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Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Peach

Consider the peach.


This wonderful fruit, first cultivated in northwestern China around 2,000 BC, is such a delightful part of summer. I love fresh peaches. The old, gnarled peach tree in my California yard treated me to a bounty of fresh, juicy fruit each August. These weren't the hard, tasteless peaches found in most grocery stores. They were large, sweet and picked at the peak of ripeness, unlike the rock-hard peaches sold in most grocery stores. And they were organic peaches, grown in my own yard.

Of course, neighborhood squirrels helped themselves to the bounty, often taking a single bite from a peach and then moving on to another. But there was always enough to go around. I loved to pick a couple of peaches, wash off the fuzz, and enjoy the still-warm sweetness. They also made lovely peach cobblers.

For me, peaches personify summer, with their yellow flesh and pink/orange skins. Tasting and smelling a good peach always takes me back to childhood visits to my grandparents in southern Illinois, where peach orchards abounded. My family would buy bushel baskets of fresh, sweet peaches, which my mother and grandmother would can for consumption later in the year.

Today's store-bought canned peaches are a poor substitute for the real thing. They are pre-sliced, have no skins and usually come packed in a sickly sweet syrup. The smell, taste and feel of the luscious fruit are missing. The sensation of biting into a fresh, ripe peach and feeling the juice dribble down my chin is lacking.

I love summer fruits, especially ripe blackberries and fat strawberries. But for all-around goodness and eating pleasure, nothing beats a fresh peach. I planted a peach tree in my back yard last year. It is doing well despite the harsh climate of central New Mexico. And I really look forward to the time it begins to bestow some of its plump, juicy peaches on me.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

African Dreams

I recently returned from the trip of a lifetime: a two-week African safari in Kenya and Tanzania. It was the most amazing trip I've ever taken.

On our first day in Nairobi, we visited a center for young elephant orphans, many of them left orphaned when their mothers were slaughtered for their ivory. I 'adopted' a young bull elephant named Bomani. We also visited the Nairobi giraffe center, home to several endangered Rothschild giraffes.

We also visited the Nairobi giraffe center, home to several endangered Rothschild giraffes. A couple of the giraffes would 'kiss' people holding a food pellet in their lips, gently using their long tongues to grab the pellets.

Every day was filled with exciting new experiences. Even days when we didn't spot any new species of mammal were filled with new things. One day we watched wildebeest gathering for their annual migration. Another day we watched zebra line up for their migration. We saw mother zebras with their youngsters, whose stripes are brown until later in life.
We watched a pride of lions circle a lone buffalo that seemed intent on becoming the lions' breakfast. Another time we watched in awe as a lioness studied a group of zebras walking toward a watering hold, then suddenly charge into their midst in a cloud of dust. A huge bull elephant grazed peacefully just a few yards from our vehicle during an early morning game drive, seemingly oblivious to our presence. We saw a giraffe bend down awkwardly to drink from a pool of water.

The diversity of wildlife, both mammals and birds, was astounding.

And on the last game drive of our last day, our guide spotted a family of five cheetahs heading out for their late-day hunt. There was a mother cheetah and four 10-month-old cubs. That all the cubs had survived to that point was a miracle. Typically only one in four cheetah cubs survives.

Like many Americans, I suspect, I never paid too much attention to stories coming out of Africa. This trip has opened my eyes to a whole new, very large continent with a wide diversity of peoples, cultures, languages and customs. I was struck by the genuine friendliness and helpfulness of the people of Kenya and Tanzania. Children along the roads as we passed by would smile and wave at us. Other children we encountered while stopped at a gas station or while visiting a Kenyan elementary school seemed very curious about people with white skin. I greatly enjoyed learning about, and from, some of the local people from a variety of tribes and backgrounds. During a nature walk with one local man, I learned that he lacked formal education because his family moved around with their herds of animals, but his knowledge of the world around him was most impressive.

Maasai man in lion skin headdress.

Member of Kikuyu tribe in Kenya.
Maasai children

Maasai medicine man (left).

Samburu man.

We visited a rural school in Sweetwaters, Kenya. Despite the poverty of the area and the complete lack of typical school supplies and equipment, the children all seemed happy and eager to learn. Some of the classrooms had dirt floors. There was no electricity in the room, no running water and no computers, microscopes, whiteboards or any of the other things typically found in American schools. Due to a severe shortage of textbooks, as many as five students shared a single book. This meant that the children were unable to take books home with them to study or practice their lessons. Many of the children walked up to 3 miles to school each morning and another 3 miles home after school. They had to be at school by 7 AM to do various chores at school. They brought their lunch from home -- typically a container of rice -- and that was the only food they got during the day. There is no lunch room or cafeteria, so they found a spot outside in the dirt to eat lunch.
If the school's garden did well, they would be provided with vegetables to supplement their rice. All students wear uniforms paid for by their parents. In poor families, especially those with multiple children in school, this is a real hardship. Children start to learn English in first grade, along with Swahili and typical academic subjects. When they reach eighth grade, they take a standardized exam that will determine whether they are allowed to pursue higher education. Students in lower grades also must take and pass standardized exams.

Teachers in the US are always complaining about having to teach large classes. Imagine being an eighth grade teacher at the Sweetwaters School and having 52 eighth-graders in your class.  Imagine trying to teach these eager learners with nothing but an old blackboard and a couple of small pieces of chalk.

Despite the obvious poverty, this was an amazing school. The teachers were enthusiastic, the children were happy, involved and wanted to learn. I didn't see any of the boredom and blank stares so prevalent in American public schools.

On many levels, this truly was an amazing trip. I'm so grateful that I had  the opportunity to spend even a couple of weeks in Africa, and I dream of returning to experience even more of this fascinating part of the world.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

What Can I Do?

I am very discouraged these days. There are so many causes for concern, and I feel powerless to do anything about them.

I don't know how many more stories of animal abuse and slaughter I can take. My heart breaks every time I read a story about a magnificent elephant or rhino murdered for its tusks or horn, or see pictures of some fat-ass slob grinning stupidly with the body of a beautiful animal killed for 'sport.' I'm not talking about hunting for food. I'm talking about the slaughter of lions, zebras, cheetahs, wolves, bears and other wild animals. Of course, I can't ignore the never-ending pleas for foster or adoption of animals on death row, and for money to care for them and treat their wounds. Our justice system has a long way to go before it metes out the punishment animal abusers deserve. Far too often they get off with probation. And don't forget the slaughter of 4 million animals in 2013 by the secretive, taxpayer-funded USDA Wildlife Services agency. This world sickens me.

And it isn't just animals that are suffering. Local news has been filled with reports of children being abused or killed by their parents or guardians. Little kids are left to die in hot cars by parents who decide it's more important to go shopping or play video games or get high than to care for their kids.  Kids are kicked to death ("I kicked him the wrong way") or beaten or shaken or raped by those supposedly there to protect them.

Our planet is suffering, too. The oceans are filled with trash, rivers are polluted, forests are being destroyed, 'development' of vacant land continues unabated, glaciers are melting, and we are running out of water. Animals are driven from their homes as more and more construction goes on in their habitat. As they seek food in previously uninhabited areas, they encounter humans who consider them a threat or nuisance, and the animals are killed. Elected officials in parts of Utah are demanding that the federal government turn over to the state millions of acres of land. A few even rode their ATVs onto land that is off limits to motorized vehicles because it is rich in archeological sites. Rabid followers of these thugs have even threatened to kill Bureau of Land Management staff.

And let's not forget the current abysmal state of our country. We have a totally dysfunctional Congress whose members are far more interested in getting reelected and lining their own pockets than in dealing with the nation's business. They answer to no one but their puppet masters who fund their campaign coffers. And if one party can make the other party look bad, so much the better. Face it -- this country is a mess. We owe China billions of dollars, the economy is limping along, millions of jobs have disappeared and are not coming back, the infrastructure (roads, bridges, electric grid, water system, etc.) is on the verge of collapse, the country is being overrun with hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants, and we spend billions of dollars every year on foreign and military aid to other countries, many of which hate us. While we shovel billions of dollars to other countries and engage in unwinnable wars, our own people go hungry, live on the streets or in slums, or go without medical and mental health care. 

I feel incredibly helpless in the face of such overwhelming problems. We are in the 21st century, yet so many act as if we're still living in the dark ages. I do what I can to help. I donate money to a variety of non-profit organizations struggling to make a difference in the world. I boycott ivory, I boycott products from states whose wildlife 'management' policies consist of little more than shooting, trapping or poisoning the offending species. I recycle and reuse. But I feel that my efforts make no difference. 

I recently adopted two dogs from a woman who is gravely ill. People have told me what a wonderful thing I did, and how this must have brought great peace of mind to their former guardian. What I felt, however, was that since these dogs were in no danger of being killed in an animal shelter, perhaps I should have adopted a dog or two that were at risk of being killed.

People tell me I can't fix the world or solve all its problems. That is a hard reality, and one I must accept. But nonetheless, it hurts to hear about the continuing destruction, abuse and slaughter that goes on in this world. It hurts to recognize the reality that this world, rather than becoming kinder, is getting more cruel. It hurts to see that the never-ending pursuit by politicians and businesses of ever more money trumps everything else. And it hurts to know that I and others like me -- people with limited resources who want to make this world a better place -- are powerless.

I'm not wealthy, so I cannot donate millions of dollars to a favorite cause. I cannot change the cruel behavior of others. I cannot stop 'developers' from turning natural habitat into still more houses or shopping malls. And since I cannot cure the world's problems, all I can do is soldier on, doing what I can to help. I will continue to sign petitions, send letters, boycott offending states and countries, donate when I can, and adopt animals in need. I will continue to live my life in a positive way, striving to make a difference in the lives of the dogs I rescue, and the people my donated food helps to feed. I will continue to recycle and reuse, to take my own shopping bags to the store when I shop. 

And I will continue to pray that maybe, some day, people will care about this planet and all the creatures trying to survive with us supposedly more intelligent humans.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Riding the Rails

What is it about trains that is so appealing to so many people? Is it the sense of romance, or the fact that trains harken back to a time when life was simpler and moved at a slower pace?

Recently I took my third excursion on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which runs 45 miles from Durango, Colorado to the old mountain mining town of Silverton.
The trip takes 3-1/2 hours each way, including two stops to pick up 3,500 gallons of water for the steam locomotive.

The trip to Silverton is a pleasant one, going through deep canyons, across the churning, ice-cold Animas River, and through acres and acres of pine trees and soaring mountains. Taking a steam locomotive is quite a feast for the senses.

I love the sound of the locomotive's whistle.  I love the hypnotic clickety-clack of the steel wheels on the iron rails, and I like the rhythmic swaying of the cars. Watching the steam billow from the whistle, seeing the black smoke belching as the train struggles uphill, and seeing clouds of steam shooting from the side of the engine add to the experience. Perhaps the only sense  that doesn't really enjoy the train ride is the sense of smell. The sooty smell of coal smoke can be overwhelming. I often get a headache from inhaling the smoke, ash and cinders that pour into the air as the locomotive chugs along. I enjoy riding in the open air gondola car, which is much better for photography. The downside is inhaling coal smoke and returning covered in a layer of black soot.

When I lived in California, I sometimes rode the commuter train to a station not far from my work and then took the shuttle bus. The trip was only a few miles long, but it took longer to go by train and shuttle than to drive, although the journey was much more relaxing. I've also taken the train from my parents' house in suburban Chicago to downtown on a couple of occasions. While living in Russia, I took the overnight train from Moscow to St. Petersburg, which was a fascinating experience. The air conditioning on that train worked only when the train was moving, and it seemed to make several stops throughout the night, but it was an unforgettable experience.

One of my dream trips is to ride the Trans-Siberian Railway. National Geographic offers a 17-day journey starting in Vladivostok in far eastern Russia and heading west to Moscow. Unfortunately, the trip costs $26,000, and I don't know anybody with that kind of money who would like to travel with me. So for now at least it will remain a dream, but what an amazing trip that would be.

Riding a train is relaxing, allowing passengers to read, doze, chat with fellow passengers or simply gaze out the window. Train passengers see scenery not readily visible from an airplane flying at 35,000 feet. Trains also give us an opportunity to escape the madness of the overly commercialized world. There are no billboards along the railroad tracks, and once out of the cities, there are no more flashing neon signs, McDonald's golden arches or other commercial pressures.

I would love to see passenger trains in America make a comeback. Anything that can force us to slow down and take life at a more relaxed pace is a good thing.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014


My birthday is this month, and you know what, I could care less!

Birthdays never have been a big deal for me. I feel the same on my birthday as on any other day of the year. There will be no parties or celebrations. I will do what I do every day -- exercise, run errands and do chores, and in general take care of whatever needs to be done. My daughter takes me to dinner and brings me flowers, and Facebook friends post their birthday greetings. That's it. And that is more than enough.

It's not as if I had anything to do with when I was born. I simply appeared on a given day, and henceforth that became my birthday. This year's birthday marks a turning point in some ways, and it does remind me that the bulk of my years is behind me. I am no longer young, or even middle-aged. I am a senior citizen, and although my body does show some of the effects of time (gray hair, loose skin, a very few wrinkles, loss of muscle strength), I still feel like a much younger person. I am very active and involved in the world around me. Some people let age define them. They consider themselves 'old' when they reach a certain number. Some get depressed when they turn 40, or 50 or 60. But really, what does that number matter? Some people are 'old' in attitude at a young chronological age, while others still feel and act young regardless of what the calendar says.

Age is just a number. It doesn't define who I am or what I do. As Abraham Lincoln said, "And in the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years."

Thursday, July 3, 2014

It Is What It Is

I saw an ad on Facebook a while ago that asked a simple question: "When was the last time you relaxed?" I don't remember what product or service the ad was touting, but I thought it did pose an interesting question.

It isn't easy for me to relax, and it never has been. My mind often races as I think about things I 'should' do or need to do. Although I am retired, I often don't feel relaxed. There is always a list of chores to be done, whether mowing the grass, raking leaves, waiting for a service person, making repeated phone calls to deal with a problem, needing to schedule an inspection, or something.

But on a recent trip to Africa on safari, I actually did feel relaxed. Much of the time I had no cell phone service, no Internet and no Wi-Fi. There were no televisions or radios in the tented camps where I stayed, and I never saw a newspaper. Surprisingly, after an initial period of adjustment, I really enjoyed being disconnected from society. I admit to feeling a bit stressed when an ATM in Kenya ate my debit card, but even then I kept repeating my new mantra, "It is what it is."

I used this phrase numerous times throughout the trip as I adjusted my western way of thinking to the slower pace of African life. I was powerless to change the way things were done, so I figured I might as well just accept it and go with the flow. It is, after all, what it is. Many of the tented camps where I stayed got their electricity from generators or from solar energy. As a result, electricity was only available for certain hours of the day, typically early in the morning and then again from late afternoon until midnight. Because there was nothing to do in my tent after dinner, and the lights were too dim to permit reading, I got in the habit of going to bed early and arising when the sun came up. This, I realized, put me in tune with the natural cycle of things. This wasn't a bad way to live, I decided.

Some of the roads were horribly bumpy and rutted, but my traveling partner and I simply said "It is what it is." It was the price we had to pay for getting to experience Africa 'in the bush' and see so many amazing wild animals up close. I know we were both really tired of being accosted by swarms of Maasai villagers every time our vehicle stopped for fuel or a park permit as the people thrust their arms through the windows and tried to get us to buy their jewelry. But "it is what it is." They are a poor people, and they were simply trying to get some rich Americans (in their eyes) to buy some jewelry from them.

I decided "It is what it is" is a pretty good attitude to have when dealing with things over which I have no control, especially when visiting a foreign culture where things may not move at the pace to which we Americans are accustomed.

So I shall try to slow down, relax and not stress over things so much. After all, "It is what it is."