What I’ve Learned After Three Years…

It’s been a little over three years that I have written this blog. It’s been fun, challenging and educational all at the same time. It started out as a blog sharing my thoughts and opinions, but I soon found out that I didn’t have as many interesting and provocative thoughts as I would like and no on really cared about my opinions.

During that time I became very interested in cooking and baking. I never had a talent for it and was never mentored in the kitchen so I learned many things the hard way. I decided I would be a recipe critic and review recipes I found on Pinterest. I did that a few times on my blog but quickly got bored with the idea.

Then it dawned on me that if I’d never been mentored in the kitchen there were probably a lot more out there like me who were struggling and just not intuitive in the culinary arts.  So I basically decided to make that the focus of my blog. I never looked back.

A staple of my posts are my lessons learned while making or perfecting a recipe. There are so many things that are not included in recipes that writers simply think one knows. That is not the case. My goal is to share those tidbits that, if unknown, can make or break one’s success in the kitchen. So in sticking to my format, let me share my lessons learned writing this blog over the past three years. Here we go…

Lesson Learned 1 – Have a focus for your blog: Once I had a focus posting became much easier and my readership increased. And if you are looking for people to follow your blog you need to post regularly. The goal I have with my blog is to post one new recipe a week. Sometimes I fall short, especially around the holidays. But most of the time I achieve my goal. I decided the best way to approach my blog was by helping folks avoid viewing cooking and baking as…

funny-cooking-quotes

Lesson Learned 2 – Market your blog and be patient: There are several ways to market your blog. I am not interested in paying for that service so I try just a few simple methods to get more readership. Anytime I publish a new blog I’ve set up parameters to upload the blog to my Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr accounts. I also have a Facebook page for the blog and I post links every time a new blog is published. I also use word of mouth as a tool. I happen to work part time in housewares retail and so I make sure my co-workers and even some customers hear about it. You never know who that connection will be that will get more readers to your blog.

Check out my Facebook page for this site. I could always use a few more “likes”. http://www.facebook.com/youbetchacanmakethis/

Lesson Learned 3 – Pictures, pictures, pictures: Your blog needs to be visually appealing as well or a new reader will immediately click off of your site. You heard the saying “A picture is worth a thousand words…” That couldn’t be more true. Don’t worry about needing expensive equipment. Every picture on this site was taken with an iPhone. Pictures tell a compelling story especially when it comes to cooking and baking.

Double Chocolate Zucchini Bread

Double Chocolate Zucchini Bread

Choose an eye catching featured image and incorporate as many pictures as makes sense. If you check out some of my posts you’ll see they have a minimum of 3 pictures. I also include the featured picture at the end of my blog. People who subscribe to my blog by email don’t see the featured picture as it is shown online and since that one is usually the best I want to make sure my subscribers get it to see it as well.

Strawberry & Raspberry Crumb Cake

Strawberry & Raspberry Crumb Cale

Plus, I don’t know about you but when I look at a recipe I want to see what the end product is supposed to look like. So make sure you use pictures. They are an effective tool.

Recipes on You Betcha Can Make This

Lesson Learned 4 – Never second guess what recipe will become popular: I remember when I posted the recipe for my cream cheese, bacon, spinach and scallion pinwheels. I thought to myself ” This is such a rudimentary recipe, everyone makes these so no one will be interested.” WRONG! This recipe is one of my most popular and it gets tons of hits especially around the holidays and Super Bowl. I almost didn’t publish that blog and now I know not to second guess myself. You never know what will be a hit with your readers.

Cream Cheese Bacon & Spinach Pinwheels

Cream Cheese Bacon, Spinach and Scallion Pinwheels

Conversely, when I posted the recipe below I thought it would be a big hit. And although it does get some face time, it wasn’t nearly as much as I’d expected. But I’ve also seen some of my recipes catch on at a later date. So, don’t give up hope. And don’t be afraid to post something simply because you think it will be of no interest. You may actually be surprised (as I certainly was) at the results.

Salmon and Cremini Mushroom Duxelle En Croute...

Salmon and Cremini Mushroom Duxelle En Croute…

Lesson Learned 5 – Take the time to proof read and edit your blog: I never post a blog the day I write it. I always come back the next day, reread it and incorporate edits. I’m always amazed to see my brilliant writing from the day before all of a sudden become not quite as brilliant. I also read my blog out loud. That way it slows down my reading and I catch typos or mistakes. You’d be surprised how many times I’ve left one ingredient out of a recipe. You certainly don’t want to post that. If you don’t take your writing seriously no on else will. So make sure when you post a blog you’re as grammatically correct and error free as you can possibly be. Also make sure that your blog flows and makes sense.

If you use these simple tricks chances are people will gravitate toward your blog. It takes time, so be patient. There was a point that I wondered if anyone was looking at my website. But now my stats assure me that they are. And it’s fun to know that people are looking at your site and trying your recipes.

So as we face the dawn of 2017 I look forward to another year of posting recipes. As always they will include any lessons learned so the newbies in the kitchen can become more proficient right out of the gate. I leave you with links to three of my personal favorites. May you all have a happy and healthy 2017!

Shepherds Pie Turkey Style...

Shepherds Pie Turkey Style…

Artisan No Knead Bread

Artisan No Knead Bread

Iced Cinnamon Chip Cookies

Iced Cinnamon Chip Cookies

happy-new-year-2017-images

Fresh Pear Compote…

Last year my neighbor’s apple trees produced in abundance. This year it was the pear trees and so I eventually got a bushel of pears. Off I went in search of pear recipes I might adapt to my needs and tastes.

I’ve always been a big fan of warm fruit. There’s nothing better than a piece of hot apple or cherry pie with a big dollop of vanilla ice cream. This time, I was not in the mood to make a pie. I found a great recipe for making an upside down pear cake that I adapted and will post later. But what I really wanted to make was a pear compote.

Garden Pears

A compote is basically fruit cooked in water and spices. This particular compote is cooked in butter and lemon juice along with sugar and vanilla. Now doesn’t that sound good. So let’s talk fresh pear compote…

Lesson Learned 1 – All the tedious work is in the prep: To make this compote you need to peel and slice the pears. The pears I got from my neighbor were, on average, smaller than the ones you buy in the grocery store. So I had to spend more time peeling and slicing. Keep in mind that pears, like apples, will turn brown (oxidize) when peeled and exposed to air. To slow down that process until you’ve got everything prepped, just sprinkle a little lemon juice on the pears. That will prevent oxidation until you’re ready to cook them. Every time you slice another pear and drop it in the bowl use your hands to toss it in with the others so that some lemon juice gets on it. There’s no need to add additional lemon juice every time you add another sliced pear to the bowl, unless you’re doubling or tripling the recipe. You really need only a small amount of lemon juice, a tablespoon or so.

Also make sure you slice the pears thinly. They will cook more evenly and will mash thoroughly if you slice them thinly before you cook them.

Lesson Learned 2 – Don’t be afraid to add the ingredients to taste: My recipe requires very little sugar due to the sweetness of the fresh fruit  Most compote recipes I read called for less than one teaspoon of cinnamon. The beauty of this recipe is it’s very adaptable. Once you mix the ingredients, taste the pears before you cook them. If you feel you need to add more sugar or cinnamon, add it. I also love the taste of vanilla extract in the recipe but I found that a little vanilla goes a long way. But those are my tastes. Make this recipe work for you. Just remember to err on the safe side as you can always add more but you can’t take it away once you’ve added it.

Lesson Learned 3 – This compote can be served hot or cold: Although traditionally compote is designed to be served hot, this compote tastes divine hot or cold. I would make a bowl of hot oatmeal and put some chilled compote on top and it was an insanely delicious combination. You can serve this warm with a cheese platter, or put it on crusty bread. Anyway you choose to serve it, this recipe is a winner.

It’s amazing to me how simple this recipe is. After I made pear compote I used the same recipe to make apple compote and it was fabulous. I certainly hope that you try this one.

[recipe: title=”Fresh Pear Compote…” time=”45-50 Minutes” servings=”6-8″ difficulty=”Easy”]

INGREDIENTS:

6 large pears

1 medium sized lemon, juiced and zested (plus an additional tablespoon of juice to put on pears while slicing them)

2 tsp. sugar

1 tsp vanilla

1 tsp cinnamon (start with 1/2 and add more to taste)

1 Tbs. unsalted butter

1 tsp. cornstarch

DIRECTIONS:

Peel the pears and slice them thinly. (coat them with a little lemon juice to prevent oxidation before you’ve completed pealing all the pears). Once pealed, combine pears with all of the ingredients except the butter and cornstarch.

Melt the butter in a deep sauce pan. Add the pear mixture and cook for at least five minutes on medium high heat, or until the pears are tender and can be mashed.

Remove the pears from the heat. Mash them inside the same pot. After mashing them stir in the cornstarch. NOTE: Add the cornstarch a little at a time to avoid clumping.

Put the pears back on the stove and simmer covered for an additional 20 minutes. Serve warm or chilled.

[/recipe]

Pears

Fresh Pear Compote

A Life Well Spent…

For a long time I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand it, I couldn’t accept it, I rebelled against it. Who would ever choose to live their live that way? A life of complete servitude, a life that strips you of your individuality, a life solely based in hardship and hard work – it made absolutely no sense to me. No woman in her right mind would leave her family and home at the age of 16 and enter a convent. No woman in her right mine would vow to a life of poverty, chastity and obedience. No woman in her right mind would dress up in a wedding gown march down the aisle and pledge her life not to a man but to the Lord. Why would any woman do this? It just made no sense to me… that is until a few days ago…

The Motherhouse grounds...

The Motherhouse grounds…

This past weekend I spent a few days in my hometown of Chicago attending the 75th jubilee of my aunt Sister Teresita Miksas. My aunt was celebrating 75 years of being a nun in the religious order of the Sisters of Saint Casimir. Seventy-five years of anything is in itself a milestone but 75 years of being a nun is an remarkable achievement. I definitely wanted to be there for her. I fully understood the significance of it. But I was conflicted. Being there would almost certainly take me back to a place and time in my life that was not very happy, to memories that I did not want to revisit and to a time that I would sooner forget than relive – that being my high school years. But I ultimately knew that this was not about me. I owed it to her to take this journey. She deserved it. She earned it. And surprisingly enough, it was through this journey that I began to understand.

The Motherhouse grounds...

The Motherhouse grounds…

Growing up I struggled accepting the traditional roles women were expected to play.  I never saw myself being fulfilled as a housewife. I didn’t relish the idea of being expected to cook and clean for a man. If you want a chef and a housekeeper just hire one. I wanted to be independent, self sufficient not reliant on anyone or anything for my well being or happiness. Because I felt that way I resented women that I perceived to be the opposite. And so when I began to understand the concept of life as a nun I rebelled against it. Thinking back now I’m not sure whether my feelings were that of anger or sadness, maybe a combination of both. But the idea of being a nun, being taught by nuns, being influenced by nuns especially in my most formative years was distasteful to me. I guess I never thought these woman had a foot in reality. I viewed them as uninformed and out of touch. And when I was finally out from under their influence I went wild. I was free from feeling my development had been stifled, believing I was ill prepared to function in the real world. I was determined never to look back or focus on what I believed to be years of indoctrination in a lifestyle I could not accept. I was finally rid of the influences that were trying to make me into something I was not.

 

The Motherhouse grounds...

The Motherhouse grounds…

But now I realize nothing could be further from the truth. After my experience this past weekend I know it was all part of a process, a journey that has thankfully taken me full circle. My experience made me realize that although you can never go home again there are valuable lessons to learn from trying. This past weekend I was afforded the opportunity to learn about these women, their history, their achievements and their current struggles. It is a story of leadership against the odds, servitude, accomplishment and loss. It is a story that needs to be told.

The order of the Sisters of Saint Casimir was founded by Mother Maria Kaupas in 1907. Born Casimira Kaupas, she emigrated to the United States at the age of 17 to work as a housekeeper for her brother the Reverend Anthony Kaupas. In her late twenties she founded the congregation of The Sisters of Saint Casimir and in 1911, at the age of 31, her order established the motherhouse that I recently visited (at the age of 31 I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up). The Sisters began to staff schools in Lithuanian parishes in Chicago. By 1928 they were teaching in parishes across the United States and also began their health care ministry with the opening of Holy Cross Hospital.

Mother Maria's death mask...

Mother Maria’s death mask…

All these monumental accomplishments occurred at a time in our society when women were not afforded the same privileges we have today. The original wing of the Motherhouse was built in 1911, nine years before women even had the right to vote. Holy Cross Hospital was built in 1928, thirty-five years before women were afforded the right to equal pay for equal work and forty-one years before women were allowed to attend prestigious universities such as Harvard and Princeton. Mother Maria Kaupas formed a ministry, engaged countless other women to follow God’s calling, built schools, staffed hospitals and provided thousands of immigrant children and families the education and health care they were lacking all the while combatting a society that believed women were not equal to men. When you think about it, she was an entrepreneur with leadership skills that rival those of a Steve Jobs or a Mark Zuckerberg. This was not a woman who was uninformed and out of touch. She was driven by a personal mission of establishing a faith based ministry to benefit those in need. And she succeeded brilliantly.

The phonograph purchased to teach the Sisters English...

The phonograph purchased to teach the Sisters English…

All weekend long I was immersed in the epic history of the Sisters of Saint Casimir. Initially times were hard and the rules were stringent. The nuns wore habits that showed the outside world only their faces below the eyebrows and their hands. I remember as a kid wondering if they even had hair on their heads. Early on (before the dress code became more relaxed in the 1960’s) they were required every day – summer or winter – to wear long underwear, two underskirts, and a camisole type garment all underneath a wool floor length tunic with long sleeves and adorned at the waist by a rosary cinch. A bib made of hard white material went around their necks and down their chests. On their heads they wore a wimple that covered their hair and concealed their necks topped off with a headdress that consisted of a veil and a hard white forehead crown that appeared to rest on their eyebrows.  Since the tunics were wool they could not be cleaned regularly so in those days a nun had to wash her myriad of undergarments frequently so as not to offend others with her body odor. The garments were stifling and the crown on the veils chaffed their foreheads. As one Sister so aptly put it, “If you could survive the days of wearing those habits you knew you were truly a nun!”  Today their dress is more secular, simple and understated. You know they’re nuns but you can also see them as human beings.

IMG_9969

Mother Maria's room...

Mother Maria’s room…

I was afforded the opportunity to take a tour of their Motherhouse, a place that I had never seen before. In the old wing (a new wing was added in the 1970’s) is the room of their founder Mother Maria Kaupas. Kept as a living memorial to her, it still contains her furniture, typewriter and even the bed she died in. In the corner stands a bust of her image fashioned after a death mask that she agreed to have done when she was still alive. In 1996 the Vatican agreed to proceed with the beatification process of Mother Maria (the process that can result in sainthood) and in 1999 her remains were removed from Saint Casimir’s cemetery and placed in a white marble sarcophagus in the Motherhouse chapel.

Mother Maria's typewriter...

Mother Maria’s typewriter…

The chapel is undoubtedly the cornerstone of the Motherhouse. Although they call it a chapel, it truly is a mini-basilica with an enormous altar featuring massive marble statues. Two side altars abut the main altar. Numerous breathtaking stained glass windows adorn the walls. And in the back behind Mother Maria’s sarcophagus is an exquisite tile mural featuring an image of her. Most churches built today cannot even come close to replicating the splendor of this chapel’s architecture and artistry. It would simply be too cost prohibitive.

The old wing housed a library, a small chapel, and an ornate rotunda at its core with a circular wooden staircase and massive wall statues depicting the crucifixion of Christ. Standing near the rotunda stairs you can almost hear the faint laughter of the children who once climbed them or the footsteps of the postulants who ran down them only to be caught by a bemused Mother Maria. Stain glass windows adorn the entrance doors, a mini museum adjacent to the rotunda contains personal artifacts of Mother Maria, an old phonograph used to teach the Sisters the English language and a pictorial history of the many Sisters who served the order and those who have passed away.

The crucifix hanging in the rotunda...

The crucifix hanging in the rotunda…

There was also a large auditorium with a stage that is now used for special functions. On the back wall of the stage is a mural painted by Sister M. Mercedes. Completed in 1973 it depicts the history of the Sisters of Saint Casimir from their roots in Lithuania to their ministry in the United States. I stood there in awe of it. The artistry, attention to detail, the use of color and light. It was amazing. I felt the need to touch it and to revel in the work of a great artist. In its heyday, the Motherhouse walls were adorned with many pieces of her artwork, some currently valued at approximately $3,000 each. A gifted artist who shared her talents not only to provide joy but also to pay homage to the rich history of the women in this holy order. I was rendered speechless.

The center of Sister Mercede's mural

The center of Sister Mercede’s mural

 

Sister's Mercede's mural on the back wall of the auditorium

Sister’s Mercede’s mural on the back wall of the auditorium

 

The signed mural...

The signed mural…

So on and on the stories went. Women who were accomplished artists, musicians, educators, health care providers all dedicated to a higher calling and the common good. The fruits of their labors permeate the buildings and grounds. Their past is palpable throughout – you sense it, you feel it – but unfortunately it’s now accompanied by an ever present deafening silence of a lifestyle that has slowly become a way of the past.  Walking down the halls you see a vast array of empty sleeping rooms, an infirmary on the fourth floor completely shut down with furniture removed and walls stripped, the library dismantled with its contents shipped to a university in Lithuania – room upon empty room echoing the sounds of a rich past and an uncertain future. And slowly you begin to realize the heartbreaking reality that things will never be what they use to be.

The old chapel...

The old chapel…

 

The current chapel...

The current chapel…

The order of the Sisters of Saint Casimir was established at a time when social services were the exception and not the norm. During those bygone days, if religious orders did not provide these types of services they simply did not exist. Today these services can be provided without having to make the same sacrifices the Sisters made. People can easily live a secular lifestyle and still serve the common good. Unfortunately these societal changes created tragic results. Systematically convents have been shutting down, private schools are being sold and hospitals are being privatized. No longer do people want to make such huge personal sacrifices in order to serve. No longer are women aspiring to a religious life in numbers that can sustain these historic communities. Such is the plight of the Sisters of Saint Casimir.

Mother Maria's sarcophagus at the rear of the chapel...

Mother Maria’s sarcophagus at the rear of the chapel…

 

The mural behind the sarcophagus...

The mural behind the sarcophagus…

Currently the order is looking to sell the Motherhouse and grounds. A two block square piece of property on the Southwest Side of Chicago, it served as the center for the work of these women for over one hundred years. The grounds are immaculately manicured, the building stands as a testament to their history – the only home that those remaining have ever known. They expected to live there. They expected to die there. But it has just become too expensive to own and operate.

The ornate ceiling in the rotunda...

The ornate ceiling in the rotunda…

I know in my heart of hearts that Mother Maria, being the business woman that she was, would say this must be done. In reality it has to be done. But what struck me was the grief these women were experiencing during this change process. At first I didn’t get it. It’s just business. I understand having to make a business decision. It’s the way of the world. But after spending a weekend with them, I began to see them in a totally different light. And through that process came respect and admiration for who they are, what they have accomplished and what they are losing.

As I walked the grounds of the property I could not help but be overcome with sadness. I stood at the grotto that existed when my aunt was young. I held a picture of her taken several decades earlier at that very same grotto standing behind a kneeler between her mother and father. I touched the top of the same kneeler that my grandmother and grandfather touched. I felt them. I felt their joy of having a daughter who entered the religious life. I felt their presence and the presence of so many others who sought peace and solace on those grounds. I cried for them and for all who would be losing that special place. And it was there that I finally came to understand and appreciate the history and the ministry of the Sisters of Saint Casimir.

My grandparents and aunt at the grotto circa 1945

My grandparents and aunt at the grotto circa 1945

 

The grotto today...

The grotto today…

Now systematically they are all being moved to a continuum of care facility on the South Side of Chicago. Only the able bodied remain at the Motherhouse to continue the process of phasing it out. The others will have wonderful accommodations and great care but it will never be the same. As I stood on the grounds I couldn’t help thinking what will become of Mother Maria’s sarcophagus? What will become of the grounds? What will become of the grotto? What will become of Sister Mercede’s mural? What will become of that gorgeous chapel? And I know these questions are running through the minds of each and every one of them. They are questions still remaining to be answered.

But although there are still so many unanswered questions one truth is and will always remain constant. No one will ever be able to strip from them the incredible legacy that they, along with Mother Maria, built. It will remain forever in the hearts, minds and souls of all they touched. It will remain in my heart, mind and soul for as long as I live.  Finally I understand…

And so, after 75 years of being a nun, I say to my aunt and to all of these wonderful women – thank you and may God bless you.  Be brave. Stand tall and be proud! It has been a life well spent.

Happy 75th Anniversary, Auntie! (in the wheelchair)

Happy 75th Anniversary, Auntie! (in the wheelchair)

 

 

 

Got Twelve Bucks?

Today the leader of a Nigerian terrorist group called Boko Haram (translated means Western education is sinful) boasted that he had the 200 girls that were kidnapped from a Nigerian school on April 15 and he was going to sell them. “Allah has instructed me to sell them. They are his property and I will carry out his will.” I choke on these words as I type them.

According to news sources some of the girls, all teenagers, have already been sold for twelve dollars each. I wasn’t aware the going rate for a lifetime of degradation, sexual slavery and total servitude was a mere twelve bucks. A mere twelve bucks and they get the dubious honor of being subservient to the needs and desires of the men who “own” them for the rest of their lives. They are not viewed as human beings but merely property to be used at the command and pleasure of their “owners”.  And I also learned today quite by surprise that the determination of who is slave and who is owner is made by men interpreting the teachings of Allah. Allah deems men worthy so women have no say. Women are only needed to quench the sexual desires of men and to ensure the survival of the species, at least according to these supreme all-knowing men.

Let’s face it. This has nothing to do with Allah. I find it hard to believe that any supreme being would create life for the purpose of denigrating it. Human beings are human beings regardless of whether they have penises or vaginas. They should all have the same rights and privileges and that includes, most importantly, the right to be educated.

Heaven forbid that we educate women. What will they want next?  We don’t need women to be able to read, we don’t need them to be able to think. We don’t need them to be able to lead. All we need is for them to drop on their backs and spread their legs wherever and whenever a man sees fit and willingly succumb to his every need. Oh and yes I almost forgot, there are those other menial things like doing the laundry, preparing the meals and taking care of the numerous amount of children born, not out of love, but out of sheer sexual perversion. Men can’t be bothered with those trivial things. Men have more important things to do like raping, pillaging and killing those who do not agree with their beliefs. And all in the name of Allah. How convenient to have God on your side. 

At the time those 200 girls were kidnapped they were taking their exams – how ironic. These young women were trying to better themselves in order to lead more productive lives. But as it’s been since the dawn of time, the stronger (and I use that term loosely) exert their will over the weaker. It’s all about the powerful imposing their will to get what they want when they want it regardless of the impact on others. And sadly they’re using the name of God to do it.  

We’d like to believe that these atrocities only existed in the Stone Age. Don’t kid yourself. They still run rampant throughout the world. It’s just easier to believe they don’t in a country like ours where women have more rights than almost anywhere else. And even those rights had to be legislated and negotiated over time. But let’s do a reality check here. In this instance we’re not talking about grown women. These are teenage girls. How terrorized they must feel, how frightened they must be. Don’t forget, they’re still children themselves. But unfortunately they possess the sexual characteristics of a woman and that’s all these men need to sell them. 

To subject teenage girls to this type of treatment is an atrocity not all-together different than the plight of black Americans in this country or the inhumane treatment of Jews during the Holocaust. So this should be front and center in the news today, right? Think again. Today the news is focusing on the Supreme Court ruling on prayer, the crisis in the Ukraine and the plunging value of Target stock. I guess 200 girls sold into slavery is not worthy of major coverage. Their families are now turning to social media to give this situation the prominence it so rightly deserves.  And the word is spreading. Too bad mainstream media doesn’t see the importance of all this.  And why should they? After all, it’s only 200 teenage girls we’re talking about, right…

My heart goes out the families of these young girls and I pray for their safe return. I also pray that I’ll live to see the day when human rights and equal rights are truly the norm. Some believe we’ve reached justice and equality for women. I say we haven’t even scratched the surface. Open your eyes people and take in the harsh truth. And so it will continue to be until the rights of women become a global priority.

 

 

 

 

Once In Love With Amy…

It was a song that was popular when I was a little girl – “Once in love with Amy, always in love with Amy. Ever and ever fascinated by her, set your heart on fire to stay…” One of my favorite childhood actors, Ray Bolger, introduced that song in the 1952 movie “Where’s Charley.” Growing up I remember constantly singing that song. I loved it. And never in a million years could I have imagined how significant the name of Amy would eventually become to me.

Amy entered my life when I was in my twenties. A beautiful and precocious child with a killer smile that melted the hearts of many. She decided to be in my after school drama program and from that point forward my life would never be the same. Beautiful, talented, conflicted, loving – a living angel that all too soon became one. I heard the news when I was out of town. A former student texted me and asked what happened to Amy. Her Facebook account was flooded with “rest in peace” messages and I became sick to my stomach and almost passed out. Such a beautiful young woman, so much life, so much promise and all of a sudden, in what seemed like an instant, gone… Amy touched my life in countless ways. She shared her hopes and dreams with me. We talked endlessly about the challenges in her life. We laughed together, cried together, we connected in the deepest way possible for two human beings that are not bound by blood. Amy was the first person to make me realize the importance of the after-school program at Hiawatha Park. Disparate lives bonding forever through the medium of theatre and dance, not recognizing at the time that our hearts and minds were creating lifetime connections that, try if we might, could never be broken. Day by day we went on laughing, loving and creating magic deep in our souls. We just didn’t know it at the time. I see it now so clearly, I feel it now so deeply. Maybe that is why mere words will never be able to express how lost I feel without her. In my head I know the reality of it, someone just needs to explain it to a body that has forever lost a piece of its heart.

Our Angel, Amy...

Our Angel, Amy…

Today I finally figured out why I’ve been feeling so compelled to write about Amy these past few days.  Today would have been Amy’s 48th birthday. Normally the candles would be lit, the cake would be cut, the traditional songs sung – all to celebrate another year of a special life on earth.  That will not happen today. Today we grieve, we cry and we try so hard to do what Amy would have wanted us to do – to rejoice in the memory of her and move on with our lives. Today I think of our many long talks, how we always spoke about our special bond and how much we both so appreciated our deep and powerful connection. Funny, but for some reason I don’t feel that she is gone. I truly believe for as long as I life she will never be gone. And that is how I cope… So Happy Birthday dear sweet Amy. I’ve felt your presence every day since you left us and I know you are watching over all of us from a much better place. Please believe these words as I say them, they haunt me and yet come straight from my heart… “Once in love with Amy – always in love with Amy…

Subhuman Mongrel…

Although this blog is primarily dedicated to my “foodie side”, everyone once in a while I feel compelled to contribute something to the “General Rants” category (usually when something has ticked me off or relates to a subject I am passionate about). Today is one of those days.

I just finished watching CNN and they were reporting on the so-called apology Ted Nugent gave today for calling Barack Obama a subhuman mongrel. I recognize we live in a country that staunchly supports freedom of speech (and so do I) but I get annoyed when people hide behind the first amendment to say anything they damn well please and to hell with the other guy.

Our forefathers, and rightly so, established freedom of speech to allow for democracy. Only when everyone has the ability to be heard can a nation claim to be the land of the free. What I don’t believe they intended was to use that right to debase and degrade people in the debate process. To me that only serves to weaken the argument of the person resorting to despicable behavior but my fear is it’s become a pastime in this country to call names and say hurtful things just because you can.

I recently participated in an online discussion (and I almost never do) regarding the documentary Blackfish. The documentary centers around the orcas at Sea World and in particular Tillikum the orca that killed Sea World trainer Dawn Brancheau a few years ago. It goes to great lengths to show how they were mistreated in the past and decries keeping these majestic creatures in captivity. I don’t disagree with that. Personally there were many things in the documentary I agreed with, but I struggled with a couple of the concepts, namely the failure in my eyes to recognize the conservation efforts of Sea World and the fact that we’ve kept these creatures in captivity all their lives and now it appears we’re saying – release them, let them be free. To me the argument has many more layers than that and, up to this point, I have not seen anyone adequately address how you habituate an orca to be free when it’s spent its entire life in captivity. So I made that point in the online discussion.

I got hammered, and not with thoughtful arguments but with personal attacks. I was called stupid, a bitch, and an idiot for expressing my opinions. Never within the course of the conversation did I resort to name calling and hurtful language, and when I finally called it out the conversation came to an abrupt halt.

I see this happening all the time. Maybe it’s a result of reality TV or how people are raised. I welcome a thoughtful exchange of differing opinions. I abhor it when it sinks to personal attacks. Unfortunately our culture here in America seems to support and encourage this type of behavior. No wonder bullying in schools has become an epidemic. When a public figure (and I really don’t care that he is a rock n’ roller – that does not excuse him and he is still a public figure) can call the President of the United States a subhuman mongrel, what does that say about us as Americans. What kind of example are we setting? What type of image are we projecting to the rest of the world when we can’t disagree (even vehemently) respectfully? We as a country are calling for the humane treatment of others all across the world. What kind of hypocrites are we when we can’t even be respectful in how we treat one another?

One of my favorite classic movies is The American President. The final speech Michael Douglas gives in that movie is awe inspiring. He talks about the land of the free being a place where someone can argue at the top of their lungs for something that you would spend your lifetime arguing at the top of your lungs against. He goes on to say “Celebrate that. Teach that in your classrooms. Then you can talk about the land of the free.” Nowhere did he say that arguing at the top of your lungs means name calling and personal attacks. We have lost sight of the fact that we can be passionate about what we believe while respecting other points of view. We have become a nation of my way or the highway.

So today I am ashamed to admit I am an American if America is judged by the behaviors of people like Ted Nugent. Who cares if he apologized. Care more about what comes out of your mouth in the first place. Then maybe I can learn to respect what you have to say.

BlackFish or Black Eye…

The conversation regarding the documentary film BlackFish seems to be swirling again fueled by a protest over a Sea World float that was part of this year’s Tournament of Roses Parade. I saw the documentary a few month’s ago when it was shown on CNN and I have to admit after I saw it I was very disturbed. And this is quite an admission coming from me, as this was the girl who for year’s said that it was her biggest dream to jump into the tank with Shamu and be a Sea World animal trainer!

At the heart of the documentary is the story of the Orca called Tilikum. He was snatched from the sea when he was two years old and has lived in captivity ever since. His treatment over the years, and specifically in the early years, was horrific and no doubt affected his behavior. He has killed three humans over the course of his life in captivity but the more recent death of Dawn Brancheau, a highly skilled Sea World trainer, has driven to the forefront his unfortunate saga fueling the public debate regarding Orcas in captivity.

Orca

Orca

The concept of captivity has a negative connotation, the idea of removing a species from its natural environment and keeping it “prisoner” in a fabricated world. And to some degree I cannot argue that point. But I think you need to dig a little deeper to form an opinion on the “appropriateness” of these fabricated environments we call zoos and aquariums, even those that are for-profit like Sea World. As a child and as an adult I’ve appreciated both. These venues provided knowledge that created a deep love in me of all creatures great and small. Over the years I’ve seen them transform from rows and rows of cages and tanks to sprawling areas designed to recreate to the best degree possible the animal’s natural habitat while also becoming increasingly concerned with the welfare and healthy stimulation of the animal as well as providing a venue for public education. I may have never been able to see the splendor of an Orca if I had not gone to Sea World. It is a majestic animal and having had the opportunity to see it only fueled my desire to support increased conservation efforts. That passion was initially created by seeing a majestic animal living in a prefabricated world. Good for me, not so good for the Orca. So at any given point in time I can see both pros and cons to this argument. Should these institutions even exist? In a perfect world would we need them? Probably not. But this is not a perfect world. What is right and what is wrong is not as simply defined as the black and white color of the Orca.

What I think upsets me the most is the relentless drive of some organizations to influence public opinion without providing a complete picture of the issue. Yes, it is unnatural for these animals to be living in these environments. Yes, wouldn’t it be great if they could all live in their natural habitat in a world that would respect them an allow them to flourish. But let’s get a foot in reality here. It is not a perfect world and these majestic wild creatures, not just the Orca alone, are in major danger of becoming extinct because man, who has put them in captivity, is also poaching the life out of them for profit. The African Elephant alone is in real danger of extinction because of the market for ivory. Our grandchildren may never be able to see a rhinoceros as they are being killed off in droves for their horns. And the stories of these animals can go on and on. In my mind there is no doubt that the root cause of the problem is man, and unless we can make some serious changes to our species others species may cease to exist and a lot sooner than we would like.

So let’s have that be at the basis of this discussion. Animals should be treated humanely whether in fabricated or natural environments, and if we can successfully deal with how they are treated in the wild, maybe our need for fabricated environments may not be as great. But until that day comes, if it ever comes, I think we need to figure out a happy medium and have a well rounded instead of one-sided discussion. There is a real value to public education and seeing these animals up close and personal is an experience that cannot be replicated by a book or a film. Some of these institutions are actually increasing the numbers of rare species. And what about the efforts of some of these organizations to rehabilitate and release these animals back into the wild?

I guess my point is that there is no easy answer here. But keep the discussion accurate by fulling examining all aspects of the issue. It’s unfortunate that the movie Blackfish did not examine the issue from both sides. Yes I know Sea World refused to participate in the film, and that is perhaps their fatal flaw. But the damning influence of Blackfish affects all institutions that care for these types of creatures and creates a public opinion that is not fully informed. I think it’s great we are having the conversation, but have the conversation based on all sides of the argument.

So This Is Christmas…

Oh Christmas Tree...

Oh Christmas Tree…

Christmas Day 2013 and lots to reflect upon. On this day more than any other you think about the many things for which you are grateful as well as precious times past. Those thoughts can bring both smiles and tears as you revel in the holiday spirit but miss those that can no longer share it with you. For me, Christmas is the time to reflect on the past year, the good, the bad and the ugly and to begin the process of creating the hopes and dreams for the upcoming year. So here goes:

All in all, 2013 was a pretty good year. It started out rocky but is ending up positively. In January I began feeling pain and numbness in my legs that took me on a health roller coaster of doctors, vein procedures, physical therapy and finally a diagnosis of spinal stenosis. Scary as it may sound, finally getting the diagnosis and having an operation to fix it is what I am most grateful for this year. Not having pain in my legs and the feeling of having “my old legs” back is a gift I am not taking for granted. I laughed when a friend told me that I basically had a “roto-router” procedure on my spine but call it whatever you want, it did the trick. So this year I am looking forward to being physically able to work on a healthier life style without experiencing pain in the process.

Holiday Decorations

Holiday Decorations

I am also grateful for being retired and now just working on things that I choose to and that I love. Who would have ever thought that I would love working part-time in retail? Not me, that’s for sure. And I am sure that working retail in general could never be something that I would enjoy, but working at Crate and Barrel has been a blast. A great company, great people and working in customer service has really, for all intents and purposes, “cranked my switch”. I have just enough hours to effectively learn the business (I am so enjoying learning the ins and outs of corporate America) but not too many that it prevents me from pursuing my other interests. So it is a win-win situation and as long as it continues to be fun I will do it. And working on the two NRPA schools is really a joy for me. My first love was always teaching and to be able to work on schools that attract the best of the best in the field of Parks and Recreation is a gift I treasure.

I am also so grateful for my friends and to be able to have regular contact with them either the “old fashioned” way, by telephone, or the more popular ways by texting, emailing (although this is becoming less popular these days) and through social media. I love seeing what is happening in their lives and sharing what is happening in mine. To be able to maintain contact with people that I taught some 30+ years ago, colleagues from work days long gone by and new friends made along the way brings untold joy into my life.

The Christmas Village

The Christmas Village

Having had the opportunity this year to vacation with some old friends was the best. True friendship exists when you can spend time apart but, when finally together, pick up right where you left off without regret or awkwardness. We laughed so hard we cried, and we enjoyed each other for who we are now as well as for our past connections. Those friendships last a lifetime and I am so grateful to have those kinds of friends in my life.

I am particularly grateful for a special surprise gift I got this year from a former student. Nothing like getting some Lou Malnati’s pizza and popcorn to bring you back to the good ole’ Chicago days. The gift was totally unexpected and brought about tears of joy, the best kind of tears. This gift was a great reminder to me that it is the small things, the unexpected kindnesses in life, that truly matter the most.

Paying it forward by performing random acts of kindness, that is becoming a tradition for me during the holidays and really should be a year-long tradition. Buying an unsuspecting person their Starbuck’s order and looking at the smile on their face when they were told – that was a good one for me this year. But I think I am going to try to spread this out during the rest of the upcoming year as well. It makes you feel so good to do something for someone, just because, with no expectation in return. That is the true act of giving and what I’ve learned along the way is that giving is just as rewarding, if not more so, than receiving.

Me and My Dad By The Tree...

Me and My Dad By The Tree…

I can’t escape thinking about my parents at the holidays. They were the ones who always went out of their way to make my holidays special. The annual downtown Chicago shopping trips, consisting of a march up and down State Street (always ending at Marshall Fields), coffee and a treat at the Walgreens buffet (yes they used to have one), several walking trips back to the car (my dad’s job) to drop of the myriad of packages and dinner at Millers Pub (always their lamb chops for me). I remember one year my mother having too many of a drink called a “Tom and Jerry”, that was one of the more memorable dinners! We always did our trip on the first Saturday in December and even as an adult I would look forward to doing this with them. These are special, special memories. Needless to say I now miss my parents terribly at this time of year, but I know they would want me to be happy and the best way to honor their memory is to work through the sadness and revel in the joys of the past and look to the future with unrelenting optimism.

The scamp, Cody...

The scamp, Cody…

This was the second year we did not put up a Christmas tree. I can tell you the reason in one word, Cody. Cody is our orange tabby that we adopted in 2012. He is a big boy, tipping the scales at 12 pounds, and he is very rambunctious. We knew if we put a tree that it would wind up on the ground. We were hoping this might be the year we could put it up, but he is still in full blown scamp mode and so we decided against it. Next year there will be a tree for sure, whether it stands or lies down.

And as always there is the holiday baking ritual. This year was an enormous success with two new recipes (caramel butter bars and frosted cinnamon chip cookies) leading the way. I try to make at least one new recipe a year but now I am at the point were I make eight different cookie recipes, all articulated favorites, so it will be interesting to see if next year I’ll have the courage to discontinue one in order to try a new one. There are only so many types of cookies a girl can make before she becomes tuckered out! But seeing the joy in the eyes of my neighbors and co-workers when the cookies come-a-callin’ is worth all the time and energy. This year a plate even made it to a Christmas Eve dinner at the Denver Children’s hospital. I am sure those attending that dinner more than appreciated something made with such love during a difficult time in their lives.

Holiday Cookie Platter

Holiday Cookie Platter

And last but not least, there is always the sojourn to some sort of holiday theatrical production. One year it was to see the Radio City Rockettes perform their holiday extravaganza, another time it was to see a production of my favorite story, A Christmas Carol and last year I saw the stage version of “White Christmas”.

A Holiday Performance...

A Holiday Performance…

This year it was front row seats to see the Denver Ballet perform The Nutcracker. My theatre going friend had never seen The Nutcracker before, so it was an extra special treat. Seeing a holiday production always gets you in the holiday spirit. This has become a tradition that I really enjoy and plan on continuing.

So this was Christmas, 2013. All in all a pretty good one. Can’t say that every year but happy when I can. And as I reflect upon this year, I can only hope that yours had more joy than sorrow, more ups than downs, more successes than failures and was filled with friendship and love. Merry Christmas and to quote Tiny Tim, “God Bless Us, Everyone.”

The Elves Are In The Kitchen…

Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies

Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies

It’s December 3rd. There’s a winter storm warning, clouds are ominously thickening overhead, the temperature is dropping and so naturally my thoughts are turning toward holiday baking. Making holiday baked goodies is something I’ve done since I was in college. It started out as somewhat of a lark and has now turned into a hard-and-fast holiday tradition. The cookies have to be made somewhat early these days as a batch needs to be shipped to my aunt in Chicago, but making and freezing cookies is just as good as having them fresh. The challenge is deciding what the 2013 cookie menu will be?

There are a few things I know I cannot fool around with, these cookies must be made every year – no questions asked. Namely they are the chocolate dipped sugar cookies, the chocolate chip cookies and the triple chocolate brownie cookies. Over the past couple of years another cookie has almost worked it’s way into must-have tradition status, the cranberry oatmeal cookie.  It is quickly becoming a real favorite with family and friends. My personal favorite has not quite yet  caught on, that is the raspberry walnut bars but I’m sure before long it will become a holiday staple as well. And every year there is an unwritten law that at least one new cookie recipe must be attempted. That’s the law and it must be obeyed!

So with the weather promising that tomorrow will be a day indoors, it’s time to start baking – but before that comes the planning. What will the cookie gift plates consist of this year? At this point a preliminary list has been developed. It is always up for adjusting, except for the big must-have three, but it provides a starting point for the cookie onslaught. So here it is, the unveiling of the preliminary 2013 holiday cookie list (with more additions or exclusions to follow):

Chocolate Dipped Sugar Cookies

Chocolate Dipped Sugar Cookies

THE BIG THREE: (can you see a chocolate theme going on here?)

THE PRELIMINARY MENU:

THE ON-THE-FENCE MENU:

  • Peanut Butter Blossom Cookies
  • Spritz Cookies
  • Any Other Cookie Recipe I See As I Skim Pinterest or Facebook

So there you have it.  It took me two hours and two different grocery stores to amass all of the ingredients I’ll need but at least I have a solid plan for tomorrow, snow or no snow.  As I continue on my holiday baking journey I will post pictures of the cookies along with the recipes and any lessons I’ve learned along the way while making them. Up to this point, the biggest lessons I’ve learned deal with how to adjust these cookie recipes for high altitude. I won’t share those tips unless you ask for them. With over 30 years of making some of these cookies I’d say I have many of them down pat. Some I personally like more than others and I’ll share those opinions along the way. One thing never changes, though, and that is the joy of this time of year and the fun that I have making holiday cookies.

Raspberry Walnut Bars

Raspberry Walnut Bars

JFK And 50 Years In The Blink Of An Eye…

It seems like only yesterday. The young handsome president standing at the podium on his inauguration day challenging the youth of American to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” It was motivational and awe inspiring and made a young girl believe that anything was possible. Dare to be, dare to dream, it is all in front of you ripe for the taking.

JFK Inauguration

JFK Inauguration

Not all that long ago that same young girl was riding the bus to the Kennedy presidential campaign headquarters in downtown Chicago, picking up fliers and bumper stickers and passing them out in her neighborhood. She truly believed this man could make a difference, change the stodgy and old fashioned ways that the country had been governed and reinvigorate young and old alike to believe in the importance of their participation in the political process. She could not understand why a person’s religion could be such a major issue and, since it was also her religion, felt persecuted for reasons she could not understand. But in the end it did not matter. She just knew he would be elected, and he was. So, as she watched him speak on inauguration day (it was the first time her school allowed the classrooms to watch a televised event) she dreamed of a bright future, a new way of thinking and being, a right of passage, a happily ever after…

Fast forward some three years later. The same young girl sitting in her classroom when from out of nowhere the school principal’s voice comes over the loud speaker system, “The president has been shot. All classes proceed to the church so we can pray for him.” No one could believe it, it couldn’t be true. The president shot? And as if in a dream the classrooms filed into church where the pastor lead them in praying the rosary. When the final prayer concluded the pastor stepped up to the lectern and uttered the shocking words, “The president has died. Classes are dismissed for the day.”

Wait, what – what did you say? The president what? No, no it can’t be true. But the eerie silence in the church led the young girl to believe that the worst must have happened. But how, why? In this day and age? Weren’t assassinations a thing of the past? I mean, not since Lincoln and McKinley right? She was so confused.

The next three days were like living in a fog. At first the utter disbelief, there was no way this could happen. Then going home and turning on the television. Once again another first. Programming on every station, and there were only four at the time, was preempted and entirely devoted to what was unfolding nationally. The young girl sat glued to the set hoping at some point this would wind up being another ruse like Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds. It was not to be. Just one look at the beautiful young First Lady bleary eyed in her blood stained clothes and the harsh reality set in.

Shock is a strange bedfellow. It manifests itself in a variety of ways, loss of appetite, lack of sleep, tears and even inappropriate laughter. Shock made the young girl feel like she was living outside of herself, watching the events unfold and her reactions to them like an interested bystander not wanting to believe what she was seeing or experience the pain. But there was no escaping it. Picture after somber picture flashed before her eyes, a hearse pulling up to the White House, a coffin lying in the Blue Room, a familiar rocking chair being moved out the back door, a young and spirited horse, BlackJack by name, being forced to try to walk solemnly behind the flag draped coffin, row upon row of foreign dignitaries, that all too familiar drum beat cadence providing the continual heart breaking rhythm to the funeral procession, a little girl reaching under an American flag to touch her father’s coffin and thousands upon thousands of crying mourners filing through the Capitol Rotunda for one last chance to say thank you and good-bye.

The Assassination of JFK - November 22, 1963

The Assassination of JFK – November 22, 1963

She continued to pray. Please if this is a bad dream let me wake up, only to be sitting with her grandmother watching live TV as Jack Ruby shoots Lee Harvey Oswald. This is unreal! When will it stop? But there was no stopping it. Image upon image flashed before her, the flag draped coffin placed on a horse drawn caisson, a little boy bravely saluting his father, a mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, burial at Arlington National Cemetery and the lighting of the eternal flame by a young widow, a tear stained black sheath covering her face. All these images seared into the young girl’s consciousness. And those same images are as clear today as they were 50 years ago.

And as with any catastrophic event like this or 9/11, once you experience them you always remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard the news. But for me, there is on major difference between the two. When John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated my innocence was buried with him.

My Favorite Color Is October…

Ever since I can remember Fall has been my favorite time of year. It starts in late Summer with the crisp inviting smell of loose leaf paper and the promise of another school year punctuated with shiny new school supplies. Then NFL football makes its presence known and we ask ourselves how did we ever manage so long on Sundays without it? Slowly but surely darkness creeps closer to dinner time instead of bedtime. That extra blanket sure feels good wrapped around you at night, doesn’t it?  And those smells of dinner slow roasting in the oven versus being cooked on the grill. They all create an aura of Fall and home sweet home. These traditions, memories and experiences help to make Fall that very special time of year. But perhaps the best aspect of Fall is experiencing nature’s way of ushering in Winter with palates of color that warm the heart and soothe the soul.

There have already been so many lessons learned during my recuperation from spinal surgery, some by necessity and some merely by chance. Part of my ongoing physical therapy is to take daily walks and increase the distance I walk as my body allows. I am forced to be outside and walk my neighborhood every single day. At first it was a matter of can I do this, how am I feeling, can I go any further, and watch my step. But I can tell you that gets really old after a while. Next you start thinking about how to relieve the boredom of walking in an area that’s all too familiar, the same streets, houses, cul de sacs, and park. I know I have to do this, but I sure wish the scenery was more spectacular. Then yesterday I realized I could not see the forest for the trees. Stop and smell the roses, Jan. Take a good long hard look at what is right there in front of you.

Red leaves

And so I did. It almost had to slap me in the face before I noticed it. But once it did, my eyes opened as if for the first time. It came upon me so fast it almost took my breath away. What was I thinking? Here I was longing for spectacular scenery when I was already in the midst of an unfolding story of colors, lights, sounds and smells. I was just too busy to notice. But I’m seeing it now. Time to explore.

yellow leaves

palate

I’ve always loved the ways leaves turn into an array of colors at this time of year, but never really thought about how they compliment the color of the sky or create a palate of complimentary hues that offset each other in perfect symmetry. The greens, yellow, browns, reds, pinks, purples all bathed in a backdrop of a clear blue sky is sheer and utter magnificence! The artistry of nature is at its best in the Fall and right there for all to enjoy if you take the time to notice it.

Looking around you can also see the last vestiges of Summer, annuals that look slightly worse for wear but still proudly standing like old soldiers not wanting to let go of the glory of bygone days.

Summer Flowers

Summer Flowers

And lets not forget the first big holiday of the season is around the corner and that, in itself, brings an array of creativity to lawns and porches. Traditional decorations, spooky creatures and deflated balloons awaiting darkness and air compressors to come alive all dot the streets in a festive display of Halloween magic.

tombstone

Wolfman

Wolfman

There is a wealth of spiders, cobwebs, ghosts and goblins scattered in trees, lawns and on porches all in the spirit of the season. They bask in the sunshine during the day suspended in time and space but come alive at night to roam the neighborhood in search of the faint of heart. I could feel there eyes follow me as I walked among them but they would not break their code of silence. Only in darkness do they flourish. They seemed to be challenging me to come back, at their time and on their terms. But for now they lie in wait for the sun to go down hoping I will have the courage to return and meet them once again under the veil of darkness.

A neighborhood ghost

A neighborhood ghost

And as I took all of it in I realized once again how little time I spend stopping to smell the roses. Today I saw my neighborhood in a whole new light, bathed in autumn beauty and the anticipation of Halloween. I smiled at every decoration, every tree, every pile of leaves waiting to be enveloped with children sitting in their midst and throwing them wildly into the air. I reveled in the fallen leaves crunching under my feet and took in the smells, sights, sounds and colors of October. I almost missed it. It’s so amazing. And yes, there is no doubt in my mind now, my favorite color is October.

Autumn leaves with the backdrop of a clear blue sky.

Autumn leaves with the backdrop of a clear blue sky.

The Spineless Need Not Apply…

It began in January of this year. I remember walking in the grocery store parking lot and feeling pain similar to shin splints in both of my legs. At the time I didn’t give it much credence, it was probably the result of all the standing I recently had been doing at my part time job. I’ve felt this before, it will go away in a few days. A few days never came.

Then there was the occasional numbness in my feet. I initially felt it when I was sitting or laying down but never when I was walking. It wasn’t all that bad and it wasn’t constant so nothing to be concerned about. It did not go away and after a while I also started to feel it when I was walking. From there it transitioned into shooting pains up the back of my thighs, again intermittent and surely something that would work itself through over time. That was not to be.

After four months of experiencing these symptoms I decided to go to the doctor. It was thought the pains in my calfs were due to vericose veins, and upon consulting a vascular surgeon we determined that the calf pains could indeed be the result of them but the numbness and the shooting pains were entirely something else, perhaps sciatica. Let’s deal with the vein issue, note the results and determine the next steps from there. A quick hour procedure in the doctor’s office and eight weeks later no shin splint-type pains, but the numbness and shooting pains remained.

Next stop an x-ray and physical therapy. The x-ray showed some arthritis in the lower back but nothing overly significant for my age. The treatment – needling to relax the muscles in the lower back, massage and exercises to strengthen my core. A valiant effort with some temporary positive results but it became evident over time that PT was not the answer.

Back to my primary care physician who then orders an MRI to see if that will give us any useful information. Have you ever had an MRI? Up to this point I had not. All I knew was you could have a closed or an open one, and lucky for me that even in my ignorance I opted for the open one. It was the longest half hour of my life. Even with an open MRI you are put into a chamber where your nose is basically about a quarter of an inch from the top of the chamber with slightly more room (but not much) around the rest of your body. The nurse showed me how I could look to my left and back and see the room, the “open part” of the MRI but what good is that when you are encased in a tube. Definitely not the place for the claustrophobic (which I am). Before the procedure you’re asked if you want to listen to music while having the MRI. I said yes and opted for Classic Rock. Never again will the songs American Pie, Cats in the Cradle, These Are the Good Old Days, Horse With No Name and others evoke anything but memories of being encased in that tomb.

Most people complain about the banging noises the machine makes when creating the images. That did not bother me in the least. The thought of being in the tunnel, listening to music, not knowing if anyone was watching, wondering if they really would come and get me out, if I would have a panic attack, would anyone hear me and on and on… well, needless to say, it took all of my powers of concentration to stay calm. I knew that for the length of the procedure I could not open my eyes, if I did it would all be over. Since it was going to be a half hour long I coped by counting the songs thinking that if each were on average three minutes long after ten songs I would be out. Finally I heard a voice in my headphones. It was the nurse telling me I had only one more image to go. That was a comfort. The last image seemed like an eternity to complete and then when it was over it seemed like forever before I felt the gurney move backward to let me out. I almost panicked at that point but took some deep breaths and finally I felt it move and I was free. A friend of mine told me that she recently had a 3 1/2 hour MRI. They would have to shoot me first. I’m not sure I could do even a half hour one again.

Laminectomy

Laminectomy

The only good thing was the MRI pinpointed the problem. The MRI showed that I had a condition known as spinal stenosis.  Without going into great detail, the lamina (bony portion) of my spine at the L 4/5 juncture was almost completely closed off compressing on the nerves and soft tissue that run through the spinal column causing the pain and numbness I was experiencing. Recognize that I am not a physician and am probably over-simplifying the explanation, but bottom line the bony part of my spine at that level which should appear to be open in the center, as seen in the picture above, was not. When the doctor reviewed the MRI with me, he told me that I must have a high tolerance for pain and could not believe that I wasn’t complaining of being excruciating pain. I guess I was lucky. The prognosis was that it could only get worse, eventually get to the point of unbearable pain and probably result in some loss of function in my feet and legs if not treated. He told me I already lost some strength in both of my big toes. The recommendation was surgery, a L 4/5 bilateral laminectomy. So, it’s not going to get better, obviously I’ve had symptoms and pain for a year, and it will get worse. A no brainer – ok, let’s do it!

So what does does any good sleuth do in this day and age when faced with a procedure that is foreign to them? Of course, do research on wikipedia, WebMD, Rate an MD – all that good stuff. The day after I agreed to surgery I called the doctor’s office to get the exact spelling of the procedure. I will never forget the nurse, who probably knew exactly what I was going to do, telling me to check out their website first to get an accurate picture of the procedure, it’s benefits and risks. I was a good girl and did that first.

The doctor made it sound like a snap, the least invasive spinal procedure they do. Basically a small incision is made in the back, an instrument with a microscope is inserted and the lamina is scraped away to create a more natural opening for the nerves and soft tissue. (click here to see a video of the procedure).  Since both my right and left side were experiencing symptoms, both sides needed the procedure, a surgery that would last approximately 2 1/2 hours.  Some of the other web sites I researched were a little more cautious about the severity of the procedure but not to the point that made me reverse my decision. What sealed the deal for me was going on the Rate an MD site and reading the reviews of my doctor. The rating scale was 1-5, one being lowest and five highest. My doctor only had 13 reviews but they were all 5’s. Understanding that people these days are more apt to write reviews when they are dissatisfied rather than satisfied I felt confident that I was in good hands.

The surgery was last Wednesday. I was kept overnight for observation due to the nausea I experienced from the anesthesia, but went home the next day. After that I was on pain meds for only one day, am now up and walking, and feeling nothing except some soreness in my lower back. The shooting pains in my legs are gone and the numbness in my feet has decreased significantly (that can take up to two years to completely go away). For the next 6-8 weeks I should not bend over, twist my body or carry any weight heavier than 10 pounds. After that, complete recovery is expected.

After a year of pain and treatment I am so glad to finally be on the mend. I am in awe of modern medicine, thankful to the doctors and nurses who take care of people who are sick or in pain and hope that research continues to create new, innovative and minimally invasive treatments to help people deal with the physical challenges they face in life. Thank you, thank you, thank you… Knowing how I feel today and my fear of having any type of spinal surgery, I cannot thank you enough.

Load the Animals Two by Two…

I think at some point in all our lives we experience the angst of a flooded basement. When I still lived in Chicago I remember from early on the value of having a sump pump and praying that the electricity would not go out so the pump would work and keep our home dry. When a major sewer replacement project was completed near my home on the North Side, I didn’t give it much thought until torrential rains came and we would stay dry while other neighborhoods had to bale water. It was not pretty, it was not fun but all those memories now dim by comparison to what we’ve recently experienced here in Colorado.

Colorado is basically considered a semi-arid climate. It simply does not get the rain they get back East. I often hear from the “natives” stories of the glory days of weather in Colorado where the sun would shine an average of 320 days a year and summer days were always blessed with a cooling afternoon rain that came just in time to relieve the heat but not affect any evening activities. Not to mention the fact that there is no humidity here and much less snow than people perceive which, in more “normal” weather times makes the climate only slightly less than perfect. The one chink in the armor was the potential for flood but even most natives would admit that severe flooding was something they never experienced in their lifetimes. Until now…

The past several years the weather patterns here have changed not unlike weather patterns all over the world. True the mornings and the evenings can still be glorious, but the climate has become much more dry and the rains more infrequent. Wildfires tend to occur every year now and drought has ravaged forests making them a prime target for an opportune lightening strike or an errant cigarette butt. Very seldom does it rain all day here and rains are never the gentle soaking kind but more of the fierce deluge kind. But those deluges are pretty much short lived and so the earth is capable of tolerating them. Until now…

This week the rains came with a vengeance, and a city like Boulder which normally gets on average eight inches of rain in the month of September got eight inches of rain in an hour. Coupled with its location being directly at the base of the Foothills and the rain not only pounded the city but water also came pouring down from the mountains and enveloped it.  Not good, devastating, a 100 year flood event.

I’ve never experienced devastation like this. The road that I travel to and from my job at Crate and Barrel collapsed and three cars went into the water (see the picture below). Granted it was a part of the road that is adjacent to my route, but I’ve traveled that same road many times before never once worrying for my well being. Now so many roads are closed and people all over are stranded. People are being zip-lined to safety over cresting rivers and creeks or rafted to drier land. Streets are loaded with debris and cars are traveling through water that crests at the top of their wheel wells. A rescue fire truck travelled through water that was at the level of its windshield. Roads were completely washed away, homes were torn off their foundations, people were and still are unaccounted for, and even though the sun is currently shining heavy rains are still being predicted for tonight.

The Road That I Travel To Work

The Road That I Travel To Work

But, there for the grace of God go I.  As I was driving home from work Wednesday night around 9:30 p.m. my phone gave off a loud weird noise, one I had never heard before. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized that it was a flash flood warning, not a watch but a warning. I was driving in an area that at any moment could have flooded and flooded quickly and I did not even know it.  I’m still trying to figure out if that was a blessing or a curse. But I got home safe and dry and still today my home is safe and dry. I am one of the lucky few. Most people cannot say that. It will take years to recover from this flood.

It’s times like these that I know that my mother is looking down on me and protecting me. It could have easily been us flooded, stranded, our home devastated. But it was not. And after seeing the breadth of the devastation in Boulder (with potentially more to come) I look back on those days of flooded basements in Chicago and say that we had no clue what flooding meant. It would have taken something as massive as Noah’s ark to survive this flood. I only hope and pray that those most affected find the courage and the strength to get through this. They can count on us to help along the way.

Is It Still A Man’s World…

The recent vilification of Paula Deen has me in a conundrum. I’m not sure how I feel about it, nor am I sure what is right or wrong in this case. One thing I definitely know is that the use of derogatory language against any gender or race is wrong. We are not living in the dark ages anymore. Some of the words that were carelessly thrown around a generation ago are totally unacceptable now and those using them should be fairly tried in the court of public opinion and punished equally right? Oh, really…

Watching the news and reading all of the recent articles regarding Paula Deen makes me wonder if we, as a society, are really being fair and judging each and every transgression of this kind similarly. I’m not so sure we are. A friend of mine recently posted something on her Facebook page that gave me pause. She reminded me that someone like a Rush Limbaugh could call a woman a slut on the airwaves and still have his job. And what about Eliot Spitzer who hired a prostitute while Governor of New York and although forced to resign due to the scandal is rewarded by being hired by CNN as a political analyst. Today the word bitch dominates the airwaves and no one seems to mind.

Paula Deen

Paula Deen

But let’s go back in time a little bit as well, shall we. John F. Kennedy who was assassinated 50 years ago was a notorious womanizer and had the support of the press who kept quiet about his philandering.  We now think of JFK as one of our all time beloved presidents and his “indiscretions” take a back seat to his accomplishments. His brother Teddy drives his car off a bridge after a “party” leaving Mary Jo Kopechne to drown in the back seat while he swims away and, oh yes, just happens to forget to call the police until the next morning – must have been the chill in the water. Teddy walked away uncharged and continued to be elected to Senate. True this incident probably cost him the presidency, but being a lifetime senator is by no means any type of harsh punishment. And when he died they proclaimed him to be the negotiator extraordinaire able to reach across the aisle and gain non-partisan support. What a great guy! I wonder if Mary Jo still thinks so. What you say, that was so many years ago and times have changed. You mean times like the same era in the Deep South where buses, bathrooms and schools were segregated and white folk used the “N” word as a matter of course. The same era when Paula Deen grew up. I’m sure she used the “N” word just like everyone else she knew. And she admits to using it. But she also admits not having used it for years.

We are all products of our environment. We learn from those around us and we strive to fit in. By doing that we gain the strength and confidence to become who we choose to be as we mature. But we all have a starting point that none of us chooses. We evolve based on conscious decisions we make over time and that should be the focus of how we are judged. I cannot pinpoint on a timeline when Paula Deen quit using the “N” word or if she chose to believing it was wrong versus succumbing to social pressure. She admits it, she did it and she hasn’t for years. And her punishment, the Food Network decides not to renew her contract, Smithfield drops her as a spokesperson, Target drops her product line, Wal Mart and Home Depot follow suit and on and on and on…

Is this fair? I’m not so sure. And yet, all may not be lost for poor Paula. Maybe Rush Limbaugh will give her a job or she’ll get hired by CNN. If we’re to judge equally it seems only right. Or is it? What do you think?

TOTL…

Those infamous letters, TOTL, but those in the inner circle know it stands for one thing and one thing only, Theatre on the Lake. I’ll never forget that May day when I got the call. It was from my boss at the time, Bob Reddington, who was calling me to to say there was a staff position available at the theatre and would I be interested.  I remember all of his warnings:

Theatre On The Lake Sign

Theatre On The Lake Sign

“You will be working nights all through the summer”

“You will be working every Saturday night throughout the summer.”

“The theatre is an open air environment at the mercy of the weather so at times working conditions will be tough.”

“The first few weeks will entail strenuous physical work getting the theatre ready for the summer patrons.”

“We will close down the theatre in one week at the end of the season and that will be a monumental task.”

It almost sounded like he was trying to talk me out of it but I would not be swayed. The thought of working at a theatre versus being a recreational leader for summer camp was a no brainer decision. Theatre on the Lake here I come. And it was a decision that wound up shaping my life.

The first summer I was there I met this very engaging gentleman named Elmer Geden. He was an iron worker for the Chicago Park District (CPD) and his job, along with some of his colleagues, was to make sure the theatre was in good structural shape, make any necessary repairs and provide support for moving in and setting up the seating platforms and rows of theatre seats. TOTL was theatre-in-the-round seating 288 people so doing that was no small task. Every once in a while Elmer would bring in some goodies like donuts or sweets and we would chat in the kitchen that served as the green room for the actors during the regular season. I soon found out that Elmer had a son who worked for the CPD and he was the head of the “drama shop”, a facility used to house costumes and sets for the many drama instructors who worked for the district and produced plays during the school year. It wasn’t until a few years later that I met Elmer’s oldest son Nick and eventually married him. I will never forget when Nick told Elmer he was dating someone from TOTL. “I hope it’s Jan” was all he said. I developed a very special relationship with my husband’s father before I even knew my husband thanks to TOTL.

And there were so many other gifts I received from working at TOTL, lifelong friends, gut splitting laughter, an array of talented community theatre actors and directors, awe inspiring productions, flops that were so bad you were embarrassed to face the audience when they left (one I regrettably directed), the flickering of the hallway lights to signal the end of intermissions, the eccentric patrons who got the brunt of our unforgiving witticisms, the loss of my fear of spiders, romances and heartbreak that had nothing to do with the shows, the place we were when we learned of the death of Elvis Presley, and all those insider quotes only memorable to those of us who worked there: “Do you have tickets or reservations” and “Curtain going up, curtain going up…” Precious times and even more precious memories.

But like all things, times have changed and TOTL is no exception. No longer does it provide the venue for community theatre actors and directors to showcase their talents. Now professional companies rule the hallowed halls and the mecca for community theatre has gone to the ‘burbs. That’s not to say this change is bad, it is just so very different from when me and my colleagues were on staff. Times change, people change and although TOTL has changed it still provides one of the more unique and memorable venues for theatre that one will ever experience in the city of Chicago.

And so every May I take a trip in my mind back to those summer days many years ago. We were young, we were full of ourselves and we had so much fun providing top notch community theatre productions to our patrons (ten shows in twelve weeks to be exact which included both an opening and closing musical). It was the best way to spend summers in Chicago. And as I look back I realize that TOTL was much more than a job, it was and will always be the time of my life!

The pathway to Theatre On The Lake

The outside of Theatre On The Lake

A Two Thumbs Up Life…

As you get older you begin to see more and more that people are dying around you, sometimes in droves. I hate that. It’s just got to stop. More and more your contemporaries are beginning to pass and sometimes it’s hard not to get caught up in the sadness of it all. My mother used to say that every day is a gift. I never really thought about it a lot. But these days I think about it often.

When you’re younger, you think yourself invincible. Nothing is going to happen to you. It always happens to the other guy and usually the much older other guy. And then one morning you wake up and realize that all of a sudden you are that older guy. When did that happen? How did it happen? I certainly don’t know how to explain it. But it’s happening.

Today it was Roger Ebert who died at the age of 70. Author, Pulitzer Prize winner, columnist for the Chicago Sun Times. I was surprised to hear of his passing especially since there was an article in the paper just this morning about his blog and his ongoing battle with cancer. Once I heard I decided to check out his blog. The last entry was just two days ago. He either was not expecting to die or was being the eternal optimist regarding his health. In his blog he talked about his life, his cancer and his future endeavors with no indication at all that within two days he would be gone.

What an interesting life he lead. His ties to Colorado were strong. He held an honorary degree from the University of Colorado and for years attended the Conference on World Affairs here where he hosted one of its most popular programs, Cinema Interuptus. The program consisted of the screening of a film one one evening and then on subsequent evenings the rescreening of it where anyone in the audience could stop the film at any point, make a comment or ask a question. This process went on night after night until the final frame of the film was screened. It was always a packed house.

Back in Chicago, I used to love watching Siskel and Ebert At The Movies and wonder which film(s) would get the coveted two thumbs up. There was also his column in the Friday paper reviewing the latest releases. I always poured over those and many times would see or not see a film based on his review. So it saddened me to hear of his passing today but reading his blog made me realize, once again, that it is not the number of years you live but the quality of those years that matters. You can spend a lot of time bemoaning the fact that you’re older, that you can’t do what you used to do, that all your contemporaries are gone, or you can choose to live a life filled with wonder, joy and excitement. It’s all up to you. So, thank you Roger Ebert for once again reminding me of that. I choose the latter. And to me that constitutes a two thumbs up life!

Spring: When A Young Girl’s Fancy Turns to Bugs…

As I sat on my deck this morning, wrapped in my jacket coffee in hand, I was hoping to entice Spring to finally arrive. Although the temperatures were not as mild as I would like, the birds were chirping feverishly, a sure sign Spring is just around the corner. The trees are trying to bud but still wary, the lilac bushes are close to popping their greenery but are hesitant and the irises are starting to poke their stalks above the ground but just barely. They all are being very cautious, all except for one segment of the springtime population, the bugs.

Why is it that the bugs will make themselves known even in the most tenuous kinds of weather? I think they feel the need to assert their dominance and do so at the mere presence of a slightly warmer sun. Bees, hornets, flies, gnats – how do they just all of a sudden appear out of nowhere and right off the bat make dive bombs on human beings? Or at least on one human being, me.  I think bugs are like dogs in a way. They know if you fear or disdain them and it’s at that point they consciously decide you will be the recipient of their all-out focus. This is my fate. But I guess I should have realized that years ago when I fought the war of the cockroaches. It was a long bloody battle and one I hope I will never fight again.

The American Cockroach

The American Cockroach

One of the first buildings my husband bought in Chicago before we were married was a three flat with a coach house in the rear. It needed work but my husband’s hobby was remolding buildings. He got if for a steal at the time and he was anxious to move in. Of course we would live in the coach house and rent out the three apartments in the front building. I worked late on the day he closed on the building but he wanted to show me the coach house right away so after work my friend Jim and I met him to look at the new digs. The coach house had a ground floor entrance to the basement and a stairway to the first floor. We decided to go in the basement entrance. The light switch was in the middle of the room so Jim and I waited in darkness until my husband turned it on. The second the light went on we knew something was strange. The floor was moving. It was then we realized we were standing in the middle of a cockroach carpet. We were infested.

Up to that point, cockroaches were only something I had heard about. My mother was a neat freak, our house was always immaculate. I didn’t even know what a cockroach looked like until that very moment. And this was where we were going to live? No way. “No worries,” my husband said. “I’ll call in an exterminator and we’ll get rid of them before we move in”. Ok, that works for me. And in my naiveté I believed him. The exterminator came, the deed was done and it was finally time to move. I should have known I was in for big trouble on moving day as I warmed the pot of chili on the stove and this little brown bug with these nasty tentacles waltzed out from behind the pot. A cockroach. Ok, I thought, probably just one last die hard who escaped the hands of the exterminator. No need to worry. There would be no more.

The next day my husband left on a business trip and I was left alone in our new home with our new puppy. Time to unpack. First things first – get dressed and start organizing the kitchen. I opened the drawer to get a pair of underwear and who should be nestled in one of my panties, a cockroach. I screamed but only the dog could here me. Oh, this is not right. I thought we had gotten rid of them. I got my bearings and went to the bathroom. After relieving myself I pulled on the roll of toilet paper and who pops out, another cockroach. I was beside myself. How can I live this way until my husband gets home? The cockroaches must have decided to cut me some slack because I did not see another one until my husband got home the next day. I was still edgy since I felt we had not seen the last of them but decided to tough it out until he got home. After all, where was I going to go with the puppy. The day he got home I remember sitting in the kitchen with the puppy, jumpy and on edge, looking for any sign of those dreadful bugs.

All of a sudden I head a scratching noise and I looked down just in time to see a mouse scurry across the floor and run behind the refrigerator the puppy in hot pursuit. That’s it! I doomed to a life of dealing with abominable creatures. What did I do to deserve this? My husband got an earful the moment he walked in the door.

But take heart, the story does have a happy ending. Yes we finally got rid of the cockroaches but we had to tear down a wall in the basement to dismantle their main nest and peel away the wallpaper in the kitchen where they were building another one.  And my friend Jean, who was not afraid of cockroaches God bless her, came to the rescue by putting powder along the baseboards of our cabinets so that if any of them did survive they’d bring the poison back to where they were trying to reestablish themselves.  When we sealed off the foundation of the house we no longer had to deal with mice. In the interim, we got a cat and never saw a mouse upstairs again. All in all we eventually got rid of the pests. It did take some time and it was not fun.

So, with this auspicious introduction into the world of bugs I shouldn’t be surprised that when I sit on my deck and the bugs of Spring seek me out and try to torture me. They know I am powerless to get rid of them and their mission is to avenge the lives of their fallen compatriots. They are like elephants, they never forget. I’ve accepted the fact that I am doomed but I still want Spring to come. If I have to deal with bugs to have Spring then so be it. Let the games begin!

Equality doesn’t necessarily mean equal…

I’ve blogged about the fact that early on I lived a very sheltered life. I will never forget when I learned that homosexuality existed. I was a Freshman in college (yes, that’s right) and being a Theatre major I was sitting in the audience of the main stage facility watching the rehearsal of a scene that I was not in. One of the actors on stage was a super gorgeous guy, and I remember sitting next to a fellow actor, a young black man, and remarking on just how gorgeous I thought he was. He turned to me and said, “I know, we’re lovers.” I almost fell off of my chair. The idea of same sex love making had never occurred to me, ever! I couldn’t fathom the concept.

I remember going back to my dorm room and calling my mother asking her if she new that homosexuality existed. I was surprised at her matter-of-fact answer and when I asked her why she never told me, she simply said that the subject just never came up. That’s it, cased closed. So, know I knew about it. The next step was to determine how I felt about it.

Initially I was conflicted. As I mentioned earlier, the thought of same sex couples never crossed my mind. I was genuinely heterosexual there was no doubt. But how would I feel if someone judged me, persecuted me, denied me rights simply because I was heterosexual. I certainly would not like that. And what about my fellow actors? I liked them before I knew this about them, should I not like them now? The decision was easy to make. Who was I to judge anyone.

And now, so many years later, we are debating whether same sex couples can constitute a marriage and whether they should be afforded the rights and benefits that marriage creates. Equal rights under the law is the foundation of our constitution. And yet it all boils down to how human beings define equality. For years we defined it by white males. Then in 1963 with the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, we determined that we would “allow” equal rights to other races and we would “allow” equal pay for equal work to women and well as men (a right we are still struggling to achieve). Now in our infinite wisdom we feel that we have the right to define what marriage is and who we will “allow” to have marital rights and benefits. And although these decisions have been a long time coming, the mere fact is if we are truly the land of the free these rights should not have to be legislated in the first place. But we have given away the power to define equality under the law to human beings and what winds up happening is equality becomes defined by social or religious beliefs. The last time I heard, our founding fathers worked diligently to ensure the separation of church and state in running of our country.  But it is playing out in this debate big time, and it makes me wonder if we’re imposing the same bigotry on a segment of our population that we fought so hard to overcome in 1963.

Thank goodness the debate continues and it appears to have an unstoppable momentum. And like Roe v. Wade, it will probably be debated ad infinitum. But Roe v. Wade is the law, whereas same sex marriages are not. Let’s continue to fight until it’s the law so once again we can unequivocally state that our constitution truly supports equal rights under the law.

The End of “Paper or Plastic” in Austin

This is just awesome. More cities should follow this lead…

in.gredients

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Austin’s going bag-less.

29 days from now Austin’s Single-Use Carryout Bag Ordinance goes into effect. If all of this is news to you, here are some of the facts.

The ordinance, unanimously passed by City Council on March 2, 2012, regulates the types of bags that can be distributed by business establishments in Austin and encourages a shift to reusable bags. The ordinance does not eliminate all plastic or paper carryout bags, but it does set some requirements for the types of bags allowed.  You can check out the nitty gritty details of the ordinance, including which types of bags are allowed, here

According to some estimates, Austinites use 263 million plastic bags a year. Fewer bags will reduce the amount of waste Austin sends to the landfill, moving us closer to our zero-waste goal.

For many of you, this is no sweat off your back. You may be…

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New Year, New Style…

Yes I know that we are almost one month into the New Year. But it seems that about every year I get a little tired of my blog’s general appearance and feel a need for change. The last one was fun but a bit on the 60’s side. This one is more modern and I am still playing around with some of the theme’s capabilities. And who knows maybe next week I’ll find something else and change it again.

I also think that while I was hiking today I became so enamored with the scenery, started taking pictures and then thought, “oh these pictures won’t look that great against my blog theme.” I know, I have to get a life. But that is the beauty of retirement. You can spend time and actually ponder your major decisions like what your blog theme should be, what to have for dinner, when and where to go on your hike, how long to stay outside exercising the dog, where to buy your new electric toothbrush, what grocery store will have the freshest fruit, yada, yada, yada…. (all thoughts that went through my mind today). So after a nice long hike, trips to three grocery stores and a great long romp out in the back yard with Mia I figured I’d finally get down to the nitty gritty – what theme should I choose for my blog this year.

OK, don’t start worrying about me. I actually decided to just goof around on the computer a little bit today. I still have plenty of mind expanding things to fill my time. I just chose not to focus on them. And that is truly the beauty of being retired. If you don’t feel like working today, you don’t have to. Eat your heart out my working friends. And enjoy a picture that I took on my morning hike. Happy Friday!

The Teller Farm Trail

The Teller Farm Trail

2013 – Just Like All The Rest?

Our newest family member...

Our newest family member…

We’re well into 2013 and the holidays seem like a distant memory. Why is that? We build to such a crescendo around Christmas and the day after it’s like it never happened. When I was a kid, the Christmas season seemed like it lasted forever. Maybe that was the anticipation of Santa Claus, wondering if he would ever arrive. It just seemed like days of endless parties, lots of snow, fabulous holiday decorations and even a carry over into the new year. Now it’s how fast we can get the decorations down, how quickly can we return those stupid gifts and when will April get here?

So as I am briefly mourning the passing of the holiday season, it brings on thoughts of what 2013 will bring. I wonder what, if anything, will be different. I wonder what the joys and sorrows will be. Yes, I sometimes even wonder if this is the year that will be etched on my tombstone (thought I try to shake off those thoughts as quickly as I can). With all the craziness in the world today you just never know.

And what of 2012? What kind of year was it? Well, as years go, it was pretty normal and I like normal in my life. After having dealt with what “not normal” can be, I am always grateful for normal. And as I think about the past year, it occurs to me that I was blessed with one life lesson that was drilled home to me time and time again. Be grateful for every day and treat every day as a gift because no on is guaranteed tomorrow. When I think about the people I lost, or the hardships my friends and family have faced, or the insane actions of people on the news, I look up to the heavens and say “Thank you for the life you have given me. I have been truly blessed.”

So now on to the rest of 2013. And what will it bring? I know there will be things that I cannot control, but for the most part 2013 will be what I make it. It’s all within my power to choose, to be happy or sad, to be successful or a failure, to be rich or poor (and that is not necessarily a reference to money) – it’s all how I choose to author this year. And when I think about it that way, I feel empowered to do as opposed to being a victim of circumstance. So bring it on 2013. I will not let you be just like all the rest!

Does Your Life Have A Soundtrack…

One of my Facebook friends posed an interesting question in her blog today. She asked if you could pinpoint five songs that comprised the soundtrack of your life.  At first I thought that would be simple but once I started thinking about it, it became much more difficult than I expected. How do you take a life and define it by five songs? What would you focus on? How do you even begin?

Well it’s always best to begin at the beginning and so I started thinking about compartmentalizing my life in stages: youth, middle age, now. Then I started thinking about the most significant events in my life throughout those stages and tried to identify songs that would accurately fit them. I also just thought about songs that have had the greatest impact on me, songs that I’ve loved over the years and thought about why those songs meant so much to me. Then I took this entire mish-mosh and attempted to make some sense of it. Eventually it happened and I did narrow down the five. Here they are (can I have a drum roll please).

1. We’re Off To See The Wizard – Music: Harold Arlen, Lyrics: Edgar Harburg

I think my whole life can be defined by this song. After all what is anyone’s life but a journey down a yellow brick road. You never know what you’ll encounter, who you’ll meet, what hardships you will face, how long the journey will be or when the journey will end. This song and the pictures it creates in my mind so accurately pinpoints all the twists and turns in my life, a life that I feel was blessed with a protective Glinda watching over me more often than not, a life that has been truly blessed in countless ways. And although there were times when the wicked witch tried to beat me down, I was always able to pick myself up and find my way home. And for that I will forever be grateful because, as we all know, there is no place like home.

2. “The Russian Sleigh Song” – from the Three Suns Album: Ding Dong Dandy Christmas

No soundtrack of my life would be complete without a mention of the holidays. Christmas has always been a special time for me. From my early years when I made the yearly trek to go shopping downtown with my parents, to producing the annual Christmas plays at Hiawatha Park, to meeting my husband and going to midnight mass together, to decorating the house and making Christmas cookies. Christmas has always been THE holiday. Every year I look forward to hearing the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and watching George C. Scott play that character so masterfully in “A Christmas Carol.” Every year I get such joy out of experiencing the anticipation of Santa, be it in young children, holiday shoppers or myself. And every year I look forward to singing “I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas” at the top of my lungs. No soundtrack of my life would be complete without some sort of tribute to Christmas, the best time of the year!

3. You Don’t Own Me – Lesley Gore

Very early on in my life I became acutely aware of the differences between men and women. Besides the obvious, I began to notice the stereotypes that have been part of our puritanical culture for centuries and how they, even today, affect how women are perceived and treated.  I will never forget the day that my brother told me that I was too independent for my own good and that I should just shut up and let a man take care of me. From that moment forward I never wanted to be dependent on a man for anything and can say that I have succeeded in doing that throughout my life. Don’t get me wrong, I love men and have been blessed with knowing some pretty spectacular ones. The men who I love, the men who are my friends, all the men in my life past and present are men who did not feel emasculated by strong women. They treated women as equals, they did not live their lives by defined roles, they were loving, caring, honest and fair minded. They viewed relationships as partnerships and were not afraid to let women succeed. When I thought about this phase of my soundtrack, I actually thought of defining it with Helen Reddy’s song “I Am Woman”, but that song is a little too radical for my beliefs regarding women and men. All I’ve ever asked of men is “don’t tell me what to say, and don’t tell me what to do, just let me be myself, that’s all I ask of you.” Because, after all, you don’t own me!

4. The Way We Were – Barbra Streisand

This song defines many facets of my adult years, the joys and the sorrows and the memories of them all. It makes me think about leaving Hiawatha Park and the video that one of my student’s produced showing clips from the productions over fourteen years with this song playing in the background. Even to this day whenever I watch that segment I cry like a baby. This song defines the joys and sorrows I faced in love. It defines the joys and sorrows of my family life and it now defines the joys and sorrows of the memories I have of both my parents who are no longer with me but who will always live on in my heart. It makes me think of all of those I’ve loved and lost and all of those that I still am blessed to have in my life. “Can it be that it was all so simple then. Or has time rewritten every line. If we had the chance to do it all again, tell me would we…could we?” Well maybe we couldn’t, but I certainly would.

5. Somewhere – West Side Story – Music: Leonard Bernstein,  Lyrics: Steven Sondheim

“There’s a place for us. A time and place for us. Hold my hand and we’re half way there. Hold my hand and I’ll take you there. Somehow. Someday. Somewhere.” This song defines my life now, a life of accomplishments and memories but also a life with hope for the future. Hope that the many blessing I have had will continue, hope that all the people that I love are safe, happy and healthy, hope that laughter and love continue to enrich my days, hope that one day I will be reunited with all of those I have loved and lost, especially my mom and dad, but also the many wonderful pets I have had in my life that I have had to put down and still miss, hope that I continue to live life to the fullest and never take one single day for granted. Cherish the here and now and living a life of happiness and hope is what this song means to me. It underscores who I am now and my hopes and dreams for the future.

And there it is, the soundtrack of my life. Some pretty great songs… a pretty great life… so, what’s your soundtrack?

Please put me out of my misery…

Regardless of your political affiliation, aren’t you ready for this election to be over? The ads, the phone calls, the debates, the mudslinging, the lies. All in all this is getting pretty old, don’t you think?  Electing a president is an elitist activity continually consisting of people who are so far removed from day-to-day life that it’s laughable. I mean, when was the last time a presidential candidate lived from paycheck to paycheck? When was the last time a presidential candidate had to worry about the cost of healthcare for their families? When was the last time a presidential candidate stressed over making a mortgage payment? They may talk the issues, but do they really understand? And at this point, are there really that many people that are undecided. Please, put me out of my misery and just end this debacle now.

The amount of money necessary to sustain an effective presidential campaign is staggering. Millions upon millions of dollars are funneled into mindless banter that no one listens to. As a matter of fact, I may just vomit the next time I hear “ I am so and so, and I approve this message.” Give me a flippin’ break. What if we used the money in the campaign coffers to fund some debt relief programs? What if we used it to fund college scholarships or pay off student loans? What if we used it to make defined contributions to social security? What if we enacted a law that limited media campaigning to only one month prior to an election? This election process has been going on for a better part of a year. Do people even care anymore?  And if we are spending a year campaigning, what government work is getting done? Oh wait a minute, I get it, and no work is being done because it is more important to campaign.

After hearing election rhetoric for years I’ve become immune to the purported issues and solutions being presented.  It sounds like a broken record. Every candidate talks about what they will do if elected and then once elected attempt to explain why they couldn’t do what they promised to do. The fact is that no one president, democrat or republican, has the power to enact the changes they propose unless they have backing in the House and the Senate. They can promise all they want, but if their party does not hold majorities in hallowed halls of our government structure, they can propose legislation until they’re blue in the face but never get anywhere.

To me, the only major issue that determines my vote is women’s rights. As a woman I vehemently oppose anyone who tries to control my right to choose regarding my body. I don’t care if I my intent was to be out for a fun time or if I was raped, if I am pregnant and do not want to be it is my right to choose what to do about it. My body carries the baby and more than likely I will be saddled with raising it. I do not have the option of simply having sexual pleasure and not dealing with the outcome. But a man has that option if he so chooses.   To have a baby or not is a religious issue not a governmental issue and it should not be regulated beyond a person’s personal morals and religious beliefs. The flip side is ridiculous. Let’s bring more babies into the world that cannot be properly loved and cared for. That makes so much more sense. OK, my soapbox is done. It’s only three more weeks until the election. Lord, give me strength to get through it.

The Last Day of Summer…

Even though the angle of the sun is decidedly different and the leaves on the trees have started to turn, it is still summer – the last day of it as a matter of fact. Seems like just yesterday the smell of lilacs and magnolia blossoms filled the air. Now the deck planters are slowly dying off and tomato plants are giving their final thrusts.

Summer seems to go by so fast. Maybe it’s because we’ve established this arbitrary window of summer being Memorial Day to Labor Day. Maybe it’s because we equate summer with kids being out of school. And even though the temperatures are in the mid 80’s today, truly summer weather, it’s just not summer anymore.

And for me, that’s just fine and dandy because fall is my favorite time of year. The leaves on the trees now take on the job of being our flowers with each one turning a breathtaking color as magnificent as the summer blooms. Sweater weather is upon us, pumpkins abound and ovens wake from their long summer sleep. The smell of apples, cinnamon and spice are everywhere, bedroom windows once again open to let in the cool night air, and shadows of Halloween, Thanksgiving and (dare I say it) Christmas being to creep in as the summer season fades.

So, on this last day of summer I am grateful for another wonderful season that produced boatloads of zucchini, basil, and cucumbers. I am thankful for the gorgeous mornings spent with a cup of coffee and Mia on the deck watching the birds build their nests, raise their young and cool off in the garden birdbath. I am grateful for the early morning hikes, watching the sun rise over the foothills and smelling the scent of the mountain wildflowers. I am thankful for our orange tabby Cody, who joined our family in the summer and is keeping us all on our toes. I am grateful for the smell of freshly mown grass, charcoal grills, afternoon showers, the beauty of fire flys and the sound of crickets. The sights, sounds and smells of summer. Nothing can compare. But most of all, I am grateful for being given another year to enjoy them.

Events That Shape Us…

I was sitting in my office at the City of Dayton Municipal Building when I heard that something had struck the World Trade Center. A bunch of us went to the conference room where there was a television and turned on the news. Much speculation was going on regarding what had happened and the severity of the situation. I stood there with some members of my staff watching in horror and all of sudden said, “Is that a plane flying in toward the towers?” To our shock and disbelief we sat there and watched the second plane hit the other tower in real time. We instantaneously knew we were under attack.

I couldn’t fathom it. I mean not here, not in the United States, not in the most powerful country in the world. Things like this happen in other countries and on television but not here. For me, it was another loss of innocence. Soon we heard about the Pentagon and then fear began to set in. The feeling of impenetrable safety was gone. What would happen next? Where? Who would be hurt? Killed? Oh my God, is my family safe? What do I do now?

The last place I wanted to be was at work but we had a City to run and could not afford widespread panic. No one wanted to be there fearing everything that represented government was a target for terrorists. Rumors started to fly. People were frantically calling their loved ones. I will never forget how I felt. All I cared about was my family and friends. Nothing or no one else mattered. It gave me a sense of perspective that I have not forgotten to this day.

And there were other events that shaped my perspective as well – the assassination of John F. Kennedy for example. I was eleven years old when that happened. It was my initial loss of innocence. I remember the Kennedy campaign and the young handsome newly elected president talking about the torch being passed to a new generation of Americans. I was energized. What an exciting time to get involved. He made you feel like you could make a difference and challenged you to do so. Then November 22…I remember being riveted to the television watching the coverage of Kennedy’s casket lying in state in the capital rotunda with people standing in lines miles long just waiting to pay their last respects. I remember the funeral cortege with the riderless horse, Blackjack, the young black stallion full of life and energy being held at bay by a soldier while he tried to buck his way through the streets of the funeral procession representing the young president whose life was cut short far too soon. In my mind’s eye I can still see the beautiful widow Jackie with a black veil draped over her face in a futile attempt to hide her tears. And the lighting of the eternal flame at the gravesite and seeing the brass colored casket being lowered into the ground. Only three days earlier he was young and vibrant. And now gone… The world became a lot older that day. I became a lot older that day. He was buried on his son’s birthday. The Thanksgiving holiday was later that week. There was not a lot to be thankful for – my staunch beliefs in the fairness of life were shaken. My initial lesson in perspective.

Then there was the death of John Lennon, gunned down by a crazed fan outside of the Dakota apartment building where he lived with Yoko Ono and their son Sean. He had decided to take a break from the music industry and became “Mr. Mom” to his son while Yoko ran the business of his affairs. He baked bread, he read bedtime stories to Sean, he gave up riding the music industry merry-go-round for a quiet life with his family. He came back to music grounded and with perspective. He was once again enjoying writing and being in the studio. On the evening he died, he left the Dakota for the recording studio and on the way signed autographs for some of the fans waiting outside. He spent a productive evening in the studio and went home. Walking into his courtyard he was shot by one of the fans he had given an autograph to only hours earlier. For me, it was the day the music died. Another loss of innocence and a healthy dose of perspective.

The death of my mother… the final blow. I did not feel it when my dad died, but it came down like gangbusters when she did. The feeling of I’m next. I’m an orphan. There is no one left to give me unconditional love. I can’t believe it. I will never see or talk to her again. This happens to other people but not to our family. The innocence was now completely gone. But, you move on. My mom would have wanted it that way. A big lesson in what’s important. The reinforcement of perspective…

We all have events that shape our lives, some for the good and some not. And when an anniversary like that of the September 11 attacks occurs, all the other life changing events you’ve experienced seem to come crashing back to the forefront. Where you were… who you were with… what you were doing… what you were thinking. They make you remember. They make you feel. They make you rue the loss of innocence. But most of all, they reinforce perspective, what’s important in life. And for that, I will always be grateful.

Fingers + Olives = …

Quite often you hear that it’s the simple things in life that mean the most, flowers for no special reason, a random act of kindness, a call from a long lost friend, Mr. Pinch, hanging from doorknobs, olive fingers… yes, that’s right I said Mr. Pinch, hanging from doorknobs and olive fingers.

There is a rite of passage in the Geden clan that all Geden-related children must go through, and that is the teachings of weird Uncle Nick. Uncle Nick never had children of his own and therefore felt it was his lot in life to insure they grew up with certain unalienable rights, that being a proper introduction to Mr. Pinch, getting dressed in coveralls and being hung on a doorknob, and the joy of olive fingers.

First is the introduction to Mr. Pinch. Now Mr. Pinch has two sides: Good Mr. Pinch and Bad Mr. Pinch. Good Mr. Pinch plays nice and gives you a sweet little pinch that tickles more than hurts. Good Mr. Pinch is fun and always brings about massive giggles. But never far away is Bad Mr. Pinch. Bad Mr. Pinch has a pinch that stings and always gets the slightest ouch or jump. The thing about bad Mr. Pinch is that he always pops up out of the blue often after one is lulled into the security of Good Mr. Pinch. Bad Mr. Pinch also gets his share of giggles because Bad Mr. Pinch has to catch you before he can pinch you. Oh the fun of the chase! Every child must grow up knowing both Good and Bad Mr. Pinch.

Next up is the doorknob hang. Every child needs to have a special pair of dungarees that have a bib in the front and cross straps in the back and when they start getting out of control or overly energetic they simply get hung on a doorknob. Cruel and unusual punishment you say? Every child has begged to be hung on a doorknob and some actually get upset when they are taken down. Some still want it as adults, but that is often after a few too many beers. Just another Geden rite of passage.

The third rite comes later when one can appreciate (or even if they can’t) an olive. Whether green or black, although black is the color of choice, they learn the joys of putting the olives on each of their fingers, waving their hands around with their new found friends and systematically either eating them themselves or having them stolen from their fingers most often by Bad Mr. Pinch. The simple pleasure of having olive fingernails is one that is taken seriously in the Geden family. All children must know that joy, and all must pass them down to their children. It is an unwritten, unspoken hard and fast rule.

And now that we are in the “grand” children, niece, nephew phase I am happy to report that these rites of passage are still going strong. Mr. Pinch, doorknob hanging and olive fingers live on, and oh the unadulterated joy of them all!

Augie and olive fingers…

When Did We Lose The Upper Hand…

By now most everyone has seen the video of the 68 year old bus monitor being bullied by three thirteen year old boys. The video is gut wrenching and shows in all its glory just how cruel kids can be. The woman showed extraordinary restraint as the boys repeatedly made comments about her weight, her age, and her intellect. They even prodded her arm to make fun of her under arm fat, violating her not only verbally but physically. Afterwards one of the boys’ parents said he was appalled at his son’s behavior but was worried for his safety because he was receiving nasty emails and death threats.

I’m sorry but I am not feeling any sympathy for these boys right now. Chances are this is not the first time they participated in this type of behavior and one can only imagine whether this will be their last. Kids will be kids, right. But when did it happen that grown ups could no longer be grown ups?

I understand the outpouring of sympathy for the bus monitor is more than likely based not only on the nature of the bullying but also on how she handled herself throughout the bullying. She took the high road, exhibited appropriate adult behavior, and did not sink to their level. But I question why it is not appropriate to sink to their level, fight fire with fire, speak the only language they seem to understand. If it hadn’t been for the stupidity of one of them, uploading the video on Facebook (to what end, boasting pray tell?) this behavior would have probably continued. If she reported it, it would have been her word against theirs, three against one. And even if someone spoke to these boys about bullying, I question whether words or education programs would do the trick. These are vile, aggressive, abusive behaviors and a slap on the wrist with words, in my estimation is meaningless.

I can only hope that the media will follow this story through to the point where we know what ramifications this will have for these three young men. I don’t think receiving death threats absolves them from what they did. I can only hope that their parents will step up to the plate and truly take the upper hand. I think they should be punished and in a manner that they will never forget how heinous their behavior actually was. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not speaking of corporal punishment. To me that’s fighting abuse with abuse. But I would go for something that is near and dear to them, something that they like to do or something that defines them within their circle of friends. I’m thinking no cell phone, no internet, no computer, no video games, no television, radio or magazines, providing free lawn moving and snow shoveling to the victim for one year, and other than mowing her lawn house arrest for the entire summer. They can read books but only pre-approved ones like the classics or self help books, and the occasional post card they get from the bus monitor from wherever she chooses to go on vacation with the thousands of dollars she will receive for putting up with their nonsense.

When You Don’t Have A Mom On Mother’s Day…

Mother’s Day, another Hallmark holiday but one most people regard as a valid reason to celebrate. In this world who is better to honor than mom? Mom, the woman who gave birth to you, Mom, the woman who cleaned up your bodily messes, Mom, the woman who comforted you when you hurt yourself, Mom, the woman who gave you unconditional love. No one and I mean no one can ever take the place of your mom.

So how do you ever explain to someone what it’s like when she’s gone. You kid yourself into believing that your mom is invincible, that she will always be there for you, that although other moms may die she will be the one to avoid the clutches of the grim reaper. And then it happens. You no longer have a mother. The loss is indescribable.

Mom's last pictureIt’s been over five years since my mother passed away and not a day goes by that I don’t think of her. She died seven years after my father and now I am an orphan and will never again know in my lifetime the unconditional love of a parent. Over time it gets easier to deal with but it never gets easier to accept. And then you are faced with a choice.  You can either crawl into that coffin with her or live your life the way she would have wanted. I choose the latter.

And yet, there is a part of me that unequivocally knows she is still with me. To this day, whenever I ask her for help or guidance she answers me. I remember when I was flying back from Florida after her funeral feeling lost and scared. I closed my eyes and felt her hand on my shoulder. I jumped in my seat, no one was physically there, but I knew it was her.  Not long after she died I remember asking her for a sign that she was ok, that there was something more than this mere existence. I turned on the radio and the song that immediately started playing was Celine Dion’s “I’m Your Angel”. If you listen to the words they actually intimate that there is a higher power watching over you, but I knew in that instance that it was my mom speaking directly to me. The words of that song still haunt me: “I’ll be your cloud up in the sky, I’ll be your shoulder when you cry, I’ll hear your voices when you call me, I am your angel.” I had to pull off to the side of the road I was crying so hard, tears of sorrow and comfort.

There have been countless other times that I have asked for help, and I try not to impose on my mother’s auspices too often, but when I do she has never ever failed me. “Mom, we’ve worked so hard on this Fourth of July event and now right before the fireworks are about to start some rain drops are falling. Please mom, intercede for us and stop the rain”.  The rain stops.  “Mom, the pharmacist is not sure they have this medicine in stock and I really need it to help combat this rash, it’s driving me nuts.” Mrs. Geden I am happy to inform you that we have the medicine is in stock. “Mom, my husband has to have cancer surgery, please let them get it all out.” Mrs. Geden, your husband is in recovery and we’re happy to let you know we got it all, the surrounding tissue is completely clean. Over and over she has answered my prayers.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that her unconditional love lives on. And although I know that she can only do so much, up to this point it has been 100%.  I think at the onset she hit it hard because she knew how skeptical I would be about all this kind of stuff and she wanted to drive home the point that yes, there is something above and beyond this life and yes, I may not be there physically but my spirit will always be with you. I hear you mom, loud and clear!

So as you celebrate Mother’s Day this weekend, cherish that wonderful woman that you still have. She has made the ultimate sacrifices for you, she loves you beyond measure and she needs to know how much you love her while she’s here and not when she’s gone. I am forever grateful that the very last words my mother and I said to each other were “I love you”, and today especially that love continues on. Happy Mothers Day, Mom!

Rainy Days and Mondays…

“Talkin’ to myself and feeling old. Sometimes I’d like to quit. Nothin’ ever seems to fit. Hangin’ around, nothin’ to do but frown, rainy days and Mondays always get me down.”(The Carpenters, 1971)

Slow, nurturing, steady rain, how unusual for Colorado and on a Monday no less. Brings back memories of the old Carpenter’s song. What is it about this type of rain that makes you want to curl up in bed with a good book or bake something tantalizing in the oven, or savor a cup of deliciously warm coffee? Even my dog is lethargic, curled by my feet as I write this blog.

Mondays are a different animal to me now. At some point they became the bane of my existence. I’m not sure when since I found my work rather fulfilling for many, many years. All of sudden I became aware of dread coming over me at about 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, that dread of thinking about getting back to the grind, back to work, back to the stress of another 80 hour week. As I progressed in my career, the responsibilities and demands placed upon me became greater and for many years I was hungry for that, I thrived for it. But there came a point where I heard Peggy Lee singing in my ear “Is That All There Is” and I knew that type of work life was no longer for me. Been there, done that, time to move on.

Now that I am “retired”, Monday is like any other in a progression of glorious days where I get to choose what I want to do and when I want to do it. And the same applies to the weekends. No longer are Saturday and Sunday my mecca. They are just like any other day of the week, only it seems I see more people out and about on those days. This is a gift of a magnitude I can’t even begin to put into words. It parallels that joy of childhood when one day is like all the others, filled with discovery, adventure and play. Over time we lose that precious feeling. We become slaves of the treadmill to the point that we forget that we have a life or even deserve one for that matter. The choices we make, the responsibilities we have dictate who we are and what we do. And there’s nothing wrong with that unless is causes you to forget who you really are and what is really important. For some people, work is important, fulfilling, something that makes them very happy. For many years, that was me. I always found tremendous fulfillment in my work until my mother died and I began looking over my shoulder finally believing that maybe I could not avoid a similar fate and if so, would I leave with a mountain of regrets. That’s all I needed. I was done. I’ve never looked back.

So although today is gloomy, overcast with a steady “Chicago-like” rain, one thing is for sure – rainy days and Mondays no longer get me down… and for that I will eternally grateful!

50 Shades of Reflection…

I recently finished reading the 50 Shades of Grey trilogy, the quirky love story of Christian Grey the young and wealthy CEO of Grey Enterprises Holdings, Inc. and Anastasia Steele a young college graduate interested in pursuing a career in publishing. The story begins with their chance meeting when she interviews him for her college newspaper in place of her sick roommate and takes you through the twists and turns of their tempestuous relationship and sexual escapades. The trilogy takes the reader into the world of the BDSM (bondage, dominance, sadism and masochism) lifestyle and recounts in detail various acts that accompany the darker side of the sexual experience.

The books are not well written (when I was younger I never read Harlequin romance novels, so I imagine this might fit somewhat into that genre although I hope this was slightly better written) and the story seems highly improbable and yet I read all three of them within a week’s time. After I read them, I questioned why I felt compelled to do so. I started doing some research about the books and their rapid climb to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list and found various opinions regarding the onslaught of their popularity. Interesting, at times laughable and always mired in war of the sexes.

The research that has been done is showing that the books’ popularity is not with young women but rather middle aged and older women. Now that was a revelation (of course I fall into that group). But why?  One writer opined that the younger women are still “getting it” and therefore do not need the fantasy world of the books. Another writer opined on the differences between what men and women want out of sexual experiences saying that men were more visual but  women more auditory, hence women are drawn the the descriptive nature of the sexual acts in the books. Another opined that although many deviant sexual acts are described, the trilogy is really a love story and women cannot resist a good love story, improbable or otherwise. I’m not so sure these arguments make sense to me, and I have to question the theories of these articles all written by men. I love when men think they have women figured out and vice versa. It makes for interesting conversations.

So I had to question why I took the time to read them, cover to cover in one week. Am I a deviate, do I crave the BDSM lifestyle, what’s up with all of this and where did this come from?  I’ve been thinking long and hard about this and have finally come to some conclusions. First of all, I am not a pervert nor do I desire to become one. This is not a lifestyle I would ever exploit or choose. But what occurred to me reading these books is that the author puts you behind closed doors, away from oversight and judgment and challenges you to admit that you have a dark side. We all have demons, we all have fantasies, we just don’t want to acknowledge them in polite company. As we grow up, we make choices. We choose our educational paths, we choose where we live, we choose our interests, our friends, lovers and yes, we even choose our sexual preferences. But we don’t talk about it, in reality we’re pretty puritanical about it. And after a while, we define en masse what we think is acceptable and what we think is taboo. And we go through life never deviating from that path in thought or deed… or do we?

The books make you think about who you really are in the darkest parts of your soul, your boundaries, limits, and take you on the journey of exploring your jump to judgment whether regarding yourself or others. What’s right, what’s wrong, is there a right or a wrong, and to what ends will you really go and why. I think older women may be drawn to this because they have already walked that path making those decisions, some in denial, some in secret others horrified or repulsed. But we don’t talk about it because in our puritanical society we label and judge, especially as it relates to women and sex. So I congratulate the author, E.L. James (a woman) for putting it out there and getting people, especially women, out of their veiled world and  talking. As to whether it’s right or wrong that is for you, the reader, to decide.

How Did I Get Roped Into Making The Cookies?…

Kolachky

I’m not sure when it started – I think in high school, but I’m not sure. My mom used to make the holiday cookies. I have memories of almond crescents, chocolate snowballs and chocolate chip cookies. My mom was not a baker. She wasn’t a cook either for that matter. She did what she had to but it wasn’t one of her big joys. So no wonder, somehow, the cookie making chores fell to me.

It was a sneak attack actually. Luring someone young and impressionable with the temptation of chocolate chip cookie dough. Now doesn’t that taste good, honey? Isn’t that divine, honey? Don’t you just love it, honey? Would you like to know how to make these – I’ll show you.  I think that was the trap, but I can’t really say for sure. Then first it was just can you make the chocolate chip cookies for me, honey. Then it was standing by the oven with mom and learning how to determine when the chocolate snowballs were actually done. Then it was mom showing me the art of rolling out and forming the almond crescents. And lo and behold, slowly but surely torch was passed.

Now it is a tradition I cannot escape. Each year the expectation is there – when are you going to make the cookies? And then it’s – which ones   and how many and who is getting them and planning the timetable for getting them all done. Only the chocolate chip cookies have survived the test of time. They have been made every year since the beginning. The snowballs went by the wayside years ago – too dry. And this year the almond crescents left the pack – too sandy for my husband’s mouth after his radiation. But fear not – there are the others: the triple chocolate brownie cookies, two varieties of cranberry cookies (one with icing), peanut butter chocolate kiss cookies, spritz cookies (trees and wreaths), sugar cookies dipped in chocolate, two varieties of kolachkys (apricot and raspberry), and the newbie this year – the raspberry walnut bars. Somehow in a weak moment I decided that I would try at least one new cookie recipe each year – I never made a rule as to how many or when one variety would be transitioned out. Maybe I should because the list seems to get longer every year.

How did I ever get roped into this? I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I wouldn’t give it up for the world – precious holiday memories and traditions.

 

Recipe for Raspberry Walnut Bars

Raspberry Walnut Bars

Singing Holiday Songs…

Holiday songs underscore all of my holiday experiences. You only get a chance to pull them out for a very short window of time but the memories they create last forever. My love of music was instilled in me by my father – he loved music and loved to dance and handed down those passions to me. I also found out at quite an early age that I had a pretty decent singing voice and had an ear for musical harmonies. The nuns at my grammar school loved that and hence the holiday memory I am about to share.

I have a few very strong memories of grammar school but one that always rises to the top was gathering around the piano during music class (how many schools have music classes anymore) and singing Christmas songs. My sixth grade teacher had a penchant for The Little Drummer Boy and was elated to find out that I had a range that could support doing the bass rum pum pums in the song. I also had an ear to be able to sing that on pitch so that assignment was always relegated to me. I never wound up singing the lyrics to that song but I was the best background singer my sixth grade teacher had ever know. And what is that song without that background refrain? My sixth grade teacher would boast to other teachers that she had a student that could sing the bass part of Little Drummer Boy on pitch and they were always surprised to learn that it was actually a girl who was doing it.

But I also had a range that allowed me to sing soprano and that gave me a starring role in the song “Angels We Have Heard on High?” I could belt out the Glo ooooo ooooo oooo oria like no one’s business and finally got the chance to sing a lead vocal in a song in the holiday concert. To this day that song holds a very special place in my heart. I can still see this little sixth grader, strong and proud, singing with gusto and faith – truly an magical and angelic time. I can still see my class gathered around the piano, divided by our vocal ranges, smiling and singing, having the time of our lives. A special time of year with special songs to sing.

I’m not sure why to this day this one particular grammar school memory stands out for me. But I can still clearly see the room we were in, the piano in the back of the room, the winter sun streaming the windows, the uniforms we wore, the big blackboards with examples of palmer method cursive writing above them – I can even remember the smell of Maurice Lenell cookies wafting through the hallways – the hallways always smelled like that in our school. And I distinctly remember the pure joy I felt every time I sang a rum pum pum or a Gloria. It felt like Christmas time would last forever and that I was the luckiest kid in the world. Pure happiness, a precious memory.

I don’t sing these song much anymore. I don’t know why. Maybe I should…

Home For The Holidays…

They are the best of times, they are the worst of times. My apologies to Charles Dickens but those words aptly sum up the holiday season. Never is there a time during the year where the joys can be so immeasurable and the sorrows so intense. And the more years you have under your belt the more memories you have to cloud the current reality. It seems like the thermometer of the season can go either way, often day-to-day or hour to hour and eventually the season is measured by the overall average temperature of happiness or sadness.

Are all those holiday experiences and memories precious or stigmatic?  I’m not really sure. All I know is that, for me, every year the the holiday season is an adventure in feelings and emotions. So, with that in mind, I am going to dedicate my blog this month to the recounting of current and past holiday stories. Do they help to make the season bright or just reinforce what once was but is not to be again? That determination is solely up to you.

Growing up the holidays were always big in my house – it was a magical time. And although we were not rich by any stretch of the imagination, we always had a lot to be thankful for on Christmas Day. Our house was filled with holiday music the likes of which I still treasure. My dad was a huge fan of the “Big Bands” and so our holiday music consisted of Christmas albums by the likes of Guy Lombardo, Lester Lanin, The Three Suns and the incomparable Mitch Miller. We always had a meatless Christmas Eve followed by a big Christmas Day dinner at my Grandmother’s. Then we would get packed up into the car and travel to my other grandmother’s house where we would spend the rest of the day with my dad’s side of the family. Christmas cookies, homemade bread, turkey and all the trimmings, football on the television and lots and lots of presents under the tree. That was the basic game plan for the day. But my memories are not so much tied up in what we did that day, but with the events and the traditions leading up to the “big dance.”

The first big event came every year on the first Saturday in December – the annual family trek to Downtown Chicago to see Santa at the Carson Pirie Scott store and go Christmas shopping. We had a route and a game plan and we followed it for years and years. We would park the car at a parking lot near Congress and State Streets and begin our journey – first stop the Sears Roebuck store. I can still smell the ‘pine-like” aroma that came wafting out of the small incense burning log cabins they sold. In my mind I can clearly see the small puffs of smoke coming out of the chimneys in the display as we made our way up the escalator to the toys floor. You see, the main highlight of the trip was the fact that every year my parents gave us five dollars to spend on anything we wanted, no restrictions. It felt like we were given a million bucks and the decision as to what to spend it on was agonizing. We combed through every toy department several times before making those decisions. It was heaven.

My Dad and Me circa 1956

Our annual trek which began at Sears proceeded north on State Street to The Fair Store (how many of my Chicago friends even remember that store), Carsons, Wiebolts, Walgreens and the final destination, the piece de resistance, Marshall Fields! As we made our trek and purchased our gifts my dad would hike back to the parking lot and deposit our treasures in our car, often making the trip several times during the course of the day. We never worried about someone breaking into the car and stealing them – that just didn’t happen at that time. It was a day of buying presents for loved ones, looking at the amazing holiday windows, getting to spend our five dollars, putting a donation into the Salvation Army bucket, listening to Christmas carolers on the street, passing the street vendors hawking roasted chestnuts and praying it would snow to make the day absolutely perfect. And to top it all off, the icing on the cake was dinner at Millers Pub. At that time Millers Pub was on Adams street and every year as we made our trek back south on State Street we would stop to have dinner at Millers capping off the day. Even now, Millers Pub means Christmas to me. The pub was always jammed packed and we learned early on to adjust our holiday routine to include a stop at Millers as we made our trek north on State Street to make a reservation for that evening. We got seated a lot faster that way. And after many years of doing this we had our routine down to a science. I so looked forward to this day every year. We continued this tradition all through my college years although, after a while, I decided that a trip to Santa’s lap was not to be part of the plan anymore.

That was the first Saturday in December every year for at least twenty years. And then no more. My parents moved to Florida and I stayed in Chicago. I changed my personal tradition and started making a similar trek on the Friday after Thanksgiving, but it was never the same. Joyous memory or sad memory? There are days I teeter between both. But every year as we approach the first Saturday in December I hold my father’s and mother’s hand in my heart and take a walk in my mind north on State Street.

Five Years Ago Today…

I held her hand. I told her not to worry about me. I told her she had raised a strong independent daughter who could take care of herself. I told her to go to dad. Then I made one final request of her. I asked her for one last Christmas gift. She and I had been together when I came into this world  – I asked her for the gift of being together with her once again when she left this world. Her breathing became shallower and shallower. Soon the breaths were so shallow I knew they could not sustain life. One last small breath, a tear ran down her left cheek and she was gone. Peaceful, quiet and eerily beautiful. At that moment, my mom gave me the most precious gift of all.

I cannot think of a better way to honor her than to reprint what I blogged the day after she died. It captures all of the emotions I felt and continue to feel to this day.

WRITTEN NOVEMBER 15, 2006 

Euphrasia Dolores Miksis Drabik – born September 23, 1922 – died November 14, 2006. How do you even begin to put into the words this very special life?  She was one of four children (the baby) of Apolian and Marcella Miksis (Victor, Genevieve and Bernice), born in Chicago and lived under very modest means on the south side of Chicago (a large Lithuanian stronghold at the time). She married Edward Joseph Drabik (1915-1998) and had two children, Robert (1947) and Janice (1951). She lived in Chicago until she retired with her husband to Clearwater Florida in 1982 and moved to Colorado to be near her daughter in 2004.

The Last Picture of My Mom taken September 22, 2006

Mom, I miss you terribly already, but I am at such peace because you are not suffering any longer. I had two + great years with my mom here in Colorado. We went shopping, went to movies, saw plays had regular ladies nite out dinners – and I was blessed to have had the opportunity to really spend some time with her after living far away from her for so many years once she and dad moved to Florida. She always felt I was going to follow them down there, but little Jan who always had a boat load of independence decided that Florida was not for her and lived in Chicago, Dayton, Ohio and now Boulder, Colorado.

I had never experienced a death before and so I was really not sure what to expect and how I would feel about it. Yesterday started with a call from Hospice. They asked if I wanted a nurse to stay with mom all day, because they had one available. I jumped at the chance, because I had planned to be there all day as well, and knew I would appreciate not only the company but also the professional assessment of mom’s condition.

We sat all morning and chatted about mom. There were some changes in her condition since the nurse spent the day with her on Sunday, but nothing to indicate eminent death. The nurse was quick to remind me that those conditions could change at any time, and could change rapidly.

At about 11:30 am, the nurse suggested that I go out for a while and grab some lunch. I decided to do so – nursing homes are tough environments to be in when you are sitting at the bedside of a dying person.I was just finishing when I got a call on my cell phone – some things appeared to be changing, they recommended that I come back. I got back relatively quickly, and to my untrained eye I could not notice any type of change. But they told me that her heart rate had increased significantly and that her breathing was changing.

So, I sat by her bed and held her hand. I told her that she was the one who was there when I entered into this world and I asked her to give me a final Christmas gift – to let me be there when she left this world. I kept encouraging her to go, I told her daddy was waiting, I told her that I would be ok, and I told her that she should give in and be at peace. Over the course of about 20 minutes, as I continued to talk to her and to hold her hand, her breathing became more and more shallow. It finally got to the point where her breaths were so insignificant that it made me wonder how that little amount of oxygen could sustain life. Then there were a couple of more very shallow, very small breaths, and nothing. A tear streamed down out of her left eye, and it was all over.

When I came back from lunch, not only was the nurse there who was assigned for the day, but mom’s regular nurse, the hospice social worker and a nurse being trained to do bedside assessments. She had a room full of people, pulling for her to be out of her pain and wishing her a speedy journey to dad. I have to say, although I was fearful of what to expect, it was the most beautiful experience of my life. My mom gave me the ultimate gift, and I will always be grateful to her for sharing her last moments of life with me.

Since last Wednesday you could see that she was accepting what was happening and preparing for the next phase of her life. On Friday she asked me what was happening to her. When I asked what she thought was happening to her, she said, “I’m dying”, and I told her yes. With tears in her eyes, she told me that she would not be able to go Christmas shopping with me, and with tears in my eyes, I told her that she would always be able to go Christmas shopping with me, because for as long as I live, I will always have her in my heart wherever I go and whatever I do. She smiled.

On Monday I had both my aunt and my brother talk to her. I held the phone by her ear and they told her it was ok to let go. When she heard my brother’s voice, she opened her eyes and I got cognitive recognition. I said hi to her, and she very weakly and softly said to me, “I love you.” Those were the last words I would ever hear her say.

Today we will finalize the arrangements and my last job is to get her back to dad. I can’t believe that it is over, and yet I am so happy that she is finally out of her pain. This journey was a tough one, but she handled it with grace and a positive attitude. I truly believe that until this last week, she thought she would beat this thing and walk out of that nursing home. She was a fighter until the end.

Euphrasia Dolores Miksis Drabik – born 1922, died 2006. I love you with all my heart, mom. And until the day that I die, you will live on in my heart. I am counting on you to be my guardian angel now. It’s a dirty job, but I know you are up to the task. Thank you for everything, mom. I will always love you.

Your baby,

Janice Marie

 

 

Her Last Day…

She died on a Tuesday. The day began just like most with coffee and the newspaper. The phone rang. I jumped. I had this feeling it was going to be the call. But it was only the hospice nurse asking if I would mind if she spent the day in my mom’s room evaluating my mom. She wanted to bring a nurse in training so that she could learn more about the latter stages of hospice care. I was thrilled since I planned to be there all day and would love the company. For the past few days mom had only snippets of consciousness and although I knew she knew I was there it was still a lonely vigil.

Me and mom on my wedding day circa 1982

The last time I had any substantive type of conversation with my mother was the Friday before. I brought my laptop with me so that we could watch our favorite holiday movie – the George C. Scott version of “A Christmas Carol.” My mom and I must have watched this movie a thousand times over the years and we could almost say the lines verbatim. I pulled the tray table over to her bed and we began to watch. At first she seemed happy to be watching the movie once again. She even said some of the lines as she would normally do when we watched it. About half way through she began to say, “I’ve never seen this movie before – I’ve never seen this movie before” and she began to get agitated. I decided to stop playing it and put the laptop away. I sat on her bed and she looked at me and asked, “Jan, what is happening to me?”

“What do you think is happening,” I replied. “I think I’m dying” she said. I shook my head to say yes. She got tears in her eyes and said, “I’m sorry I won’t be able to go Christmas shopping with you this year.” I looked at her and said, ” Mom, you will always go Christmas shopping with me because I will always carry you in my heart.” She smiled, closed her eyes and went to sleep.

The last food she requested to eat was orange sherbet, the last words she said to me were “I love you.”

On Tuesday I spent the entire morning in her room with the hospice nurses just talking about mom, her life, her recent struggles. As we talked the hospice nurse explained that if my mother wanted me to be there when she died that I would. But if she didn’t then I most certainly would not. In her experience she had all too often seen family members keep vigils over dying loved ones only to walk out of the room for a minute and come back to find that they had passed away. She wanted to prepare me for the fact that my mom might choose not to involve me in the process. I was fine with that. I wanted to be there for her but I also wanted it to be easy for her, if that was at all possible.

At about 11:30  a.m., the hospice nurse suggested that I go out and get some lunch. She felt a change of scenery for a short time would do me good. She told me if anything changed that she would call me on my cell phone.  I was just finishing lunch when my cell phone rang. Her heart rate had changed and her breathing was becoming more shallow. I needed to get back to the nursing home as soon as possible. Five minutes later I was there. I walked into the room but nothing really seemed changed to me. I walked up to my mom’s bed, sat next to her and took her hand in mine. The dying process began.

Perfectionism…

My mother was a perfectionist and that is where we differed the most. Everything had to be perfect – from her penchant for ironing underwear and socks, to using a toothbrush to clean the baseboards around the floor to folding military-style corners on bed sheets to having perfect attendance at work. She was very disciplined and tried to instill that into her daughter. Unfortunately her daughter was just not wired that way.

I have to say that eventually some of it did rub off and I am grateful for that. I learned the discipline to get things done and to work hard but the rest was just not for me. I would watch as she would meticulously clean every corner and dust every inch of the house and have everything in place in her cabinets, dresser drawers and closets. You never had to worry about what our house looked like if you stopped by for a surprise visit. It was always immaculate … except for my room. My mother finally resolved that issue by simply closing the door of my room whenever she felt it was necessary. Every house she lived in was always that way until she became very ill at the end. Her homes were always sparkling clean and company ready.

She tried and tried and tried to instill the same desire for meticulousness in me, it just never worked. She thought being disciplined would motivate me but it did just the opposite. It made me not want to be a perfectionist. I will never forget my first high school report card. Going to high school was a very scary thing for me. I excelled in grammar school but was uncertain if I could cut it in high school. I remembering giving my mother my first high school report card and being very proud of what I accomplished. I had one B and all the rest were A’s. My mother looked at my report card for a minute, turned to me and said very seriously, “so what’s with the B?” I was crushed but she did not know it. She thought by saying what she said she would motivate me to try harder. I took it to mean that I was a failure. And that was the beginning of me being harder on myself than anyone else ever could for many many years. I know now that was never her intention. In later years she told me how proud she was of what I achieved academically. When I told her the story of the report card she didn’t even remember saying it although she did admit that it sounded like something she might say. One of the many push-pulls of a mother-daughter relationship.

Two pictures of my mom

She was also a stickler for my school attendance record and single handedly saw to it that I had perfect attendance for all four years of high school. My mother worked nights at Harris Bank in downtown Chicago when I was in high school. My dad had the responsibility for getting us up in the morning, making our breakfast and getting us out of the house. Mom usually came home after breakfast and just about when we were ready to go out the door. One morning I woke up and had bad cramps, I was getting my period. I really felt lousy and my dad said I could stay home. My mom got home, saw I was still in bed, got me up and made me get dressed in the car while she drove me to school. After all, we couldn’t spoil my perfect attendance record. I have to say once I got to school and started moving around I felt better, but to this day still find it hard to understand why she thought perfect attendance was so important.

My mom was famous for speaking first and thinking second, especially when it came to me. I think she felt so comfortable with me that she never felt she had to mince words – and she never did. Once we were on the phone and she was talking about an article she read in a magazine about John F. Kennedy Jr. Without thinking she blurted out, “and guess what, Jan. He’s a slob, just like you!” By that time I was more mature and not so easily crushed by some of the things she would say and when I called her on it she immediately backpedaled and said, “the article talks about how it is common for slobs to have a lot of money and I know you have a lot of money so I was making a financial comparison between the two of you.” To this day that logic still escapes me, but somehow I feel comforted knowing that John F. Kennedy Jr. was a slob.

I share all of this because I want to create a realistic picture of my mother. Like any other mother and daughter relationship we certainly had our ups and downs. Things weren’t perfect, often messy but there was always love. Although I wish my mom had done things differently in certain instances, I have yet to meet the parent who found the book that tells you how to raise the perfect child and be the perfect parent. As a matter of fact I am glad a book like that didn’t exist as my mother, in her never ending quest for perfection, may have memorized every chapter of it. And although my mom and I were both headstrong and opinionated, it was she who taught me to believe in myself, she who made me believe I could be whatever it was that I wanted to be, she who made me believe that I could compete with and be better than any man, she who gave me the independence to strive and achieve far more than I ever dreamed. In an era where women were still expected to play a more subservient role, she was the first woman in her peer group to go back to work and the first female head of the bank’s charge card division. I learned from her that women could play whatever role they chose to play in life and not necessarily the role that society had perennially designated for them. I grew up not fearing competition and not ever settling for being subservient to anyone – one of the greatest gifts I think my mother ever gave me. The role model that she was and the unending love that she gave were and still are today the things I cherish the most about her.  They are also the things that I continue to miss the most.

It’s That Time Of Year…

Three weeks from today is Thanksgiving better know as Turkey Day when I was growing up. For quite some time the stores have been looking past this event and stocking their shelves with Christmas items. Now that Halloween is over retail is officially in holiday mode. All of the stores are pulling out the stops with bright colors, ornaments, food gifts and of course the elfs, snowmen and all the other traditional holiday characters. I think we have come to merely validate Thanksgiving and have it serve as a placeholder for what is to come next – Black Friday.

But these next few weeks are an important and very bittersweet time of year for me. The holidays have always been the time of year I look forward to with great anticipation. And in some respects I still do. But now it is a time of year that will always have a mark of sadness attached to it as well. It was this time of year, five years ago, that my mother was living out her last days. And although I was happy she was going to be relieved of her pain and suffering, I never anticipated the emptiness I would feel and continue to feel since she died on November 14 2006. So as I was thinking about the five year anniversary of her death I decided it was time to focus on the gift that was her life. To that end, I am going to devote my next couple of blogs to remembering one of the most influential women in my life, my mother. And instead of wallowing in sorrow that she is no longer here, take time to share the memories that I have of her and rejoice in the life of Euphrasia Dolores Miksis Drabik.

My mom at 18 years of age

So, let’s start with that name. Yes her name was Euphrasia. My mother always told me that my grandmother found that name on the last page of the bible. But no matter how many bibles I have looked at over the years I have never been able to find that name on the last page or anywhere else for that matter. Although I do remember an old Elvis Presley movie where he claimed to have an aunt Euphrasia but that’s about the only context I could ever associate with her name. My mother was a very beautiful woman. I know you think I am prejudiced but just look at her picture for yourself and then tell me if you disagree. She was the baby in her family – she had an older brother and two older sisters both who became nuns. I once asked my mother why she didn’t become a nun and she said she just liked boys far too much and the thought never entered her mind to live the life of a nun. She was just too worldly. She always imagined herself famous – she even created a stage name for herself. At that time Hollywood stars rarely kept their real names and she didn’t think Euphrasia had marquee appeal. So, she was going to be Dolores Woods star of stage and screen. (Now do you see how I was destined to be involved in theater arts).

She never went to college. She graduated from high school and immediately started working as a secretary in a law office. Her looks did not go unnoticed by her employer. He continually made sexual advances to her. My mother had lived a very sheltered life and she was not sure how to deal with the situation at the time. She told me that these uncomfortable advances went on for a while and then finally stopped. When I asked her why they stopped so suddenly she turned to me and said, “Honey, never underestimate the power of a good strong fart!” Yep, that was my mom.

So in the coming days I will share some of my most precious memories of her. I look like her, I talk like her, I am no doubt her daughter. And she was by no doubt the best mom a girl could ever have.

Bless The Beasts and The Children

One of my favorite songs by the Carpenters was a lesser known hit that was the title track to the 1971 movie Bless the Beasts and the Children. The lyrics are poignant: “Bless the beasts and the children. For in this world they have no voice – they have no choice.” And no truer words were ever spoken do describe what happened in Zanesville, Ohio yesterday.

Only 1700 Bengal Tigers are believed to exist in the world today and eighteen of them were killed yesterday. They were killed not because they posed a threat to the public, although that was definitely the immediate concern. They were killed because someone was allowed to keep them as pets on private property. They were killed because someone engaged in the exotic animal trade and captured them and sold them. They were killed because they had no voice, they had no choice. And to me, that is the abomination of what is known as the absolute power of man. And absolute power corrupts absolutely.

This is not unlike the recent situation in Pennsylvania where a number of mentally handicapped adults were found bound and chained in the basement of a residence for the sole purpose of someone being able to abscond with their social security checks. Locked in a different kind of cage, some of them had been missing for years. They had no voice, they had no choice. It saddens me that this continues to happen in our society and all over the world. The weak, the small, the beasts, the children – all who should be able to grow and thrive, live free and be able to lead the lives they were meant to lead can fall prey to such wickedness and inhumanity.

Now I know there are also many, many stories of just the opposite happening. People going to the extra mile for each other, people advocating for those who cannot advocate for themselves, people fighting for the rights of animals. Our society is no different from any other. We have the good and the bad. But I can’t get out of my mind the picture of the carcasses of those lions and tigers and bears lying lifeless on the ground on that farm in Ohio. This is no song from the Wizard of Oz. It is an abomination that these animals had to live and die the way they did. My one hope is that this finally opens the eyes of legislators to do something to protect these exotic animals. They did not ask for what they got and they got a very raw deal.

As the song goes: Bless the beasts and the children for the world will never be, the world they see. Light their way, when the darkness surrounds them. Give them love, let it shine all around them. Bless the beasts and the children give them shelter from the storm. Keep them safe, keep them warm… and that is definitely the way it should be – because unfortunately in this world they have no voice, they have no choice.

The Carpenters – Bless the Beasts and the Children

Where Is This In My Job Description?

A story I read today made me once again think about the incredible value a good teacher brings to the life of a child. And whether that teacher is a parent, a relative, an academic, coach or recreator, teachers are the lifeblood of growing up healthy and strong. And quite often we don’t recognize the value they bring at any particular moment, but in hindsight realize that we would be much less of a whole person without the force of their influence behind us.

Today one of my former students recounted a conversation she had with her 11 year old daughter who maintained with strong conviction that she would not engage in sexual activity until she was married. Easy to say at 11 years old, harder to uphold when you are sixteen and “in love”. She maintained that if a boy pressured her for sex she would simply break off the relationship. Again easy to say when you are eleven and have not yet found “the love of your life”. You could tell her mother was very happy that her daughter felt free to talk openly about that subject with her. And, in a very gentle way her mother lovingly reminded her that when the day comes (and it will come) that she has to make a decision regarding having sex, she hoped she remembered the unwavering conviction she felt at 11 years of age regarding waiting until marriage.

This is definitely one of those critical moments in a child’s life where they turn to someone they trust not only to express their views but to get validation for something that could be embarrassing or difficult to discuss. You only hope in these cases that they turn to someone who cares about them, someone who has their best interests at heart. In this case, she turned to her mother. In another she may turn to someone else but whoever assumes that role of “teacher” has the same responsibility – to recognize the significance of the situation and to care for the welfare and the well being of that child.

When I initially got into teaching I never realized the enormity of that responsibility. I taught theatre and dance in after school programs and mistakenly believed that’s what I was primarily doing. Along the way I found out that even though those disciplines were the “carrot” that got kids into my classes on a day-to-day basis, the real reason they continued to come was the interaction they had with a caring adult who was not their parent. And I learned that lesson in quite a unique way.

As part of my after school theatre program, I would organize field trips to other recreation centers that had similar programs so that my students could see plays performed by other kids their age. We would arrange an evening out that consisted of going out to dinner, seeing the play and then discussing what we saw on the ride home. I would try to do this at least once each season and each time it was an experience that the students looked forward to with great anticipation.

It was during one of those pre-show dinners that I finally understood my role as a teacher. About five girls and myself were eating and just having pleasant conversation when all of a sudden one of them turned to me and said, “do boys have periods like girls have periods?” There was complete silence at the table. And I will never forget the first thought that came into my mind – “ok, now where is this in my job description?” I was initially taken aback. But luckily I then felt honored that she came to me and and that she felt she could trust me not laugh at her or embarrass her but give her a straightforward caring answer, which I attempted to do. And I knew it was not only on her mind, but on the mind of all the other girls sitting at the table as well. What power, what influence an adult has at that moment. I was blown away.

And over the years that one moment stuck with me as time and time again my students would come to me and share sensitive information or ask me sensitive questions. And more and more they began to do so. And more and more I was glad they came to me. And over time, I began to realize the enormity of the responsibility each and every teacher has, and it mostly has nothing to do with their chosen discipline. Teachers have the power to save lives, change lives, to create hope and to inspire. They can be the pivotal make or break influence in a child’s life, an important thing to recognize and remember.

So I congratulate my former student for performing the role of a good teacher impeccably with sensitivity and caring. And I thank all of my former students for their faith in me as their teacher when they were growing up. I know it made me a better human being and I hope it did the same for them.

Early Lessons of Retirement

I have often thought that most people carefully plan their finances before retiring but hardly ever think about what they will continue to do with their day-to-day lives. So now that I have had some time under my belt as a retired person I can offer some insights into what to expect. Here is my top ten list of retirement insights (and I am sure I will add to it as time goes on and I achieve much greater wisdom).

1. Monday is no longer a dirty word and Sunday night is no longer the worst night of the week. Every day can be a Saturday or Sunday – it all depends on how you look at it. Be prepared to often forget what day of the week it actually is. Guess what – now it doesn’t matter. You are no longer a prisoner of the rhythm of a work week – you are dancing to a different drummer.

2. The people you know will be jealous of you. That is a good thing! You worked hard all of your life – now it is your chance to rub it in a little. They will get their turn soon enough. If not, too bad – their failure to plan.

3. You will not be sitting around all day watching television and eating bon-bons. Nothing could be further than the truth. As a matter of fact you will be busier than you ever were before. The concept of weekends no longer exists, there are no more vacation or sick days. You have to make a concerted effort to create those for yourself. And you feel even guiltier when you do because the only person you are screwing is yourself. And forget about your visions of laying in bed and reading a good book on a rainy day. You will feel also feel too guilty to do anything like that – like you are wasting precious time.

4. Finally you can actually enjoy your morning coffee and newspaper – its worth retiring just for that!

5. You will find that you get up even earlier than you did when you were working. What’s up with that? I guess you don’t want to miss a single moment of total freedom.

6. Some people will treat you like you are old. Get over it! Let them think what they want – you will always have the last laugh, especially when there are 20 inches of snow on the ground and they have to go into work and you don’t.

7. People will be after you to volunteer for scores of things. Remember, they used to pay you for your services. Don’t give away the baby with the bath water. You might still be able to make some extra bucks. The beauty is that you can pick and choose what you want to do.

8. People will look at you cross-eyed if you haven’t planned at least twenty trips to parts unknown right away after your retire. Don’t fall into that trap. Take the time to decompress. You will find that even though you have no work commitments, your body clock will think that you do for at least 3-6 months. Its important to teach yourself a new way of living. And besides, just because your friends think you should travel doesn’t mean that you have to. Take the time to find out what you really want to do, and then do it. The important thing to realize is that you finally have the time – so take it.

9. Be prepared to get reacquainted with your spouse or significant other, especially if they retired before you. All of a sudden you are tripping over each other and your daily routine is drastically different. Take heart – it will all work out in the end. And if it doesn’t – get a divorce. (just kidding).

10. For those procrastinating, wondering what it will really be like on the dark side – don’t be afraid to make the leap. Come on in the water is fine – you will never look back, I promise!

 

 

And Once Again It Is The Wizard Of Oz

I have to admit that I was never one who jumped on the Oprah Winfrey bandwagon. Mostly I thought of her as just another talk show host in a myriad of talk shows although I did admire her work in the field of education. After watching some of her farewell programs, I was impressed by the scholarship contributions she made to Morehouse College, by building a school in Africa for young women and for making reading fashionable. Her commitment to education is undeniable and for that I do applaud her.

But in watching some of the recent fanfare at the United Center, it occurred to me that Oprah was not revolutionary, unique or even new. Her aura is entirely rooted in taking that wonderous journey down the yellow brick road. Although she has given millions to help educate black men, if they did not believe in education or do the work to get educated her money would have been wasted. And although she provided the bricks and mortar and perhaps even the inspiration for young girls in Africa to get an education, if they did not want it and work for it all that would be left are the bricks and mortar etched with a celebrity’s name on them. And yes, maybe she provided the star power to pick up a book, but each individual was responsible for reading it and learning from it.

Glinda - The Good Witch of the North

What I think I admire Oprah for the most is for understanding, believing and reenforcing the basic message in the movie The Wizard of Oz. At the end of the movie when the Wizard mistakenly takes off in his balloon and Dorothy is left for a moment to wonder if she will ever get back to Kansas she is once again visited by Glinda the Good Witch of the North. Glinda delivers the most powerful message in the movie when she informs Dorothy that “you had the power to go back to Kansas all along.” I remember the very first time I heard her say those words – I was actually mad that she had put Dorothy through all of the situations she had to go through in Oz. If she had the power all along, why didn’t she just tell her. It wasn’t till much later that I understood exactly why Glinda did what she did and what Oprah has tried to make millions understand for many years. The power is within you – but you have to learn that for yourself.

That seems like such a basic concept and yet it is one that is missed by many. Many people lead a victim’s life putting blame on everything and everyone for who they are and what they have become. They never got it – they never went to Oz. If they had gone to Oz and had to follow the path of the yellow brick road they would know they have the power – that everyone has the power. It’s just that some get is and use it and other’s don’t and probably never will. It is a life lesson that has to be learned and believed. You cannot simply put on the ruby slippers and have the wisdom. Glinda was wise to allow Dorothy to learn this powerful message because once you learn it and believe it, the power affects the rest of your life for the better.

Throughout my entire life I have been mesmerized by the messages in the Wizard of Oz. But bar none, Glinda’s message is perhaps the most important. You have the power, it has always been within you. You can use it or not. The choice is entirely up to you!

And after that, the next most powerful message: There Is No Place Like Home!

A Mother’s Day Tribute

I’m sitting on my deck right now enjoying the warm Spring sunshine, watching the birds feverishly build their nest, smelling the lilac perfume in the air and desperately missing my mother. This time of year, Spring, sunshine, trees budding – the time of growth and renewal, and their is a part of me that is somewhat empty.

My mother, Euphrasia (yes that was her real name) Drabik died in November of 2006 of lung cancer. The doctor’s said she must have had it for quite some time but once she was finally diagnosed she was given three to six months to live and she lived for five. When she was younger she was fiercely independent, one of the first mother’s to go to work with young children still at home. She rose up in the ranks of the male dominated banking business and became the manager of one of their largest departments, the charge card division. I remember my mother saying that one day a plastic card was going to replace money – they were already in the process of developing what we now know as a debit card. She was beautiful, very religious and very self confident.

She and my dad were married for 57 years – and no, they were not the perfect couple. They certainly had their ups and downs. But they managed to live through the bad times and their relationship got stronger and stronger as the years went on. My father was seven years older than my mom and when he turned 65 he wanted to retire and move to Florida. My mom was still going strong working at the bank, but my dad was firm in his resolve and my mother retired at 58 and moved with my dad to Clearwater. There they had the home of their dreams and over 20 years of an active and healthy retired life. My dad suffered an injury in 1996 that made him quadriplegic. She took care of him for 18 months in that condition until he died in February of 1998.

After my dad died, I saw a lot of changes in my mother. Once the confident go-getter, she was now fearful and insecure. She lost some of that self-starter quality that I so admired in her. I guess when you lose someone who has been a part of your life for so many years a part of you dies with them.

A few years after my father’s death, I finally talked her into moving to Colorado where she spent the last three years of her life. I was so grateful for that time. For most of my adult life she lived in Florida and I lived in Chicago and we usually saw each other once a year around the holidays. We talked on the phone once a week and for many years she was a voice on the other end of the phone.

We crammed a lot into the three years that she was here – we went on trips, went out to breakfast, went to movies, saw theatrical productions – we did a lot together. And then one day as I was driving to work I called her and she was in tears. She was experiencing terrible pain in her back

and her side. An ambulance trip to the hospital, the diagnosis, home health care, nursing home care and then she was gone.

She never got a chance to sit out on our deck – it was under construction when she became ill. She never got a chance to see the new landscaping – to smell the fragrance of my lilacs, to enjoy the rose bushes. Those all came during and after her illness. But she would have loved them. She would be out here with my right now, enjoying the sunshine and fresh Spring air.

She was a woman from a very humble background who was determined that her daughter would be educated, confident and fearless. When I was a child I so remember her always saying to me that I would get a college education. No woman in her family at that point had, and she knew that in order to be independent and successful that education was the key. We laughed, cried, fought and loved together. She was my rock, my inspiration and my safety net. The apple did not fall far from the tree – I had so many of her qualities that it was scary.

Now there is a part of me that is gone. Time has healed the deep emotional pain I felt when she died and immediately after but time will never completely heal the hole in my heart. But now, when I get sad, I think of her sitting next to me and saying, “Now, Janice Marie – this is not the woman that I raised you to be – strong and confident. So, buck up and keep moving forward. You can do it. I know you can. I raised you to be nothing less.” And all I can say is, yes Mom you did!

So as we approach another Mother’s Day, I want to pay tribute in writing to my mother, Euphrasia Drabik. She was beautiful, strong, courageous and smart. And every day, I hope that I will become half of the woman that she was. I love you, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day!

Your baby,

Janice Marie

Easter Perfume – Vinegar, Horseradish and Sausage Casings

The Saturday before Easter belongs to my Grandmother. When I was young I never realized how courageous she was. She was born in Lithuania and came by herself to the United States when she was only sixteen. Her passage out of Lithuania came about through an arranged marriage with a man almost twice her age, a man she did not love. He represented her chance for a better life in a country that made dreams come true. When she got here, she immediately set out to break the arrangement and found a respectable gentleman by the name of Apolian who would “buy” her out of her contract. She fell in love with Apolian and married him. When I think about what I was like at the age of sixteen, I can’t even begin to imagine having the courage and tenacity to do what she did. Heck, I didn’t get married until I was thirty-two because I never felt mature enough for that leap. She was married at sixteen and had four children by the time she was twenty-one!

But my most cherished memory of my grandmother is the Saturday before Easter. Living in a middle class Polish and Lithuanian neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago involved many hard and fast traditions, one being how holidays were celebrated. And although Christmas was the big one, Easter had its own uniqueness. Early Easter Saturday morning the preparations for the holiday meal began. First two big pots full of eggs were put on the stove and boiled. And no respectable Easter meal with hard boiled eggs could be eaten without homemade horseradish. My grandmother would then go on the back porch, open all of the windows and begin the painful process of grating the horseradish. Now if you’ve ever made homemade horseradish you know that the fumes when you are grating the root can choke a horse. It is pretty powerful stuff the best sinus cleaning medicine around. And there she would sit, windows open, tears caused by the powerful fumes flowing down her cheeks making that delightful and pungent condiment for the hard boiled eggs.

By that time I would ramble downstairs to assist with what came next, coloring the eggs. My grandmother always used the egg coloring that came in various small bottles. You would fill up a bowl of water, put drops of the coloring in the water and mix the colors with a toothpick. Then, one by one, you would put an egg in one of the circular wire spoons and slowly move the egg around in the mixed colors. No egg came out the same but all had a wide range of colorful patterns and designs. But the most memorable part of that process was the smell of vinegar. For some reason vinegar is an ingredient used in the coloring process and when I close my eyes and remember coloring those eggs I can smell the vinegar and I can see my grandmother. It was her special Easter perfume and the memory of that has stayed with me all of my life.

Homemade bread was a must at those meals and that was made on Good Friday. The last piece of harder work was making the homemade Polish sausage. My grandmother would grind the meat, add the seasoning and the pull the sausage casings out of the refrigerator. It never occurred to me to ask what sausage casings were (and I later found out they were a collagen layer of cow intestines) but they were these slimy cylindrical things that held the sausage in a link form. I vividly remember my grandmother removing the grinding disc from the grinder, putting the opening of one end of the casing on the open end of the grinder and using her belly and a wooden spoon to push the sausage into the casing. I can see it as if it were yesterday.  Link after link being created with belly power and a wooden spoon, all for the family, all for the traditional Easter meal.

Sometimes I wonder why we remember certain things and why we forget others. I’ve never understood why but every year on the day before Easter I can see so clearly my grandmother making the sausage and I can smell so clearly the scents vinegar and the horseradish. When I was little I never realized the great gift that my grandmother was giving me, and now that I am older I thank her every year for giving me the memory of making the sausage and her special Easter perfume of horseradish and vinegar.  Happy Easter!

Why Can’t A Woman Be More Like A Man

This famous Henry Higgins lament seems to be validated time and time again in the business world.  As Henry sees it – “Why is thinking something women never do? And why is logic never even tried? Straightening their hair is all they ever do. Why don’t they straighten up the mess inside?”

Men seem to have had this question plague them since the dawn of time. Yesterday when I was in the car with my husband coming back from Home Depot, he turned the radio on to listen to one of his favorite programs – the Tom Martino show. Now this guy does do some good things, but yesterday I was ready to pull him through the radio and beat him upside the head. Because yesterday he was waxing so eloquently on what he termed as the “girl code”.

As Martino put it, the girl code consists of things like: why is it that a girl has to ask permission of another girl to go out with their former boyfriend once they have broken up – or did you know that girls have to get together in even numbers because girls will pair up and someone will be left out – he even had a caller who asked him at what age to girls go to “bitch” school (and then he changed the word to bit because in his infinite wisdom he did not think the word bitch could be used on the air) and of course then they got on the subject of hormones. Now I love a good joke just like everyone else, but to put that drivel on the airwaves when we still have men telling women to “doll up and wipe the dust off of your makeup if you want to get ahead” it totally irresponsible in my mind. When you are looked upon as a public figure and have the ability to influence a great number of people by the medium you use, you have a responsibility to think about what you are saying and how it can perpetuate bad behavior.

And then I was given an article today (the link to it is at the end of my rant) about an eight year study that chronicled the careers of 132 Stanford MBA graduates, more than half of whom were women, to determine their gender related characteristics and how that related to them getting ahead in the workplace. No surprises there since the study found that “although masculine women are seen as more competent than feminine women, they are also seen as less socially skilled and consequently, less likeable and less likely to be promoted.

So, on one end we verbally lambast women for the “girl code” and on the other hand we don’t promote them when they take on more masculine characteristics because they are less likeable. Once again the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde syndrome rears its ugly head for women. The study goes on to say that the key to success or failure for women in business is to know when to lay on the aggression, selectively from the start. “You need to be an amateur anthropologist, go into the situation and really pay attention very carefully to what is really happening.”

So I suggest you read the article for yourself. And share it with a male counterpart to really get the conversation going.

When A Woman Should Act Like A Man – CNN Article

 

Solve the Federal Budget Crisis – Cut the Arts!

One of the considerations on the table to “solve” the federal budget crisis is to cut all federal funding to the arts. Here we go again. We’re talking somewhere in the area of 160 Million, chump change in relation to the overall federal deficit. I am always amazed that these types of programs are on the chopping block, especially since the arts represents the humanity of our culture and that of all others as well.

What the brain trusts on capital hill are choosing to forget is that this money, although seemingly small, provides not only funding for arts organizations but seed money for these organizations to receive other grants. In listening to an interview with Kevin Spacey today, if this 160 Million is cut, it can result in an estimated overall funding cut of approximately one billion dollars to the arts.

Spacey talked about the value of the arts – the impact they have on a person’s life. How the arts can grow self esteem, how the arts can create confidence. Hello! Haven’t I just spent about a week waxing on the magic of the Hiawatha Park program. Haven’t I heard from folks what an impact a program like that had on people’s lives.  And this was just a small theatre and dance program on the Northwest Side of Chicago. We are talking some major arts organizations that can lose their funding.

But, having spent 34 years working in local government I learned long ago that you never win a budget battle by arguing quality of life. Everyone agrees in principle that the arts improve quality of life. But politicians deal in the reality of dollars and cents. So let’s talk about that. Most cities support arts centers because they are good for the local economy. Not only do people attend performances, but while they do so they also eat at local restaurants, shop local stores, stay in local hotel rooms and spend money that helps to sustain local economies. Many urban areas have been revitalized not as shopping districts but as art districts because the arts dollar tends to generate dollars for other enterprises as well.

In Spacey’s interview he cites a very interesting fact. Do you know what the biggest tourist attraction is in the United States. Broadway! So arts tourism dollars benefit the economy locally, nationally and internationally. Arts dollars breed dollars, always have always will. So why would you not want to invest in a sector of our economy that can generate additional dollars and help keep our economy strong? The logic for cutting funding to the arts escapes me, but with the size of our federal deficit it does not surprise me that business acumen is a skill virtually non-existent in Washington, D.C.

Spacey went on to talk about how Abraham Lincoln knew the value of the arts and although he was assassinated in a theatre, Lincoln quite often went to the theatre to escape the hardships of leading during the Revolutionary War. He also talked about some research he had done on Winston Churchill. He said that during the Second World War as funding was getting tight Churchill was told that in order to continue funding military initiatives funding to the arts would have to be cut. Churchill’s reply was succinct and brilliant. He said, “Then what are we fighting for?”

There is so much other waste in our government’s spending but politicians like to try to take the easy way out whenever they can. Don’t let them. Contact your representatives and senators and tell them to look elsewhere to cut the budget. It may be just your voice, but aren’t the arts worth it?

Kevin Spacey interview

The Past – Blessing or Curse?

As many of you already know, I will be turning 60 in May and I think, because of that, I have spent a lot of time recently talking about the past. Is that what happens as you get older – you rely on your past to feed your present? I’m not entirely sure but feel it necessary to explore the idea.

This past week I have connected with three entirely new people on Facebook all who played a part of my past at Hiawatha Park. And it was great to hear about their lives to see how they’ve changed and to explore the bonds we made that were built many, many years ago. Those bonds are strong and will never be broken. I think it is safe to assume that they will be carried with all of us for the rest of our lives. But to what degree do these experiences shape your life, and is it healthy to continue to dwell on them?

I teach a class on Women and Leadership and a key component of the class is to look at the history of barriers that women have faced in terms of achieving their leadership goals. I learned over the course of my life that in order to better understand who we are now and how we arrived at the circumstances we face, it is important to go back in history and see what it can tell us. History provides information, understanding, tolerance and context. It helps to create a clearer picture of the present and a better awareness of the reasons for what currently exists. It can play a variety of roles from education to acceptance to peace. It has valuable lessons to teach.

Mount Sanitas - Boulder, CO.

So when I recently took a major voyage down memory lane cruising through the straits of Hiawatha Park, it taught me that many of the things that I like about myself now – that I am proud that I accomplished – that I learned the hard way – were rooted in the work and relationship experiences I had there. And I have to say, I am pretty darned blessed. I’ve had wonderful challenging work experiences in both Ohio and Colorado after leaving Chicago. I was able to retire comfortably at 58 and now spend my time only doing what I love to do. I live in one of the more beautiful areas of our country and I still am able to have that connection to wonderful people and experiences in my past – what more can a person ask for?

So, don’t worry about me. I may be turning 60 but nowhere near ready to be pushing up the daisies. In the words of Conrad Birdie “I got a lot of livin’ to do” and I intend to do it. This recent journey back in time only solidified that in my mind. And it is a journey well taken. I suggest you book your own personal cruise as soon as you can, and I hope it is as  wonderfully memorable. Believe me, it is worth every penny!

What is retirement anyway?

My former student Jenny got me thinking about the concept of retirement. When I posted that I was on the faculty for two schools and going around the country doing presentations, she lovingly said that it sounded like I was too busy to be retired. And that was an interesting point. After all, what is retirement – or better yet, what is it supposed to be?

I remember thinking in 2008 when I made the decision to retire that there was no manual to teach you how to do it. For me, I spent at least the last fifteen years of my “formal” working life on a treadmill that was insane. Working 80 hour weeks, always high pressure, dealing with community issues and demands, and all underscored with the politics of working with elected officials. Sounds crazy doesn’t it – but for a very long time I was energized by it and got satisfaction from accomplishing lots of things in the relatively insane environment called local government.

When my mother died, that all changed. The things that once energized me no longer made sense. The things people would get upset about seemed unimportant – and with life being so short, spending 80 hours a week doing something that gave no satisfaction just seemed ridiculous.

But when you retire, there is a moment when you question your purpose – what am I supposed to do now? From the literature I have read regarding retirement planning, most people have a financial plan in place when they decide to retire but they fail to have a life plan. And although being financially secure is extremely important, it does little to address your purpose for being. And if that is not addressed, then you hear the stories like that of “poor Joe”,  he worked so hard all is life just to retire and die.

Right after I “retired”, I took a few months to just “be “- get up in the morning and see where the day took me. Quite often it took me hiking, or planting in my garden or having lunch with friends, or training for the Bolder Boulder. Then it took me to part time work at Crate and Barrel (my fun job that I love and do a couple of days a week). But eventually it took me back to where it all began – teaching.

My career started out teaching Theatre and Dance in after school programs at Hiawatha Park in Chicago. I LOVED IT!  Directing and choreographing plays – doing all elements of play production, working with some of the best young people Chicago had to offer – and learning from them as much if not more than they were learning from me – that was heaven. Developing Chicago Park District University was another career high for me – putting together training programs for over 1200 field staff complimented by University credit programs they could take was an incredible high for me. And it occurred to me that the first love of my work life was education and being involved in the educational process. And without consciously planning for it, I came full circle to where it all began – teaching, educating and learning just as much if not more from the people that I teach.

Now I work on schools for the National Recreation and Park Association. And I travel around the country (at my own pace) presenting on a wide range of topics that deal with what we used to call “soft” skills, but are really core skills that every leader and manager (or leader and manager wannabees) need to master. Its fun, and I am always learning – what more can you ask for?

So I guess it all depends on your definition of retirement. I thank God that every day I now do only what I love and that I am young enough, healthy enough and financially secure enough to do it. That is my definition of retirement and with that being the case, then yes, Jenny, I guess I am completely retired!

Stuff

The subject of stuff came up today – buying stuff, wanting stuff, saving stuff, borrowing stuff, getting rid of stuff, your stuff, my stuff…and whenever the evocative subject of stuff comes up, I just have to chuckle. After all, how do you define stuff? When I looked up stuff in the dictionary, I got the definition “to fill or pack tightly” – when I looked up synonyms for stuff I got the words cloth, fabric, textile, material, substance, matter, bits and pieces. So, when I stuff a turkey on Thanksgiving, am I packing it tightly with textiles?  When I go shopping to pick up some stuff, am I picking up bits and pieces of substance? When I go to your house and look at your stuff, am I looking at your matter? And if I have too much stuff, do I have an overabundance of fabric?

I cannot take credit for my fascination with the word stuff. It came from the poet laureate George Carlin. George could be raunchy and irreverent, but he had a love for the English language and was a master at using it to create great comedy. So, as I get ready to put away the stuff I bought at the grocery store, I leave you with a link to his comic routine on stuff. May you have many years of good laughter remembering this routine. I will never view the word stuff in the same way again. George Carlin\’s \”Stuff\”

School for Dogs

I never had children. So I never had to worry about schools, tuition, or the scholastic competency of teachers. But, today I had to take my soon-to-be 8 year old Black Lab, to doggie day-care to prepare her for boarding (yes, I said prepare her).  Years ago, when you were planning a trip, you called your Vet, asked if they had boarding services and brought your dog in when you were leaving on your trip. Today, if you are planning on boarding your dog, it is a very different story. You must research, you must do appropriate integration, you must watch your dog on the internet doggie web cam, and ultimately, you must be accepted to the program!

Like any good parent (in Boulder, dog owners are legally called guardians as the term connotes that no one really owns another living being) I decided to check a few places out. I looked for cleanliness of the facility, the caliber of the day care staff, the enrichment programs, disciplinary procedures, quality of the indoor and outdoor areas, the sleeping quarters, the tuition. I drove all over looking at a wide range of facilities and programs. Is this beginning to sound like looking for a child’s boarding school to you? Where did all this come from? Is it a racket, or truly the way we should care for our pets?

One place I nixed because it looked too much like a pound, with dogs spending way to much time in kennels and only getting exercised 10 minutes a day twice a day. Another place I nixed because it was the size of a postage stamp, and with 50 or so dogs in the facility on a daily basis, the dogs were basically on top of one another. Another place I nixed because it smelled like your worst nightmare of a public bathroom.

But I found nirvana about 5 minutes from our home. This facility looked like a white country home with a blue roof and a white picket fence. It

My Mia

had a huge outdoor play area complete with play school equipment, plenty of trees and even strategically placed crates for dogs that want to get away from it all. The indoor area was huge as well, and dogs can romp and play together in a climate controlled environment when the weather is too severe for their comfort. But nirvana is only part of the equation – could Mia cut the mustard, could she behave according to the strict standards of the program, would she be accepted for boarding. The pressure was on. Did I raise her properly?

Mia went there today. Right now she is sound asleep on the carpet in my office and will probably sleep until tomorrow morning.

She passed the entrance exam, she is accepted for boarding privileges. Nothing is too good for my Mia. I thought I never had children?

Credit Card Company Mumbo Jumbo

This situation brightened my day today. We got a letter in the mail from Macy’s collection department that our account was overdue and to call the customer service number or pay what was owed before they turned it over to a collection agency. We are pretty meticulous about paying our bills and have an excellent credit rating, and so this concerned us. I called the number on the letter and was told that the account was current. Ok, then why did I get the letter? The guy on the phone was not sure why we got the letter but was really nice and did a little deeper investigation. Here is what he found out – hold on to your hats…

In November, Macy’s sent us notification that their credit card was now going to be American Express (or so we surmised from what they sent us). We thought, ok – this works for us. We had a Macy’s card and wanted to continue having one. And with the bonus of it being an American Express card, we would now have a credit card can we could use at Costco. What the customer service rep. said to me was that Macy’s was not discontinuing their in-house card program in lieu of the American Express card, it was merely offering The American Express card to current customers with no annual fee. But wait, it gets better. What he said was, if you choose to use the Macy’s American Express card outside of the store, you get a Macy’s American Express card bill. If you use that SAME Macy’s American Express card but purchase something in a Macy’s store, you get a separate bill because that charge is assigned to the Macy’s program. If you are scratching your head, join the club. I repeated this back to him three times, and each time he said yes – that charges are assigned differently from the SAME CARD depending upon whether you use the card in a Macy’s store or outside of a Macy’s store.

Needless to say, with a system as clear as this, I made a payment to the wrong bill and that accounted for the collection notice from Macy’s. I had one bill in arrears, and the other bill (from the SAME CARD) with a credit.  Long story short, it is all straightened out now. Our mistake was in assuming that this would be a clear process with one bill. I guess that is just too much to ask for.