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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.

Friday, July 8, 2011

My Time Capsule

I've been going through file cabinet drawers this week, and it has been fascinating to see the old items I had saved for so many years. I didn't realize it, but this 4-drawer file cabinet held my personal time capsule.

The first thing to catch my eye was several folders of materials about grief and the loss of companion animals. In 1987, toward the end of my 8 years as communications director for a humane society in California, I started a pet loss support group.  I also wrote an article for the humane society's quarterly magazine, of which I was editor/writer/photographer, about the loss of my beloved dog Patches.

The response to the article was overwhelming. Many people wrote letters about the loss of their beloved animals, sharing personal stories about their pets. As I was sorting through the folders, I paused to read some of these touching letters. Back then, letters were either typed or hand-written, which added special poignancy to them and made their emotions even more personal.

In another folder I found an article I had written for my hometown newspaper about my high school Russian club. The caption beneath a photo of the five officers listed me as 'press correspondent.' I was a junior in high school and in the first Russian language class ever taught at that school. Although I remember writing for my junior high school newspaper, I had no recollection of having been the 'press correspondent' for the  Russian club. I went on to serve for 8 years as the director of communications for the largest humane society on the west coast, followed by 20 years as a NASA public affairs officer and manager. That yellowed article presaged most of my professional career, although I never planned on that career route.

Another indication of where my interests lie was a laminated, color photograph of a timber wolf from an unnamed publication. This is interesting since for the past several months I have been a volunteer for a wolf and wolf-dog rescue group in New Mexico. Wolves have always fascinated me, but I didn't remember how far back this interest actually went.

It is interesting to look back and see how my different interests have all connected as my life unfolded. I first took a Russian language class during high school, then went on to earn my B.A. in the teaching of Russian. That led to a job as a voice language transcriptionist doing highly classified work for the National Security Agency. After leaving that job and going to graduate school, I started volunteering with a small local humane society, where I did writing and TV appearances on its behalf.

When I then moved to California, I was hired as the first communications director at a very large humane society. My letter to the editor of the local newspaper caught the attention of someone at NASA, who invited me to join the animal care and use committee that reviewed proposals for the use of animals in research. That led to the offer of a job in that NASA center's public affairs office. Eventually, I was asked whether I would be willing to travel to Moscow for a couple of weeks to help with NASA public affairs work there. I was the only NASA public affairs officer who spoke Russian. I made five other trips there, including one that lasted 3-1/2 months. One of those trips also resulted in the offer of a job at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

After 3 years, I moved back to California, where I read about the need for host families for a group of Russian orphans visiting the state. Since I speak Russian, I volunteered to host a 10-year-old girl, whom I adopted a few months later, although adopting a child was the farthest thing from my mind at the time I volunteered as a host.

When I retired from NASA and moved to New Mexico last year, I learned about an opportunity to meet a wolf and a wolf-dog, which led to my volunteering with the wolf rescue group, primarily as photographer and Web support person.

It's amazing to see how my disparate interests have all connected to bring me where I am today. My interest in Russian and animals came together at NASA. They have intertwined to provide wonderful experiences in so many areas -- working for a humane society; meeting celebrities such as John Glenn, actor Bill Pullman, singer/actor Mandy Patinkin and numerous astronauts; shaking hands with President Bill Clinton; seeing countless space shuttle launches and landings; working in Mission Control Houston and Mission Control Moscow; spending time with wolves; adopting my beautiful daughter, now nearly 18; living in Moscow and being able to talk to local residents in their language (although my daughter once told me that I "sound funny" when I speak Russian).

These seemingly unrelated interests came together in a most unique and unexpected way. It makes me wonder what the next phase of my life will hold, and where my interests will lead me.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Celebrating Our Independence

Today is July 4, Independence Day. It is a day many celebrate with cook-outs, parades and fireworks. But how many people stop to think what Independence Day actually means?

Independence Day marks the birth of the United States of America as an independent country, no longer a colony of Great Britain, no longer subject to the at-times tyrannical rules and taxes of the 'mother country'. But beyond that historical fact, for me, it means a time to pause and think about the greatness of America.

I know, we have been going through a rough time economically. Costs are high, far too many Americans are unemployed, the national debt keeps growing by leaps and bounds while Congress and the White House do nothing to deal with the tough choices that must be made. Our soldiers continue to fight and die in two seemingly unwinnable wars on the far side of the world. Attacks on the environment and the animals trying to co-exist with us continue unabated. We seem to have sold our soul to China. Many people are struggling to pay their bills and hold on to their houses. Things look pretty bleak, especially in comparison with the America of days past. Remember the TV series 'Happy Days'? Well, these aren't happy days for many people. Our country seems adrift and less-than-united.

But think about it. We who are fortunate to live in this great country have so many things for which we should be grateful. Food may be expensive, but there are no food shortages. There are programs to help feed those who need assistance. Our country is safe, with no civil wars or ethnic fighting. We are free to move about the country unrestricted, limited only by our desires and our finances, to live wherever we choose to live. We can practice our religion, or no religion, as we wish. If we are American citizens, we are free to vote in elections -- a right not available to people in many countries. In other places, citizens literally risk their lives to cast their ballots.

We can speak our minds without fear of retribution or arrest. We can gather in peaceful protests against the government or a business without fear of being shot or dragged off to an uncertain fate.

For me, the best thing about living in America is the chance to decide the course of my own life. That is true independence. I studied what I wanted to study in college. When I wanted to switch careers, nobody told me I couldn't. I vote my conscience. I am free to volunteer and donate money to causes that mean the most to me. I can set up my own Web-based business, with no fear that some government agency might shut it down because I violated some political line of thinking. I can have heated discussions and not fear that my neighbor or relative will report me to the authorities.

All of these great things don't come without a price, of course. Hundreds of thousands of American military personnel are serving in the most dangerous places on Earth -- Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries where simply being American puts them at huge risk. Thousands have died in those two countries alone.

As the saying goes, "Freedom is not free." So on this Independence Day, take a moment between the hamburgers and the parades and the fireworks. Think about those brave men who took the bold step more than 200 years ago to form this great country, facing charges of treason from Great Britain. Think about all those who have served, and who are serving, to make this country great and to keep it free and independent. Think about the many choices and decisions you have been able to make, independent of government influence or coercion.

Then go out and celebrate our country's, and your, independence.