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Sunday, December 28, 2014

Farewell to 2014

The end of 2014 is just a few days away. This has been a busy year, filled with both sadness and  happiness.

Sadly, we said goodbye in April to our 12-1/2-year-old golden retriever, Tia, due to a brain tumor that ultimately caused unstoppable seizures. Tia was my daughter's best friend, and her death left a huge hole in our family.

I did a lot of fun things this year. In January, I made a trip to Yellowstone National Park, primarily to observe the various thermal features (geysers, mud pots and thermal pools) and observe wildlife in winter. I tried my hand at snowshoeing for the first time, which was a lot of fun. February found me traveling to far northern Canada to visit Churchill, the polar bear capital of the world. The bears were already on the polar ice, but the purpose of the trip was to see and photograph the northern lights. We did see them, but they were not very spectacular. One morning's wind chill was -68 F, which seriously curtailed that day's outdoor activities. I did go on my first dog sled ride, however, albeit a short one.

In March, I drove to Sedona for a couple of days of hiking and photography. Late March sent me on a bus tour of central Europe. The group visited Poland (Warsaw, Krakow, Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps) and the 'black Madonna'. Next came beautiful Vienna, where I saw a performance of the world-famous Lippizaner stallions.
We visited Budapest and took a dinner cruise on he Danube, then toured Prague and made a day trip to Bratislava, Slovakia's capital. During this trip I was taken under the wings of three delightful Jewish women who provided great fellowship and fun for me as a solo traveler.

Yellowstone called me back in April for a few days of searching for wolves (seen only through high-powered spotting scopes).

In May, I joined a friend I met on last year's hiking trip to Turkey on a fabulous African safari to Kenya and Tanzania. As luck would have it, no one else signed up for that trip, so we had the safari vehicle to ourselves. We spent many wonderful days on game drives and nature walks, photographing and observing elephants,lions, buffalo, gazelles, cheetahs and dozens of bird species. We ended our trip with a few days in Cape Town, South Africa, including a visit to the cell on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years..

July took me hiking in Washington's beautiful Olympic Peninsula and enjoying the quiet beauty and lush wilderness of this special area. A special treat was a river rafting trip on the restored Elwha River.

Another trip to Yellowstone in November blessed me with the opportunity to observe a wolf pack interacting with a couple of grizzly bears (through a spotting scope) and to hear a nearby wolf briefly howl.

This year's travels wrapped up with a hiking trip to the tropical paradise of Costa Rica. Although the hike was more difficult than advertised due to the deep mud and ever-present tree roots on the trails, we had two amazing guides, wonderful food, outstanding accommodations and terrific animal sightings. We saw several kinds of monkeys, macaws, hawks, coatimundis, toucans, sloths, and the most breathtaking sunset anyone in our group of eight travelers had ever seen.

In July, I adopted two papillon sisters, little dogs whose owner was fighting a terminal illness and could no longer care for them. They are almost 8 years old and are quite a change from the retrievers to which I had been accustomed. They are much more needy than my previous dogs, but they have adapted well to their new home. We are working on improving their socialization skills and leash behavior, but they are making progress.

My daughter broke off a long-term relationship with a less-than-ideal guy, and is now dating a wonderful, polite, considerate fellow who is an airplane mechanic in the Air Force. She plans to complete her cosmetology studies by early summer.

So that was our 2014. I am looking forward to another busy year of travel and adventure in 2015, beginning with a hiking trip to New Zealand.

I hope that 2015 brings you happiness, love, peace and good health.

Friday, December 26, 2014

What Happened to Christmas?

What happened to Christmas this year?

The television was filled with screaming commercials about finding 'the perfect gift.' The mail and the newspaper were chock-full of ads for everything from jewelry to pajamas to appliances. The news was filled with stories about the rush of last-minute shoppers. But despite the frenzy, something was missing this year.

Several people mentioned that they just didn't feel the Christmas spirit this year. I understand this sentiment, as I felt exactly the same way. I wasn't much in the Christmas spirit last year either, but I attributed this mostly to my age and the fact that I'm fed up with the overly commercial aspects of this holiday. And of course at my age, I don't want more stuff. There is nothing I need; there is nothing I want.

Even my 21-year-old daughter didn't have the Christmas spirit. So what's behind the holiday malaise this year? Is it the racial discord, the protests and riots that have been sweeping the country? Is it a general change in our country's attitude toward life and the world? Is it an improving, but still somewhat shaky, economy? Or is it, as I suspect, the over-commercialization of what was once a religious holiday? The push to buy, buy, buy for Christmas now begins in August, and it never lets up until the holiday. The traditional greeting of 'Merry Christmas' has been supplanted by 'happy holidays' or 'season's greetings' so as not to offend anybody. Why can't we wish people a Merry Christmas? If someone doesn't celebrate Christmas, fine. Just smile and say 'thank you. The same to you.'

I suspect that what this country needs is a return to old values. We need to rediscover the value of family and friends, the importance of the simple things in life, and focusing on what we have rather than on what we think we need. We need to look for opportunities to be of service to others, for opportunities to share our blessings, our talents and our time. What we share with others will ultimately come back to us tenfold. I believe that if more of us would do this we would find a greater sense of personal satisfaction and perhaps some of the emptiness we feel despite our always busy lives would be replaced by feelings of accomplishment.

Do we really need to get up long before dawn to stand in a long line to fight for the latest electronic gadget? Do we need to put ourselves into debt in order to prove to our family members that we love them? Can we not be satisfied with the gifts of spending time with those we care about, or with making and sharing simple gifts with others?

I was pleased to read a heartwarming article in today's newspaper about the congregation of an Albuquerque Jewish synagogue that prepared and served breakfast on Christmas morning at a homeless shelter so the employees could spend the morning celebrating with their families. Although the members of the synagogue don't celebrate Christmas, they certainly exemplified the Christmas spirit. Even better, several families brought their children to help because they want to instill in them the spirit and importance of giving back.

So kudos to the members of Congregation Albert for helping me see that the spirit of Christmas still lives.




Tuesday, December 23, 2014

My Christmas Wish

This Christmas I wish for no packages under the tree, and for nothing of material value. I have all that I need, and more. Instead, I wish for
  • a return to civility among Americans
  • an end to racial discord
  • food for the hungry
  • housing for the homeless
  • an end to wars that take our service men and women and put them in harm's way
  • a government that actually listens to the people and does what is best for the country, not what is best for a political party or elected 'representative'
  • an end to the war on wolves, cougars, bears and other predators
  • respect and concern for the environment
  • an end to child and elder abuse
  • a government that takes care of its own country first, then worries about those in other countries
  • concern for the environment and protections for public lands, rather than allowing special interest groups (cattle ranchers, mining companies, etc.) to plunder and pillage them for corporate profit
  • a new view of our world that sees inherent value in other animals, not just economic value 
  • a renewed emphasis on what really matters in life.
I recently visited the Central American nation of Costa Rica. The United States could learn a lot from this small country of 5 million residents. Its environmental consciousness is very high. Great strides are being undertaken to protect sensitive plants, animals and lands. Recycling is a way of life. Hotels pride themselves on earning four- or five-leaf certifications for their sustainability programs. People use motorcycles and scooters, not huge gas-guzzling cars and trucks, to get around. They eat locally produced, fresh foods, consisting of mostly seafood, fruits and vegetables. Serving sizes are appropriate, but not the massive size served in America.

The world seems to be at a tipping point, and if we don't do something soon, I'm afraid it will be too late. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

Blowin' in the Wind

I woke up this morning with the words of the song '500 Miles' and the voice of Mary Travers echoing in my head.

Last night, I watched a PBS program titled '50 Years with Peter, Paul and Mary,' and that song was one of those featured in the program. Thinking about the tremendous impact that trio had not only on American music, but on how we as Americans think about ourselves and our nation, made me yearn for a return to the music of that time.

American folk music reached its pinnacle in the 1960s, a turbulent time indeed. Folk music was a vibrant catalyst for social change. It played a prominent role in the civil rights movement, in the anti-nuclear movement, in the farm workers' move for better working conditions, and in the growing opposition to the war in Vietnam. 

Folk music had a powerful message. It rallied people to action, and it brought attention to a variety of social injustices. Prominent musicians such as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary used their talents to rally people to effect social change. They didn't sing just because they were paid to sing. They sang because they believed in the messages of their music. Some were active participants in the movement to cause social change.

I miss that music. It had a message, it spoke to people and it was easy to listen to. Songs such as 'If I Had a Hammer' and 'Blowin' in the Wind' made me think. This music questioned the status quo and dared us to dream of a better world.

Sadly, it seems that things haven't improved much over the past 50+ years. Pete Seger died earlier this year, Mary Travers in 2009. The voices of a generation, of a series of protests, are falling silent. Folk music and its influence are but a distant memory. We need a new generation of musicians to continue the battle cry against social injustice, wherever it is found.


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Creating a New Version of Christmas

Last year, I turned against Christmas.

No, I'm not denying the real reason for Christmas, to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ (although some scholars believe the birth actually happened in April, not December). I am, however, fed up with the constant media hype about 'the perfect gift' and commercials depicting a loving man buying his beautiful family a $50,000 Lexus for Christmas. I am fed up with seeing Christmas decorations in some stores in August. I am fed up with being bombarded by demands for money from various non-profit organizations, some of which send me an appeal every week starting in July.

I understand that not everybody celebrates the religious aspects of Christmas, and I have no quarrel with that. I once had a Jewish colleague at work who celebrates Christmas in its non-religious aspects. But for many people, Christmas is nothing more than an adventure in shopping and spending. And apparently stores and online sellers would like to keep it that way. People get trampled or shot as they rush to get the latest must-have electronic gadget or toy on Black Friday (which now starts on Thanksgiving). Fist fights break out as people squabble over the last remaining item without which there just will be no Christmas. So this is the Christmas spirit?

My mailbox, my e-mail, and my Facebook feed are swamped with appeals for money. Yes, I know that times are tough and the need is great, but enough is enough! I cannot donate to every worthwhile charity; I cannot save every animal in need. I cannot help fund research into every worthwhile medical issue or help feed every hungry person. I do what I can, but it seems that never is enough. The more I donate, the more frequent the appeals for still more money.

I don't want to hear radio stations playing nothing but Christmas music on November 1. I want to be able to enjoy Thanksgiving without it being just a bump in the road on the way to the over-hyped Christmas season.

I am disgusted by the whole business. This year, I will not mail Christmas cards to anybody. My shopping, which is very limited already, will be done online with organizations that use the proceeds to do good. So far I have ordered salsas and preserves from Shane's War, to benefit an organization that works to improve the lives of animals in underfunded animal shelters. I also will shop at the Southwest Indian Foundation, which works throughout the year to provide food, shelter and heat to impoverished residents of the Navajo Nation. I will make fudge and a variety of cookies to send to some out-of-town friends.

I plan to spend the week before Christmas in a place where commercialism and greed haven't yet overtaken the true meaning of this day. Then I want to enjoy a day with my daughter and my dogs, although her Scrooge boss expects her to work both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

 I love Christmas music, and I have more than 40 CDs of Christmas tunes by a wide variety of artists. I have a collection of ornaments from around the world -- Russia, Poland, Kenya among other places. I like to decorate the house, although putting up a tree is a chore. I want to find ways to celebrate the true meaning of this special holiday, and that does not include fighting throngs of shoppers at the mall and driving myself into a frenzy in an ill-fated attempt to find 'the perfect gift.' I will not run up massive debt buying things for people who don't need or want anything. Instead, I will make my shopping count by buying from organizations that put the money I spend to good use helping others.

This season really is about giving back to our communities, helping those not as fortunate as we are, fighting for what we are most passionate about (whether that is an endangered animal species, preservation of wilderness, fighting an injustice or feeding the hungry), and—as old-fashioned as it might appear—doing what is right. Please join me in creating a new, less stressful, kinder and more meaningful version of the Christmas holiday.