Friday, June 29, 2012

The bottom falls out from under you, and here you are.

What could possibly motivate two people, who at mid-life are not so enthusiastic at the thought of a major life change, to leave a home they had known for 23 years for the relative outback of Florida? We had lived here before, right out of college, so we had an idea of what we were getting into, at least with the weather. We got married down here, and this is where we started our family. And then we gladly moved up North. We found the heat and mosquitos oppressive, the vegetation without beauty, and the lack of cultural opportunities uninspiring. Why then did we come back?
Well, first of all, we are not back where we were in the truest sense. Martin County, where we live now, is a different animal than Palm Beach County, the county to our south where we lived when we were starting out. After we left Palm Beach County in 1987, we continued to visit family in the area. We witnessed a dramatic change in the development of the county over the years, and each time we visited I repeated my vow never to live there again. Palm Beach County has become part of the greater concrete-and-asphalt whole of Southern Florida. Martin County has somehow managed to escape the tourism trappings and stay true to its Old Florida beginnings. We love our quaint little town of Stuart. How it can reside just 15 miles north of the county line and manage to retain such a delightfully different character astounds me. In my heart they are worlds apart.
Martin County may still have heat and mosquitos, but it has more green space per capita than any other county in the country. It takes pride in its unique habitats and promotes its natural beauty. What I once considered ugly scrub I now see as part of a thriving ecosystem. The vegetation may be unusual, but so are the amazing animals who rely on it for sustenance and shelter. There’s an environmental world out there just teeming with intrigue and wonder and waiting to be explored. I’ve explored museums, theaters, and galleries around the world, and continue to do so when I travel; at home I’m exploring my own backyard. 
When I first visited and fell in love with Stuart four years ago, before I knew how close to retirement I actually was, I began to think for the first time about the possibility of retiring in Florida. Until then, Florida was to me where people go who have no better idea of what to do with their retirement  years. It was the default. Somehow the mentality of “Well, I’m retired now. I guess it’s time to move to Florida.” escaped me. Then I met Stuart and realized it is very possible to choose to retire in Florida.
Okay, I won’t lie. It wasn’t the thrill of living in Stuart that caused us to move here and retire at the age of 53. We weren’t planning on retiring so young. But suddenly my husband found himself without a job, we needed to redefine our lives, and here we are. Although I had my doubts after the first year of living here, when the dust began to settle, as to whether or not we made the right choice, it began to dawn on me about six months ago that we had. I don’t look upon it as a particularly enlightened decision. In many ways it seems more like fortunate happenstance. But one thing I know for sure: everything that happened from the time my husband’s job was eliminated until now was meant to happen. I look back now on the life we were living before that fateful day and realize we are so fortunate to be here in this wonderful place. As my husband and I always say at times of severe bliss, and with a little fist-bump, “Coup fourré!”

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Reason #2: Free movies!

Free classic movies at the beautiful Lyric Theatre in downtown Stuart, complete with cocktails and popcorn.... A perfect respite from the heat!

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Reason #1: Nesting Turtles

A couple of weeks ago we went on a guided sea turtle walk on the beach and it was fantastic. We saw a mamma loggerhead lay about 50 eggs, which is a small batch, but it could have been her last one of the season. The females can lay eggs 2-3 times per season. As soon as they lay one batch, they go back out to sea and start working on the next batch. They only mate once a season, and while working on the first batch of eggs can store the sperm for the second and third batches. They don't eat the entire egg-laying season, not until the last batch is in the sand. It amazes me what some females of other species have to go through. I guess it's instinct, and they don't know any different, but I just keep thinking about the multiple servings of chocolate cake I'd have when I was eating for two.
We got to the Florida Oceanographic Society’s Coastal Center on Hutchinson Island in Stuart at 9:00pm. Michelle, an educator at Florida Oceanographic, is a certified marine turtle nesting guide. (People are only allowed to watch loggerheads nest in the presence of a certified guide.) She gave us an interesting talk on sea turtles while her scouts (four of them) were out on the beaches watching for turtles coming out of the water. At 10:15 she got the radio call that there was a loggerhead digging a nest on the beach. The leatherbacks are still nesting too, but we're not allowed to watch them because they're endangered. The loggerheads are only "threatened," so we can watch them in the presence of a guide. The green turtles will nest starting in a month or so, and they are endangered too, so, guide or no, we can’t watch them either. 90% of the loggerheads in the U.S. nest on Florida’s beaches. Cool!
We all jumped into our cars and drove up the island about a mile and parked at a public beach. Then, very carefully and escorted by scouts equipped with night-vision binoculars and red filters on their flashlights so as not to disturb the turtles, we walked a little north of the boardwalk to where the turtle was spotted. Her nest was already dug and she was already in labor when we got there. She was in “the zone", as they say, so she wasn’t really aware of us being there as long as we weren’t too loud and didn’t flash any lights in her eyes. One of the scouts, Leslie, had propped up a flashlight in the sand behind her so we could see what was happening. Ellie, as we chose to call the turtle, dropped a couple of eggs in the hole right after we got there, and then nothing happened for about an hour. Sometimes they actually fall asleep in the process, but Leslie said she was awake; she was just having a little difficulty. Leslie said Ellie’s eggs were larger than most. 
Leslie, a volunteer at Florida Oceanographic, was so knowledgeable. She talked for the full hour that Ellie was in labor, telling us so many fascinating things about turtles. It makes all the difference in the world to be witnessing the nesting with someone like that.
After an hour, the eggs started dropping at about two per minute.We expected the usual 80 to 150 eggs, but Ellie seemed satisfied with the (approximately) 50 that we counted. When she was done, she started carefully packing sand on top of the eggs with her hind flippers. They have to pack it just right so the eggs don't get crushed, but they're safe from predators. In between flipping sand onto the nest, she's packing it down with her abdomen. It is something to see. 
After about 15-20 minutes of this, she turned back toward the ocean and headed out to sea. I almost cried when she went back into the water. I had just witnessed this beautiful animal giving birth, so to speak, and I couldn’t help thinking what a hard life her hatchlings will have. The ocean and beach will be teeming with predators waiting to have a turtle hatchling meal in 45-60 days. Leslie says the sharks will be waiting offshore. (Remind me not to swim in the ocean in 45-60 days!) The few hatchlings that survive, out of every 1000-10,000 eggs that are laid, are fated to lead the same life as their mother - migrating in the sea grass beds of the Atlantic Ocean for twenty or so years, until they are mature enough to mate, and then the females returning to the beach where they hatched to make their own nests. 
Such an incredible experience. Just to see a wild sea turtle on the beach was exciting. She was beautiful - her carapace (shell) was about 2.5-3 feet long. Fortunately she had no visible scars from damage by boats or other hazards. Witnessing a loggerhead nesting is one of the unique advantages of living in Florida. When we lived here before, I never much cared for the natural wildlife, either flora or fauna - mostly out of ignorance. I guess I was too preoccupied with day-to-day life to notice what was around me. 
The habitat and climate may not be for everyone, but there are some amazing things that go on here. Florida is unique in the U.S. in many ways. It's a good thing it's attached because I can't imagine why the U.S. would have wanted it back in the early days. Not difficult to understand why it wasn't settled until the late 1800's. Understandably Americans chose to occupy the more desirable areas of the country before they mustered up the courage to tackle Florida. But those who have the fortitude to tolerate the mosquitos and humidity of summer have the advantage of such rare opportunities as this.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

In 2010 we found ourselves, not entirely by choice, retired and living in Florida. This is an account of our struggles to survive in a place in which I never envisioned us.
Okay, maybe “survive” is too strong a word, but for the first six months I felt like I was barely getting by. Everything had happened so quickly. I thought I wanted to move to Florida, and I was trying to be spontaneous for once in my life, so I jumped on the swiftly spinning merry-go-round before it slowed to a halt and everyone went home. Then one day I found myself sitting in the downstairs bedroom/office of my new home, working a job I hated, and I realized I didn’t want to be there. This is why I’m not spontaneous. I’m a little slower than most to realize what I’m getting myself into.
It was mid-summer, and the heat was oppressive. I had lived in Florida at two other times in my life and knew what I was getting into with the weather. There really should be another word for the season from June through September in Florida. Summer, a season that I relished in New England, was not an appropriate name for the abysmal soup pot outside our door. I told myself, before I moved here, that I could choose to stay indoors in summer, just as I chose to stay indoors in winter in New England. Well, my house in Connecticut had a dog door. The house in Florida, being built to hurricane standards of impenetrable concrete block, stucco, and shatter-proof glass, is not amenable to such conveniences, and we were required to walk the dogs daily - five times daily, on average. 
Our choice. We realized it when we found the house, but we also realized our dogs wouldn’t be with us much longer. One was terminally ill when we left Connecticut, and the other aging. If I thought the summer heat here unbearable, at least I wasn’t walking around the block in 95-degree heat and 95% humidity wearing a fur coat. Connecticut was rapidly becoming the place where I left behind my friends, my beautiful house and yard, and any memories of healthy and happy dogs. And Florida eventually became the place where I lost my dogs to liver disease and stroke. But as I discovered, as the silver lining of all those summer thunderheads began to expose itself, it is also the place where we found the most amazing, compassionate vet. It was inevitable that I would lose my dogs. I was so fortunate that it was at his gentle hand.
And so the tide began to turn. Stay tuned for more stories of happiness and light, as our hapless heroine comes to terms with her new life in the Sunshine State.