Vern Goes Camping!

It might’ve started as a vague urge, like the scent of hotdogs roasting over an open fire, a scent that caught in the wind and was attenuated by distance from its source, faint but distinct.

Maybe it was an instinctual need, hunter/gatherer roots buried deep in my DNA that took 68 years to break through my urban upbringing and make itself known. 

Perhaps it was the result of spending so much COVID time indoors watching Netflix and getting  the COVID Chub, a sensory and physical rebellion that could only be quelled by spending an extended period outdoors.

Whatever the cause, I had a desire to commune with nature, to walk among the trees, to trade concrete for earth beneath my feet. I needed to go camping!

The problem is that I know very little about how to camp. It’s not like you can just find a plot of land, pitch a tent and start a fire, at least you can’t in Florida. There’s a lot to consider, buy and plan before you start applying insect repellent. That’s what I’d been studying for the past year and I’ve put together some videos of some of my discoveries, I’ve even gone camping once to see if I could do it, but that trip was a dry run. This one was the real deal.

About 2 months ago I logged into the Florida State Parks website and reserved a campsite at Wekiva Springs State Park, a drop dead gorgeous tract of tress, meadows, trails and bike path surrounding a natural fresh water spring.

Being a managed park sitting smack dab in the middle of Central Florida, there are rules a regulations you MUST follow to do just about anything. That might sound restrictive, but it’s not nearly so in practice. The rules and regs are there to keep idiots from burning down the place or trashing it out, ruining the experience for others looking to sate their need for nature. Rules include prohibiting open fires except in designated places and in provided fire pits. The reason for this rule is obvious. While Central Florida is a relatively wet area, getting about 50 inches ( about 1300mm) of rain per year, forest fires can and do occur. Often they are caused by lightning strikes, but a fair number are caused by stupid people doing stupid things. Wekiva Springs, being a managed park, often create controlled burns which consume underbrush before it  can become fuel for uncontrolled fires. If you take a walk through the park you’ll see trees that bear the charred markings of recent controlled burns.

Anyway, with some book knowledge and more desire than sense, I arrived at my campsite. Having practiced several times beforehand, I had my tent setup, air pad blown up and in place and my sleeping bag unrolled and laid out inside the tent in well under a half hour. It was late afternoon when I arrived so the sun was still fairly high and warm. When I was done with the tent I was soggy with sweat, but I wasn’t finished. I took a brief walk to cool down and check out my neighbors.

The camp area was divided in two, one side for tent, car and small vehicle campers and the other side for land yachts, those huge campers you’ve seen cruising down the highway, often pulling a car behind it. Regardless, each campsite has water, power and sewer hookups, a convenience for tent and car campers, a must for anything larger. 

As I walked I discovered that campers are a friendly lot. Unsolicited waves and greetings are common. It’s like people have somehow found their humanity out in the woods and were eager to show it off. Even the dogs were friendly!

Back at my site, I unpacked gear for cooking. I was getting kinda hungry, and curious. See, I’d thought about what I was gonna eat that evening. I’d considered a nice sub from a local market (purchased before I entered the park), or maybe some canned nourishment like beef stew or soups, but I had decided against those options when I found freeze dried food packs in a local Walmart. The variety! The ease! The mystery!! I mean, wouldn’t you want to know what freeze dried chicken fried rice tasted like? Or freeze dried biscuits and gravy??

I have a nice little compact gas camp stove and an ultra compact stainless steel cook set that’s ideal for boiling water. From my research, boiling water is one of THE things you must be able to do while out in the wilds. If you can boil water you can eat and drink without the fear of getting some sort of dreaded disease. AND, with these freeze dried food packs, you can enjoy a gourmet meal while communing with nature! How cool is that?

Setting up my camp stove was simple; screw the stove onto a can of gas. Done! I filled my pot with water (from the spigot on my campsite), lit the stove, and waited about 10 minutes for the water to boil. According to the package all I needed to do was add 12 ounces (about 355ml) of boiling water into the pack, stir, close the pack and wait 5 minutes, stir again and wait another 4 minutes. Stir once more and enjoy!

With the water in my pot bubbling away, I did as instructed, closed the pack and waited. Peering into the pack before I closed it did little to excite my senses. Freeze dried chicken fried rice doesn’t look like much even after you’ve poured the water in and stirred. I hoped it would look more appetizing when I opened the pack again in 5 minutes.

No, after 5 minutes and some vigorous stirring, what I saw in the pack looked more like something that had been eaten, but regurgitated. Still, I had faith in the packaging so I closed it again and waited another 5 minutes instead of the instructed 4 minutes, I figured an extra minute wouldn’t hurt.

This time what I saw when I opened the package was a bit more appealing. The rice, chicken and vegetables had absorbed the water and had taken on forms similar to their original. Similar, but not quite the same. Fresh fried rice is not mushy, but this wasn’t too far off. I dug a spoon in and took out a sample. Steam wafted from the heap of my reconstituted dinner, filling the air with a suggestion of one of my favorite asian meals. I saw chunks of chicken, bits of egg, and veggies mixed in the pile of rice on my spoon.

I took a bite.  Hmmmm! Not bad! Could use some soy sauce, but beyond that, not bad at all. I could certainly see it being devoured without complaint by a hungry backpacker after a day long trek.

The package said it held 2 servings. I was surprised to find that it was accurate, there was a lot of food in that pack once the water was added. I ate as much as I could and put the remains in my cooler in the car. ( Another rule is NEVER leave food out unattended. There are bears and other omnivores in these woods and they can get brave and raid your campsite.)  

I had chosen mid September to camp because that’s when the local temperature starts to get cooler at night. I was expecting low 70s, maybe upper 60s. I had bought wood and started a fire in the open pit provided in my campsite. Unfortunately the air temperature hovered in the upper 70s all night and the humidity stayed around 80% making for an uncomfortable sleep, even with my battery powered fan going full blast. Around 2am I couldn’t get any rest so I decided to take a shower. The campgrounds provide excellent restroom facilities including hot showers. The shower was refreshing, especially after I finished off with a blast of cold water, but the heat and humidity sucked away any comfort I might have felt and by the time I got back to my site I was just as uncomfortable as when I left for the shower. There was only one thing to do, abandon the tent and sleep in the car. 

That didn’t work out either. I tried the driver’s side but my feet kept hitting the pedals and I bumped the steering wheel whenever I turned to get comfortable, so I tried the passenger side. That didn’t work either. The front seats are designed for sitting, not sleeping. The back of my SUV was filled with stuff I thought I needed for camping and I wasn’t going to rearrange it to make a space for me to stretch out in the dark, so I tossed and turned in the passenger seat until sunrise.

With the sun came the prospect of making coffee, which requires boiling water. I know how to do that! I’d brought along a small French press, ideal for a single cup of joe. I was also hungry. I eyed the package of freeze dried biscuits and gravy and it just did not make my mouth water. Still, with my stomach demanding food, I boiled more water, tore open the package, mixed and stirred and waiting. If the chicken fried rice looked unappetizing after 5 minutes, the biscuits and  gravy looked downright repulsive! Still, the fried rice turned out ok, and I was curious and hungry in equal measure. After another 5 minutes and some stirring the contents in my package reminded me less of southern breakfast favorite and more of blob of day old oatmeal. However, it smelled enticingly familiar so I took the plunge. 

I’m being generous in my description here. Use grains of salt when viewing.

Nope! Nope! Nope!

The “gravy”, while hot, was flavorless. There was chucks of what I assume was the “biscuits” and what tasted like eggs, and there were nodules of “sausages” too. Again, if you’re backpacking and you need protein I’m sure the content of that package I had before me would do the trick, and it would likely taste ok. I guess I’m just too city-fied to make that culinary leap just yet.

So, there I was, tired, hungry and a bit irritable. I took a walk to see if there were any animals roaming about and I was rewarded with several deer and bird sightings. There was a light mist hanging in a glen, muted sunshine making a field of yellow flowers glow. I couldn’t help but smile and take in a lungful of pine scented air. That was why people go camping!

Deer, fearless of humans, ate breakfast not more than 20 feet from me!

My first real camping trip wasn’t a complete bust, I enjoyed the surrounding, the discovery, and the feeling of being “out” enough to want to do it again. Next time I’ll be even better prepared. 

Stay tuned.

Vern

An Update

A while ago I mentioned that the Peace Corps had accepted me for a role in helping FEMA with the Covid-19 vaccination effort. Since I wrote that post a lot has changed.

First off, I didn’t get to go help FEMA.

While I was initially accepted, my full indoctrination depended on the completion of my medical clearance and I was in the middle of having cataract surgery. Though the doctors gave me a clean bill of health that clearance came too late and all of the positions were filled.

Ah well, I gave it a shot.

Secondly, I was also waiting to hear from the Peace Corps about when I could return to Namibia. If you’ve been following the news you’ll know that the pandemic has taken a new phase with the Delta Variant. My friends in Namibia tell me the country is being hit hard because relatively few have been vaccinated. There isn’t one colleague there who doesn’t know of an affected friend or family member, and many, including relatively young people, have died. It is a very sad state of affairs.

Because of this and other issues in that part of the world the Peace Corps has postponed sending volunteers to Namibia until things settle. Right now, there doesn’t seem to be even a tentative date when that might be.

So, what are my plans? I’m not sure. In the meantime please be sure to check out my YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC2qLDlGAraLqQ2FfSkIRHxw). I have several new camping how-to videos with more on the way. Also, check the comment areas of the videos where you’ll find links to products I mention. Following the links and buying products help support the site. (Trust me, I have so few viewers and followers that I don’t make anything, but it does help me keep the site active.)

That’s it for now, but more to come.

Stay tuned,

Vern

Outside: An Observation

One of the upsides of this Covid-19 pandemic is that it has forced people to slow down. 

OK, maybe that’s not an upside for some, but for me, slowing down is a good thing. I was already in that process after having come back from a Peace Corps assignment and finding that I had little to do. So, I walked a lot. I found local trails and paths and spent a lot of time exploring and shooting video for a project I’m working on.

Along the way I started noticing more of the local flora and fauna, plants and creatures I might not have paid much attention to even while I walked wooded trails. There was a particular incident that got me to redirect my focus on my surroundings I’d like to tell you about. 

Early one morning about 8 months ago, while I was walking a bike path and listening to music I happened to glance up into the canopy above me. There sat a squirrel. That’s nothing atypical, you can’t spit in Central Florida without nearly hitting a squirrel, they are so plentiful. This one was a good 10 to 15 meters above the path I was on and it sat on a thin branch that looked like it could hardly hold the animal’s weight. The squirrel seemed agitated, it was eying an even thinner branch a good meter away, apparently trying to decide if it should make the jump. I stopped to watch the drama unfold.

The squirrel concentrated, its tail rapidly snaking and shaking as it moved to different positions on the branch, all the while focusing on the far twig. It must have been assessing, questioning whether it could jump that far or could the twig hold its weight or would it break. The fall would have definitely injured it, and since it was over a paved path, death was a real possibility. 

Now, this is a squirrel and squirrels know the trees they live in like we know the streets in our neighborhood. I’m sure it could have found a safer path. The upper canopy where I stood was fairly dense, so why did this squirrel pick this particular gap to cross?

Hmmmm!!!!

I’ve always believed that animals are far more complex creatures than we give them credit for. I believe that animals do have and display a wide range of emotions and thoughts that have human equivalents, but, because they are so different from us, we seldom see these emotions and thoughts expressed, or understand them for what are when they are expressed. When we do we attribute them to innate behavior, actions without thoughts or emotional content. They avoid predators to keep from being eaten, there’s no fear involved. They fly, crawl, jump, and swim, eat, reproduce, and exist because that’s what nature or God built them to do. 

However, if we observe closely, we can see behaviors that seems counter to the argument that animals, such as that squirrel above me, are little more than biological robots built to serve a particular purpose in nature.

So, there is our intrepid squirrel weighing its options: jump or no? Is it worth the risk? I liken that little guy( or girl) to a free climber, a person who scales rock faces without rope or other protection. These adrenaline junkies climb rocks that would give mountain goats pause. I think that squirrel was on that branch to test itself, just like free climbers. It wanted to push itself to limits that would leave other squirrels quivering in their nut stash.

After a minute or so of nervously weighing its options, the squirrel settled into position. I could see it focus as it prepared to jump, leaning a bit into the gap, eyes directed at the far branch. The branch it was on bounced up and down from the squirrel’s weight, it was so thin. Then the squirrel leapt, timing its jump on the upward swing of the branch it was on. It soared through the air, it’s tiny hand-like paws reaching desperately for something to grab. 

One paw grabbed a low hanging, impossibly thin limb and the whole branch sagged at the sudden weight increase, but it did not break. The squirrel was literally hanging on by one paw! 

It reached up with the other paw and pulled itself up like someone climbing a rope. Once safely on the far branch it turned and looked down as if it realized just how foolhardy the jump was. I applauded the effort. 

After that incident I started observing more, stopping when I found something even the slightest bit interesting. I’ve found that, if I watched long enough, other dramas often unfolded, maybe not as intense as that high flying squirrel’s, but interesting and thought provoking nonetheless.

This morning, as I sat outside enjoying a cup of coffee, I witnessed another interesting drama. This one I was able to capture on video.

A young Northern Mockingbird landed on the fence bordering my backyard. These birds tend to stand erect, but this one huddled down on the fence. As it adjusted itself I could see the reason for the odd behavior, it had an injured leg. 

As it sat it started peeping as young birds do when they want to be fed. An adult mockingbird appeared and shoved a bug of some kind into the gapping  maw of the young injured bird then flew off to find more food. This process went on for several minutes, but in one instance, another bird, perhaps a predator, approached the young bird. The momma or poppa bird appeared out of nowhere and drove the predatory bird away. All the while the young bird sat huddled on the fence, waiting to be fed. 

I was beginning to think that more than its leg was injured, but soon it decided to find safer confines and flew off. 

Here’s the video.

Mockingbirds

Nothing in the bird’s behavior suggests that its actions where driven by anything more than instinct, still it was interesting to see that the adult bird continued to care for the young bird even with its injury. Something counter to the ‘Survival of the fittest’ tenet. 

I’ve included a few more of my observations. If you haven’t found a desire to get outside maybe these will give you some inspiration. 

Wood Owl
Downy Woodpecker

Stay tuned.

Vern

I Can See Clearly Now: Part 2

Last Tuesday I went in to have the growing cataract in my right eye removed. In the follow-up examination on Wednesday the Dr. said that everything looked good, both eyes were healing nicely and that I would have great vision once the drugs I’m using to keep the swelling and infection in check is done. Right now things are a bit fuzzy, but it’s a marked improvement over what I was seeing before the operation. At least at a distance. Now I need reading glasses to setup close. Before the surgeries I didn’t need them, the odd way the cataract was forming allowed me to see well up close, but distance vision was a blurry mess.

So, I had to buy readers and join so many other in my generation whose eyesight has deteriorated and must wear glasses to read. 

Geez! I’m starting to feel old!!!

OK, maybe only a little. 

Anyway, that’s now behind me. 

On another and entirely different note, I’m really focusing on video creation. I don’t want to call it a hobby because the word makes it not sound as serious as I feel about the endeavor. I want to exploit the equipment I have to its fullest to create videos that tell meaningful stories. It’s more than just shooting pretty clouds and flowers, though there is certainly worth in doing so. I want viewers to see and examine what I see with the same scrutiny and emotions that I experience. That takes a bit of doing and I am no where near where I need to be to accomplish that, but that’s where I’m heading. 

Incoming Storm

If you’ve read my previous posts then you’ll know that I’m currently interested in camping, I want to learn as much as I can and as I learn I want to tell others who are camping neophytes like me everything I’ve picked up. I’ve posted 3 videos so far and am planning my next one, which should be about car camping or maybe glamping. 

If you go to my YouTube Channel and watch my camping related videos you’ll notice right away that I’m not entirely comfortable in front of the camera. I want to change that. Hopefully, as I do more of these videos I’ll feel a bit less self-conscious and more confident as I offer up the tidbits I’ve learned. It should be fun.

On a less than positive note, my application to Peace Corps to help with the FEMA Vaccine Rollout was declined. I’m told they have more than enough volunteers and my application was pending because of my eye surgery. Ah well. It would have been a fun adventure.

I still have my application in to return to Namibia, which should happen sometime this fall. We’ll see how that goes. 

In the meantime…stay tuned.

Vern

I Can See Clearly Now (Almost)

There’s been a lot happening since I last posted here, so let me enumerate and elucidate.

Peace Corps/FEMA Vaccine Support

The Peace Corps is typically focused on helping people in other countries, but there are times when Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) are asked to lend a hand domestically. It doesn’t happen often, in fact, it’s only happened one other time, during the recovery after Hurricane Katrina. 

Most will agree that the Covid-19 Pandemic is every bit as devastating, at least in the number of people affected, as Hurricane Katrina, and to helps us and the world recover requires that the majority of the population be vaccinated. FEMA was given the daunting task of vaccinating folks here in the US who, for whatever reason, have not had access to the vaccine. To accomplish it FEMA has asked other federal agencies who may be geared to support this effort for help. Peace Corps is one of those agencies. In turn, Peace Corps asked its recently returned volunteers for support. I saw it as a way to directly contribute to the effort of getting the US and the world out of the pandemic rut and back to some semblance of normalcy. So, I volunteered, and I was accepted. 

I don’t know where or how exactly I will serve, but I will be glad to do what I can wherever I can. My service will be for 3 months starting in May. It should be interesting and I’ll post something about it here.

Go Geezer Videos

I had not been sitting on my hands before the call came out to support FEMA, I had the idea to try something different, to do something I’d always wanted to do, but never seemed to find the time to fully explore it. I wanted to become proficient at camping.

Those of you who are experienced campers will likely think, “That’s not a big deal.” For you, that may be true, but for those of us who have never camped, it’s a huge deal. What, where, how, when and other questions are unanswered in our minds and just considering all that I don’t know is enough to make me want to change my mind. Lucky for me that I pay little attention to all the things I don’t know. (Not sure that’s a good thing…)

Anyway, I’ve been learning a lot and as I learn I’ve been creating videos explaining to other poor souls who, like me, wanna camp, but don’t really know how. Yes, there are a bunch of videos that talk about camping this and that, but few that talk about it from the newbie’s perspective. So, that’s what I’ve been doing, creating videos of camping as I learn. So far I have 3 (the third will be published soon) and intend to publish a bunch. This has been interrupted by the Peace Corps/FEMA thing, but I’ll pick it up once that’s done.

Please stop by my YouTube channel and check out what I’ve got so far.

Cataract Surgery

One sure sign that you are getting old is when your doctor insists that you investigate getting cataract surgery. For those who don’t know, cataracts is a condition where the lenses in your eyes start to harden and become cloudy, reducing your vision and in some extreme cases, cause blindness. Cataracts can also cause other problems such as increased eye pressure which can lead to glaucoma, a far more serious eye malady. 

So, taking my doctor’s advice, I saw a specialist and agreed to have the surgery. The surgery involves making tiny cuts in the eye to remove the problem lens and replace it with a plastic lens. If the surgery is successful the new lens restore and greatly improves vision in two ways; first it restores the ability of the eye to focus, often to levels of those when the patient was very young. Secondly, the new lens is not cloudy so more light comes into the eye, increasing visual acuity.

The surgery is usually performed on one eye at a time. I had the surgery done on my left eye earlier today and while it will take a day or so for my eye to focus with the new lens, I can already tell you that the amount and quality of light that the new lens lets in is dramatically Better. The photo below gives you some idea the difference I’m experiencing, and my cataracts was only moderate.

Focus will improve over time as well.

Many of my friends who have had the surgery have told me that I would be amazed at the difference. Like hearing loss, losing your vision over time is insidious because you don’t notice how bad it is until, often, it’s too late. Having this surgery will be life changing for me, especially since I am now focused of videography. 

There’s more stuff going on, but I won’t bore you with those details. Or maybe I will, but in a different post.

Stay tuned.

Vern

Camping Newbie

I think I want to try camping.

Setting up this tent!

As a kid I never had the opportunity to go camping though I loved being out in nature. I used to hang out in Druid Hill Park, which had a freely accessible zoo at that time. As I grew older and bolder I spent time in Gwynn Falls/Leakin Park which had a bunch of trails. I saw my first wild snake there, a large copperhead.  Escaped being sprayed by a skunk there as well. 

I did camp out several times in Namibia. My friend, Lysias Uusiku, loved throwing a tent up, striking a fire and roasting fish whenever we traveled. I did learn a few things from Lysias, but I don’t feel confident enough to proclaim myself a camper (happy or otherwise).

So, I intend to remedy that and do whatever I need to, buy whatever I need to and go wherever I need to to gain that confidence so that if the occasion arises and I need or want to camp, I can and feel good doing it.

To those of you who have experience with tents and cookstoves and are thinking that there’s nothing to it, you need to understand that though I did a lot of traipsing around the woods as a kid, I never spent the night out there. I’m sure I can figure out how to set up a tent, but I also need to know where, or more importantly, where I shouldn’t set up that tent. The same goes for making a fire, outfitting myself with sleeping gear, even shoes and clothing aimed at outdoor living are new to me. I need to examine all of that. 

There’s a great place near where I live called Travel Country Outfitters, its an outdoors shop that sells everything from kayaks to crampons. I went there to see what they had to say to a camping newbie. I’ve been a patron of Travel Country Outfitters for some time now and felt confident that they wouldn’t start grabbing the most expensive but ineffectual gear they had and throwing it in my cart telling me that I needed it all to make the most of my initial experience. Instead I was told that I should continue researching gear, techniques, and experiences of others to refine my needs then I could come back as a more learned customer, someone they could more easily work with.

I had done some research before seeking advise from the Travel Country staff. I knew, for instance, that I’d need some basic gear: tent, sleeping bag, backpack, but I hadn’t discerned which of the vast number of choices I should go with. After spending more time reading reviews I settled on a few items: A North Face Storm Break 2 Tent, an EcooPro LW250 Sleeping Bag, a Forceatt Ultralight Sleeping Pad, and a Cocoon Camp Pillow.

Travel Country had suggested that I wouldn’t want or need a backpack immediately and it could wait until I was comfortable using the other stuff I bought. So, last weekend I spent the night out in my yard with my new gear, and it was a surprisingly good experience. Surprisingly because I am prone to get bug bites. Mosquitoes seek me out in crowds, fleas nosh on my ankles and run, spiders think they’ve noted the biggest catch of their short lives. When I decided that camping is something I wanted to do I had to come to terms with the fact that I may lose a substantial amount of blood to bugs with each outing. It’s just something I’ll have to live with.

But I didn’t get one bug bite while I slept in complete comfort in my bag, on my pad, inside my tent. The only slightly annoying thing was the pillow, which would not stay put under my head. Its back is plastic and the pad is plastic so there was a lot of slipping around. I may have to rethink the pillow.

Still, it was such a good experience thatI intend to take this experiment further and camp in a real campground.  I’m currently researching local spots that allow tents, there are plenty here in Central Florida, so I should’t have a problem. I might even get a camp stove and victuals. I’m told that if I can boil water I can eat a decent meal. Could be fun!

Anyway, for those of you who are like me and can barely tell a carabiner from a CamelBack, I intend to publish how-tos on everything I encounter and learn, starting with setting up the tent I bought. Even if you’re comfortable around campsites the videos and reviews I’ll be posting may be of use to you as well. 

Here’s the first video: Setting Up The North Face Storm Break 2 Tent

All the more reason to…

Stay tuned.

Vern

A Halcyon Day

Today, March 4, 2021, for me at least, is a Halcyon Day.

When I was a lot younger, in grade school in Baltimore, there were days, usually in March, when the air is clean and dry and crystal clear, the breeze is cool, but just so cool as to not cause a shiver, the sun is warm, not hot, and the sky is so blue it literally hurts to look at it. I was usually doing something during those days, in school, running errands, or working, even so I would stop and breath in the air, feel the warmth of the sun on my face, feel the cool breeze on my back, and stare longingly at the sapphire sky and wish that I could just have that moment a bit longer. 

I called those days Halcyon Days. They were few and too far between, but when they showed up they were easy to recognize. People seemed a bit kinder, birdsong seemed a bit sweeter, and life always seemed so full of possibilities.

Today started off normally. I woke at 4am and made coffee, then went back to bed. I got up officially at 6am and went through my normal morning routine. I was meeting a friend at Canaveral National Seashore, specifically, Playa Linda Beach. The beach and seashore is a protected area and is maintained in its natural state with only one road to the beach, the only buildings are restrooms, and there’s limited parking. There are boardwalks to get from the parking lots to the beach, but those and the restrooms are the only man only manmade structures from the fence that borders Kennedy Space Center to the sign the designates the end of Playa Linda Beach (a distance of about 4 miles) and the beginning of Back Country, a 10 mile stretch of beach and intercostal wetlands that does not even have roads and access is limited to a maximum of 50 visitors a day.

Playa Linda Beach

It was on the beach when I recognized one of those halcyon moments. We were walking with the wind at our backs, the sun in our faces, crystalline air tinged with sea salt filled our lungs. Formations of gulls and brown pelicans cruised the dunes, riding the updraft caused by the ocean pumped wind blowing up along the dunes. Plovers played tag with the waves, royal terns congregated with beaks into the wind as if, by their numbers, they could defy its strength. 

Royal Terns

The sand was clean and warm, the Atlantic was deep blue with white caps and the susurration of the waves drowned out any negative thoughts.

Plovers dancing with the waves.

A perfect moment in a day of perfect moments. A Halcyon Day. 

On Amazon Prime there is a movie called Map of Tiny Perfect Things. In it a young man finds that he can live a day over and over again. As he goes through that day knowing it will repeat itself at midnight he decides to make little tweaks in the lives of the people around him. He stops a man from walking in front of a car, prevents a glass from breaking, keeps a girls from getting knocked into a swimming pool, and so on. He knows exactly when each occurrence will happen because he’s seen them all and nothing changes.

He also creates a map of perfect moments during the endlessly renewed day, moments he gets to see and experience again and again and enjoy each time. A man, after completing an act of kindness, sits on a seat just as a bus with an advertisement that has a set of angels wings stops behind the man, producing an image of him as an angel. The moment is brief and you’d have to be in the right place at the right time to see it, but the young man has all the time in the world to see it and other tiny, but brief moments of perfection.

Today, is like that for me. Moments of perfections that likely occur everyday, but today I saw them, felt them, experienced them, and that, in itself is perfect.

Stay tuned.

Vern 

US Mail

Old Post Office in Downtown Baltimore. (I used to work here!) (Image courtesy of Click_Americana)

Author, David Brin, wrote a post apocalyptic novel centered on a down-on-his-luck loner who, during a time of great need, stumbles upon an old US Mail truck full of undelivered parcels and letters. To feed himself he hatches a scheme to pose as a representative of a restored US government, a mailman delivering a backlog of mail. His scheme worked out better than he’d wanted because he unknowingly creates hope to the far flung and desperate people of the towns he encounters and soon others follow his made up lead, creating mail routes, delivering messages between towns, connecting people, bringing news, and providing a means of communication that was destroyed in the apocalypse. The communication, in turn fosters a sense of unity, of belonging to larger whole that was and might still be the United States of America.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Kevin Costner directed and starred in the screen adaptation of the book that was released in 1997 to a lukewarm reception. I loved the movie. I had read the book many years before and while the movie diverges from the book, the gist of the story is there and I believe it is well worth your time to find and watch the movie if you don’t have time to find and read the book.

I was reminded of The Postman recently after having the delivery of several packages traveling through our postal system delayed. I was initially annoyed, but then I checked myself. I had spent almost 3 years in Namibia where the postal system is privately owned and must operates in an environment markedly different from our own.

At first blush the towns and cities in Namibia are similar to towns and cities you’d find in any country. There are streets with street names and numbers  associated with houses and businesses. But there are also informal settlements where roadways are not always planned and houses, businesses and the residents within appear and disappear as needs arise. Even the more permanent settlements have a haphazard nature about them. Daily home delivery of mail would be a daunting challenge and is just not attempted. 

One of my first part-time jobs when I was a kids in high school was working for the US Postal Service. In the winter I sorted letters, but in the summer I delivered mail, filling in for vacationing letter carriers. My routes were usually in poorer neighborhoods in Baltimore, but even there mail was delivered to the houses or mailboxes associated with an address. In Namibia you have to rent a box or use a box rented by someone else. Packages remained at the post office until you come to pick them up, and that only if there was a way of contacting you. So, if you didn’t have access to a post box and you didn’t have access to a phone or email, you didn’t get mail. Period. Many Black Namibians have never received a letter through their postal system, ever. By contrast, in the US, if we have an address, we get mail, whether we want it or not. I doubt there are many US citizens who have never gotten mail delivered to them at their home at some point in their adult life. 

This recent holiday season saw a huge influx of mail here in the US as many homebound shoppers turned to online purchasing as opposed to going to stores, waiting in line and running the risk of getting Covid-19. Oddly, instead of long lines in stores I encounter even longer lines at the local post offices with people mailing packages to relatives all over the country and beyond. The combination of increased online shopping, increased parcel and letter traffic from Christmas mailings, and  post office staff dealing with Covid-19 created a perfect storm that overwhelmed the system, causing delays in delivery. For me, packages that normally take 2 to 3 days to reach its destination took 5 days or more, which can seem a lot longer if you are waiting for something. But even in this the US Postal Service has ways to alleviate to stress if not the wait.

Packages and letters sent through their Priority Mail service get tracking numbers which you can use to find where your package is in the system. You can also set up phone alerts that flags you when your package reaches different points along its route to you. If you’re concerned about a gift arriving while you’re not there and being opened by someone in your household (or to thwart Porch Pirates: thieves who steal package left on your property) you can have the post office deliver the package to an alternate address or business where someone will be there accept the package for you.

For years now, in this age of email, text messaging and other forms of instant communication, the US Postal Service has seemed more like an anachronism than a viable modern service, a throwback to an era where letters were written by hand, stamps were licked by tongues and messages were deposited in the blue metal mailbox sitting on a nearby corner. Many may see the US Postal Service as an almost forgotten entity relegated to delivering junk mail and paper bills. Even when the service is called into action to play an important role in our democracy it appears not up to the task. This recent election put the US Postal Service in the news as politicians unjustly and often without merit claimed the postal service introduced problems with mail-in ballots to purposefully interfere with the results of the elections. There were problems, unfortunately, but they were unintended and resolved quickly.

In the 1990s and as recent as 2018 there was talk of privatizing the Postal Service, however such suggestions have never garnered much appeal. The public, though it uses the service less with each passing year, expects the US Post Office to be part of what it means to live the US. The existence of the US Post Office was written into the US Constitution and as such, is as much a part of the social-political landscape of America as Congress and the presidency.

But the service is actually quite healthy. According to the US Postal Service, each day it handles 472 million letters, packages, and other correspondents, delivering them to more than 160 million addresses in the USA and its territories. By volume, the numbers are even more impressive: The US Postal Service handles nearly half of all mail by volume on the entire planet! It does it all without costing the US taxpayer a dime, its revenue is entirely funded by product sales and services.

So, as this very interesting year full of surprises and uncertainty comes to a close, one thing a citizen of the U.S. of A. can depend on: Even if your package or card is delayed because of snowstorms or the system is overwhelmed by a tsunami of seasonal packages, take a deep breath as I did and remember that the motto of the US postal carrier remains true; “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

Stay tuned

Vern

Exercise Your Happiness Muscle

Happy, Healthy Holidays

Holiday lights at Crane’s Roost, Altamonte Springs, Florida
Crane’s Roost, Altamonte Springs, Florida

Of all the holidays we have here in the US, Thanksgiving is my favorite. I like it because it hasn’t been completely corrupted by the rampant commercialism that has usurped the true meaning and intent of Christmas. Thanksgiving is about giving thanks, being mindful of the good in our lives, enjoying the company of family and friends, enjoying food (lots of food), but most of all it’s about being present, being in the moments that tends to be the most meaningful in our often harried lives.

For those of you not familiar with the holiday, Thanksgiving, as it was taught to me in grade school, celebrates the survival of a set of European settlers/refugees who left England because of religious persecution. These “Pilgrims” were apparently poorly equipped to deal with life in the wilderness of what is now Massachusetts, a state in the north-east US. 

As the story goes, the local Native Americans felt sorry for these poor souls and helped them survive their first year (and are likely regretting it ever since). To celebrate their survival and new found friends the Pilgrims organized a big feast and Native Americans and Pilgrims broke bread, communed and gave thanks for what they had. 

Of course, there’s a lot more to the story and over the years a lot of poetic license has obfuscated the true events surrounding the Pilgrims and their Native American hosts, but the general idea of feasting, communing, and giving thanks is what the holiday has come to mean. It’s celebrated in Autumn because that’s when crops are harvested and preparations are made to survive the winter. 

While I don’t much care for the story of the supposed First Thanksgiving, I do like and practice the concepts of giving thanks, being mindful, and appreciating and enjoying my friends and family. It is what contributes to my general happiness.

I read an article recently titled ‘Yale Happiness Professor on 5 Things That Will Make You Happy’, written by Laurie Santos,  Professor of Psychology at Yale University, that outlined 5 concepts that, if practiced and incorporated in our lives, should lead to a happier existence. The very short version of her list is as follows:

  • Being Social: Get out and be with friend and family, even if it’s done remotely.
  • Being Thankful: Focus on the good in your life and appreciate it.
  • Being in the Moment: Try not to worry about past or future events, instead focus and enjoy what’s going on now.
  • Rest and Exercise: Getting adequate rest and getting off the couch keeps you physically and mentally strong and positive.
  • Being Kind: Sometimes it’s easier to say it than to do it, but acts of kindness, no matter how small, enhances our wellbeing and the wellbeing of those who receive our acts of kindness.

(It’s a good article and well worth time to read it.)

A quick review of that list and you can see that celebrating Thanksgiving checks off almost all of the items. So, yay! Go Thanksgiving!

My daughter, however, likes to remind me that her favorite holiday is Christmas. She loves the trappings of the holiday; the lights, the music, the festive atmosphere, the gift giving and the anticipation and joy my grandson experiences. My friend, Rita, also reminds me of the religious significance of the holiday. Being a devout Catholic, it is one of Rita’s most favorite holidays as she enjoys and participates in the pageantry and inspiration that affirms her faith in often spectacular ways.

20 meter (about 70 feet) Christmas Tree in Crane’s Roost, Altamonte Springs Florida.

In deference to the opinions of these, two of my favorite people, I will admit that, for me at least, Christmas comes in a close second to Thanksgiving as a favorite holiday. I do enjoy gift giving, the lights and pageantry that is found in no other holiday. I also like the fact that Christmas, or the festive nature associated with this time of year, whatever the reason, is celebrated worldwide. 

As nearly everyone is well aware, 2020 has been so full of stress that it threatens to spill over into 2021. It’s become increasing tougher to remain positive, especially when several items on the Happiness List above are a challenge to achieve, but I implore you to try. Even if it’s just a small act of kindness. In fact, if you’re feeling curmudgeonly negative or stressed, or just feel the need to brighten your day, that’s how you should start.

Lights on Park Avenue, Winter Park, Florida

Let that guy pull into traffic ahead of you, open the door for the woman behind you, chat up a stranger while standing in line (while practicing safe social distancing, of course), find something to compliment a person on, then compliment him or her. It doesn’t matter if the object of your kindness is someone you wouldn’t normally engage, it doesn’t cost anything except a few seconds of thought and maybe a few more seconds of effort. You may not be immediately overwhelmed by a glow of positivity for your good deeds, but in time the resulting benefit will become apparent and you find it is well worth the effort.

Make it a habit and you’ll enjoy the benefits all year long, and the other items on the Happiness List won’t be so hard to achieve. It’s kind of like a muscle, a Happiness Muscle. Exercise it and it will get stronger. Soon you’ll be an Arnold Schwarzenegger of Happiness.

So, in the spirit of this holiday season, I wish joy, health and huge bulging biceps of happiness to you and yours.

Stay tuned,

Vern

Omajowa: The Mushroom King

It’s just the beginning of the rainy season in northern Namibia. Areas that were baked in the unrelenting Namibian sun for most of the year welcome the deluge that starts in late December and continues through March, dumping meters of water and supplying much of the yearly supply of fresh water to the traditional farms and towns that dot this ancient ancestral home to the Herero, Himba, Damara, Ovambo, Kavango, and Nama peoples.

It’s during this time that these subsistence farmers plant their basic food crop, mahangu, a type of millet that is pounded into a meal and eaten as porridge with almost every meal. They will plant maize and other vegetable and feed crops that will rapidly grow to maturity during the life-giving rains. It is also the time of year when once dry lakes and riverbeds come alive with barber fish, a type of catfish that is released from hibernation by the flood waters.

Omajowas sprouting from a termite mound. (Image courtesy of Atlas Obscura)

It is during this time of year that you can find omajowa, a variety of mushroom that sprouts from the many termite mounds that punctuate the northern Namibian landscape. What makes these particular mushrooms interesting is the size. From tip to tip they can grow up to a meter long and a fully developed cap can be the size of a dinner plate! 

Yeah, we’re talking BIG MUSHROOMS!

Not only are they big, they are delicious! My first encounter with these big, tasty beauties was in January, 2020. I was traveling to Ondangwa with my host organization, The Rössing Foundation, when we notice some locals flagging cars and waving what looked large white bones. We pulled over and I was instructed to remain quiet. It seems that the haggled price increases dramatically if the sellers hear an American accent. (I wonder why?)

Haggling for omajowas

After several minutes of intense haggling we came away with several enormous, but slightly immature mushrooms. I was told that getting the mushrooms before the caps fully developed insures a more tender and flavorful experience. 

We stayed at a guest house and one of the staff volunteered to prepare the mushrooms for us. She cooked up 4 for us and kept 2 for herself. The result was a big bowl full of what looked like sautéed diced chicken. The flavor was interesting, falling somewhere between chicken and veal or pork and the texture was like chicken breast.

In March, 2020, not long before I along with all PCVs worldwide were sent home due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, I had another opportunity to experience omajowa. During another trip to the north, where my colleagues and I drove through calf-deep water for kilometers in areas that, just a few months before I saw the desiccated remains of livestock that succumb to the drought in the area, I was lucky enough to buy several of these stupendous mushrooms to try my hand at preparing them.

Keep in mind that I’d only seen these immense mushrooms once before and had never cooked them. But, after talking to several friends about how best to prepare them, I figured I’d give it a go.

Step 1: Skin it

These giant fungi have a fibrous epidermis that is edible (I’m told), but not desirable. So ya gotta skin them. Luckily they peel fairly easily, like a big white carrot.

Skinned!

Step 2: Chop It

The stem is round and fibrous and look a lot like scallops. I decided to cut the cap into strips, each about the size of my palm.

Chopped!

Step 3: Season It

I broke out my small pan, added a dollop of butter, some chopped green onions and garlic, then added the shrooms. Like all mushrooms I’ve prepped in the past, these reduce in size as you cook them. I sautéed until they started to brown on the edges and the meat was tender with a fork. I lightly salted them. That was it!

Seasoned!

Step 4: Enjoy!

One gigantic mushroom was more than enough for me and I had enough to share. It was DELICIOUS! It’s a shame Namibia can’t export these beauties because they would be a huge culinary hit worldwide. 

Enjoyed!!

Portabellas can’t match them. Shitakes are no contest. Whites take a backseat. In fact, every edible mushroom pale in flavor, texture, and most of all, size, compared to Omajowas, The Mushroom King.

Stay tuned.

Vern