Monday, August 16, 2010

Lunching and learning with a lizard

A green anole on a broccoli leaf

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel August 15, 2010)

I was eating my lunch on the porch. On the other side of the screen, a lizard was having lunch too.

I was sitting at a small, round wooden table, a placemat beneath my bowl, a cloth napkin on my lap. My meal was an assemblage of fresh veggies and leftover noodles with generous dollops of homemade pesto sprinkled with Romano cheese. Not only was it an aesthetically pleasing portion, it was a gastronomically appealing one as well.

The little green anole's meal was much less elaborate, but perhaps — from a lizard's point of view — it was equally appealing. While I ate sitting down, the lizard was eating on the run. Like a hungry diner at an all-you-can-eat buffet, the 6-inch-long reptile worked its way steadily from one feeding station to another. A tasty gnat here, a mosquito there — the anole ate until it was sated, at least for the moment.

I found myself so mesmerized that I could hardly concentrate on my own food.

To me, lunchtime is like a meditation. I try to eat in peace. I don't want to talk about work or projects or solve problems while I'm eating. In fact, I don't really want to talk at all. I just want to sit quietly, eat slowly and enjoy my food. Stress-free dining is what I'm after, and most days, that's what I get.

On this day, however, my eating patterns were askew.

The kitchen, where I normally dine, was anything but quiet. Ralph was on a speakerphone having a frustrating conversation with a series of tech-support people. It seemed never-ending. I tried to be patient and wait out the call, but my stomach was grumbling. My bowlful of food beckoned, and my need for escape time was growing greater by the minute. I went onto the porch to remove myself from noisy chatter.

The anole appeared right after I sat down. Often mistaken for a chameleon because of its ability to change color, the American anole, Anolis carolinensis, is a familiar sight around Southern homes. At any given time, I can walk outside and see an anole perched on a plant stem, scurrying across the sidewalk or clinging to the screens, like the one by the porch.

Anoles survive on a diet of small insects, spiders and moths, and because these territorial creatures often inhabit the same environments as people, they are easy to observe.

From my perch on the porch, I could see the lizard's entire body. I watched its stomach expand and contract as it breathed in and out. I could make out each of the five toes on its four feet as it clung to the screen with uncanny ease. Its long, thin tail and pointy nose formed a straight line as it silently gauged its next stop. When it sensed an insect, it sprang into action. Moving swiftly, it captured and devoured its prey.

As I lifted a forkful of noodles to my mouth, I considered the life of untamed creatures. It can't be easy to spend time every hour as anoles do, finding and eating food. Yet despite a near-constant need to eat, lizards are not fat. For that matter, I can't recall ever seeing any wild animals seriously overweight. Like all wild animals, lizards have predators to avoid and harsh weather to endure. Then again, they don't have to deal with frustrating tech-support calls or the myriad of modern problems that pepper our domesticated lives.

I went onto the porch to eat a peaceful meal and returned to the kitchen when my meal was over. Thanks to an unexpected dinner guest, not only was I physically well fed, I was emotionally nourished.

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