Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year

Wishing you health, happiness, and peace in the coming year.
My New Year's resolution is to write more!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Nature's Artistry

Sometimes it's hard to rouse myself from the pleasant lethargy induced by warm summer days. It's delightful in my backyard, where fragrant breezes waft over the hillside and masses of black-eyed Susans are in bloom. Nothing beats kicking back on my deck with a good mystery. Well, almost nothing.

A couple of days ago, E. and I wanted to do something a little more active. We decided to visit one of our favorite spots—The Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Concord. This gorgeous wetlands environment is known for wonderful birding, especially in the early morning and around sunset.

Despite my love of birds, I didn't manage to get up and out at the crack of dawn. I didn't even meet my much more modest aim of arriving in Concord by mid-morning. Instead, I slept late, then dawdled over the New York Times, so by the time E. and I hit the road it was almost 11 a.m. That meant we would get to Great Meadows shortly before noon. Nothing like taking a hike with the sun directly overhead on a hot summer day.

Our late arrival had its benefits, though. We found the small parking lot almost empty. And to our surprise, a gentle breeze cooled the long sunny Dike Trail that wends its way through the wetlands. A perfect time to visit.

The birds, however, had other ideas. I saw a lone red-winged blackbird, got a brief glimpse of a brown thrasher, and spied a great blue heron fishing far off amid a sea of yellow lotus plants. Other than that, I have no exciting bird sightings to report.

Nor did I come across much in the way of wildlife, other than a single small turtle making its way slowly across the trail. When it saw us, it withdrew its legs, apparently attempting to resemble a rock.

Purple loosestrife ran riot along the edges of the wetlands. Though an invasive species, its vivid flowers brighten up the landscape. In fact, the plant was brought to North America from Europe during the 1800's as a garden perennial.

Once we had traversed the wetlands, we took a brief detour down to the banks of the Concord River, which flowed so smoothly and peacefully that I wished I had a kayak handy.

Then we headed back to the trail, which took us on a loop around the outer edge of the wetlands. The breeze slacked off there, but just as the heat began to bother me, the trail entered a wooded area. We were still circuiting the wetlands, but now from within the surrounding foliage.

Once in the shade, we picked up our hiking pace and soon reached our starting point, having gone full circle. The total hike was about 2.7 miles. We agreed that, even during the heat of the day, we couldn't have found a lovelier place to walk.

I've tried to capture some of the beauty of Great Meadows in these photographs (taken with my trusty iPhone camera), but nothing can compare to the original, composed by nature.  Click on the photos to enlarge them.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Trip

We are all on a journey. Some of us fly off to Argentina or France or China. Others take a road trip from London to England's north country, where they sample the haute cuisine of the region and do spot-on impressions of their favorite actors. Still others travel to the far reaches of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they sample sustainable ingredients at a local eatery and see a film about two guys on a road trip to England's north country.

This latter was the journey E. and I chose to take earlier this week, and it proved to be an arduous voyage indeed. The day dawned cloudy and threatening. Our plans for a walk by the water under sun-drenched Boston skies were soon rained out, so I proposed instead a trip to see The Trip at the Kendall Square Cinema, preceded by lunch at EVOO, a Cambridge restaurant I'd been wanting to try. So far, so good.

Our drive to Cambridge was uneventful but parking, always a challenge in Cambridge, lived up to its reputation. We saw a spot on a side street near the restaurant and opposite a parking garage. The spot was on some gravel just outside a fenced-in construction site. I looked for signs prohibiting parking and saw none, until E. and I had exited the car and were about to turn the corner. There it was, in no uncertain terms—Your car will be towed if you park here. Into the jam-packed parking garage we went.

We finally found a spot on level A2, then wandered about the garage like wayfarers lost on the moors. Eventually, we located a staircase, escaped the garage, and made our way to EVOO, which, by the way, stands for extra virgin olive oil. Now that I'm eating vegetarian, ordering was easy, since there was only one vegetarian item on the menu, a concoction containing polenta, basil, zucchini, and other mysterious vegetables. Again, so far, so good.

By the time the polenta arrived, however, forty-five minutes had elapsed. Fearing we'd be late for the film, we gulped down our food. The waitress offered to validate our parking, after which we were good to go, or I should say going for good, since the meal hadn't left us with a desire to return.

It was pouring as we exited the restaurant, so we decided not to walk the half mile to the theater. Instead, we dashed to the parking garage to pay and then retrieve our car. Imagine our surprise when the cashier informed us that the validation was invalid. "Only after 4 p.m," he said. So, we forked over $10 and wandered lonely as clouds o'er floors of sedans and SUVs in search of our vehicle. Level A2 appeared to have moved since we parked there, but eventually we located the car and exited the facility. 

We headed up Binney Street to another garage, this one adjacent to the cinema. After parking, we found our way quickly out of the garage, but managed to walk in the opposite direction from the cinema as the rain fell in sheets. Once we realized our mistake, we hightailed it to the box office and, facing the disconcerting truth that at 62 years old we qualify for a senior discount, we bought our tickets and found seats in the near-empty theater.

You may be thinking by now that I've been describing a pretty nice day, albeit a damp one. After all, I was lucky to have the leisure time to do something fun with E. So what if it was a little rainy? So what if the restaurant was a bit of a disappointment? So what if we had to squander a few extra dollars on parking? We had reached our destination and could settle in to watch a good film.

But there you would be wrong, on two counts. We were not able to settle in, at least not comfortably. And the film, while occasionally amusing, did not meet our expectations for a laugh-out-loud movie experience.

Regarding the problem of settling in, the theater was cold. Very cold. I had worn a sweater, but it felt thin and threadbare in that drafty environment. I could relate to the film's two main characters, whose road trip took them through the frozen north country during the dead of winter. They, however, had parkas. I had only my sweater. I attempted to snuggle with E., but this proved impossible, given the metal arm-rest and cup-holder that came between us.

As far as the film itself, while not terrible, it did feature too many meals involving scallops and exotic meats (a running joke, but not so hilarious to a vegetarian). At times, I found the movie rather endearing and almost laugh-out-loud funny, but not endearing or funny enough to justify the expensive parking garages, the disappointing lunch, the $8/person tickets (and that's with the senior discount!).

By the end of The Trip, I actually felt my age, hunched over as I was against the cold. What warmed me was the thought of the Netflix DVD of an MI-5 episode that awaited me at home, to be watched in the cozy comfort of my own family room. And it occurred to me that The Trip might have been a much more enjoyable trip had I seen that, too, on DVD.

I won't go into boring detail about our drive home. It can be summed up in a few words—rain, rush-hour traffic, Memorial Drive. As we sat in gridlock, E. and I reflected on our day's journey and what we had learned—always bring a heavy jacket to air-conditioned places and avoid seeing movies in movie theaters if at all possible. Not the most profound lessons, but in the journey that is life, ones worth remembering.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Spider Philia

I think I might be taking this animal thing too far. In this blog and in my life, I've been increasingly smitten with animals of every variety, from dogs and ducks to fish and chickens. But lately, I've even been feeling kindly toward spiders.

Like many people, I've always had a mild spider phobia and I've definitely had a healthy fear of dangerous species. When I was in my twenties and living in California, for example, I didn't hesitate to kill a black widow that had the temerity to crawl up my kitchen wall. Actually, I called E., who killed the spider with a folded New Yorker Magazine, allowing the creature a literary death more eloquent than my current description of its demise.

One morning this past winter, while I was still in Florida, a small brown spider crawled out of the pocket of my jeans just as I was about to put them on. Fearing that it might be a dreaded brown recluse, I killed the spider immediately, this time doing the dirty deed myself. Over the years, I've realized that E. doesn't like killing arachnids any more than I do, so I really couldn't foist the job on him.

Once I'd disposed of the spider, I spent a considerable amount of time researching brown recluses on the Internet and trying to convince myself that the spider I'd killed was a southern house spider, a non-threatening variety that looks a lot like a recluse. It would have helped my identification had I trapped the spider in a glass so I could get a careful look. But having squished it beyond all recognition, I never could be sure exactly what I'd killed. Consequently, until we left Florida, I shook out every item of clothing before putting it on, lest another brown spider be lurking in some crevice. I'm not a world-class worrier for nothing.

Now that I'm back in Massachusetts, though, I've stopped worrying too much about that particular species. So far, I've mostly seen an occasional pale house spider idling on a wall in my house or garage. For a long while, I've had a policy of leaving such harmless spiders alone, unless they made the mistake of hanging out in my bedroom. Then, my normal response was to kill them. The thought of a spider crawling into my bed while I slept was simply too much to handle.

Now I'm not sure I would even draw the line at my bedroom. During the past few weeks my spider phobia seems to have shifted toward spider philia—I gaze at the little tan spider on my bathroom wall with something approaching brotherly love, or at least cross-species friendship. The thought of killing the innocent creature makes me almost sad. So far, I haven't had to confront a spider in my bedroom or one crawling out of my shoe, for that matter.  But my inclination is increasingly to live and let live, at least if I know the spider isn't likely to administer a fatal bite in return.

Lest you think I've become a total vegetarian wimp, rest assured that I wouldn't hesitate to destroy any cockroach that came my way. The same goes for earwigs, millipedes, and silverfish. Speaking of silverfish, spiders prey on them. So, long live spiders!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Down on the Farm

The cottontails, robins, squirrels, and other backyard creatures I've spied since returning to Newton have added pleasure to my days. It's been especially nice to open the windows and hear birdsong while I work. But I still miss my toy poodle, Cosmo, who died almost ten months ago, and I yearn for closer contact with animals. I'm not ready to commit to another pet, but I knew where I could find a barnyard full of animals—Drumlin Farm in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

Drumlin Farm is a wildlife sanctuary as well as a real working farm run by the Massachusetts Audobon Society. I remembered it well from the days when E. and I brought our children there to marvel at the animals, but it had been years since we'd visited. I wondered whether he and I would be the only adults unaccompanied by youngsters. I needn't have worried. There were lots of other adults enjoying the spring day, walking on the nature trails, and delighting in the antics of the farm critters. Lots of kids, too, both of the goat and human variety, which only added to the fun.

Thanks to Cosmo, I've become much more attuned to animals and the value of their lives. I recently read Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer. His description of modern factory farming of animals filled me with horror and shame, so much so that I'm now eating mostly vegetarian. Occasionally, I make an exception for wild fish, pastured chicken, or grass-fed beef. I'm not totally opposed to eating meat, but I believe that animals should have a life worth living before their ultimate death. Happily, at Drumlin Farm they live that kind of life. (Note: All of the photos below can be enlarged by clicking on them.)

Before we reached the actual farm complex, we visited "Bird Hill," home to injured birds given sanctuary by Drumlin Farm. Among them were a barred owl, a broad-winged hawk, a turkey vulture, and this pheasant, who seemed content enough, though I felt sad to see it confined to a cage, albeit a roomy outdoor one.

As we were leaving Bird Hill, we encountered a volunteer holding an American kestrel, which is a small falcon. This bird had not been injured but had been rescued as a baby and had imprinted to humans so could not be released into the wild. The handler assured me that it has enough space in its large cage across the road to experience some of the thrill of flight, though nothing like its wild cousins enjoy.

On to the farm! I found the chickens enchanting—curious, lively, playful. At Drumlin Farm, they have a pleasant outdoor enclosure which abuts a well-maintained indoor space. They can go back and forth at will. This healthy rooster did his rooster thing, strutting his stuff for everyone to see.

Our next stop was the pig area. The pig family was knee-deep in mud, the mother rooting away. Every time the piglets tried to nose in and join her, she shoved them away with her snout, which elicited high-pitched squeals. To my untrained eye, at least, it looked like pig heaven.

The sheep were nearby, doing what sheep do, eating grass and baaing. The one pictured is a natural-colored member of the Romney breed (I'll resist any political jokes). I like its black face, how neatly delineated it appears from the sheep's thick fleece.

The goats and sheep live in close proximity and share a big shed. In fact, you can see a sheep among the goats at the back of the group photographed below. I love how the kid clumsily climbs on the mature goat's back. And she doesn't seem to mind. She may or may not be its mother—a few moments earlier, the same kid was standing on the sheep's back!

There was lots more to see—cows, the resident pony, a vernal pool, an indoor-outdoor area housing rescued red foxes, opossums, and New England cottontails, and even an exhibit about bats, featuring hand-made bat houses. All in all, a great day down on the farm.

I can't resist posting the following YouTube video, taken by another visitor to Drumlin Farm, which captures the sheep noisily demanding their feeding. (To see the video in its correct aspect ratio, link to Who knew sheep could make such a racket? If you can't take the noise, skip to about the three-minute mark and you can watch the sheep react when their food finally arrives.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Last Sightings Before My Northern Migration

Earlier this week, I departed from Miami and returned to Newton, land of New England cottontails, wild turkeys, and red-tailed hawks. Since my arrival, I've spotted a Baltimore oriole, many mourning doves, several robins, and a couple of cardinals, in addition to numerous bunnies and a lone hawk. The turkeys have yet to make an appearance, but their droppings on my driveway make it clear they still live in the neighborhood.

Spring rains have turned my lawn a lush green and my perennials will eventually attract gold scores of goldfinches and butterflies. There's much to enjoy here in the way of wildlife.

Still, I found it hard to part from my aerie overlooking Biscayne Bay. Every walk along the Bay holds the tantalizing possibility of encountering something unexpected. During my last few days in Miami, I spent extra time scanning the clear waters in the hope of seeing a spotted eagle ray or perhaps an unusual crab or some exotic tropical fish. My efforts were rewarded when I spied a small, round stingray I'd never seen before. And for once, I had my iPhone camera handy.

It took some detective work on the Internet before I made a positive identification—a yellow stingray. These rays have periscope eyes, giving them a 360-degree panoramic view of their surroundings. So, I'm pretty sure that while I was watching it, the yellow stingray was watching me back.

A few moments later, I noticed a gorgeous southern stingray cruising just above the seagrass. I've seen southern stingrays before, but never such a beautiful specimen and never when I had a camera on hand. Notice the delicate blue along the edges of the ray's wings and tail.

The real surprise of my day came as I ended my walk and crossed the parking lot toward my apartment building—I found one of my two Muscovy ducks happily slurping water from a drainage grate. I hadn't seen either of them for days and had even wondered whether they'd migrated north.

The duck looked up briefly when I greeted it.

Then it ruffled its feathers and resumed drinking, as the photos below show.

I felt delighted to see my feathered friend and a great sense of closure at its return only two days before my migration north.

Now that I've settled into my Newton abode, I look forward to taking a walk to nearby Chandler Pond. I'm hoping to greet the ducks there, as well as the geese, cormorants, red-winged blackbirds, turtles, and maybe a couple of swans.

Click on the photographs to enlarge them. 

Monday, May 2, 2011

Remembering Richard

I was going to try for a little humor today, to lighten things up after yesterday's worried sunscreen screed. But there's nothing funny about Osama bin Laden, nothing humorous about his life or his death. And there's still only sadness when I think about those who died on 9/11, including one among them whom I knew, Richard Ross.

Richard was a genial man, a gentle person with an affectionate style. He had a wife, two daughters, and a son. One of his daughers, Alison, was diagnosed with a brain tumor as a young child. The family was given a dire prognosis, but Richard refused to accept it. He assembled a team of neurologists who ultimately saved Alison's life through a combination of surgery and radiation. She's now a beautiful, healthy young woman.

Not only did Richard nurse his daughter back to health. He became passionate about helping others diagnosed with brain tumors. With a friend, he founded the Brain Tumor Society, which in 2008 merged with the National Brain Tumor Foundation to form the National Brain Tumor Society. Before the merger, the Brain Tumor Society raised over 13 million dollars for brain tumor research. Click on the following link to watch an NECN feature documenting Alison's story and Richard's role in her life and in the founding of the Brain Tumor Society—Legacy of 9/11 victim survives with Brain Tumor Society.

E. and I met Richard through the YPO, a business organization that sponsors educational and social events. Richard loved the YPO and its related organization, the '49ers, and was a regular attendee at their gatherings along with his wife, Judi Rotenberg. So, it came to pass that I last saw Richard on the evening of September 10th, 2001 at a '49er event held at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

After a fascinating lecture and tour of the building, the group gathered for a cocktail reception. Before we left, E. and I stopped to chat with Richard. He mentioned that he had planned to fly to Los Angeles that morning, but had postponed his trip so he could attend the event with Judi. As we parted, Richard kissed my cheek and said "Goodbye, dear." The next morning, he boarded American Airlines Flight 11, bound for Los Angeles. The plane flew into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m.

There's a phrase in Judaism, tikkun olam—repairing the world. Richard worked to create a better world, in his personal life and in the wider society. Bin Laden aimed to tear that world down. Today, I choose to celebrate and emulate the life of Richard and others like him. Let's hope the world chooses to do the same.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

To Screen or Not to Screen

That was my question this morning. I was about to set out on my favorite walk along Biscayne Bay, where palms and other foliage provide only intermittent shade. After some deliberation, I elected to wear a sleeveless top and (gasp!) no sunscreen on my arms or on the back and front of my neck. On my face, I applied a 25 SPF sunblock (Clinique City Block), but only across my sensitive cheeks and nose. Hardly the makings of a Shakespearean tragedy, and yet...

Whether 'tis nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of a tropical sun or to take arms against the threat of sunburn with chemical emollients—that's a decision dermatologists and others would have us believe is indeed a matter of life and death. Dermatologists maintain that exposure to the sun, even a single sunburn, can lead to melanoma, a life-threatening cancer. I take this concern seriously. Yet to protect myself from the sun's rays, I wind up slathering on a plethora of chemicals with dreadful-sounding names—homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, avobenzone, octocrylene, oxybenzone.

These chemicals are absorbed into my body through my skin, possibly causing ill effects. Oxybenzone, for example, disrupts hormonal activity. Having had breast cancer that was estrogen and progesterone receptor positive, I'm not sure I like that idea. The "natural" sunblocks, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, are less likely to be absorbed, but even they can enter the body through minute cracks in the skin. None of this sounds appealing. Yet, too much sun exposure also seems like a bad idea.

To digress—I well remember when margarine became all the rage during the sixties and seventies, fueled by fear of cholesterol. Back then, when I read the list of chemicals among its ingredients, I couldn't believe margarine was better for my health than plain old butter. So I stayed with butter, but used it in moderation. Lo and behold, evidence eventually emerged that margarine of the type sold during that earlier period contained carcinogens plus hydrogenated trans fats that may have been as bad for heart health as the animal fat in regular butter.

So, what does this have to do with sunscreen? For years, dermatologists and sunscreen manufacturers have assured us of the safety of sunscreens. But perhaps time and studies will reveal that the very chemicals meant to prevent harm from sun exposure are worse than the exposure itself. Nowadays, all-natural butter substitutes are available that contain none of the chemicals or trans fats that made them such a bad choice in the past. Is there an analogy in the sunscreen world, something to protect us from the sun that won't ultimately do more harm than good?

Some people advocate the "natural" sun blocks, those which use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, as a safer choice. Newer formulations make them less greasy, thick, and white when applied. But they can still be pretty gooey, especially if you're putting them all over your body. The better choice may be good old-fashioned clothing—long sleeves, hats, long pants. For most activities, clothing made with SPF fabrics would be overkill. Some of the garments actually have sunscreens embedded in their fabrics, defeating the idea of using clothes instead of chemical sunscreens.

Of course, long sleeves and long pants can be awfully uncomfortable on a hot day. Plus, I'd look pretty odd in such a getup on the beach or, for that matter, anywhere in let-it-all-hang-out Miami. And then there's the issue of vitamin D. It's been recognized in recent years that many of us weren't getting enough vitamin D. Fortified food couldn't supply what we weren't getting from the sun and sunscreens were blocking our ability to utilize the sun for this essential vitamin. Supplements are one answer and I now take them daily. But some doctors (usually not dermatologists) argue that a small amount of sun exposure every day is actually good for us. Hence, my unprotected walk in the Florida sun might have done more than give my skin a healthy-looking glow—it might even have improved my health.

So, how do I reach a compromise I can live with, both in the figurative and literal sense? Since I've already taken Shakespeare totally out of context, let me end with a line from Cymbeline—" Fear no more the heat o' the sun. . ." I'll try to take that advice, but worrier that I am, I'll hedge my bets—sunscreen at the beach or when taking a long walk, long-sleeved shirts when it's not unbearable, and a preference for the shadiest spot on my terrace.

After a day of body surfing in  Manzanillo, Mexico, 1965—hard to see in the photo, but it was the worst sunburn of my life.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Leaping Lizards? Nope, Leaping Rays

It was a glorious mid-April Miami day. The air was soft and warm under a baby-blue sky. My sister was in town for a visit, so I decided to take her to lunch at The Standard hotel, which has an outdoor grill overlooking the inland waterway between Miami Beach and the mainland. We were seated right next to the water, under a yellow umbrella.

While waiting for our order, we watched a group of kids engaged in stand up paddle surfing just off the deck where we sat. Suddenly, only a few feet from one of the paddlers, a large ray leaped out of the water. Although the leap lasted only a second, I noticed that the ray had white spots all over its upper side. I'd never seen anything like it.

A few days ago, while walking along the seawall by my apartment building, I saw a ray with the same striking white spots as the one that had amazed me with its splashy leap a week or so earlier.

The ray was swimming in shallow water at a leisurely pace. I strolled alongside it for quite a while as it meandered inches above the sandy bottom. In addition to its spots, the shape of the ray surprised me—it had a distinct head.

The southern stingrays I had previously seen in those waters didn't have defined heads, but rather a bulge with eyes in the center of their otherwise flat bodies. Here's a picture of a southern stingray, for comparison.

While walking along the seawall, only a few feet from the spotted ray, I recalled an incident I'd heard about a few years ago, when a woman died after a ray leaped onto her boat in the waters off Florida. Having seen one of those spotted rays leap for myself, I knew how suddenly it could happen. I inched away from the seawall. Did I worry that the ray would leap out of the water and land on me? Well, just a little.

When I returned to my apartment, I did some research. I learned that the ray I'd seen was a spotted eagle ray. The spotted eagle apparently leaps out of the water when pursued. It was indeed the type of ray whose leap resulted in a collision with a woman in a boat in 2008, causing her death (the ray also died). The boat was traveling 25 miles per hour at the moment when the ray emerged from the water. There was no sign that the woman was stung by the ray. Rather, her death was caused by the impact. Spotted eagle rays can attain a length of six feet or more from wing tip to wing tip and can weigh as much as five hundred pounds.

A similar boat incident had a happier ending last month, when another spotted eagle ray leaped and wound up on a boat.

In the short time since I saw the spotted eagle ray up close during my walk along the seawall, I've witnessed two more leaping spotted eagles, this time in Biscayne Bay. While they weren't as close to me as the one I saw at The Standard, the rays looked enormous as they erupted from the water with tremendous force. In fact, their leaps were so amazing that I almost forgot to worry about the people sailing nearby on their little sunfishes.

Photographs of rays courtesy of Wikipedia. Click on the photos to enlarge them.

If you receive this blog via email, you will have missed the two YouTube videos embedded here. Just go to the actual blog ( to see them.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Duck Divorce

The Muscovy ducks who lived next to my apartment building seemed to have an uncommon fondness for hanging out in the parking lot, something that caused me no end of worry. Hot days would find them resting under the cool shade of a sedan or SUV, never mind the inviting palms and other leafy trees available nearby. Other times, I'd observe them wandering among the cars and vans, seemingly oblivious to the danger of being run over. Of course, they were capable of flight, though they rarely took to the air. But perhaps they felt secure in the knowledge that if vehicular impact seemed imminent, they could simply fly out of harm's way.

Still, I worried, especially when several days passed and I didn't see the smaller, black-headed duck anywhere. Could there have been a car incident? A pressed duck? Wouldn't I have heard about it? The white-headed duck still hung out on the grassy knoll, chomping away at blades of coarse Florida grass with gusto. He seemed not to miss his formerly-constant companion at all.

A week or so passed with no sighting of the smaller duck, whom I had always assumed to be the female. I'd done some Internet research about Muscovy ducks and had read that males are larger and have more caruncles. The white-headed duck certainly seemed to be the male of the pair. And at the moment, he seemed to have been abandoned by his mate.

One afternoon, the white-headed duck discovered some breadcrumbs scattered at the edge of the parking lot. As he began eating them, I suddenly saw the black-headed duck literally run from across the parking lot to share in the breadcrumb bounty. My heart fluttered with joy. The little duck was alive and well!

However, she was apparently not welcome. She joined her former companion and began eating, but every time she got too close to him, he pecked her away. Eventually, she turned and headed back to a planted hedge between two cars. Wanting to understand what was going on but having no clue, I speculated that she was sitting on eggs in a secluded spot within the thick hedge. The following day, I decided to investigate, but found no trace of eggs, nor of a sitting duck.

The mystery deepened. In the late afternoon, I would often notice the white duck perambulating the parking lot. I took to watching him from my apartment terrace, using binoculars at times. Occasionally, the black duck would appear and walk over to her former partner. They might stay together for a moment but then they would separate, like magnets first attracting then repelling one another.

Apparently, there had been a duck divorce. Perhaps now the ducks were arguing over custody of the parking lot. Certainly, neither was around for much of the day. Maybe they were off scouting new real estate.

One afternoon, I took my typical walk, using the path that begins at the parking lot and continues along Biscayne Bay. I had walked perhaps a quarter of a mile, far from where I'd ever seen the ducks, when something caused me to turn my head. To my amazement, the black-headed duck was flying toward me. She landed and sidled up to me. I greeted her with manic expressions of duckie affection. I almost gave into an urge to kneel down and pet her, but contented myself with repeated endearments on the order of "my little duckie-wuckie." After a minute, she waggled her tail, walked a few steps and went flying off over the water in the direction of downtown Miami.

That was the last I saw of either duck for a while. Lately, I occasionally see one or the other, but never both together. It recently occurred to me that there may be a reason no little ducklings were born to the pair this winter—they may not be male and female after all! The white-headed duck, though bigger than the other, is still much smaller than many Muscovies I've seen. Perhaps the pair are both females who stayed together out of a social impulse that seems characteristic of ducks, while waiting for their perfect mates to appear. Since no drakes ever arrived, maybe some duck imperative has now driven them to seek their mates elsewhere.

Whatever the case, my duck separation may not be so much a duck divorce as two BFFs heading off in search of love. At least that's what I like to imagine.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Duck Experiment

My duck experiment didn't involve birds in a lab or even the scientific method. It involved two wild Muscovy ducks who voluntarily resided on the grounds of my Miami apartment complex.

The pair apparently arrived at my Miami doorstep during my summer and fall sojourn in Boston. I first became acquainted with the duck duo when I returned to Miami in early December. By then, they appeared happily ensconced in their daily duck routine.

Mucovies don't swim much, but I would occasionally see them taking a dip in Biscayne Bay. They seemed to find much to enjoy on the grassy knoll between the complex's parking lot and the bay, including chomping on the grass with enthusiasm. They took advantage of water provided for them by an extension to the water fountain located in a little tiki hut adjacent to the parking lot. And they spent many hours preening their feathers. Toward the end of their busy day, I'd often find them resting next to one another on the sea wall overlooking the bay.

As you can see from the photo, Muscovies are not the most beautiful of ducks. They lack the elegant markings of mallards or wood ducks and their red caruncles may be regarded as downright unsightly. Perhaps familiarity breeds affection, though. It certainly has for me. I've come to find the very ungainliness of the Muscovies appealing. And after I initiated my duck experiment, I positively fell in love with them.

I wondered whether the ducks would respond to friendliness even in the absence of food. Other residents fed the ducks breadcrumbs. I would refrain. Instead, every time I saw the ducks, I would greet them effusively. I hypothesized that they would come to recognize and respond to me. Thus, my experiment began.

"Hi duckies," I would call, in that high-pitched voice often used for babies and pets. "Hi ducky, ducky, ducks." Sometimes they'd look up and even waggle their tail feathers. For a long time, however, I couldn't tell whether they recognized me, let alone whether they cared.

After a while, though, the ducks started walking in my direction when I called to them. A neighbor who heard my antic greeting and saw the ducks respond opined that hope springs eternal in the Muscovy duck. "Even if you haven't fed them before, they keep hoping," he declared. While secretly fearing he might be right, I continued to visit and greet the ducks. And eventually I was rewarded—the ducks began to come over to me even before I called to them. I felt sure this was a sign that they recognized me as a friend. But I couldn't be certain.

Then one day a breakthrough occurred. I was walking across the parking lot. Another woman and her young daughter were walking near me at the same time. Suddenly, both ducks made a bee-line for me from across the asphalt, heading toward me at a hilariously rapid web-footed run. I greeted them effusively. They came right up next to me, waggled their tail feathers and lingered for a few moments before heading at a more stately pace back to their grassy knoll. They totally ignored the little girl and her mother, even when the girl called to them. I felt sure they really had recognized and responded to me.

At that moment, the ducks became "my" ducks. I may have lost all scientific objectivity as an experimenter, but I had gained a pair of duck friends.

Tomorrow: Duck Divorce

Sunday, April 24, 2011


In mindfulness meditation, practitioners are taught to focus on the moment—the breath flowing in and out, the here and now. Although I've tried formal meditation practice, I've found that I prefer the meditative state I reach when I'm caught up in the flow of writing or when I sit on my favorite bench overlooking Key Biscayne and am at one with the sky, the sea, and the pelican gliding past.

I have a friend who achieves this glorious sense of absorption when she paints. And E. has variously achieved the state of flow when playing the piano or building his electric car. It's a state of being utterly focused, when time no longer exists.

The word "flow" was first used to describe this state by The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. When I read this book a number of years ago, I found it transformative. I began to think about my life in a new way. Rather than defining my goals in terms of happiness or productivity, I became interested in how I could increase the periods of flow in my life.

Not all of life can be lived in flow, however. There are other ways of being in the moment that are not so pleasant. Pain, even minor pain, can strand you in a never-ending moment. 

The other day, I developed a canker sore on the side of my tongue. It hurt to eat, to speak, to move my tongue in any way. Intellectually, I knew it was temporary and likely to disappear in a day or two. But when it was still there the next morning, I began to feel as if it would never leave me. I focused on the pain and was absorbed by it. I found it hard to carry on a conversation with a friend who called. I imagined my personality would change if I couldn't talk fluidly as before. On the third day, I woke to find the sore had healed. For another day or two, I felt very mindful of the miracle of a pain-free tongue.

However mindfully or flowingly we lead our lives, the moments will inevitably string together to make up years. Mostly, I don't dwell on this, but occasionally something will jolt me into astonished recognition of the time that has passed. Yesterday, I received an invitation to a fortieth wedding anniversary party of a college friend and her husband. Over the years, we've been in sporadic contact, but it's been a while since I've seen them. It occurred to me, though, that I'd attended their wedding almost forty years earlier.

It seems almost incomprehensible to me that I could be old enough to have attended the wedding of a contemporary so long ago. How can I have gotten so old so quickly? Yet I still feel so young. Probably a good thing, especially if it gives me the energy and determination to pursue activities that put me in a timeless state of flow.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Gulls and the Joy of Photo Editing

While on a walk along Biscayne Bay, I rounded a bend and found myself engulfed by gulls. A young man had started feeding one or two and soon the gulls had gathered in great numbers, swooping and diving for scraps of bread.

I pulled my iPhone from my pocket and began shooting. The brightness of the sun on my viewing screen prevented me from seeing clearly so, rather than compose my photos, I just pointed and shot. Predictably, most of the pictures failed to capture the magic of the experience. Until I started editing, that is.

I began my work life as an editor of the written word. Editing has always been my passion. Now, it seems, I've transferred that love to photography. It's not so much the raw photos that appeal to me, but what I can do with them once I start editing. So far, I'm using rather basic editing tools. The photos below were manipulated on Picasa. I also sometimes use iPhoto. Judicious cropping and the addition of a few special effects can make an amazing difference.

This is a photo of the scene, unedited.

This is the same photo, but here I've enhanced the lighting.

In the photos below, I cropped, highlighted, sharpened, tinted, and otherwise manipulated the photographs. Editing the photos allowed me to slow time and see things I couldn't take in during the moment. In my own "flight" of fancy, I've tried to create an alternate gull reality. Click on the photos to enlarge them.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Flowers They Bring

Like most Americans, I reacted to the shootings in Tucson with horror and sadness. I've had some other reactions, as well. I've experienced anger at the media for rushing to politicize the tragedy. I've felt frustrated by our society's failure to control guns, particularly the sale of guns to mentally ill individuals. I've worried about how we can safeguard the public from the very small percentage of those mentally ill people who might act out violently. And I've also been thinking about flowers.

At the Capitol and in Tucson, well-wishers left flowers outside the offices of Gabrielle Giffords, the Congresswoman who was viciously gunned down last Saturday. The scenes reminded me of similar ones in the wake of past tragedies, like the thousands upon thousands of bouquets left at Kensington and Buckingham Palaces after Princess Diana's death. I also thought of the poignant roadside memorials for young people killed in auto accidents, usually marked with flowers as well as childhood memorabilia.

I find such communal outpourings moving. The delicate blooms suggest the beauty and fragility of life. And at times such as these, when I question the very nature of the society I live in, they give me hope that most people are motivated by love rather than hate.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

My New Year's Resolution

I'm done with making big, meaningful New Year's resolutions — lose weight, exercise, write a poem a day, never get angry. They always backfire.

Unlike most people, who tend to gain weight during the holidays, I gain afterward, just when I've resolved not to. When it comes to exercise, yesterday I almost broke my arms lifting up two grocery bags. Pathetic, yes, motivational, no. The more I resolve to exercise, the harder I find it to get going.

As for writing poetry, I seem to have left my muse stranded somewhere back in the twentieth century. I might be able to knock out a limerick or two, but as for anything deep and tormented — forget it. Maybe my inability to write poems lately is a good thing, though. Perhaps it means my angst gene has mutated. In fact, I'm sure it has. It's become the mindless football maniac gene.

During the past few days, I've watched a lot of football. I didn't need a New Year's resolution to inspire this fanaticism. I'm completely addicted to the game. On New Year's Eve day, I watched my favorite college team, the Miami Hurricanes, lose horribly to Notre Dame in the Sun Bowl. Unhappy but undeterred, I've since watched the Rose Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl, the Orange Bowl, and the Sugar Bowl, not to mention tuning in to see my favorite pro team, the New England Patriots, demolish the Miami Dolphins.

All of which leads me to my 2011 New Year's Resolution — I resolve to learn the offensive and defensive positions.

I understand the game at this point. I really do. I can point out pass interference, I see when a team is offsides, I know what holding is. I've learned about two-point conversions and safeties, I'm aware of the overtime rules, both at the college and pro levels. I'm an expert on fumble recoveries, interceptions, and kick returns. I just can't seem to figure out all the positions.

I get quarterback. He's the guy who throws the ball to a receiver, or hands it off to a running back. But sometimes the running back is called a halfback or a fullback. And when the quarterback throws the ball, sometimes the wide receiver catches it, but often it's tossed to the tight end or even to a running back. For all I know, the tight end isn't always on the end. But is the fullback always in the back? I hope you can see why I'm confused.

I understand the role of kicker. He kicks off the ball or makes field goal attempts. But what about the punter? I get that he kicks the ball after the other team fails to convert to first down. But sometimes the kicker is also the punter, though usually someone different does that job. Or am I going crazy?

I know what the offensive line does. I'm confident about that. Their job is to protect the quarterback. But who's on the line? I consulted a chart that tells me there's a center, guards, and tackles. But who's who? Logic suggests the center is in the center. But is that always true? What happens during different formations? Who can tell who does what? Not me, though I'm resolving to do better.

The offense is the easy part for me. I really get confused when it comes to defensive positions. Basically, I have no idea who plays what. I've heard the terms cornerback, linebacker, and safety, but when watching a game, I don't have a clue. And I gather there are tackles on the defense as well as on the offense. What's up with that?

So, I'm resolving to learn the positions. Will this make me a better person? No. Will this make me a smarter human being? Definitely not. Will this cause me to start writing angst-ridden poetry about the human drama played out on the gridiron? Probably.

Until then, I've got my notebook handy and I'm gearing up for the playoffs.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Skinny on Skin

Skin is everywhere. When it's not on you, it's sloughing off you. I've heard that dead skin accounts for most of the dust in our homes.

Actually, skin isn't on you, it is you. As you may have learned in school, skin is the largest organ of your body. As the popular aphorism "beauty is only skin deep" implies, without your skin you would not look good.

But that doesn't mean we're all comfortable in our own skins. You may be thin-skinned, as I am, about almost any criticism—of my cooking, my singing, my writing, my skin itself. You could say I'm thin-skinned about my thin skin.

Even if you're thick-skinned and hence able to withstand the slings and arrows of your worst enemies, eventually something will get under your skin and really annoy you. This blog, perhaps.

I could take this opportunity to riff on dermatologists or rail about moles, rashes, wrinkles, and other indignities that afflict the skin, but I think I'll end here and escape by the skin of my teeth.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Taking the Guilt Out of Guilty Pleasures

Perhaps you read the article in yesterday's New York Times about the benefits of providing favorite foods to Alzheimer's patients. When people are given foods and other things they like, they are soothed. They calm down. They feel loved and nurtured.

Individuals with Alzheimer's are, by definition, not healthy, so why deprive them of their favorite foods just because those foods are too high in fat or sugar? Why focus so much on physical health when their mental health is already grievously impaired? If a cup of chocolate ice cream is all it takes to bring a little pleasure into an otherwise bleak existence, dishing it up seems like a no-brainer.

By extension, maybe we should all allow a few more guilty pleasures into our lives, minus the guilt. But let me speak for myself, by way of a specific example—alcohol. I enjoy a drink with dinner, some nights a glass of wine, others a vodka tonic. I'm not talking excess, just one drink. It relaxes me and I like the taste. But I've agonized no end about my indulgence. Did alcohol cause my breast cancer? Am I risking a recurrence by continuing to consume a drink in the evening?

On the other hand, I've read the research findings that alcohol in moderation minimizes the risk of heart disease, so maybe my daily drink will protect me against that. I've wasted a lot of time attempting to analyze the risks versus the benefits. And with every new study, the balance shifts. Not long after my primary care doctor told me that a glass of wine a day was fine, new research indicated that as little as a half a drink per week could increase the risk of breast cancer. My breast surgeon assured me that the increased risk was minuscule, but she didn't say nonexistent.

During all the time I've spent weighing the pros and cons, I've never given up my nightly drink. I've just felt guilty about it. Then, not long ago, a new study came out. It confirmed the previous finding that alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer, but found that the risk was confined to a specific type of breast cancer, lobular carcinoma. Since I had another type of breast cancer, ductal carcinoma, alcohol presumably played no part in my developing the disease.

So for the moment, I'm enjoying my wine (or vodka tonic) guilt-free. But if I'm only pegging my enjoyment on the latest study result, I'm not likely to rest easy for long. Chances are, the next study will show that alcohol causes Alzheimer's or worse. What I need to do is detach from all this anxiety about which foods, drinks, and supplements to consume and focus on enjoying the simple pleasures of life, so long as doing so doesn't harm anybody else. And hopefully, it won't harm me, either, if I indulge in moderation. Eventually, I might even convince myself not to feel guilty about being immoderate on occasion. As Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said, "Moderation in all things, especially moderation."