Not stopping to smell the orange blossoms

Achoo! Achoo! …ACHOO! Sniff, sniff!
My forehead wasn’t hot. My lungs weren’t full of gunk. Why on earth could I not breathe and my head felt like it was about to explode?
Those symptoms sounded familiar to me, but why? I thought, you know, they sound like what my sister and dad go through every spring as soon as things start blooming. Their eyes would become red-rimmed along with a shining bulb of a nose like Rudolph. You could tell where they had been by the amount of crumpled tissues left behind, and the sound of sneezing blasted throughout the house. I had always sat back and grinned to myself since I never experienced anything like it.
Allergies. For all of my life, it was a term meant to describe the worst nightmare of other people, people who dreaded spring and raised their fist in anger at blooming flowers and pollen wafting through the air. Meanwhile, I’d be pulling out my favorite dresses for the warm weather and frolicking through fields of daises, breathing in deep the reproductive responses of plants waking up after winter.
Then, I moved to Florida.
A few weeks ago, I went to bed with the feeling that something wasn’t going to be right with my body by the time I awoke from slumber. I told my boyfriend over the phone that something was off and I couldn’t breathe through my nose. Sure enough, when I got up the next morning, I had to check my reflection in the mirror because it felt like my head had expanded like what’s-her-name from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” who turns into a blueberry. My nose was a pointless appendage on my swollen face, my eyes itched like I’d rubbed pepper in them, and I couldn’t stop sneezing. Could it be allergies? I called out of work and spent the day asleep or reading in bed.
Why would I suddenly be allergic to pollen in the air? I asked my friend Lynn, who runs Lions, Tigers and Bears, Inc. wildlife sanctuary. Like Luke Wilson, Lynn usually has the answers to all of life’s problems.
“There must be something blooming here that doesn’t bloom in North Carolina,” I complained. “What’s blooming right now?”
“Oak trees,” Lynn said.
“No, we have those in North Carolina.”
She paused and looked at me. “Orange trees,” she said.
I could have smacked myself on the forehead. Of course! Orange trees!
North Carolina is too cold and damp for citrus. And in the foothills of the Appalachians were I lived for a few years, the climate is actually considered a temperate rain forest. Think of the non-stop downpour the Amazon rain forest in Brazil experiences but with some snow every now and again during the winter. It’s seriously a climate perfect for the Cullen family Lexcolumn033017.jpgbut not so much for oranges. Only in southwest North Carolina can you possibly work an orange grove, according to a newspaper based in Wilmington, N.C.
In Florida, the state flower is actually the orange blossom, and according to Chinese symbology, an orange represents luck and wealth. According to a florist’s website, the flower is a symbol of good fortune and is used often in wedding bouquets. Well, it’s not good fortune for my nose, and I’ll be sure to keep it far away from my bouquet when I walk down the aisle unless my future husband is attracted to a woman imitating one of Snow White’s seven dwarfs in a white dress.
I can’t believe allergies have finally caught up with me. After years of laughing at my family members’ pain, I now understand the horror of those terrible allergies. For me, the orange blossom has turned my luck for the worst.


Discovering more creepy crawlies

While pumping gas in Arcadia late one night, I noticed something brown and leggy hop underneath my car. Trying to figure out what it was, I began glancing around me with the feeling that tiny legs were crawling over my skin.
There were more scattered across the top of the gas pump. The guts of one were smeared underneath the heel of my stiletto. And, more flattened specimens were littered around the gas station’s parking lot.
It looked like a grasshopper, but there was something mutated about its body. I immediately went searching for answers, and the best place to go for answers in this town is Luke Wilson.
Wilson, our paper’s columnist and cartoonist, is a man with a wealth of fast facts, historical tales and do-it-yourself anecdotes that could fill a few encyclopedias. I asked him what I’d seen the other night, describing it as “a very bizarre form of grasshopper” and his answer, without any type of hesitation, was “the lubber grasshopper.”
There are two types of lubber grasshoppers in Florida, according to the website for Insect Identification, a place to find out what the heck that six-legged thing is on the wall “for the casual observer,” it says.
The horse lubber grasshopper is a large specimen that will create “a noxious frothy substance” and “drop to the ground and ‘hiss’ when disturbed” in order to deter predators.
The eastern lubber grasshopper causes economic destruction throughout Florida as it consumes citrus and vegetable crops, according to the Entomology (study of insects) and Nematology (study of nematode worms) Department at University of Florida/Institute Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Both of these grasshoppers are black when they reach maturity (and while currently looking at their photos, I am brushing at my skin because it feels like something is crawling over me). However, the eastern lubber grasshopper goes through a “light color phase” where it appears an orange-brown color. They can also change into a yellow-golden color. This boy is absolutely huge in grasshopper standards with tall pointy hind legs and a very crunchy-looking body. It looks about like what I remember seeing at the gas station. Ugly in appearance by my standards, this guy also has a nasty habit of destroying crops. It makes a huge impact here in Florida.

Eastern Lubber Grasshopper 0002

Eastern lubber grasshopper from Google Images

According to UF/IFAS, lubber grasshoppers “can completely strip foliage from plants. More commonly, however, they will eat irregular holes in vegetation and then move on to another leaf or plant.” And because Florida is typically always warm, we may have to battle several generations at a time because there was no cold weather to kill off the older breeding adults, according to Insect Identification.
I must say Florida has some bizarre insect life. From the horror of the Palmetto bugs, now I’m faced with something that can jump through the air and appears to be the stallion of the grasshopper family. And then, it does the hissing thing like its cousin. If I ever hear a grasshopper hiss at me, that’s the day I never step out of my house again. Amazon Prime Pantry, here I come.
I had finally come to terms with the Palmetto bug that I can kill one without screaming. Now, there’s this thing. Also, while working on this column, I saw photos of the Carolina locust, the spotted camel cricket, the northern mole cricket and the tawny mole cricket, whom all live in Florida with us. I cannot even begin to describe the horrors. I think I’m just going to stay indoors after dark for awhile until I can face my fears.


Photo from NC State University


Crackin’ into the origins of ‘cracker’

When I told friends I was moving to Florida, a few of them began lecturing me on the meaning of “cracker.”
Wait, what?
Where I’m from, to call someone a “cracker” would be derogatory and cringe-worthy for several reasons or interpretations. According to an article from NPR, the slur was used in the 18th century to refer to “poor whites” then changed to refer to a white person who was “of lower caste or criminal disposition.” According to an article by CNN, the term also recognized a working class who drove livestock with whips and did not own their own land. It also meant white people who owned slaves. It can also mean “bigot.”
However, in Florida, it is a term that is reserved for people who herded cattle with cow whips that were made for the loud cracking noise.
I’m glad someone warned me. During my first assignment for The Arcadian former Sheriff Will Wise’s wife, Kay, came up to me, introduced herself and proudly told me she was a cracker. If I hadn’t been prepared, I probably would have keeled over.
While those in the West may be cowboys, Floridians are crackers, working the cattle industry longer than any state in the country. Florida Backroads Travel states what makes a cracker: “He or she is from a family that was here long before the huge population explosions in Florida after World War II. He or she is almost always Caucasian. They and their ancestors lived in Florida . . . usually have a rural upbringing, either on a farm or in a small town with plenty of woods and water for hunting and fishing and land planting. That’s because a Florida cracker is self sufficient.” Based on that definition, Arcadia seems like the heart of where to find legitimate Florida crackers.
Florida Backroads Travel added that crackers even have their own lingo. You might be a cracker if you know what the following words mean: corn pone, chitlins, Croker Sack, litard knot floater, perloo and Pineywoods Rooter.


Photo by Priscilla McDaniel

The terminology is also used for businesses, associations and to define objects. For instance, the Florida Cracker Cafe operates in St. Augustine, Florida Cracker Airboat Rides and Guide Service is located in Vero Beach, and Florida Cracker Ranch allows visitors to camp in historic-looking cabins in Bunnell. The “Florida Cracker” is a breed of cattle, recognized as a breed since the 1500s, according to The Livestock Conservancy. There’s also a breed of horse by the same name, which was designated as Florida’s official heritage horse in 2008. The Florida Cracker Trail Association works hard to preserve “the Old Florida Cracker Pioneer ways of agriculture, animal husbandry and the respect for the land,” according to their website. And, I live in a “cracker house” in the heart of Arcadia.
I had no idea I was moving into a home with such history, and even a name, but I must say I love the style. According to Old House Web, cracker farmhouses were popular from 1840 to 1920 but are starting to make a comeback, known as “Cracker Chic.” A cracker house must have: Native materials, simple symmetrical shape, a crawl space beneath the home, a steep roof because of the rain and a deep-shade porch. There are actually a few types of cracker homes — a single pen, which had one room and one door; a double pen or “saddlebag,” which was two single pens put together with two front doors, and the Dog-Trot House, which had “two pens” with an outdoor breezeway between them as well as additional porches and large windows.
My house has been added onto some many times that I don’t believe it falls in any of the three categories. However, it does have one of the greatest porches I’ve ever encountered. My cats regularly sunbathe or chase anole lizards on the screened-in porch, which wraps around the front and side of the house. My cattle dog regularly runs back and forth across the wooden planks chasing people who dare peddle a bicycle down our street. And, I love sitting out there watching the thunderstorms roll in or catching up on the latest book I’ve got my nose in.
While I’m not a cracker, I do love the way they built their homes. And, I love how they fiercely they preserve their history and traditions. Mark your calendars for Saturday, March 18! I, for one, am going to be first in line to get a helping of some cracker history at Pioneer Day at DeSoto Veterans Memorial Park.

The sport of hurricane watching

“Hurricane Watch” should be more than a phrase used as a distress signal by meteorologists whenever a hurricane is threatening a region. It should be a sport.
Last week, Florida residents kept a close eye on Hurricane Matthew as it spun closer to the state, threatening to be the first hurricane to make landfall on the east coast for the first time in a decade.
As it continued to strengthen, gas prices skyrocketed, bread disappeared from grocery stores and Gov. Rick Scott started live tweeting his panic on how everyone who chose not to evacuate was going to die.
I watched Hurricane Matthew like a hawk. I kept a website browser open on my computer at all times just so I could check the “cone of unpredictability” of where it was planning to hit and when.
You see, I had a plane to catch on Friday. It would be my first time returning to North Carolina since moving down here at the end of May.
I was to be a groomsman, or a “groomslady,” in my best friend’s wedding, and of course, that’s the very weekend that the first hurricane since Andrew decided to strike Florida and cause statewide hysteria.


A photo of Hurricane Matthew courtesy of Pixabay

Facebook posts started emerging about bread disappearing even in DeSoto County, which received only a little rain and some gusty winds. Traffic was deadlocked on Highway 70 in front of Walmart as people ran to the store to stock up or get out of town.
My aunt, uncle and cousin evacuated from Melbourne to my house. They arrived late in the dark on Wednesday night in two cars with two cats, as much of their possessions as they could pack and a lot of baked goods (my aunt bakes when she’s stressed). All day Thursday and into the night, my aunt paced around my house, texting all her friends who decided to stay behind and ride out the storm. With tears streaming down her face, she told me that nothing would ever convince her to not evacuate again.
“That constant howling of the wind. You will never forget that. Nothing is worth listening to that all night long,” she said.
My uncle continually updated his phone and gave us a play-by-play of where meteorologists predicted Matthew to go next.
For the whole week, coworkers and other community members told me it was going to be impossible to fly out of Punta Gorda on Friday morning. The conversations felt like we were talking about some ultimate sporting event.
I kept reading Gov. Scott’s tweets of doom, looked at news articles coming from Haiti and tried my best to hope and wish Matthew away.
I also saw a ton of messages on Arcadia’s Facebook pages supporting neighbors, offering rooms to stay in at private homes because the hotels were full of evacuees, and people offering their services to put up shutters, help people pack and more.
When Friday arrived, I was a nervous wreck. I hate flying. And now, I was going to face flying in a hurricane. While the rest of Florida was preparing for the storm as shown on large screen TVs throughout the terminal, the airport in Punta Gorda was shockingly calm.
I sat in front of my gate for two hours waiting for them to delay or cancel the flight. No such thing. My fellow passengers and I boarded the plane right on time.
“It’s going to be a bit bumpy, but we’re scheduled to land early,” the pilot announced quite cheerfully.
Could it be? Could I text my friends and boyfriend without a doubt I’d be arriving on time in North Carolina?
Sure enough, the plane rocketed down the runway and into the air without a hitch.
“Congratulations,” the pilot announced as we reached cruising altitude. “You are all officially storm chasers. If you look out the window, you’ll see the outer band of Matthew.”
I peeked out the window, and sure enough, below I could see the swirling blue bands of Matthew slowly moving over Florida. It doesn’t get more Floridian than that. All I needed was an alligator and Mickey Mouse sitting in the seats next to me.

ARCADIAN PHOTO BY LEX MENZThe view of Hurricane Matthew out the plane window

The view of Hurricane Matthew out the plane window

Hurricanes are very serious and dangerous matters. I’m not trying to make light of that. Twenty-two people in the U.S. were killed by Matthew.
St. Augustine and other coastal cities of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina suffered devastating loss and destruction.
There are some things that could have been done differently by our state’s leader during Matthew, and there is a lot to learn about the unpredictability of these storms.
Hurricane Matthew’s eye stayed out to sea as it passed Melbourne, which is unlike what meteorologists originally predicted. My aunt and uncle’s house never lost power throughout the storm. They did the right thing by evacuating, but it was an overwhelming relief to be wrong rather than to be right and lose everything.
DeSoto County, too, saw a bit of a panic that was unwarranted as Hurricane Matthew stayed on the Atlantic side, but the memories of Hurricane Charley are still too raw for residents here who lost so much and are still trying to recover.
Hurricane Matthew taught me an invaluable lesson about being prepared, staying calm through the storm, valuing family and keeping positive in the face of unpredictability.
If we face another hurricane this season or in years to come, I hope to see the unwavering support, love and friendship in DeSoto County that I saw from neighbors and community members last week.

The power of committed citizens

During my three-year career in journalism, I believe I’ve attended more government meetings than many local government officials … I’d even add than a few entire councils combined.
In North Carolina, I covered four city councils, two boards of county commissioners and one school board for nearly two-and-a-half years. Every Monday, Tuesday and sometimes even Thursday for three weeks out of each month, I went to meetings with my press badge and my little reporter’s notebook. I listened to budgets, topics like how many pigs should a resident be allowed to own in the city limits, banning dogs from parks, grant applications, building a veterans’ monument, developing a new town seal and so much more. I saw great accomplishments happen, massive verbal fights break out between council members, and residents and town officials crying. I even watched a resident tell the town attorney that no matter what the law was “that’s not how we do things” in that town.
But, while I was there documenting it all because it was my job, hundreds of residents missed out.


Dressed up in newspaper!

Since arriving in Arcadia, I have attended several DeSoto County School Board and Arcadia City Council meetings, as well as two DeSoto Board of County Commissioner meetings. And, there is a stark difference between those meetings and the ones I went to in North Carolina.
Yes, DeSoto residents regularly come out to their government meetings. Once upon a time, I was the only person sitting in the audience as government officials debated and decided the fates of issues directly affecting residents. Now, I’m surrounded by community members who don’t mind taking the time to listen in on their elected officials’ thoughts, discussions, accomplishments and hardships.
Now, I wasn’t always alone at those meetings. There were two or three regulars for a few towns. At the school board meetings I attended, there would be well over 30 or 40 people in the room at the start of the meeting. The school board members would hand out a variety of awards and recognize student artists who contributed to the art gallery in the school district’s administration building.
Immediately afterwards, however, a mass exodus of people flew out the doors right as the business part of the meeting began. Usually, if I walked into a council chamber where many people were present, it meant that a group of residents had a complaint. Then the council members would spend 15 to 20 minutes going over an issue they had already discussed and decided on a few months ago, but no one had been at the meeting to tell the council members their opinions.


The Arcadian’s political Q&A forum for the primary election

It is refreshing and exciting to see DeSoto County residents so engaged in their local government. Many residents I see at the meetings do not speak during public comment, making me assume that they are there just to listen and stay informed, not because they have complaints. In fact, quite a few residents use the public comment times to talk about something happening in the community and make an announcement. Only a few times have I heard complaints.
And, I’m not saying complaints are terrible. Complaints are great as long as they are presented in a level-headed manner in order to show opposition and another side of the story. But, what I love about DeSoto County is that the engagement is mostly positive and encouraging.
I also see a lot of sharing of news stories and tidbits from the meetings on Facebook accounts. Not only is that individual informed, but by sharing information through social media, he or she is encouraging neighbors and friends to be educated as well.
Your civic engagement in local politics makes your elected officials better politicians. They are better informed of what’s happening in the community, they are more aware of your concerns and they appreciate your support and dedication.
I’m delighted to no longer be the only member of the audience. As one who remains unbiased for my job, my presence acts as a “watch dog” but not as a someone who can present opinions, criticism and praise. So, it’s nice to be joined in the ranks of usually not-quite comfortable chairs, listening to the hushed whispers of residents as decisions are made. DeSoto County is a stronger community because of its active involvement and commitment to civic engagement.


Florida can be a shock

It’s not just moving that’s an adjustment for North Carolinians when arriving in Florida. It’s simply visiting, too.

My friend Chris recently took a vacation to Miami for a week to celebrate his graduation with his bachelor’s degree and being promoted to sergeant at the police department in Lenoir. He and I met about a year ago through my work at the News-Topic since he was the school resource officer at one of the high schools. As I was the education reporter, we ran into each other often and started a friendship. When Chris said he was in Miami, I badly wanted to see a friendly face and asked him to meet me halfway for dinner.

We decided to meet in a tiny town south of Lake Okeechobee at a diner. For both of us, the trip should have taken an hour and a half to get there. Chris’s route involved tolls so I texted him, “Make sure you bring quarters.”

“Quarters?” he said.

“You’ll hit a few tolls. They’re usually 65 cents to $1,” I replied.

“Ohh gotcha! Thanks for the reminder!”

That evening, I left my house and headed for the diner. Chris left at the same time. However, he was immediately caught in horrendous Miami traffic. He texted me that he’d be half an hour late. I told him not to worry; I always bring a book with me because I’m usually an early bird. As I continued at 65 mph down nearly empty highways, Chris was still stuck in stop-and-go traffic. Half an hour turned into 45 minutes, which turned into over an hour.

As I was approaching the town where we’d meet, Chris told me he was still stuck in Miami. I pulled over at a gas station and texted him that I was going to give him a new place to meet closer to him. However, there’s not many towns in the middle of the state, so we met at a steakhouse that was only 15 minutes closer to where he was. It was odd little town, and the steakhouse was out of nearly everything on the menu, including most of their steak cuts. I ended up sitting in the parking lot talking to my boyfriend on the phone then reading for an hour before Chris and his cousin showed up.

Poor Chris was so frustrated from the drive that he stopped at a gas station to get some headache relief medicine before coming to the steakhouse. He said that not only was the traffic bad but that he also got caught in one of Florida’s infamous thunderstorms and stuck at the toll booth.

“It said it took exact change, and all I had were dollar bills,” he said, explaining that there were people honking at him as he tried to figure out how to pay.

“I told you to bring quarters,” I answered, laughing.

“Wait, you literally meant quarters?” he asked.

Chris was also sporting a large straw hat, a very Floridian wardrobe choice, and a red, blistering nose from having too much fun in the sun without any sunscreen.

Despite the great hurdles we faced to get together, seeing each other was worth it. Chris is one of those people who will move the earth if it means the happiness of his friends and family, and I was beyond excited to see an old friend! I cannot thank him enough for braving the traffic, toll roads and thunderstorms to meet me.

Most of the people I’ve met in Arcadia have been sweet, welcoming and enjoyable to be around. It’s been two months, and I’ve made a small group of friends. In fact, I’m hosting Game Night this week! However, there’s something comforting and refreshing about sitting down with someone you’ve known for over a year and picking up right where you left off. Honestly, I’m just terrible at small talk!

A dog out of water

My dog, Bindi, is attracted to water like a fish.

She will dive into water and lay on her stomach with her legs stretched out in front and behind her. There is just glee on her furry face. In fact, she’s usually so excited that she’ll snort water up her nose or swallow it the wrong way and end up coughing for five minutes. She’ll run after sticks and splash all around.

However, she has certain demands about that water before she will jump in and go swimming. First, it cannot be above her head. Second, there must be no waves. Third, baths are not the same thing as swimming in water and must be avoided at all costs.

In North Carolina mountains, nearly every hiking trail curves alongside some type of body of water. There are shimmy lakes, swift streams, muddy creeks and mosquito-laden ponds. Bindi jumped in all of them.


Swimming in Cullowhee, N.C.

However, when we moved to Florida, Bindi quickly realized I wasn’t allowing her to play in the water anymore. At 55 pounds, she is the perfect size to be eaten by an alligator. She’s probably big enough to give a it a good fight, but I think ultimately, she will meet a heartbreaking ending.

I tried to introduce her to swimming in the ocean. Well, the ocean breaks criteria number two, so once a wave slapped in the face, Bindi wasn’t interested in the ocean anymore.

So, I bought a plastic kiddie pool from Walmart. It was $8, a perfectly priced investment in my dog’s happiness. Seriously, some of her chew bones cost more than that. An $8 kiddie pool wasn’t going to break the bank. I dragged the kiddie pool from the car to the backyard, filled it up and brought Bindi outside. She absolutely refused to get in the pool. So, I stepped in. She walked into the pool and right out of it again. I pleaded and begged her to get in the pool, but to her, it looked too much like a bath tub. Eventually, she learned that “Bindi, get in the pool,” meant to hop in, which she would, but only for a minute or two before jumping back out. It turned into a required trick to perform, not a fun activity. She wouldn’t wag her tail. She just looked nervous. Well, so much for that idea.

So, Bindi has had to go without swimming for quite some time. Then, recently, we drove to the Port Charlotte area to visit Petsmart and take a walk at Bayshore Park. It is a beautiful spot right on Charlotte Harbor where you can get some great exercise and watch wading birds look for food in the shallows. There are also beautifully painted benches and several cool statues, like the two manatees in the playground area.


Meeting manatees in the playground

When we arrived at Petsmart, Bindi and I hung out in the car for 20 minutes while a thunderstorm rocked us in the parking lot. Eventually, the rain tapered off just enough that we could sprint to the doors without getting too soaked. When we left the store, the rain had moved on. However, the evidence of the heavy storm was everywhere.

Florida has puddles like out-of-towners wouldn’t believe. I mean, there are whole areas of parking lots that become submerged underwater after a good storm. Streets turn into canals. My own front yard will disappear in a few minutes and water will lap at my front steps if the rain is heavy and lasts long enough.


In the Petsmart parking lot

When we arrived at Bayshore Park, it, too, was showing evidence of the heavy rainfall. While the sidewalks around the edges of the park were clear, there were deep puddles drowning the grass all throughout the park. It might as well have been one big lake.

The nice thing about the puddles is that I could clearly see there were no alligators or predators hiding there. Bindi noticed, too. She immediately started dragging me toward the puddles. It was almost like a toddler that had seen a desired toy on the other side of the store. When Bindi starts pulling, it takes all of my strength to stop her, and even then, my shoes are still skidding across the pavement.

I didn’t have a towel in the car, but when I looked at her eager face all excited about possibly getting to swim, I sighed.

“You know what? Go for it,” I told her and released the tension in the leash.

Bindi flew into the nearest puddle, nearly dragging me in with her. She laid down in the cool water and began lapping at it with her tongue while stretching out her back feet behind her. You could see the happiness radiating from this dog just because she got to go swimming. She paddled around, shook herself off, dove back into the puddle all with a huge smile on her face and wagging her tail with glee. Whoever said dogs don’t have personalities has never seen a dog participating in its favorite activity.

I believe that my pet’s safety is far more important than her getting to swim in every body of water we encounter. So, if Bindi wants to keep swimming safely, we’ll keep going to parks and finding giant puddles. Since it rains every afternoon, it seems we won’t have a problem. Now as for her love of sledding on her back in the snow … well, I think the only solution will be to visit North Carolina in winter once in awhile.


Bindi in full happiness mode while paddling in a puddle at Bayshore Live Oak Park.