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.

Debra, Brian Fred and Dina among banyan trees.jpg


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!