Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Reading Signals

Ever since childhood, other people have considered me to be sensitive to the feelings of others. When it came to interpreting what was going on emotionally with people around me, I seemed able to recognize what went unseen by most others.

When my uncle and his wife were reaching the point of divorce, I was the first person to read their emotions. Although I was about 11 at the time, I recognized that my aunt was "acting strange" and mentioned the fact to my mother. Our family saw my uncle and his family only every couple of months since they lived several hours away. But I had always felt close to them and I was the daughter my aunt never had. She doted a bit and usually brought me a treat when they came to visit. However, on this one occasion, I could tell that something was wrong. A few weeks later they went their separate ways and that was the last time I ever saw her.

It's not that I am psychic or possess rare or unusual powers. There are some people who are simply more attune to the behavior by people and animals. Kindred spirits or such, I guess, and I must fall into that group.

Seems like when our lives are busy with careers and daily demands, we run around busily somewhat like chickens with their heads cut off. During such frenzied times, we are less likely to pick up on the "signals," which are bouncing around us all the time. But when we are relaxed, on vacation or otherwise engaged in quiet pursuits, there is less static in the air. Our antenna begin to retrieve a few of the vibes that are being transmitted.

Retirement brings a much longer period of relaxation. It creates the perfect atmosphere in which to intercept vibes. And, unfortunately, by the time we reach retirement, much of this atmosphere is negative in nature.

Baby Boomers who have retired seem to worry incessantly about nearly everything. Many mature folks express concerns about their appearance. We may not feel as confident at 65 as we did at 45. We may be carrying a bit more weight than a few years earlier. Certain parts of our anatomy may have changed in appearance. It takes longer to glue ourselves together than previously.

People might tell us that we look good -- all things considered -- but what really matters is how each of us feels about ourselves. And how we feel about ourselves is directly related to the signals we have received.

Perhaps this phenomenon of receiving less-than-desired signals can account for a variety of mid-life adjustments. Whether we call them mid-life crises or mid-life crazies, the fact is that many people suddenly become aware that they might be missing a lot of life.

Close friends may suddenly seem absorbed with their own personal problems -- aging parents, neglectful spouses, foolish adult children who are creating their own problems. Problems may seem magnified by the fact that they at last have adequate time to become overly-fixated on mundane issues. These perpetual worriers project such unending anxiety that their family can have a hard time listening to the analysis of every worry. The family becomes less attentive which in turn causes additional problems.

Spouses cannot bear to hear a constant rehash of anxiety from his/her partner. Each spouse may have some of the same concerns about similar issues, perhaps in addition to harboring unshared concerns about health issues. In some instances, these moments of stress may erupt into a midlife divorce. It happens all the time.

If someone you know and care about seems inclined to fix everyone else's problems, try to gently bring this to their attention. They need to stop tending to every other garden and look after their own. Weeds will grow without proper maintenance.

Retirement should be a joyous experience, a time to enjoy life, not to be spent worrying every minute of every day about problems which are truly private and should be resolved in private.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Style and Grace

Recently I watched an interview on Turner Classic Movies that ignited some thoughts.

The subject of the interview actress Kim Novak. She was interviewed by Robert Osborne during the 2012 TCM Classic Film Festival. Novak, now nearly 80, looked great and seems to have finally caught the brass ring of life -- especially since she turned her back on the Hollywood lifestyle at the pinnacle of her career.

Over 30 years ago, she married an equine veterinarian and moved to rural Oregon. Her life there sounds idyllic and includes a happy marriage, unbridled natural beauty and scores of horses and other animals.

Novak seems extremely content with life and several of her observations caught my attention.

It sounds as though the Hollywood experience was the result of happenstance. During the summer in the early 1950s, Novak and two friends traveled the country to showcase and advertise refrigerators, of all things. Their tour terminated in California and the girls decided to visit a movie studio. During a the studio tour, Kim Novak was hired as an extra to appear in a movie musical. There she was spotted by an agent, got a screen test, etc. Voila. A star was born.

Despite difficulties encountered in movie land, Novak did not appear bitter about what followed. She spoke of how pleasant and full life can be when one is surrounded by positive people whose opinions we appreciate.

Isn't that true? Think of situations that are positive and then some that have been less than positive. These situations could be brief or lengthy, but we've all had some of each type.

Remember being in school? Some years were a lot more enjoyable than others and it was the good years that we recall more easily. School might have been more enjoyable because we were sitting near a friend, we enjoyed the view from the classroom windows or a particular teacher made us feel special. Years later when I became a teacher, I was always aware of the impact that the teacher has. He/she could casually make some off-the-cuff comment that might be remembered by the students for years. If students felt inferior or slighted, that feeling could linger with that child for a lengthy period of time.

We have all had friendships that became uncomfortable. I have worked with adults who had severe personal problems of one type or another, perhaps even marital difficulties. When I would be around those persons, I felt guarded and ill at ease for fear of saying something inappropriate. Such an feeling of constant uneasiness is tiring, to say the least. Despite our best efforts, these situations remain unpleasant until terminated.

My marriage was much the same. I was constantly criticized and chastised. The manner of the dominant male merely reflected the way in which my husband had been raised. The man made all the decisions with no options and no room for negotiation. The result was years of keeping my opinions entirely to myself, squelching my views, interests and outlooks. Fortunately, that marriage ended and we were both free to move on with our lives.

I know people who would rather endure years of misery than to express an unpopular idea or terminate any relationship, whether that relates to spouses, friends, interests or jobs. It takes courage to remain in a situation that is unpleasant, especially if there does not appear to be an end in sight.

It is only natural that we seek out people who make us feel valued. The teacher who realized that we thought differently and acknowledged our opinion remains a valued part of our past. A friend who shares our outlook and exchanges information with enthusiasm is a treasure. A person who seems to like us as much as we should like ourselves is someone we should keep close.

This observation is not complicated. In fact, it's rather simplistic. Unfortunately, many of the basic truths of life are so simple that we tend to overlook them entirely.

We all need to keep in mind that we should seek people who value us as much as we should value ourselves. Then we need to hang on to these people and keep them in our lives.

Everyone can benefit from having a someone special in their corner.







Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Keeping at It

There were several big stories in the news yesterday. But few seemed as impressive as the fact that Diana Nyad had been successful in swimming from Cuba to the Florida Keys. That's 110 miles and she swam for 52 hours, 54 minutes to complete the trip.

Oh, and she is 64 years old.

When I heard the news, it was announced simply as, "She made it" and I knew immediately what that meant.

"Really?" I responded. "Wow."

The fact that anyone could swim from Cuba to the Florida Keys is remarkable. The fact that this 64-year-old could make the successfully complete the trip was nothing short of phenomenal.

One has to wonder why she would even want to set a record in endurance swimming. Such a feat might well be matched and likely bettered by another swimmer, perhaps soon after Nyad's victory. The world is filled with adventurers who would love nothing more than topping the previous act.

The entire concept of endurance swimming seems a little self-serving because it involves no competition and few actual followers. Scores of people do not camp-out or line the path to watch the endeavor. The story had little media hype or coverage other than remarks to the effect of "There she goes again."

But you really have to admire someone who sets any type of personal goal and then keeps at it until they are victorious.

In Nyad's case, her effort at this goal began in 1978 when she experienced the first of four unsuccessful attempts to cross the open sea.. Reportedly she did not try again until she reached the age of 60 and then said she felt compelled to resume trying to achieve her goal.

How many people do you know with that type of persistence? I can honestly say I know of no one personally although I have heard and read of such chutzpah. I have also long admired those who will go to great lengths to accomplish a particular task.

We live in an era of quitting. We are surrounded by throngs of folks with short attention spans. They can't wait for a slow search engine, a long check-out line or too many commercials on TV. They click, switch, balk and fidget when delayed in any manner.

Young people want a new car when they first learn to drive, not the older but reliable car that we cherished while in high school. Young couples want their first house to be their dream house with all the bells and whistles, granite countertops, 4,000 square feet, 4 bedrooms and a home theatre. The current way of thinking is: "Let's get it now or forget it."

Gone are the days when newbies entered the work force and were happy just to have a job, any job. Now they want to impress their friends right away by having their own office, perks and privileges. Why wait for what you want now? What's the point in waiting? Can't afford it? Just charge it and move on.

Somewhere between wanting nothing and wanting everything should be a happy spot where we could be content. It would be nice if we could reach that plateau.

Not that I expect Diana Nyad's victory to transform our extremely impatient society. But it's nice to know there are still folks out there with high principles and a great deal of drive. These are the people who help us maintain the bar at a reasonable height, even if we can't manage to raise it.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

In Days of Yore

Modern technology has certainly made our daily lives easy. When you think about all the conveniences and comforts that we enjoy each day, it's a bit overwhelming.

Recently in a discussion with a few other women, the topic turned to household chores. Noting that our present weather had taken a very warm turn for late August, someone mentioned that in the "old" days, there simply was no air conditioning. This person had been raised in a family of 10, not particularly uncommon 60 or 70 years ago. The mother in that family had been required to perform many laborious tasks, in addition to simply giving birth 10 times.

There was laundry for a family of 10. This was likely a rural or at least a semi-rural environment, which meant work clothes, school clothes and probably "good" clothes for church and other social occasions. Kids needed shirts, jackets, pants, dresses, jumpers, petticoats, underwear and socks. Plus long underwear, lightweight jackets, heavy coats, mufflers, gloves, mittens, etc. Clothes alone -- even excluding linens -- meant a large amount of washing.

There was food for a family of 10. Three meals a day, perhaps including a lunch to be taken to school, mostly home cooked. That was a lot of food prep in the days before microwaves and packaged foods. There were cows to milk, eggs to gather, bread to bake and canning to be done. Even if the mom was fortunate enough to have some help either from a hired lady, a boarder who pitched in or kids who minded the cows, there was a lot going on. Pigs were raised and butchered, an enormous task which consumed at least a full day. The meat was smoked in the smokehouse and could feed a family for several months. However, the pork didn't find it's way to the smokehouse without some guidance.

Chickens were raised for eggs and for meat. Wringing a chicken's neck was not an easy task. As a child, I watched a neighbor kill and de-feather a chicken in the back yard. Suffice it to say that it made a big impression on me. It was a lot of work compared to visiting a local chicken shack for some extra-crispy.

These women often maintained large gardens where they raised vegetables to consume and can. So-called "putting up" veggies was also a significant task, requiring skill and many hands to make the chore worthwhile.

In the old days, there was no trekking off to the store for a loaf of bread when the supply ran low. Bread was made from scratch. It required flour, yeast and a few other ingredients. Once mixed, bread spent time rising. Then kneaded and prepared, it was carefully baked. Such work nearly dictated that sufficient loaves be made to warrant the effort. Bread was usually served with every meal and with a large family, just imagine how much baking was done.

Not to mention such tasty baked treats as cookies, cakes and pie. These were also made by hand, sometimes from freshly grown fruits and vegetables which happened to be around. That meant apple pie and cobbler in the fall, strawberry pie and shortcake in the spring and early summer, pumpkin pie after the first frost. The economical housewife did not waste treats which happened her way. She used whatever was available -- and all of it.

My great aunt loved to preserve the old way of life even into the 1950s. She made her own bar soap, large white rectangles which might actually have done the job, but were unscented, unattractive and generally unwelcome. But she had made the soap to preserve a lifestyle from the past and my mother graciously accepted and used each bar. It seemed like a lot of work for a small item easily purchased for a few cents at many locations.

That was generally the way of the housewife from years ago. They didn't know how rough they had it and so (hopefully) didn't whine too much. They had no way of knowing what would be coming their way in the not-too-distant future.

Strangest of all is the fact that most women in the days of yore loved their lives of pre-ordained domesticity. They wanted nothing more than having children and keeping a nice house. Women of today -- including me, of course -- are stunned at such comments. But I have heard and read time and time again that woman were perfectly content with darning socks and changing diapers. That was all women seemed to want.

Little did they know what was awaiting…

Friday, August 23, 2013


A recent conversation with an old friend prompted me to dust off some neurons regarding my past life. The result was a shocking recollection about the way I used to live.

The conversation began when my friend related a story he had read about a young investment banker in London who recently died at age 22. This tragic death followed three days of working without rest. Granted, the man may well have had some underlying or undiagnosed health issue. But it sounds as though he had simply been working too much.

Extreme overwork has become common, even in other part of the world. In Japan, it even has its own name: karoshi (which translates literally from Japanese as "death from overwork"). The first case was reported in 1969 when a 29-year-old male worker in the shipping department of Japan's largest newspaper died of a stroke. In the 1980s, several high-ranking Japanese business executives died without any sign of illness and the press took notice. Since 1987, Japan has tracked the statistics related to karoshi deaths.

As Japan's economy continued to boom and workers began to crave success, the combination began to claim scores of ambitious executives. Mix that ambition with the Asian tradition of accepting personal blame for failure, and the result has been perilous.

A few years ago, I lived in Northern Virginia and worked inside the Washington, D.C. beltway. It was an exciting experience with an amazing job, earning significant kudos and money. But life was tough and after eight years I bowed out to a simpler, happier life in the Midwest.

I saw first hand the impact of overworking. It stressed workers. It stretched and contorted family life into a strangely misshapened creature. In the extreme, it even caused health problems and claimed lives. Overwork was a monstrous creature then and I can only imagine that the economic down turn has exacerbated the situation. The fear of failure and related job loss must have caused additional pressure on highly-motivated workers.

In nearly every work environment, there are certain workers who will find the situation to be stimulating. They thrive on the challenge of proving themselves in such a demanding atmosphere. Many large businesses are anxious to hire such "go-getters" who have likely spent their formative years overachieving at every turn. These young hires want to prove that they can make it in the big world and are willing to do whatever it takes to impress their supervisors. They may actually thrive under the expectation of failure, boosted by working long overtime and getting results at all costs.

People who I have known in such circumstances actually want to be challenged. They consider the experience to be a trial by fire and are willing to endure this test period. Some will pass and be accepted, perhaps only later to suffer the consequences. For those who don't pass and either resign or are encouraged to leave, they will no doubt find success in some other field, perhaps one that allows for a little more balance between life and work.

Balance appears to be sadly absent from the corporate world today. I once worked with a man who happened to be out of the office when a family emergency occurred. His wife had been taken ill in the middle of the day. When the school called to advise the man and found him absent, they left a message asking if he could arrange for someone to pick up his daughter from school. When the man returned that afternoon and got the message, he did not know the name of his daughter's teacher, what grade she was in or even the name of her school. He scrambled, phoning friends and arranging for help, but the entire office was a bit surprised that he had so little involvement with his own children.

I knew of many such stories.

People worked nearly every spare hour of nearly every day, including weekends and holidays. It was not uncommon to go into the office on both Saturday and Sunday of nearly every weekend. I have worked until early morning (5:00 a.m.) on more than a few occasions. These were usually situations structured by an approaching deadline, so we knew that the end would eventually arrive. And, of course, we were well compensated, to say the least.

But money and appreciation do not remedy fatigue and exhaustion. Thinking back now, I marvel that I could survive such a relentless work life. A bigger question in hindsight is: why.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Where Are We Headed?

Sad news was learned today as reports announced that author Elmore Leonard has passed away.

Some readers may be asking "Who was Elmore Leonard?" Obviously, those asking such questions were never big readers of popular fiction or viewers of film.

Elmore Leonard was a great writer of crime and western genre fiction. Among his extensive accomplishments were such books/films as Get Shorty, 3:10 to Yuma, Hombre and scores of stories/novels/films. He also penned the popular F/X show Justified. To say he was a prolific writer is more than an understatement.

I read today that he first published a story in Argosy magazine in 1951 and continued writing because it "was fun." This was a man of talent and conviction who could create characters who had something to say. His stories had style and substance and were structured to reveal a lot about the world in general.

Unfortunately, we have been losing a lot of great artists in recent years. These are people who told us a story and made us think. We sympathized with the characters depicted and were able to see the world through their eyes. It takes someone with real talent to capture an idea, reveal it to the viewer/reader and elicit a reaction. This is not a skill that can be acquired through a creative writing course or absorbed from a webinar. Writing is hard work and requires a certain amount of unabashed dedication to the craft.

The highly talented folks of the show business world are leaving us at an astonishing rate. Many of these folks captured our eyes and ears for years when they were at the peak of their careers. Their departure has depleted the talent pool forever. They had talent which enriched us and their songs, performances and endurance are remarkable.

One day soon, the talent pool will be completely dry. All that will remain is the 20-something flashes-in-the-pan who we will be hard pressed to even identify. I flinch now when I am in a conversation with someone and I happen to mention the name of a well-known celebrity from the not-so-distant past. I can see the look of panic in their eyes. "They don't know what I'm talking about," I warn myself as I change the subject.

So far in 2013, the following list indicates a mere sampling of the celebrities who have passed away:

Michael Ansara
Karen Black
Eileen Brennan
Van Cliburn
Dennis Farina
Bonnie Franklin
Annette Funicello
Ray Harryhausen
James Gandolfini
Eydie Gorme
George Jones
Stan Musial
Patti Page
Jean Stapleton
Esther Williams
Jonathan Winters

The list is actually much longer but I narrowed it to include the names of people that boomers like myself will remember. Afternoons wearing my mouse ears with Annette, Steve and Eydie on The Tonight Show, Jonathan Winters making me laugh for decades, Stan Musial in the days when baseball was on the radio. Most of these names triggers fond memories and it's too bad that those days will eventually fade along with the impact of these individuals.

Now people swoon over pimply-faced kids who attempt to sing but whose careers will end when their voices change. We watch movies starring a large crowd of "stars" about whom we have never heard. Watch the search engine news and see how many people have become "famous" overnight. Next year they will be flipping burgers at a Hollywood bistro or delivering pizzas in Brentwood.

Easy come. Easy go.

There are still some people out there with talent. They have endured and will continue to do so as long as they can find a movie in which to appear or some other gig that will showcase their skill. But eventually they will no longer appear and the world will be a lot less interesting.

If you hear of a movie starring one of your favorite actors or see that he/she has written a book or given an interview, take a look. You will no doubt feel enriched by the experience. And it just might be one of the last times you get to see real talent.













Sunday, August 18, 2013

Staying Active

The key to retirement seems to be: staying active.  Analysts have been pondering various aspects of retirement for years now. I thought I would chip in a bit of common sense.

By the time the majority of baby boomers have reached retirement, many of us have worked for approximately 50 years. That estimate includes high school summers spent flipping burgers or helping out with sports programs.

When I was old enough to get my driver's license, I considered myself completely liberated. The summer after my sophomore year in high school, several of my friends landed summer jobs. In the small community where I grew up, there were plenty of jobs which lent themselves to the unskilled and untested. Jobs like waiting tables, fast-food fry cooks and tidying up motel rooms were always available in our tourist-prone town. Add in the proverbial life guard and sports program assistant, and a job could be had if wanted. Yes, such an era did exist.

Even during college in the mid-1960s, there was plenty of part-time work available. While no one could pay all their expenses on a minimum wage income, they provided enough extra money for an occasional treat. Also lifestyles and basic needs were much less demanding in those days, so the little extra money had a much bigger impact.

By the time I entered the full-time work force, most of my friends and co-workers were already familiar with the world of scheduled hours, W-2s and completing tasks. We adjusted to the 40-hour week, wage increases and performance evaluations. It was 1970 and we stayed employed, hopefully, until retirement. Aside from intrusion of the draft during Vietnam, the only people I knew who left the work force were women who took time off to have kids. The days of June Cleaver and staying home with the kids were nearly extinct, but a few woman managed to convince their husbands they were better off at home than working.

Prior to the boomer generation, American society was quite different. It's as though someone drew a line in the sand in about 1940. Men born on one side of the line were dependent on a woman to fix meals and take care of domestic tasks. They had little to no training in handling these tasks themselves. These men liked having dinner on the table when they arrived home. When they married, it was understood that the little woman would stay home.

But for folks born on the other side of the line, things have been quite the opposite. More women entered the work force. They learned how to get hired, hold a job and were able to juggle many tasks at the same time. They could fix breakfast for the family, plan dinner to fix when they got home after work and put in an 8-hour day in between. It took perseverance and planning, but they learned how to take care of two separate lives -- the one at home and the one at work.

Modern life was made easier with the advent of technology. Microwaves came along to help cut preparation time for dinner. A wide assortment of packaged foods sped things up, too. I recall spending hours each week ironing clothes for the week ahead. But gradually the majority of clothes needed little, if any, touching up straight from the dryer. While home life and work life each demanded much of participants, things did get easier over time.

So, let's examine a typical boomer woman. She has worked since her teens, perhaps caring for and raising children, most certainly having to fix meals, do the shopping and tackle a job. It's been a harried and tiresome existence. Then she decides to retire. With the kids gone and the job gone, she can do what she wants on her own schedule. Whether she is still married or is alone, her time is pretty much her own.

But what is it that she wants to do with all of her time? She was so busy for so long that she rarely even thought about she was going to do once she retired. Sure, everyone wants to put their feet up for a while, at least, to relax and contemplate what to do. But there is far more to life than putting up one's feet.

Long before retirement arrives, people need to think about how they want to proceed. There are more hours in the day than they ever imagined and those hours need filling. Remember going on vacation and relishing the time off? You felt so relaxed and happy and began to dread returning to work. That's only normal and many of us felt like that when our routine changed. But when change comes and working has stopped, what about all those empty hours?

The secret to enjoying retirement is to keep active. That does not necessarily mean keep working. But there are plenty of people who do continue working because they tell me, "I don't know what else to do."

There is far too much worry spent considering the monetary side of retirement and not enough time given to the rewarding side of retirement. Both are important but only one is likely to provide some joy.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


Sometimes it's really nice being alone.

There seems to be a huge fear among adults about being alone. That status is not horrible, to be avoided at all costs. It's actually rather pleasant.

Many of us grew up in an era where one of the worst conditions was being alone. The phrase we feared as young women in the 1950s was becoming an "old maid." The mere thought of living unmarried was something woeful.

The majority of our elementary teachers were old maids. They were spinsters with no sense of style, who wore their white hair in elaborate buns, and daily wore shapeless dresses of black or navy blue with matching lace-up oxfords.

For the most part, these were lovely women, devoted to a life of teaching. When their careers had begun during the pre-war years, many school systems did not allow women teachers to be married. This restriction eased over time but too late for many of these single women who found that time had passed them by. There were a few married women teachers at our grade school. They were far more stylish, attired in fitted suits over pretty blouses. These teachers had actual waistlines, wore pumps and lipstick. However, they were outnumbered.

I used to wonder about these single women teachers who appeared to be so drab. They rarely seemed to smile or laugh. Perhaps they were simply focused on the task at hand. Perhaps they even kicked up the heels of their lace-up oxfords on the weekends. But I doubt it.

And so began the image of the mid-century working woman. Remember TV shows like The Ann Sothern Show and The Gail Storm Show? Working women were constantly doing the wrong thing, falling for one hapless adventure or another. On the job, they were either ditsy and efficient like Ann Sothern or rather homely and pathetic like her long-time co-star Olive (played by Ann Tyrell). They seemed completely devoted to their jobs in an era when few women had entered the workplace.

It would be several years before single women were depicted as having good jobs, nice clothes and enjoying life which occasionally included men. Marlo Thomas' That Girl and Mary Tyler Moore's role as Mary Richards brought the image of the unmarried woman into the 20th century and raised our collective image in the process. We began to think that perhaps being a single woman wasn't so darn bad after all. It might even be fun. At least it looked like fun on the small screen.

Still, singlehood was generally considered a temporary and dreaded condition, a status in real life to be ended at all costs. The dreaded condition theory is likely responsible for the increase in divorce rates that began during the 1960s. Young women were encouraged to get married and find a willing young man to be her partner. These rigidly structured marriages, a leftover from the prior decades, were often doomed almost from the start.

So a large number of women -- and men --eventually found themselves alone, despite the fear of the dreaded condition. At least by this stage in their lives, they had sampled married life and had a fairly good appreciation for what was involved.

Many of the people I knew who had a failed marriage soon repeated the pattern by marrying again. Fairly quickly they chalked up two or more failed marriages. I would say the average number of bad marriages among my co-workers and friends eventually stopped at three.

Today finds a significant number of single women who are facing life alone, for one reason or another. Many of us who have reached 65 and are now single, are single by choice. Yes, by choice.

By observing this issue for some time, my experience allows me to conclude:
*Marriage is not for everyone.
*Marriage ain't so great.
*Marriage hasn't evolved enough over the past century to make it attractive to young people today. 
*Everyone needs to know how to live alone without focusing merely on the status.
*Even participants in the best marriages are likely to find themselves alone at some point.

So if you happen to know someone who is alone, envy them a bit. They might be the happiest people of all.   

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Take a Moment…

School will resume in a few weeks. 

Around the Midwest, the date of the dreaded "first day" varies considerably, with some schools returning as early as mid-August. That time line must have been structured to allow for snow days, early dismissals and teacher conferences.

Remember in days of yore when school began immediately after Labor Day?

It's already beginning to feel a bit like autumn is approaching. The weather isn't as warm as it was in July. Days are growing noticeably shorter. Early mornings are actually cool.

Fall signals the start of several things. Another season brings the return of long sleeves and sweaters. The local swimming pool will close until Memorial Day. Ice cream will sound less appealing. The cycle moves on.

September demands that we return to old patterns. One of those cycles that has been an important part of our lives is the school year. We became acquainted with it from the day we started school.

Each year, we would begin a new grade, absorb what was taught, complete that grade and move on. Nine months, give or take, certainly long enough to have an impact on our lives.

That particular pattern became entwined with our lives at a very young age. We experienced the same schedule from kindergarten through four years of high school and on to college. There are some exceptions, including schools which have classes year around and some districts with a quarterly routine. But for at least 12 years and probably longer, we thought in terms of nine months in school with three months off.

Considering how we are all impacted by the nine month schedule, it's surprising that we are then expected to morph into workers who have to be at a job for 12 months of the year. That schedule seems almost abnormal after all those nine month intervals.

As a result of the impact of this cycle, I find it natural to pause each September and take a look at where I am. Almost like a kid who reviews the back-to-school items I need to bring to class, it seems only natural to think about where I am on the path and what might lie ahead.

Sounds a bit depressing, but that's not how it is intended. For instance, when a child is having trouble with some subject, math, for instance, he/she naturally gets nervous about learning another part of math. Perhaps going into the fourth grade, that student knows he will begin to explore long division. Having trouble with math in the third grade was bad enough and now a new function awaits. Rather than wait until opening the new math book when the year begins, it's good to at least anticipate that you might face trouble. Pondering it now and again simply makes the entire episode less intimidating.

I think people in general should face up to what might await and ponder it once in a while. Things like: What would happen if I lost my job? What would happen if I got really sick? What if…? That's not being worrisome. It's the way a realist thinks. None of us wants to become a worrier but it might be a good idea to think more than five minutes into the future.

Every day we hear about truly dreadful occurrences. Aside from the natural disasters which could devastate any community (earthquake, fire, tornado, hurricane), there is an assortment of awful stories unraveling nearly daily. People being imprisoned for years in a house in an American city. People killing each other with increased intensity. Moguls getting rich off the money that other people struggled to earn.

The list is long and perplexing. You have to wonder about the state of the world.

Yet, there are many things for which to be grateful. When you look at the many conveniences that we have, the comfortable life despite all the unpleasantness, it's really not that bad. But the only way to grasp how good we have it is to stop and savor the moment.

So with the approach of another school year, take an occasional moment to think about where you are and what might lie ahead. Sure, life can be a little intimidating. But so was long division. And most of us even went on to survive algebra, too.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Progress is Our Most Important Product

I love computers and they certainly have made our lives easier in the past few years.  Online banking, online shopping -- the list of conveniences is long.

Like most people, I dislike encountering technical glitches.  The screen freezes for who knows what reason or the printer won’t work.  Issues like those.  It's almost enough to make me want to turn off the darn thing and let it collect dust in the corner.

But I would never to do that.

I enjoy being connected to the entire world which, in effect, is the significance of using the internet.  The whole world connected.  Just think about that.  Not that long ago, when some momentous event occurred, like a world leader died or resigned, it was days before the news got out.  Today when there is trouble in Syria or elsewhere, someone in the crowd likely has a cell phone camera and captures the event.

Last night's news showed newly obtained footage of the recent crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 in San Francisco.  The photos clearly showed the smoldering wreckage shortly after the crash. They were taken from a camera attached to the helmet of a first responder and will hopefully aid in figuring out exactly what happened.  Imagine having photos of other major events almost as they occurred.  Truly amazing.

Unfortunately, despite all of the benefits of computers and related technology, I still know some adults who are terrified of using computers.  In view of how commerce and our very lives are intertwined with computer use, it's difficult to understand.  At the very least, I would think these people might be just a tiny bit curious about the process.

One man I know runs a busy office which relies heavily on computers to generate correspondence, set appointments and balance accounts.  However, this man is among those who have refused to learn more about saving or revising documents, even printing  calendars.  He states that he is afraid he will do something to ruin what is already in the computer.  Further, as long as he surrounds himself with others who understand the process and can problem solve for him, he really doesn't need to know anything more.

Certainly there is a lot of information required to run the world these days.  In one of my favorite movies, Baby Boom, Diane Keaton plays a New York career gal who loses her job and moves to Vermont to start a quiet life.  Upon arrival, she is beset with problems  including a leaky house, a dying furnace and an empty well.  When well dries up, an event which will cost thousands of unexpected dollars, her plumber tries to explain how she will have to run a pipe to tap into the county waterline.  She shrieks, "I don't need to know where the water comes from.  I just want to turn on the tap and have it come out." My apologies if that quote is not verbatim, but the message is clear.  Over-information is overkill.

Over-information can occur when we least expect it.  When the car stops running, the hot water isn't hot, or your watch stops ticking, something is wrong.  What we need to do is find someone to fix it and ask how much repairs will cost.

In that respect, I suppose computers are somewhat intimidating. They may develop problems with printing or some function, but if you are sitting at a desk in your house, how are you going to get help and resolve the problem?  At that moment, you may be required to call some technical whiz to help you.  These people come on the phone and seem brilliant beyond comprehension.  How can they possibly think so quickly on their feet and identify the problem?  When a techie on the phone can tell me what I'm looking at on the screen, well, they could charge me any amount of money and I would pay it.

But even when such events occur, we have to make the effort to pick up the phone and try to get help. Doing nothing is the first step in failure.  We can't be afraid to take a chance.

We shouldn't be afraid to touch a keyboard or drive a car or use a microwave oven.  Yet, I know people who never wanted to learn to do/use any of these devices.  Perhaps they are afraid of looking awkward or making a mistake.  Where would society be if everyone was afraid to try something new?  There would be no airplane, no frozen foods, no electric light bulb, no automobile, no washing machine, no anything.  

At some time, we should all learn to step forward and try something new.  It's called progress.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Let's Face Facts

Some subjects bother me more than others. I try to conceal my dislike of such things as bad drivers, people who obsess about their cell phones, and loud, uncontrolled children. When you get right down to it, there are plenty of daily encounters which can prove annoying.

With that said, today's rant is about the lack of concern over personal appearance. Each time I venture out to shop, eat or conduct any business in public, I am stunned by the general sloppiness that has crept into our society.

I'm all in favor of change when it is warranted. I would hate to see us return to the days when women wore gloves and both men and women wore hats. That era ended about the time that Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower were living in the White House. In old newsreels, footage of prominent men in overcoats arriving at and leaving Congress while doffing fedoras is almost laughable now. Times have changed and some styles are best left in the past.

But let's face it, we are a long way from fedoras and pill boxes with matching veils.

Today's casual appearance has gone off the charts. A few years ago, an adult man might have thrown on some shorts and flip-flops to take out the trash. Now he wears the same attire to go shopping or to the movies, perhaps only checking to make sure that he is wearing his "best" T-shirt, the one without the oil stains.

In the past, his wife might have worn work-out clothes to, well, work out. Now she wears sports bras and leggings to buy groceries. Never mind that people stare. She is busy, pressed for time perhaps, so just don't look if you don't like it.

The other day I saw an extremely heavy woman in skin tight leggings. The poor garment appeared to be grimacing, as if the thread was frightened of what might occur at any moment. The woman was wearing a T-shirt that stopped above the navel, doing nothing to conceal the bulging flesh below it. She was not washing her car or mowing her lawn. She was walking down a busy street in a large city, turning heads and getting honks in the process. It was quite a sight.

What has happened to our sense of taste, let alone our sense of style?

All of this casual dress and sheer laziness is worsened by the fact that few people even care about how they look. They must not have any mirrors in their house. They must never ask someone if "this makes me look heavy." They must have no shame.

This is not to say that we must return to the days of yore and the styles of the day. But it might not hurt us to pause for a minute and THINK how we might look. Am I the only person who has ever caught a glimpse of myself in a reflection from a store window? Apparently so.

To make matters worse, most of us have gotten heavier. Much heavier. I'll admit that I have put on a few pounds in the past five years or so. Emphasis on "few" meaning 10 or 15. But I'm not stupid enough to think I can still squeeze into a bikini and look good or that no one will notice if I wear size 6 pants like nothing has changed. I am fully aware of the matter when I buy larger sizes and tops which help camouflage my temporary setback. We only improve matters when we take steps to do so.

It would appear as though we have all just thrown in the proverbial towel. Why care about anything? Who cares if our clothes hug us where no fabric should hug us? Why bother with things that are seemingly unimportant?

Why? Because how we look does matter.

It's hard to identify precisely when attire began to slide toward the extremely casual. It must have been somewhere in the 1970s-80s, perhaps when Don Johnson began to wear T-shirts under his jacket on Miami Vice. That was about the same time when it became fashionable for a man to grow three days of stubble and still look stylish.

Unfortunately, my plumber now continually sports beard stubble and a T-shirt. Needless to say, he does not look like Don Johnson.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Chit Chat

Let me say a few words about saying a few words. Why is it that most women talk way too much? And why is it that most of what they say is completely insignificant?

As a woman, I consider myself to be intelligent and opinionated, although no more of either than most people. The hard part is knowing when to keep quiet. Unfortunately, this trick seems to have escaped most women.

When I was a teen-ager, lo those many years ago, the typical teen-age girl was portrayed on television by the likes of Shelley Fabares, Sally Field and Patty Duke. On the big screen, we were represented in the Gidget movies by Sandra Dee and Deborah Walley. No offense to any of these actresses, but at the time the image of teen-age girls was frothy, shallow and giggly. As an adult, have you ever suffered through Where the Boys Are? If so, then you understand.

In the 1960s, there was no pressure whatsoever placed on teen-aged girls. After all, they were going to marry, stay at home, and raise children. It was OK to be frothy, shallow and giggly.

A lot has changed over the decades since astronauts first ventured into space. Perhaps this entire burden can be placed on Sputnik and the resulting space race. But suddenly, there was an emphasis to encourage women -- as well as men -- to think about science and math. Suddenly, Susie Homemaker was not the ultimate fantasy for women.

Personally, I was pleased that this evolution came to pass. I never was the frothy, shallow and giggly type. Oh, I enjoyed laughing and teasing and could tell a good joke. But even decades ago I resented the way girls were depicted in film and on TV.

Here are some song lyrics that demonstrate the point I'm making:
When I have a brand new hairdo
With my eyelashes all in curl,
I float as the clouds on air do,
I enjoy being a girl….

I flip when a fellow sends me flowers,
I drool over dresses made of lace,
I talk on the telephone for hours
With a pound and a half of cream upon my face!
(Lyrics of I Enjoy Being a Girl, From Flower Drum Song by Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1958)

Even in the1960s, I could never tolerate getting telephone calls from friends who apparently had nothing more interesting to do than talk to another teen-aged girl. Often I would make some excuse just to get off the phone.  After all, I had already spent the entire school day with them.  What could I possibly have to talk about?

During much of my working career, I worked with women. It was often a tortuous experience to hear high, squeaky-voiced co-workers drone on about what they had for dinner the night before or what they packed for their kids' school lunches. They could babble about some meaningless event that occurred with their kids over the prior weekend. They assumed that everyone within ear shot was fascinated by the number of times their dog had an accident on the carpet or how their husband forgot their anniversary.

Meanwhile, I had a personal life. There were many things in my life which interested me and which, by the way, I chose not to share. People may have perceived me as a cold fish, but such concerns have never bothered me.

Guess I'm not a sharer. Well, so be it. I will never understand why so many women can chatter about everything that happens in their lives. Is it because they have watched too much television? Do they think that they are guests on a talk show? Do they think they are being taped for America's Funniest Home Videos?

Ladies, wake up and shut up. If you want to be taken seriously by your family, your employer or the world at large, learn to keep some of the details about your life to yourself.

Or instead you could post these details on Facebook. At least there you won't be boring the person in the next cubicle.









Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Essence of Cool

The conversation began when I was thinking about a former co-worker of mine who I always thought was cool.

"What does cool really mean?" my friend asked.

I thought a bit, then replied, "Someone who isn't afraid to say something funny, even though it may not in his character to be funny. You know, a person who appears solemn, perhaps stuffy, who has another side to his personality which occasionally shows through."

"Does it have to be a man?"

"I think so," I answered. "Women can't be cool because their very temperament requires that their true personality be on display most of the time."

My friend asked, "The big question then is, who do you know now that is cool?"

I thought for a while. "I'm afraid I can't think of anyone."

"What about famous people. Who can you think of that's cool?"

"Well, let's see. Clint Eastwood is kind of cool. He has a sparkle in his eyes and a wry grin. You might not know what he is likely to say or do next. Dustin Hoffman is cool. So is Louis C.K. I think humor comes into play. Being cool means that you can laugh at the world or yourself in an instant. Other cool people should include Jon Stewart, Robert Klein, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Bruce Willis, Phil Mickelson. These are people who you would invite for a party, who are charming to be around and no doubt have plenty of good stories. Dick Cavett, Jim Lehrer, Bill Murray, Charles Osgood, Alex Trebek, David McCullough, Vin Scully."

"What other qualities make someone cool?"

"Self confidence goes a long way to making someone cool. They should be unpretentious, gracious, easy-going. Someone who wouldn't yell at a waiter or criticize someone who made a mistake."

"Wow. You are really raising the bar here. Can't you think of someone around you every day who you would consider to be cool?"

"No. My dentist is cool, but I only see him once a year or so. None of my co-workers, none of the neighbors. Nope. Can't think of a single person."

"What about people who are no longer living? You know, from the old school of cool. How about some people from that group?"

"Paul Newman was pretty cool. Humphrey Bogart probably was, too. There were plenty of people who could at least fake being cool during the days before the media followed you around to every party and premiere. I'd have to say Yul Brynner, Leonard Bernstein, Tony Randall, Alistair Cooke, Eric Severeid, Arthur Fiedler.  I read that Lionel Barrymore was an amazing guy. Very artistic and a composer, as well as being a great actor."

"What a mish-mash of names! I don't see any common quality shared by these people."

"They each have something that makes me think they would be worth knowing. How many people can you say that about? How many people do you know whose opinions interests you, whose stories fascinate you, who you'd like to spend time with?"

My friend thought for a while. Then he said, "I think you are on to something. It's a pretty sad comment about the people we know today when we can't think of more than a few people in our circle of acquaintances who we enjoy knowing."

Sunday, July 21, 2013


Yesterday a man drove up the house next door, got out and placed a metal "For Sale" sign in the yard. He snapped a photo and drove away.

Obviously the owner of that residence has put that house on the market. A routine transaction, to be sure, and hardly newsworthy.

But what struck me was that despite having had that particular neighbor living next door to me for four years, I barely know her at all. If our paths crossed in a local grocery or restaurant, I doubt I would even know what she looks like.

Too bad that neighbors today are so far removed from the good ol' days. Neighbors used to be our friends, part of our extended family. In an era when mothers stayed home with the kiddies, neighbors provided connection with others in a similar situation. Neighbors helped each other by taking turns to watch the kids while errands were run. They dropped in to chat, share a cup of mid-morning coffee and catch up on news tidbits. In the days before television, our neighbors had names like Eula, Nettie, Don McNeill and Arthur Godfrey.

Neighborhoods sometimes held get-togethers, cooking out a one house or another and gathering to socialize. Men did the grilling and women brought potluck salads or desserts. There were not a lot of such events in our circle of neighbors, but I can recall a few. There were more apt be visits during the day which largely escaped my notice except for summer when school was out.

Our neighbors were similar to neighbors portrayed in sit-coms, familiar faces appearing in a supporting role. They also popped in almost as frequently, too. But many visits were brief, even occurring in the yard while mowing, on the sidewalk while skating or biking, even a quick wave from the front porch. They were there, nonetheless, warm and comforting and offered support when needed.

There is a commercial currently being shown on TV. It's for Chinet dinnerware, I think, and shows a girl wandering through a hall of memories. The voice-over alludes to the old days when doorbells rang more than cell phones. I wonder how many of us recall that period of time.

When I was a kid, I knew every neighbor in each block around our house. I was aware when a grandchild would come for a visit, which house had a newborn, who had a sister in high school, what the dad did for a living (every house had a husband) and who had good Halloween candy. These factors helped shape my world, demographics before the word came into vogue.

When a house had a special event, we got to sample the goodies. One of the couples a few house away, parents of my friend, once had a big square dance party with outdoor lights, a caller and couples dancing. The works. They had large tubs of iced drinks and as a privileged guest, I sipped my first bottle of Grapette from the sidelines, watching enthusiastically. Pretty heady stuff. I was about 6 years old.

Neighbors did thing like help trim trees and rake leaves. People all took pride in their homes and kept their yard tidy, so we all had a stake in the overall appearance. I think we felt a sense of kinship, as though we were somehow all in it together. It was a neighborhood society and we were all members of the club.

So, now the lady in the house next door has put her house on the market. Who is she? Over the past months, something happened to her relationship with the man who used to live there, too. I don't think they were married but they seemed happy. Then his car stopped parking on the driveway. Her kids are grown but I didn't know them either. Who were they? Who knows.

Too bad that neighbors rarely talk to each other any more. Everyone is too absorbed in their own lives to spare a minute to talk to someone else -- unless that person is calling on a cell phone.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Summer Doldrums

All signs point to the arrival of the summer doldrums. You remember the doldrums. When you were a kid, that meant that summer was beginning to wind down. We are still in the middle of July, so it hardly seems like summer is over. But it all began with the first advertisements for a dreaded time: Back to school.

Saw the first commercial at least two weeks ago, for Ziploc bags or some type of container for back-to-school lunches. I was shocked and thought it must have aired as the result of some type of scheduling error. A TV tech pushed the wrong button or something.

But now other commercials are streaming in. Saw one tonight for Target in which an unseen female is pushing one of the infamous red plastic carts through the aisles while little kiddies deposit items inside. There are backpacks, clothing, tablets, pencils…all the goodies which parents must provide for school these days.

I don't have kids or grandkids, so I could care less about back-to-school. In fact, the last time I cared a hoot about returning to school was 1975, when I was teaching 5th grade. I really disliked teaching and had stuck it out for five years.

When school was out in May that year, like most other teachers (whether or not they will admit it), I was really tired. All I wanted was a little time away from the students and the demands put on everyone at the school. Teachers are truly underpaid and underappreciated, and that hasn't change over the decades. We used to put up with rude behavior and even had an assortment of seriously bad students, even at the 5th grade level and even in 1975.

The phrase "even then" is worth noting because already the input of parents -- whether well meaning or not -- was causing tension between the administration and the teachers. All the administration wanted was a year of smooth sailing from Fall to Spring. They didn't particularly care about the quality of teaching that occurred as long as no one made any waves.

The administrators in the large district where I taught were focused on one thing: their pensions. They just wanted to reach the magic number and retire. No doubt there were some exceptions to this statement, but I neither saw or heard about them at the time.

I recall one staff meeting when we were discussing classroom control. The principal wanted to share a tactic that he had found to be of real help when he was confronted with an unruly class. "Stand behind them," he smiled. "That way they can't see you coming." The man seemed quite pleased with himself for demonstrating his natural-born leadership skills.

By the time Spring had arrived, I was giving serious consideration to finding another career. Meanwhile, I was glad for some time off.

In early August, a friend and I were riding go-carts at a rental track and were taking out our aggressions on each other in the blazing sunshine. When my turn was over, I pulled my vehicle aside and climbed out. Suddenly it occurred to me that we would be returning to school in a few weeks. My heart sank at the prospect.

"I can't do it anymore," I told my friend, a fellow teacher.

"Do what?" he asked.

"Go back to school."

He laughed. "Oh, I know. I think that each year. But you know we will go."

I stood there in the bright desert sun and said slowly, "No. I'm not going back."

And that was it. I didn't return to teaching and except for a half dozen days since when I happened to substitute, have never returned to teach again.

I truly appreciate the great teachers from my own education. We all experienced teachers who stand out as inspiring, sincere and dedicated. But those days have long disappeared.

Teachers should not have to fight uphill for every improvement. They should have administrators who support and encourage them. They should have cooperative parents who say "bravo" when their kids improve, not ask "Why are you such a bad teacher?"

I can imagine right now there are teachers in every part of the country who dread seeing commercials reminding them that it's back-to-school time. Somewhere, there are teachers who have likely made up their own minds that they have had enough and may be going through the same thought process as I did.

For any teachers who might read this, I wish you good luck in your future endeavors. You gave far more than you received in those classrooms. You deserve more.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Wants vs. Needs

I frequently hear people explain about some of life's hard-learned lessons. For instance, it is tricky to tell the difference between items that we want and those that we need.

It should be easy to tell. But we have become such a country of shoppers that the lines appear to have become blurred.

People actually need few things in order to survive, including food, water and shelter. Those are the same necessities provided to prisoners and hostages, although not often in abundance. Shelter may be inadequate and food is likely restricted. Water is of the utmost importance, the one requirement that can be the undoing of hikers and others who venture in the desert unprepared. Without water, most people will quickly perish.

Most visits to large cities remind us of the homeless residents who may have to resort to living on the streets. Even under dire circumstances they can still survive, needing only the bare basics to endure. When I lived in Washington, D.C., I would often see the homeless sleeping over grates on the streets above the Metro tracks. Even on the harshest winter days, they would be lying on the bare metal, covered by large plastic sheets. No doubt that is not how they wanted to live, but they were able to survive.

Stories of men shipwrecked on desert islands indicate that survivors quickly figure out how to construct some type of shelter and to capture rainwater for drinking. They learn to identify which plants are edible. These people would no doubt enjoy a bit more comfort, yet they survive.

As we go about our daily lives, we have lost the ability to distinguish what is necessary from what is merely shiny and superfluous.

We have become a nation addicted to shopping, which now consumes a great deal of attention, time and, unfortunately, money. There are people who would rather shop than do just about anything else. Even with a closet filled with clothes, they feel as though they have nothing to wear. These people will immediately set out to capture another addition for their bulging wardrobe. How many similar items do we really need? How many cardigan sweaters can we wear at the same time? How many handbags does a woman need? Or jeans? Or jackets?

Clothing aside, many of us tend to have a lot of "stuff". When it comes to kitchen items, house wares, linens and general gadgets, we likely have more than we will ever need. Merchants know this. That's why they constantly feature newer versions of some item that we already have, only this one may be more colorful, easier to use or lighter in weight, rendering the old version obsolete. So, of course, we purchase the new item but retain the former model. After all, the older item is perfectly good and we might need a spare.

Truth is, we probably didn't ever need the old one at all.

When people are young, they need very few things in order to survive. I remember being very happy to get my first set of pots and pans. What luxury! Pots of increasingly large sizes with lids that actually fit. I was master of the universe. What else could anyone need?

Once we enter the working world, we are thrilled to have money of our own to spend. We soon realize that by receiving a paycheck, we have a certain amount of power. Buying power. This was heady stuff and we grew to like it.

Problems arise, however, when the paychecks stop. Whether it is from job loss, illness or retirement, eventually those nice, big paychecks will stop. We must suddenly decide how to identify whether an object is one that we really need or merely want.

This determination can be a difficult adjustment.

I often hear people repeating about virtues of "wants versus needs". Financial advisor and speaker Suze Orman repeatedly advises that if we ask ourselves this question when confronted with tempting options, we will be able to keep our financial lives healthy.

Temptation is a strong force but one that is sometimes hard to control. However, for anyone with a reduced or restricted income, mastery over temptation is certainly a lesson well learned.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Fourth of July

I'm really glad that the Fourth of July is over -- finally. It appears that long ago the country lost all respect for the holiday and now it is just another hot, steamy summer day.

Growing up, the Fourth of July was exciting. It was fun to have a holiday smack dab in the middle of summer. The 4th meant having fun with friends I hadn't seen very often since school was out. We would ride our bikes to the local parade and watch the bands and proverbial red-white-and-blue bunting. Our family would haul out the big American flag and hang it from the front porch. We usually grilled burgers on the patio. Night time meant fireworks at a local park. It was tradition and fun, despite being fairly predictable.

Well, times have changed.

First of all, there are the fireworks. Fireworks are illegal in our state, though they are sold from temporary tents erected around the county. Laws prohibit fireworks being discharged "within the city limits" unless it is by a licensed group, like the Chamber of Commerce. However, fireworks were discharged in our neighborhood for six consecutive evenings beginning on June 30. These were loud, explosive firecrackers which are easily purchased in a neighboring state. By the way, that other state does allow the discharge of such fireworks inside municipalities.

That was obnoxious enough. No, I don't have a small child who goes to bed early or a dog, neither of which would be too thrilled with the noise. And these were really LOUD explosions, set off relatively near to the homes in the area. Our neighborhood is in the middle of town, not near a park or overlooking a lake or marina. It was quite disturbing. The final night of fireworks, last Saturday night (July 6) ended at approximately 11:00 p.m.

It is widely known that the local police department will seldom perform any task that requires effort. You can phone the P.D. if you have a problem. But even a friend of mine, formerly on the City Council, laughs about the police in our fair community. He told me, "Seriously, if I ever have a real problem, I would never call the police. I would be better off to call the Fire Department because they will actually do something."

Many readers may recognize their community's crime fighters in that description. Enough said about local government.

But the Fourth of July has been diluted from its origin. Rarely do any programs retell the story of the nation's founding. I will give credit to specials and features over this past 4th that discussed the Battle of Gettysburg which was observing its 150th anniversary. The Battle of Gettysburg -- and, in fact, the entire Civil War -- is a chapter we must never forget. It remains a pivotal chapter in American history.

Sadly, the Fourth of July has become something far less than it should ever have become. It now means sales on everything from mattresses to cars -- and little more. Trying to run errands on July 5th was also strange. Many businesses were closed as they took advantage of the holiday. Who could blame them? Many people were out of town anyway, so what's a little lost business income?

Because the date floats unlike many of our 3-day weekend holidays, it is hard to schedule any type of out-of-town travel since many businesses resume work on the following day. The Fourth of July has become a blip on the screen and it deserves more.

Hey, guys. Let's be consistent here. Why not observe the 4th on a fixed date? We know that February 12 was actually Lincoln's birthday and February 22 was Washington's birthday. But we combined the two dates together and observe "Presidents' Day" as a fixed holiday, always on the third Monday in February. That way, we all know that we are marking a national holiday and there is no mystery about what is open.

Whether anyone ever proposes to make the 4th a stationary holiday, we should do more to observe our country's history. It's unfortunate that a holiday as important as the Fourth of July has become nothing more than a reason to buy home furnishings at a discount.

Oh, yes. Don't forget the week-long explosion of fireworks.













Friday, July 5, 2013

Oh, My Feet!

Take a moment now to show a little respect for your feet. They are, after all, rather important and serve us well. They require only occasional pampering and a tiny bit of admiration.

Summer being in full bloom, feet are even more important than ever. During warm weather, feet get overheated in confining or heavy shoes. Some of my friends would never wear anything on their feet but tennis shoes and white socks, even during summer. My feet don't enjoy sweating and have told me so on numerous occasions. "No socks!" they demand and I have to listen to their requests.

My feet are nice and have served me well through the years. They demand large-sized shoes and are a bit on the boney side. But the toes are straight and the nails are nice. However, our relationship hasn't always been so cozy.

When I was a kid, I couldn't stand wearing shoes. One of the first things I did every year was to discard my shoes and get into sandals. This was many years ago when people still had standards when it came to appearance. I wore little white sandals with white anklets. They were lightweight and looked cute. My toes could move about but remained somewhat protected by the shoes.

Even as recently as the1950s, there were plenty of kids on my block who avoided wearing shoes all summer. We viewed them as bumpkins or hooligans despite the fact that they were bright and mannerly most of the time. I suppose they didn't wear shoes because they were partially uncivilized. My parents never passed judgment on my friends -- at least within earshot -- but made it clear that shoes would be worn in our household, even if they were sandals.

By the 1960s, when most teen-agers wanted to be beach babes, we wore white canvas shoes and/or tennies, but with no socks. This was a cool look, at least until the shoes were washed for the first time. Then they lost their ultra white sparkle and looked a bit shabby. Come to think of it, that entire decade was one of white canvas shoes and/or tennies without socks. At least as we went to high school and on to college, that style of undistinguished footgear was comfortable.

By 1970s, I had graduated to low heels and "dress" shoes, leather contraptions that pinched and made my feet hot. Even though living and working in Phoenix, we had to wear hose. Try that at 110 degrees!

Speaking of discomfort, one of my favorite quotes is by T.E. Lawrence in the film Lawrence of Arabia. Lawrence extinguishes a lighted match by squeezing the flame with his fingers.

When another man tries it, he says, "Ooh. That hurts."

Lawrence smiles. "Certainly it hurts."

The other man asks, "What's the trick then?"

Lawrence replies, "The trick is not minding that it hurts."

We experienced significant discomfort wearing stockings in the desert. Despite perspiration running down our legs, we wore hose because it was the fashion. Casual days and hot summers allowed us to wear leather sandals but never to work. The so-called rubber/plastic "flip flops" weren't in vogue at the time, still relinquished to status as an unfashionable but waterproof option for situations like washing the car.

Through the years, the percentage of women wearing stockings has dropped markedly. Sandals are now often worn on bare legs even in elegant settings. Heels range from flats near the ground to stilettos for those who still like to torture themselves.

During the intervening period I have broken my fifth metatarsal bone while wearing cute, stylish sandals but stepping wrong and turning my foot. I have broken two toes on my right foot while falling down stairs on a terrazzo staircase. I have stepped onto a cholla cactus, filling the bottom of both feet with hundreds of tiny hair-like stickers, some of which I still can feel decades later. But each injury has brought a new respect for my little tootsies, which are rewarded by resting on a footstool and occasionally experiencing a full-blown pedicure.

I wasn't always close to my feet. Things were dropped on them and I stepped on plenty of splinters and pointed objects over the years. However, we have now settled into a rather tranquil relationship as we recognize that we will continue to depend on each other for some time to come.

Just remember to kick off your shoes and wiggle your toes freely whenever you can. They deserve it.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Timeless Treasures

I have a certain appreciation for classic material goods.

Some people might consider old things to be passé, obsolete or out of fashion. But I find there are qualities in classic items that deserve closer attention.

I enjoy going to antique shops and am specifically drawn to vintage items. These do not include more lavish items like chandeliers or silver goblets. I prefer things that middle-class, working people actually used. Kitchen utensils that helped get meals on the table. Lamps that helped light a living room. Coin purses that kept spare change from falling to the bottom of a woman's handbag. Useful things from a bygone era.

What's also fascinating about some of these vintage items is the workmanship used in their preparation.

Some of my favorite items are small objects that might have been routinely found on a woman's dressing table. Many of these miniature items could have been made a century ago. Things which routinely grab my attention include hatpins, gloves, small boxes, handkerchiefs and button hooks. If you examine the details of these items, the quality is amazing. Such objects often remain in remarkably good condition despite having survived use, world wars, packing/unpacking, travel and likely several owners. They were created by hands that cared about the quality of the end product.

People also took care of such items. Women took pride in having nice gloves. Accessories like hats and jewelry were important to the wearer and demonstrated that she cared about how she was viewed by others. Because people were aware of their appearance, gloves were placed carefully in a dresser drawer when not being worn. Handkerchiefs were washed, perhaps starched and certainly ironed to be properly at the ready when needed.

Antique items tend not to include overstuffed furniture. Stores might display an occasional fainting couch or divan, but such furniture did not usually survive. Fabric of the day were velvet or other material which was not durable. Spotting and wear was so common that people placed doilies on the arms and across the back of furniture to absorb hair oil and dirt. Stuffing was often horsehair which tended to eventually to compact and lose shape.

Furniture that endured tended to be wooden furniture like rocking chairs, dining tables, hutches and bedroom sets. Carefully carved in hard wood, these pieces have passed the test of time. No particle board or self assembly here. These items were carefully crafted and continue to enchant collectors.

Vintage doesn't necessarily mean exceptionally old either. Some vintage stores contain items from as recently as the 1970s. It's amusing to see objects displayed in antique stores exactly like gifts I received for my wedding in 1967! Sets of matched drinking glasses fitted into a metal carrier -- something every hostess needed. Small, clear glass snack plates with matching glass cups which rested in a ring on the plate. Perfect to hold punch and cake for an afternoon soiree. Chip and dip sets and Lazy Susan trays. Many households contained such collections but it is doubtful that they were used very often.

Some of these later vintage items seemed to fall out of mainstream use for a couple of reasons. By the 1970s, more women worked full time. There were still social gatherings, but hostess glass sets and snack plates were probably less in demand. Also, many items given as wedding gifts were not finely crafted. They were mass produced and not always in the U.S.

The tide had turned.

From mid-century forward, quality has slipped in most of the goods we routinely use. House wares, clothing, even automobiles have become inferior to previous products. Watches, once a product of careful design and fine workmanship, are now disposable. If a watch requires needs anything beyond a new battery, it's cheaper to simply replace it.

Most items, in fact, are often not even designed for repair. Many products wear out about the time a newer version comes on the market. Planned obsolescence.

Perhaps that explains the appeal of goods from the past. Things of quality will endure when little else does.









Friday, June 28, 2013

Well, It's Hot

Depending where you live, you may or may not have noticed that the weather is hot. It's Summer now, after all, so we should have realized that hot was on the way.

Our local Midwestern newspaper runs a column everyday featuring news from 50 and 100 years ago. Lately there have been several items about the oppressive heat of 1913. Now, that must have been uncomfortable.

Women wearing heavy layers of skirts that just touched the ground. Men wearing shirts with detachable celluloid collars and suits nearly everyday. One recent news article about 1913 proclaimed that the local ministers were going to take exception to the heat and allow men to attend church in their shirt sleeves, jackets optional.

Imagine what it would have been like then to be in a public building without air conditioning. No doubt very brutal.

I saw an interview on Turner Classic Movies with actor/author/producer/director Bob Balaban about the early days of cinema. His family owned several movie theatres early in the last century and those theatres were not opened during the summer. It seems that having the doors closed to make the theatres dark was so uncomfortable that patrons couldn't stand the conditions. The Balabans figured out how to "air cool" the theatres. It was an unprecedented luxury and drew huge audiences in to enjoy the air and watch movies.

Apparently the portable electric fan debuted about 1890, so no doubt it took some time before they reached wide use. So folks were left to their own devices to keep cool. Remember those hand-held paper fans with stick handles? You see them in antique stores now.

I recall many hot days during the 1950s without air conditioning in Illinois. We had a large box fan which rolled from room to room. It could be maneuvered toward an open window or screen door to provide some comfort. We got warm but found ways to stay as cool as possible: splashing in our neighbors' wading pool, playing with the hose, staying in our basement or going to the local swimming pool. Much of the time we did little until evening arrived or a cool spell would allow us to be active.

In the summer of 1960, we drove our 1958 Ford from Illinois to Arizona, then back to Illinois and finally back to Arizona (again). It took two round trips to convince our family that it was time to relocate. Our Ford was not air conditioned, of course. In those days, few cars were air conditioned and those were mainly luxury vehicles. The trips were hot. Really hot. But we did the tourist things, seeing the state before heading back. We would stay at motels with swimming pools. The best part was that I got one beautiful, deep tan with little effort. I was 13 and those were the type of things that mattered.

When I was first working in Phoenix, it was some time before I had a car with air conditioning. What a glorious development. Yes, I got hot and would feel baked but  I merely dealt with it.

My ex-mother-in-law and her family arrived in Arizona from the Oklahoma panhandle in the early 1920s. They settled in a small home in the desert west of Phoenix where they had no way to cool off or to keep food cold. Her father came up with a design to help. They had to haul ice to keep anything chilled and he devised a way to blow air across the ice at night so they could sleep. Talk about roughing it. But they were grateful for any comfort from the heat.

When I started college in the Fall of 1965, some of the college dorms still had "sleeping porches" for student housing. Older dorms had long screened-in extensions, usually on the second floor which held rows of beds. These were designed in the late 19th century as a way to make the most of the "cooler" breezes which swept across the desert at night. Students of one sex all slept together in these beds so that they could get relief from the heat. These same students also had dorm rooms similar to most dorms with bathroom facilities, desks and closets. Once the students were out of bed, they would go about the business of studying, getting ready for the day, etc. Even in 1965, these accommodations were considered antiquated and were soon to be replaced. But this, too, was a way to deal with the heat.

Hearing such stories does little to cool us off in the midst of this current heat wave. But we need to remember that not so very long ago, people had it much worse. We should be a bit humbled by what they went experienced.

So raise a chilled glass of ice tea and stay hydrated. This too shall pass.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Golden Oldies

Recently I was watching some vintage movies, a couple of which we remember from the 1970s. I wouldn't necessarily call them classic films but two of them did very well at the box office when they were released. Support the theory or not, box office receipts have been and remain a measurement of a movie's success.

Sometimes it take a while for a film to be declared a classic. Even if a movie does not do well when first released, it may gradually develop a fan following as many devoted viewers returning again and again to see the film.

However the word classic is defined, that category would have to include a few down-right great films which had endured over time. Films like Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane and Casablanca surely fit into the classic department. These movie have all the elements of exceedingly high quality direction, memorable if flawed characters and rich dialogue.

To me, Casablanca stands out as one of the best films ever. This 1942 epic is set in unoccupied Africa during the early part of World War II. Despite the fact that the film was made over 70 years ago, there is a timelessness to Rick Blaine, his love for Ilsa Lund, with a touch of Nazi intrigue added for good measure. Casablanca is perfect on many levels. I could watch this film as often as it is shown, and often do, simply because it tells a complicated story in a simple and touching manner.

The two films I watched recently were both from the 1970s but are polar opposites.

Network (1976) was directed by Sidney Lumet. Written by the brilliant Paddy Chayefsky, it is set in the world of television news. The tone of the plot rings as true today as when it was filmed. Thanks to Chayefsky's genius and the insanity of the television business, the script was years ahead of its time. Chayefsky must have seen the future because he wrote about television news morphing into something entirely different than originally intended. To think that ratings would force TV executives to do almost anything to improve ratings. Unbelievable! In the film, television news needed to design features to entertain the audience. Stirred into action by Howard Beale's lead, viewers had to admit that they were as mad as hell and weren't going to take it any more.

The second movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was filmed one year later in 1977 yet seems amateurish by comparison. It was written and directed by Steven Spielberg. I loved this movie when it came out and have watched it many times during the intervening years. But watching it this week, I was struck by how it appeared outdated and stale. Perhaps this was due to the never ending development of technology. Not that film-making technology has evolved since 1977, but so much of the movie is based on outer space exploration and communication with aliens, apparently very much on our minds in 1977.

We have become a world of plugged-in, instantly communicating automatons, who can't cross a busy intersection without checking for emails. Watching the film as people struggle to communicate and understand why bright nighttime lights have arrived is almost amusing. In addition, Richard Dreyfuss and his family are just regular folks, working people with dysfunctional family lives. It is their inability to surf the net for answers or to reach each other by cell phone that seem so oddly old-fashioned. Dreyfuss nearly runs off the road while reading maps on his journey to Devil's Tower. Today his GPS would have guided him.

While I do not believe we should walk around in a daze plugged into one device or another, the imprint of technology is with us, perhaps to stay.

No doubt as our society continues to embrace certain technology and discard others, some movies will cease to be watched entirely. Perhaps they will be viewed simply as oddities. I was reminded of the many ridiculous sci-fi movies made during the 1950s, as we were uncertain of the long term effects of nuclear fall-out. Tales of giant insects walking through our cities and across our deserts - ants and spiders and larvae, oh my!

I'm not faulting the filmmakers for these discrepancies. It's simply an observation that some things will endure over time and others will fade.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Service? What Service?

It's time to vent once again about the complete lack of customer service out there. I have had to consider whether I've become too demanding. I don't think so, but it reveals my personal intolerance of stupidity.

It's bad when any situation requires us to seek help by picking up the phone. The result usually involves some automated phone line that leads into a queue of options. Today's dilemma required use of the phone after the appropriate website failed to contain pertinent information. The phone queues seldom have an option to address my particular situation. Trying to find someone to help is not easy.

If I were running a company that required employing actual people to assist via phone and could hire fewer people by using queues, I would be overjoyed. Cost aside, having a computer voice run a queue is insulting to the caller, at the very least. Why would I want to hold and then "talk" to a non-person?

Today's matter was finally resolved, but I had to hang up and then call back. This time I got a computer voice which was friendly, as computers go. I input the necessary numbers and codes to conduct the transaction and the computer voice thanked me. Imagine that. It was friendly and polite!

No offense to anyone, but why would a company employ someone who does not speak the language? Certainly call centers employ a number of non-English speaking folks to help the callers who do not speak English. But having a casual concept of a language which is not our own can lead to problems. That would be like me taking a job answering phones in Germany or Sweden, where I know only two or three words in either language. Having a working vocabulary is not something that a call taker can fake.

Recently I had a question about whether my insurance would cover a certain prescription. The medication was not mentioned online and I resorted to getting an answer from a "representative" via phone. She could hardly pronounce any words properly in English, struggling through "Hello" and "May I help you." So when she was required to repeat the name of the medicine, it was a disaster. I asked her a couple of questions and there was silence on the other end of the phone. She finally responded and I had to say, "I'm sorry. I cannot understand you." She became a bit nasty and said she was only doing the best that she could. This is not exactly my idea of customer service.

A friend of mine was recently lamenting how she and her husband had taken all of their business from one local business to another. I know both businesses well and asked why they had made the change. She replied that when she and/or her husband go into the store, they are ignored and often have to endure a long wait. That has not been my experience in the same businesses, but my friend said it was too rude and they now go out of their way to stand in line at another business.

I know this woman well and she is not one to jump to conclusions or make hasty decisions. So her situation must truly have been unpleasant to require such action. Perhaps if she had a place to vent her frustration it might have convinced her to keep her business at the first store.

I am not timid to vent about things when warranted. However, I am not one to take out my frustration on a clerk or checker who has nothing whatsoever to do with the situation. These folks must hear a constant tirade about one thing or another that upsets shoppers. But they are pinned behind the counter and are unable to see to resolving the situations. Why would people rant at the poor clerk who has nothing to do with the problem?

Many years ago, I remember shopping in the fine apparel section of a very upscale department store. A man and woman ahead of me had asked to speak to the supervisor. When the young woman arrived, she smiled and offered, "What may I do help?" The couple unleashed a barrage of words at the woman. She remained calm and wore a look of sincerity. When it was over, she said quietly, "I understand. I'm afraid there is nothing I can do about it, but I appreciate your feelings." The matter apparently involved a dress which they wanted in a size which was not available. The couple turned in disgust and stormed out of the store. I walked over to the supervisor and said, "I just have to commend you on taking all that yelling without ruffling one bit. It was very hard to listen to and I felt bad for you." The girl shrugged. "That's why I do," she said. "You get used to it."

I always remembered that. The couple in the department store was wrong to be so vindictive about a rather petty issue. To make a scene over such a small matter seemed a bit silly then and still does today.

Such is the decline of customer service. At the least people in the department store scenario were standing face to face. At least they were all speaking or attempting to speak the same language. And at least they were all human beings.








Saturday, June 15, 2013

Just Remembering…

I was just thinking back to the "good ol' days" of a simpler time. It was during the summer of 1954, on a midweek afternoon. My mother walked across the street from our sunny house in the Midwest to where I was playing with my friend Linda in her sandbox. Naturally, it was hot. But Linda and I didn't mind the heat and we could always find a little shade.

My mother was going to run an errand downtown. "Want to go with me?" my mother asked.

"Sure!" I hopped up to head home, waving to Linda.

As I reached my mother, she smiled and added, "But first, of course, you need to put on a dress and some sandals."

Not the details that a little girl welcomed, but having to endure a dress on a hot day was worth the trouble, just to get to go.

It was always fun to visit the downtown section of our little town. The blocks filled with stores always seemed to be bustling and the experience was a special treat. Our town had a Kresge's, a Woolworth's and other dime stores with plenty of fascinating yet affordable things. Going into a store was wonderful.

My family had lived in the little down of about 16,000 for several generations, so the chances were good that on nearly every visit my mother would encounter someone that she knew. Going downtown was so special that most people cared about their appearance just in case they ran into an old friend.

I remember standing quietly in stores while my mother chatted with an acquaintance or two. Conversations usually included a quick update of medical conditions, how life was going in general and discussions about other local happenings. It was a simple time, an uncomplicated life complete with a sense of serenity.

Of course, the 1950s in general had a certain social dignity. Men and women both wore hats, a fashion must that required attention and upkeep. Women also wore gloves. People cared about their appearance and, most importantly, cared about how they were perceived.

I don't mean that everyone dressed in the latest fashions but they made an effort. The two key phrases here are: made an effort and dignity. These two phrases are non-existent today.

I underwent a horrible experience earlier today: I shopped at a large, well-known discount store. I venture into that particular store no more than about four times a year, only if I am seeking a product available nowhere else. Many years ago, I was less hesitant to shop at the same store. In those days, I appreciated its diversification of products and its low cost. I was fairly certain that if I went there to find an item, the store would have it and at a reasonable price.

Well, things have really changed.

The vast majority of shoppers that I saw today were dressed in a style that would be considered inappropriate for taking out the garbage. The crowd contained a number of corpulent shoppers attired in shorts with huge rolls of flesh visible. They apparently made no attempt to find a larger size or select something that covered important portions of their bodies. Sorry to say, most of these people folks were women. They made absolutely no effort to wash, tuck or otherwise disguise their misery. They screamed at their children who ran uncontrolled through the aisles, darting directly in front of folks who had to use diversion to avoid tripping.

Do people today have no dignity? Apparently not. That's confirmed by watching reality TV and news interviews with the so-called regular people on the street. The fact that dignity is gone from TV is a true reflection of the fact that it is gone from our civilization.

Do people no longer make an effort about their appearance? Absolutely not. In the Midwest, people joke that in a nearby community, well-dressed means having your teeth in. A sad but true comment. Deodorant is rather inexpensive. Here's an idea: buy some and use it. That doesn't mean you have to SHOWER, although that would be nice and might make you feel better. But at least control the stench of your unwashed body.

The morning newspaper comes with a rubber band around it. Even if you don't get the newspaper and even if you can't read, there are likely rubber bands on the ground or elsewhere to be found. Take a rubber band, comb your long, greasy hair with your fingers and apply the rubber band. I'm not asking for fashion mavens here. Just a little effort and a smudge of dignity.

Does it seem like my expectations are too high?