Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Winter's a' comin'

It may be a bleak, chilly fall day, but Autumn still and always is my favorite season of the year.  Something about the falling leaves and the crispness of the air reminds me that the months of the year are coming full circle.  The gold of the sunflowers is replaced by cornstalks and almost every porch has a pumpkin decorating the steps, whether carved or not.  There’s sweet apple cider and the warm smell of smoke from the neighbor’s fireplace to put me in the mood for a good book and sharing my lap with a warm cat.   Sometimes, I think that fall is so beautiful because it is preparing us for what lies ahead…cold, wet, snowy days when we will be cooped up inside for months.
 
Winter is a dying time.  Dying and trying.  Some years, late in February, I don’t think I can stand any more unending cold mixed with the bone chilling wind.  It’s much better here in Kansas than it was in New Jersey.  In New Jersey, the snow and cold might start as soon as the middle of November and if it was a good winter, the snow could be gone by mid-March.  If it was not a good winter, but one with what would be record breaking eighteen-inch snows for Kansas, the snow and ice might be around until the middle of May.  I remember one particularly harsh winter when from April on, all I kept saying was that I just wanted to see a bit of brown ground instead of the interminable white which was the color of that year.

Kansas winters are a much more pleasant shade; the golden tan of dried grass mixed with the soft gray outcroppings of flint and the maroon leaves remaining on the oak trees.  Perhaps that is why the autumns in Kansas are so pleasant.  There is no headlong rush towards winter, just a peaceful, beautiful meandering.  Peaceful in the knowledge that whatever lies ahead cannot be too bad and it will only be a matter of a few days between the first snowflake and the first crocuses appearing.
 
Of course, anyone who has spent a few winters in Kansas knows that our winters may be short, but they are downright harsh and potentially dangerous.  The temperature can hover around zero for days and has been known to be so low that it cracks convertible tops.  In place of heavy snow, we have even heavier ice that can take the electricity out for days.  Once, during a particularly heavy ice storm, which sounded like a military attack, my mother called to tell me that one of my uncles had died.  All I heard was, “Nancy, your uncle Roosevelt….” The phone went dead and the electricity went out simultaneously.  I was left to wonder until I got to work, where there was both electricity and a working telephone (this was in the days before cell phones), what the rest of her message was.

Now, none of that matters; the trials of winter are far from our minds as we enjoy the fading days of autumn.  There’s the garden to pull up, the lawn chairs to bring in, mulch to be put around some of the plants and leaves to rake.  That’s another difference between Kansas and New Jersey.  Here, with the exception of the leaves from the oak trees that will be around until spring. cleaning up all the leaves can be accomplished in one day.  It’s a pleasant task, as opposed what we experienced in New Jersey where we bagged over one hundred bags of leaves the first year we lived in our house.   Actually, we bagged that many leaves every year we lived there; there was a never-ending supply.  Raking leaves kept us physically fit but exhausted.

There are positives to an abundance of trees as in New England.  Who doesn’t love driving down a winding road with falling leaves spinning around you?  At least there are enough trees here in Emporia that one can experience the crunch of walking through fallen leaves while walking the dogs and there are always a few leaves to attach to our sheltie’s fur to be brought into the house.  That’s enough leaves for me.  Our elongated, if somewhat bereft autumn provides enough pleasure for me to survive another Kansas winter.

The last few mornings have been foggy and as we walk past leaves littered with dew and the remnants of Halloween candy wrappers, drops of condensation fall from the trees and add a chill to our walk, reminding me that winter will soon be approaching.  But we still have Thanksgiving to look forward to and December 21st is over a month away.  We will enjoy our Kansas autumn until the last leaf falls.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Wealthy Poor

Often, on a nice morning, I like to sit on the front porch enjoying a cup of coffee and observing the neighborhood.  Most mornings, no matter what season it is, I will be privy to the conversations of the people across the street who occupy one of the two ramshackle houses on our block that always seem to be rented despite their poor condition and constant need of being repaired.

It may be that this type of housing is all they can afford. While the conversation frequently is about getting a job and how much places like McDonalds pay (with an occasional comment thrown in about a friend’s most recent incarceration) there is never any movement towards finding a job.  Other than their limited communication skills, they don’t appear to be handicapped, but sitting on the porch is apparently better than looking for work or actually working.  Not that the absence of a job affects their lifestyle. Their yard is peppered with logos for the Chiefs and K-State and an ever-growing supply of plastic toys.  Their house is always decorated for Halloween or Christmas and they have the biggest 4th of July fireworks display on the block.

Bear in mind as you read this, that I have no disdain for the poor or for being poor, only the poor choices and actions on the part of many of those today with limited means.  I, like many of my fellow Americans in those years after the war, grew up poor by today’s standards, but we were an ambitious, hardworking, and proud poor.  No one in my neighborhood was affluent.  Our standard of living certainly would be considered poor by today’s standards.  We did not own a lot of toys, but we had big yards, old clothes to dress up in, and a big wooded area at the end of the street that provided hours of possibilities for exploration. There was no money for movies.  In fact, my parents couldn’t, or wouldn’t afford a television until I was out of high school.  A big treat for us was popcorn or an ice cream cone from Dairy Queen on a Sunday evening.
 
Our cars were always second hand and if only five years old, were considered to be a really new car.  Function was more important than impressing the neighbors and all the men in the neighborhood possessed the skills to keep anything mechanical functioning long past the manufacture’s intent.  In addition to the hours my father spent at the Ford plant, he could be found under the car or tinkering with the washing machine or furnace to eke out a few years more service before they were completely unrepairable.  I can’t recall ever seeing a plumber or electrician making repairs at our house.  My father either did the work himself or sought assistance from one of the neighbors.  The neighbors were all in the same situation and we shared our meager resources.

We shared everything.  My mother was the neighborhood baker and there were always cookies for the neighborhood children and pies or cakes for the neighbor women to enjoy over a cup of coffee. My mother was also the neighborhood gardener and kept the neighborhood supplied with fresh vegetables and the fruits of her labor like pickles and fresh strawberry jam. Betty, the only mother in the neighborhood to work outside the home, would keep her eye out for bargains in everyone’s size and occasionally would bring home a sweater, skirt, or pair of pants that she thought might fit one of us.  One of the neighbor’s aunt and uncle, who had no children of their own, would take several of us swimming once or twice during the summer.  Our lives were full of the necessities, food, shelter, and family.  Whatever material possessions we were missing were compensated for by the love and security that we enjoyed.

The poor today do not enjoy such advantages.  They have been sold the concept that they are not capable of taking care of themselves.  Their initiative and sense of self-worth has been destroyed and they are truly impoverished.  They are faced with a future of meaningless days filled with television and junk food, neither of which nourish the mind or body.  They may have more of the material goods that we were missing when I grew up, but they have none of the things that embolden the spirit and give a feeling of well-being.

We have authorized our government to impoverish the spirits of millions while pretending to take care of them in their hour of need.  Instead of giving them a hand up, we give them perpetual handouts and subject them to a life of dependence.  We have robbed them of the joy that comes from being productive members of society. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Touching Other Lives

I, along with most of the nation, find myself suffering from what might be called whiplash, shellshock, or PTSD after the events of the past week.  As if the natural disasters brought by the hurricanes this season and now the fires in California are not enough, we are being bombarded with news that is incomprehensible and almost impossible to bear.  It doesn’t take a crazed gunman in Las Vegas to tell us that as a nation we are flailing, drowning in a morass that is mostly of our own creation.

Our cities are becoming increasingly dangerous places to live, with the murder rate in many climbing to historic heights.  Even the suburbs, those once safe bastions of the white upper middle class, are no longer immune and neither are the smaller cities like Emporia.

Drugs fuel a lot of the crime as it becomes increasingly obvious that we have lost that war.  They are taking a tremendous toll on society.  Last year over 64,000 people died of drug overdoses in the US.  To put that in perspective, the War in Viet Nam in the 60’s and 70’s killed around 58,220 Americans over the course of twenty years.  We don’t have to worry about being attacked by other nations, we are killing ourselves and not only are we killing ourselves, we are destroying the prospect of a healthy life for many of those around us.   According to the Center for Disease Control, currently 6 out of every 1000 infants is born with NAS, Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, the name attached to babies exposed to drugs while in the womb.  What chance do these innocent children have to grow up as productive adults?

Our society is teetering on the brink and yet we are powerless.  We hurl insults and blame.  It is the NRA’s fault.  It’s the liberals who are responsible.  It’s the Republicans fault.  It’s the drug manufacturers.  It’s everyone but us.

I remember being told as a child not to point fingers because while my index finger was pointing out, the remaining three fingers were pointing back at myself.  We as Americans, on all sides, need to wake up and realize that we are all part of the problem.  All of us!  It’s in our attitudes, it’s in our hearts.  We no longer care about anyone but ourselves and perhaps our immediate family.  We are no longer gracious to each other.  We don’t even know what graciousness is. Instead we are greedy, self-absorbed, and celebrity obsessed, driven by making sure that we are protecting our most important possession, ourselves.

During tragedies, like the hurricanes or the recent event in Las Vegas, we come together for a few seconds or a few days, but then we shuffle the responsibility back onto the government and expect that everything will be ok.  It won’t.  The government can’t fix these problems any more than they can fix the weather.
    
Do I have the solution?  I wish I did, but I can’t see any hope on the horizon without some unforeseen miracle.  I think there are several things that might help.  I think we need to have a serious discussion about gun control.  To have the volume and range of lethal weapons available to the average American, regardless of how law-abiding they are, is ridiculous.  Hunters do not need semi-automatics.   That is not guaranteed by the Constitution in my opinion.

Along with culling out the guns, we need to guarantee that crazies are not allowed to roam free because people intent on harm can make the most mundane objects such as cars, steak knives or fertilizer into a lethal weapon.  We have emptied our mental institutions to save taxpayer money, but we’re paying for it with our lives.

There are no ways to prevent the natural disasters that have been plaguing our country, but we can delve into why we have become so violent. Before we advance the ultimate solution, we should ask ourselves what is the cause of all the anger and angst that is driving the issues we are facing.  The former Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, puts forth the postulation that loneliness is a public health crisis.  In a recent Fortune article, statistics from several recent surveys put the rate of loneliness between 40 and 43 percent.  We are a nation adrift in isolation.

Perhaps the solution is as simple as breaking down the barriers we have erected between ourselves and our community.  Perhaps, we need to start holding each other’s hands, not just when there is a national tragedy, but all the time.  We need hugs and handshakes, helping hands, handouts and hands up.  We need to touch each other.  We need to forge connections that create a lasting bond and hold back the forces of evil that would divide us.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Memories

We have been watching the PBS Series on Vietnam for the past two weeks.  It is painful to watch and even more painful to remember. 

I walk the streets of Emporia in a time warp, remembering what was and trying not to think about what might have been.  All of a sudden, I am in the Student Union playing bridge while being surrounded by talk about the war and especially the draft.  All of the boys knew their draft code by heart and there were endless discussions as to the possibilities upon graduation:  enlist, possibly go into OCS, stay in school and pursue a Masters, flee to Canada, or try to wait it out.  By the spring of 1966, most had resolved themselves to the fact that waiting the war out was not an option as it did not appear that any progress was being made.

In the end, few of them would ignore their civic duty.  This was KSTC after all, a little-known teacher’s college in Emporia, Kansas, not an ivy league school on the East Coast, and the students were not the wealthy scions of the political elites, merely good natured midwestern boys who didn’t have the connections or money to escape to Canada even if they wanted to.  Of course, very few were really looking for an escape.  They were the kind of boys who looked up to their fathers, the heroes from World War II, and heroism, not stardom ran through their veins.

I would not have tried to stop any of them, even the one I loved the most.  All though rumblings against the war were beginning to thunder in the press and on come college campuses, we were still under the impression that the government had our best interests at heart.  We were stopping the spread of communism.  That was a worthy cause, wasn’t it?  The government wouldn’t be lying to us about the scope and the casualties. Would they?  We didn’t know at the time that our actions in Vietnam were coming between a population that didn’t want to be separated.  We did not know that our leaders had committed to a war between political forces that did not mirror the desires of the average citizen.  We believed at the time that the country needed these brave young men and they were willing to take the fall for their country if they had to. 

Unfortunately, many of them did make the ultimate sacrifice.  I remember 1968 so vividly.  The nation was in chaos and it seemed that every week there was a notice that someone I knew was coming home in a body bag.  It was a cold rainy Valentine’s day when the one I loved was laid to rest in the National Cemetery at Ft. Leavenworth.  It was the beginning of a year of turmoil when so many lives were taken unnecessarily; young men in their prime were lost along with Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, heroes for speaking out against our nation’s particular injustice of segregation.  In addition to those lost on the battlefield, there were those who made it home, seemingly unscathed, but who have yet to deal with all of the scars, the frayed nerves, the PTSD.  It seems these boys paid a tremendous price for our nation, but it wasn’t appreciated then and would be even less appreciated now.

Heroism is no longer doing something for your country.  It is refusing to stand at attention for the national anthem. What a bunch of heroes the football players have become.  It would be   standing for the national anthem and now the entire NFL is following in hot pursuit.  These so-called heroes are making millions of dollars each year, their salaries paid primarily by the loyal fans, many of whom fought in real wars and suffered real wounds to give these idiots the freedom to express themselves. 
It would be laughable if it were not so tragic.  These celebrities, for that’s what they are, not heroes, would not last a day in the rice paddies of a foreign country.  They don’t have what it takes.  Sure, they can tackle each other so hard that they give each other permanent brain damage.  They can spike the ball and do a victory dance in the end zone, but they are not heroes.  They are spoiled rich guys, many with a criminal bent, not deserving of our worship and adulation.  Save that for the real heroes who are doing their country’s bidding in some foreign country, even if the cause is less than just.  They are the guys who will fight for our freedom if it becomes necessary, the ones who will protect us at all costs.  

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Old Dogs and Young Kittens

Life is never dull in a house full of old dogs and young kittens. Our two dogs are both deaf and one is mostly blind.  We are constantly shooing them out of the way or worrying about their incontinence. At least once a day, our old dog Kat gets stuck in position and we must direct her to her bed for a lie down.

The kittens are a different story.  There are all kinds of crashes and bangs, scufflles and growls occurring throughout the day courtesy of the two youngest felines, Tinker and Kitsi.  Tinker is the youngest and most ambitious.  There is no height to which she will not climb or any inanimate object which she does not consider her own.  This week I found a tea bag in the middle of the living room floor.  I have no idea where it came from or why it was there, but there was no doubt as to the culprit.

It may sometimes appear to the outside world that I'm a crazy cat lady, but that was never my intention and is certainly not the way I was raised. My mother was a farm girl and animals had their place but it was never in the house.  They belonged outside and although I occasionally would sneak a kitten into my bed at night, I was used to kittens and puppies remaining outside until they would suddenly disappear either due to coyotes, accidental run-ins with automobiles or my father deciding enough was enough.  I never wanted an animal of my own; they were too much trouble, but that changed.

It started when I admired a friend’s blue point Siamese.  She promised she was going to get me one for my birthday.  She gave me a kitten, but instead of the registered Siamese I was expecting, it was a grey tuxedo kitten from the pound that would not stop crying.  Walter became the first in a long line of unwanted animals that have made a way to my door and into my heart. Along the way I have developed a reputation for taking in the most desperate animals, those no one else would take.

Sometimes friends bring them to us and other times we find them ourselves. There was Stormy, the kitten that someone found in a trailer park eating dog food, Gracie Ella the pregnant cat residing at the vet after having been hit by a car, and Pousse, an older cat that someone in St. Louis convinced my husband to bring home.  We found Emma Lee, dragging herself along the sidewalk at ESU and Kitsi languishing in the feral cat colony down the street.  In at least three cases, cats have just appeared on our front porch. And Tinker?  She was a found by the animal control officer and considered unadoptable because some dog had almost chewed her ear off.  We keep the veterinarian busy patching up our sorry collection of waifs

Years ago, when I was living in Overland Park a veterinarian from the Missouri side called, telling me he heard that I took in stray animals and he had a dog that needed a home.  Zeke, was a Lhasa Apso found running with a pack of dogs for over a year.  His hair was so matted that when it was shaved off, he was covered with sores and nothing but skin and bones.  After I nursed him back to health, he became my aunt’s steadfast companion for many years. 

He was the first of many dogs that have graced our presence…all of them strays just like the cats.  Bea, Ranger, Jack and even Kat have managed to co-exist alongside the many adopted cats. All of our critters have found a place where they can flourish despite their questionable beginning.

A lot of us have had questionable beginnings, but if we’re lucky, we find our safe place.  We celebrated our anniversary this week.  Following on the heels of the nation’s recent events, I realize that we are very much like our old dogs and cats and the nation as well.   We've weathered a lot of storms in the past 31 years…more than I ever imagined when we began this journey.  Just like this country, we've experienced hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods; disasters from the outside world and some we’ve inflicted on ourselves, yet we've managed to remain faithful and to survive intact.

This Saturday we will witness the wedding of our grandson Josh and his lovely bride to be, Marissa, and three weeks after that, it will be our granddaughter, Rebecca and her fiance Charles’ turn to seal their vows.  Here’s hoping that they will weather the storms as well as we have and that they will accumulate a few faithful companions to accompany them on their journey.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Consumed by Consumption



We are consumed by over consumption. I’m not talking about material consumption although that is a problem as well as witnessed by all of the programs on television about hoarders whose lives have become unmanageable as the piles of possessions have grown. And, it’s not just those with emotional problems; all of us have too much. We knew a couple in New Jersey who had a garage that was so full of toys they could no longer park their car there. They had one child a year and a half old who was the recipient of all of their purchases, but none of that made him happy. I don’t think he was spoiled, just over-stimulated and overwhelmed.
 
That is what most of us are experiencing, but it’s not just the overabundance of possessions that is putting us on edge. We have reached the saturation point in a lot of areas in our lives. For some of us, we consume too much of the media. It occupies almost all of our waking hours, but we are never satisfied. This week and the destruction in Texas is an obvious example. A good many of us spent the past weekend glued to the television set or to our mobile devices tracking events on Facebook, Twitter or various news aps. As the rain was inundating Texas, the information was inundating our consciousness. Every media outlet has been rushing to cover what they were billing as, and what has become, an historic event. Our lives are put on hold while we sit around, mesmerized and bored at the same time, but we still have to have it all. We might be missing something if we don’t have all the news. For many of us, that behavior has followed every major event for the past twenty years: Nine eleven, Katrina, the Orlando night club shooting, the terrorism in Europe. Each event finds us pre-occupied with the news as opposed to living our lives.

Even as I type this, I’m thinking, perhaps I should stop for a minute and check the most recent information on Harvey. I’m not hunkered down in my attic waiting for someone to rescue me. I’m in my office on the third floor of our house; a place I would be safe in any flood event short of a re-creation of the flood in Noah’s day.
 
We all seem to be on a quest to find and own or experience the best of everything. For those who are not news junkies, there is still plenty to over-consume. Some are on a quest to find the best recipes. They follow blogs, Facebook posts and Pinterest, filling up their storage space with too many recipes for them to cook in a lifetime. Others are hoping to encounter the perfect book, the perfect vacation or find the perfect place to live.
 
For the entertainment junkies, a television screen as big as a wall is a necessity along with subscriptions to Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. In their opinion, you can never have too many movies and their leisure time is filled with binge watching one series after another. There are thousands of sports enthusiasts who dedicate their time and money to following their favorite college or pro teams.
 
It would be worth it if any of these pursuits made us happier, but they don’t. In fact, I suspect this chasing after the latest and best has the opposite effect. Having it all is not all there is. Ask any obese or even overweight person and if they are honest, they will tell you that they are not satisfied the more they eat. In fact, it makes them less so.

What is the antidote for over consumption? Right now, there are thousands of people in Texas that don’t even have a Kleenex. Ask them and they will tell you that, despite having lost everything, they are happy and grateful to be alive.

We don’t have to lose everything, to be happy, but we can certainly give something. Items are being collected at several locations throughout the city to send to the victims in Texas. Blankets, pillows, towels, hygiene products, first aid kits and several other items can be dropped off at Dieker Trailer Sales, Waters True Value, Reebles Country Mart or Kari’s Diamonds. Since it takes a lot of volunteer resources and logistics to distribute these items to where they are needed most, money can also be donated. FEMA suggests donating to the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD) online. You can also donate to the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, The Houston Flood Relief Fund set up by Houston Texans star JJ Watt, or the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund.
 
Much of the emptiness that we are trying to fill by consumption can be assuaged by pouring out ourselves and our plenty to those in need.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Writers Write

A few years ago, while attending the Tallgrass Writing Workshop at ESU, I found myself complaining to one of the guest speakers about how I never got a chance to work on my still unfinished novel. I was working long hours and traveling at the time but his response was, "That's no excuse, writers write.”

I have thought of that many times since and what he says is true.  Writers write.  I have been composing sentences in my head almost from the time I first learned to read, at least from the first time that I chanced upon a sentence so finely crafted that I wished it was my own.  As I was a solitary person, my opportunities to compose the perfect sentence were endless.  I would spend hours exploring the wooded area adjoining our house, all the time imagining and writing stories in my head. 

In school, I wasn’t the best student, but if writing was required, I relished the challenge.  The first day of my eleventh-grade government class, the teacher stated that he did not believe in grades higher than “A”.  He did not give A+ for any reason.  He should not have challenged me.  At the end of the semester, when the term papers were returned, he apologized in front of the whole class as he returned my paper with a big A+ circled in red to me.  I do not remember what the subject of my paper was, but I remember working on it for days until the writing was the best I had to offer. 

Very few realize that there is tremendous benefit in being able to write documents that are well crafted; letters, reports, term papers, proposals, even e-mails can produce the desired results when well written.  To succeed in business, education, or any endeavor, one must be able to produce good writing.

But the written word was created for more than just utility.  When I was younger one of my favorite books was Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. I read it over and over, underlining phrases I found to be a delight. There are words that convey thoughts and ideas, and then there are words that convey emotion, light and music and fragrance, an assault to my eyes, my ears, and my mind. Writers are inspired to create something that will live on long after us.

In 1941, John Gillespie Magee Junior was a nineteen-year-old airman in the Royal Canadian Air Force, stationed in Great Britain when he sent his sonnet “High Flight” to his parents in a letter.  Little did he know that his words would be immortalized some forty-five years later by an American president when Ronald Regan addressed the nation after the challenger catastrophe in 1986. 

“Oh!  I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;”

“And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

A few months later he was dead, killed in a mid-air collision over the hamlet of Roxholme in Lincolnshire.  That someone so young, whose life was cut so short, could leave such a rich legacy in so few words attests to the power that we possess when we write.

There is a trend today to reduce our communication to abbreviations, acronyms, and Emoji’s. In doing so, we are losing the ability to truly communicate, the ability to share a piece of ourselves rather than regurgitating a tired old phrase that is part of the popular lexicon.  ROTFLMAO does not convey the same emotion as the few simple words “danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings”. 

We may be lurching towards becoming a nation of illiterates, but for a few of us, writers still write!