Monday, October 25, 2010

Birthdays a time to slow down, take stock and be selfishly indulgent

A peaceful place to sit and relax

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 24, 2010)

It's almost my birthday. I love birthdays, especially my own. Many adults don't feel that way. The older they get, the less they want to celebrate the day of their birth. Birthdays remind them of the passing years, years that fly by at an increasingly frightening speed.

I understand the fear of aging, but I don't embrace it. Rather than ignoring time or wishing it away, I choose to celebrate it. Each year — for that matter, each minute of the day — is a gift, the best gift ever. Birthdays make me grateful, and a little giddy.

I'll be 59 years old on Wednesday. If I had been born in China, Japan or one of many other Asian countries, I'd already be 60. Those cultures calculate birthdates differently than we do in the West. In Korea or Vietnam, for example, a child is 1 year old when born and celebrates its second birthday a year later.

I suppose it doesn't really matter how birthdates are calculated. What's important is their acknowledgement. I don't mean public displays by family or friends. Being remembered by others is appreciated but not essential. What's essential is to remember ourselves and to acknowledge our accomplishments, value and worth.

Birthdays are, after all, celebrations of self. We all have an opportunity, once a year, to consider our lives. What would we like to do differently? What would make us happier? Healthier? More alive? We can ask ourselves what presents we'd like to receive, and we needn't wait for others to give us those gifts. We can give ourselves the gifts we really want.

Most of the gifts I'm giving myself this year concern time. Sure, I've indulged in the occasional handful of candy corn (a seasonal treat) and one thick, gooey slab of brie cheese. (It's not good for me, but it's my birthday, so I'm allowed!) But the gifts I want most are not the kind you can buy at a store. I want more time to read, to exercise and to spend with family. I want to have fewer problems to solve. In essence, I want less stress. Figuring out how to give intangible gifts is more difficult than buying a bag of Halloween candy and a slice of brie cheese, but that doesn't make the search any less important.

Determined to find what I seek, I have begun by doing nothing.

Doing nothing is something we 21st-century Americans rarely do anymore. We're very good at being busy. We're proficient at multitasking, but tell us to sit still without an agenda and we're often at a loss. Nonetheless, I did it the other day and again a few days later. I went outside and sat in a chair. I didn't have a book or a computer or even an iPod. I just sat there and looked out. I felt the breeze, watched the water and listened to the sounds of birds calling, fish splashing and dragonflies whizzing by. It was extremely peaceful to be so actively idle, and it actually worked. Time slowed down. Mental chatter decreased. I felt less stressed.

The way I see it, birthdays are a free pass to accept pleasure without guilt. They represent new beginnings and annual opportunities to refashion, refresh and relish our lives. On our birthdays, we can be selfishly indulgent. We can be as idle or as active as the mood demands.

In two days I'll be 59 years old — 60 if I had been born in Asia. No matter how it's calculated, what really counts is how we use the time we have. I intend to use my time to celebrate life, to enjoy the everyday treasures that are always here if we take the time — make the time — to look around and truly see.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Great blue heron wins war of nerves with osprey

Although a Great Blue Heron is a large but delicate-looking bird, it can hold its own against powerful raptors like ospreys

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 17, 2010)

Which is the more dominant bird — the great blue heron or the osprey?

If you had asked me that question last week, my answer would have been "osprey." I would have been wrong. Here's what happened to change my mind.

I was standing outside enjoying the view. The lake was calm. Most of the morning mist had disappeared, and the osprey that spends nights perched 6 feet above the water on the bamboo platform had flown off to do whatever it is ospreys do early in the morning.

In its absence, a great blue heron that had been quietly fishing in the shallows flew up to the platform. The heron, a tall, slender bird with long legs and a sharp beak, was using the perch to do a bit of preening. From my shoreline observation post, I was thinking about how quickly the heron commandeered the platform once the osprey departed. The heron must have been waiting for the fish hawk to fly off so it could take its place.

While those thoughts filtered through my still-sleepy mind, the osprey returned. The first indication of an impending confrontation came with the osprey's high-pitched, piercing whistle.

"Kew-kew-kew," the broad-winged bird cried as it approached the platform in a low, swooping flight. Once I realized what was happening, I expected the heron to retreat. Instead, it stood firm. As the fish hawk dived down, the heron stretched up, its sharp beak pointed defiantly toward the oncoming assault.

The heron's steadfast response surprised me. Ospreys are large, commanding predators. Their strong, 2-foot-long bodies feature a 5-foot-wide wingspan, sharp talons and a curved beak capable of tearing apart flesh with ease. Given its powerful presence, I expected the osprey to triumph. The osprey must have expected the same because it seemed surprised by the heron's defiant response. Just before impact, the osprey made a quick U-turn, flying off before circling about for another go-round.

The osprey's second attempt to reclaim its post seemed mostly for show. Now that it was prepared, the heron appeared even more determined to stay on the perch. With its long neck fully extended, its sharp beak pointed upward and blue-gray feathers ruffled, the great blue heron headed off the osprey's second attack with a vocalization of its own.

"Kraaaak," it croaked. Although not nearly as impressive as the osprey's shrill shriek, the heron's throaty call effectively demonstrated its determination and dominance. In a strangely guttural tone, the long-legged wader seemed to announce: "I'm here now, so go away. You left your perch, and when you did, you relinquished all rights. Fly off now. Be gone."

The osprey did fly away. The heron remained on the platform, where it resumed preening. Apparently, in the world of fish-eating water birds, a loud voice, sharp talons and sturdy body are not enough to guarantee dominance. Even frail-looking, graceful birds can reign supreme if they muster sufficient mettle.

Before observing the two birds in conflict, I would have predicted an osprey victory. Ospreys are fierce-looking, intimidating predators, while herons appear to be non-aggressive and shy. If I had been on the platform and an osprey was dive-bombing me, I would have jumped off in a millisecond. I guess that means I'm easily intimidated. It also means the heron is not.

I have no idea why the great blue heron was so intent on staying put or why the osprey, having left the platform, needed to make some sort of territorial claim. What I do know is that occasionally steadfast determination trumps unmitigated brute strength and that —– at least in the animal kingdom — differences can sometimes be resolved without either party being hurt.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Osprey, one of nature's most impressive birds, returns

An adult osprey needs to catch and eat one to three fish everyday - more if it is supporting a family

Simply Living
(First appeared October 11, 2010)

The osprey is back! On the first cool day in October, after being absent during the hot summer months, a solitary osprey has returned to our lake. How consistent this bird has been. Ever since 2008, it has been a seasonal fixture, roosting on a mid-lake platform from October through May.

The white-chested fish hawk arrives before dusk to spend the night perched on a raised 3-foot-square platform in the middle of our lake. In the morning, shortly after dawn, the osprey flies away. I don't know if the 2-foot tall bird with the 4- to 6-foot wingspan goes far away or stays nearby because sometimes I see it during daylight hours sitting in one of the tall pine trees that grow along the shoreline or circling overhead in search of a meal.

Ever since Ralph built the platform and erected it in the middle of the lake, I've been hoping an osprey would nest there. Ospreys become sexually mature when they are 3 years old, which means if this bird arrived as a juvenile in 2008, 2010 might just be the year it is ready to mate. I'd be so excited if that happened.

Female ospreys tend to arrive about 10 days after the males. So far, I've only observed one bird, which I believe is a male. Although they look very similar, females are slightly larger than males and sport a "necklace" of mottled brown chest feathers. Once the female arrives, the male courts her with an aerial ballet. To impress his potential partner, the high-flying raptor performs a sky dance while carrying either a fish or nesting materials in his talons. If the female is sufficiently impressed by this winged display, the pair will mate and begin the process of nest building.

Nests are built atop tall trees or manmade platforms like the one in our lake. Usually, the birds choose a location close to water, where food is plentiful and the sharp-eyed raptors can survey their surroundings. As monogamous animals, once they've mated, ospreys stay together for life. They also return to the same nest year after year. It would fulfill one of my dreams if the nesting platform in our lake became the permanent home to a pair of ospreys.

Unlike eagles or hawks — whose diets include small animals as well as fish — ospreys dine almost entirely on live fish. An adult bird needs to catch and eat one to three fish every day to supply its own dietary needs, but that number increases dramatically once baby birds are born. Female ospreys lay an average of three eggs that both parents take turns incubating for the five- to six-week gestation period. How many of those hatchlings survive depends on the availability of food. An osprey family needs to consume six to eight fish a day. If fish are plentiful, survival rates will be high. If there are not enough fish, the last baby birds to hatch will be the least likely to live.

I don't know if our lake will support a family of ospreys or if the platform in the middle of the lake will work for anything other than a nighttime perch, but I hope in the weeks ahead to find out. In the wild, an osprey's lifespan is 13 to 16 years. This autumn marks the third year "my" osprey has been visiting our lake. Even if the solitary raptor doesn't decide to make a nest, I can at least look forward to many more years of seasonal visits by one of nature's most impressive birds.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Pomegranate — a messy fruit with a rich history

A yellow-skinned pomegranate doesn't turn red like traditional fruit

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 3, 2010)

I didn't grow up eating pomegranates. I don't think I even tasted the tangy-sweet fruit until I was well into adulthood. But two years ago, my son Timmy planted a small orchard that included three pomegranate trees. This year, for the first time, we have an abundant crop.

"Do you think they're ripe yet?" I asked Timmy as we walked past the orchard.

"I don't know," he said. "Let's pick one and find out."

The pomegranates Timmy planted are a yellow-skin cultivar. They don't have the red color traditionally associated with the fruit. Because the leathery outer covering isn't red, the only way to tell if the fruit is ripe is to cut one in half.

Back at the house, we did just that.

"Hmmm, that's interesting," I said, after slicing through the tough skin to expose a honeycomb of tan-colored, pea-sized seeds, each one encased in a clear sack of sticky pulp.

The pulp is the edible part of a fruit that dates to the Early Bronze Age. Archeological excavations have shown that it was among the first cultivated plants. Native to Asia and the Middle East, pomegranates now extend well beyond their origins into cultures and culinary practices around the globe. Mentioned in literary works such as Homer's "Odyssey" and Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," the pomegranate is rich in folklore, religious and mythological references.

Ancient Egyptians believed that pomegranates paved the path to the next life, so they included the fruit in the tomb of King Tut and other notables of the period. In Islam, the Quran mentions pomegranates as a feature of the Garden of Paradise. In Judaism, the pomegranate is a symbol of righteousness and one of only a few images depicted on ancient Judean coins.

In Christianity, the pomegranate is a motif in many religious decorations, and the opened fruit is often included in paintings of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. To Hindus, pomegranates symbolize fertility and prosperity, and they use all parts of the plant in traditional Ayurvedic medicine. Today, because of its high antioxidant value, potassium, folic acid, vitamin and iron content, pomegranate juice is a darling of the health-food industry.

I know that my son didn't plant his three pomegranate trees because of their purported health benefits, historical references or religious symbolism. He simply wanted to create an orchard with a wide variety of fruit. Although pomegranates grow in Florida, this is not their ideal climate. The multi-stemmed shrub — about the size of a hibiscus — prefers hot, dry summers and cool winters. The soil it likes best is a heavy loam, although it tolerates clay and sand and acidic, alkaline or even salty locations.

The flowers — bright orange, trumpet-shaped blooms — appear in summer, developing into harvestable fruit by autumn. That's about the time pomegranates start showing up in grocery stores. By December, in time for the holidays, the price usually drops low enough to entice me to buy. Every year I bring home my bargain, slice it open, marvel at its weirdness and make a mess fishing out sticky seeds.

With Timmy's orchard now providing me with homegrown fruit, it's time to clean up my act. I went online to find out the best way to eat a pomegranate without making a counter- and finger-staining mess, and I found a number of YouTube videos demonstrating de-seeding techniques.

Because each pomegranate tree has the potential to produce a couple of hundred pounds of fruit, I'll have plenty of opportunities to perfect my skill. Until then, I'll continue slicing fruit over the sink and wearing a napkin while slurping up the juice.