Summertime and Burgers

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Even with my healthier diet I enjoy getting a hamburger now and again, especially when summertime rolls around. My dad used to grill burgers every weekend and after he died my mother continued the tradition. I’d rather just pick one up at a drive though than have to go through all of the trouble of making one at home, and in my mind there is no substitute for a Whataburger. I’ve tried In n Out burgers and they just don’t cut the mustard. (Pun grossly intended) The only other version of the American classic that I ever really liked came from a local chain called Chuck Wagon.

The first Chuck Wagon that I visited was on Old Spanish Trail in Houston. It was good but lacked the ambience of the one on Park Place that ultimately stole my heart. It was little more than a truck eatery without wheels. It was a box just large enough for a small crew and a griddle along with places to stash the meat and other supplies. A big hulk of a man labored over the cooking while sweating profusely and wielding salt and pepper shakers like a Samurai sword. He was a sight to behold along with the heavy red faced woman who took the orders. The only seating was outdoors, so unless it was a perfect weather day we would take our food home where we savored the lusciousness of our beef sandwiches that were cooked and dressed to perfection. That hole in the wall lasted for most of my childhood and early adult life and then simply faded away, being overtaken by bigger chains with drive in windows and more variable menus.

For a time there was a great place for burgers on the campus of the University of Houston in a little wooden building called The Woods. It was located on what was then the edge of the campus and run by a couple of ladies who were so business like that they rarely smiled or paused from their work to chat. They had learned how to prepare their juicy delights as quickly as possible to keep the long lines moving. I rarely had the money to purchase their gourmet cooking but when I did I truly enjoyed their culinary expertise. Their fare was dripping with greasy delight that didn’t worry me at all because I was not yet twenty years old and weighed under a hundred pounds. A little fat and cholesterol probably did me more good than bad, and I got plenty of both there. My mouth still waters when I think of those yummy bites of beef. Unfortunately progress and growth required cutting down the trees that gave the place its name and putting in a big building to house more classes and research.

I really can’t take a bad burger and there are so many candidates for that dishonor. I avoid MacDonald’s unless it’s breakfast time. If I’m forced to try one of their traditional offerings I prefer the kiddie version. I find that less burger is best in that establishment. I also avoid Carl’s Jr., Red Robin, Wendy’s and the worst of them all in my mind, Burger King.

I can’t completely explain what I despise about Burger King. It was a favorite of my mom and I always see a big crowd wherever they set up a restaurant. I just almost gag even at the thought of eating there. I suspect that I have some deep seated psychological problem with the place brought on by a traumatic event that I have blocked in my mind. I can’t otherwise think of any other reason for my extreme feelings of loathing. I would literally prefer going without food to consuming a meal from there. In fact, I once did on a long road trip to Chicago.

We had driven from early morning and when lunchtime game we were in the middle of nowhere with few choices for eating. Mike attempted to find a place that would be satisfactory for me with no success. Frustrated, he finally saw a Burger King and announced that I would have to make do. I almost barfed at the thought but decided that my strange feelings were perhaps a bit silly, and so I agreed to give it a try as long as the burger was made according to my specifications. When we got the order and continued down the highway I opened my sandwich only to find that they had used mayonnaise in spite of my very specific demand that mustard be the only acceptable condiment. I wanted Mike to turn around and go back but he was on a mission to make time and told me to show a bit of flexibility and just do my best to enjoy the nourishment as is. Instead in a flash of fury I threw the whole thing out the window onto the highway to the delight of a flock of vultures that immediately descended on the feast. I pouted for hours searching hopelessly for another place to stop. That didn’t materialize until later that night at a service station where the only offering was a tuna sandwich in one of those plastic sleeves. I decided to go hungry and sulk rather than take a chance on being poisoned. Mike on the other hand found the repast to be delightful.

Not long ago there was a news story about a Burger King in Delaware that showed mice crawling around inside bags of buns. The health department rushed out to the restaurant after a report from a customer and found mouse droppings and other filth all over the place. They summarily shut the place down. My stomach heaved as I watched the images and I found myself feeling a bit justified for my strange aversion to all food from Burger King even though I’ve never had any evidence that the ones around here are unclean. 

For now I’ll stick to Whataburger since I don’t indulge in that sort of diet much anymore. A local chef named Killen makes a rather good version that I like to consume now and again as well but his are a bit more pricey. Amazingly the most memorable hamburger that I have ever eaten was in a hotel in Minneapolis. It was so good that I went back for more multiple times before I left that town. The meat was superb and it didn’t hurt that it was smothered in blue cheese which I didn’t initially think that I would like as much as I actually did. My mouth waters just thinking about it.

For me a hamburger is the great American summertime sandwich, but if it isn’t done right, then I’m not interested. I’d rather feed a bad burger to the buzzards than compromise my standards and at least for now Whataburger has my loyalty.

Take A Moment Today

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Let’s take a moment today to do something kind for 1. ourselves, 2. someone we know, 3. someone we have met, 4. someone we don’t know, 5. someone we need to build bridges with. Be and do well. —-Ryann Madden

I slept in just a bit this morning. The sounds of school children gathering for the early morning bus are gone for the summer and so that “alarm” did not alert me that it was time to rise. Things become slower at this time of year for more reasons than just the summer vacation for our little ones. It’s so hot outside that our bodies and brains are somehow programed to take it easier lest we overheat and dehydrate. We’ve become so accustomed to the glories of air conditioning that we become almost more insulated inside our homes and cars at this time of year than we do in the winter, at least here in Texas. It’s the season of relaxation and fun, especially for students and educators. Somehow the seasons of a school year have become so programmed into my brain that I still react to the summer the same way I did when I was working. I allow myself to be just a bit more inclined to take it easy.

I won’t be able to sustain my vacation mode for too long though because I am hardwired with all of the Type A Protestant ethics that push me to be productive and to measure my accomplishments each day. I am committed to making the most of my time and descend into guilt whenever my slacking begins to appear to be a regular life change. I am mentally and emotionally compelled to make good use of my life, even as I age. For that reason I was particularly taken by this post from Ryann Madden, a teacher friend. It spoke to me because I am on a mission to transform my use of my waking hours from concentration of unimportant things to truly making an effort to care for myself and others.

Ryann’s “to do” list seems rather easy on the surface, but in reality it is laden with challenges, particularly with regard to being kind to ourselves and building bridges with someone with whom we have broken our trust. All too often we put ourselves last in the division of a day’s labor, and never quite get around to the self care that we need. We also tend to avoid those situations and people with whom a breach has caused us to lose touch. Our neglect of both ourselves and people with whom we have differed can be toxic, and yet we all too often have an “I’ll think about that tomorrow” attitude about these very important parts of our lives.

A very dear friend who is a counselor posted a wonderful blog about self care recently. In it she detailed her own personal journey to health of body and mind. She spoke of living such a hurried and harried life that she was using food as a kind of medication and she justified her neglect of herself by noting how much she was doing for others. Ultimately she found herself in the middle of a health crisis at a very young age. She knew that she needed to do more than just pop another pill into her mouth and otherwise ignore her own needs. She began to slowly but surely make a complete lifestyle change that began with thirty minutes of aerobic exercise each day and a consultation with a nutritionist. Before long she was thriving and glowing with the radiance that comes from treating our bodies and minds with the same love that we offer to others. She had not forgotten the people around her, she had only taken the time to remember herself as well.

When my husband had a stroke last summer and the two of us embarked on our own journey to living our best lives I found it easy to care for him but much more difficult to remember myself. It was simple to rationalize lapses in my own habits and it took an aggressive demand from my primary care physician for me to realize that I needed to be kind to myself as well. My doctor insisted that I was mistreating my own body and ultimately would be of little use to anyone if I did not change my ways as well. He literally gave me a prescription for five days of exercise each week with no excuses for not meeting this goal. His insistence shocked me into doing what I should have done long ago, and now self care has become an integral part of each day.

Which leaves me to the building bridges aspect of Ryann’s suggestion. It requires a bit of eating crow, approaching someone who has very apparently felt the sting of neglect and lack of respect from me. That is a much tougher situation to face, but in my heart I know it must be done. The person of whom I am thinking is older than I am. She has been isolated by failing health and loss of loved ones. She has become more sensitive and worried. She has taken some of my comments and parsed them until she is certain that I have insulted her. I have been confused and sometimes angered by her reactions, and so I have generally chosen to ignore her. I suspect that instead it is time to reach out to her and plant the seeds of reconciliation. It will cost me nothing to do so, and it may heal a wound that doesn’t need to fester.

Today is a good day to follow Ryann’s sweet suggestions. In fact everyday is a wonderful time to weave care for self and others into our routines. Think of how great we will begin to feel if we do.

Stick With The Plan

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I imagined retirement as a hippie like existence with each day offering unplanned opportunities to just live and enjoy whatever would come my way. After a lifetime of schedules that seemed to digest every minute of the day, I was excited about the prospect of just hanging out and wandering aimlessly. It was fun to be that way for a time but it didn’t take long for lots of things to begin to fall apart in my world including my own health and that of my husband. I soon enough realized that running away from certain routines was actually somewhat lethal, and I’ve more or less spent the past year resurrecting my natural tendencies to look ahead and provide structure to my days.

When I was a student I lived and died by the syllabi from my classes, using a calendar and laser sharp focus to stay abreast with my studies. I do not possess enough intellect to cram or do all nighters and still come out smelling like a rose. Any time I neglected my studying duties and waited until the eleventh hour to get things done it was a disaster. Like the tortoise my style was to be slow and steady which required a great deal of initial planning as well as daily dedication to achieving particular goals along the way. I put in continuous effort and avoided temptations to slack off, but did all of my learning in small chunks so that by the end of a semester I was well versed in all of the topics and relaxed about tests and projects.

My methodology proved to be successful and so I continued using it when I became a teacher. I always looked at the number of school days and divided up the sequencing of my lessons before the school year had even begun with plenty of extra time factored in for those emergencies that always seemed to emerge. Then I did specific planning each week. I always knew where I was going and how long it was going to take. I never had to ask my students to cram because I was very much in control of helping them to master skills and knowledge with my own outline of what I wanted them to achieve. I broke lessons, homework, study time down into doable segments for them, hoping that I was also teaching them how to develop the kind of habits that would serve them well along whatever pathways they decided to follow.

A carefully planned lifestyle works even in emergencies because deadlines are rarely left for the last minute. Efficiently using the hours in a day is actually less stressful than finding oneself backed into a corner of demands, but building the needed structure also takes time. After being laser focused and in a sense ruled by calendars and clocks for sixty five years I found myself wanting to suspend all forms of organization and just go wherever my inclinations led me. It was fun for a time but I soon enough found that I had neglected so much that everything became chaotic. I gained weight, lost bone density, saw my energy draining and became surrounded by broken appliances and damage to my home. When my husband suffered a stroke for lack of a healthy lifestyle I came to my senses realizing that life really can’t just be a hippie style free for all of doing whatever makes us feel good. I needed to get control over events and that would take focus and planning.

My calendar is now electronic and goes with me wherever I happen to be. It helps me to keep track of the big picture, but within each day are the specifics designed to keep things running smoothly and still allow for long walks along the beach or leisurely camping trips. My watch is my own personal coach prompting me to stand, breathe, exercise, move. It celebrates the days when I accomplish my personal health goals and admonishes me when I grow lax. it’s a good thing for me because I often find that I would prefer not to spend time at the gym, but when the watch asks me why I am not being good I am reminded of the benefits of doing the right thing and I stay focused.

I have to plan healthy meals as well. I use a number of cookbooks and keep track of recipes that are especially tasty. I have to make sure that I have the proper ingredients on hand, so I keep lists of things that I need and coordinate my trips to the store with my gym time since there is a grocer right across the street from the YMCA where I go. By being prepared I have been less likely to fall back on fast food at the last minute than I was when we were so fancy free.

Our lack of due diligence also led to a major disaster with our hot water heater that otherwise might have been caught ahead of time had we made a habit of checking it regularly. Since it’s easy to forget such things we now have set up reminders for all sorts of maintenance of our home and car. By looking ahead and accomplishing a few things each week we are keeping up with little things that will go a long way toward preventing major accidents. In the long run its a small price to pay and its far more relaxing that facing repairs costing thousands of dollars that might have been unnecessary with regular care.

I’m back to my old habits and loving it. I plan my days to include fun, but no longer neglect the small things that keep me and the world around me operating efficiently. It’s true that regularity makes for better physical and mental health and longer life.

I find myself thinking of a story I once heard of a man who lived near the river at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. According to the tale he was a man of great discipline who ordered his days with a routine regimen that included a brisk hike up a trail that led to the top. That same trail is now a popular site for adventurous souls who go down to the river and then return after their explorations. Seeing them trudging up the rocky pathway is an amazing sight because in spite of their obvious strength and good health it is apparent that the trail challenges them. It is stunning to realize that there was once a man who took the stony roadway in stride even as he grew old. His secret was that he walked along it every single day without fail, and so it became easy for him. Constant repetition has the power of tackling even the most daunting tasks. Doing just a bit here and a bit there makes our lives more manageable and ultimately more productive and happier.

I guess those old platitudes are not so silly after all. An apple a day may indeed keep the doctor away. A stitch in time may save nine. Early to bed and early to rise may not make us wealthy but studies show that we will be a great deal healthier. Having a plan is a good thing. We just need to be sure to remember why we made it in the first place so that we don’t falter and give up.

Far From Finished

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From time to time I get writer’s block and find myself searching furiously for a blog topic. That’s when I surf the web for ideas, and luckily there are a number of sites offering suggestions. I found myself laughing out loud at one post about lists that focused on ten things to do before one dies. It occurred to me that my time for considering such things is perhaps running a bit shorter than say someone in his/her twenties since I will turn seventy on my next birthday. While nobody ever knows when the time for parting this world will actually come, it is more and more likely to happen as the years go by, for none of us is immortal.

I’m well past many of the things that once tempted me like learning to be a downhill skier. My bones would be quite unhappy with the falls and I’d rather sit inside a warm chateau sipping on some hot soup at the top of a mountain than contemplating sliding my way down. The same goes for exploring the Amazon River. Such an adventure sounded thrilling until I saw a program about a trek that almost killed Theodore Roosevelt. After realizing how brutal such an excursion would be, I’ve given up all thought of even trying such a crazy thing. I’ll leave that kind of insanity for the young. My new ideas are far more in line with the limitations that age has imposed on my body.

I still want to travel as much as possible. I haven’t seen Buckingham Palace or the Eiffel Tower or the Vatican, and it seems to me that everyone should enjoy a view of those things at least once. I know that we are all a bit spoiled in this era because most of our ancestors were lucky to get a few hundred miles out of the towns in which they were born. Now such travels are rather commonplace, at least for Americans. I sometimes have to admit that I feel a bit guilty about our abundance and opportunities, but then I still dream of seeing more of the world and think I will be a better person for having done so. Travel opens the mind and the heart.

Of course, I still want my book to get published. To spur me forward my husband showed me a TED talk on planning. It made me realize what I need to do to move forward, and I am feeling more determined than ever. I have only a small bit of editing to do and then I must find someone who will help me design a cover. I already know how I want it to look, I just don’t have the skills to do it myself. After that I intend to send it to a company that will format it properly so that I can easily upload it to Amazon. I have to specify the time that I will do these things and then stick with the plan. I have friends and family who have already successfully published their works, so I need to be less hesitant to consult with them. I’m sure they will be more than glad to share their experiences to help get me going.

There are a number of small things that I think should also be on my list. I hope to live long enough to witness the next total eclipse of the sun. It’s not that far away and this time there will be great viewing right here in Texas. I also want to see the fall colors in Vermont and go to the Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. Maybe I might catch a showing of Hamilton while I’m in there.

I’d like to take a cooking class and then prepare a special feast for friends and family. My culinary arts are rather basic, but I’m fondly known as “The Bean Queen” and my gumbo might win a prize. I think that baking would be fun or becoming an expert in Italian cuisine. The art and science of food preparation is fascinating to me.

I want to reteach myself Calculus. I once did well with that subject but I was a good fifty years younger the last time I took a such a course. I never taught that subject nor had reason to use it, so it feels as though all memory of it is gone. I once began a review session at a junior college only to develop a bacterial infection after two days that left me hanging over the toilet bowl for over a week. I had to drop the idea of relearning, but never the desire to get back up to speed.

There are entertainers I would love to see in live performances like Yo Yo Ma, Celine Dion, Kelly Clarkson, Usher, The Gypsy Kings. As a matter of fact I would love to take advantage of all of the concerts that come to town. I find that even people that I never thought to be so great end up being fabulous. My in-laws once took me to see Andy Williams. I was polite about their generous offer but believed that it would be a snooze, It was not. In fact it was a very memorable evening that demonstrated what makes someone famous. In person Andy was incredibly charismatic.

I’ve seen a sunset over the Grand Canyon but I’d love to observe a sunrise there. It would be more than cool to be in Chaco Canyon for the solstice. I want to hear the bagpipers at Edinburgh Castle and walk through the streets of the towns in Slovakia where my grandparents lived as children. I’d love to be in the audience of Saturday Night Live or Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show or even better would be to see Ellen. I want to reread the great classics and pour over the newest bestsellers. When I become too frail to go too far from home I hope to watch marathons of my all time favorite movies and call friends just to chat.

I suppose that my list is in fact rather endless. There is still so much to do and see. The world is an exciting place that I haven’t explored nearly enough. I’ll write about each of my adventures as they unfold, so stay tuned. I’m far from finished.

Celebrate Difference

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I remember having a discussion about beauty and what is really is. From century to century, place to place the definition of what is pleasing to the eye often changes, and is indeed in the eye of the beholder. That being said, we are continuously bombarded with images designed to show us what is most attractive and how to achieve such distinction on our own by honing our bodies and purchasing products designed to bring out our best. We are made to feel that there is a particular kind of appearance that is lovely, and if we work hard enough we too might recreate ourselves in such likenesses. Billions of dollars are made by the purveyors of the world of beauty.

I do not wish to demean those who offer us the chance of enhancing our natural state. I partake of cosmetics, lotions, exercise, healthy choices, hair products, vitamins perfumes and all sorts of aids. I enjoy how they make me feel and I am happy that that they are available for they surely add a bit of joy to my life, but I worry sometimes that our emphasis on such things also contributes to making many people feel less than. I’m old enough and have enough confidence to find my own skin to be quite comfortable. I am long past the days of worrying that I do not measure up or impress. I don’t mind being seen without makeup, but I my skin enjoys the lotions that I feed it each day so I indulge in pampering myself. Still I worry that there are people both young and old who somehow have been made to feel not so beautiful by a society obsessed with pulchritude.

I love the movie The Greatest Showman because its theme of the variety of loveliness resonates so beautifully in the songs and the scenes. The circus acts are peopled with unique individuals who are beautiful in their own right simply because they are alive. The anthem This Is Me shouts the gloriousness and importance of every life, something that we don’t impress on our young nearly enough. I suppose that if we were to teach our everyone to see that there is no one way of being or appearing we would all be a bit happier.

So many of our problems occur simply because of appearance. The color of skin, texture of hair, height, weight, composition of features often tell us stories before we even have the opportunity of knowing someone. Even when we don’t mean to be that way our biases sometimes cause us to judge. There are those who laugh and make fun of shoppers at Walmart as though their choice of merchants tells us all we need to know of them. We see someone and begin making all sorts of unconscious assumptions about them often without even realizing we are doing so. Our eyes lead us to draw conclusions when instead we should be reserving our thoughts until we have had time to truly understand the person we are seeing.

I think of times when I was guilty of reacting to appearance and later realizing how incredible the person that I judged actually was. When we truly get to know an individual it is amazing how much more beautiful he/she becomes to us. We cease to focus on flaws and instead notice the kindness, the smile, the determination, things that are far more meaningful than looks.

So how do we better appreciate the uniqueness of each of us? I believe that it begins with easing out of our comfort zones. It’s important that we make efforts to be with people unlike ourselves. We must learn more about those who appear to be strange, for in the process we may learn that they are not so different as we may have thought. We all love our children and want the best for them. Much of what motivates us revolves around providing them with better lives. Sometimes we simply need to remind ourselves of that simple fact whenever we react negatively to someone based only on looks.

In times of distress when we are all in the same sinking boat we are more likely to set aside our biases and prejudices. With the common cause of survival we are not so concerned with appearance, particularly with the good soul who is saving us. Why should we have to wait for tragedy to set aside superficialities?

One of my all time favorite photographs is a famous image from the dustbowl era. It shows a woman of indeterminate age who is suffering from the poverty inflicted on her by climate and economic depression. She sits with her hand on her face in a gesture of hopelessness. Her eyes are blank with a faraway look perhaps of fear or remembrance of better times. Her hair hangs lifelessly without over her furrowed brow, and yet she is so beautiful to me. No movie star or royal personage might be as lovely. She seems to represent a part of each of us that fights to be heard and seen and survive. I want to reach out to her and take her hand and tell her that I understand. I want her to know that she is pretty and important and that she will see better days.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be celebrated by the people around us. It’s fun to paint our toes, style our hair, brighten our faces. We just need to always be aware that these things do not represent our souls or those of others. Inside each of us are hopes and dreams and needs. The packaging of them should never prevent us from seeing and realizing them. Look beyond the exterior. Celebrate difference.