the seams and seep into the house in a steady stream.

Although my clever, inventive husband can usually fix anything, the leaky skylight had him stumped. He repeatedly caulked, flashed and sealed the glass, but no matter what he tried, rain inevitably found its way around the repair. Many a rainy night I lay in bed tired but too tense to sleep. My ears were on alert, listening for the drip-drip-drip of rain falling on the yellow pine floors. I'm glad those days are over. As much as I enjoyed the expansive view those skylights provided, I don't miss the anxiety they caused.

In Florida, we live in a skylight-free home. When we built our house, I wanted to install some overhead glass, but Ralph was insistent. "Never again!" he declared. "No more skylights. No more leaks."

He was right about the leaks -- our Florida home doesn't have any. No matter how hard the rain falls or how long a downpour lasts, I don't worry about drips seeping through to ruin ceilings, stain floors or infiltrate siding. Now when it showers, I simply sit back and enjoy the show.

And what a show it has been! After months of drought, plants have responded with a flush of new growth. If one measure of happiness is the loudness of song, then birds and frogs must be a happy lot. Lakes respond, too. After so many wet kisses, water levels have begun to rise. It's a slow dance back to normality, but with the percussive beat of raindrops pouring down, a seasonal rhythm is once again in play.

I find myself gravitating to the porch on rainy afternoons. From beneath the shelter of a well-sealed roof, I can watch the liquid world in action.

Puddles form on the dirt driveway. Droplet-sized splashes dot the lake's surface while a cool breeze replaces the stifling heat. Often I see rainbows.

I've never prized precipitation more than I do now. We went without regular rainfalls for so long, I'd forgotten how uplifting a downpour can be. Rain can be revitalizing. It washes away dirt, dust and stickiness, replenishes the aquifer, increases lake levels and quenches the parched throats of both animal and plant life. It can also be fierce. As my leaky skylight taught me many years ago, even a light rainfall can cause heavy damage, given the right conditions.

As we work our way through the first month of hurricane season, I'm hoping that the conditions for destructive storms don't materialize. Let lakes fill with water. Let plants drink their fill. But let's hope that people enjoy inclement weather within safe, dry shelters.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Learn to keep life's dangers in perspective

Simply Living

(First Appeared in Orlando Sentinel June 22, 2009)

During a recent medical appointment, my daughter and I sat in the waiting room while a large-screen TV tuned to Central Florida News 13 blasted the midday news.

"With these hot temperatures," the reporter began, "health officials are warning residents to be aware of amoebas, an invisible but potentially deadly organism found in bodies of fresh water."

"Great," I thought. "As if the news wasn't scary enough with wars in Iran and Afghanistan, nuclear testing in North Korea and swine flu cases reaching pandemic proportions, Central Florida News 13 has kindly given us one more thing to worry about -- invisible amoebas lurking in overheated freshwater lakes and under-chlorinated swimming pools. That's just lovely."

The report went on to quote an Orange County Health Department official who urged swimmers to take precautions. A local lakeside resident emphasized the importance of becoming educated about water dangers while a would-be boater decided to forgo an afternoon of family  fun on the water after hearing (probably from the reporter) about the potential presence in the lake of "deadly amoebas."

Come on now. Do amoebas actually pose a threat serious enough to keep boaters and swimmers out of the water when the thermometer hits the 90s? Is a report like the one my daughter and I watched necessary in these already overly anxious, tremulous times? Or is it just another example of the media overemphasizing uncommon risks because they're rare and therefore seem more newsworthy?

As with most threats, it's important to separate fact from fear. According to an information sheet produced by the University of South Florida for the Lake County Water Authority, Naegleria fowleri live in fresh water worldwide. Although the single-cell protozoan is common, infection is rare. In order for it to enter human anatomy, water containing the amoeba must be forced up the nose or ears.

That might happen during falls in a high-impact sport such as water skiing or when jumping or diving into water. The infection is not transmittable from person to person and cannot enter the system by swallowing water. The amoeba does not live in salt water. Preventive measures include staying out of stagnant water or poorly maintained swimming pools, wearing nose plugs and earplugs when submerged and avoiding underwater swimming entirely.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention illuminates further:

"Infections are very rare even though Naegleria is commonly found in freshwater. In the 10 years from 1998 to 2007, 33 infections were reported in the U.S. By comparison, during the ten years from 1996 to 2005, there were over 36,000 drowning deaths in the U.S."

Florida ranks third in unintentional drowning, according to the Florida Department of Health. Between 2001 and 2005, 2,327 people drowned in the Sunshine State, an average of 465 people a year.

Let's see if I have this straight: Over a 10-year period, an average of about 3 people per year nationwide were infected with a deadly amoeba while an average of 3,600 people per year (more than 1,000 times as many) drowned. If the media's objective is to inform the public, wouldn't it be more effective to increase water safety education instead of terrifying us with unlikely demons?

Life is dangerous business. In 2007, according to U.S. Coast Guard statistics, 75 Floridians died in boating accidents. The same year, automobile accidents claimed 3,221 lives, according to the state's Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. And the Florida Department of Health reported a whopping 41,956 deaths from heart disease.

Any life lost to disease or accident is a tragedy. We can take measures to minimize risks, but we can't avoid them all. To live a happy life, people must learn to analyze information, make educated decisions, apply precautions and, above all, keep things in perspective.

Unlike the boater interviewed by News 13, I intend to take full advantage of our lake during the hot summer months. Are there amoebas in my lake? Probably, but that doesn't mean they are out to get me. By taking safety measures -- keeping my head above water, avoiding high-impact water sports and wearing nose plugs when submerged -- the already slim risk of amoeba infection can be further decreased.

When the temperature goes up, I plan to cool down in the water. Anyone up for a swim?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Chess doesn't get the respect it deserves


My 17-year-old son is away this weekend playing in a chess tournament. As a parent of a child who has been playing in chess tournaments since he was eight, I find myself wavering between feelings of amazement and disappointment. The kids I’ve met over the years at competitions are an amazing lot. They remain calm under pressure, endure long hours of intense concentration yet somehow manage to stay focused and analytical. While other sports depend at least in part on luck, winning chess players succeed by out-thinking and outmaneuvering their opponents. What I find disappointing is how little attention chess players receive for their achievements. Our basketball-football-soccer-golf-crazed society is rarely interested in the accomplishments of its mental athletes.

The last time a chess tournament made headline news was 1997 when IBM’s chess-playing computer, Deep Blue, defeated then-world champion Garry Kasparov. The only other recent event to catch the attention of the media was the death in Iceland on January 18, 2008 of 64-year-old expatriate and infamous chess maven, Bobby Fischer.

Last July, when Melbourne, Florida resident Makaio Krienke tied for first place in the Under 2000 division of The 35th Annual World Open in Philadelphia, the 17-year-old didn’t return home to a rush of reporters knocking at his door. He eased back into his everyday life without fuss or fanfare. Even 14-year-old Ray Robson of Largo, the youngest chess master in the state of Florida and the youngest International Master in the United States, is relatively unknown outside the chess community. Yet Robson has been astounding the chess world for years. Since he was nine, this holder of seven National Scholastic titles has represented the United States in international scholastic events.

Last week while clicking through TV channels, Toby and I chanced upon coverage of the Scripps 2009 National Spelling Bee. A day or so later we also watched the finals of the National Geographic Bee. Like thousands of other viewers, the mental acuity displayed by the young contestants bowled us over. I’m glad the media covered those events but I couldn’t help wondering why important chess events don’t receive similar coverage.

The chessboard is one of the few level playing fields in the world of competitive sports. Men, women, boys and girls – able-bodied and disabled - compete against each other in divisions determined not by age, gender or physical condition but by strength of mind, mental agility, and performance.

One would think a society that medicates more than 2.5 million of its children for attention deficit and hyper-activity related disorders would pay more attention to a game that teaches players to think slowly, clearly and logically.

Toby began playing chess when he was four. By the time he was six he was routinely defeating his father and older siblings. During summers, while his peers were off at soccer or basketball camp, he joined a band of loyal players at chess camp. Instead of shooting hoops or practicing blocking, the kids at chess camp worked on improving their endgames, developing tactics and honing techniques.

His hard work paid off. After years of competing in dozens of small and large tournaments, Toby is the third highest ranked under-18-year-old in Florida. I have no doubt he’ll achieve his present goal – to earn the title of “Master” before entering UCF this fall.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “The game of chess is not merely an idle amusement; several very valuable qualities of the mind are to be acquired and strengthened by it, so as to become habits ready on all occasions; for life is a kind of chess.”

Franklin was right. Chess is much more than an idle amusement. It’s a sport. It’s a discipline. It’s preparation for life. Isn’t it about time society took notice and gave it the attention it deserves?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Idle hours sooth mind

Simply Living

I did something the other day I don’t usually do – I was idle. I sat by the lake, looked out over the water and enjoyed the view. I wasn’t reading a book or talking on the phone while I sat there. My laptop wasn’t next to me and the television wasn’t on. I wasn’t even listening to the radio or MP3 player. I was sitting - simply sitting – in a beautiful place, being at ease.

Being idle used to be easy. When I was a kid, I’d spend hours lying on the lawn, watching clouds change shapes as they rolled by. I’d go out in my rowboat and drift along, the breeze pushing me from one end of the lake to the other. I’d climb up a crabapple tree and let my mind wander. I had no special agenda and suffered no guilt. Being idle was part of being a kid. It felt right.

That’s not how it feels now.

Adults are supposed to be busy. We have Responsibilities and Important Work. Page 135 of the Grownup’s Handbook specifically states, “Spending time sitting around staring at still water is wasteful and self-indulgent.”

Perhaps it’s a misprint.

It is important to take breaks from the everyday world in which the simultaneous performance of multiple tasks has become the norm. It may even be essential. Just like a computer that needs periodic rebooting, people need to refresh our idea of what normal really is. Normal is being outside and feeling the breeze. Normal is watching the sunrise or the stars fill up the sky at night. Normal is being a part of the natural world instead of existing for days on end within the confines of our technologically connected, air-conditioned abodes.

Despite such feelings, I still find it difficult to be temporarily unproductive. The other day, while I sat staring at the lake’s calm surface, my thoughts kept jumping from one unfinished project to another. In the house, there were dirty clothes to wash, floors to vacuum and bathrooms to clean. In my office, emails filled my inbox, there were articles to write and topics to research. In the garden weeds had grown so tall my back ached just thinking about pulling them out. Yet my resolve remained solid. I knew I needed some time to do absolutely nothing. I was due for a break.

Some months are more hectic than others and that’s how May had been. Although several good things happened in that month, including one child’s wedding and another’s graduation from community college, I still felt overwhelmed and weary. Even celebrations can be stressful. Sitting by the water was my way of being refreshed. Watching the day ease into night, listening to the chorus of chirps, splashes and leaves rustling in the breeze was a kind of elixir, a temperament tonic.

We all have our ways of dealing with stress. Sometimes doing nothing can be the best move of all.
It is not my intention to make idleness a full time occupation but I want to feel free to relax as needed without a shadow of guilt or regret. Smart adults learn to turn off the constant stream of mental chatter and tune into the everyday wonders of natural living. In my copy of the Grownup’s Handbook, that lesson is underlined in red.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Otters adorable? Just ask a turtle

Sitting on a slightly submerged island of peat in the rain, an otter makes quick work of a large soft-shell turtle.

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel June 1, 2009)

If you had asked me in 2001 to describe an otter with one word, I'd have chosen "playful." Not anymore. Thoughtful observation over seven years has modified my view of these semi-aquatic mammals with a penchant for sliding down slippery slopes and frolicking in the water. I now think "brutal" would be a more appropriate description.

I began observing otters in 2002, the last time Central Florida suffered from a prolonged drought. Our lake — created before we bought our property as a byproduct of a peat-mining operation — was down that year to the lowest level we had ever seen. Water was so low that a small island of peat appeared in the middle of the lake, about 200 feet in front of our house. We saw our first otter on that island, and it was to the very same spot — re-exposed because of the recent drought — that an otter returned.

The North American river otter is a member of the same family that includes weasels, minks, badgers and wolverines. Stretching about 40 inches long and weighing around 20 pounds, otters have sleek, black bodies, strong, short legs, webbed feet with five sharp claws and long, muscular tails. At first glance, a freshwater otter looks like a cross between a drenched chocolate lab and a fur-covered dolphin. At second glance, it looks like the well-conditioned predator it is.

There's no denying an otter's attractiveness. With round eyes, whiskered faces, small ears and diamond-shaped noses, these protected mammals are the epitome of adorableness. Try telling that to the animals on which these voracious carnivores dine. Crayfish, mollusks, frogs and fish might be the mainstay of an otter's diet, but that's not all they eat.

Recently I watched as a solitary otter perched on the slightly submerged peat island and slowly devoured a huge, soft-shelled turtle. Although rain fell incessantly, the otter's dining habits were not the least bit dampened. Raindrops rolled off his oil-rich pelt while he munched upon his meaty meal.

Watching the otter eat the turtle was an eerie flashback to 2002, when a pair of otters made fast work of the lake's hard- and soft-shelled turtle population. Over the course of three months, our shoreline became scattered with the hollow remains of many an otter meal. As otter sightings became more frequent, sightings of live turtles decreased.

Observing an otter chew its way through the flesh of a living turtle is nothing less than disturbing. In our Disney-ized view of the world, cute, cuddly animals aren't supposed to be vicious killers. They're especially not supposed to look like they're having so much fun while devouring their still-alive victims. That's exactly how these adorable critters look. Otters not only prey upon smaller animals, they seem to take pleasure in playing with their food.

As the otter in our lake consumed his oversized dinner, the rain-slicked mammal repeatedly changed position and refreshed himself with swims. He took breaks for grooming and breaks to rest, but he always returned to his partly eaten, still-moving entree as if he hadn't a care in the world. The otter had done what large predatory animals do — he had hunted for food and scored a meal. Success was in the proverbial saucepan, and if that saucepan happened to be my lake, well, such is life in the wild kingdom.

In order to survive, otters need to consume 15 percent of their bodyweight every day. They do that by hunting over a 50-mile territory. I'm happy that an otter has chosen our lake to supplement his diet with carapace-covered flesh, but I'm equally as unhappy to see so many turtles perish in the process.

The balance of nature is not always pretty. As the otter in our lake so ably demonstrates, sometimes the cutest animals can be the cruelest. Call them playful — otters are certainly that — but don't forget: The very same critter that looks adorable while sliding down a mud-slicked river bank isn't nearly as endearing when it tears into a turtle's flesh.

So much in life lies in perception, and first impressions don't always show the full picture.