My friend Scott runs for Sandy Hook victims. Little kids having trouble with Christmas song. And an angel saves a woman in a fender-bender.

Blogger Michael Lewis writes about my husband’s fundraising effort for the Sandy Hook families. Thank you, Michael!

Wide World of Stuff

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I first met Scott Sterbens in December, 2005, when I started working at the Daytona Beach News-Journal newspaper. Scott was an assistant sports editor there, and over the next five years he became my best friend at the paper.

We bonded over our shared love and misery of the Jets (we watched the AFC championship game in 2011 at his house, with an unopened bottle of champagne in my car, just waiting to be opened in case of a Jets win. Of course, the champagne stayed sealed), we made all kinds of sarcastic remarks that only we found funny, and we endured the misery of layoff after layoff at the paper, while friends of ours saw their jobs and livelihoods stripped away.

Scott is a true and honest friend, and a really good husband and father, so when I heard what he was doing for the victims of Sandy Hook…

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Halloween 2010: Where Have You Gone, Norman Rockwell?

There was a time when Halloween was a holiday that occurred somewhere in a vast span of time that ticked slowly away between summer and Christmas (the two official seasons of the year). It was time to watch “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” yet again, devise a homemade costume or don a store-bought princess costume with a mask that completely, unsafely covered my face, and go with friends, unescorted by parents, door to door for as long as we could physically endure the weight of our candy-filled orange plastic jack-o-lanterns.

Sure, he's cute now. But in a few days he'll be a stinking, moldy fruit fly factory. This year we learned that in Florida, it's best to carve at the last minute.

In those days, it was perfectly normal and acceptable for people to send their children out to wander around in the dark, blinded by masks, with no adult supervision, until every last neighbor’s porch light went out. My generation was already past Norman Rockwell times, when we might have expected homemade cookies, popcorn balls and apples. We had to go through all of our candy at the end of the night to make sure everything was professionally packaged and wrapped up tight. This was, of course, not the primary mission of sorting, as far as I was concerned. The real purpose was to weed out all those sticky, cheap orange- and black-wrapped peanut butter taffy candies and to find things that might tempt my brother to trade for chocolate bars or caramels.

These days, as a mom, Halloween comes immediately after a 10-minute summer and signals the official beginning of a high-speed downhill roller-coaster ride through the holidays.  One day you get an e-mail wanting snacks for the class Halloween party and the next thing you know you’re trying to find the aspirin on New Year’s Day. Time goes by a lot quicker when you’re in charge of creating the holiday experiences instead of having them just happen for you.

My son’s Halloween memories won’t resemble a Norman Rockwell painting, either, but we’re doing what we can. Instead of cutting holes in a sheet, we went to Target and bought a Wolverine costume. These costumes are actually not a bad investment because he keeps them for years and wears them on random occasions, mixing and matching according to his bad-guy-battling needs that day. His cost-per-wear ratio is much better in the superhero section of his wardrobe than others, especially formal wear.

Wolverine is the latest addition to my son's superhero wardrobe. We should all have a suit that gives us instant six-pack abs.

This year, for the first time, somebody in our family decided we would have a real jack-o-lantern on the porch in addition to the electric ones. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t me. Pumpkins are messy and stinky, and you have to pull all the seeds out and roast them. But pumpkin-carving is a Norman Rockwell Halloween kind of thing to do. Fortunately, the pumpkin surgery was conducted by Trevor’s dad and grandparents while I was out of town. I participated via text message, which is much less messy. They left the seeds for me to roast when I got home.

Pumpkin seeds are a healthy snack, high in LDL cholesterol-lowering plant sterols, so I was on board with roasting them and hoped my son would like them, though this would have been totally out of character. True to form, he made a face when he tried one, but my husband and I enjoyed them.

Meanwhile, note to self: In Florida, wait until just before Halloween to carve a pumpkin. Trevor’s little jack-o-lantern may have been authentic and cute, but it quickly turned into a rotting, moldy fruit fly factory on our front porch.

Devil's food mini-cupcakes were topped with white buttercream before being decorated with piped-on buttercream spiders and jack-o-lanterns, then being devoured or destroyed by first-graders.

We’ll probably continue my childhood tradition of watching “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” at least once, though as an adult it is much more obvious to me that they were desperately trying to fill airtime with that whole Snoopy-in-World-War-II part.

A tradition in its early stages is Trevor’s mom getting a little obsessive and overboard in creating Halloween mini-cupcakes for his class party. When baking for Trevor’s kindergarten party I ran out of time and ended up sticking black spider rings on half of the orange-frosted cupcakes. I was worried that they’d be too scary for the kids, but the spiders were a hit. This year, after taking cake decorating classes, I decided on devil’s food (of course) mini cupcakes with piped buttercream spiders and jack-o-lanterns. I spent a good part of two afternoons baking and decorating two dozen cupcakes, piping tiny black webs for the black widow spiders, which had yellow sprinkle eyes and tiny piped-on red hourglass shapes on their abdomens. (I think those were supposed to be on the bottom side of the spider, but I thought they needed a little color.) Then I piped a dozen little jack-o-lanterns sitting on green grass, with black fondant eyes, tiny piped grins and little green stems and leaves.

The thing about cake decorating is that, even with adults, there comes the moment when the knife hits the cake and your precious creation is destroyed. That’s what cake is for, and I have learned to let go. However, first-graders will bring any cake decorator down to a new level of humility. I saw one of my adorable spider cupcakes tossed heartlessly into the trash without having been tasted. Another ended up on the floor, smashed to oblivion by tiny sneakers. A smarter woman would smear canned frosting and dump sprinkles on the cupcakes and call it a day. But you’ll probably find me bent over dozens of cupcakes again this time next year, creating even more elaborate Halloween themes that are designed to wow the second grade but will probably be apathetically devoured, destroyed or tossed into the trash. I console myself with the thought that sugar in the trash is sugar that’s not in the children.

There’s certainly no shortage of sugar this time of year. My son has been to a trunk-or-treat, a city-sponsored event, his school party and a church party, all of which supplied candy — and that’s before he’s even been trick-or-treating. I would love it if he came home from trick-or-treating with his plastic Spider-Man head filled with nuts, seeds and fruit, but that’s not realistic. I would even be happy if he’d come home with popcorn balls, caramel apples and homemade cookies, but those days are long gone. Instead, we choose corporately packaged sugar and chemicals we know instead of possibly poisoned homemade treats. Where have you gone, Norman Rockwell?

Oh, well. Norman Rockwell or not, Halloween happens. Hopefully, years from now, my son will remember running around our church parish hall, sword-fighting with his costumed friends and plotting and planning a costume that will win the contest next year. Hopefully he’ll remember running from house to house with his friends (forgetting the grown-up security escort), greedily seeking treats from the neighbors. Hopefully he’ll remember helping his dad string orange lights and spider webs in the front yard and carving a jack-o-lantern with his grandma and grandpa. Hopefully I can keep a lid on my nutrition and safety worries long enough to let that happen. We can get back to that on Monday.

Attack of the Car-Eating Squirrel

It’s one of the most dreaded phrases in the English language: “Check engine.”  However, I didn’t know I’d been struck by “Check engine” as I pulled out of my driveway on my way to pick up my son from school recently. When the car stalled in front of my house, a little red light I’d never seen before appeared in the dashboard display. I pondered the possibilities of what the image represented. It looked a little like a helicopter. Or a turkey, maybe.   

Clearly I was in no position to diagnose the problem, so the only option was to restart the car and try to get across town to pick up my son, whose school is a few blocks from my preferred auto repair shop. During the 20-minute drive my car stalled at two stop signs and what felt like 840 stoplights. By the time I reached my son’s school I was so stressed out I drove past it, straight to the repair shop. My little boy was finally going to get his wish to go to aftercare with his friends.   

The mechanics opened the hood to find the first clue: an armload of pine needles arranged together on top of the engine in front of the driver’s side. Eventually they determined the engine problem: Something was eating wires. Did we live in the country? No. Did the car sit for long periods? No. Well, they said, there was a mouse nesting in my car.   

Hmm. I’d never seen evidence of mice around our home, I thought. But, in a panic about the possibilities of further damage, I immediately purchased enough anti-mouse ammunition to wage World War III under my car. Then I bought a bottle of rum. I went home, made a pina colada and then set up a battlefield on the driveway.   

Having never been in command of a residential mouse counterattack, I was surprised to see the modern options. Someone did build a better mousetrap. Instead of a little block of wood with mouse-smashing metal attached, the new versions trapped the mouse inside, much like the insect traps where “roaches get in, but they don’t get out.” A little button indicates when you’ve caught a mouse. Still killing, but at least you don’t have to see the gore.   

By the end of the week I was ready for gore. Three times a day I pulled bunches of pine needles out of my engine while the mousetraps went untouched. I began to suspect it wasn’t a mouse after all. My suspicion was confirmed when my husband spotted a small gray squirrel in the front yard gathering pine needles. With a mouthful of nesting material, it hopped across the yard to the driveway, headed straight for my car. No wonder the mousetraps sat empty.   

Sure they're cute. But despite its fluffy tail, the gray squirrel is a rodent, which means "gnawing animal." And that gnawing can include wires under your car hood or in your home. Photo by Tim Seed.

This was a bigger problem. They didn’t sell squirrel traps at Publix.   

My first instinct was to sprinkle cayenne pepper around the car. I learned from my attempt at organic gardening that squirrels are supposed to hate cayenne pepper. I never saw actual evidence of this since I’ve never been able to grow enough of anything to attract squirrels, but at this point it was all I had. I then checked around online, where I learned that this was apparently common in areas where squirrels were overpopulated, and that there was apparently not much I could do about it. I read post after discouraging post about how much damage the animals can do to a car. A few people suggested putting cayenne all over the engine, so I did that. The squirrel built right on top of it. I parked the car in a different spot. He found it. Three times a day I opened my hood and pulled out a new nest.   

I lost any affection I had for squirrels years ago when one of them tried to eat our patio table. This one was pushing me toward a full-on, squirrel-hating, “Caddyshack“-style Varmint Cong mission of destruction. I went to the home improvement store to see what they had in the way of squirrel poison. All I could find were rat baits that didn’t look like something a squirrel would eat. Ironically, they were on the shelf right next to a bag of corn and seeds with a picture of squirrels on it. People are actually feeding these animals? On purpose? The only thing I could find that addressed squirrels was a Havahart — Get it? “Have a heart?” — trap that would supposedly allow me to trap the animal and take it away. I was thinking maybe I would ship it to Australia. I took the trap home, followed the instructions, and then tested it. Despite many attempts and repeated reviewing of the instructions, I couldn’t get it to work. So I headed back to the store. This time, I tried the trap in the store. Same story. No one seemed willing to help me test the product, but they all insisted they’d never had a complaint about it. I decided this trap just wasn’t going to work. My only other option was to try the “Easy Set” version, which was a size up, meant for raccoons and possums. It was easy to set up and it worked. Unfortunately, this small squirrel was too light and even with the trigger mechanism weighted, he came in and out as he pleased, leaving behind only a scattering of empty sunflower seed shells.     

By this time, still pulling three nests a day out of my engine, laying awake at night wondering what he was chewing on, I began to get a little crazy. Spotting the squirrel from a bedroom window one day as I was getting dressed, I ran out into the front yard wearing only one of those robes that’s basically a towel and velcro and chased the squirrel to a tree, where I yelled obscenities and threw rocks at him until he hopped over the roof toward the backyard. I didn’t care what the neighbors thought. I wanted that tree rat dead, or at least very far away.     

So back to the home improvement store I went. I was going to see if they had any more of the small Havahart traps. They didn’t. I went to two more stores, but no traps. People kept suggesting getting a pellet gun. This was starting to appeal to me. I began to feel my Arkansas roots and could imagine myself sitting in the backyard on a rocking chair, smoking a corncob pipe as I picked off the varmints from the back fence with my pellet gun. However, in a last-ditch effort to save the world from the possibilities of an armed me, I picked up a couple of  rat traps — a big version of the old-school wooden mousetraps with the metal wire on top. The squirrel was small enough that a rat trap might work, I thought. If not, I was going to shoot him.     

Sure enough, a $1.95 rat trap was what finally did the trick. The squirrel set off the traps twice as he went for the peanut butter and sunflower seeds I’d used for bait. I reloaded and set the traps back under the car. The next morning, we found one of the traps on the other side of the driveway. No squirrel, but he’d apparently been snagged enough to drag the trap for 15 feet or so. I don’t know what happened to him after that. I’m sorry to say that I don’t care. The animal was destroying property and costing me money, and possibly soon my sanity.     

 I continued to check the engine every day for the next week to make sure he was gone. One day as my son and I were in his room, he suddenly ran to the window. (I’d managed to pass on my squirrel paranoia to my 6-year-old.) We watched together silently as a gray squirrel, slightly larger than the outlaw rodent, made its way down the same tree and into the yard. Then we sighed with relief as he hopped out into the street and over to a tree in the neighbor’s yard.     

“Well, Mom,” Trevor said, looking up at me, “I guess you don’t have to buy a gun.”     

“No, I guess I don’t.” At least for now.     

SeaWorld shark dive not so scary

 “Cage goes in the water, you go in the water. Shark’s in the water. Our shark. Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies…” — Quint, “Jaws”

Laurie Sterbens in the shark tank at SeaWorld Orlando

This photo was taken by a SeaWorld Orlando employee from inside the Sharks Grill Restaurant during my Sharks Deep Dive in 2006. In the cage behind the flashed-out reef sharks, I'm the headless black smudge wearing a white helmet on the left.

Commercials on Discovery Channel this week are putting a toothy spin on an old Christmas song by touting Shark Week as “the most wonderful time of the year.” I love Christmas, but I have to admit that I really do look forward to Shark Week all year long.

Coincidentally, it was a Christmas gift that led me to my closest encounter with sharks so far. My husband, Scott, presented me with a gift certificate for the Sharks Deep Dive at SeaWorld Orlando. With the wrong kind of husband, this kind of gift might send you through the house looking for new insurance policies, but Scott is a good guy who just accepts the fact that he has chosen to spend his life with a serious shark geek.

I’ve always loved sharks despite spending most of my life in landlocked Arkansas. Oddly, my career path in newspapers led me to Daytona Beach, Fla., area, which you may have heard described as Shark Bite Capital of the World. It has occurred to me on more than one occasion that this could be either a gift from God or a clear sign that I am hurtling toward some bloody underwater destiny.

Actually, this Shark Bite Capital of the World business is a lot of nonsense. As big a fan as I am of Shark Week, it’s a little irritating to see an area hyped as super-dangerous when the truth is a lot of “attacks” are because an inlet that is a nursery for baby sharks is also a popular surf spot. Juvenile sharks mistake surfers’ feet for fish, which sometimes results in a bite wound that might get a bandage but doesn’t keep the surfers out of the water for long.

There have been more serious attacks in the past, of course, but honestly, I see a lot of tourists doing things that increase their risk — swimming in the early morning or evening, getting in water full of baitfish, swimming out too far. Years ago, before I lived in Florida, I visited Fort Walton Beach with a friend and she remarked one day, “I don’t go out past the sandbar. That’s where the big fish swim.” That stuck in my mind as a sensible policy.

Shark Soup by Laurie Sterbens for the Daytona Beach News-Journal

I wrote about my shark dive experience for The Daytona Beach News-Journal in 2006. Illustration by Marianne Koch.

Anyway, like I said, I’ve never even seen a shark here. Thus the desire to get into the tank at SeaWorld, where their Sharks Deep Dive was my best chance for seeing sharks close-up without having a scuba certification.

Despite having never been in the water with live sharks, my many years of shark geekdom and Discovery Channel addiction had left me slightly jaded. Aquariums are always full of nurse sharks, which seem like big catfish. (Although I’ve been watching a lot of “River Monsters” and I’m not sure I’d be all that comfortable in the water with a 10-foot catfish, either.) Another aquarium favorite is the sand tiger, which has a mouthful of menacing-looking teeth but seems kind of slow and guppylike to me.

I checked the International Shark Attack file before my dive and learned that the sand tiger was credited with 76 attacks on humans, 30 unprovoked and two fatal, between 1580 and 2005 and that the nurse shark was credited with 47 attacks — 10 unprovoked and none fatal. However, it was noted that shark attack figures are skewed to easily identifiable species, meaning that lesser-known sharks could be going around biting people and letting sand tigers take the blame. So, guppies and catfish or toothy terrors? I’d soon find out.

When I arrived at the Shark Encounter, I was taken into a brief orientation where I learned that the Shark Encounter tank included more than 50 sharks (the website now says 30) of various species, including of course, nurse sharks and sand tigers, but also blacktip reef sharks, whitetip reef sharks, saw sharks and Australian leopard sharks. Blacktips!, I thought. Now we’re talking! They’re not “Jaws” but they at least had “Open Water” cred.

After the orientation I donned a wetsuit and boots and entered what looked like a kiddie pool, where I was put into a white helmet, kind of a cross between old-fashioned deep-sea diver and Storm Trooper. This would allow me to breathe underwater and communicate with the SeaWorld staff member operating the cage or the staff member going into the cage with me.

I jumped down into the cage and there I was, surrounded by sharks. The cage isn’t like the shark cages you see on TV; the viewing area is clear plastic so you can’t stick your arm out like I probably would have done. The cage is attached to a track across the rear of the tank and slowly moves from one end of the tank to the other and back.

On the floor of the tank in front of me, I could see a tunnel where Scott was waving at me and trying desperately to take a photo with both me and a shark in it while navigating the moving sidewalk and trying not to knock people over. This was so amusing I was momentarily distracted from the sharks and just watched Scott. Later I saw him standing behind the window of Sharks Underwater Grill restaurant, where he was allowed to take photos alongside the SeaWorld photographer. None of the photos turned out that great, as you can see from the one I’ve included in this post. That was the official photo that we purchased.

As the cage moved slowly across the 125-foot tank, a 10-foot sawfish swam up to and over the cage, and large nurse and sand tiger sharks swam near the cage as well. The blacktip reef sharks and blacktips stayed farther away but did venture closer a couple of times, while the whitetip reef sharks napped on the bottom of the tank.

Despite being surrounded by large carnivorous predators, I found watching the gracefully swimming fish while listening to the aquarium sounds to be relaxing. The effect on me was less thrilling wild animal encounter than spa treatment, but that’s a good thing, too.