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Friday, May 27, 2011

Are You Smarter Than My Car?

You know the TV show "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?"? I do well in answering the elementary school questions from that show. But after buying a new and extremely high-tech car, I am beginning to wonder whether I am in fact smarter than my new Ford Fusion hybrid.

This car is so intelligent it's almost scary. If I push the 'auto' button, the car will determine whether to turn the heater or the air conditioning on based on my preferred temperature and outside conditions; figure out how long the system needs to run, and whether to recirculate air or draw fresh air from outside. If my cell phone rings, I push a button on the steering wheel, say 'Answer" and I can talk to whomever is calling, hands-free. The only requirement is that the caller's number has to be in my cell phone's list of contacts, and I have to have the phone with me.

The car doesn't have an installed GPS navigation system, but it will give me verbal and written directions. I just say 'Directions' and the car asks for the city and state, followed by the address I want to get to. The directions are spoken as I approach each turn, and they also appear on the radio display that usually shows the artist and song title of the satellite radio stations I listen to.

My Fusion warns me with a colorful display that appears in the rear-view mirror if I get too close to something when backing up. If I don't respond to the display by stopping the car, the car beeps at me. If I am backing out of a parking place, the car warns me of approaching cross traffic, even if I can't see it. A small yellow dot appears on the side mirrors if a car is approaching in my blind spot on either side.

I can play music from my iPod and have the car categorize the songs for me according to type of music: jazz, classical and so on. I haven't mastered that yet. I'll probably have my teenage daughter set that up, as she is a whiz at technology.

The owner's manual is some 300 pages long. I keep it on my nightstand and read a few pages before going to bed. I have to confess, I have never read a car owner's manual so thoroughly. And still, I had to pull over one day to peer at all the buttons on the control panel so I could figure out how to turn off the fan.

There isn't just one manual with this car; there are three. The biggest covers everything: radio, lights, blind-spot detection system, safety, tires, towing, everything. The satellite radio has a brief guide; and there is one for the on-board Sync system, which provides all the information I could ever want. I can even ask the car to find a certain type of business for me. If I'm driving around in an unfamiliar area and get a yen for a fresh doughnut, I can tell the car to find doughnut shops in whatever city I want, as well as how to get there. I can get current weather conditions in Seattle, Chicago, Miami or any major city. I can get current sports scores or market reports, all by asking. Everything is voice-activated using a small microphone on the visor.

One thing this car can't do is park itself, although there are some that can take over the hassle of parallel parking by doing it themselves, while the driver sits up front, hands off the steering wheel.

The only downside I see to all of this technology is the distraction factor. My new car is a hybrid, and the electronic display offers a wealth of information. Whereas a typical car has a speedometer, odometer, tachometer and fuel gauge, my car offers four levels of information to be displayed. I am using the next-to-simplest, and still, I can see at a glance the charge on the hybrid battery and whether it is increasing or decreasing, current miles per gallon, the number of miles until the gas tank is empty, fuel level and efficiency (a new, green leaf grows as the mpg increases). Keeping track of all this information can cause me to take my eyes off the road, and it is easy to be distracted.

I am not a techno-phobe, and I think it's really amazing how much technology Ford has built into this car. But I have to wonder how long it will be before cars really are smarter than their drivers.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Lessons from a Country Star

I usually don't pay much attention to celebrities, and I find almost none of them to be good role models. But a 2-hour televised biography of country music star Dolly Parton has made me reconsider. Throughout the program, I was struck by her humble attitude, her generosity, her self-deprecating sense of humor and her gratitude for all that she has achieved. She is definitely not a typical 'star.'

She grew up, as she said, "dirt poor" in Tennessee, one of 12 children. Her singing career started when she was 10, and she gradually achieved more and more fame in the country music world. One of the things I admire about her is her insatiable desire to try new things. A hugely successful songwriter and musician, she branched out into acting and record producing. After her success as a country music star, she also met with considerable success in the pop music world.

She also is a very astute business woman. When Elvis Presley's manager called and said that Elvis wanted to record Dolly's song "I Will Always Love You" but insisted that Elvis would record it only if he owned half the rights to the song, Dolly refused. Not too many people would have stood their ground and refused to accede to Elvis' demands. Dolly did. That was a very wise decision. When Whitney Houston later recorded the song for the movie The Bodyguard, the song brought Dolly millions in royalties.

Things that I admire about Dolly Parton:
  • Her sense of humor: "I spend a lot of money to look this cheap." Explaining that she and her husband, to whom she has been married for 45 years, like to travel in their RV: "When you're a celebrity, you can't just stop at a gas station to go pee."
  • Her attitude: She said she wakes up every morning expecting it to be a good day. She looks for the joy in things. When the cast of the film Steel Magnolias was complaining about the heat and humidity of a particularly uncomfortable day, someone asked Dolly why she wasn't complaining. She explained that she had always wanted to be rich and famous, and she was, so she had no reason to complain.
  • Her generosity: Her Dollywood theme park has brought much-needed jobs and revenue to a very economically depressed area of Tennessee. Through her Dollywood Foundation, the Imagination Library supports childhood literacy by providing a new, age-appropriate book each month to every enrolled child under age 5. Although the program started in her home county in eastern Tennessee, it now provides books to children in 40 states and one U.S. territory, England and Canada. Her goal: to foster the love of reading in preschool children. Every enrolled child, regardless of family income, gets a new book each month.
By the end of 2009, nearly 1,100 communities were participating in the program, serving just under 561,000 children. More than 6.2 million books were distributed in 2009. Since the program began in 1996, just over 23 million books have been distributed.

Clearly, Dolly Parton isn't one of those celebrities who just shows up to 'help' when the cameras are rolling or for a photo op. Her commitment to helping is personal, it is sincere and it is on-going. Despite her fame and great wealth, she doesn't take herself seriously. She laughs at herself and her over-the-top appearance. More importantly, she recognizes her blessings and appreciates them.

I cringe whenever I hear somebody refer to some overpaid thug athlete or drug addict actor as a 'role model.' One person even referred to animal-killer Michael Vick as a 'role model' because "he makes a lot of money."

I generally don't like country music. But Dolly Parton is my idea of a celebrity role model. She rose from poverty to great wealth and fame, but she hasn't let celebrity and riches go to her head. She recognizes, and is grateful for, all she has. She uses her wealth and her fame to help others.

Now there is a true role model. Think how much better this world would be if more people emulated her generosity, upbeat attitude and sense of humor.

Friday, May 13, 2011

In Memory of London

Dogs are remarkable creatures. In addition to their phenomenal senses of hearing and smell, and their unconditional love and service to humans, they possess another trait that most humans can only dream of.

'Dogs can forgive their abusers; I don't think I can.'

I wrote this on Facebook a couple of hours after learning of the death of a white boxer named London. Her death was the direct result of the abuse inflicted on her by her previous 'owner.' He let her starve in the back yard of a house (hardly a home) in central Florida. She was never fed, her only source of water was a slimy pool, and her only shelter was under piles of garbage.

Emaciated and so weak she could barely stand, London finally was rescued and taken to an animal shelter. From there the good folks at Florida Boxer Rescue took her to a veterinarian, where she was bathed and fed. After treatment, she was sent to a foster home, where most likely for the first time in her life, she was loved.

London's story soon spread around the world, and a Facebook page called London Reborn attracted more than 6,100 supporters. Her fans anxiously awaited each update about London's progress, donated to help pay for her mounting veterinary costs, and supported the growing movement for harsher penalties for animal abusers.  

Sadly, London's extended period of starvation made it difficult for her to handle even small amounts of food. She was weak but struggled mightily to survive. When London took a turn for the worse, she was rushed to an emergency veterinary hospital, where she was diagnosed with a fungal infection -- from the stagnant water she was forced to drink -- that caused her internal organs to start shutting down. She was given food by syringe, started on treatment for the fungal infection and treated for her nausea. A few days later came word that her condition had worsened. Her heart, already weakened by an advanced case of heartworms, finally gave up. London was gone. Her struggles and pain were over.
Although London's death was devastating to her foster family and her legions of followers, we can find some comfort in knowing that before she died, London knew what it was like to be loved. She took her last breath in the arms of the woman who rescued her from the animal shelter.

Word of London's passing sent a shock wave through her supporters and resulted in an outpouring of grief from around the world. Her foster parents announced that London's Facebook page will remain active and become an on-line meeting place for those who care about animals. "To honor her memory we will maintain her page as a place to spotlight other dogs in need and follow their recoveries that she may be reborn through them. It will bridge the cracks that neglected and forgotten dogs fall into. We will call it London's Bridge. We feel this is the best way to honor her memory and the love she taught us."

Despite her long-term abuse, London still loved people. She, like the majority of abused dogs, forgave humans. Dogs have a remarkable capacity for forgiveness. I, like many others who care deeply about animals, do not have this ability. As a Christian, I know that I should forgive people for their sins. But deliberately abusing animals or children, or neglecting them to the point of death, is something I simply cannot forgive.

People often speak of karma getting back at those who abuse animals. Call it karma or God's justice, it still takes too long for justice to be served. We need stricter penalties for animal abusers, and we need them NOW. We also need better enforcement of anti-cruelty laws. Far too often, law enforcement and prosecutors either deny that abuse has occurred, or fail to take it seriously. And the punishments for those convicted of animal abuse are too often only a slap on the wrist: probation or community service.

What happened to the person who abused London and who was directly responsible for her death? He was given two citations and the case closed. Two citations? I am not familiar with Florida laws, but I would guess that a citation is something given for failure to buy a dog license or for letting the grass get too high in your yard. It is a pretty minor 'penalty' for causing the death of a dog.

We who assume responsibility for the life of another being must take that responsibility seriously. If we do not, and the animal suffers because of our actions (or lack of actions), society must demand -- and receive -- a far greater accountability and punishment than now exist.

Those who abuse animals often abuse their spouses or children, or go on to murder people. Animal abuse isn't just about animals. Animal abuse is a symptom of a seriously sick mind.

The time for excuses is past. The time for "It's just a dog" is past. The time for "He grew up in a dysfunctional family" as a justification for animal abuse is past. It is time for stricter anti-cruelty laws. It is time for a national animal abusers registry, similar to a sex offenders registry. It is time that law enforcement and the judicial system take animal abuse for the serious crime it is. It is time to update and upgrade the penalties that can be meted out by the courts to animal abusers.

London didn't have to die. Had she been treated properly, or surrendered to a rescue group or animal shelter, she would still be alive today. Instead, this sweet dog is gone, her foster family and her fans are grieving, and her abuser still walks the streets of central Florida, unforgiven.

I am sorry, London. Be at peace.

Shopping and Spas

While on my second involuntary trip to the local mall with my daughter in less than a week, it occurred to me that I must be a very unusual representative of my gender. Why? Because I hate to shop, and I refuse to go to a spa, get my nails done or get a massage.

First, the shopping. I don't mind grocery shopping, and if I'm some place new, I do enjoy browsing the shops featuring local arts and crafts. But ask me to go to the mall and I am filled with a sense of dread. I have never been someone who goes to the mall just to browse, or to hang out with friends, which is a popular pasttime of teenage girls these days. If I need something from the mall -- a new blouse or a pair of shoes perhaps -- I will go, but it most definitely is not something I enjoy.

I approach trips to the mall much as I suspect the Navy SEALS who recently killed Osama bin Laden approached their military operation -- get in, get what you went for, and get out. I simply do not enjoy wandering through racks of clothes, trying on things I will never buy. If I can avoid going to the mall completely by shopping at a stand-alone store, I will. Or if I can order what I need on-line, so much the better.

I remember once during high school, a friend and I took the train to downtown Chicago. I tried on a striped number that had both of us laughing so hard we had tears in our eyes. So at least once, I had a good time shopping. I don't know what happened to change my attitude toward this all-American pasttime, but change it has.

Now the spa thing. I don't like strangers putting their hands on my body, so the whole idea of a massage or facial repulses me. I have been going to see an occupational therapist for several weeks, and she uses her hand to work on a tendon in my shoulder for several minutes every visit. That I can handle, since it's part of a medical treatment. But a massage? No way. It's too creepy.

And I can do my own nails, so I'm not going to pay somebody $25 plus tax and tip to apply nail polish. It seems like a huge waste of money to me.

My daughter, on the other hand, loves to shop. She can spend hours at the mall. And she loves to get her nails done, something she pays for herself. She also had a massage a few months ago. I was able to get a 1/2-off deal at an Albuquerque massage parlor, so I took her for a 1-hour massage. She loved it.

I don't mind getting my hair cut (although I dislike the chit-chat that seems to be expected), but you can keep the other hands-on stuff.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Mother's Day

Mother's Day is upon us once again.

It's a bittersweet day for me, as my mother died at the age of 80 4-1/2 years ago. So I won't be making a phone call or sending her a card this year. What I really wish I could do is send her a box of See's chocolates. She said they were the best chocolates she had ever eaten. I took her a box of See's for her birthday, just a month before she got sick. I'm glad she got to enjoy her favorite candy toward the end of her life, although none of us realized it at the time.

My mother grew up in a hard-working, traditional family. She was a stay-at-home mom until my younger sister was well into school. Then she worked as a medical transcriptionist in a radiologist's office. Like her mother, she was a great cook. Her fried chicken was beyond compare. I loved her pot roast and mashed potatoes, too. The only thing I remember her having trouble with was pie crusts. She always said that her pie crusts just weren't good, but I never had any complaints about them.

My mother not only was a good cook, but she also canned fruits and vegetables, something I never learned to do (or had an interest in). One thing she canned that I hated (and still do) was stewed tomatoes. I don't like tomatoes anyway, and the stewed ones were just awful. I guess they were good if you like stewed tomatoes, but I couldn't stand them. She also made bread-and-butter and dill pickles.

I have been a mother for all of 6 years, ever since I adopted an 11-year-old orphan from Russia. Our Mother's Day traditions have been unusual, to say the least. Julia usually makes a card for me. One year she took me to brunch at Sweet Tomatoes after saving money from her allowance and lunch funds. One year she did absolutely nothing. She was going through a really rough time (as was I as a result) and acting out a lot. She had said she was going to cook dinner for me, but when it was time for dinner, she was "too tired" to cook. Last year she gave me a couple of paintings she did in art class.

I have no idea what, if anything, she has planned for this year. She is aware that this Sunday is Mother's Day, but she hasn't mentioned any plans, and I'm not asking. This year, her high school prom is the Saturday night before Mother's Day (I wonder who planned that?), with the dance ending at midnight. So who knows what we will do this year. In any event, Mother's Day observances need to come from the heart, not from a sense of obligation.

Some women are natural mothers; they're just really good at being mothers. I never felt that I am one of those women. I came to motherhood later in life, and I have had to face many problems common to adopted children: attachment issues, trust issues, self-esteem issues. I am reassured, however, that a couple of therapists, including one who specializes in attachment issues, have told me that I am doing a good job raising Julia. They're the experts, so I trust that I really am a good mother, although sometimes I wonder.

Personally, I think the special days for mothers, fathers, grandparents, etc., are too phony. Did you ever notice that the ads for Mother's and Father's day always show attractive young parents with little kids? What about older parents with teens or adult kids? I guess they aren't important to the advertisers and merchants.

Kids should let their parents know every day that they are special and loved, just as parents should let their kids know they are loved, too. Setting aside a special day, spending tons of money on cards, flowers and chocolates, seems forced somehow. I would much rather spend the day with my daughter, taking pictures, visiting the zoo or going hiking, or being surprised with the gift of a candy bar or an invitation to dinner 'just because.'

Although my mother is no longer physically present, I always wish her a happy Mother's Day in heaven. I hope she knows how much her family misses her.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Making The Connection

I have loved dogs for many, many years, despite being terrified of them at one point in my childhood. All of my dogs have been adopted from animal shelters, rescues or the streets. So I don't understand why I have a problem with 'the adoption thing.' Let me explain.

One recent weekend, my daughter wanted to stop by a large dog adoption event in which several rescue groups and shelters were participating. We weren't there to adopt, just to visit. The dogs were housed in pens under a large white tent in the parking lot of a local PetSmart store. As we walked by the pens, my heart was broken by the sight of so many homeless and unwanted dogs. It was all I could do to keep the tears at bay.

Little puppies crawled over each other. Chihuahuas ran excitedly to the front of their pen, wearing little 'Adopt Me' bandanas. Other dogs wagged their tails and sought even the briefest bit of attention. A black-and-tan coonhound bayed mournfully. Some dogs, either tired or depressed, slept curled up in the back of their pens.

I am bothered by the whole looking-for-a-new-dog process. I haven't always felt this way, so I don't know what has changed. But walking up and down the aisles, seeing so many dogs hoping to be chosen and taken home, not only breaks my heart, but it also bothers me on a deeper level. I feel as if I'm on a car lot, browsing the cars to see which model and color I want. But these are not cars; they are living, breathing, feeling animals. And depending on where they are, they may face death if someone doesn't adopt them within a certain amount of time.

Don't get me wrong. For me, adoption is the only way to get a dog. I would never consider going to a pet shop (where the dogs typically come from mass-production puppy mills) or spending hundreds or thousands of dollars for a dog 'with papers.' So I will always get dogs from a rescue or animal shelter. But something about the process makes me uncomfortable.

Maybe it's the helpless feeling that comes from knowing that I can save only a handful of dogs during my lifetime, and that when I decide to add a dog to our family, I will adopt just one despite so many in need. Maybe it's the realization that the dogs I don't choose face an uncertain future. Maybe it's the unspoken judging of the animals that bothers me. "Too big." "Too young." "I don't care for that breed of dog."

Then, of course, there is the search for that intangible, unexplainable feeling of connection when I do see a dog that calls to me.

I love golden retrievers, but my heart dog was a 25-pound Jack Russell terrier/cattle dog I named Jackson. He was stubborn, difficult to house train and sometimes grumpy, but he still holds a special place in my heart.

What is that undefined something that causes person and dog to connect? I can understand when someone is looking over a litter of puppies and one pup consistently goes to the person, or curls up on someone's lap. In that case, the puppy chooses the person. But choosing a dog at an animal shelter is so different. There is little interaction between person and dog. What causes them to connect? It isn't just breed preference or size or age or color of the dog, although those may be factors. I generally don't care whether I adopt a male or a female dog, and color really isn't an issue, either.

What is this connection and where does it come from? It cannot be explained. And it cannot be forced, I know that. It's either there, or it isn't there. This feeling has generally been clear whenever I adopted a dog. When I recently went to see a Jack Russell terrier available for adoption, I felt no connection, despite the fact that this dog was the 'right' breed, size, age and gender. With two female dogs at home, I felt that if I ever decided to add another dog, a male would be the right choice. I put a lot of thought into whether or not to adopt this dog, but the connection just was not there.

I guess this is one of those things I never will be able to explain. I will continue to adopt dogs as I can, because I know there will always be dogs that will connect with me. In the meantime, I will just have to deal with the uncomfortable feeling of judging and passing over many dogs as I search for just the right one.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Hope Begins With You

Today I had the privilege of walking in the American Cancer Society's Making Strides Against Breast Cancer event in Albuquerque. Despite cold and very windy weather (42 degrees, 30 mph winds and a wind chill of 31), more than 12,000 walkers turned out.

I always get so inspired by participating in these events. This marked my fifth event for the ACS, but my first Making Strides walk. The walkers ranged from babies in strollers to senior citizens. They ran the gamut of races and ethnicities, from African Americans to whites, Hispanics and Asians. People walked solo, in family groups and on teams. There were thin walkers and overweight walkers, athletic walkers and those who struggled to complete the 5 miles. Most inspiring of all was seeing all the women wearing 'survivor' sashes. It's sad that so many people have been diagnosed with cancer, but encouraging to see so many survivors.

It also was encouraging to see so many young people. Many of those braving the below-freezing temperatures were teenagers. Some were walking, while others stood along the route to make sure the walkers stayed within the closed lanes of the roadways. Some handed out water along the route.

One group of men, all of them wearing pink T-shirts, danced and sang to entertain the walkers. I passed a boy, perhaps 7 or 8 years old, wearing an oversized T-shirt with the words "Real men wear pink" emblazoned on the back. A team of women wore shirts with the words "Fight like a girl" on them.

Despite a 'no dogs' dictum, there were a lot of dogs at the event. Rocco, a boxer, wore a pink shirt with a frilly ruffle around his neck. I saw a chihuahua wearing a quilted pink coat, a pair of pugs wearing pink jackets, and other dogs with pink ribbons.

So in spite of the weather, it was a great day. Yes it was cold and windy and nasty. But the minor discomfort the walkers put up with for a couple of hours was nothing compared with what people fighting cancer endure. I was cold, but that is nothing compared with the pain of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, and with the fear that must envelope those who hear the dreaded words, "You have cancer."

I am honored to have been able to take part in today's event, and I am humbled by those who donated a total of $500 to this cause in my name. Most touching of all was the $5 cash donation from my daughter. The newspaper the day after the walk said we raised $510,000!

I thought this might be my last ACS walk, but who knows? "Hope begins with you" were the words on a sign along the walk route. And it's true. Hope begins with each person who walks, with each person who donates, with each advance in detecting and treating this awful disease. So maybe a year from now, I'll be hitting the road once again. 

My part is easy. The real heroes are those who are fighting cancer.