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Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Perfect Gift

Want to find 'the perfect gift'?

It's easy. It doesn't come in a box. You don't have to shop for it or order it or drive all over town trying to find it. It always fits and it never goes out of style. There are no screaming commercials involved. Best of all, there is no financial cost.

What is this 'perfect gift,' you ask? It isn't a fancy car or expensive jewelry or clothes that the recipient doesn't want or like. For me, it is spending time with my daughter, baking cookies or preparing Thanksgiving dinner together. After years of a somewhat contentious relationship as she worked through the demons of her horrible childhood in Russia, we now have a great relationship. She is now a mature, considerate young woman of 22. We are mother and daughter, but we are also close friends. She knows she can come to me with any concerns or problems, and I do my best not to judge or try to solve the issue for her, but to offer suggestions and advice. 

Her salon is having a cookie exchange next month, and she is planning to bake cookies at my house, with its larger kitchen, lots of cookbooks and Mom's advice and ingredients. Spending time with her, making memories and traditions that she can share with her children in the future, is what I like about the Christmas season. I have always done a lot of holiday baking, including my world-famous fudge, but as I got older I scaled back on the cookie making. Now I can continue to bake and share my knowledge with her.

I don't know how many more opportunities there will be to share these special times. I keep thinking about moving to a more progressive, less dangerous state, and one with a warmer winter climate. She doesn't want to stay in Albuquerque forever. Her boyfriend in in the military, so he can be deployed at any time. So as the old Latin saying goes, 'Carpe diem' or 'Seize the day.'

Another 'perfect gift' for me is being able to make a large donation to my favorite charities, including the hospice that cared for my dad at the end of his life, as well as ]golden retriever rescue groups from which I adopted two of my dogs. Finally, I always buy food baskets to be distributed to needy members of the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona. Now those are 'perfect gifts.'

So there is no need to search high and low for 'the perfect gift.' The perfect gift is here, just waiting to be shared..  

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Think Gratitude

"Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend."

On this eve of the day Americans set aside each year to offer thanks and gratitude for our many blessings, I want to pause and offer a few thoughts.

Our country, and indeed, the world, is embroiled in a fight against the evils known as ISIS, Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda. These shadowy organizations pose a major threat to the lives and safety of millions of people around the world. They have no conscience, they show no mercy in their campaign to subject the world to their corrupt version of Islam. Quite simply, they must be stopped. I am grateful that unlike the people of France, Libya, Nigeria, Tunisia and other countries, we have largely been spared from their horrors.

And we who live in the safety of this great nation -- despite ongoing threats from those who would do us harm -- have so much for which to be thankful. Let's start with our first responders -- police, firefighters, EMTS and other medical personnel -- who give up time with family to serve those who need help regardless of the day or time.

I am grateful for the members of our military, especially those far from home and in foreign lands, and for the family members left behind to face yet another holiday without their loved ones.

I am grateful for those among us who continue to raise their voices and fight the good fight to save and protect the planet from those who see it only as something to be exploited. Countless individuals and organizations in the U.S. and around the world fight each day to stop pollution, trophy hunting, killing contests and the killing of elephants and rhinoceros for their ivory and tusks. Others fight to prevent Congress from selling our public lands to the highest bidder for mining, drilling or clear-cutting of our forests.

I am grateful as well for those who work tirelessly to save domestic animals from abuse and neglect, and for those dedicated souls who work to safeguard the most vulnerable among us -- the children and elderly. Our system may not be perfect, and far too many fall through the cracks, but we would be so much worse without it.

Think of those who serve hot meals to the hungry and homeless, who provide counseling and warm clothes and a safe place to sleep to those who have none. And be grateful that we are blessed with so many selfless people.

I also am saddened that Thanksgiving is becoming little more than just the prelude to a season of frenzied shopping and overspending in search of 'the perfect gift.' We need to save the shopping until after Thanksgiving. I am grateful that my daughter, at almost 22 years old, recognizes the difference between needs and wants. I have bought her a couple of things for Christmas -- things she can use -- and will give her some money to help with her bills. But long gone are the days when she wanted countless things she didn't need.

I am so very grateful that after years of struggling to find herself and her place in the world, and of struggling with lack of self-esteem, she now is a graduate of cosmetology school, she has a good job in a local salon, and she is in a committed relationship with a very nice young man. Coming from a childhood in Russia filled with abuse, neglect and rejection, she now is able to both give and accept love, and to realize that she deserves to be happy.
  So however you will spend this most American of holidays, I hope it will be filled with true gratitude for all your blessings. And please don't forget those not as blessed.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

I Am Tired

I am tired.

I am tired of wildlife being slaughtered in killing contests to see who can kill the most coyotes, wolves, foxes or whatever in a 2-day period.

I am tired of elephants being slaughtered by gun, spear, poison, snare or any other means so some Chinese can have ivory trinkets.

I am tired of trophy hunters killing bears, tigers, lions, zebra, giraffe, mountain lions and other 'trophy' animals for sport, to spread the hides on the floor or hang the heads on the wall of their 'man cave.'

I am tired of our government officials selling our public lands to the highest bidder so they can be raped and destroyed in the never-ending search for coal (that does little more than cause terrible air pollution), minerals, etc.

I am tired of ranchers being allowed to graze their sheep and cattle on public lands for next to nothing, and then destroying any predator that dares bother their herds or flocks.

I am tired of rhinoceros being driven to extinction so some Chinese or Vietnamese man can make himself feel virile by consuming ground-up rhino horn. Really? Come into the 21st century. Rhino horn just makes men who use it look like weak, pathetic losers. Rhino horn is made of keratin -- the same thing of which our fingernails are made. So go chew on your own finger nails and leave the rhino alone!

I am tired of the pangolin, a small, scaled mammal, being killed so, again, the Chinese can cure cancer with the scales. Grow up, people! Pangolin scales do not cure cancer. They are made of keratin, just like human fingernails. Your mumbo-jumbo, magic potions are a joke. And they are endangering the world's wildlife.

I am tired of our elected officials -- elected in theory to represent the people who elect them -- ignoring the wishes of the people, instead acting only to make their paymasters happy. Lobbyists, big oil and gas, ranchers -- they all have much more influence with elected officials than do we 'little people.' Case in point: In New Mexico, some 70 percent of citizens supports the reintroduction of the highly endangered Mexican gray wolf. But the state game and fish commission, packed by the governor with pro-hunting and pro-ranching shills -- does everything in its power to block such reintroduction efforts. Case in point: The vast majority of citizens oppose giving driver licenses to people in the state illegally. Yet year after year, the legislature refuses to either overturn this ill-conceived law or institute a two-tier system of licenses for those in the state legally and permits good only for driving (and not for use as identification). After all, we don't want to hurt the feelings of the illegals. 

I am tired of Congress refusing to do anything -- anything -- about the escalating gun violence in this country, all because most of the members are bought and paid for by the National Rifle Association.

I am tired of living in a country that has billions to spend on unwanted weapons, but 'no money' to provide health care and housing for thousands of American veterans. 

I am tired of reading about the billions of dollars in foreign aid we give to countries such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan each year, while Americans go hungry every day, or live on the streets or in their cars.

I am tired of writing to my senators and getting a non-answer in response. Recently I wrote to ask that my senators work to defeat several pieces of legislation that seek to remove Endangered Species Act protections from America's wolves. I got no response from one senator. The other sent me a form letter highlighting the history of the Endangered Species Act. Nowhere did he respond to the specifics of my letter.

So yes, I am very tired. And I feel hopeless and disenfranchised. What I and others like me want is irrelevant. Big money is the only thing to which people listen. And sadly, we little people can't compete. Doing what is right isn't important as long as the decisions line someone's pockets.

I worry about the world my daughter and others of her generation will inherit. It is likely to be a world devoid of many species of animals, with denuded forests, polluted water, and national parks sold to the highest bidder for exploitation. 

I'm glad I won't  be around to see this new world, as I know it would break my heart. And what is especially sad is that we have the means to do so much better, but human greed wins out every time. 

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Do You Feel Blessed?

Do you feel blessed?

I do. Despite all the things that have been causing me stress recently, I know that I am blessed.
  • One of my little dogs was sick recently. We never did figure out the reason. But I am blessed to have access to good veterinary care, including a variety of specialists, to try to figure out what was wrong with her.
  • With the arrival of cold weather, which I hate, I am blessed to live in a nice house to keep me safe and warm, and to be able to pay for the propane to keep it warm inside.
  • Unlike many in the state where I live, I am blessed to have enough to eat. I do not have to worry about where I will get my next meal. My pantry and freezer are overflowing with food. So I buy canned goods and other non-perishable foods when on sale, so I can donate them to food drives throughout the year. 
  • I am blessed to have access to safe, clean drinking water.
  • I am blessed with good health. I can see, hear, walk and take care of myself. 
  • I am recovering from a pulmonary issue that has left me coughing and having breathing difficulties. Fortunately, a trip to a local urgent car center provided testing and medications. Fewer than 24 hours later, I am much improved. And all of this at no out-of-pocket cost to me because of Medicare and private insurance. 
  • I have a good, reliable car to get me where I want to go.
  • I have a pension and savings to pay for unexpected bills, such as the new furnace I'm getting next week.
  • I am blessed that my daughter is happy and healthy, and has a good job and a great boyfriend.
  • I am blessed to live in a country that allows me to move wherever I choose to live, to worship as I please and to live my life the way I want to live it.
  • I am blessed to have clothes to keep me warm in the winter. Many do not, and suffer through the cold winter weather. 

Now think of the billions of people around the world who do not have these things, who don't have ready access to food and water, who are homeless, lonely, sick or living in terrible poverty. Think of those enslaved or oppressed by their governments, who are unable to vote. Think of those fleeing for their lives to escape war and persecution and terrorism.

So no, our lives aren't perfect, but we are blessed to have the lives we have.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone, and please share your blessings with those less fortunate.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Are You Serious?

Are the people who are up in arms and calling for a boycott of Starbucks and its overpriced coffee really serious? They are upset because the mega coffee chain made its 'holiday' cups plain red this year, with a green company logo, and left off the previous snowflakes, snowmen and reindeer. They claim the company is 'anti-Christian.' Really? Are they serious?

Since when do snowflakes, snowmen and reindeer signify Christmas? To this Christian, they don't. They signify the winter season, but they have absolutely nothing to do with Christmas.

And really, people, are your lives so shallow that you choose to waste your energy on how Starbucks opts to serve its $6 cups of coffee? Can you not be bothered to spare a thought for the hungry among us, or the veterans suffering from PTSD, or the homeless shivering on the streets at night? How about the millions of refugees from Syria and other countries who walk hundreds of miles in an attempt to find safe haven for themselves and their families? What about the carnage of our youth, including a 9-year-old boy enticed into a Chicago alley and executed because his father is in a rival gang? Is the design of a damn coffee cup the most important thing in your pathetic lives?

And before you decide to boycott or picket or send a nasty letter to Starbucks, consider this. According to a story on CNN,

"Starbucks already picks up the tab for its employees to go to college. But now the thousands of military veterans who work there are getting an added perk: Free tuition for their spouses and children.

"The offer is good for any current or former military member working at Starbucks. They can use the scholarship to send either their spouse or one child to enroll at Arizona State University's online program. 

The company currently pays tuition for all full- and part-time workers who don't already have a bachelor's degree. But this is the first time it's extending the perk to family members of its employees." 

So what are all these people with their panties in a knot doing to help our veterans and their families? What are they doing to help feed the hungry or shelter the homeless? My guess is, nothing.

So stop bitching about a non-issue, get your priorities straight, and do something -- anything -- to help! Maybe you can start by skipping a cup of overpriced coffee in a red cup and use that $6 to buy food for a local food bank. I recently bought 12 cans of vegetables for $6. What did your $6 buy?

What Will It Take?

I follow numerous animal welfare/conservation/environmental/animal protection groups on Facebook. I support some of them financially. Most of these pages have thousands of followers. Elephant Voices, for example, has close to 300,000 followers, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust close to 350,000 fans. Save the Elephants has more than 431,000 fans. The Cecil the Lion page has some 33,000 fans. And the numbers continue to grow.

These numbers started me thinking: Given the large numbers of people who really care about wildlife, why are we so powerless to stop the slaughter? These hundreds of thousands are people who oppose the wanton slaughter of wolves, who oppose the numerous coyote killing contests and who are adamantly opposed to trophy hunting and the killing of elephants and rhinoceros for their tusks and horns. Countless others are equally concerned but have no Facebook accounts.

So why are we so powerless? What will it take before we succeed in stopping the slaughter? What will it take before the human race wakes up and realizes that animals have a right to live, and that the earth is not here for us to pillage and plunder?

It isn't that we don't voice our opposition to these atrocities. We contact members of Congress, governors and newspaper editors. We hold marches and rallies, and we sign and share countless petitions. Why are we so easily ignored?

It has to be that our opposition has BIG BUCKS to buy influence at the highest levels. We also have morals, something that appears to be sorely lacking these days among the high and mighty who run our government on all levels, the oil and gas companies, the ranching conglomerates, the trophy hunting clubs, pro-hunting and -trapping groups, and other 'opposition organizations.'

To be sure, there are a few well-funded pro-wildlife, pro-environment organizations. Some of them even have lobbyists. But the numbers pale in comparison with what the opponents of wilderness preservation, non-consumptive uses of the ecosystem and animal advocates can muster.

We do occasionally see some small progress. The number of great whales being slaughtered has decreased. Recycling has become a way of life for many. But at the rate we are moving, many species will become extinct, the environment irrevocably damaged. State fish and game commissions are little more than the mouthpiece for ranchers, hunters and 'outfitters.' Politicians are in bed with the enemies of wilderness, wildlife and non-consumptive uses of the environment. How else do we explain the wholesale attempts to sell our national parks to oil and gas companies? How else do we explain the annual slaughter of bison in Montana at the instigation of the ranching industry?

Studies have shown that living animals in the wild bring in much more money than do hunters, through eco-tourism, safaris and other venues that leave the animals in peace. When I go on safari in Africa, I know the money directly benefits the local people. The guides, housekeepers, cooks and other support staff typically come from local villages. And while trophy hunters like to brag about how their money helps the local population, in reality most of the money goes to just a handful of people -- the guides and outfitters -- not to the local villagers.

I and many like me go to far northern Canada to view living polar bears, not to kill one to stuff and display in our 'man caves.' The same goes for people who go to Yellowstone for the opportunity to see wild wolves or to Alaska to see grizzly bears close up. These animals are worth so much more alive than dead. I have been to Yellowstone five times in the past two years, expressly to see the wildlife, wolves in particular. My trips contribute to the local economy in the form of meals, hotels, souvenirs and guides.

So the question remains, why does the culture of death continue despite overwhelming opposition to consumptive, non-food uses of wildlife? A recent story on Facebook bragged about a killing contest designed to slaughter so-called 'vermin,' including peacocks, goats, rabbits and other small mammals. Worst of all, children were encouraged to participate in the slaughter. Contests like this aren't hunting. They are held simply to allow the sick-minded individuals who participate to kill living beings for no reason other than 'fun.' Is it any wonder our country has become such a soul-less, violent place?

We need to teach our children compassion and respect for all life. There should be no place in our society for the wanton killing of animals for fun, for trophies to hang on a wall, for ivory trinkets or for the supposed mystical powers of rhino horn, pangolin scales or anything else. Enough is enough!

We know we will have an uphill battle against politicians who ignore the will of their constituents (nearly 70 percent of New Mexicans support the reintroduction of the Mexican gray wolf into its former range), yet the state steadfastly blocks all attempts to do so. We know we are fighting ancient cultures that continue to believe that rhino horn makes men more virile. Fortunately, well-known representatives of these cultures are now speaking out against the use of ivory and rhino horn. We cannot defeat the enemies of wildlife and wilderness with dollars alone. But maybe more people will see the light and realize the inherent value of wilderness and the animals trying to survive.

Sunday, November 8, 2015


Most of us live in a world of color, but how often do we stop to pay attention to the colors that surround us?

I live in the high desert, where there isn't a lot of color aside from browns and tans, But today was a day when I was struck by color. First, I admired the crystal blue New Mexico sky. A combination of altitude (some 5,300 feet), low humidity and clean air make the skies over this state the bluest, most crystalline skies I have ever seen.

Then I noticed the bright red leaves on a tree in a neighbor's yard. We don't see a lot of red
or orange leaves around here, so this tree is a special delight to see amidst the golden leaves of the cottonwoods and aspens.

I made some pumpkin bread today, mixing it in one of my late mother's green mixing bowls. I always think of her when I use one of her three, non-matching green bowls.

As I walked up to my front door, I spotted a few bright yellow flowers still blooming despite the below-freezing overnight temperatures.

At the end of the road on which I live, my neighbor has a bright blue gate. It reminds me of the many brightly painted doors I saw in Ireland. These touches of colors really pop in an area where nearly everything is a shade of tan.
My dining room windows are home to a variety of plants, including a small red cactus of some sort, as well as another non-thorny cactus plant that is about to bloom with a plethora of bright pink flowers. 

As I look out my office window, I see beautiful golden leaves on some trees a couple of houses down. My wool pullover is a bright turquoise color.

As I got older, I gradually, and unknowingly, have shifted my wardrobe colors so now I have a closet full of turquoise and teal (my favorite colors), red and purple clothing. I have some dark blue, black, gray, bright blue and white clothing as well, but bright colors are my go-to items. 

It's nice to see that even in this dry-as-dust area where earth tones predominant in the landscape and on the houses, Mother Nature still gifts us with bursts of color.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A Simple Act with Big Dividends

It had been a hectic morning. One of my dogs wasn't feeling well. And I was once again having trouble getting a prescription filled due to a 'manufacturing issue.' So I was a bit stressed.

But then, as I stood in line at the grocery store, I found the perfect thing to relieve my stress and make some other people feel good. Ahead of me in line was an elderly Native American woman. Small and with a weathered face, she sat in one of the store's electric shopping carts to do her shopping. So I quietly approached the cashier and told her that when she rang up the woman's purchases, I wanted to pay for them.

The woman was waiting to get a pen to complete her check. The cashier asked "Do you want to tell her?" So I said to the elderly woman, "You can put your check away. I'm getting your groceries for you." She looked stunned and asked me why. So I told her that someone had done the same thing for me once, and I told him that I would pay it forward. She asked to give me a hug, and then she gave me a blessing.

The woman, the cashier and I were all a bit teary eyed by then. The cashier told me that I had done a wonderful thing. She said that with so much violence and hatred in the world, it was nice to see something good. I replied that I hoped my simple act would start a ring of kindness.

The woman's groceries cost less than $20. But the look on her face, and the reaction of the cashier, were priceless. And I no longer felt stressed. It really does feel good to be kind to people with no expectation of anything in return. It also reminded me to be humble and never to forget the many blessings in my life. Giving back in some small way is a chance to put my gratitude into action.

Acts of kindness don't have to cost a lot of money, but their impact may be huge. Maybe, just maybe, if more people performed random acts of kindness, the world would be a nicer, happier, less violent place. We have nothing to lose, but oh so much to gain.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Memories of a Lifetime

One's destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things. -- Henry Miller

I love to travel, and I have been fortunate to do a lot of international travel the past two years.

I have visited Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Poland, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Costa Rica, New Zealand, Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Spain and Canada. Of course, my time in some of these countries was limited to just a few days and I got to visit only a few places, but I enjoyed each country.

Traveling to other countries has really opened my mind to current events in places I would not have given a second thought had I not visited there. The terrorist attacks on Kenya have been so much more painful after meeting and spending time with the warm, friendly people of Kenya. I have witnessed the beauty of ancient mosques in Istanbul, and I experienced places of great horror and sadness such as Auschwitz and Birkenau, as well as seeing the factory in Krakow where Oskar Schindler saved the lives of hundreds of Jews by employing them in his enamelware factory. I have walked the ancient streets of Petra, Jordan, and gazed in awe at the Treasury and other centuries-old buildings. I visited the town of Bethlehem, now part of the Palestinian territory, and viewed the huge white wall erected by Israel to keep its enemies out. I walked the thousands-of-years-old streets of Troy and I marveled at the engineering feats of the ancient Romans, whose cities such as Ephesus and Pergamum still stand in silent tribute to their builders.

I got to watch elephants swim across a river in Botswana and look on in awe as five young male lions set out on their evening hunt. I watched the graceful self-confidence of a pair of cheetahs moving silently through the tall grass. I saw evidence of the mighty power of elephants that had uprooted and demolished a large baobab tree. I visited a school in rural Kenya that was lacking in every modern amenity, including electricity, lights, solid floors, computers, printers, copiers, even textbooks. And I was struck by the eagerness of the children, who ranged from kindergarten through high school, to learn despite the hardships they faced.

I have had the thrill of watching a grizzly bear meandering through a meadow in search of food before its long winter hibernation, and stood in awe as a pack of wolves ran silently through the snow as darkness fell. I stood silently as several wolves -- all unseen -- howled to each other early one autumn morning. Most recently, I was thrilled to watch polar bears exploring around and under the tundra lodge -- a wheeled lodge placed on the Canadian tundra each season as the bears start to gather in anticipation of the freezing of Hudson Bay. I was mesmerized by a female polar bear who looked directly into the eyes of the people on our polar rover, as she spent a good 20 minutes entertaining us.

I stood outside, night after night, in far northern Canada, waiting for the northern lights to appear. It was so cold no one could stand the cold for more than a few brief minutes before dashing inside to thaw out.

I walked part of the Camino de Santiago -- the Way of St. James -- in Spain, an ancient pilgrimage route that has been used since Medieval times. I experienced the unbridled joy of a man named David, who shed his worldly possessions and now lives a simple life of service to the thousands of pilgrims who pass his way. Of my many trips, this was perhaps the most memorable and had the greatest impact on me.

I stood by Jerusalem's Western Wall and placed a prayer on a tiny, rolled up piece of paper in a crack in the ancient wall. I rode a camel with a nasty streak in Jordan and trudged through the mud of a rain forest in Costa Rica.

Travel has expanded my interest in learning more about a lot of things, including great rivers of Africa and African wild dogs. Simply put, travel changes us. It isn't just about the places we visit or the sights we see. It's about so much more. It's about experiencing a new culture, trying new foods, seeing new things and getting to know, even superficially, new people. As Mark Twain wrote, "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness."

What did I bring home from these trips aside from a greater curiosity and knowledge? Thousands of digital images, a coffee cup from each country, and oh so many wonderful memories and experiences. The memories, most of all, are what I treasure.