Counting our steps

We bought pedometers for everyone in our family a few days ago. I’m not generally into exercise gimmickry. I have been shocked, however, by how much the simple act of counting your steps can transform how you spend your day. I’ve also been shocked by how many steps our daughter takes in the course of a normal day. The kid is about as active as a hummingbird (with an equal enthusiasm for sugar).

We started off with the goal most people have of walking 10,000 steps a day. We quickly realized that all three of us were going to hit that goal with little effort. So then we bumped it up to 20,000. Then it turned into a competition to see who could get the most steps in. Suffice it to say, we’ve all been extraordinarily active this week.

Elise seems to love her pedometer more than anyone. She shows it off to everyone she sees. And a ton of people have whipped out their own pedometers to compare steps with her.

She was so accustomed to being the stepping champion of our household that comparing steps with her riding instructor completely devastated her. At 9 am, her riding instructor had already amassed over 4,000 steps just from mucking out stalls. Elise wanted to go to work on barn chores to level the playing field.

“You should have seen me before we had the new fencing installed,” she said. “I walked over 15 miles a day retrieving horses from the woods!” I imagine that would have been less fun without a pedometer.

Our neighbor sent me a text message at 10 pm last night with a picture of her pedometer. “Show Elise that I beat her 22,000 steps.”

A couple on our street who recently moved here from New Jersey pulled out their pedometers to show Elise. She probably has them pushing up their daily goal now too.

The only member of our household who does not like the competition is our rough-coat Jack Russell terrier, Sherlock. As you can see, he found a patch of shade while we were out walking in the intense Florida sun (yes, it is still hot and steamy here in October) and put the brakes on. We had to pick him up and carry him home because he was not budging. It reminded me of that line from Amadeus. What’s wrong with this hike? Too many steps!

It’s good for the soul to get outside.

Our piece of the Intracoastal Waterway

We are blessed to live on the Intracoastal Waterway here in Florida, and moreover to have a several mile long esplanade to walk along every day. We try to make it out there in the early mornings or evenings (or both), and enjoy seeing a lot of wildlife. Dolphins and manatees are regular visitors. Fishermen catch snapper, sharks, crab, and many other things. We’ve met people from all over the world while out on our walks. (Incidentally, we have a ton of people from Russia in our neighborhood.) One lady stopped me recently, screaming “I know you! You are the lady with the crazy gardens! I love driving by your house!” It made my day, to be honest. I love to joke that my garden aesthetic is Versailles. I just need to install some fountains.

I have spent a lot of time hiking in the mountains, having lived along the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and the Appalachians in the Bluegrass region. Hiking through wetlands is now one of my favorite wild experiences. I am glad that Floridians do so much to preserve the natural environment. Our daughter has learned incredible things out and about.

One of the best things about living in Florida is the state is in bloom all year long. Even in the “winter” months, plants everywhere are blooming. That’s actually how Florida got its name. Florida was first discovered by the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon on Palm Sunday on April 2, 1513. He named the land Pascua de Florida, meaning “Feast of Flowers,” claiming it for Spain. And Florida truly is a feast of flowers. This is what autumn looks like here.

Sometimes I could do with a little less wild, however. We watched this danger noodle along our trail tonight. (Yes, that’s a copperhead. We see cottonmouths from time to time too.) I took the opportunity to explain to Elise that this is why I yell when she tries to play in the palmettos.

Scallops, archery, romance, koinobori, and a chameleon

My favorite opening scene in a movie is from Less Than Zero. Clay, returning home from college for Christmas break, drives through the palm tree-lined streets of Los Angeles to the Bangles’ cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s Hazy Shade of Winter. It’s a story about luxury, and the greatest luxury in the world is not to have to endure a cold winter.

We’ve manged to pull that off in relocating to the Florida coastline. It still feels bizarre, however, to talk to friends and family elsewhere in the world or to watch football on television as the seasons change. Folks are breaking out the wool and celebrating whatever new frankenfood now comes in pumpkin spice while Floridians are watching for hurricanes. In Florida, the only real difference between summer and winter is how “cold” it gets at night. If it gets down into the 60s, people here start breaking out parkas. I’m not kidding. I once saw a guy riding on a skateboard along the A1A who was wearing a fur-lined winter coat but still barefoot.

We’ve had weeks of whitecaps here in Flagler thanks to the sequence of storms off the coast. It’s not good for swimming, but it sure is beautiful. I have enjoyed sitting on the front porch listening to the roar of the ocean. And it’s absolutely bonkers with the cooler air at night, which seems to pull everything closer.

We had dinner the other night at the Turtle Shack along the A1A (nominally in Flagler Beach, but it’s far north of most of the city establishments). I had Scallops St Jacques – several enormous, buttery sea scallops in a sherry mushroom sauce with Parmesan and green onions – which is out of this world. They also serve a pineapple poppyseed coleslaw that I am going to start making at home. I had never really considered pairing pineapple and cabbage before, but the taste and texture really works.

Thursdays have become our family sporting days. Elise has horseback riding lessons in the mornings, then we take her to the range to practice archery, which she has recently picked up.

They have archery ranges tucked into the jungle, which is a lot of fun. I am somewhat terrified of seeing a snake out there though. Fortunately for Elise, she’s coming straight from riding and is still wearing her paddock boots (and often half chaps).

Elise and I went on a mommy-daughter date to the restaurant in our neighborhood. It’s a fun place where the dining area is lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Elise originally picked out a romance novel to read (not knowing what it was) because it had a rather adorable dog on the cover. I explained to her that it was too, um, mature for her to read (though perhaps not above her reading level, haha). She did not understand why I would not let her read a romance novel. Eventually, I figured out that she thought I was saying Romans instead of romance. She couldn’t comprehend why I, of all people, would deprive her of reading Latin literature. Children absolutely redeem the world for you. (You can see she found a genuine children’s book after all.)

Incidentally, it occurred to me that she’s not far off in assuming a romance novel would be related to Latin literature:

The story of the word romance begins as the fifth century is coming to a close, and the Roman Empire with it. The story’s key players are the inhabitants of Gaul, a region comprising modern-day France and parts of Belgium, western Germany, and northern Italy—a region one British isle short of the western reaches of the Roman Empire. The Gauls speak a Latin-derived language that we now call Gallo-Romance, but that the Gauls themselves refer to as Romanus, from the Latin word meaning “Rome” or “Roman.”

By century’s close, the Gauls have been overwhelmed by the Franks and other Germanic peoples, and the Roman Empire has fallen to usher in the Middle Ages. The influence of the Latin language, however, remains very much alive. A Latin adverb Romanice, a derivative of Romanus, emerges with the meaning “in the vernacular,” alluding to the languages that had developed out of Gallo-Romance, namely Old French and Old Occitan. What is spoken Romanice, or “in the vernacular,” is decidedly not Latin, which is what was spoken in the church and in most formal writing.

In Old French, the Latin Romanice is adapted as romans or romanz. The new word is a noun, and it refers not only to Old French itself but also to works composed in it. It’s the Middle Ages now, and the romans/romanz composed are often narratives written in verse and chronicling—what else?— the affections and adventures of gallant and honorable knights. Romans/romanz takes on a meaning referring specifically to metrical treatments of the love and times of the chivalrous, and the fate of the Modern English word romance is sealed: its close association with tales of love join it forever to love stories, both true and merely dreamt of.

(And, obviously, that’s where we get the “Romance languages.”)

Speaking of Latin, it is still very much her favorite subject. We have finished the first level of Latin already, and we are only halfway through her “school year.” (Being homeschoolers, we can have whatever academic calendar we want.) Yesterday, I caught her on the phone with my mother and Elise was trying to teach her Latin.

We have accumulated a lot of projects from our geography and history studies. This year, we are working our way through the second volume of Susan Wise Bauer’s The Story of the World, which covers the Middle Ages. Japan looms large in the book, along with discussions of the samurai and how similar their rituals and social status were to the knights of England.

As it turns out, one of our Atlas Crates (a geography / culture subscription service from Kiwi Co.) was on Japan. We made a koinobori (flying carp windsock). Carp are a symbol of strength and success in Japan, as they have the power and determination to swim up waterfalls.

We also played Daruma Otoshi (derived from the Daruma dolls and “otoshi,” meaning “dropped”). The object of the game is knock out the bottom pieces while leaving the structure of the doll intact, sort of like Jenga. It’s harder than it looks.

The drama du jour in our household is over this little fellow (see below), a chameleon in the local pet store. Elise is obsessed with getting a chameleon and wants to visit him every time we go to the grocery store (unfortunately next door to the pet shop). She has already named him Marco Polo (which stems from my recent interest in the Silk Road). Rodney will not budge on getting another pet following our Jack Russell terrier puppy, Sherlock Holmes. It’s not hard to board a dog when you travel, he argues, but who are you going to pay to chameleon-sit? And then there’s the issue that their favorite food is crickets. How lovely it would be to try to sleep in a house where dozens of crickets are chirping away, waiting to be eaten?

Elise is not persuaded by these practical arguments, however. She has been regaling us with chameleon facts for weeks. They are basically walking mood rings. Their eyes can move independently of each other. Their eggs take 1-2 years to hatch. (You can imagine how talking about pets reproducing has gone over.) Their tongue is 1.5 times the length of their body. They can hang from a branch by their tail. And then there’s her concern that the dog and the cat are probably bored when we leave and the chameleon could keep them entertained. It’s Aristotle’s Third Man Argument, but with pets.

Unfortunately for Rodney, he’s raising a kid naturalist. At least she’s not asking for a $65,000 dinosaur bone. (Yet.) Never a dull day around here.

Playing in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains

So Hurricane Dorian moved through where we live in Florida at a snail’s pace last night and this morning. Based on pictures from our neighbor who did not evacuate (he works at an area hospital and was required to stay), our house is quite fine. I think my gardens are going to need *a lot* of tender loving care when we return, but that’s about it. We received five inches of rain during the storm, but there wasn’t any flooding. We watched the storm surge at Flagler Beach on the weather channel, however, and it was quite impressive. It will be interesting to see how bad our beach erosion is when we return. Our neighbor said a few year ago, the ocean brought us a bunch of sand of a completely different color after a hurricane.

I feel blessed that our house is okay, but honestly, I’m just so thankful the whole miserable ordeal is over. “Evacuation fatigue” is a real thing, y’all. Last night, I was thinking, “Do whatever you want, Mother Nature. Just please, for heaven’s sake, do it already.”

My heart breaks for the folks in the Bahamas though. We would love to donate all of the supplies we purchased for hurricane season to them. If anyone knows of a good charity or community effort where we can drop them off somewhere, please let me know. Or any reliable nonprofit that handles hurricane recovery efforts there.

***

Yesterday, we decided to get away from the lake house and go explore the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Oconee County in South Carolina is now one of my new favorite places to visit:

Oconee County takes its name from the Cherokee word “Ae-quo-nee” meaning “land beside the water.” Oconee was a local Cherokee town that was situated on the main British/Cherokee trading path between Charleston and the Mississippi River in the early 18th century. Its geographic position later placed it at the intersection of the trading path and the Cherokee treaty boundary of 1777. In 1792, a frontier outpost was built by the SC State Militia near the town site and was named Oconee Station. When Oconee County was created out of the Pickens District in 1868 it was named for Oconee Town.

We started off going to Chattooga Belle Farm to pick figs. Folks who know me know that figs are my all-time favorite treat. I can’t wait until late summer for figs to be in season. Chattooga Belle Farm had more fig trees than I have ever seen in one place. I was so happy. I also picked up some canned goods from the orchard, including moonshine jam, which is indeed made with corn whiskey. I have no idea what I am going to do with it, but I also couldn’t not buy it. When in Rome.

The orchard is also home to Belle’s Bistro, which is a good place to stop for a quick lunch if you are exploring Oconee County. They have a burger topped with fig preserves, goat cheese, and applewood smoked bacon that is out of this world.

From there, we drove a few minutes to the Chattooga River, which is the main tributary of the Tugaloo River. It bisects the Ellicott Rock Wilderness, which includes three states (Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina) and three National Forests (the ChattahoocheeNantahala and Sumter National Forests).

But you most likely know it as the river from the movie Deliverance.

The Chattooga River is a wild river with serious rapids that make it popular with the whitewater crowd. We found a spot to play that was relatively safe, but we could still see rafters negotiating class 4 rapids above and below us. It was an incredibly beautiful place, and Elise loved chasing the minnows around in the shallows.

After playing in the river, we decided to start visiting the myriad waterfalls in the area. There are dozens to visit, if you have the time. (Here is the Oconee County link for All Trails.)

Be forewarned – some of the roads to the waterfalls are quite treacherous (and should probably be hiked). We found ourselves driving down a one-lane gravel path snaking through a steep valley, with cliffs on both sides of the car, and precious few places where you could turn around if you started questioning your life decisions. I was trying to imagine what I would say to Rodney when we had to call him to come get us. “Where are you?” “I’m not sure exactly, but apparently Deliverance was filmed here.”

I thought this was pretty cool. At one of the parks we stopped at, they had created a kiosk where parents could borrow a life jacket to put on their kids while they played in the river.

You know you are in a daring part of the country when the special rescue units are using your trail to practice rappelling down the cliffs and getting a target out of the water.

After our adventures, we returned back to the lake house, where Elise’s Papa took her out inner-tubing behind the bass boat. With the Labor Day crowds gone from Lake Hartwell, we had the water mostly to ourselves. It was the perfect opportunity to teach Elise how to do this without worrying about her getting run over by a jet ski. Our fearless child had no problem, and was standing up and bouncing behind the boat on her first try. I think she’s probably ready to learn how to water ski.

Finally, we had dinner at the Galley restaurant on the South Carolina side of Lake Hartwell and watched a cotton candy sunset over the sailboats in the marina. I don’t think we could have packed more fun into a single day if we tried. Needless to say, Elise did not fight her bedtime.

Soon we will be returning home to Florida.

Waiting on Hurricane Dorian

My phone has been blowing up with messages and calls from concerned friends and family members asking if we are safe from Hurricane Dorian. We are safe. We evacuated to Georgia, but are hours away from the coast here too.

We left our house on the beach in Flagler County, Florida, last Wednesday when we learned Dorian had already become a major hurricane. I wish we had stayed another day to prepare our house better and be more thoughtful about what we packed, but Dorian had not become the slow-moving beast that it is now. I’ve felt physically ill for the past few days watching what is happening in the Caribbean and seeing the storm defy models and move toward the Florida coastline. Thank goodness Flagler County invested tens of millions of dollars building a new sea wall and got the project done quickly.

We’ve set up shop at Rodney’s parents’ lake house on Lake Hartwell, which is on the border of Georgia and South Carolina (where Clemson is – and, boy, are the people here ready for some football). This place is magical to Elise. And that’s nice, because it is taking her mind off of the storm potentially damaging our home. I can’t imagine how events like this seem through the eyes of a child.

We’ve been going out on the lake, visiting a place she calls Treasure Island. Treasure Island is one of the many little islands in Lake Hartwell. We usually have it to ourselves, but as it is Labor Day, there are some families camping there.

Last year, Rodney’s parents planted a treasure map in their garden and told Elise to dig up some worms there to go fishing. She found the map and followed the directions to a treasure chest they had actually buried on Treasure Island. This involved loading everyone up in the boat and going there, hiking through the forest on the island looking for clues, and finally breaking out a shovel. She is sure to remember that adventure forever. It’s definitely her special place.

We also got Sherlock a life vest for boating trips. It is ridiculously adorable. He’s barely a year old, but loves swimming and running around on the boat. He’s honestly a little too comfortable on a boat. Even at high speeds, he tries to break lose and be at the very front. Thank goodness his life vest has a handle on top.

Elise and I have been going on a lot of nature walks in the woods here. This is some of the most beautiful territory in the United States, and it offers a lot of opportunities to put our studies of biology and ecology to good use.

My mother-in-law said that Elise looks like a miniature version of me in that picture, and it reminded me that I have a picture of myself in basically the same pose. It cracked me up. This is from my days at Baylor in Texas.

After reading Jane Goodall’s book on observing wildlife, Elise has been talking a lot about sitting in one place and observing the habits of animals there. On one of our hikes, we found this rather large den that Elise wants to stake out at night. There is no persuading her how bad of an idea that is. Be careful what ideas you put into your children’s minds, folks!

We also found a silkworm village to observe. At least observing them did not involve potentially getting eaten.

Last night, we were going through old family pictures, and came across this one of my old English Mastiff with Elise as a baby. Safest baby in the entire world in this picture! (Yes, Duke really was *that* huge.)

The largest spider I have ever seen in my life *shudder*

Let me start off by saying that I am not particularly afraid of spiders. I spent many of my younger years trail running. As any good trail runner knows, if you are the first person to run the trail in the morning, you get to be the one who breaks through all the spider webs. You either get desensitized or you find a new hobby. And now my favorite activity is gardening, which involves getting up close and personal with myriad spiders, insects, and snakes.

But this afternoon, Elise and I went for our daily hike through the jungle and got a little more nature than we bargained for. This is the largest spider I have ever seen in my life – easily the size of the palm of an adult’s hand – and it was in the middle of the largest spider web I have ever seen in my life – which was flapping the breeze like a giant bed sheet suspended from the canopy above.

I couldn’t bring myself to walk under its blanket of doom, so we turned back. (It ended up working to our advantage, as we would have been caught in a violent summer squall if we had pressed on.)

This, sadly, is the best picture I could get of it. I don’t think it is a golden orb (or banana) spider based on its size and the fact that its web looks like a giant sheet instead of a vortex. But I could be wrong. The joys of Florida wildlife.

Banana trees and a new love of Latin

Today has been a rather unusual day in our household. (Do we ever have normal days though?)

This morning, Elise told me that she wanted to spend the entire day working on her Latin, which is suddenly her new favorite subject. In the past, we had done “math only” school days. She’d wake up, put on her “math day” t-shirt (a shirt she bought at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center that says B greater than average via a math problem) and hit the books. I could not believe that Latin has replaced math. True to her word, she worked her way through several chapters of Latin and spent the afternoon addressing us in Latin. She says she needs a t-shirt that says something in Latin.

Mandatory “math day” attire.

Since she was occupied and I was in-between work for our clients, I decided to make a Persian feast for lunch, with shawarma, tzatziki, flatbreads, a salad of tomatoes and cucumber, and a mixture of figs and apricots crossed with plums (they just sounded bizarre and fun while we were out shopping). The food filled the house with the most amazing aromas, and honestly it still smells divine now. I used to cook tagines all the time, and I missed the intense combinations of spices.

My first attempt at shawarma (before being shredded).
And my first attempt at tzatziki ever.
Summer fruits.

At the end of the day, Elise and I took a walk along the esplanade in our neighborhood, which follows the Intracoastal Waterway. She devoted herself to catching lizards while I watched the boats returning from the Atlantic Ocean.

Lizard collecting. (Yes, she only studies the lizards for a while and then sets them free. Our only rule on nature walks is that we do not capture any pollinators.)

As we were walking, a woman we did not know beckoned us into her backyard to show us that her four or five banana trees were now loaded with dozens of ripening bananas. (She was very proud of her banana trees she said, and just needed to share the moment with someone. As an obsessive gardener, I can relate.) This was fascinating to both Elise and me, since we had tried to grow a banana tree in a pot on our front porch this summer. It either did not like the pot or its spot or access to water, because it did not flourish. I asked her if the banana trees did well through the Florida “winter,” to which she responded that she had not had any problems with them except through the two recent hurricanes. She said the hurricanes always destroy the banana trees. When I find a new plant in a nursery one of these days, I will plant some in our backyard. The woman told us that the best fertilizer for banana trees was surplus bananas. Elise has been going around explaining this curiosity to everyone who will listen.

An impromptu lesson on cultivating bananas.

Equally interesting is seeing how exactly banana trees develop fruit. The bananas grow along a sort of flower-rope that dangles down toward the ground. Nature is unbelievable sometimes! We have the loveliest neighbors here in Florida.

A close up of the “flower-rope” that bananas grow along.

Walking away, Elise said to me, “imagine how many banana splits that nice lady gets to make now.” Indeed.

A bonus picture of Elise for friends and family.

A game of chess with Dad while waiting for food at our favorite Mexican/Caribbean restaurant.