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Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: Saying Goodbye to An Average Year

It's the end of another year, and one that I won't be sorry to see in my rear view mirror.

2011 has not been a good year for me. I ruptured an ear drum early in the year, which left me nearly deaf for a couple of months (I have little hearing in one ear already). I was diagnosed with arthritis in my hands and I suspect it is in my elbows as well. Lingering pain from a fall more than two years ago has made my shoulder and both arms hurt. My daughter suffered through three bouts of tonsillitis and a strep throat to end the year. Other bad things happened to our family this year as well.

On a more positive note, I got to spend quite a bit of time with the wolves and wolf-dogs in the rescue for which I volunteer. I went on some interesting photographic excursions with a local amateur photography group. I visited the Grand Canyon with my daughter, and revisited Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks in Utah. I started volunteering with a local food pantry, and I made considerable progress on my book. I also took care of several home improvement chores, some necessary, some optional. And we started planning a trip for the summer of 2012 to Russia, where my daughter was born, with a stop in London while we're in the neighborhood, so to speak.

My daughter has just four classes to complete before she graduates from high school. I am continually amazed at how mature and grown up she is now that she is 18. She has changed so much since I adopted her 7 years ago.

I have just a couple of things I want to accomplish in 2012:
  • Finish my book and get it published
  • Brush up on my Russian language skills before our trip
I have to decide whether to renew my photography Web site next year; I've sold only a handful of pictures, and it hasn't been a good investment of my money. I also want to figure out how to increase readership of my blog. Actually, readership is way up, but the number of dedicated followers has remained flat. But I published 53 posts this year -- a record for me. I hope my readers enjoyed my writings and got something from them.

So 2011 has been a mixed bag. If I were to give the year a grade, it would be a C. I hope that at this time next year, I'll be able to assign a grade of A.

Happy New Year, everyone. I hope your dreams for the new year all come true.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

My Grown-Up Christmas List

With thanks to the creator/s of the song "My Grown-Up Christmas List" for the inspiration, my Christmas wish is the same as it always is. And sadly, my dreams seem as unlikely to come true as ever. I don't wish for massive amounts of money or a new car or a bigger house. My wishes aren't even for myself. I have everything I need to live a comfortable life.

No, the things for which I wish are things over which I have no control, and which, sadly, seem to be moving further and further from ever becoming reality. So here are my Christmas wishes:

I wish for an end to the slaughter of wolves. I wish for rescue for all animals suffering in any way, physical or emotional. I wish comfort and love for them, for loving homes, food for their bellies and an end to their pain. I wish for an end to forcing dogs to live their lives on chains, for an end to dog-fighting and puppy mills and pet shops that exploit these animals. I wish for strict penalties for those who abuse non-human animals, children and the elderly, not community service or probation.

I wish for a warm bed and hot food for the homeless people of our country. I wish for jobs for the unemployed, for the safe return of our military forces serving in the world's most dangerous places, and for an end to abuse of children, the elderly and the animals. I wish for a world that respects and cherishes the planet on which we live, and all those who dwell here.

I wish for a kinder, more generous America, one that no longer turns its collective back on the most vulnerable among us. There is no reason why, in the wealthiest country on Earth, people go hungry because they cannot afford food for themselves or their children.

I wish for people to get involved in their favorite cause, whatever it may be. Don't have money to donate? Give your time and talent instead. Write a letter, join a protest or boycott, hold a bake sale or garage sale to raise funds for your favorite group.

I wish that people would open their hearts throughout the year, not just at Christmas. I wish that people would respond to the unsung heroes among us, as they did to a recent NBC News story about a woman in Arkansas who spent her entire life savings to provide tutoring, meals, toys and love to poor children. Viewers in less than a week donated more than $200,000 to this one effort to help the neediest. We need that kind of outpouring of support throughout the year. I wish that more people would find the unsung heroes in their own communities and see how they can help. Find the small groups of people struggling to make a difference locally.

I wish that more people would share the gift of life by donating blood and by signing up to be organ donors upon their death. I wish that people would reach out to those in need by visiting a lonely senior in a nursing home or hospital. Take a meal to a neighbor in need, or rake the leaves or shovel the driveway for someone, just because.

It doesn't matter whether you are Christian or Jewish, Buddhist or Muslim. Keep the spirit of Christmas alive in your heart throughout the year. Keep the spirit of love and compassion alive, keep the light of hope burning.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Becoming a Family

Seven years ago this week, I became the mother of an 11-year-old Russian girl. I had traveled literally half-way around the world, to western Siberia, to appear before a stern judge who would decide whether to approve my application to adopt a beautiful, shy girl known as Yul'a. I guess she approved of my application and my answers to her questions, because it took only a few minutes of deliberation before she returned to her courtroom with an affirmative response. She also, fortunately, approved my request to waive the standard 10-day waiting period -- a time ostensibly set aside in case I wanted to change my mind about the adoption.

As someone who hates cold weather and snow, I wasn't thrilled with the thought of flying to Siberia in late December. But I had no choice. I was told, with only a short advance notice, what date to appear in court. The date was not negotiable. I had expected not to get the call until spring, as the typical wait after submitting the dossier of required documents was usually several months. My dossier went to Russia in September. I don't know, and never will know, the reason for the quick turn-around. Maybe it's because I speak Russian. Maybe it's because my undergraduate degree is in Russian language. Maybe it's because I had lived and worked in Moscow for several months and had made half a dozen trips to the capital city.

I flew into Moscow, and after a couple of days, went on to Tyumen', a large city in the heart of Russia's gas and oil region. The day after my arrival there, I met up with my interpreter, facilitator and driver for the 40-mile trip through the Russian countryside to the village of Berkut, where my daughter lived in an orphanage with approximately 35 other kids.

The director, a nice woman named Ol'ga Mikhailovna, greeted me warmly, and I gave her the  numerous scarves, gloves and mittens I had brought for the kids. We chatted for a short time, and then she sent for Julia (who was in school), after explaining that Julia had no idea I was coming for her that day. She felt that Julia would have been too excited to do anything had she known of my pending arrival.

Julia looked stunned to see me. I had tears in my eyes and was barely able to speak her name. Because it was her birthday, I had brought some hard candy (I was told not to bring chocolate), a cake and some oranges. The children and staff had a little party in the multi-purpose room, then Julia gathered her meager belongings and changed clothes. She was required to leave all her clothes behind, so I had brought some new outfits for her to wear until we got home. After taking a few photos, we were on our way back to Tyumen'.

After court the next day, we set out on a whirlwind of visits to various offices to obtain a new birth certificate (with her American name) and a Russian passport. We had time to do some sightseeing and shopping at a local department store before flying back to Moscow the next day. We went directly from the airport to get pictures taken for Julia's required U.S. visa application, and then to a doctor's office for a physical and chest x-rays.

The U.S. embassy was closed for a few days in honor of Christmas, so we did some sightseeing and shopping in Moscow, and we got to visit Linda, an old dog I had befriended during my time in Moscow. Linda remembered me, wagging her tail and whining when she saw me after 5 years. The city was brightly decorated for the upcoming New Year's holiday, the major winter holiday in Russia, with decorations and 'Christmas' trees everywhere. Russian Orthodox Christmas isn't celebrated until Jan. 7, and New Year is the big holiday. So we spent a quiet 'American' Christmas spending time together, taking pictures along the Moscow River and visiting the magnificent Christ the Saviour Cathedral across the river.

By the Moscow River.
Once we got Julia's visa from the embassy, we prepared for the long trip home on the Russian airline, Aeroflot. Our departing flight was delayed by several hours, so we missed our connecting flight from Seattle to San Jose, Calif. When we finally got home the next morning, Julia snatched the house keys from my hand as I paid the shuttle van driver. She was so excited to be home! 

Things went smoothly for a few years, and then the problems started. Like many adopted kids, Julia has reactive attachment disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and ADHD. The latter can be treated with medication. The first two -- things adoption agencies don't talk about -- can be treated with lots of therapy, but they will never be 'cured.' Our path together has been a rough one at times, filled with failures, disappointments and heartache. But together, we have weathered the storm. Julia is a remarkable girl (now a young lady of 18) who has overcome more trauma than most adults will face in their entire lives.

The changes she has made through the force of her determination and inner strength, with her remarkable insight and with the help of some awesome therapists, have been nothing short of remarkable. She has learned to be part of a family, to be a daughter, and to trust. She has learned that she is worthy of being loved.

I pray that we have come through the worst of the storm, and that calmer waters await us. But as I continue to remind her, we are in this together. She knows that she will always have my support and love. We are a family at last.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Best Christmas Ever

Christmas is still a week away, there is no large Christmas tree in our house (just a couple of table-top fiber optic trees), but this already is the best Christmas I can remember. I have but a single gift for my daughter; she is struggling to find something I want or need for Christmas. And so am I. There is nothing of a material nature I want or need. There is simply nothing to be purchased that is on my 'have-to-have' or even my 'would-be-nice-to-have' list.

I am blessed with savings and a government pension to support me through my old age. My health, save the bursitis and arthritis, is very good. I have a wonderful daughter who has overcome more trauma in her almost 18 years than most people will face in a lifetime. I live in a beautiful state with wonderful outdoor opportunities. I volunteer with two non-profits whose causes I hold dear: feeding the hungry, and educating people about wolves. I enjoy many opportunities to photograph nature's beauty, and I have time to continue working on the book I am writing. I can look out my living, dining or bedroom windows and gaze on the massive Sandia Mountains nearby. Through my volunteer and leisure activities, I have made some good friends.

My daughter disliked the large public high school she attended and was struggling with several of her classes, so she will finish her senior year via correspondence school, which will result in her obtaining a diploma from a boarding school in Utah while living at home. She has but four courses remaining. So she is closing in on an important milestone in her life -- getting a high school diploma. For one so young, she has a remarkable insight into herself, her learning style and her way of dealing with things.

She should find out on her birthday whether she will get a part-time job at a local Wendy's restaurant, something she has wished for for a long time. An incident earlier this year caused both of us considerable stress and anxiety, but it now appears that we soon will be able to put that behind us and look forward to a happier year in 2012.

This year I am even more aware that Christmas isn't about decorated trees or holiday parties or spending huge amounts of money on "the perfect gift" as the never-ending television commercials scream. It is about being grateful for the blessings in our lives, it is about appreciating all that we have that so many others do not (whether it be a place to live, a job, food on the table or good health). It is about doing things for others, not from a sense of obligation, but because we can and because it is the right thing to do. It's about being grateful for the little things -- blessings all -- that make our lives so special. And it is about remembering the reason for the season.

Friday, December 9, 2011

One of the Pack

In looking back on this year, I want to share something that happened last summer. I got to spend a weekend at the home of the woman who founded and operates Wanagi Wolf Fund and Rescue while she took a rare weekend off. I was not, however, just house-sitting. I was responsible for a dog, eight wolf-dogs and three wolves (plus five birds). 

As a volunteer with this group, I have met all of the canines several times. Pulling up to the gate, I was greeted by four barking sentries: Silver Bear, an old wolf/malamute; Hozho, an Australian shepherd; Milagro, a mixed breed dog with a bit of wolf in his background, and Bindi, a wolf/coyote/husky. After I spoke to them for a couple of minutes, they remembered me and I entered the gate.

Then the barks and howls from the back of the property started. As I walked around the corner of the house, Hokshila, HHthe big timber wolf, howled his greeting. He was joined by his partner Prema, who while new to the rescue, has greeted me warmly the last two times I saw her. After setting my belongings on the porch, I visited each animal in turn. Next was my old friend Liberty, who greeted me with sniffs and kisses. Then I entered the pen of brother and sister wolf/malamutes Kola and Wihopa. Gray wolf Dadyoe, previously rather nervous, barked his delight at seeing me again and kissed my fingers through the fence.

Shunka and Shadow, the newest pack members, hadn’t completely accepted me, so I didn’t enter their pen. Instead, I talked quietly to them, frequently using their names. Eventually, I won Shunka’s favor by having him sit, and then giving him small pieces of chicken jerky. Shadow sat and took the jerky, but she continued to bark at me the rest of the day.

Having greeted the whole pack, I started taking pictures. I was once again struck by the beauty of these magnificent animals. Kola and Wihopa have gorgeous golden eyes and love attention and tummy rubs. Hokshila is a gentle giant. Liberty, a cancer survivor who lives with lupus, has always been one of my favorites. He possesses such a quiet dignity. And despite his previous life of beatings and starvation, he holds no ill will toward humans.

Again it hit me that these were not dogs I was visiting, giving ear scratches and photographing. These were wolves and wolf-dogs, terribly misunderstood and in many quarters, hated, feared and despised. As ancestors of dogs, wolves certainly have many characteristics in common with dogs, physically and psychologically. The Wanagi wolves go for walks on leash, and they know how to sit on command. They will gently take a treat or dog cookie when offered. They have been socialized. A select few sleep in the house at night.

It was so peaceful sitting outside, listening to the gentle rain falling, watching the wolves and getting to know their personalities. Later, as I typed on my laptop, Milagro slept soundly on the couch a couple of feet away. If he awakened and I spoke to him, his tail thumped rapidly.

During the night, I heard the animals howl several times. What a wonderful sound that was. Sometimes the entire pack howled; at other times, only one or two animals could be heard. They undoubtedly sensed something in the area, a pack of coyotes, perhaps. As soon as it started getting light outside, I began to get their breakfast ready. The knowledge that breakfast was on the way really set off a clamor.

The term ‘wolfing down their food’ couldn’t be less accurate. My two domestic dogs inhale their food, while the wolves eat their meals slowly. There was no squabbling over food, either, although I kept a watchful eye to make sure nobody got greedy. The wolves eat a combination of dry and canned dog food, various powders and additives depending on their particular dietary needs, and a variety of other foods, including cheese, steamed vegetables and yogurt. Those animals that need medication take their pills in globs of cream cheese.

I love being in the presence of these magnificent, forgiving creatures. All of them were rescued from lives of starvation, brutality or abandonment. Yet they love people and warmly greet those they have met before. They especially love children. Spending time with these animals is such a treat. I know how very fortunate I am to be able to interact with them and to be welcomed so enthusiastically whenever we meet. Their human mom refers to me and other special friends of the wolves as their 'aunties.' I am honored to have that appellation.

I pray that some day, people will understand the important role wolves play in maintaining a healthy environment. Most of all, I pray that the persecution of their wild brethren will cease, and the wolves will once again be allowed to exist as they did for thousands of years.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Finding the Positive in Winter

I spent a good part of an early December day at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, photographing geese and sandhill cranes by the thousands.

Although the sun came out for a while in the afternoon, temperatures remained in the low 30s, and a cold wind quickly made my fingers hurt. It was a fun day spent with a small group of other amateur photographers, but I was very happy to get home that evening.

Readers of this blog will know that I am not a big fan of winter weather, so the first order of business was to get some warm food. A hot shower helped me warm up even more.

That night, in bed under my blankets, I realized that one thing I do like about winter is the feeling of being warm and cozy in my bed. I love lying between flannel sheets and feeling the comforting weight of the three blankets that keep me warm. I like to keep the house at 59-60 degrees at night, and feeling warm in bed is a really special feeling. Of course, that means some chilly times until the house warms up in the morning, but a cup of hot tea always warms me up.

Another thing I like about winter is comfort food. There is nothing like a bowl of hot soup for lunch to drive away the chill. I do more cooking during the winter, making chili, soups, stew or casseroles. I've also been baking quite a bit since the temperatures became cooler. That, however, has the downside of my 'having' to eat the cake or cookies or whatever else I have baked.

After many months of wearing shorts and short-sleeve tops in the high desert where I live, it's nice to slip into a comfortable sweatshirt or sweater in the morning. I much prefer to exercise outside rather than on the treadmill in the garage, so unless the weather is really nasty, I'll put on my fleece coat or parka, depending on the temperature, and head outside for a walk. I love feeling warm, snuggled in a nice coat on a chilly winter day.

Winter also can be a good time for photography. The New Mexico sky never fails to amaze me, and I enjoy photographing snow scenes.

Of course, I could do without the snow and ice winter sometimes brings. But at least there are a few positives to this often-gloomy time of year. And it feels good to be able to find something to like about my least favorite time of the year.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cashing In Some Karma Points

I was sitting in bed reading on Thanksgiving evening, as I often do. I picked up a book I had started a month or so ago called 'Life...The Reader's Digest Version.' Locating where I had left off, I was shocked to see that the topic was "Count your blessings." How appropriate was that on Thanksgiving evening?  

This Thanksgiving found me thinking, and writing, about gratitude a bit more than usual. On Thanksgiving day, as I chatted with the volunteer next to me in the serving line, our discussion turned to karma and how we hoped that our volunteer work would bring us "karma points," in the words of the young man to whom I was talking.

Two days later was a hectic, not relaxing, Saturday. I had several things on my to-do list, none of them fun. I needed to pick up Christmas cards from Sam's Club, which I imagined would be a mad house just a day after the chaotic Black Friday. Surprisingly, I had no trouble finding a parking place and the store, although busy, wasn't terribly crowded. I got my cards and then something unexpected happened. 

I had been struggling with what to buy my soon-to-be-18-year-old daughter for Christmas. She had said she couldn't think of anything, so just give her some money. But I wanted to do better than that. Suddenly the light bulb went on and I knew what to get her. It's something she has wanted for a while, and something she can take with her whenever she sets out to live on her own. A store employee walking by even loaded the item into my cart for me. 

When I got home, I remembered that my new camera lens had been delivered that morning. I was pleased to see that the lens, although used, was in original packaging and looked perfect. And it arrived the day before I was going to visit the wolf refuge and take more photographs, so I could 'test drive' the new lens the following day.  

So far, the day was definitely going my way. But would my good luck continue?

After several attempts to sell a 1933 Motorola console radio, I was about to give up and donate it to a thrift shop. But I listed it one last time on Craigslist. Finally, I got a response from someone who was interested in taking a look at it. The man came to the house on Saturday to see the radio. We negotiated a price (less than what I had hoped, but better than donating it to a thrift shop) and the radio was sold at last. 

I was on a roll, but I still had one more thing to tackle, and I dreaded it.

I felt certain there was a water leak someplace in my house. For the past couple of weeks I had heard what sounded like the water pump or pressure tank come on every 10 minutes, run for a few seconds, then shut off. So I contacted a leak detection company that offered to send somebody to the house that afternoon to check things out for a $300 standard fee (no extra charge for weekend service). 

I explained the situation to the technician, who checked the humidifier on the furnace, the pressure tank in the garage (part of the system that pumps water from my well) and the sprinkler system. Finally, he went into the kitchen to listen for the sound I had described to him. "There! That's the sound," I exclaimed when I heard the tell-tale click. "That's the ice maker pulling water in to make ice," he explained. "But the ice maker has never been hooked up to the water line." Apparently that didn't matter; it was still clicking on every 10 minutes in a fruitless attempt to bring in water so it could make ice. The technician located a switch and turned the pump off. I have had this refrigerator for two years and it never made that sound in the past. Feeling rather sheepish, I asked what I owed the technician for his time. "Nothing," he said. "We'll call this a freebie." He had been at the house for 45 minutes, and he didn't charge me a thing.

I am not accustomed to having so many things go my way in a single day. After all the day's events turned out so well, I started to wonder whether there are indeed 'karma points' and whether my run of good luck was in fact related to my recent volunteer work at the food pantry, the wolf sanctuary and the Thanksgiving dinner. Whatever the reason -- coincidence or karma points -- it certainly was nice to have several things fall into place on a single day. So thank you, Karma. I'll be doing more volunteer work soon, trying to rack up additional karma points for the future.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Karma Points

I did something this Thanksgiving I have never done before. For 90 minutes, I served rolls and cranberry sauce at a free Thanksgiving meal, an annual event provided by St. Felix Pantry, where I volunteer every week.

This was my small attempt to give thanks in a tangible way for the many blessings in my life. This has not been a good year for my daughter and me, but we still have so much for which we are thankful. We both are healthy, we live in a nice home, we have food on the table and clothes in the closet, and we have medical insurance. We live in a beautiful state, in a free country.

I wasn't sure what to expect before I arrived at the McDonald's where the meal was served (McDonald's was closed for the day), but before I knew it, I was serving cranberry sauce and rolls to a long line of people. The time passed quickly, and I was rather disappointed when my replacement arrived at the end of my shift. Next year I may sign up to work both shifts.

There was no 'typical' person waiting for a nice Thanksgiving meal. There were senior citizens (one woman told me she is 87 years old), families with small children, couples and single people. They were Hispanic, Caucasian, African-American and Native American. Some were there because they need help with feeding their families; some were there for companionship as well as food. One woman confessed that she had never needed food assistance before. A man went through the line to get a take-out meal for his 92-year-old neighbor who is housebound. When I suggested he get a meal for himself as well, he replied that we should "save it for someone who needs it."

Another man went through the line twice to get a plate of food, and then he went through a third time to get two take-out meals. As he left, he said "God bless you" to people on the serving line, thanked us and patted us on the shoulder. Whether the extra meals were for someone else or for him to eat later didn't matter. We didn't ask why people wanted extra meals or three rolls or extra gravy, or why one woman asked for, and received, nine take-out meals. It didn't matter; we were there to serve food to all who wanted it.

Not only were the guests of a variety of ages and ethnicities, so were the volunteers. I worked next to a young man from Arizona, who was in town visiting his girlfriend's family. He and his girlfriend both worked in the serving line. A friendly Hispanic man kept me supplied with rolls and cranberries, showing up at just the time I was about to run out. An older black woman helped diners bag their take-out meals and handed out desserts. It was so wonderful to see people of all ages and races working together toward a common goal.

The atmosphere in the restaurant was warm and upbeat, with the spirit of the day evident in abundance. Volunteers opened the door and greeted guests as they entered the restaurant. Other volunteers took plates of food to guests with disabilities. Guests were grateful for the food, and volunteers were happy to help those in need. People were treated with respect. I heard no grumbling, no complaining, not a single negative word from anybody. People waited patiently in line for their food. Total strangers chatted warmly.

It's hard to put into words the warm feeling I got from giving a couple of hours to serve people in need. When people thanked me for volunteering, I didn't know how to respond. I said it was my pleasure, and I meant it. I was honored to be able to help in a small way.

I share my experiences not to crow about what I did, which wasn't a lot, but in the hope that others will be inspired to volunteer to help those in need. Especially now, the need is so great, and it is so easy to make a difference to someone going through a rough time.

As a Facebook friend reported after she and her husband served Thanksgiving meals at an area soup kitchen, "This is seriously such a great feeling, we want to do it a few times a month." Another Facebook friend, who volunteers at a soup kitchen in her town, noted the gratitude of the people she helps feed. And who could disagree with the young man who worked next to me, as we talked about why we were volunteering, "Karma is the best kind of points to get."

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Thanksgiving Thoughts

Thanksgiving, a holiday that increasingly seems to be overshadowed by Christmas, is just around the corner. I love having a holiday dedicated to being grateful for the blessings we have. But I hate that this holiday is fading into the background. It's a national holiday, and it deserves to be more than just a bump in the road on the way to Black Friday and Christmas.

Unfortunately, retailers seem to be taking Thanksgiving out a step at a time. One of my favorite local radio stations started playing nothing but Christmas music on Nov. 1, far too early to be enjoyable. The mall has had its holiday displays up for weeks already, and grocery stores set up special exhibits of ingredients for traditional holiday foods weeks ago. Two satellite radio stations started playing nothing but Christmas music the middle of November.

Thanksgiving deserves its own day, and I want to enjoy this day on its own merits before being bombarded by commercials touting "the perfect gift." Several large chain stores are planning to get an early start on the Black Friday madness by opening at 10 p.m. Thanksgiving Day. So now Thanksgiving is little more than the kick-off to the Christmas shopping frenzy, when people push and shove, stand in long lines in the cold and darkness, to buy things they don't need with money they don't have.

Thanksgiving needs to be celebrated as intended by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 when he proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving. Americans are in the midst of another difficult year, with very high unemployment, the housing market in a nosedive and the economy struggling. Still, most of us should be able to find something for which we are thankful. And one of those things shouldn't be that we can get a head start on our shopping.

I am thankful that I can take care of myself and my daughter. We are blessed with good health, medical insurance, a nice house and cars, all the clothes we need, plenty of food and luxuries such as cell phones, a big-screen TV and digital cameras.

The least we can do is to help those not as fortunate, by donating food and money, and by giving of our time and talents. So I'm going to do something different this Thanksgiving. I don't plan to prepare a big meal. Instead, I have signed up to work as a server at a Thanksgiving meal prepared by the food pantry where I volunteer each week.

A local McDonald's restaurant, which will be closed on Thanksgiving, donates its restaurant space every year to host a free dinner for anyone who wants to join in -- the homeless, those who cannot afford to prepare a big meal themselves, and those who live alone. So this year, Thanksgiving dinner will be at McDonald's, enjoying food prepared by volunteers at St. Felix Pantry.

I challenge my readers to turn off the television, leave the shopping for a couple of days, and really take time to think about your blessings this year. If you have food on the table, a roof over your head and are able to make ends meet, even if it's a struggle, you have something for which to be thankful. Then, find a cause that moves you: homelessness, hunger, child abuse, animal abuse, the environment, literacy. Get involved, whether it's once a day or once a month. You can make a difference in the life of another, be it human or 4-legged animal. 

The spirit of Thanksgiving should not be limited to just one day or just one time of year. Rather, that spirit should pervade and guide our lives, our thoughts and our actions every day. 

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. And thank you for taking time to read my blog today and throughout the year.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Seeing Nature Anew

It wasn't the kind of day I typically like to be outside. It was a cool 47 degrees, windy and cloudy, the kind of day that often puts a damper on my spirits. But this day, something was different. Toward the end of a solitary, 2-mile walk along a flood control canal, I sat on a bench in a reflective mood. Suddenly, I started to enjoy this early-winter day.

I sat and looked at the gray, hulking, 10-million-year-old Sandia Mountains to the east, with their pockets of new snow in a few areas on the slopes. I listened, and I didn't hear quail making their strange sounds, or the gratingly irritating calls of roadrunners. I heard nothing but a dog barking in the distance and the wind rattling the dead leaves of a nearby tree. I felt the dryness and coolness of the desert air. I smelled the dry leaves of aspen and chamisa and other desert plants. I felt the wind on my face, and I felt at peace, snug and warm in my fleece jacket.

It wasn't a day for photography or for soaking up the sun. It wasn't a day for riding my bike. It was a day for homemade soup, a solitary walk, and enjoying nature from a different perspective.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Winter Warmth

It's that time of year again. The weather is cold, and the Sandia Mountains near my home have received their first dusting of snow. Although I hate cold weather, there nevertheless is something enjoyable about this time of year.

It's nice to wrap up in a warm robe and slippers first thing in the morning, and then to change into a warm sweater or sweatshirt, to slip into flannel pajamas at the end of the day, and to feel warm and comfortable under the blankets at night. I enjoy a cup of hot tea first thing in the morning. And my thoughts turn to comfort food at this time of year: stews, soups, macaroni and cheese! Local grocery stores have had some great sales on soup, so my pantry shelves are groaning with the numerous cans of soup I have bought for the winter.

This also is the time of year when the multiple appeals for funds arrive in my mail box. I drew the line recently when the day's mail brought two different appeals for money from the same organization, a big food bank. I support this organization, but am I really more likely to donate when I get two appeals on the same day?

Cold weather and the approaching holidays also signal the start of holiday food drives. This is something I have supported for many, many years. That millions of people in this country go hungry because they cannot afford food is something that is simply not acceptable. It takes so little to make a difference in the life of a hungry person. Yesterday I bought 10 cans of vegetables for $.50 each; all will be donated to a food pantry or drive. Stuffing mix was on sale for $.99/box. Soup and cereal and peanut butter were on sale, too. Grocery stores are offering great prices on so many items.

You don't have to be a big company or a member of a huge group to sponsor a food drive. A volunteer hike leader in a local hiking group of which I am a member is hosting a hike/food drive this Saturday to benefit our local food bank. He will collect the food and deliver it to Roadrunner Food Bank. Even better, he suggests that people donate pet food as well as food for humans.

Feeding the hungry is one of my causes, so I donate a lot to various food drives and I volunteer weekly at a local food pantry. I don't expect everyone to have my level of commitment to this cause. But just think of how many people we could feed if 1 million or 2 million or 10 million shoppers each bought and donated just one item to their local food bank. Many grocery stores have collection barrels at the front of their stores. So the next time you go grocery shopping, please consider picking up an extra non-perishable item or two and dropping it in the barrel as you leave the store. Your act of generosity will warm not only the person who receives it, but it may warm your heart, too.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

'We the People' Demand Change

I am a senior citizen, and frankly, I am tired of members of Congress targeting Social Security and Medicare as easy ways to cut the massive budget deficit.

I was forced to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes throughout my nearly 40-year career. It is with great dismay that I have watched members of Congress, and others, blame seniors for the enormous national debt this country faces. We are accused of being greedy and selfish for wanting the benefits we were promised from Social Security and Medicare. These people use the word entitlement to describe the benefits we were promised, and they have made this into a derogatory word. 

Well guess what? Social Security and Medicare are entitlements. I was forced to pay into these funds, with the promise of future benefits, and I expect to receive what I was promised. That doesn't make me greedy. I will forgo my monthly Social Security payments, and my future Medicare benefits, if Congress will return to me, with interest, every dime I was forced to pay into these programs. I suspect there are many others who would do the same. I will be responsible for investing my money and deciding how much to withdraw, and how often. 

I paid cash for my Social Security benefits. This money was taken from my pay checks without my permission. Just because the government borrowed the money and now doesn't want to pay it back doesn't make my benefits some kind of money-grab by me or other senior citizens. Expecting to receive what we were promised does not make us greedy. I should not have to be subjected to a 'means test' before I can receive the benefits I was promised and for which I have already paid. It's my money, and I am entitled to it.

Federal employees and retirees, and Social Security recipients, get whatever cost-of-living adjustment the president and Congress decide to give them -- if they get one at all. Many private sector employees are in the same situation. Members of Congress get an automatic, annual pay increase unless they vote not to accept it. (How many do you think actually do that?) 

All Congress can think of to cut spending is to take from the people who need help the most, while at the same time continuing to pad their own bank accounts and those of their corporate handlers. And they want to eliminate the income tax deductions for mortgage interest and charitable donations, things that benefit middle-income taxpayers? 

Here's a suggestion: Why not collect Social Security tax on all income, rather than just the first $106,800 of earned annual income, as is done for Medicare? That would put a lot of money into the fund. Of course, putting more money into Social Security is but one step. Another needed reform is to stop stealing money from Social Security. So far, the federal government has taken $2.5 trillion from Social Security, which is supposed to be repaid. Given the current budget deficit, how likely is it that this money will actually be returned to Social Security? Stealing from this fund needs to stop NOW, and it should be illegal. Don't blame senior citizens for government's greed and ineptness.

Rather than eliminating the mortgage interest deduction, how about limiting it to a single home, the primary residence. Deductions for interest on vacation homes, second and third homes, rental properties, etc., should not be allowed. And limit the deduction to homes of less than $1 million value. How much would that add to the government's coffers?

We have spent trillions of dollars on two unwinnable wars trying to help people who in large part don't want our help. More than 6,000 American men and women have been killed in those wars; countless others will live the rest of their lives with horrendous physical or psychological injuries. We have spent millions to set up a postal system in Iraq, while our post office is facing massive cuts, layoffs and closures. America is usually the first to send food, water, shelter and medicine to other countries after a natural disaster, while millions of our own citizens struggle to provide these basic necessities. 

I see the long line of people outside the food pantry where I volunteer every week. I see the people 'shopping' for free, donated clothing, toys and household goods for themselves and their families. I see how happy people are to get a pair of shoes, a pillow or a box of Q-Tips. We send billions of dollars to other countries while our own citizens struggle to get by. Whatever happened to "Charity begins at home"?

It's no wonder Americans are fed up with their government. It no longer serves 'we the people.' It appears to be serving only those individuals (lobbyists) and corporations that deliver the most money and other perks to their campaign coffers. The voices of the 'little people,' those who elected their so-called representatives, go unheard.

I cite two examples from New Mexico, where I live. More than 72 percent of New Mexicans want the 2003 law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain a NM driver's license to be overturned. The governor, with whom I agree on little else, wants the law overturned. But our legislators refuse to consider legislation to end this ridiculous practice. A judge has halted the governor's plan to verify the residence of a sample of 10,000 of those non-citizens who have received a NM driver's license. This despite well-publicized cases of unscrupulous people from China, Poland and other countries bringing (at considerable profit) to New Mexico illegals who don't even live in the state, for the sole purpose of obtaining a NM drivers license.

Likewise, 69 percent of New Mexicans support efforts to reintroduce the highly endangered Mexican gray wolf into a small  portion of its former territory in southwestern New Mexico. Despite overwhelming public support of this plan, the governor stacked the Game and Fish Commission with ranchers and others who believe the only good wolf is a dead wolf. As a result, trapping is once again allowed in the wolves' habitat in the Gila National Forest. These are public lands; they are not there for the economic benefit of a small subset of the general population. As public lands, they should be there for the enjoyment -- not profit -- of anyone who chooses to visit there. Instead, a small, wolf-hating group is allowed to threaten the very existence of a native mammal. Individuals and their family pets have been caught in these barbaric traps. Despite trappers' claims to the contrary, there is no way to make this torture device more humane. But does the state government listen to the wishes of a large majority of its citizens? No, it listens to organized and well-funded donors who apparently feel extremely threatened by the 50 remaining Mexican gray wolves that have managed to escape being shot, trapped or poisoned.

Our country is facing some tough choices, and all the politicians do is attack the other party and pontificate. There will be no easy solutions. As a start, our elected officials need to listen to the voice of the people -- not the lobbyists, not the special interests, not those seeking to profit at the expense of others. Of course, there will continue to be a variety of opinions about what is best for the country. But taking from senior citizens isn't the answer. Cutting benefits to the poor, to veterans and to those most vulnerable in our society, is not the answer. 

There is incredible waste and fraud in government. I worked for the federal government for nearly 25 years. I have seen the ineptness, the cumbersome regulations, the red tape that can make even the most simple purchase take forever. 

We need to take care of our people, of our country, before trying to save the world. The American people want action. They want solutions. They want government funds to be spent on taking care of our problems, rather than on propping up corrupt dictators in foreign countries. It is past time for 'we the people' to take our government back and make it work for us.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

I Give Up

I don't know how much more I can take. I love animals, I have been involved in animal welfare and rescue activities for 40 years, but I have reached the end.

Facebook is filled with stories of animal abuse and death. Dogs and cats left to starve. Dogs forced to fight each other to the death. Horses electrocuted. Animals set on fire or burned with chemicals. Wolves slaughtered simply for being wolves. Millions of dogs and cats killed each year simply because no one wants them.

I don't need to hear about all this suffering and death. I don't need to see the pictures of the horrific sores, the emaciated bodies, the dogs murdered by gun-happy cops. I know all about animal cruelty. I worked for a large humane society in California for 8 years; I photographed cruelty cases for possible prosecution. I can't take it any longer.

There is nothing I can do to stop the abuse and cruelty. I write letters and send e-mails; I boycott the products of states that encourage the slaughter of wolves and of countries where animal abuse is institutionalized. I don't patronize businesses and companies that tacitly endorse animal abuse. But what good does it do?

The abuse doesn't stop; in fact, it seems to be getting worse.

I donate to various animal protection groups; I contribute to the occasional 'chip in' to help fund needed veterinary care for a specific dog in need. But my donations are a mere pittance. Even if I donated every dime I have, it still wouldn't be enough.

So I surrender. The bad guys win. Those who abuse animals and who are punished, if at all, with a small fine or 'community service', win. Countries like China, where animal abuse is institutionalized and unpunished, win. States like Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, with their government-sanctioned efforts to exterminate wolves, win. Companies like Nike and Subway that hire felons and animal abusers to represent them, win.

They all win. They have the money, the power and the influence, so of course they win. They can buy the votes of their elected officials to do their bidding. We, the little people who work tirelessly to help animals, count for nothing because we can't compete where it matters -- the bottom line.

I am blocking or removing organizations that are trying to help animals so I no longer will have to read about endless cruelty and slaughter when I visit my Facebook page. I just can't take it any longer.

So congratulations, members of Congress, state legislators, governors, corporations. You win. I give up. My boycotts and letters mean nothing. You have been bought by the highest bidders. I hope you are proud of yourselves.

By the way, karma knows who you are. Maybe I and others like me can't change things. But karma will get you in the end. Enjoy your victory.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Wolf We Feed

I read this Native American wisdom a few years ago, and I was pleased when a cyber friend recently posted it on her Facebook page. It is definitely worth repeating.

An old Cherokee told his grandson, "My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy and truth." The boy thought about it, then he asked his grandfather, "Which wolf wins?" The old Cherokee quietly replied, "The one you feed."

I think the wisdom in this brief tale is profound. If we don't feed our negative emotions, they are more likely to go away, or at least to become less powerful. I know that if I am in a bad mood, the whole day can quickly spiral into a deep, dark hole. If we focus on the positive, we are more likely to enjoy the benefits a positive outlook can bring. We will feel better, and those around us will feel better, too.

Over the years, I have had opportunities to practice this lesson. A few years ago, it seemed that my world was collapsing around me; I was incredibly stressed. I started to think about all the 'what ifs.' My thoughts were full of worry, anxiety and fear. I had trouble sleeping and eating. Nothing was going right. I then realized that I had a choice. I could continue to spin in a downward spiral, or I could change my way of thinking. It took a few days, but eventually I started to focus on the positive aspects of my situation.

The other reason this appeals to me, of course, is the reference to wolves. Followers of this blog know that I frequently write about wolves and government-sanctioned efforts to 'manage' (i.e., exterminate) them. Having had several opportunities to spend time with these magnificent animals, I still find myself in awe whenever I am with them. A powerful spiritual teacher in many Native cultures, the wolf has lessons to teach all of us, Native and non-Native alike.

We all have wolves within us, engaged in a struggle. Think about your life at this time; which wolf are you feeding?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

When Death Knocks

The world lost two notable people this past week. One of them was not famous at all; she lived a simple life in West Virginia. The other was known around the world; he was very famous and very wealthy. Both had an impact on the world, but in far different ways.

Although I had never met Peggy Sue in person, or even talked to her on the phone, her personality shone through her on-line posts. She was a vivacious, funny, kind and caring person who dearly loved her husband and her dogs. Because she lived in West Virginia, she often referred to herself as a 'hillbilly' and she loved to tell redneck jokes.

Just a week before her passing, Peggy had to say goodbye to her beloved dog Freeway, who had a terminal illness. To read of Peggy's passing just a week later, at the young age of 53, was a real shock.

This sudden and unexpected loss has been a wake-up call, serving as yet another reminder of the fragility and brevity of our time on earth. I hope the loss of this vibrant woman will serve to remind us that life is fleeting, we never know when we will lose someone in our lives, and that we should appreciate every minute we have.

The famous person who died was, of course, Apple founder and innovator Steve Jobs. I didn't know him, either, but his creative passion is felt and seen around the world in the many innovations developed under his leadership: the iPhone, iPod and iPad, among others. 

We never know when Death will come knocking on our door. It could be from an accident or a heart attack or a terminal illness. We just never know. It behooves us all to set aside the 'it couldn't happen to me' mentality and realize that it could, and can, and will, happen to each of us. We just don't know when.

Much has been written about living life to its fullest, letting those we care about know how we feel, and enjoying the lives we have been given. We tend to get so wrapped up in the mundane details and obligations of living that we often overlook the blessing that is life. We need to:
  • love more and worry less. 
  • dwell on what we have, not on what we don't have.
  • appreciate the simple things in life: a beautiful sunrise, a nice day, coffee with a friend, playing with our kids or dogs, our good health.
  • not stress over the little things in life (and much of what we stress about is little)
  • spend more time with family and good friends
  • take time for ourselves
  • greet each new day with anticipation
  • be happy more than we are sad, worried or angry
  • continue to grow and learn
  • share our blessings with others, whether through volunteer work, providing support to those in need or donating material things such as food or money
  • realize that no matter what our problems are, so many people have far greater problems
Life is a gift given to us at birth, with an unknown and unknowable expiration date. We can sit on the sidelines, we can participate, or we can jump in and lead. The choice is ours. Remember the lines from the Lee Ann Womack song "I hope you dance"?

"And when you get the chance to sit it out or dance
 I hope you dance. 
 I hope you dance.
 I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance.
Never settle for the path of least resistance."

We never know when the knock at the door will come. We cannot know when our clock will run out of time. As Steve Jobs said in a commencement address to Stanford University graduates, "Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

I can't think of anything to add to that. Be yourself, let your light -- whatever it may be -- shine brightly. It doesn't matter what your contribution is or how many people you influence. Don't waste your time trying to be something or someone you're not. Most of all, live your life. You don't get a second chance.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Balloon Fiesta!

It's fiesta time again! 'Fiesta' is the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the world's largest hot air balloon event. Some 550 balloons are expected this year, the 40th anniversary of this event, along with an expected 800,000 visitors.

I attended opening day last year, and it was an awesome experience. The highlight, of course, is the mass ascension, as the crowds gathered in Balloon Fiesta Park are treated to the sight of hundreds of colorful balloons being inflated, then launching and floating silently overhead. I loved looking up into the envelope (the part that inflates) and watching the flames of the propane burners as they heated the air that keeps the balloons aloft.

I didn't go to the mass ascension this year, but I feel as if it came to me. The area just over the hill from my house is a perfect landing area, so I grabbed my camera early on opening day and walked a 2-1/2 mile loop, taking more than 360 photographs.The winds were light, the sky a beautiful New Mexico azure, with just enough clouds to add interest to the photographs.

Despite the early hour, local residents gathered in their yards to watch the hundreds of balloons drifting overhead. Many balloons landed on vacant lots, roads and in arroyos in the neighborhood, giving residents an up-close look. People chatted with balloonists awaiting the arrival of their chase vehicles and crews. One crew I talked to, from the Detroit area, had landed two streets over from my house. They were loading the gondola into the van as I walked by with my dogs.

I love seeing hot air balloons in the sky. They are so peaceful and colorful, a real treat for the eyes against the crystal blue skies of central New Mexico. They drift on wind currents, unpowered, totally silent except for the occasional noise of the burners that heat the air to keep them aloft. And I love the sound of the burners as they shoot their yellow flames into the envelope. The sound reminds me so much of another sound I love -- the sound of whales exhaling as they break the water's surface after a long dive. I like being able to call "Good morning" to balloon crews as they pass overhead on their way back to Earth. Chase crews waved as they drove to pick up the balloons and pilots.

Hot air balloons are not uncommon in the skies over Albuquerque at other times of year, but certainly not in the quantities present during the balloon fiesta. Last year, lines for the shuttle buses were long, but despite the early hour, people were cooperative, pleasant and excited to be going to the mass ascension. Visitors are allowed to walk among the balloons prior to launch and to talk to the pilots. It's a family-friendly affair, with people coming from all over the country, and from other countries. Balloonists seem to be a really friendly bunch of people who enjoy their sport and sharing it with others not fortunate enough to be able to fly. And I count myself fortunate to live in a place where I can simply step into my back yard and see these beautiful balloons gliding over the neighborhood on a crisp October morning.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

I Wish You Enough

A friend recently sent me a story about an elderly man saying good-bye to his daughter at the airport for the last time. Below is the most poignant part.

"When we said, 'I wish you enough,' we were wanting the other person to have a life filled with just enough good things to sustain them.

I wish you enough sun to keep your attitude bright no matter how gray the day may appear.

I wish you enough rain to appreciate the sun even more.

I wish you enough happiness to keep your spirit alive and everlasting.

I wish you enough pain so that even the smallest of joys in life may appear bigger.

I wish you enough gain to satisfy your wanting.

I wish you enough loss to appreciate all that you possess.

I wish you enough hellos to get you through the final good-bye."

This story really made me stop and think. These days, 'enough' usually isn't what most people are after. People tend to focus on the accumulation of material things: money, cars, fancy clothes, a big house. They want 'lots' of money, not just 'enough' money. They want no pain or loss in their lives, even though pain and loss can be wonderful mechanisms for growth. They want an abundance of everything, not just 'enough.'

'Enough' in our society is often too much. I blogged about this a while ago, asking the question "How Much Is Enough?" Many of us have an overabundance of material things. Our homes and our lives are cluttered and bogged down with too much 'stuff.' 

What we may be lacking are the spiritual or emotional things that can make us happy and our lives whole. This little story has not one mention of 'enough' physical belongings. The father doesn't wish his daughter a big house or lots of money. Instead, he wishes her 'enough' of the things that truly are important in life: happiness, gratitude, appreciation, a good attitude. In those areas, 'enough' is all we need.

I wish you enough.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Welcoming Autumn

Autumn is an amazing time of year. In previous years, it was simply the precursor to winter, which I don't like. But this year, fall has become my favorite time of year.

This year's spring was extremely windy and cooler than usual. It wasn't a very pleasant time to be outside, with dust blowing so thick it made the Sandia Mountains disappear from sight. Everything inside and out was covered with brown dust.

Summer in the high desert was, as usual, hot and dry. But fall is just about perfect. Nights are ideal for sleeping with the window open, with lows in the 50s and 60s. Mornings are crisp and usually clear, a wonderful time to walk the dogs. The New Mexico sky, noted for its glorious blue color and crispness, is more spectacular than ever. Cottonwood trees, which abound along the banks of the Rio Grande, are beginning to release their white 'cotton,' which sometimes makes it seem as if I am driving through gently falling snow. They are just starting to acquire their brilliant orange and yellow leaves. Outdoor patio dining offers a wonderful opportunity to enjoy a nice meal outside on a warm day. Some restaurants offer 'petio' dining that welcomes dogs to join their humans.

We also have been getting some much-needed rain in the midst of the worst drought on record. And the 'monsoon-season' sky offers fascinating cloud formations. (I'm not sure that an area that averages 8 inches of rain/year can have a 'monsoon' season, but that's what the rainy season here is called.)

This is such a great time to be outdoors. Even yard work is almost pleasant because of the weather. It's nice to be able to wear shirts with 3/4 sleeves now, to pull out a nice fleece vest in the morning, and to once again think about making soup or stew, with the aroma only home-cooked foods can bring.

This autumn finds me more appreciative than ever of the glories of nature, and grateful indeed to live in a place where I can truly enjoy them.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Yearning for the Good Old Days

I have been in a nostalgic mood for the past few months. While flipping through the many channels available from our satellite television provider one day, I noticed that reruns of The Waltons were on. So I started watching. Later, I found reruns of Little House on the Prairie and Happy Days.

One recent late-summer morning, while walking my dogs, I heard what sounded like a screen door slam (most houses around here don't have screen doors due to the harsh climate). That brief sound immediately brought back a flood of memories of summer visits to my maternal grandparents. They lived on the edge of a very small town in southern Illinois.

Their house got its awful, iron-tasting water from a well. There was no air conditioning to keep the heat and humidity at bay. The dwelling was heated by a single coal-burning stove in the center of the house. My grandparents owned quite a bit of land, which included a pond (home to snapping turtles and small fish) and walnut trees. They had an old 1947 car, and they raised chickens and a variety of vegetables in their garden. My aunt and uncle, with their three daughters, lived down the hill. They had lots of things that we city kids didn't have, including homemade go-karts and horses. Our days were filled with exciting outdoor activities. It was safe, and we were free to be kids. If it was too hot to be running around, we sat under a huge tree in the back yard.

Certainly, life was very difficult during the Depression, when The Waltons was set. Little House took place in the 1880's on the prairie of Minnesota. Just eking out a living was a challenge. But it seems that people were stronger, communities and individuals more willing to help others, and life was so much less complicated, during those hard-scrabble times.

Is it my age, the ubiquitous technology that allows us to be in constant touch via e-mail, text messages and cell phone calls, or the ever-on, non-stop cable television and satellite radio that makes me yearn for the old days? The days of leaving the house unlocked are long gone, even when I'm home. Spending time just sitting and chatting with family under a big tree truly seems a thing of the past. My family lives in Alaska, Illinois and New Mexico. We are rarely together.

A friend recently sent me an e-mail with reminders of what everyday items cost in the 1950s. People complained that gasoline cost 20 cents/gallon; McDonald's hamburgers -- a real treat for us kids at the time -- were 15 cents each. Hamburger was 3 pounds/$1. I remember the very first pizza I ever had. My mom made it from a box of Chef Boyardee pizza mix. What a great novelty that was! Now there is a pizza place on every corner, or so it seems.

To quote from a song by Carly Simon, "These are the good old days." I can't turn back the clock, and the simpler times of 40 or 50 years ago truly are a thing of the past for most of us.  I guess I will have to settle for watching old reruns on television, listening to the music of my youth and fondly recalling the simpler times when prompted by a random sound on a hot, late-summer morning.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Where Were You on 9/11?

Ten years ago this Sunday, Sept. 11, 2001, America was rocked by terrorist attacks in New York City, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.

9/11 is one of those days that will be forever etched in the minds of those who lived through it, much like the 1964 assassination or President John F. Kennedy for those old enough to remember.

I was driving to work at a joint NASA/military installation in the San Francisco Bay area on that beautiful autumn morning. Traffic was at a standstill as I got within a mile or so of the main gate, so I decided to enter by a second, smaller gate. To my surprise, the gate was closed. Then the awful news of the attacks on the World Trade Center came across the radio. That explained the traffic jam. As the deputy director of public affairs, I knew the media would be clamoring for 'reaction' from our NASA center's leadership, so I called my office to let people know I would be at work as quickly as I could get there.

Security was extremely tight. Every car was inspected inside and out before being allowed on site. Every badge was closely inspected, and every driver was questioned about where he/she was going. No one without a NASA 'hard' badge was allowed access.

Every television in our offices was on as we tried to keep up to date with breaking news, stay in frequent contact with NASA Headquarters, respond to news media calls for interviews and remain in touch with our senior management. We developed a statement for the news media and updated the center's Web site. Then word came down that all but essential personnel were to be sent home. So my supervisor and good friend David and I sent everybody home. We stayed at work.

For the next few days, we worked on a facility that was eerily deserted and quiet. Guards checked the names of incoming employees against a list of essential personnel. No one else was allowed through the gates. We were so busy there was no time to process what had happened, or to grieve the loss of so many innocent lives.

One day I decided to take a break and go for a walk. My route took me past the airfield used by NASA and military aircraft. All commercial flights had been grounded, and the usually busy skies near San Francisco International Airport were strangely quiet. I had heard during a meeting that a NASA plane was expected to land at our facility that day. But when I heard the aircraft approaching as I walked near the runway, my first reaction was panic. My heart was racing, even though I knew the plane was expected.

Finally, after several long and very stressful days, I got a day off work. As I watched the endless replays on television of the airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center and the buildings collapse, I broke down and cried for the first time since the attacks happened. I couldn't stop crying for a long time. I sat in my favorite chair and let the grief wash over me.

People across the country and around the world came together then. Canadians opened their homes and their hearts to passengers whose flights had been diverted to Canada, stranding them for several days. Citizens and leaders of countries with which America was often at odds set aside their differences, setting up impromptu memorials and signing books of condolence. Americans lined up to donate blood; they donated money in unprecedented amounts to help the victims and their families. The country came together. Partisan politics didn't exist. Patriotism swelled. American flags sold out in every store. American pride and determination were on display everywhere.

These cowardly attacks changed our country forever. Airline travel will never be the same. Two new wars have cost the lives of thousands of American military, and irreparably altered the lives of many others who survived, but now must face traumatic brain injuries, lost limbs and post-traumatic stress disorder. Despite the loss of several of terrorism's top leaders, those who would destroy us still present a threat to us and our way of life.

Our country is more divided than I can ever remember. Partisan politics are seriously impeding the ability of our elected officials to carry out the nation's business.There seems to be no middle ground, no willingness to compromise, no interest in doing what is best for the country. Focus is simply on getting reelected, slamming the other party, and serving those who donate the most money. We have a record deficit that our so-called leaders seem unwilling or unable to confront. Citizens are fed up with Congress, whose approval level is tied at an historic low of 13%.

I hope that as we solemnly mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11/01, we will use this as an opportunity to renew the focus on what we share in common rather than on what divides us. I hope we will be inspired to set aside partisan rancor and to work together to return our country to greatness. Those who died as a result of the attacks of 9/11 deserve no less.

Friday, September 2, 2011

When Dreams Die

My local paper (published twice weekly) recently ran a column titled "When Dreams Die, Find New Ones." That started me thinking and prompted this blog entry.

As a youngster, I don't think I had any big dreams, other than one day living in California. I remember watching the Rose Bowl parade in Pasadena on New Year's Day, and being so envious of the people along the parade route in short sleeves. I was living in suburban Chicago, which was always cold, snowy and usually gloomy at that time of year. I have always hated cold and snow, and I still do.

That dream came true when I and my then-husband moved to the San Francisco area in the summer of 1980. I lived in California until 2010, except for three years in Houston, which made me realize I did not like living in hot, humid Texas. In 2010, I retired and moved to the Albuquerque area, which is hot and very dry. But I like it here.

I didn't really dream of a career in a certain field, but fate stepped in and provided an interesting career path for me anyway. I worked for the National Security Agency as a linguist for three years, for a very large humane society in California for eight years, and then I was hired by NASA, where I worked for 20 years. Along the way I got to spend time working in the Russian Mission Control Center outside Moscow, visit the highly controlled Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center and get a private tour of the space museum operated by the S.P. Korolyev Rocket and Space Corporation (Energiya) in Moscow. 

Since retiring, I have created some modest dreams for this phase of my life. These dreams -- three of them -- all reflect my increasing desire to express my creative side. They are to:
  • finish writing the book I started two years ago and get it published
  • sell enough of my photographs to, at a minimum, cover the annual cost of my Web site (
  • increase the number of people who follow my blog to a minimum of 25 from the current total of 15. I would love to have even more followers so I don't feel as if nobody ever reads what I write.
Those dreams are pretty modest and they should be attainable. I know the book will be finished; I am wrapping up my review now, and my co-author will soon resume writing her part. Several people have expressed an interest in purchasing a copy. I believe it will find a good market among adoptive parents and prospective adopters. Besides, it's a story about overcoming obstacles and finding hope where there appeared to be none. That should make it appeal to even non-adoptive people.

Promoting my photography site and blog are a bit more difficult. I've never been good at self-promotion, but I am gradually doing more to get the word out about both my blog and my photography site. I have sold 10 photographs so far, but I am still a very long way from being able to cover the annual cost of the Web site.

After first believing I had no creativity, and then ignoring and even denying my creative side for many years, it feels good to at last have some creative outlets. The next question is, what will I write about once the book is finished?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Good Influence

As part of my research for a book I am co-authoring about my experiences raising a daughter adopted from Russia, I have been going through letters and essays my daughter has written. I ran across one that was particularly touching.  She wrote this essay last year as part of her work at Sylvan Learning Center. Titled "Good Influence," the essay read:

This essay is about my mom, and what a great influence she is on me and my family.

My mom adopted me when I was 11 years old from Russia. Ever since I’ve been part of her family, I have learned great things from her. My mom is a big animal lover, which made me want to be around animals. Like this year I’m helping out at Watermelon Ranch Rescue where I spend time with animals. She also enjoys writing and so do I.

Other than being a great mom, she supports me and what is best for us. At one point last year I was doing really bad in everything and my mom thought that it was best for me to be away from home. We had troubles last year but this year we’re back together as a family.

Being away from home has taught both me and my mom to understand, listen and communicate clearly with each other. My mom has been really into photography all her life, which made me want to try it. Now we take pictures together. It’s one of the funnest things I like to do with my mom. I feel very lucky to have her as my mom.

In a blog post a year ago, I wrote about what makes someone a 'real' mom. It isn't genetics or the act of giving birth to a child that makes a 'real' mom. My daughter's birth mother isn't her real mom; I am. It's nice to know that she appreciates all I have done for her. Despite a terrible childhood and a rocky time for a couple of years after I adopted her, she is a great almost-18-year-old, and a kind and compassionate young lady. I am lucky to have her as my daughter.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Food for Body and Soul

I recently started to volunteer at St. Felix Pantry. Although I have donated money and food for many years, and I have wanted to volunteer at a food bank for a long time, they have always been too far from home. St. Felix is very convenient, so it was time to stop wishing and get involved.

Having food to support one's family is something I've never thought much about, but it is such a critical thing. Food is necessary to sustain life, of course, but it also plays such an important role in our social customs and interactions with others. We go out to eat with friends; we have potlucks; when someone is very ill, we take food to the house. When I went to an outdoor concert recently with three other women, we were asked to bring 'something to share.' Sharing food with others, whether it's a full dinner or some cheese and crackers, just makes the gathering more special.

I cannot imagine not having enough food. My pantry and freezer are typically full, and it annoys me when my teenage daughter says "There's nothing to eat here." She doesn't realize how lucky she is, particularly given her background in Russia, where she frequently went hungry. Imagine what it must feel like to have to wonder whether your box of food will last the week, or to not have the freedom to shop and buy what you want because you can't afford it.

St. Felix Pantry requires no proof of income. A simple application listing name, address and phone number is all that is necessary. Clients can visit the pantry and the clothing area once a week. When the doors open at 9 a.m., there is always a line of people waiting to get inside for food.

I work a 3-hour shift on Wednesday mornings, either in the food distribution area or in the clothing area. First, I helped with produce, refilling boxes of fruits and vegetables, assisting clients and making sure people took only the amount of bread allowed for that day. The limit was one loaf of bread and one package of English muffins, rolls or buns. It all depends on how much food is donated. During my shift, there was an abundance of bananas, but only a few packages of strawberries.

About half-way through my shift, I was moved to the clothing area, where I sat at the front desk, checking to make sure each shopper had a card that allowed a once-a-week visit. People were allowed to take six items of adult clothing and six items of children's clothing, in addition to household goods such as sheets, lamps, cookware, etc. Children also were allowed to take one toy.

Before volunteering at the panty, I wasn't sure what to expect. I don't routinely interact with the poor, and I expected most of the clients to be either elderly or Hispanic. But I can't really categorize the clients that day. They were of all ages and ethnicities: young adults with and without children, middle aged and elderly; male and female; black, white, Native American and Hispanic. Let's put this stereotype to rest: I don't think there is a 'typical' person in need of food assistance. Times are tough, food is expensive, and unemployment is high. Hunger knows no bounds; the common thread is that people are going hungry, and St. Felix Pantry is there to help.

I noticed a couple of things: Most people were very grateful for the food and clothing. Some thanked me, and one man said "God bless you" a couple of times. The food is donated by local bakeries, dairies and grocery stores. Much of the produce is not of top quality cosmetically, but it is edible and free. The clothing and household items are donated by individuals.

After getting a pillow and blanket from the clothing and household goods area, one man said he was going camping because the forest areas have been reopened since the fire danger has decreased. Another man decided not to take any bread that week because his freezer was already full of bread. I was glad that he decided against being greedy and taking something he didn't need. A thin man with very unkempt hair and beard came to the clothing area in search of a backpack to make it easier to carry his possessions. He didn't find a backpack, but he was thrilled with the canvas zipper bag he did find. He sat in the reception area putting his donated food into the bag and talking about how much easier it would be to do all the walking he had to do with his items in a sturdy bag instead of in smaller plastic bags.

The other thing that struck me was the way people treated each other. There was no pushing or shoving by clients, and volunteers treated clients with respect. Among the core values of the pantry are respect for human dignity and compassion.The clients may be poor, but volunteers treat them with great respect. I found myself going out of my way to help people and provide information. One woman started talking to me about how to grill fava beans, while an elderly Hispanic woman asked me to bag up some onions for her. One person apologized profusely when I informed her that she could take only one loaf of bread (she had three in her hands), although a couple of men ignored my reminder and took two loaves. I wasn't going to confront them, so they got away with taking extra bread that day.

Ordinarily, I shy away from interacting with people I don't know, but something about volunteering at a food pantry prompted me to be more  welcoming and helpful. People thanked me for volunteering, but I think I am the one to be thankful. I am thankful that I can afford to provide food for my daughter and myself, and I am thankful for the opportunity to be of service to others not so fortunate. Finally, I am thankful for the opportunity to learn about others with whom I seldom interact, and to remember that we all are human.

 Reminders of one's blessings are always good for the soul. And I am grateful for the reminder -- and the food -- provided by the good folks at St. Felix Pantry.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The Road to Happiness

I ran across a yellowed newspaper clipping the other day as I was cleaning out a file drawer. The contents make a perfect topic for this blog. The brief item, titled "The road to happiness," was credited to the Seattle Times. There is no author listed.

The introduction states simply that "Scientific and anecdotal evidence suggests there are influences you can control to increase happiness." The list is as follows, verbatim from the clipping:

Be grateful: Dwell on the good things in life.

Forgive: Let go of anger and hurt.

Make friends: The happiest people enjoy great friendships.

Challenge yourself: Lose yourself in challenging activities that you enjoy.

Be good to others: Research shows that altruism causes others to be nicer to you, makes you feel good and creates an upward spiral of happiness.

Let small things slide: The happiest people don't fixate on little things that go wrong.

Money isn't everything. Being rich may make you a bit happier, but pursuing wealth may require sacrificing close social relationships and challenging activities.

That's the end of the item. It is short but packed with good advice. I have a mixed record when it comes to implementing those seven items. On the success side, I made a gratitude list a couple of years ago, but it would be a good idea to dust it off and review it, just as a reminder. Challenging myself is something I have done for many years, and it is something I continue to do. And I try to be good to others (except telemarketers and others who call me to ask for money). Those calls annoy me to no end.

On the 'hard-to-do' side is forgiveness (especially people who do terrible things to helpless people and animals) and making friends. I'm in the middle on the letting go of small things and not worrying about money items.

So it's a mixed bag, which gives me a chance to appreciate my successes while still challenging myself to work on the things where I am not as successful as I would like to be. I guess that is called personal growth.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Tears for the Animals

I cried last night. Then I cried again. And again. And again.

I cried for all the abused animals I read about on Facebook. Thoughts of animal abuse  raced through my head, the painful images of suffering and death keeping me awake well into the night. No matter how much we try to help, there is always a new, more horrible story of abuse. Every time I think I have heard about the worst possible cruelty to an animal, another, more horrible, story surfaces.

I cried for the donkey set afire by two laughing men. I cried for the dogs who spend their lives chained to a tree or a dog house, alone, neglected, lonely, suffering in summer's blistering heat and winter's bone-chilling cold. I cried for the animals deliberately starved to the point of death, and for those who endure beatings and kicking. I cried for the 31-year-old horse wantonly killed by an unknown person with a gunshot to the head. And I cried for the tiny kittens viciously beaten by two young children, the attack encouraged by their mother. One kitten died; the other, a little guy named Dexter, is fighting for his life. I cried for the three little puppies viciously raped by the son of a known dogfighter. One little girl died of her injuries; the survivors remain seriously traumatized and fearful of men.

I cried for the millions of dogs and cats killed every year in the United States because the animal shelters and animal control facilities are full. I cried when I thought about the cruel and uncaring people who work at some of these so-called 'shelters' and who seemingly would rather kill animals than put forward effort to get them adopted or into rescue. I cried for the animals given up by the people they love because they are 'too old' or 'too destructive' or there is 'no time' to care for them or the people are 'moving and can't take' the animals with them.

I cried for the dogs forced to fight in blood-splattered rings, who will either be killed by the other dog or by humans if they fail to fight well. I cried for the innocent 'bait' animals, torn limb from limb to whet the fighting dogs' lust for blood. I cried for the dog, locked in an apartment when his humans moved out, who died of starvation, his head resting in an empty bowl as he waited for food that never came.

I cried for the wolves, chased by hunters in airplanes or snow-mobiles, shot, trapped and slaughtered simply for being wolves. I cried for the whales chased to the point of exhaustion, then killed by grenades shot into their bodies so wealthy Japanese can feast on their flesh. I cried for the emaciated young mountain lion that wandered into town in search of food and water during this state's worst drought ever, only to be shot and killed "to protect the public."

I cried for Rosie, the gentle Newfoundland shot by the police as she hid in the bushes of her own yard, scared of the intruder. I cried for the golden retriever shot because she barked at a cop as she stood on her front porch. I cried for the dogs confined to tiny cages, constantly pregnant, as they churn out litter after litter so their owners can make as much money as possible on their puppy mill operation. I cried for the puppy roasted alive over an open flame by a woman in China as someone watched and photographed the torture, but did nothing to stop it.

Then I looked over at my dog, peacefully sleeping on the floor by my bed, under the cool breeze of a ceiling fan, her comfortable bed nearby. She is nearly 13 now, her yellow coat mostly gray, her hips and back riddled with arthritis. But she has not a worry in the world. The worst thing she has to endure is an occasional grinding of her toenails (she prefers that to nail clippers). She gets special food twice a day to help with her kidney stones. She gets medicine for her arthritis pain and low thyroid levels. She is walked daily. She always has fresh water. Her life is good.

Then I cried again, as I wondered what causes some people to abuse animals. Why do they abuse their spouses and children? My daughter, adopted from Russia at the age of 11, was abused frequently by her birth mother. One of the first things I told her was that she never needs to fear being hit again. Do people abuse animals and kids out of anger? Do they abuse because they are sociopaths or psychopaths? Do they abuse because they get some perverted sense of pleasure from it? Because they themselves were the victims of abuse? Because they like the sense of power and control it gives them?

Whatever the reasons, the cruelty must stop. There is a new momentum, a new determination to demand that the laws and the courts deal seriously with those who abuse animals, to end the abuse of animals, and to end the widespread killing of animals simply because they are unwanted.

Hurricane Katrina changed the way people and relief agencies think about caring for animals in the aftermath of disasters. An emaciated pit bull in New Jersey named Patrick, hours from death from deliberate starvation, has changed the way people around the world think about companion animals and those who abuse them.

People are no longer willing to simply shed tears for the victims of abuse. They now are demanding action. Groups are springing up everywhere, demanding reform of the sometimes cruel practices of animal shelters and dog pounds. They are demanding greater efforts to find adoptive homes for the animals entrusted to them. They are campaigning to end the practice of selling puppies and kittens -- nearly all from mass-production puppy or kitten mills -- in pet shops. They want harsher punishments for those who abuse animals, and stricter laws on the books. People are stepping up to act when they see a bad situation involving animals. They are reporting suspected animal abuse; they are donating food and bedding to shelters, large bags of ice and frozen water bottles to a shelter where the animals were sweltering in the heat and humidity. They are demanding that those in charge of animal shelters be held accountable for their, and their staffs', actions. Business as usual will no longer be tolerated when animal lives are at stake.

I suspect that I and others will shed many more tears before real change is effected. Change comes slowly much of the time. But now, at least, change is in the wind. Letters and phone calls to companies that sponsored animal abuser and felon Michael Vick's 'reality' show on the BET network were successful in getting the show canceled. Shelters are creating new ways of promoting their adoptable animals, and more are moving to the 'no-kill' philosophy. It can be done.

As someone who has worked for and volunteered with a variety of animal organizations over the years, I look forward to the day -- perhaps not in my lifetime, but some day -- when there will be no more tears shed for an abused animal, because there will be no more abuse.