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Friday, August 27, 2010

Blessings

I was sitting on the patio one recent late summer evening, watching the sun set over the Sandia Mountains. The day had been beautiful, considerably cooler than usual. The air was still, with just a hint of autumn. A few pink-tinged clouds streaked across the sky. I could hear neighborhood dogs barking, an unknown bird squawked in the tree, and insects buzzed. The world seemed at peace. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, I felt very blessed. Like most people, I don't give much thought to the many blessings in my life. Instead, I tend to put most of my energy into dealing with problems, challenges and difficult situations.

That evening, as I sat alone on the patio, I realized that I am blessed in so many areas of my life. Although it took a while and I didn't get the price I wanted, I nevertheless sold my house in California, despite the terrible housing market. The buyer paid cash and wanted a very quick close, which made the process easier than usual. And best of all, I sold the house before the anticipated dip in the economy.

I have no debt other than routine monthly bills. I have a pension (a blessing in itself) and investments that should provide income for a comfortable retirement. I live in a beautiful house with wonderful architectural features inside and out. From most rooms in the house, and the back yard, I have awesome views of the Sandias. I live on a 1/2-acre lot, which provides both privacy and quiet.

I live in a state that offers so many outdoor, photographic, historic and cultural opportunities it's hard to know where to start. It has the bluest sky I have ever seen. There are no significant weather or environmental risks here -- earthquakes are extremely rare, and there are no hurricanes or tornadoes, just the occasional flooding or snowstorm.

I am in excellent health; my hip and shoulder joints hurt frequently, but otherwise I am in great health. I have medical insurance, which so many do not. My daughter is happy and doing well after a couple of extremely challenging years. I also share my life with two happy, healthy rescue dogs. I was able to retire from my government job at a good point in my career and with a buyout to send me on my way, so now my time is my own. I can drive to Santa Fe or go for a bike ride and explore rural roads whenever I want to.

I have benefited from a good college education and I had two successful careers, one as the communications director for a large humane society, the second as a senior public affairs official/manager for NASA. Both contributed greatly to my success in life.

I am blessed with smaller things, too. I have walked all the streets in my small subdivision, and I have noticed that my house is one of only a couple that have fully landscaped yards. Many have yards that are nothing but dust, dirt, boulders and sagebrush. My front courtyard and back yard are beautifully landscaped. My house is situated on the lot so it provides perfect views of the mountains and maximum privacy. It has lots of windows and skylights to let in the gorgeous New Mexico light.

I love animals, and we are visited frequently by roadrunners, quail and rabbits, and I have seen coyotes on nearby roads. My daughter, who shares my love of dogs, volunteers at a local animal shelter. Although I have not yet met most of my neighbors (it has been too hot to spend time outside), people are generally friendly, and often wave when they see me walking.

There are a few things I miss about living in California (mostly my wonderful orange and peach trees and the moderate climate), but I am blessed to be living where I now live. My life is comfortable, and I believe I am where I am meant to be.

It's good to spend a bit of time thinking about one's blessings. The past two years were extremely stressful, both physically and emotionally, but again, I was blessed to have come through them a stronger, better person than I was.

I know a therapist who frequently talks of being 'mindful' of our emotions and attitudes. I am happy to be 'mindful' of the many blessings in my life.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Lost and Found

I've been feeling a bit adrift lately, and I realized that I have lost myself. This is somewhat surprising, since I feel very much at home in my new house and in New Mexico. I love the high desert, the mountains, the brilliant blue sky, and the local culture with its blend of Native American, Anglo and Hispanic influences. I've been retired for just more than 2 months, so one would think that without the daily grind of work, I would find it easy to be myself. Not so.

Since my daughter has been home (she got home a couple of weeks before we moved after being away for a year), my life has been filled with moving, unpacking, ongoing, repeated phone calls to insurance companies and service providers, and driving. So much driving. On three consecutive days one recent week, I made four round trips to take my daughter to the animal shelter where she volunteers and to volleyball camp. That was in addition to trips to the grocery store, post office, mercantile and gas station. Even keeping this house clean seems to take more effort than in the past. Dust bunnies proliferate on the dark laminate floor in the living room, and keeping things picked up is a never-ending process.

So although my days are busy, they are far from fulfilling. I've done a little bit of writing on my book, and I've written a couple of blog entries. I have taken a lot of photographs (this area is a photographer's dream), but what do I do with them? I have some good pictures, but they're all just sitting on my hard drive. I tried selling some of my images via a Web site, but after paying for the site, I sold not a single image over the 12 months the site was active. So my creative outlets aren't exactly what I had hoped for. Both photography and writing are highly competitive fields, difficult to pursue professionally.

I find that I am happiest when I am either exploring a new place or walking or hiking outside. I also enjoy riding my bicycle early in the morning, before the heat gets oppressive. School started this week, so I will have more time to myself. My daughter takes the school bus to and from school, so once she leaves at 6:45 a.m., the day will be mine until she gets home around 3 p.m. I plan to do a couple of fun things every week: driving to Santa Fe for the day, volunteering, hiking or whatever else appeals to me. I recently joined an on-line hiking community called All Trails, which I hope will provide me with information about local hiking trails, group hikes and other outdoor events in which I can participate. I'm also putting together a list of interesting places to visit within easy driving distance of home. Today I visited Coronado State Monument, which in reality is the ruins of an ancient pueblo near the Rio Grande River. I spent a couple of hours exploring and taking photographs.

So I'm finding that I really have to work at enjoying my retirement. As a newcomer to this state, I have to make an effort to get connected with others. And that is a challenge for me. It's so easy to just stay home, which I love to do. I have always loved being a homebody, and getting connected takes a lot of mental effort on my part.

It's also hard being a single mother. It's a huge responsibility, especially with a daughter who needs lots of attention. And with two dogs in the household, there are always things that need to be done: brushing, nail trimming, vet appointments. It's so easy to lose oneself in caring for the others in the family. Like so many other mothers, I put myself last. I take care of everybody else first. If there is time or energy left over, I do something for myself. But I am learning what many others have learned before me: I am worth the effort it takes to do something nice for myself. I deserve to have fun. I am not just "Julia's mom" or the person who drives her everywhere. I have qualities and talents to offer the world, too. And I deserve to be happy. So after feeling miserable and sorry for myself for 24 hours, I decided to do something positive. My first step was joining All Trails. The second, and harder part, will be actually going to a group hike.

I tend to do things in a methodical way, cautiously and incrementally. But I will get there eventually. I've been buying new clothes for the 'new me,' and I'm still thinking about where I want to put my volunteer efforts. Several things are possible: adult literacy, animal work, food bank, open space alliance.

The search for the real, retired me will be an on-going process of self-discovery marked by trial and error, progress and set-backs. It's always interesting to find out what life has in store for me, and what is just around the corner.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

When Will There Be Justice?

I need to rant. I am fed up with cruelty, neglect and exploitation of the innocent and weak among us. The victims are animals, children and the elderly. There have been so many stories lately about absolutely horrendous acts of cruelty against animals. In far too many cases, the guilty party gets a slap on the wrist, if that. Courts have traditionally not taken animal abuse seriously, although numerous studies have linked animal abuse to such things as serial murders. Much animal abuse is considered a simple misdemeanor. Prosecutors and courts, overwhelmed with other cases, often are reluctant to pursue charges and serious sentences. The feeling that "It's just a dog" or "It's just a cat, or horse or whatever other animal" is far too prevalent.

Animals are not the only victims of human stupidity and cruelty, of course. Child abuse is another plague that is tolerated far too much in our society. A 2-year-old girl died in Albuquerque a few weeks ago after her mother left her strapped into her car seat for nearly 3 hours. The mother had 'forgotten' that the child was in the car when she took her 4-year-old to an appointment. Outside temperatures were in the mid-90s. The temperature inside the van? 135 degrees.

A local man donned boxing gloves and punched his 2-year-old son at least 15 times in the head and torso, at one point hitting the child so hard he flew off the bed. The boy suffered brain damage and was put on life support until his organs could be donated. The father waited nearly an hour to call 9-1-1. His explanation? He was trying to teach his son how to box.

A 2-year-old child in Concord, CA, was mauled to death by three of the family's five dogs when the child wandered into the garage where three of the dogs were. Where were the family members responsible for watching the child? As a result of their carelessness (that's far too generous a word, in my opinion), the child died and all five dogs were put to death.

I believe it is time for the gloves to come off and for people to be absolutely outraged that in a supposedly 'advanced' country like the United States of America, such things are allowed to continue. Punishment needs to fit the crime. No more excuses about how the perpetrator had a 'hard' childhood, or didn't do well in school, or comes from a dysfunctional family, or grew up 'in the hood' or whatever other lame excuse is offered to excuse the abuser's behavior. It seems that the more advanced we become technologically, the more primitive our behavior becomes.

I know that jails and prisons are overcrowded. But we as a society need to start dealing with these thugs seriously. No more probation or 'time served.' No second chances. Abuse is not acceptable in any form, and those who abuse others need to be held accountable and punished appropriately.

I have a problem with people who are intentionally cruel to animals. People like the man who left his dog locked in a cage, with no food, water or shade, in 100-degree temperatures for three days. Imagine the suffering that poor dog endured. Or the group of three young people who viciously beat to death a baby llama, apparently for the 'fun' of it. Those people need to face harsh consequences.

I know that the number of dogs and cats being put to death in U.S. shelters and animal control facilities has dropped considerably since I left my humane society job in late 1988. More people seem aware of the importance of spaying and neutering. But sadly, the puppy mills that mass-produce dogs for sheer profit continue to thrive. People out to make a quick buck continue to produce 'designer dogs' such as golden doodles, puggles (pug/beagle mixes), labradoodles and other ridiculous combinations while millions of mixed-breed dogs are put to death every year because there are no homes for them. And people willingly pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for these mixed-breed 'designer' dogs while others die.

Don't get me wrong; I have nothing against mixed breed dogs. My Mila is a Lab/beagle mix, and I have shared my life with several wonderful mixed breed dogs. My heart dog, Jackson, was a Jack Russell terrier/cattle dog mix. But purposefully creating a new 'style' of dog simply for marketing purposes is just plain wrong. I am not an animal rights advocate. But there is so much more to be done to protect animals in this country.

I try to live a life of minimal impact on the earth. I recycle everything; I reuse and I give away things I can no longer use. I drive a hybrid car. I walk or ride my bike on short errands. I am a conscientious omnivore, trying to make informed choices about what I eat and drink. But I am tired of the animals with which we supposedly share this planet being treated as disposable goods. Far too many people treat animals as either disposable commodities or as nuisances to be exterminated.

People purchase or adopt a puppy. The puppy gets no training, and of course it grows up to be a big, ill-mannered, out-of-control dog. The dog gets dumped at the local animal shelter, if it's lucky, to become someone else's problem. A lovely German shepherd puppy named Emily was adopted from the shelter where my daughter volunteers. A couple of weeks later, Emily was returned. Why? The family didn't have time for her. Didn't they think of this before taking on the commitment of raising a puppy? Are they that stupid??

People allow their female dog to have a litter of puppies "because she's such a great dog and would be a wonderful mother." Sometimes the animals suffer because of human ignorance. Other times, animals suffer because of human stupidity.

Albuquerque news media has been full of stories of stupid people causing the death of innocent animals. Example: A couple and their little dog go camping in a national forest where camping is not allowed. They store food in their tent. And surprise, a bear wants the food and attacks them as they sleep. The people were injured but not seriously. The little dog was killed and eaten by the bear. And the bear? It was tracked and shot by rangers for being a threat to people. This is a true incident that happened in New Mexico a few weeks ago. More than 30 bears have been executed in New Mexico for being 'nuisances' to people just this year. We take over their habitat, destroy it or build houses in their territory, then we get upset if a bear dares to walk across our property or do what bears do -- search for food.

Example: The endangered Mexican gray wolf has been reintroduced into parts of New Mexico, in an attempt to reestablish packs of these magnificent animals in part of their former territory. Recently, three alpha males were found shot to death. The alpha male of another pack, which was wearing a radio collar, has been missing since April. In the most recent case, a dead cow, also shot, was found not far from the wolf's body.

Wolves are the precursors of dogs. Millions of people in the United States share their lives with dogs. So how can these magnificent animals be so hated? Wolves are killed for 'sport' (something I will never understand) or because they are supreme predators and eat moose (a favorite object of hunters in Alaska) or occasionally cattle. So we should exterminate them? I just don't understand.

I feel so helpless when I read about yet another case of abuse, whether the victim is a child, an animal or an elderly person. What can I as an individual do to help? Fortunately, the courts seem to take abuse of another human being more seriously. But what of the 'lower' animals who are far too often the victims of human cruelty?

What justice is there for them? How long will those of us who care (and there are millions of us) sit by and wait for justice for those who cannot fend for themselves?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A Sad Life Lesson

I am learning a life lesson the hard way. Someone I knew through the Internet learned recently that one of her beloved golden retrievers, at age 11-1/2, has osteosarcoma, an aggressive cancer of the bone. Because weakness in his hind legs would make walking on three legs impossible, amputation of the affected front leg was ruled out.

Many members of an on-line golden retriever forum to which I belong, far too many of whom understand the pain of dealing with a dog with cancer, have written words of support. But the words of one person, who lost one of her dogs to cancer a couple of years ago despite amputation of the leg, really hit home for me. She wrote about how dogs live 'in the moment.' A dog doesn't know he has cancer or some other illness. He doesn't know that his days on Earth are limited. He doesn't worry about growing old or gray. He doesn't fear the future or worry about what might happen.

As any dog, he knows that he loves his family and his canine brother. He knows that he likes belly rubs, sleeping in the sun, rolling in the grass or playing with his toys. He likes going for walks and snuggling on the couch with his family. That is his world -- the here and now, the present. His mind is not consumed with fear or worry or 'what if' thoughts. While his human family worries about him and struggles with a variety of medical and treatment decisions, this beloved dog goes on with his life, reveling in the special attention he is receiving. His love is pure and given selflessly. His joy is real and uncomplicated. He lives each day as it comes, knowing that his humans will do what is best for him and take the best care possible. He has no fears, no worries. The 'now' is his world.

We humans can learn a lot from our 'simple' dogs. We can learn to appreciate the little things: a nap in the sun, a good stretch, cuddling with a loved one, a tasty meal, just being outside or spending time with those we love. I love the way my dogs greet each new morning, ready for a good meal, a trip outside, and a walk. I love the joyful welcome and exuberance of my dogs whenever I return home. It doesn't matter whether I have been gone for 20 minutes or for 2 hours or for 2 days. They are always so happy to see me. When my daughter and I returned home after a 3-day trip recently, our dogs greeted us with happy barks, squeals of delight and kisses.

Since I retired a couple of months ago, I have realized just how important it is for me to spend time outside. Even when the temperature soars in the high desert where I live, I still enjoy going for a walk outside. I leave my iPod at home, so I can focus on the world around me. I especially love hiking, and being surrounded by the beauty of nature. I have realized how much I love the smell of the earth after a rain. These simple pleasures are taking on greater importance the older I get. I find that I have little patience for things that waste my time, such as repeated phone calls to straighten out a 'customer service' issue.

We 'advanced' humans make things so complicated; we fill our lives with worry, much of it about things that will never come to pass or over which we have no control. We toil and struggle to 'get ahead' so we can buy expensive things. Our dogs are happy with a new ball or squeaky toy, or just spending time with us, sitting in front of the television or exploring outside.

I guess worry and pursuit of tangible things are part of what separates us from the other members of the animal kingdom. But it's something that we need to do a better job of dealing with. We need to enjoy our favorite people, things and places for the joy they bring us. Let's not waste our precious time worrying about the future and the 'what ifs' of the world. We need to embrace the present, to live the life we have while we can. Tomorrow will be here soon enough.