Monday, October 31, 2016

Less mess = Less stress

When I was a little girl, one of my regular chores was to clear the table after eating. Our meals, especially evening meals, were always family affairs. It was, after all, the 1950s and 1960s. We were a family of four.

When my father and older brother finished eating, they would push out their chairs, leave their plates on the table, and retire to the TV room to watch sports. It didn’t matter what season it was. Some type of game, match or team event inevitably demanded their immediate attention. While the males were in the other room yelling directions to the players, my mother would be in the kitchen tidying up, and I was expected to join her. It was my responsibility to clear the table and help out in the kitchen.

It didn’t take me long to realize that if I lingered over my own meal, picking away and chewing slowly, my mother would get tired of waiting and do much of the table clearing herself. However, no matter how slowly I ate my food, I could never avoid my next job — drying the dishes.

In the kitchen, my mother positioned herself behind the sink where she dutifully washed the dirty plates, pots, pans, glasses and silverware before stacking them on a countertop drying rack, which, to my continued puzzlement, was never actually used for drying. 

My mother, Goldie Levy, in the kitchen after a holiday meal
Yardley, PA - April 1959

The rack was merely a temporary waiting station, waiting for me to do my job. My job was to pick up each item right after it was deposited and wipe it completely free of any droplets of moisture with one of the striped dish towels hanging beneath the sink. I was then expected to put each piece away in the shelf, drawer or cabinet where it belonged.

I never liked drying dishes or putting them away. I always wondered why they couldn’t just air dry on the drying rack. And why couldn’t I be the one doing the washing at least some of the time instead of my mom?

Fast forward 50 years.

I do the dishwashing now, and I like it. I like washing dishes so much that at our beach house, I had my husband Ralph remove the perfectly functional dishwasher that came with it.

“We don’t need it,” I said, and he agreed. “We can use the space for something else.”

We still have a dishwasher in our Groveland home, but I can’t recall the last time I used it. Probably when all the children and grandkids visited. But even on the rare occasions when we have a full house, I still prefer to suds up the cotton washcloth and clean the dishes by hand.

To me, dishwashing is a kind of meditation. Just as making the bed in the morning starts my day on a saner note, cleaning the kitchen after mealtime clears away mental as well as physical detritus. I find the entire process of cleaning up after a meal to be one of the best indoor ways for me to release tension and restore order. I don’t even mind clearing the table like I used to as a child. I’m happy to tidy things away, wipe down tabletops and counters and make our eating area look attractive again.

A tidy table.  A well-balanced plate full of good food.  A book to read.

Somewhere along the path to adulthood I realized that internal harmony often results from the removal of external stresses. Less mess equals less stress.

I doubt if my oldest daughter understands my compulsion to handwash dishes any better than I understood my own mother’s when I was a child. Amber is a mom with two young kids and to her, a dishwashing machine is an essential weapon in her housekeeping arsenal. But perhaps someday when her young children are grown and living off on their own, she’ll realize the peace and pleasure that comes with doing certain domestic chores.

Hot water and sudsy soap washes away more than just dirty dishes. It degreases the mind of stained thoughts as, one by one, a stack of clean kitchenware air dries on the kitchen counter. Visual proof of a job well done.

Dishes air drying on the dishrack
Another meal, another mess cleaned up

Monday, October 24, 2016

Otterly exciting!

It was early morning at our beach house. The watercan was filled, and I was on my way out the patio gate to give the plants a drink when suddenly — hello! — two otters sat on the bank of the salt pond less than 20 feet from where I stood frozen in my tracks.

Otters! In New Smyrna Beach! Right next to our house!

Although my friend and former beach neighbor once mentioned seeing otters in the salt pond, this was a first-time sighting for me at our Volusia County property. Over the years, I’ve encountered these semi-aquatic mammals several times but always in Lake County in or around freshwater lakes and marshes. Twice I observed them at Little Lake Harris in Howey-in-the-Hills, and I once saw an entire family of otters run across County Road 561 in Astatula.

Otter with fish photographed in Little Lake Harris 

However, most of my previous sightings have taken place at our own lakefront Groveland homestead, especially during a dry spell in the mid-2000s when water levels were low and turtle populations high. During those years, otters came to feed on the turtles. And feed they did. Anyone who imagines these web-toed, whisker-nosed critters as sweet little cuties hasn’t watched them chew through the flesh of a softshell turtle. It’s a sharp reminder of nature’s brutality.

Otter in our lake in the rain eating a soft-shelled turtle

But the two otters that I encountered the other morning by our beach house weren’t dismembering turtles or devouring fish. Their initial focus was on a small swath of unplanted soil beneath our perennial peanut patch. I quietly stepped back through the gate, turned around, put down the water can and ran inside to grab my camera. When I came back — yah! — they were still there.

Two otters alongside the salt pond by our beach house

For several minutes, I stood silently still as the otters, an adult and its offspring, rolled in the dirt and preened themselves before leaving land and returning to the water. During the entire time, the adult otter — my maternal instincts suggest it was the mother — emitted a series of chirping calls, sounds I’d never heard an otter make.

I didn’t realize until the two torpedo-shaped, brown-furred mammals slid off the bank back into the brackish water that a third otter was part of the group. Judging by its size and the way it followed the adult, I assumed this was another offspring out for a morning exploration trip with its mom.

Otters are found throughout Florida in rivers, lakes, streams and coastal marshes. They mate in spring and have an 11- to 12-month gestation period. The babies — one to three offspring called kits — are born in waterside dens called holts built into banks or in hollowed trees alongside shorelines. Although adult otters are adept swimmers, kits must learn this essential skill. When they are about two months, they are weaned and their mother teaches them how to swim and hunt for food.

Since the two kits I observed were almost as big as their mother, I assume they were already well versed in survival. But by the way the young patterned the adult, it was also obvious that mother otter was still very much in charge.

I don’t know when I’ll see otters again. Like most of my wildlife encounters, chance and timing — being at the right place at the right time — play a huge part in determining what I’ll see and when I’ll see it. However, I will be looking for otters whenever I step through our patio gate. And I’ll be listening, too, for the piercing ‘cheep-cheep-cheep’ cry of a mother otter letting her young know where she is and warning them not to stray too far from her or safe waters.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Yes, we have LOTS of bananas!

I thought about the idiom “A watched pot never boils” as I took yet another look at the two hands of bananas suspended by rope from the porch rafters. 

Lots of fat, green, unripe bananas hanging from the rafters

Much to my disappointment, the fat, green fruit were no riper this time than they had been the day before. Darn! I hoped at least a hint of yellow would appear.

The bananas are hanging in our porch because the plants on which they had been growing snapped in the recent storm. 

The banana plants that broke in the storm

Fortunately, none of the fruit was damaged when the banana trunks broke. After the rain died down, my husband, Ralph, and I went out to cut off the two hands. We brought them inside to ripen.

On the ground with all fingers intact

Ralph and I have been growing bananas at our Groveland property for a couple decades. Since we’ve been doing it for so long, one might assume we’re pretty good at producing a bountiful supply of America’s most popular fresh fruit. One would be wrong.

The fact that banana plants have had a place in our landscape for a long time merely means we’ve had more opportunities than most to make mistakes. Although we have experimented with different varieties and planted them in various locations, our ability to successfully produce reliable crops of fruit has been abysmal. Our most common failure has been in timing. Fruit often grows and looks promising but cold weather appears before the bananas are mature enough to ripen. 

Little frog hiding out in the bananas

Banana trees, which are aren’t really trees at all but are large perennial herbs in the same family as gingers, die back when temperatures drop below 40 degrees. Fruit remaining on a plant which has suffered cold damage will stop developing.

It takes about nine months for a banana plant to produce a bunch of bananas. Plants develop from a system of large underground rhizomes. Growing points called suckers sprout out of the rhizomes and poke through the ground. Under proper conditions, each sucker will develop into a full grown plant that can support a single crop of fruit called a hand of bananas. The size and number of bananas growing on a hand depends on factors such as soil nutrients, sun and wind exposure, availability of water, mulch, crowding and, of course, timing.

Banana flowers

Since each banana plant dies once it has produced a single hand of fruit, growers only have one shot every nine or so months to harvest a crop. Fortunately, the abundance of suckers surrounding the base of each mature plant provide multiple opportunities to try again if the first crop fails to mature in time to harvest.

But poor timing wasn’t the factor for the two hands of (almost) mature bananas now suspended from the porch rafters. Hurricane winds shortened their natural maturation, leaving us to complete the process in a more contrived setting.

And so I continue to check on them daily. If they’re like every other hand of bananas we’ve taken inside to ripen over the years, they will slowly begin to yellow and then — BAM! —every banana in the hands will be ready to eat at once. I counted over 30 fruit in one hand and even more in the other. 

The first sign of ripening!

The idiom says “A watched pot never boils.” But when it comes to hands of bananas, a more appropriate saying might be: “I’m going bananas.” Or at least I will be when the two hands finally mature and I am faced with more ripe fruit to do something with than we can possibly consume.

The same two hands six days later

Guess I better get out the dehydrator. Dried banana time should be here soon. 

Dehydrating time has arrived!

Monday, October 10, 2016

Be the message you want to receive

Election day is less than a month away and the country remains strongly divided. Some people are leaning left, others leaning right while votes from an entire contingent of undecideds remains up for grab. Assuming, that is, they cast ballots at all. 

It’s been a crazy presidential campaign. So much ugly rhetoric has been thrown about. Name calling. Verbal abuse. Lies. Bullying. Suggestive innuendos. Disrespectful, nasty remarks have been spewed so often that the good citizens of the United States have begun to take trash talk for granted. Same old, same old. Business as usual.

No! It’s not!

Regardless of what side of the political spectrum one’s beliefs veer, intentional cruelty is unacceptable. It’s not OK to be mean or belligerent. It’s not all right to purposely deceive or cheat others. It is especially despicable to gloat about it afterward.

What happened to goodness? What happened to dignity, respect and civility? Why have we allowed politicians to hijack our sense of decency?

While driving through downtown New Smyrna recently, I noticed a sign in a residential neighborhood that summed up my sentiments about not just the upcoming elections but about our society in general.

The sign, a typical campaign-sized placard with bold lettering on a white background, was positioned on the front porch of an older wood-frame house. It struck such a note when it caught my eye I had to drive around the block to see it again. On my second pass, I slowed down, pulled over onto the shoulder and took a picture.

“Make America Kind Again” the sign proclaimed.

I couldn’t agree more.

We are a nation of 325 million. Our skin color is black, white and almost every shade in between. We are old. We are young. Single, married and in relationships. Some of us are religious. Some of us are not. We are gay. We are heterosexual. We have children. We have pets. We live in cities, farms, small towns and remote countrysides. Some of us are working. Others are retired or unemployed. We are rich. We are poor. We are the vast middle class.

Yet, despite our differences, we have one thing in common. We are all Americans. 

We live in a country that cherishes freedom. But what kind of freedom are we cherishing these days? The freedom to be rude to each other? To be arrogant, boastful and disrespectful? To hate, fear and persecute those who are different from us? 

Most Americans today are only here because their own relatives were once outsiders struggling as if their lives depended upon it (because they often did) to be part of a country with such promise.

What’s the promise now? 

We are facing monumental problems that not only affect our nation but threaten the very planet on which we live. The U.S. has so much potential to do good in the world, but we’re not going to get there by being greedy and belligerent. We’re not going to get there by being brash, abrasive and insensitive to the feelings and needs of others.

Election day is less than a month away. We each have an opportunity to make a choice. For me, it’s an easy decision. I’m voting for kindness. “Make America Kind Again.’ 

Be the message you want to receive.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Age is just a number

October is my birthday month. When leaves traditionally turn scarlet, orange and gold, I turn the leaf on another year. My 65th...

Am I really that old?

The calendar says I am. So does Uncle Sam. Age 65 makes me an official Senior Citizen, old enough to receive Medicare. I can slip on a pair of ‘Silver Sneakers’ and go to the gym without paying a fee.

That is, if I liked going to a gym, which I don’t.

I like building muscle by doing the same things I’ve always done - going for long, meandering walks and quiet rows through still water. biking, stretching and working in the garden. 

I exercise by giving my husband frequent massages and practicing chin-ups just like I’ve been doing since fifth grade when my teacher, Mr. Robideaux, showed me how. 

Except in fifth grade I wore more clothes doing chin-ups

My aging bones are strengthened by working at a stand-up desk instead of a sit-down table. I bounce on a pair of inflatable balance balls as I surf the web and type my columns. When eating, I’m careful about the foods I put into my body and prioritize dining in a mindful, calm manner.

A typical lunch includes a plate full of real food, a good book, a cup of hibiscus tea and a few supplements just in case... 

Although five decades have passed since my childhood, In my mind I’m still a spunky kid exploring the world with wide-eyed wonder. The difference is that these day, my eyes are somewhat shielded by drooping eyelids and covered by a pair of perpetually smudged bifocals.

But smudgy lenses and sagging skin can’t stop me from exploring the world outside my window. Nor can they keep me from paying attention to the world within.

Over the last 65 years, I’ve seen and learned much.

During the last six-plus decades, tiny saplings no bigger than a finger have grown into trees too large to put my arms around. I’ve also grown. From towheaded child to pigtailed youth, I’ve turned into a brown-haired woman who became a parent and is now a grandparent of four with a headful of gray-streaked, shoulder-length locks. This personal manifestation of time’s passage is a concept as difficult to wrap my mind around as it is to physically embrace the trunk of a towering oak.

Ralph attempts to wrap his arms around a huge tree - not an oak but a cypress

Of course, over the years I’ve also seen forests cut down to meet the needs of expanding populations. Farmland has been bulldozed, fields paved over, water and air quality compromised and wildlife endangered all in the name of that all-powerful god, ‘Progress.’

During periods of drought, I’ve watched submerged shorelines emerge to support foliage and small trees. I’ve seen those same plants die during wet periods when water levels eventually returned to more normal levels.

This ebb and flow of land and water has occurred with enough frequency to strengthen my faith in nature as an equalizing force. Even so, it frightens me to think of mankind’s greedy shortsightedness and destructive tendencies. I believe in nature. I want it to win.

After 65 years of living on this earth, I still wake up each day excited about the future. I wonder what the day will bring. What surprises will unfold? There are sunrises and sunsets to look forward to, interesting cloud formations, raindrops and rainbows. There might be spiderwebs shimmering with dew and bumblebees gathering nectar from flowers.


It’s the small things that bring me pleasure. Hugs from my grandchildren. My husband’s kisses. A handwritten letter in the mail. Kind words in an online post.

I’m no longer a child. Heck, despite what my mind tells me, I’m not even a young twentysomething. What I am is a mature woman who has somehow managed to remain optimistic despite the mounting stream of social, environmental and political injustices that threaten to turn our world upside down.

I attempt to stay positive by balancing out every loud, upsetting and frightening news report I hear or disrespectful action I observe, with an equal measure of kindness and goodness.

When I was a youngster, turning 65 was beyond my comprehension. Despite what the calendar says, it still remains a foreign concept. I may be entering the age of Senior Citizen this month, but my mind remains steadfastly affixed to the doorway of youth. I like the view from that position gazing out on life’s everyday treasures.

It’s the little things that make me smile and keep discouragement at bay.