January is the New April

Mom wrote last week to report 60 degree temps in southwest Ohio. We played spring baseball in 60-degree weather when I was a kid. Times and weather patterns have changed: January is the new April.

Back when, the coldest days of the year in the Midwest clustered in mid January. 20-below temperatures persisted for two weeks in 1977. When a February mini-thaw arrived that year, folks basked in the relatively balmy, just-above-freezing weather. I also remember a January day in a mountain valley in Pennsylvania where college kids strolled around campus in shorts and t-shirts. The mercury read 36 degrees.

We had several harsh winters when I was an undergrad at the University of Dayton. One of my friends, a fellow biology student, spent his early years in sub-arctic Minnesota. He kept his thermostat set at 50 degrees and didn’t mind when frost formed on the floor beneath drafty windows. One particularly frigid night, he noticed my running nose and shivers as I huddled in a winter coat on his sofa. He took pity and offered some advice: he told me to shed my coat and stand outside on his porch. He said, “You’ll feel nice and warm once you come back in.” I didn’t follow his instructions but chose to go home where I sat near a register and sipped hot chocolate.

This same friend suffered the tortures of the damned during the summer. He worked in a factory with no air-conditioning. The most relief he could summon at home came from sitting in front of a floor fan. I felt tempted, when he chafed and moaned about steamy Dayton summers, to tell him to go stand out in the full sun until he felt faint. He’d feel much cooler when he came back inside.

This week, the Canadian Arctic reclaimed its normal dominance by sending waves of frigid air south. Miami had a low of 43 degrees this morning. Comatose iguanas fell from trees creating cold-lizard precipitation, a weather phenomenon occurring only in south Florida. Our temps in Orlando flipped from an 80-degree-high/60-degree-low to a 52/38 split. A blustery wind whipped by at 20 m.p.h. further chilling cold-averse central Floridians.

Judy and I drove to the grocery store this morning. Wind shuddered the car and sent plastic grocery bags and bits of paper (trash day in a neighborhood lacking in garbage can lids) drifting by like the jetsam in the tornado scene from “The Wizard of Oz”. I saw Judy shivering in the seat next to me, her arms wrapped tightly around her chest. I took pity and thoughtfully echoed my college friend: I told her that when we lived in the frozen north, we’d consider a day like this a lovely spring day. I implied that temperature is a relative experience. Her discomfort was all in her head.

She didn’t agree. She turned the car heater to full red.

Mold, Mold, Mooooolddd!

We’ve had a lovely Christmas break. Guests and family filled our house. We overate, exchanged presents, talked, and passed around my three-month-old granddaughter.

Judy and Ava on Christmas Day

And we watched “White Christmas” one night. The kitschy musical had no message besides the following: middle-aged weariness confronted by unexamined attraction leads to happily-ever-after marriages. A few obstructions (that could have been easily avoided if open and constructive communication had been practiced) formed the plot line.

One of the songs, “Snow, Snow, Snow!” definitely did not apply to our holiday season in Florida. Our temps hovered in the high seventies and crested at 80 degrees one day. The lows bottomed in the mid 60s. Greenery abounded. A few plants flowered. I wore a Hawaiian shirt on Christmas day.

A high pressure system situated east of the Bahamas streamed hot, humid air from the Caribbean onto Florida. Skies clouded over. Rain fell. Neither the heat pump nor the air conditioner adequately addressed the situation. Rain water slipped between the edge of the foundation and the cinder block wall of the back bathroom creating a bath mat-soaking minor flood. Mold grew on the back side of my bedroom cabinet and night stand. A dark, gray-green patch spread further across a panel on the uncompleted porch enclosure.

I hummed a few bars from “Snow, Snow, Snow!” this morning for Judy’s benefit. Then I broke out with, “Mold, mold, mooolddd! We’re living in a place that’s filled with mold. Moooo-old! My face, my hair, my hands and feet smell like mold.”

Why Does Anyone Want to Live in Florida?

Spent the last four days scanning the NOAA website for the latest Hurricane Dorian track. Every time I saw the path cross central Florida I felt a familiar sense of dread. When the path passed over other parts of the state I felt guilt mixed with relief. Better them than me. Oops. Now the forecasted track has drifted east out over the ocean. I’m starting to cautiously relax.

I’ve weathered three tropical storms and four hurricanes in the last 27 years. Can’t say that I’ve acquired battle-weary nonchalance about the latest threats crossing the Atlantic or popping up off the east and west coasts. Instead I feel wary: come September and October, storms strike from every direction except due north.

Talked to my Dad yesterday while waiting for another track announcement. He asked, “Why would anyone want to live in Florida when you have to go through this every year?” Throw in long, hot summers (May to November), mowing the lawn nine months of the year, high crime rates, Florida men behaving badly, tourist-sensitive economies, real estate busts and booms, a crackpot legislature intent on damaging the environment and underfunding schools, and listening to extended Orlando newscasts (commercials) about the latest theme park attractions, and I’m ready to pack bags and sell the house.

Had to top off an elderberry tree growing near the house yesterday. Tropical storm force winds might have whipped its former branches against roof and windows. Stood on a sinking ladder (loose mud beneath me) while I sawed away. Leaned from side to side to rebalance the ladder as droplets showered down from the leaves above.

The tree had been a source of comfort for my wife. She could look out her bedroom window to admire butterflies sipping nectar from its frilly white flowers. Birds came to eat the berries. Lizards sunned on its branches.

Walked around the yard near sunset after returning from an anniversary dinner with Judy. Mellow light filtered through orange-pink-gray clouds. The firebush and passion flower vines are in bloom. Purple and white berries weigh heavily on beauty berry branches. An almost cool breeze blew from the west. A deep sense of peace and belonging settled on me.

Told my Dad that we’d probably move after a kid’s family settles down and I retire. I don’t think we’ll stay in Florida, but there’s times when I’m tempted.

Galloping Pig

Galloping Pig, graphite, 5×6″

Pigs escaped from Florida farms from the time the Spanish first settled the “land of flowers”. Fugitive swine took refuge in the swamps and upland oak forests where they grubbed for roots and grew hairy and fat.

I’ve never had a face to face with a wild pig but have heard them rumbling through patches of palmetto and scrub. The oldsters have advised me to climb a tree if one heads my way in a determined manner.

Stormy Weather

Tornado Watch December 20

Our local TV station aired “The Wizard of Oz” every April in the 1960s. We’d watch in dread and fascination as Dorothy fled the oncoming twister, and shrunk down when the Wicked Witch cackled as she flew by Dorothy’s window on a broom stick.

The movie meant a lot to us: springtime in Ohio coincided with tornado season. A siren blared if a storm threatened to spin or had already begun spinning, and we’d head to the basement with flashlights and a transistor radio to huddle and wait.

Sometimes the storm brewed gradually and swept through at its leisure. Other times, the sky darkened suddenly, the rain fell hard in sheets, and day turned to a deep gloom. Udder-shaped clouds in rows of dirty yellow trailed behind a deadly storm in 1971.

I discovered that no tornado season exists in Florida. The local stations never play “Wizard of Oz”, and no sirens to warn us to find a safe retreat. And basements are rare in Florida. The weathercasters advise us to shelter in windowless interior rooms on ground floors.

We’re under a watch today, December 20th, as a band of storms sweeps in from the Gulf of Mexico. A cold front is colliding with warm, hot air streaming north from the Caribbean. The rain has been falling steadily since last night, and bursts of heavy downpours occasionally overwhelm my gutters. I’ve yet to hear the “big train” sound I heard in 1971 when a twister passed through 70 yards from my parents’ home. The trees wave occasionally, but the branches do not bend sideways and violently whip.

The rain will peter out tomorrow, and temperatures will dip down into the 40s and 50s. Sun will filter through the green leaves on the trees in our yard. Images of twisters, flying monkeys, green-faced witches and ruby slippers will be replaced in a few days by Florida memories of little kids in shorts and t-shirts opening presents. I’ll see Alan riding his new bike in the driveway, and Annie sitting on the front porch playing with a doll.

I just might click my heels together and say, “There’s no place like home.”

Tree Beavers

We bought our house partially for the trees.  Other lots in the neighborhood were denuded patches of grass, easy to manage but sterile looking.  We liked the shade and the snug feeling of living in a mini forest.  After a few years, we realized that trees in Florida jump out of the ground and grow seven feet in a year.  Too much of a good thing. We began to cut down trees growing close to the house, but missed a few along the way.

We had a lightning damaged laurel oak removed a few years ago, but another grew along the east fence by the back yard shed.  It dropped branches down on the shed and pushed its thick trunk up against the power line.  Three laurel cherries grew nearby and entangled the line in their foliage.  A camphor, one half on our side, the other in the rental yard next door, stretched its branches over the east side of our house. We decided last year, right after we weathered Hurricane Irma, to remove looming threats wherever we could.

Seven men from Kevin’s Tree Service came yesterday and did the job in three hours.  Drizzly rain fell intermittently, and the workers wasted no time.  They brought a flatbed trailer for heavy branches and trunks, a bobcat front loader, a chipper, a bucket lift, a crane, rakes, a leaf blower and a several chain saws.  They cut, hoisted, sawed, raked and chipped like busy beavers.  A man wearing spiked boots let the crane lift him to the top of the laurel oak.  He attached a loop to sections of the trunk and sawed beneath to let the crane lift the tree out part by part.  The heavy trunk came last, and I hunkered down when the crane operator swung a twelve foot length over our roof.  He managed to swivel it from the back yard, around the magnolia in the front, and down to the bottom of our driveway.  Men chained sawed it into smaller sections, and the Bobcat scooped them up.

The crew finished just before heavy rains started to fall at midday.  They cleared the yard, loaded equipment, and left soon after I signed papers and wrote a check.  It all happened so fast.

Now we have more light shining down on our back yard.  The power line hangs free and clear.  We’re still surrounded by our mini forest, but it’s a bit thinner and not so close to the house.

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Lots of jobs remain to do inside and outside our house, but I’m relieved that this one’s crossed off the list two days before hurricane season starts.  Yesterday’s rain was a parting gift from Tropical Storm Alberto.



It’s Getting Kind of Weird

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Last week I watched the news and followed the ongoing disaster in Texas.  I didn’t really know what it felt like to be there, but I’ve been through several hurricanes since I moved to Orlando in 1991.  Last year a major storm ran up the length of the east coast and sent tropical storm force winds our way.  A tree branch fell on our power line.  I removed it while the wind still gusted in the 50s as the line bent down several feet and looked ready to break.  I didn’t want my wife to suffer through several powerless days.

Now I’m waking up early to look at the latest forecasts for Irma.  Yesterday the spaghetti models tracked the hurricane to the northwest edge of Cuba.  After that the paths diverged, but a lot of them sent the storm straight up the peninsula.  My stomach flipped.  We’re probably going to get hit.  My daughter and her husband live in Miami, and they’re in the target zone too.

This morning I checked again and saw no improvement.  I knew that drifts and shifts can still occur in Irma’s path, but my sense of dread deepened.  I flipped to other sites and turned on the local news, but nothing gave me any real reassurance.  I gave up when I heard a garbage truck lumbering around a curve in our neighborhood.  I had been lazy the night before–the kitchen bin was still full.

I hauled a can to the curb and saw butterflies flitting around flowering bushes in our front yard.  Two grasshoppers mated in the driveway.  Nature seemed intent on going about its business regardless of impending doom.

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I decided to do the same.  I washed dishes, got breakfast and read from Terry Pratchett’s, Hogfather.  Then I went outside and raked magnolia seed pods and twigs off the front lawn.  In back I picked up dead branches fallen near the east fence.  I climbed on the roof and pull more branches off the roof.  I came inside, took a shower, and got lunch ready.  All fairly normal activities for a Tuesday morning.

My daughter called at noon, and we cancelled her upcoming visit.  She told me about her hurricane preparations in Miami, and we wished each other good luck.  I passed the phone to my wife and went about my business.  Time to run errands and get ready to teach a class tonight.  Such an average day.

Publix was a mixed bag.  A man in the parking lot gave me his empty cart and said, “Better take it, man.  There’s none left in the store.”  The aisles were crowded, and I grew impatient when shoppers parked their carts, stood next to them in the middle, and blocked traffic while they contemplated the selection of can goods left on the shelves. Some were so intent on studying their lists that near collisions were a constant threat.  Two woman slowly pushed their carts side by side in the main aisle leading to the cash registers.  They engaged in a leisurely conversation as I silently walked behind them, but one finally stopped and stood aside to let me by.  She said sarcastically, “There, now you can pass me.”  And when I did with some difficulty (her cart still partially blocked my way) she called after me, “Have a nice day!”  A Publix worker stood with her arms crossed in front of the egg shelves.  She surveyed the crowds of customers weaving from aisle to aisle with a look of grim disdain.  I gingerly picked a carton off the shelf behind her as I wasn’t sure if she was there to guard them.  Another employee came up and said, “There was this lady who filled her cart with water, and then another one next to her got the bright idea and started to do the same…”

The weatherman in the latest forecast hopes that a cold front will arrive in time to push Irma off the east coast.  His expression looks a bit desperate, and I take no comfort.

But for now my kitchen garden is blooming, the butterflies are darting around the blue porter weed in the backyard, the bee balm attracts bees near my front porch, and the grasshoppers are mating.  Judy is listening to an audio book, and I’m writing this post.  A relatively ordinary day.


But it’s getting kind of weird.

Nature in Action: Heavy, Man. Heavy.

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Backyard in the rain.

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Penta and Coreopsis

My wife Judy sits in our back yard garden every day when it’s not raining (the Florida drought has turned into afternoon monsoons) and watches nature in action.  She’s reported on the activities of caterpillars and butterflies.

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Zebra Long Wing (near the top)

One type of butterfly likes to lay its eggs on a passion flower vine growing up and through a beauty berry bush.  Geckos and other lizards love to eat the eggs when they in turn are not being pursued by black racer snakes.  Red shouldered hawks soar overhead in search of careless snakes sunning a bit too long in the open after a heavy meal.

Caterpillars hatch from the remaining eggs and begin to eat the leaves on the vine.  A parasitic wasp, if it manages to locate a caterpillar in the tangle of vegetation, injects its eggs inside.  The wasp larva hatch and eat their way out of the caterpillar.  Ants come along and take chunks out of caterpillars.  The vine secretes a sugary substance when attacked, and the ants are drawn to its tormentors.

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Zebra Long Wing caterpillars.

The desperate action continues after a caterpillar survives long enough to fatten and turn into a chrysalis.  A female proto-butterfly gives off a pheromone that attracts males before they emerge from their cocoons.  Male butterflies land on the chrysalises, flap their wings impatiently, and wait for the lady to make her debut.  I’m not sure if they allow the females to stretch their wings before the “romance” begins.

So nature in action seems to be all about eating or being eaten.  This leads to a frantic urge to spread one’s genes to succeeding generations before a bigger, sneakier, meaner creature seizes one in its jaws.  We witnessed desperate sexual ardor on display the other day among the branches of a plumbago plant in our front yard.  We saw a large female grasshopper bearing the weight of two smaller males on her back.  One male was attached to the female and attempted to deposit his seed.  He was distracted, however, by the male on his back.  The male on top had no homosexual intentions, however.  Instead the uppermost hopper frantically flexed his hind legs to try to pry the male beneath him off the female.  He had decided, apparently, that it was his turn.

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Male grasshopper.

Judy’s a plant physiologist and taught botany courses at Rollins College for many years.  She and I were talking about our garden and how the caterpillars were chewing their way through the milkweeds and passion flower vines.  I teased her about GMOs and said that scientists should come up with a genetically modified plant that turns insects into Existentialists.  Instead of chewing, mating and fleeing predators, the bugs would glumly sit around thinking about the ultimate futility of their lives.  “What’s the point?” they’d ask themselves, “of all this useless activity?  Life has no inherent meaning and worth.  Why spread it?”

Never kid a plant physiologist.  Judy told me that plants like the opium poppy and marijuana create protective intoxicants: the production of opium and THC evolved as a means of defense.  An insect predator becomes passive and uninterested in consuming more tissue after ingesting these drugs.  The motionless, tripping bugs attract predators, predators on the look out for a way to harsh a buzz with extreme prejudice.

I had been thinking of nature as the WWII movie, From Here to Eternity:  sex, violence, survival.  Now when I stroll in the garden I hear the opening strains of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and think about episodes of “The Mod Squad”.  You know, the ones where a love-in on the beach suddenly turns tragic.  Sex, violence, survival and drugs.  And as Peggy Lipton would say, “Heavy, man.  Like, heavy.”



Seasons and Time

I recently saw a cartoon of a calendar for Florida.  The seasons were Bearable, Hell and Total Hell.  They referred to late fall to early spring, summer and early fall, and August respectively.  My family moved from central Pennsylvania to Orlando in August, 1991.  Hell, total hell.  The highs in PA had been in the mid 80s, while the thermometer down here consistently read 94-96 degrees.  I couldn’t figure out why anyone would voluntarily move to Florida until Thanksgiving came around.  A cold front passed through the night before, and the air was crisp and cool on the day of.  The humidity dropped too, and for the next four months I woke up in the morning dry and comfortable instead of basting in my sweat.

I’ve been here for 25 years and have gotten used to the oddities of the Florida climate such as maple trees shedding leaves in March while simultaneously budding. Trees overloaded with ripe citrus at Christmas and pollen allergies in February no longer surprise me.  Mowing the lawn from March to November no longer strikes me as an unreasonable burden.  But the seasons still don’t feel right.

Northerners grow accustomed to the passage of Time marked out by the metronome of distinct seasons.  Years pass by in an orderly parade.  And each season carries its own emotional tone.  Spring releases weary sufferers from cold and gloom into a carnival of warmth and color.  Summer is a long celebration of sun worship, an extended opportunity for outdoor revels.  Fall starts as a welcome relief from August’s heat, but ends on a down note as the trees shed leaves, the sky turns somber, and the colors of the landscape fade and darken to brown, gray and black.  Nature slowly dies, and once winter truly arrives the long, cold, dark vigil begins. Many sink into deep depressions come February.  The yearly cycle brings change and suffering, but its consistency provides certainty in the form of a familiar ritual  of progression.

In Florida there really isn’t a spring.  Bushes and trees bud and blossom at their own pace year round.  Time slides by almost unmarked by any dramatic changes in the landscape. One intensely hot and bright day drifts into another from March to October.  And time appears to stand still when cool air finally filters down from Canada in November.  Days of blue skies and golden light follow one another in a monotonous procession until the first heat wave creeps up from the Caribbean in March.

I’ve learned to mark the passing of years less by seasons and more by the creaking of my joints and the thickening of my waist.  The fat pouches on the sides of my jaw and wrinkles on my forehead tell me that Florida and its seasons are liars.  My bathroom mirror is my reality check if I choose to look in it.  (I’m starting to hate that bastard.)

And perhaps that’s the attraction that brings retirees from Ontario and the Midwest down here.  It must be a comfort, when the end grows ever near, to live in a world where time slows down and sometimes stops.  The rushing by of a limited supply of years may seem less relentless in a land where things change slightly for better or worse, but nothing really seems to happen.