My Electronic Secretaries

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The holiday season is upon us. You may have noticed in the stores last week that the retailers were hardly able to wait to toss all of the fall and Halloween merchandise aside so that they might bring in the Christmas items. Some even eschewed old time tradition in favor of bringing out the holly back in June or July. The old idea of enjoying each celebration in order is long gone, and if you want to secure the prime products you have to buy them and set them aside for the future. Of course, if you’re like me that means that you run the risk of forgetting that you bought a particular item or where you stored it until needed. When you finally decide to do some spring cleaning around March or April it will suddenly appear and then you have to store it again and hope that it doesn’t grow old in the back of a closet or drawer without ever being actually used.

My husband has most recently taught me to be a bit more organized with regard to things that I need to remember. He insists that I record future events on Google calendar and that I list upcoming projects on an app called Asana. It’s actually working out rather well with the exception of those times when I am feeling hurried and I tell myself that I will think about doing my record keeping duty tomorrow. Sadly that’s a bit more often than it should be and so I can’t quite recall if the appointment that I made to have my hair cut is this week or next. I’ll have to rely on a reminder email or phone message from the salon to verify. I know that I might call to confirm the date and time, but I have to do it so often that I have grown a bit embarrassed.

In the summer I purchased some bluebonnet seeds that needed to be sowed in October. When the time came to perform the task I was reminded by my electronic “secretaries” but unfortunately I was not able to immediately recall where I had placed the tiny packets for safekeeping. After a frantic search and some Sherlock Holmes style sleuthing I finally found them hidden under socks in one of my dresser drawers.

Now I’ve created a new wrinkle to my memory keeping rituals. I add a little note explaining where I have placed things so that my reminder in the future will lead me directly to whatever I have stored away. When I took down a lovely hand blown glass hummingbird feeder from its perch in my garden I not only set a date on my calendar to return it in mid May, but also made note of where it is safely stored until spring. I felt particularly proud of my effort because I will be able to walk right to it when there is no longer a possibility of a freeze that would no doubt break or at least crack the globe. An added bonus that I received for my foresight was saving the orb from an horrific storm that raged on Halloween night that undoubtedly might have wreaked havoc on such a fragile object. It has made me think that I should also record a date for bringing the feeder inside each fall while I my brain is in gear.

We all have so many appointments and things to do that our brains go into overload at times. I’ve been guilty of missing all kinds of events, especially since retiring. Without the constrictions on my time that a job provides I find myself losing all sense of what day it is. While this is actually a very pleasant dilemma after years of being bound to a clock and an unremitting routine, it can also create problems. Using different aids to assist my memory has been a kind of saving grace. Now I get reminders on my laptop, my phone, and even on my watch.

At first I thought of such electronic policing of my time as a kind of ball and chain. I wanted to be free to be me without any form of nagging. I soon learned that my tranquil lifestyle was festooned with chaos of my own making. The reality is that we humans really do feel better when we march to a semblance of routine. We don’t have to be overworked or over stressed, but it helps to keep track of when to take out the trash and be generally aware of the time of day. Devil may care attitudes are fine now and again but on the whole things really start to fall apart without some system for managing the business aspects of living. I have slowly learned how to free myself from future worries by spending a bit more time in the moment keeping track of obligations and tasks.

Last spring my hot water heater malfunctioned and many thousands of dollars later we had repaired our home to such an extent that it was almost totally remodeled. The plumber who installed a new hot water heater mentioned that we might never have had the trouble if we had simply set aside a time each year to have the appliance inspected. It’s a small idea with great merit, and so it is now part of our yearly ritual, something we have decided to do with our truck and our air conditioner as well. All such routines are hitting the calendar far in advance in the hopes of avoiding future catastrophes like the one that upended our lives for many weeks last April and May.

As a teacher I lived by a calendar and religiously followed routines to stay updated and prepared for anything that might happen from day to day in my classroom. I suppose that when that phase of my life ended I would never again be required to be so fastidious in keeping up with time. I’ve learned the hard way that a little bit of preparation goes a long way. Even the squirrels understand this as they collect their stores for the coming winter. I watched many of them working hard while I was recently camping in the bosom of nature. It’s the way of survival, and we all owe it to ourselves to keep track of the future before it surprises us.

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A Festival of Fall

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One of the grandest discoveries of my retirement has been finding the Houston Garden Club Annual Bulb Mart. When I was first adapting to the concept of having all of the daylight hours to myself I began looking for things to fill the time. I signed up for a class at Rice, found a tutoring gig, began writing daily, and treated myself to going to the movie theater in the middle of the day. Because I tend to be a high energy person I still needed more to keep my mind entertained. That’s when I decided to search on Google for special events around my town. Luckily I found an advertisement for the Bulb Mart, and I’ve been attending ever since.

The ladies of the garden club plan their gala fundraiser all year long, and quite wisely choose a date in mid October when the weather in Houston is generally Chamber of Commerce level glorious. Somehow they avoid the rains that so often are a precursor of fall. I’ve often wondered if they consult the Farmer’s Almanac because in the seven years that I have been attending, not once has there been even a cloud in the sky. In fact the weather has always been glorious to match the moods of all of us who walk around with big grins on our faces as we gaze at the lovely offerings.

The venue for the event has changed from time to time, but it has been held at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Westheimer for the last few years. The main focus of the occasion is on an incredible variety of bulbs including tulips, irises, day lilies, amaryllis, an more. Table after table offers a variety of genres and colors. There are also many plants native to the Houston area as well as those that thrive in our particular growing zone. The ladies who volunteer are always knowledgeable and helpful in providing good information about how to best grow a delightful garden. For those wishing to have more information there are lectures and little seminars happening throughout the two day event as well.

My backyard garden is filled with gorgeous amaryllis plants that burst forth in glory each spring. They are magnificent in variety and color and never fail to fill me with joy. It’s exciting to watch them display their unique features one by one after the winter freezes are gone. I add one or two bulbs each year to go with those that have faithfully bloomed since I first began this glorious tradition.

The plants from the Bulb Mart are made for the gumbo soil, high humidity and rain soaked environment that Houston gardens must endure. I have yet to have any of them fail to flourish. I have a particularly wet side of my house that is exacerbated by the runoff from my next door neighbor’s backyard. Their entire area is dominated by a large pool and concrete decking that makes for intense drainage problems for me. On most days the area that abuts on their property is water logged. I invested large amounts of money trying to find something that would grow in that condition all to no avail. The roots would rot and I would have to try something new. Last year I spoke with the experts at the Bulb Mart and invested in a plant that seemed to be suited for the habitat. To both my surprise and delight the plant has thrived and bloomed with delicate white flowers even as the watery problem has only worsened with the continual rains of September and early October.

I attended the Bulb Mart again this year just as I have for the last seven. It has become a “must do” for me. I get an email in the summer reminding me of the date and I literally plan my October activities around it. This year I pre-ordered a few items to insure that I would get certain varieties before they ran out. The day was as lovely as it always seems to be and I found myself falling in love with my city one more time. The smiling faces of the workers and the shoppers reminded me of what a friendly place Houston is. It’s a kind of small town with four million people. The first hint of fall made me forget the heat and humidity that has kept us indoors for weeks. It was a picture perfect day in every possible way, made better by the joyful plants that I bought to enhance the gardens that bring me peace and contentment all year long.

I’m not a person who can countenance change too quickly. I like a certain orderliness in my life. Too much shuffling around creates a kind of chaos in my heart and mind. I prefer quiet and routine. The Bulb Mart has become a constant for me, a mediating force for the variables of living. I depend on it to bring me peace and contentment. Thus far it has yet to fail me.

If you happen to be in Houston around the second week of October check the events calendar to see if the Bulb Mart is happening. The admission is free and everyone gets an informative little book describing the various kinds of bulbs and when and how to plant and care for them. There are even door prizes for a lucky few. Best of all there is a festive and friendly spirit that is so typical of Houston. It’s fun just to walk around and celebrate the glory of nature at her best.

A Heartless Insult

05BE14010000044D-0-image-a-71_1431039744759I am a woman who has my feet firmly planted in two distinct eras. I recall a time when working women with children were a bit of an oddity. Most of the ladies in my neighborhood wore the badge of homemaker with pride and those who left each morning to work in offices seemed exotic and maybe even a bit mysterious. Then my father died and my own mother found herself in need of a full time job. She chose an occupation that was very much the domain of highly intelligent women at the time, teaching. Through her connections to education I found myself intrigued by the world of work inside a classroom.

Somehow in my mind I always knew that I wanted to share my talents with the youngest members of our society, but for quite some time I fought my inclinations to become a teacher. I considered a number of alternative occupations and even stalled in my pursuit of a college degree as I struggled to find myself. Regardless of what I tried I somehow returned again and again to the very career that my mother had chosen in her moment of economic need. I realized that I was secretly happiest when I was helping some youngster to learn and so even though I had at times dreamed of becoming wealthy I decided to forge ahead in a career that I understood would reward me more with good feelings than financial gain.

My very first teaching job was one of my very best. I adored my principal and my students but I only made eleven thousand dollars a year, hardly a resounding figure and well below what my female peers were making as accountants or businesswomen. Still I was happy every single day, and so I told myself that money really didn’t matter, but of course it did. When I got an opportunity to move to a different school and up my salary by eight thousand dollars I leapt at the chance and realized soon enough that I would earn that extra money in blood sweat and tears. Still, it was a grand experience where I learned how to work with children with some of society’s most horrific problems. I became a bonafide educator in those challenging days and sensed that I had truly found my destiny despite the fact that my salary rarely increased more than five hundred dollars a year.

Time passed and I went to different schools and had new experiences, all of which delighted me. Still, by the early nineteen nineties I was not yet earning even thirty thousand dollars a year even though I had been plying my trade for decades. Teachers simply did not get paid well regardless of years of experience or the difficulty of the subject that they taught. Then the Texas legislature finally realized that they needed to make the profession more attractive if they were going to recruit and retain talented young people. They voted to dramatically increase the starting pay of educators so they had to do the same for those of us who had been faithfully working for years. Sadly they did not do so proportionately and the old timers were ultimately making not much more than the new kids on the block.

By this time my own children were in college and I began to feel the pinch of paying their tuition, board, and other expenses. I wondered if it was time to consider a career change and so I returned to college and earned a Masters degree in Human Resources Management. I had enjoyed the courses that I took and my professors believed that I would be quite outstanding working with employees. I had even worked in a Human Resources department at a chemical company one summer and my boss became my cheerleader. Having once been a teacher herself, she understood my dilemma and we became the best of friends as she encouraged me to transition into a new profession.

Somehow I was never able to force myself to make the change. I turned down wonderful offers and made excuses for not following up on leads. One of my professors confessed to me that he believed that I should stay in education because I was subliminally shouting that I didn’t want to leave the profession that had brought me so much satisfaction. After much reflection I knew that he was right. Instead, I took the five hundred dollar a year increase in salary that my new degree had earned me and kept at the job that I truly loved. Over time my pay began to approach a more reasonable level as teacher shortages became more prevalent, but I never broke into the kind of earning power that I might have achieved in the world of business. I loved my work and adored the students, so materialism didn’t seem to matter. Besides, the state had promised all of us a comfortable retirement with reasonable health insurance and so I felt that I had all that I would ever need.

Now I am retired. My monthly earnings are not exceedingly great because I never really made huge amounts of money. A brand new teacher of today earns only a few thousand dollars less than I did in my last year of work. Still my pension provides me with enough to be able to travel now and again and pay the expenses that I have. I’m not sure how well I will do if I lose my husband because I do depend on his Social Security checks and those will go away once he is gone. The federal government in its infinite wisdom seemed to think that teachers were double dipping when they received payments from both the federal and the state governments. I did pay into Social Security for enough quarters to get my own check each month, but because I have a state pension even that amount is offset so that I receive only about a third of what I actually earned. I have to maintain my composure each time I think about how teachers are slapped in the face over and over again, but then I remind myself of the intangible rewards that I have received and just count my blessings.

I suspect that the actions of the current Texas legislative session have sent me over the edge. As the saying goes, “I’m mad as hell.” With little regard for those who worked for decades inside public schools for ridiculously low salaries and conditions that were often verging on the abusive, our state senators and representatives have decided to cut the health benefits of retired educators and school staff members. Whereas we have heretofore been able to choose from four different insurance plans at a fairly reasonable cost, we now must accept a Medicare Advantage plan and pay almost three times more. Not only that, but the deductibles and copays have increased to the point where it is doubtful that we will ever receive a cent from the insurance company since Medicare provides the primary coverage. In addition, many of my doctors have already indicated that regardless of assurances from the state, they will not keep me as a patient if I have a Medicare Advantage plan. Furthermore, I am in the final months of taking a very expensive treatment for my osteoporosis and the pharmacy will suddenly change in September leaving me to wonder if I will be able to complete the two year regimen since it took me almost three months to be approved by my present carrier. I wonder how many of my fellow educators will be adversely impacted while they are in the middle of health crises and I truly worry for them.

The average retired teacher receives about twenty one hundred dollars a month in pension payments. By the time that they pay for supplemental medical insurance and Medicare they will have spent one seventh of their incomes. While I do far better than that, I still plan to continue tutoring as long as I can to offset the increases that are coming soon. Many of my colleagues are not fortunate or healthy enough to find alternative ways of handling the unexpected changes. They will instead be forced to tighten their already rather constricting belts.

The state has the income to help defray the expense of keeping promises made to its teachers but has chosen not to take that route. It has been almost nineteen years since retirees have been given a cost of living increase. When my mother, a former teacher, died she was receiving less than a thousand dollars a month from the Texas Teacher Retirement System. Luckily she had spent her final working years at the University of Texas Health Science Center and thus had health insurance paid for by the university. Still, she had felt forgotten and betrayed as she struggled to stay financially afloat and she quite often urged me to take my skills to a more profitable marketplace. She all too well understood how frightening it is to work for a lifetime only to find that it is almost impossible to meet the most basic needs. She worried most of the time in her final years.

I suspect that there are many former educators in the state of Texas who are wondering what they are going to do. Like my mother they are afraid. Somehow I can’t understand how Governor Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and most of the Republican members of the state legislature can be so insultingly heartless. I worry about those who will be crushed by this travesty at the very time in their lives when they have earned the right to rest and reflect on the great gift of knowledge that they imparted to so many young people. Shame on the men and women who have forgotten their contributions. 

Getting A Grip

gripFrom time to time my only female cousin comes to town and we literally talk until the cows come home. Both of us have grown children and grandchildren now and are retired from our jobs. We used to enjoy discussing politics and immersing ourselves in information and news that we shared with one another with great interest.  Of late we have decided to generally avoid all forms of political reporting and discourse. Mostly ignoring all of the rancor in Washington D.C. has been a welcome respite and one that we both agree will be our new habit. I suspect that we have many fellow travelers in that regard.

In her most recent visit my cousin revealed a whole new philosophy that has some merit. She noted that the two of us are growing older. Neither of us have any idea how many more years lie ahead for us. My mother died at age eighty four, but her mother, who is my mother’s sister, is still going strong at age ninety eight. Depending on which of the two our genetics favor we might still enjoy a good thirty more years or half of that. I suppose that neither of us can ever really know what is in store, but we can release ourselves from the constant stresses of worrying over the happenings in Washington D.C. 

My cousin pointed out that we have both had exceptionally good and productive lives. We worked at satisfying careers and had the privilege of parenting great kids who have in turn become incredible adults. Our time in the limelight is passing and leadership is changing hands. Our children and grandchildren are its future, not us. As such, she asks, shouldn’t we be asking them what kind of world they wish to have? She suggests that it isn’t up to us to foist our own wishes on them but to respect the ideas that they have developed. It is an interesting concept that might make a large difference in how we react to political trends.

My mother used to tell me that much as the Bible says, there is a time and a season for everything. I was once a mother but that is no longer my role. I have had to give my daughters wings and support them as they raise their own children. The way things are today is different from when I was guiding them. They must adapt to the changing times and I need to also be aware that parenting today may of necessity look very different from what it was like when I was a mom. So too it is with politics. The younger generations have different outlooks from ours which is pretty much the way things have been throughout history.

My very wise cousin has been through quite a few challenges. She has raised two sons as a single parent and battled a very rare form of breast cancer only to survive like a warrior. She believes that those of us in the AARP state of life will in all probability be just fine if we put our fates into the hands of the younger set. She argues that we raised them to have certain values and we should show confidence in their reasoning. I have to admit that I think that she is right.

I love the so called greatest generation of my parents but they have always had a tendency to be a bit bossy. Much like Queen Elizabeth they are loathe to relinquish power and control. I’ve often thought that many of the really older generation have never trusted those of us in the Baby Boomer group. It is up to us to break that cycle of domination and admit that we don’t always know everything and that sometimes a younger person is capable of better ideas.

I’ve been to a number of end of school year events of late and I am reminded again and again of how earnest and hard working most young folk today really are. They have hopes and dreams and desires that tend to be quite unselfish. They are prone to looking at the big picture and gazing into the future with positivity and hope. They genuinely want to save the planet and spread good will to all people. They have known less of racist thinking and phobias toward certain groups that my generation all too sadly witnessed firsthand. They possess boundless optimism and trust. At the same time they are far from being naive. I know them to be warm hearted and wise. I think that we must begin to listen to them and give their ideas more credence and less criticism.

My grandfather used to argue ferociously with my father over politics. The two of them would grow red in the face and their voices would rise to angry levels. By the time that I was old enough to talk about such things my grandfather would simply smile approvingly no matter what I uttered. He had learned to be far more accepting of differing points of view. He had his ideas and encouraged everyone else to have theirs. I suspect that his change came from years of experience and a growing knowledge that most people will cling tenaciously to their beliefs regardless of rebuttals.

It’s quite freeing to come to the conclusions that my cousin and I now embrace. I don’t feel a need to argue with anyone or to attempt to change minds. I find it interesting to hear whatever people have to say and rejoice that they care enough to have an opinion.  We may make mistakes and muddle through but in the end with each successive generation we always seem to find our balance and ultimately attempt to do what is right and just. I’m betting that the sons and daughters of me and my contemporaries will be more than up to the task, and that they in turn will be followed by their children who seem to have their heads on quite straight indeed. It’s good to feel so positive. Thank you, cousin, for the sage advice.

A Fevered Illness

seagull-flying-aroundI woke up one recent morning with an illness that has overtaken my body just a bit more with each passing day. There is no medication for what I have nor is there a reliable treatment. I can’t be immunized to prevent the recurrence of the symptoms because nobody has yet thought of a reliable way of preventing an epidemic. My only hope is that it will pass without inflicting too much damage. I’ve had bouts with the same disease now and again since I was a child. It always occurs at about the same time of year right alongside the allergies that cause me to sneeze incessantly and otherwise fill my eyes and ears with fluid draining from my sinuses. It is a debilitating sickness that has caused me at times to take off days from work while I wander lethargically around my home. I suspect, but am not certain, that it may be infectious because the people around me sometimes show symptoms similar to mine whenever I am down with a full blown fever. This year in particular I appear to have a real doozie of a case.

The signs that I have been infected are always the same. I’m an industrious person, someone who never really sits still. I can’t even hold a conversation without moving my hands or wiggling in my chair. I’m always on the go and measure the accomplishments of each day with precision, reflecting on how well I have done by calibrating the merits of each of my actions. When the sickness comes my productiveness slows down to a crawl. My home fills with dust bunnies while I sit quietly outdoors listening for the sounds of the birds and watching the antics of the squirrels that scamper in my garden. I lean back and gaze at the brilliant blue sky enjoying the cool breezes that brush across my face. I think back to the games that I might have played as a child and how wonderful the new grown grass felt on my bare feet when the days became warm enough for me to toss my shoes into the far recesses of my closet.

I imagine myself flying to the beach with the seagulls that squawk as they pass overhead. I suddenly long for the life of a gypsy, one in which I have no responsibilities and I go wherever my heart leads me. I pass my time without being aware of the hour. I toss dishes into the sink and look away from the pile of dirty clothes that grows ever larger. I have better things to do. I take long walks without saying a word or drive to lovely places that seem to be calling me to tarry for just a bit. I sleep longer in the morning and stay awake deep into the night. I eschew my usual habits and become quite lazy, a person so unlike myself that I might worry if I were in a normal state of mind and body. But I am not, and so I just let the illness run its course for I have learned that if I simply go with its flow it will soon enough pass.

There is indeed a name for my affliction. It goes by the seasonal label of spring fever. it has been stalking me for as long as I am able to remember. In some years it passes over me with hardly a notice but in others it attacks me with a vengeance and I become a hopeless victim of its control. This seems to be an especially toxic year for me. The start of it came without warning and thinking that it would soon be gone I did little to steel myself against its effects. Unfortunately my symptoms have grown almost out of control as my usual routines have been neglected to the point of absurdity. While the fact that I am retired makes the impact of my idleness matter less, there are still things that must occur to keep my little world running smoothly but I can’t yet get myself fully back into the groove. I use any excuse to dally and to dream.

If I were able I would begin a long journey on foot and just keep going like Forrest Gump until I finally felt as though I was done. I would soak in the world and its creatures like a gigantic sponge. I’d bypass our manufactured creations in search of the ones that nature has made. I would quietly watch the passing parade of people and try to imagine what they were all thinking and doing without ever uttering a word. I would be little more than a fly on the wall, an observer whose only job was to watch and learn.

I suppose that it will not be much longer until I am myself again. I’ll chide myself for letting things go so badly when I finally take the time to look around. I’ll make new lists of things to do and become an industrious cyclone. I won’t notice the doves in my backyard so much when I’m busy dusting the baseboards. I’ll set up appointments and keep them. I’ll join the mad race that is always swirling around me.  I will be in a normal state of health again and firmly in control of my Type A personality. The fever will be gone, replaced by a sound determination to keep my eye on the challenges of life. Nobody will accuse me of sloth or shiftless behaviors. I will be fully engaged in the routine swing of things.

For now though I plan to feed the fever that has overtaken me and actually enjoy its impact on my attitude. It is ironically a disease that I secretly appreciate. It slows me down enough to show me the side of life that I miss when I am one of society’s most productive contributors. It adds zest to my personality and a lilt to my steps. It is the one illness that actually makes me feel good. Since I am retired I am now able to surrender to the siren song that is calling me to embrace the beauty and the joy that comes to such glorious life each March. There will be time enough for labor when I have become myself again. Today I am going to let my spring fever run its course.