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Cocooning with our Home & Garden issue.

For several years, trend spotters have been asserting that Americans are "cocooning"-retreating from a stressful world to the safety and comfort of their homes. Especially after 9-11, the media chorus goes, we're staying home in record numbers, enjoying amusements from home theaters to billiard tables-often installed, builders tell us, to induce our teen-agers to stay home, too. (It's a nice idea, but I have my doubts as to whether even surround sound and a pool cue can keep a restless 17-year-old hanging with mom and dad all weekend long.)

Like so many sweeping social generalizations, cocooning sounds plausible but is hard to prove. And if we are staying home more, is it because world events have turned our focus to family or because the demographic bulge of baby boomers has arrived at the age when sinking onto an overstuffed sofa in front of the plasma TV sounds way more enticing than dressing up for dinner and the club scene?

However much time we may be spending in them, there's no doubt that Gulfshore homes are bigger and better equipped than ever. Developers from all over the country come here to scout out-and marvel at-the way we're redefining luxury living, from the sheer size and splendor of our residences to their museum-quality finishes and detailing. Remember when a model home was a bland, three-bedroom ranch with eight-foot ceilings and a caged pool? Today's models are multimillion-dollar mansions that show off the work of armies of artisans and feature costly materials from around the globe.

If home design is any clue, there is one place we're spending more time: outdoors. Balmy outdoor living has always been part of Florida's allure, of course; and back in the '50s and '60s, the first thing many Northern newcomers did after they bought their little ranch house with a screened-in Florida room was to plant a few orange trees in the back yard. Now most new homes come with lavish pool areas with outdoor kitchens and lanais that look like living rooms, complete with upholstered furniture and Italian fireplaces; and landscapers are designing gardens full of gazebos, ponds and exotic plantings.

I discovered gardening a few years ago myself, after downsizing to a little waterfront cottage after my kids went off to college. I found a nursery that specialized in tropicals and planted so many trees that my son says our entire yard must now be suspended on nothing but roots. Maybe as a reaction to raising teen-agers, I decided I'd have no slackers-every plant had to fruit or flower. I found a landscaper who imposed some order on my vision, installing an irrigation system, layering flowerbeds below the trees, and corralling all my herbs and vegetables in pots along a pretty pathway in the side yard. Now, just three years later, we're reaping glorious harvests-papayas, Meyer lemons, avocados, star fruit, naval oranges, key limes, mangoes, grapefruit, bananas, pomelos and calamondins. The coconut palms we planted by the water are already twice as tall as I am, and to hear them rustle in the night breeze while a golden moon stalks across the bay is about as close as I've come to perfect bliss.

And, yes, I'm spending more time at home-much of it knee-deep in dirt with a trowel in my hand-but whether it's an escape from the world, I can't say. In Voltaire's Candide, the disenchanted hero renounces the world to "cultivate his garden." But it seems to me that a garden, even one as modest as mine, is less a retreat from the world than an admission to a universe teeming with drama and energy. From the worms that are mysteriously summoned by the first scent of ripening tomatoes to the key lime tree bent by Tropical Storm Gabrielle, my garden seethes with stories, as life in a thousand forms, seen and unseen, struggles against hunger and peril for its brief moment in the sun.

Whether or not we're gardeners, the stories that matter most in our lives usually play out in our own back yards. In this Home and Garden issue, we keep our focus close to home. Our "Design Yearbook" spotlights some of the best new work by Gulfshore design professionals; former New Yorker editor Hollis Alpert writes about how he astonished himself by happily making the transition from a hip Manhattan apartment to a sunny Southwest Florida gated community; and architect Andrea Clark Brown reminds us of the importance of our region's roots in her tour of "Classics of Gulfshore Architecture." There's more, so make yourself at home and discover the stories that speak to you. 

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