A Piece of My World Falling Apart

Just when you think you’ve made order and progress in one area, something, somewhere, is falling apart. That’s what I was thinking the other day in the garden.

The spinach is looking fine. I can’t find fault with the onions. The azalea we transplanted last year has flowers!

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But look what a mess the daffodil bed is. You can hardly see the poor lilies over to the right.

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Choke, choke, choke. That nasty, thick, light green stuff under and around the daffodils covered nearly all the surface area of that garden bed. As you pull it up, it sounds like it’s shaking off wicked little seeds so that next year it can begin its insidious choking all over again. Don’t even think you’ve seen the last of me!

But I will do what I can toward the goal of order and eye appeal. Unfortunately I am not obsessive about every last root and will probably pay for that (to say nothing of the seeds spewing all over with every handful), but I clawed out and removed what I could, covered the area between the bulbs with layers of newspaper…

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…and covered the newspaper with a thick layer of mulch.

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Phew. Order. (Here anyway.) That’ll keep those weeds at bay for a while. Notice I did not crop out of the photo some other as-yet-untouched areas of the garden. You see mint going like gangbusters in the small bed behind the daffodils and two adjacent beds with landscape fabric doing its job of keeping weeds down nicely. Way in the back is the real problem, or so I thought.

Oh boy. That’s a bigger mess. That’s the berry patch I gave to Tracy back in January. She wanted them, I didn’t, so we dug them out (no small job) and she took them away. As if it could be that easy.

So pleased was I. So happy to have checked that little task off the list. Four months ago we went from this (blue lines dramatizing the thorny mess)…

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…to this. A shaft of afternoon sun highlighting (shall we venture to say celebrating?) a job well done.

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See what a clean slate followed our digging and yanking effort? Oh yay. I had about three months of rest on that point.

Nine days ago, uh-oh, it looked like this.

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Four days ago, it looked like this. I think we have a problem.

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So much for getting the berries out of the garden. Not only do these have prickly thorns (Leave us alone! We will propagate!) they have a seriously determined rooting system. They grow up, they fall over and then the branch that fell over takes root wherever it lands! They become a jungle very quickly and the roots seem to travel like wildfire.

God bless Sandy, the most meticulous gardener who ever lived. Out those berries will come, never to return (!) if he has anything to do with it.

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Yeah, so, all well and good, right? We see a mess, we frown, we take care of it, we smile. Ha!

I am not the first to see order and chaos in the world around me, not the first to deal with the continual cycle that includes both. You’ve seen the ancient Chinese symbol.

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The basic idea is that every arena of life naturally includes the contrary as well as interdependent forces of good/evil, light/darkness, order/chaos. The dots keep you in check, boldly reminding you not to get too smug. They reflect the tendency, indeed the predictability, that one can emerge from the other quite unexpectedly. You can think everything is a mess and suddenly there is peace or beauty. Likewise you can think you’ve mopped up a situation effectively and then all hell breaks loose.

Or something like that. We had a bit of a windstorm about midday on Friday. Guests were arriving around 4pm, so I was walking around picking up branches that had fallen. There were a lot, but branches fall because they are dead or have weak connections to the tree and they make good kindling. I stack them near the new firepit (blue arrow) so anyone staying at the cottage will have something to start campfires with.

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Guests came, lovely people, and onward we go. Saturday was a good day to plant the beets and squash. Oh, right, and some of those branches that had fallen in the windstorm were too big for me to carry by myself so when Sandy came over I asked him to help me move them.

Suddenly he was looking past me toward the woods, toward that tree next to the bit of kindling, and just said, “Uhhhhh….”

Remember that philosophical question: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Well, I’m here to say No one heard it. The wind was high that day. I was busy inside my house with windows closed.

What Sandy saw was not a tree, but a mighty big branch. It’s kinda hard to see how big in this picture, what with the leaves of the branch mixing all up with the leaves in the forest.

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Maybe the photo below gives you a better idea as to the size of this particular branch. So let’s start with a comparison to me. I walked around to the part in shadow where the split part meets the unsplit part (red arrow). I can get my two arms, hugging the branch, a little more than halfway it.

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Then I got a coffee cup from the cottage, placed it on top of the branch for perspective and took a picture from below.

Do you see the cup? Welcome to my world.

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We looked at the tree (at the remainder of the tree) and wonder what to do next. It would take a crane to get the rest of it down; maybe that’s next. And here I thought I was just mulching the daffodil bed, planting beets and squash, being grateful for Sandy’s willingness to dig out berry roots, gathering up fallen branches…

When I said to myself the other day “Just when you think you’ve made order and progress in one area, another is falling apart,” I didn’t think the tree would be literally falling apart!

Unboring, remember? It may be challenging, but it sure is unboring!

My First Use of “an Un-boring Path”

I realize “anunboringpath” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Let me explain.

Boring = uninteresting. Therefore unboring = interesting. Right?

My life’s path has been figuratively all over the map: this, that, up, down, conventional, unconventional, never a dull moment. Throw in some great trips, some outstanding people, some unexpected challenges. Definitely unboring. Therefore an – un – boring – path.

One unconventional thing we did was homeschool. Yesterday Samuel was telling me about an article he read; apparently the number of people using the educational approach that for us was also a lifestyle has been rising steadily. It got me thinking about those years. We started before home computers were a thing, before cell phones were a thing, before house phones (at least ours) were even “cordless.” We were not pioneers in the movement, but certainly we rode the earlier wave.

Drew, Marie, Bradley, Lincoln and Samuel rode it with me and a cream-of-the-crop co-op group for fifteen wonderful years. Here is one photo from when our group performed Charlotte’s Web with an open barn door as the stage and homemade paper mache marionette puppets as some of the animals (thank you, Beth Masters, for the photo!).

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If ever a path was unboring, ours surely was. In 2005, when the three oldest were in college, I decided to write a bit about our experience, using “Un-boring” in my title (I had never seen it in use and assumed the hyphen). I sent my article to Maurice Gibbons, an eminent Canadian educator whose website is all about self-directed learning. He not only posted it, he also encouraged me in my writing more than he will ever know. (Thank you again, Maurice.) Below is the article, slightly edited from the original, and now you’ll know where my blog name comes from.

Unexpected Consequences of an Un-boring Path

The adventure we called homeschool began with the element of intrigue. What’s it about? Why would you choose it? Could it be better? Could it be fun? How do you know what to do? Who can you ask? And hmmm, did I have the guts?  Back then, I decided that if I didn’t at least open the door to an unconventional education for my children, I would regret it, so I had to try. “It’s only kindergarten,” I said to myself that first year. “How can you mess up kindergarten?” One day at a time, and one year at a time, I did the best I could for my children. Funny thing happened through the years though: they aren’t the only ones who learned a lot.

I didn’t set out to review the scope of world history (several times), skin a raccoon, study soil types, write a play, walk battlefields, debate whole language vs. phonics, start a hydro farm, or read some of the best literature in the world – let alone reshape my own views on the process of personal and intellectual growth. All I wanted was for my kids to have an education that was well above mediocre, and for them to have fun in the process. I wanted them to know what they needed to know, to be able to think, and to love learning, to hunger for it, to be forever un-bored. How hard could that be?

Very early on, one of the first pieces of advice I got was an old, familiar proverb: Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach him how to fish and he eats for a lifetime.  A well-prepared piece of fish satisfies hunger much the same way as interesting content satisfies curiosity, and it’s important to know about the world. Did you know that the son of President Calvin Coolidge died from a simple infection because they didn’t have penicillin in the 1920s, that March winds stir up lake waters to bring needed oxygen to drowsy underwater creatures, that dungeon walls were three feet thick so as to block the screams of the prisoners, and that staring at constellations has had a highly useful purpose?

But what if we got so engrossed in studying the Cherokee that we never got to the Sioux?  How much should we work at learning about the various -stans of eastern Europe and Asia (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan…) when we actually find the mountainous regions of South America endlessly fascinating? What if we really (no matter how hard we try) do not see the purpose of diagramming sentences? Here’s a thought: Why not just focus on the fun stuff and ignore the rest? Who cares if they have their times tables down pat or can write a cohesive paragraph?

Ultimately, they care. Ultimately, little by little, each of them, individually, came to “own” their education, to fit most of the pieces together, to juggle the goals and the time constraints, to truly self-direct – and that’s when the real fun begins. The research, the questions, the people we meet, the places we explore, the discoveries we make – all these things work together and become transformative. Isolated bits of information find connections to other bits. Process kicks in and finds rhythm. Questions beget questions, learning begets more learning, the tools get sharper, and real thinking ensues. We don’t just enjoy the story – we understand the reason some books never go out of print. We don’t just know the times tables – we see them as a witness to structure and order in the natural world, indeed, as a thing of beauty.

How to fish envelops the notion of how to think, how to figure out important things like Does it matter if we spent more time on the civil war than on the revolutionary war? What is the bigger picture here? Above and beyond all the exceedingly interesting facts, what did we learn about the way things work, the trends and behaviors that define us, the hooks to watch out for? What did I learn? Bottom line is, all this time, when I thought I was helping my children to ultimately own and direct their own learning, I was in fact figuring out some important things myself.

I learned that success comes in increments, that overall progress is far more important than the minutiae of content. Are we going from simple division to long division within a reasonable period of time? Do we wake up one day and find that the child who liked to stir the pudding is now seasoning the soup? Is the one who had to be coaxed into saying hello now volunteering to shovel snow off the neighbor’s walkway?

I learned that some people learn better by seeing, some by hearing, some by being actively engaged with said subject. If digging parallel trenches in the deep snow and simulating (with snowballs) the no-man’s-land of World War I impresses on a child even one detail of the reality of that conflict, I’m all for snow trenches. If drawing birds outside on beautiful spring days leads to a career in wildlife management, I say: Draw birds.

I learned that the people who are asking questions are the ones doing more of the thinking and the learning, and that children ask fabulous questions. I’ll never forget when Samuel asked, “Mom, why can’t the strings of your tennis racket just stay in whack?”

I learned that those who worry about the social competencies of people who are not in conventional school settings are worrying about the wrong thing. When you work closely with people on projects that are important to you, when you are with them all the time, you can’t wear masks. They see your points of enthusiasm and frustration, your organization and your chaos, your good and your not-so-good, and you see theirs, and everybody had better figure out how to get along.

I learned that people progress at their own rates. I have no idea how Lincoln learned to read; one day Marie was making a paper crown for him with the letter A on it, and the next thing I knew he was reading. He was four or five at the time. Bradley didn’t read until he was nine, try as I did (and by golly, I tried!) to help him see patterns in language. But in high school he aced honors English and has since earned a master’s degree.

I learned that some people have no idea how to direct their own learning. Years ago, we had a visiting foreign exchange student who came upon Drew at age 12 reading a hefty volume about World War II. She came to me utterly perplexed, almost speechless: Why was he doing this, she asked. Because he wants to, I said. She said she never read a book in her life unless somebody told her she had to. I thought: How much you miss!

I learned that Plato was right, at least on his point about dialogue. People more likely arrive at truth and meaning, and more likely cultivate wisdom, if they talk out an issue with open minds, if they challenge each other to think past what is already understood, if active discourse is esteemed and practiced. How much better it is when the format allows for various views on the bigger questions like:  What are some concrete ways that world poverty can be addressed? Why is it a violation to read someone else’s mail? Who should be allowed to own a high-powered rifle? When does life begin?

I learned for myself, the real (sometimes hard) way, that life includes surprises, that people both delight and disappoint you, and that you usually can do things you never would have thought you could. My own path has been circuitous and downright puzzling at times, but when you give, you get something back. Likewise, you think you are teaching, but it turns out you are learning.  As time went on and my own learning took root, I “owned” the whole enterprise more and more, directed with confidence (acquired over time) and embraced our unconventionality. The spine of John Holt’s Learning All the Time stared at me through the years and boldly reminded me what learning how to fish came to mean for us: pacing ourselves individually, engaging actively, pursuing excellence, valuing process, questing for meaning, wearing no masks, keeping the fun (so much fun!), and seizing the day.

I continue to learn that good comes where good has gone before, and that being in charge of your own learning rewards you monumentally. Bradley called me from college once to ask for a recipe and related his discovery about how much soup 2 ½ pounds of beef and a full pound of barley will make. “But I only used seven carrots!” he said.  If you think I was smiling at that, just imagine how I felt when I asked him how things were going, and he said, “I’m totally unprepared for this course I’m taking, but I know where to find what I need and how to figure out the parts I don’t know. I don’t think I’d know how to do that if we hadn’t learned how. Thanks, Mom.”  He really said that.


Making the World More Beautiful

We get our images from all over the place – from real life, from books, television, movies, YouTube, wherever. Images stick with you sometimes, like wallpaper inside your head, a permanent part of the structure. I read a lot of books to my kids when they were small. One image, from one of those books, was this.

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The character you see, Miss Alice Rumphius, had a grandfather who had traveled to faraway places and then become an artist and lived by the sea. She told him, “When I grow up, I too will go to faraway places, and when I grow old, I too will live by the sea.”  

“That is all very well, little Alice,” said her grandfather, “but there is a third thing you must do.”

“What is that?” asked Alice.

“You must do something to make the world more beautiful,” said her grandfather.

“All right,” said Alice. But she did not know what that could be.

Whenever I turned to this page, where Miss Rumphius, as a young woman now, goes into a conservatory and lets “the warm, moist air wrap itself around her and the sweet smell of jasmine fill her nose,” I was right there with her. I was in that big glass house where the beauty of gorgeous, growing things filled me too, enveloped me too, transported me too. Almost.

The way she puts it: “This is almost like a tropical isle…. But not quite.”

So she went to a real tropical isle (and I’ll tell you later how she made the world more beautiful.)

I’ll settle for a real conservatory.

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Monday was the perfect day to visit the Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens in Richmond, Virginia. There you get the real deal – the huge glass house, the pool with fountains, the pathways with multiple shades of green leafery hanging from stone archways…

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…the azaleas bursting with color…


… even a turtle scurrying off under more incredible blooms.


But in that conservatory, oh my, you are indeed transported. The wing of the building with the orchids left me speechless. This gives you some idea.

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I know you can buy orchids in the grocery store now. Yeah, yeah, flowers, you say. Look a little closer at these flowers! Their colors, delicacy, form, patterning, individuality, splendor! Let your eyes fill up with the beauty of these blooms and tell me if you are not, even in a small way, transported to a place of wonder…

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In this same conservatory is a special room for incredibly beautiful butterflies and moths. You enter through one door into an airlock space, then through another door into a larger space where flutterings happen all around you and even on you! This weary traveler used Mom’s leg as a pit stop for a few minutes. She, post-back-surgery, wisely limiting her walking, happily hosted him. Uhhhhhh…. Is it going to fly off soon?

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He was perfect and delicate up close.

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But not quite as pretty as his fellow flutterers. They were not so easy to photograph. Orchids just sit there of course. These fellows do land here and there, but often they close up their wings so you can’t see their glorious spreads. I caught a few – some on plants, some on metal grates, some on the rotting fruit put there for them to feed off. Again note their colors, delicacy, form, patterning, individuality, splendor!

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Whoever made this conservatory, whoever grows and maintains the orchids, whoever protects and oversees the butterfly/moth room – these people have surely done something to make the world more beautiful.

Miss Alice Rumphius, for her part, planted a few flower seeds – lupines, one of her favorites – at her house by the sea, and then fell ill for a long time. From her bed she saw out her window that the blue and purple and rose-colored flowers had come up the next year and she said, “I have always loved lupines the best. I wish I could plant more seeds this summer so that I could have still more flowers next year.”

But she was not able to.

The next spring, when she was finally able to get around a bit, she saw a large patch of lupines on the other side of the hill! The birds and the wind had dispersed the seeds and her one small act, her few planted seeds, had made the world just a little more beautiful.

Then Miss Rumphius had a wonderful idea!

She ordered five bushels of lupine seeds from the very best seed house and sowed them everywhere she went. The next spring, and every year after that, there were more and more lupines. Miss Rumphius had done the third, the most difficult thing of all!

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Now let me think… For my part, what am I doing to make the world more beautiful?…



Miss Rumphius, Story and Pictures by Barbara Cooney, Viking Penguin Inc., 1982

Oh, Glorious Redbud

I might be able to convince myself that I can make food or do jigsaw puzzles or dig in the yard, but I draw the line at technology. Last week I was out of my mind trying to get the pictures in this post to upload, tried this, gave up, tried that, gave up, chatted with the person you can chat with who might be able to solve the problem (that didn’t help either), got distracted making Easter dinner for eleven people and a very cool Easter carrot cake / cheesecake with my sister — wanna see?…

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…and the only way I am uploading photos now is through my phone’s hotspot (which I have never used in my life anywhere) but hey, it’s working.

This tree, the one I tried to write about in the first place, looked this pretty a week ago. Its leaves are coming out now but just pretend it still looks like this.

It had to have been standing there in that same spot at the one end of my driveway when I moved here eight years ago. You can’t miss it, right? I’m talking about the pink one. Please note: I am not responsible for the pink tree bearing the name “redbud.” Do you see red? I don’t see red.

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But I hardly remember seeing this tree the first few years, which tells you something about how busy I was with other things, how un-focused. Shall we say blind?

Maybe I just didn’t know what I was looking at. I did not grow up with redbuds. Maybe the climate in New Jersey is too cold for them? Certainly they don’t grow in Vermont, where I spent twenty-some years. But in Virginia and south of here (maybe north of here? maybe Maryland or Pennsylvania? I have no idea), you find them randomly all over the place. I especially like their splash of color along the highway here and there.

Two years ago my son Bradley transplanted a smaller one to the front of the cottage. It was small in comparison with the one at the end of the driveway, but big enough, i.e. the roots were already deep enough, that he did not have much hope for its survival.

We chose the wrong time of year to transplant – May (!) of all times. It had fully leafed out by then. To be honest, I didn’t even know what kind of tree it was. I just knew it was getting too big to stay in the back corner of the garden (as were some others, but this one was in front of them and had to come first). Look how big it is! This is a tree that started as a stick with wet, icky, short white tentacles at one end that you take for roots, the kind of stick you get in the mail when you send the arbor foundation a donation. I’d say it did pretty well.


But getting it out was not fun at all for Bradley.


Poor tree. If it had a way to protest, I’m sure it would have. Wintertime, folks! Wintertime or fall or springtime is best for transplanting! At least wait until after my leaves have fallen and I’ve gone dormant!

Oh, well, what did we know? I was just glad for Bradley’s muscles! He even smoothed out the dirt after moving the tree. Piper was so small two years ago!

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It makes me think about how many things I have done or continue to do with so very little understanding. These are a few items on my very long list, which does not include the aforementioned tech stuff.

  • Something is wrong with my rhubarb. It’s not growing as well as it did for a few years. There’s a reason for that, but I have no idea what it is. Maybe it needs food? Maybe it gets too much sun? Maybe I should look it up?
  • Some of the plants I put in the large planter boxes last year have returned. I think. I mean, I think they are the same. Maybe they are weeds. Maybe they are a perennial, which would be nice! I’ll wait a bit and see.
  • Weeds have definitely barged into the strawberry bed. They are purple flowers, quite pretty actually. But maybe I am beginning a losing battle?


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Sandy and I moved many clumps of these purple weeds, and they look nice (for now) next to the arbor that leads into the garden, though I suspect we will be moving them out of the strawberry bed on a regular basis.

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Back to that redbud Bradley transplanted two years ago – I did know to keep it well-watered, especially in the heat of summer. Every evening I watered that poor tree, knowing full well it was complaining about being jerked around and relocated. I had hope! This is what it looked like initially. Pretty good, huh? Looks healthy!

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Bradley was doubtful, un-encouraging, disbelieving. Brace yourself, Mom, It’ll probably die. Every time I gave him a report about it (The tree’s doing well, Brad! It hasn’t died yet!), he’d say Don’t get your hopes up. I kept watering and watering.

Look at it this spring! Two years later and it has flowers. I think it survived!


The redbuds bloom just before the dogwoods. Here’s a close-up of the buds I saw last week in one of the trees we transplanted this winter. I think it too is going to survive.


Pretty soon they will be gorgeous white flowers. Oh, right, that was last week. By the time I got the pictures to attach, those buds bloomed. Now it looks like this.

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Soon something else will bloom. Don’t ask me what – I have no idea! I might know a little more about gardening than about technology, but not much. Right now I’m just glad to be able to post something again.


Old-Fashioned Beef Stew and Biscuits

Sometimes, when it’s damp or raining or even just overcast and cool — and even April days can be like this — you just want a bowl of something hale and hearty like beef stew. When you complement the rich broth, tender meat and delicious vegetables with flaky biscuits, you have a winner of a meal. And neither one is hard to make!

I would start with the stew because you can make the biscuits later while the stew is stewing. This version has beef, carrots, potatoes and edamame (soy beans that taste kinda like lima beans). I always feel better if a stew has some green in it, and the package of edamame was the first thing I saw when I opened the freezer, so that’s what went in the stew!

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Peas would work too, or green beans, or lima beans, or any other green you want.

Or no green. You are free to add no green. That’s what I love about cooking. You make it the way you like it.

Naturally, though, you start with an onion – everything is better started with an onion. Well, maybe not everything. But in this case onion is good, and I added a can of petite diced tomatoes besides. That’s a fairly new ingredient for me, but I keep doing it, so it must be good.

Put a couple tablespoons of olive oil in a Dutch oven over a medium flame and add one chopped onion. It doesn’t matter how big the onion is or how small you chop the pieces, but the bigger the onion, the more onion flavor your stew will have, and the bigger the onion pieces, the more you will see them once it is cooked. Some people don’t want to see their onion; I cannot explain this.

I used about two pounds of  bottom round beef. This is going to cook for several hours, so it does not need to be a prime, expensive cut. You can buy it as a roast and cut it up yourself, or you can buy it already cut up as “stew beef.” Obviously, you decide how much meat you want in proportion to the rest of the ingredients. If you want it mostly meat, then add just a few vegetables. If you want the meat to be a background ingredient, then load on the veggies.

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Let the meat cook on a medium flame until it has browned. It will make some juice of its own, like this…

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but you want it to simmer for a while in liquid, so add enough water so that the meat is almost covered. Cook on a low flame, covered, for about an hour and a quarter. An hour and a half won’t hurt anything. Then add your veggies. I peeled and cut up five big carrots and three big potatoes. Let that simmer, covered, again with enough water that the veggies are almost covered (a little more than in the photo below, remembering that if you decide to add tomatoes later, they add liquid too). 

(By the way, this works really well with pearl barley instead of the potatoes, but you will need more liquid.)

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I let the carrots and potatoes cook about another 45 minutes. During this time I prepared the biscuits and put them in the oven, then added my frozen green vegetable, the can of diced tomatoes and my flavorings – salt and pepper (to taste) and whatever else appeals to you. This time I used about a tablespoon each of dried basil and parsley and a teaspoon of oregano. The time it takes for the biscuits to bake is about how long the green veggie needs to soften a bit. I never want my green too mushy. If you want yours mushy, add them sooner. Turn up the flame a bit — adding frozen anything to this pot will lower its overall temperature, and you do need the green stuff to cook a few minutes, not just warm through.

You can also add the herbs sooner. A case could be made for that.

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The biscuit recipe I use comes out of my old Fannie Farmer cookbook. I do it a little differently though. First of all, I use butter, not vegetable shortening. Goodness! I use six tablespoons of butter. And I use buttermilk (or milk with a teaspoon of vinegar added) instead of the plain milk. (I don’t mean I follow what it says below for “Buttermilk Biscuits” though I expect that would work too. I just mean I use buttermilk instead of the plain milk.) Also I definitely don’t knead it 14 times. I handle it only as much as necessary to make a flattened dough. And I make mine 1″, not 1/2″ high.

I guess I change it more than I realized…








The dough is one of those you can’t play with too much or your biscuits will be tough. Mix all the dry ingredients with the butter, get that all looking like “coarse crumbs” before you add the milk.

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Then add the milk and stir just enough to combine.

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What’s in the bowl doesn’t look like a ball, but it comes out in one blob, so turn it out onto a floured board, sprinkle a little flour on it and flatten it to about an inch thickness. You can flatten it with your hands or a rolling pin. I like the irregularity of using my hands. I don’t want them perfect. These are not Pillsbury, not manufactured, not factory-made. I love them looking homemade. That’s good.

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To cut them up I use a cutter from a set Kim gave me years ago. I love being able to pick the size that seems best that day. Sometimes you feel like a big biscuit. Sometimes you don’t.

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Thank you, Kim. I chose the fifth from the center this time. It helps if you dip the cutter in your flour canister — just coat the edges with a little flour — so it doesn’t stick to the dough as much when you cut through.

If you don’t have a biscuit cutter, you can use an upside down drinking glass or a jar. Or any cookie cutter with high sides. You can make stars or dog bones or hearts or anything you want.

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When I have cut as many as I can, I gently bring together the remaining dough and cut a couple more. Then with the bit leftover I make a ball and stick it on the pan. Waste not. Someone will eat it.

Bake them for 15-20 minutes until they are as brown as you like them. See what I mean about them looking homemade? I think they have character 🙂


By the way, this stew will taste even better the second day, so it there’s leftovers, all the better.

See What Happens When You Start a Monster Show?

When is the last time you heard of a family with seven brothers, five of whom worked together in one hugely successful enterprise, one of whom amassed a fortune that includes what is now the official state art museum of Florida? When is the last time you heard of five brothers who worked together?

I was super impressed with The Ringling, a must-see Sarasota attraction that includes a fine arts museum, a circus museum, extensive gardens and a waterfront palatial mansion. John Ringling, who died in 1936, the only one of the brothers to make it to age 70, bequeathed to the state the estate he and his beloved wife Mable had developed.

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John was born in Iowa to German immigrants, the sixth of seven brothers. When they opened their first show in 1870, the oldest was just 18. John was four. The show was called “The Ringling Bros. United Monster Shows, Great Double Circus, Royal European Menagerie, Museum, Caravan and Congress of Trained Animals.” They charged a penny for admission and traveled to their next location with horse-drawn wagons. By 1889 when John was 23, their traveling show was big enough and profitable enough to travel by train from one town to the next.

Imagine if they had kept their name The Ringling Bros. Monster Show! Imagine how our vernacular might have evolved. We wouldn’t say: “People were laughing and carousing everywhere during that festival — it was a circus!” We’d say “… it was a monster show!”

Alf, Al, Otto, Charles and John partnered in this venture. The show got better and better and more and more well known, and in 1907 they became “circus kings” after purchasing Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth, which traveled separately until 1918 when the first world war and the influenza epidemic necessitated a merging of the two. On March 29, 1919, The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus gave its debut performance in New York City at Madison Square Garden.

All good, right?

About six months later, brother Alf (a juggler) died, the third of the five kings to pass, leaving John and Charles to manage the circus. They chose Sarasota, Florida, for the circus’s winter quarters, but Charles died before they even got there.

That left John. He expanded his wealth, buying into railroads, oil and real estate. He bought other circuses. He bought 600 acres of bayfront property in Sarasota, commissioned a Venetian Gothic style mansion and began collecting old world art, including five of the original eleven paintings in a series by Peter Paul Rubens. His dear wife Mable carefully and lovingly oversaw all aspects of construction. She loved her rose garden so much that she chose to have her own room face that direction rather than look out over the bay. Only three years into living in their dream home, she died.

Three years after that, right about when he spent $1.7 million (more than $24M in today’s dollars) the stock market crashed.

John died in 1936 with $311 in the bank.

Think what you will about early 20th-century tycoons. This one left a great gift to the people of Florida and the world.



Massive and Magnificent

When you go to Sarasota, you really have to stop in and see The Ringling. I hardly know where to begin. Oh, wait, I did begin. I told you about the garden gnomes and the banyan trees and the roses in the rose garden already in Florida Curiosities. Creepy/ amusing/ freakish/ enchanting as those gnomes might be to you, fascinating as the banyans were to me and lovely as the roses are (hopefully) to everyone, these were just the beginning.

We started at the art museum. Its gorgeous courtyard includes a replica of Michelangelo’s famous David.


I realize that not everyone would be as enthralled as I was with the marble walkway up near that statue, but, I mean, look at what you’re walking on. Some unknown, very talented team of laborers a hundred years ago chose which piece should go next, how to organize the colors, which way to turn each piece so that it best complements the next piece – its own kind of puzzle.

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And this is no short or narrow path. Do you think the design is random?

Hey, Jack, hand me another piece.

Which one?

I don’t care. Any one.

No, I think more thought than that went into it…

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We went from the walkway to the armor exhibit. This is the real McCoy, authentic armor worn by men four or five hundred years ago who were much smaller than today’s men. The knight on the horse doesn’t look that small…


…but when you look at the sampling of upper-body styles, you think maybe these guys didn’t eat as well as we do. The lady there told us a guy of about 120 pounds would fit in them.

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Anybody for a sword?

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The courtyard, armor and the art museum were all worth every minute, but besides the charming gnomes (here’s another for your pleasure – dontcha just wanna hug her??)…

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…the best part of the day for me was seeing the circus. Well, not exactly the circus. You start in a room with old-time posters like this… “Presenting 600 Educated Animals” – Educated?? 600??


…and this. “Hilliary Long Defies Death in His Thrilling Head Slide” (oh, my! looks to me like an upside-down slide on a descending tightrope – guessing he wears some sort of cap with a groove in it for the tightrope??) and “The Most Novel, Moral and Entertaining Exhibition Ever Given Under Canvas” (moral?) and “Mile-Long Massive, Magnificent Street Parade (who wouldn’t want to go to the circus??).


The next room has some of the leftover equipment they used, such as the truck converted to use for the human cannonball.


Yes, human beings of sound mind loaded themselves – feet first – into the barrel of this thing, which by means of air compression shot them out approximately 200 feet (60 meters) onto a waiting net (hopefully they landed on the net, assuming they did the math right and nothing went awry). Hugo Zacchini, a circus performer with two engineering degrees and later an advanced degree in fine arts, who could also speak or interpret eleven languages, was discovered by John Ringling in 1928. He and his sons joined Ringling’s circus and continued performing this famous, thrilling and death-defying act for years.

Death-defying. As if the guy sliding upside down on a descending tightrope is not risking his life. Or the lady on the trapeze a hundred feet in the air. Or the guy in the ring with the lions or the one swallowing a flaming sword.

The circus was a big deal back in the day. About 100 railroad cars transported many hundreds of people and animals from one town to the next, where crews followed mind-bogglingly tight schedules allowing them to set up, perform and tear down in one day – so that they could then travel, set up, perform and tear down somewhere else the next day.

The Ringling wants to give its visitors an idea of what the circus was like – not only what ticket-holders would see, but behind the scenes as well. It’s a fascinating look at the massive operation. Can this miniature version (1/16th scale model) that is super neat and clean (way neater and cleaner than reality would dictate) possibly give the idea of the magnitude of the operation? For example, thousands of people – 5000-8000 typically, but as many as 15,000 – came every day to see the animals and the acts. This three-ring “Big Top” reproduction is just one of many tents in the 3800-square-foot exhibit.



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Another part of the miniature exhibit shows the “midway,” where visitors could see the fat man, the tall man, flame throwers, the bearded lady and other very well paid “freaks,” and get shaved ice and popcorn to eat.  


This next part shows the dining tent. All the performers and crew of course had to eat – a whopping 3900 (!) meals a day were prepared and served. Anyone who has worked in the restaurant or hotel business can appreciate how efficient the staff had to be to make this happen.


Each person had a designated seat! China plates, silverware, a water pitcher and condiments too. Imagine how much food they would need. Records indicate that a typical day’s order included two barrels of sugar (not sure how big a barrel is), 30 gallons of milk, 36 bags of table salt, 50 bushels of potatoes, 110 dozen oranges, 200 pounds of tea and coffee, 226 dozen eggs, 285 pounds of butter, 350 pounds of salad, 1300 pounds of fresh vegetables, 2220 loaves of bread, 2470 pounds of fresh meat and 3600 ears of corn. My mind cannot wrap around those quantities.

To say nothing of the animals that are also hungry every day. Where did they get the food? Imagine the expense. Imagine how many animals are needed to feed the animals…


The “Menagerie” was another important and popular part of a visitor’s day at the circus. A valid case can be made that exposure to exotic and interesting animals – then as now—increases awareness and understanding, which (I would like to think) improves the animals’ well being in the big picture (even if, for some, it is not the best life).


For many people back then, the circus was the only time in their lives that they would see animals from other parts of the world – zoos being rather uncommon. Think about the trains that carried the circus from town to town – about 16,000 miles per year on average! – giving kids and adults in remote places, with few other options for entertainment, a window into a fascinating world available to them in no other way. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, movies were just beginning to be a thing, forget about television. The circus also gave performers who love to perform a new audience every night.

Like so many things, it wasn’t perfect. Like so many things, through today’s lens it would be seen as fraught with problems, inconsistencies, unfairness and worse. But for many decades, starting in the mid 1800s when railroads made a traveling extravaganza possible, the circus brought color, fun, fascination, education, thrills and entertainment (and employment) to countless thousands.

I think if you were a kid back then, in some small town far from everywhere and you found out that the circus was coming to town, you might be good and glad to go see what there was to see – the animals, the lady on the swinging trapeze, the elephant walking regally through the big top. You’d probably see it the way The Ringling chose to display it – bright and extensive and amazing. You might like the giant sea elephant best. “Wow!” might be all you could say…


Best Beach Puzzle

I love a good puzzle. I love the innies and outies of varying size, bulbousness and depth, and the super pointy corner spades you get sometimes. But I was not prepared for these pieces. Do you see what I see?


One piece near the middle looks fairly normal – more or less rectangular in shape with two innies and two outies opposite each other. And then there are lots of nonstandard elements about the other pieces – curved edges (curved edges!), odd angles, random jut-outs. For example, that one with one outie, one innie, some white coloring and two straight-ish edges (bottom left area of photo) – which edge is the straightest edge and does that mean it’s an outer edge? If there are two straight-ish edges, the puzzle makers have thrown convention off the 14th-floor beach hotel balcony. Maybe one of them is an outer edge, maybe neither.

I knew we were in for it. Our Sarasota beach puzzle was a doozy.

Under the following conditions a beach puzzle will call my name. 1. A fun design that is challenging but not too challenging (the trip was five nights, not five weeks), 2. A surface to work on (let’s assume we are willing to not eat at that table), 3.  A few willing, interested and capable people (Debra, you were amazing!), and 4. The ability to break it down when it’s time to go home (the hardest part, so I say, best to let someone else do it when you are out of the room!).

Our doozy of a puzzle was a great pick by Dina: beachy theme, not too many pieces, numerous colorful and distinct objects — and “not too much sky” as my grandmother used to say – or in this case, not too much water!


You see five starfish, two clown fish, two angel fish, two dolphins and some random other sea life – all different enough from each other to give you confidence that it can’t be that hard. (Ha!) One angelfish is more orangy than the other (I think those are angel fish), and one of the starfish is purple, one has dots, one is more brownish, one has little white mountains on it (that’s what they looked like to me) and one is, well, other.

Standard puzzling starts from the edge and works inward. I have never put one together in which we started on the inner sections and did the edging last. Until this one. You see the edge on the box cover image. Crazy!! The pieces were oddball shapes with sorta-straight or downright curvy sides – yeah, no way was the edge happening first.

Let’s do a starfish. The one with dots. And sure, a few edge pieces, but not many.


Onward. Group like colors or patterns together, one creature at a time, one fin or flower or ill-defined squiggle at a time. Little by little connect the creatures. Now (below) you see five starfish (four connected), two angelfish and some other pretty fish in between – and only slightly more edge than before!


But it’s okay. There are no rules to puzzle-making. You can put it together however makes sense to you. Kind of like life when you think about it. Like food. Like friendship.

I take that back. There are some rules. With a puzzle, the pieces have to fit together, duh, which is harder than it looks. With food, the ingredients have to work together and the flavors have to play off each other in such a way as the outcome is delicious and hopefully appealing. With friendship, well, we all know what happens when fun is not had and mutual benefits (disparate as they might be) are not forthcoming.

Night after night, when we all had had enough beachy sun for one day, enough fishing, enough shelling, enough exploring (note I did not say enough eating or drinking!), some of us headed to the puzzle table. It came together nicely. There is a sense of triumph only puzzlers know when a piece that has been hiding suddenly calls your name. Here I am, and I have been here all along! Kind of like discovering that someone you have been working with for years or the quiet neighbor down the street is way nicer than you ever knew, and you also happen to have a lot in common. Been here all along!


Puzzles come together piece by piece, step by step, bit by bit, the way you weed a garden or iron a shirt or make a cake or write a poem. You start with the decision to do it, knowing full well that it will take time and patience. You pay attention to detail if you want to end up with the puzzle whole, the garden gorgeous, the shirt pressed, the cake delicious, the poem meaningful. You try and try again, sometimes the same wrong piece in the same spot where it didn’t fit before over and over. Oh, right, that one doesn’t work there! You smile a little, inside or outwardly, when someone notices your diligence and progress. Hey, looks like a starfish to me!

You keep going until you finish or you decide it’s enough or you run out of time. We all know it’s not the end of the world if you don’t finish, but there’s something enormously satisfying about finished, completed, done – even if weeds will grow again, the shirt will get wrinkly, the cake will be eaten (oh, yum!) and the poem will be unread by many who would enjoy it so very much. Even if, difficult as it is, you break apart those puzzle pieces you spent so much time putting together.

We finished!


Debra, have fun doing it again, this time with your grandson!

Florida Curiosities

At my house in Virginia I am surrounded by trees: giant trees, trees with bark, trees with leaves that fall off, trees kids can climb. We do not have concrete trees. We do not have trees that cannot be content with one trunk. We do not have trees with lattice-work trunks.

When I first came across what look like concrete palm trees in downtown Sarasota standing next to an actual concrete pole, I thought perhaps the city’s tree-trimming crew had manicured these somehow to make them easier to maintain or because, mimicking concrete, they are more fitting for the cityscape. Or the city planners had chosen this type because they are so odd, so straight, so smooth – a Florida curiosity (among many!) that would make heads turn (though hopefully not causing: look! oops! crash!).

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You know, the same way they put up statues that draw your eye. Everyone remember this one from the famous V-Day photo in Times Square?

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A different city committee approved this one, for sure, such a very iconic image of joyful reunion, of national celebration, of profound relief. “Unconditional Surrender” was sculpted by Seward Johnson and stands in the bayfront area despite protests that it is not art. A local blog nonetheless says “there’s no denying that it’s a unique stop for any Sarasota visitor. When visiting, please remember that drivers should keep their eyes on the road and never take pictures from behind the wheel.” Right.

Intriguing as the sculpture is, my own eye went back to the concrete trees. I thought maybe the city landscapers decided to shave off the regular bark instead of 1. leaving it the way it might occur naturally (whatever that is) or 2. trimming it, lattice-like, as you see here, the unkempt, controlled stubble look.

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But no, the concrete palm trees are easily found outside the city as well.

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They line the streets with them. Here is a collection in front of the Ritz on Lido Key. Note the gawking tourist! What IS it? Are they real?

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These smooth-trunked palms, so well defined, so sure of themselves, are a stark contrast to the banyan trees that seemingly had a contest for trunk superiority, and no one won. Countless verticals seem to compete: “I’m the real trunk! No, I’m the most important! Well, I’m the most interesting – look at my twists and curves!” On the extensive and impressive grounds of the Ringling estate, thirteen banyan trees (classified under the genus Ficus, or fig (!) – who knew??) stand in a grove. The story goes that they were given to John Ringling by Thomas Edison in the 1920s. Here are Debra, Brian, Fred and Dina dwarfed by them.

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Speaking of dwarfs, the little gnome hiding in the back is one of many that adorn the grove. Their story is magical. Way back in the Ringling heyday, the gardening crew arrived – early, as per gardening crew norms – and were surprised to find the little oddballs being set down into their places by larger, stiffly moving, clearly older garden gnomes. Could it be a new gnome colony being planted? Or was it time-out for misbehaving youngsters? When said gardening crew arrived (gaping, no doubt, aghast at the sight, unsure – having not yet had their morning coffee – that they weren’t maybe just seeing things), they saw the larger gnomes placing their presumably more shy little compatriots among the trees in rather hidden spots and the gregarious ones as greeters along the path.


Just kidding. John Ringling found the sculptures in Italy on one of his art-collecting expeditions, and they will evermore enchant visitors to his estate. I’m not sure I’d call them “amusing,” “delightful” and “whimsical,” as estate literature does. “Creepy” comes to mind.  I sent Samuel a photo of me in front of one of them to give him an image of the new Sanuk shoes I had bought.

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If you zoom in, I said, you can see them. The top is stretchy fabric, super comfy.

Not happening. “Honestly I can’t look at that photo and pay any attention to your shoes with that weird gnome,” he replied. And that was that.

Fair enough.

Birds are everywhere – on the beach, in the air, on the docks. Here’s one Mary and I saw after unsuccessfully trying to get a table at Dry Dock Grill in Longboat Key. We did not get lunch there, but he did!

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Birds are even on the room number plates where we stayed, the Lido Beach Resort (pronounced “Leedo” by the way).

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And how is this for cool? Your room key is part of a snazzy wrist band that you can wear in the water or wherever – no more trying to remember where you placed the thing. Here’s Fred’s, memorialized at the pool. I thought they were great! Okay, maybe these are the norm everywhere now — I don’t get out that much!

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There were so many cool things in Florida! Such vibrant colors too.

Orange pancake mushrooms on a dead log.

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Red roses (in Mable Ringling’s rose garden).

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And a black lizard that Fred was quick enough to catch with his camera. See it on top, toward the back of the log?

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Tractors (needing headlights!) comb the sand in the early morning …

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… tempting visitors like me to get, shall we say, a little too much Vitamin D? Oh, how white can she be?? the locals are saying. Sweetie, put on your sunscreen!!


I got a little smarter after that and wore a shirt the rest of the day. Seeing dear friends from Keswick – Mario, Mary and Victoria – made this very special trip even better!

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But a post about a trip to the beach in Florida would not be complete without a really awesome sandcastle. Check it out! Dripped turrets all around, shells lining the road leading to the moat, distinguishing upright shells at the entrance… very impressive.

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My own shell collection made it home with no breakages and I proceeded with Shell Show & Tell. Next thing I knew, Samuel had used a barnacled clamshell as a hat for Coco. This poor dog. But she didn’t care!

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It’s good to be home, but what a wonderful trip!


A Rest on the Beach

It doesn’t take much to make me happy. Feet in a hot tub.

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Feet in the sand.

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A warm breeze. A few collected shells.

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Nice conversation. A gorgeous sunset over the ocean. (Guess where I am!)


A breathtaking view from the hotel room. And water – what is so peaceful about water (when it’s not, of course, in a violently raging storm)?

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How is it that we sometimes don’t know what we need until we get it? Or, in my case, until we are gifted it. I am careful of the word “need.” I do not “need” (though I am loving it!) a few days at the luxurious Lido Beach Resort in Sarasota, Florida, in the company of my amazingly generous college roommate (thank you Dina!) and her wonderful family (hello Fred, Debra, Luana and Brian, Walt and Jené!).


What I “needed” was a rest – the I-do-not-have-an-agenda kind of rest, with all the relaxation, perspective and refreshment a good rest brings. It does me good to get outside my ordinary everyday world (much as I love that too), to eat other foods (“Fin & Crab” was outstanding tonight), to talk about other things, to see other sights.

What a godsend of a place for a rest! I am reminded that some people like to fish on the end of a jumble of rocks…

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…or think giant rubber duckies are cool…

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…or make impressive sand animals (is it a manatee?)…

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…or write their feelings with excellent handwriting (sandwriting?). I love the beach too!

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I get to see for myself some of the wildlife that could be chosen for nature programs like Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II (exceptionally well done shows). These, as Fred so kindly looked up for me, are Royal Terns.

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We wondered if the ones with all black feathers on their heads are the males and the ones with only partial black are females, or vice versa. The color of their beaks made me imagine a paint color card – the kind you see at Lowe’s – with Royal Tern Beak Orange on it. The birds stick together (for safety in numbers?) and don’t let you get too close. In the water against the setting sun they are some kind of beautiful.

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On the sand during the day they are harder to spot.

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They clearly have one or two self-designated “spokes-terns” that do all the squawking for all the others (on which point you will have to trust me). I suppose it’s also possible that they had some sort of in-house competition for loudest/most obnoxious squawk and those that won need to continually prove their superior skill.  Yes, yes, everyone on the beach hears you!

The Royal Terns undoubtedly have various other fascinating characteristics that the nature show producers would call attention to. Maybe they dive bomb their prey. Maybe they mate for life. Maybe they are fashion divas and change their feather colors with the changing seasons. I will wonder – and likely remain ignorant – because hey, so many shells, so little time!

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Do you think this little lonely beauty is unbroken?

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