Monday, December 27, 2010

Family newsletter provides a record of life's big and small moments

Milestones such as a grandchild's birth share space in a monthly newsletter with less momentous events.

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 26, 2010)

Year-end letters: Some people love receiving them. Others find them boring, overdone or annoying.

I'm in the "love 'em" camp. Every time I get a newsletter from a faraway friend, I feel like I've received a gift. I enjoy reading about what folks have been up to for the past 12 months, and I pore over any included pictures.

I like newsletters so much that I write my own, but I've tweaked the concept a bit. Instead of sending out a yearly missive, I pen a monthly review. I've been doing it since 1997, and although my mailing list has expanded over the past 13 years, the reason I compose the letters remains the same. I write to have a record of our family's life. It's a way to remember.

Without some sort of recordkeeping, dates and details of noteworthy events blur or even fade away. To prevent that from happening, I make the time to preserve moments. Every month I sit down at my computer and let my mind drift back through the past 30 days. It's a chance for reflection, introspection and summation.

On a monthly basis, I consider my life: What did we do this month? Did we have fun? Were there problems? I seek out a theme.

Every month, at least one feature predominates. It could be as special as the birth of a grandchild or as mundane as an overwhelmingly busy schedule. Whatever that theme is, I elaborate on it, then flesh out the newsletter with bits and pieces about unrelated topics. Which flowers were blooming? What fruits and vegetables did we harvest? Did we take any trips? Were there any interesting wildlife sightings, good books read or friends who visited?

I'm not the only one involved in this project. Over the years, my children and their spouses have found themselves drawn in. When the kids were little, I did it all myself. I'd ask them what they wanted me to say and paraphrased their comments to include in the review. As they got older, that extra step seemed unnecessary.

I felt the newsletter would be better for everyone if the children, who were no longer little kids, took a more active role. That's what we do now. Each of us is responsible for writing our own section. We each pick out the pictures we want to include, then post them on the blog that replaced the printed-out newsletters I used to write on the computer and send by snail mail.

Although I don't miss the days of sticking stamps on dozens of letters, addressing them by hand and taking them to the post office, posting a monthly missive on a blog has its own share of difficulties. The design and layout procedures of the blogging site I use are a continual source of frustration. Every month some glitch in the system presents challenges to overcome. After listening to me rant and rave for many months in a row, Ralph learned to stay out of my office on the days when I'm putting the blog together.

Despite such frustrations, I'm glad to do it. Creating a pictorial and written account of our family's activities every month gives me a tremendous sense of accomplishment. It no longer matters if I can't recall details of important events or my mind goes blank when asked to remember some special date. I can refer to the blog.

I can look up details and jump-start my memory with pictures and anecdotes. My only regret is that I didn't start earlier. I wish I had a record of the previous 27 years of my marriage, something to look back on and cherish. Fortunately, my children will have such a record. And their children will, too.

What better way to start the New Year than by investing a little time in recording the past? It is one investment that has guaranteed returns.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Only fellow Floridians understand complaints about 'cold' weather

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 19, 2010)

It's cold!

The heat is on, but as I write this, I'm sitting in my house wearing several layers of clothing and fur-lined boots. I'm typing in the living room instead of my office because my office is far too frigid.

A large, single-pane picture window covers an entire wall in my usual writing space. Normally, I love that window because it provides great views of the garden and hillside, but when the temperature dives, so does its charm. Cold air seeps through the glass like water through a burst pipe.

Speaking of burst pipes, did you remember to leave your faucet running during the recent freeze? We Floridians become so accustomed to year-round warm weather that we forget to take basic preventive measures such as protecting water pipes from freezes.

We abandon many wintertime procedures when we settle in the Sunshine State, and we do so gladly. Who wants to wear layers of clothes, worry that the cold will kill our plants or create geysers out of barely buried water pipes? We didn't move south to sit by leaky windows or to cover our feet in anything except flip-flops.

But cold weather occasionally comes, and Floridians adapt. We also complain.

I'm telling you this because I know you'll understand. You live in Florida, too, and even though the weather probably will have warmed considerably between the time I'm writing this and the time you're reading it, most of you share my desire to live in a freeze-free zone.

That commonality enables us to commiserate with one another. We can start conversations with, "My gosh, it's cold," knowing that the people we're talking to will nod their heads and offer up a sympathetic reply.

That's not the case if the person we complain to lives out of state in, say, Rochester, N.Y. I made that mistake the other day. Ralph and I spent the night at La Veranda Bed and Breakfast in St. Petersburg. Before breakfast, we began loading up the car with our suitcase and gear. The car was a short distance away, so in typical Florida fashion, I didn't bother to bundle up before heading out. By the time I came inside to sit down at the table, I was chilled.

"Brrr," I said to the other guest who entered the dining room just after I came in. "It's cold out there!"

The man stared at me as if I was talking gobbledygook.

"I just came in from outside," I explained, thinking that would help.

"How cold is it?" he asked.

"Maybe in the low 30s," I said. "It's really cold."

He continued to stare.

A spark of awareness lit in my cold-dulled brain. "Where are you from?" I asked.

"Rochester, New York," he replied.

"Ah," I said. "Well, that explains your expression. Forgive my complaint, but to me it's cold. Not to you, no doubt, but we Floridians aren't used to such chilly weather."

The rest of our breakfast conversation was pleasant enough. We managed to avoid any weather-related topics and said our goodbyes with mutual respect.

The encounter reinforced a maxim I learned shortly after moving to the Sunshine State: If you want to complain about the weather in Florida, make sure the person you are complaining to lives in Florida, too. You'll get no sympathy from Northerners. They simply don't understand.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Old love

40 years ago...and today
Simply Living

Forty years ago this week, I made a decision that changed my life.  Instead of going back to my parent’s house in Yardley, Pa. for winter break, I hopped on an airplane and flew to Boston.  I’d never been to Boston before.  The only person I knew there was my high school friend Megan.  I asked Megan if I could visit and she offered me a place to stay. 

At the time, I was a second-year student at the New College of Hofstra in Hempstead, NY.  Although my official major was Humanities, a more accurate description of my college focus was Being Involved in Relationships.  Academically, I was doing fine but my relationship meter had bottomed out.  The trip to Boston was a step toward independence.  I was tired of constantly searching for that special someone.  I’d had my fill of pining over boys.  My plan was to spend the holiday in a guy-free zone visiting art museums, exploring the city and reconnecting with my friend. 

That’s not what happened.

Megan lived in a big house with several roommates, one of whom was a longhaired, bearded fellow with thick lenses in his plastic-framed glasses.  His name was Ralph and we met shortly after my arrival.  Within three days, we were a couple.  I never did make it to any art museums during my Boston getaway.  Megan and I hardly spent any time together and instead of exploring Boston, Ralph and I hopped into his blue Datsun station wagon to spend a weekend on Cape Cod.  Afterwards, we drove to his parent’s home in Illinois for Christmas, stopping first to see my folks in Pennsylvania. 

The paths we travel in life can change so abruptly.  I was only 19 when I met my future husband but it was an encounter to last a lifetime. 

In the 40 years since, Ralph and I have had countless adventures.  We’ve lived in three different states, raised four children and are presently enjoying the pleasure of being grandparents.  Both of us shake our heads in disbelief when we consider how much time has passed since our fortuitous New England encounter.  The years may have grayed our hair and wrinkled our faces but they have also added a treasure trove of shared experiences and depth to the affection we feel for each other.  I’m more in love with my husband now than ever.

Ralph is currently reading Ray Kurzweil’s book, The Singularity is Near.  Kurzweil is one of the world’s leading inventors, thinkers and futurists.  His predictions for the past 21 years have been remarkably accurate.  In this 489-page tome, Kurzweil draws a detailed picture of what he believes the future will hold.  For the next 40 years, he envisions a world far different from anything we’ve yet experienced.

It is understandable that my husband finds Kurzweil’s concepts intriguing.  There comes a point in life when the road ahead looks decidedly shorter than the road already traveled.  Kurzweil presents possibilities that extend the journey.    

Only time will tell if his predictions prove true.  Although the author’s view is optimistic, I don’t share my husband’s enthusiasm for the topic.  I’m more concerned with the present that I am with the future.  I find myself more inspired by all that has already transpired than I am by what might or might not come to be.

I’ve learned many things over the past four decades but one lesson that stands out is that nothing is static.  The direction your life takes can change in an instant.  For me, that instant happened forty years ago this week.  Would I go back and do it over?  In a heartbeat. 

Monday, December 6, 2010

After a long wait, mushrooms crop up at last

Fresh picked shiitakes!
And another mushroom still growing

Simply Living
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 5, 2010)

What a surprise! After two years of waiting — long enough to have just about given up — the oak logs that my husband seeded with mushroom spores have produced a small crop of shiitake mushrooms. My son Timmy discovered them sprouting from the pile of stacked logs.

"Look what we've got!" Ralph said, as I came into the kitchen still drowsy with sleep. I knew something was going on from the sound of slamming doors and excited voices during the normally sedate pre-breakfast hour.

"Timmy found all these shiitakes growing on the logs," Ralph announced, holding out a plateful of round, brown mushroom caps ranging in diameter from 3 to 6 inches.

Shiitakes are Ralph's favorite mushroom. For years he has been eating both fresh and dried versions of this historically prized, nutritionally rich fungus. It has been a long time, however, since he has had a homegrown supply.

Shiitake mushrooms originated in Asia and have been around since prehistoric times. For thousands of years, Chinese and Japanese farmers have cultivated shiitakes on logs cut from the "shii" tree, a medium-size evergreen related to beech and oaks.

Ancient peoples noted the mushroom's numerous health benefits, and recent research supports many of those traditional claims. Low-fat, high-protein shiitakes are an excellent source of vitamins and minerals. These qualities have not been overlooked by my health-conscious husband.

"I wonder if that's all we'll get or if it's just the beginning," Ralph mused while trimming off the bulbous stem ends and brushing away a small spider hiding on the white underside of a mushroom cap.

My husband's uncertainty is understandable. He hasn't had a reliable mushroom crop since we left Cape Cod. In the late 1980s, Ralph took a three-day mushroom growing course at Fungi Perfecti, a family-owned company in Washington State founded 30 years ago by Paul Stamets. Stamets is renowned mycologist, a scientist who specializes in mushrooms.

Ralph returned from that hands-on workshop with his mushroom fervor at full throttle, revved up and ready to establish his own supply of edible fungi.

Back on the Cape, he felled some large oak branches and drilled many small holes to receive the inch-long dowels containing the shiitake spores, or spawn. Less than a year later (spawn mature at 6 to 18 months), he was sautéing his own homegrown mushrooms with olive oil and garlic in an cast-iron pan. The logs continued to produce a bumper crop of brown-capped beauties for several years.

Then we moved to a completely different climate.

Ralph assumed that without an extended cold period, shiitakes wouldn't grow in Central Florida, so he didn't try to establish a colony. For the past two decades, we relied on fresh shiitakes purchased locally and on dried mushrooms ordered from an online supplier.

My husband's mycological musings started anew when he read an article about a Floridian with a backyard shiitake mushroom operation. Inspired by that farmer's success, Ralph decided to try again. While waiting for shiitake plugs to arrive from Fungi Perfecti, he cut up oak logs and readied them for seeding. That was two years ago. Until this week, the only mushrooms he had harvested were two or three small specimens, barely enough to provide a satisfying meal for one.

Only time will tell if the logs will continue to produce a crop. I hope they do. Growing your own food is satisfying on so many levels. Not only do you savor the incomparable flavor of homegrown edibles and enjoy the nutritional benefits of eating the freshest food possible but you see how each type of food grows. By watching their development, you get to know plants. You even become familiar with whatever little bugs, butterflies or, in the case of shiitake mushrooms, tiny spiders find those crops attractive.

With shiitake mushrooms — at least with those spawn that manage to establish a colony — the process of producing your own food is as basic as it comes. Choose logs. Drill holes. Insert seed plugs. Seal holes. Provide a shady, moist location. Sit back and wait.

But be forewarned: By the time you're ready to give up all hope that you'll ever reap a harvest …surprise! Shiitake mushrooms for supper, homegrown and delicious!