Living A Good Life

Gym-equipment-pic.jpgI’m relatively healthy given my age. I’m more likely to need dental work than any type of medical procedure. I take vitamins and a medication for GERD which is produced in my case by a hiatal hernia and a very narrow esophagus. My grandmother once told me that everyone in her family lived to an old age, but eventually died of “gut” trouble. So far I seem to be proving her theory to be correct, but a few years back I decided that it might be a good idea to have a Primary Care Physician, someone who would coordinate all of my issues in one place. I had no idea where to start in choosing someone, so I asked my husband’s and mother’s cardiologist to suggest a few outstanding physicians that he knew. I decided on a fairly young doctor with high marks and a most interesting name. I mean who would not be intrigued by a name like “Septimus?” I figured that at the very least I would have no difficulty recalling such a moniker, and besides I had to meet this person with such a regal sounding handle.

I’ve been with Dr Septimus ever since, and it’s a good thing because he is exactly the kind of person that I was seeking. He is very serious, hardly cracking a smile or a joke, but he knows his stuff and he’s inclined to share it all with me. He is unwilling to overlook any little aspect of my health, including my exercise regimen. In that regard he has recently demanded that I join a gym and work out at least five times a week. Luckily my new Medicare Advantage Plan includes membership at a variety of places. Dr. Septimus felt that I would feel the most comfortable at the YMCA, where I might avoid the muscle bound devotees and be around folks more like myself. After reviewing several possibilities I found myself agreeing with him, and so I joined a couple of weeks ago. I have to say that it has been a grand experience. Even the personal trainers are not intimidating.

The local YMCA is a short drive from my home and everyone there is quite friendly. I received a personal training session and a fellow up as part of my membership. A very nice woman told me which machines to use in the beginning and how to set them to my personal specifications. At first I felt a bit odd because the truth is that I am a virtual blob of flab. My initial encounters with the weight machines proved how much I needed them. I had to keep reminding myself that nobody was watching me, and I thought of a business proposal that some of my former students once suggested which involved creating a special exercise space for very unfit individuals. I was thinking how nice it would have been to be surrounded by a bunch of blobs like me, but then where is the motivation in that?

Once I got over my self consciousness and nerves I realized that all of us are in the process of improving ourselves. There are young folks who are amazingly fit and people older than myself who are barely able to move. The point is that all of us are after the same essential goal. The trainer told me that I would see results more quickly than I thought, and she was quite right. The first thing I noticed was how much more energy I have. I am no longer experiencing that afternoon let down that made me want to take a quick nap each day. Instead I am moving so constantly that achieving ten thousand steps a day has become a piece of cake. I get more done in a few hours than I ever imagined would be possible. The only difficulty that I have experienced has been working the gym time around all of the other appointments that I have. I don’t like to go there when it is really crowded, but I suppose that I will learn how to balance all of my demands eventually.

So far I’ve managed about an hour and fifteen minutes of exercise five days each week. The chest press that seemed so difficult initially is already reaching a point of comfort that tells me that I may need to increase the weight. I’ve begun to overcome the elliptical machine which originally ate my lunch. I dream of wearing summer clothes with a bit more pride, and I suspect that I will be successful in that regard as long as I keep up the routine. I’m thankful for Dr. Septimus because he is not about to let me off of the hook. I can’t get anything past him. He monitors me like a hawk and gives me the kind of evil eye that a parent or teacher might invoke whenever he realizes that I am slacking.

I don’t know why we humans allow ourselves to become so unhealthy. I guess there are just too many temptations urging us to cheat. I’ll be the first to admit that given the choice between a big bowl of chips and cheese dip versus a big juicy apple I would tend toward the worst of the two. I have to work hard to stay within the most reasonable eating norms, but I have been quite diligent in that regard. The result has been that when I do fall off of the wagon I feel rather sick. My body just doesn’t like me when I feed it junk food anymore. It has adjusted to a routine of fruits and vegetables made with spices but no salt or added sugars. I’ve become such a regular at Sprouts, the Farmer’s Market and the produce section of HEB that Quicken notes my expansive use of finances for good food.

I find myself wondering how the very poor are able to fund healthy food, when I realize how much more it costs to invest in it. I think of their inability to join a gym, and feel a bit guilty that I have privileges that they don’t. I remember my mom putting back apples because she had estimated how much she had to spend and didn’t have enough. I feel so fortunate to have a doctor who cares enough about my welfare to push me to exercise and eat well. I am lucky to have a medical plan that pays for him and my gym membership. I have enough retirement income to bring fresh vegetables into my home. I have everything that I need to feel younger than I am because I am living a good life. I need to remind myself of the next time that I begin to falter.

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Abundance

vans-2015-summer-geoff-rowley-footwear-collection-11My grandmother was one of those people who saved all of her nice things for some future day when she would need them. We used to joke that our Christmas gifts to her would be stored away and not seen again until the things that she had been using were worn beyond usefulness. When she died there were items still wrapped in cellophane and stored in boxes. I suppose that hers was the habit of a woman who had lived in a state of poverty for most of her life. She was brought up to use what she had rather than to concern herself with acquiring abundance. I suspect that there were many people of her generation and economic status who did exactly the same thing. It sometimes made us sad that her tendencies prevented her from fully enjoying the advantages that we sought to give her. I suppose that it mattered little to her because by then she was set in her ways, but it always amused me that we kept trying to provide her with luxuries even as she resisted our efforts. Perhaps in some ways she was actually wiser than we were because she was perennially happy with little more than our presence. The things we brought her were not required to make her smile.

I was reminded of my grandmother recently as I helped a friend to dispose of her deceased father’s possessions. I realized as we packed away boxes and boxes of items that he had accumulated that most of us probably own more than we ever really use. When all is said and done we are drowning in stuff and yet we continue to shop and add to our collections. I wondered if we have our priorities straight or if we are simply addicted to consumption, victims of enticing commercialism that convinces us of what we must have rather than what we actually need.

I mentioned to my friend as we worked that perhaps we would all be best served by pursuing memories rather than things. She smiled knowingly and noted that she had planned a summer trip to Alaska because of that very idea. It occurred to me that we don’t always recall all of our purchases, but we do think about experiences time and time again. Our trips and outings are the stuff that often make us the happiest and leave the longest lasting impressions.

I have two friends who live frugally so that they will be able to take phenomenal trips each year. They have travelled the world and seen wonders. The wisdom of their choice to buy vacations rather than things really made sense when their home was flooded by hurricane Harvey this past August. The one thing that they did not lose was the joy that their journeys had brought them. They were certainly devastated by the damage done to their abode, but somehow I found comfort in knowing that they still had memories that not even floodwaters could wash away. What after all, do we really require to live full lives? Is there a way to enjoy ourselves and still be mindful of our tendencies to waste our resources and purchase more than we truly need?

Years ago a cousin noted that we begin our time as an adult in a tiny apartment which soon becomes too full, so we move until we have accumulated so much more that we are once again searching for room to store everything that we own. The practice continues again and again and in many ways we end up with bigger and bigger homes not so much because we actually want the space, but mostly because our possessions have overtaken us. I have often felt guilty as I fill every nook and cranny including the attic with my acquisitions and  wonder if I need to scale back.

What would I truly want to keep if I were somehow forced to pare down my life to a barer minimum? I suppose that it would require a bed on which to sleep with enough linens to have a clean surface for my slumbers and a blanket to keep me warm. A chest to hold my socks and underwear, pajamas and some clothing would probably be good to have. I’d want a table and some chairs for partaking meals, and a couch on which to sit whether I’m reading or visiting with friends. I have to admit to my need to own a television if for no other reason than to have access to the news, but in reality because I enjoy relaxing with shows that touch my imagination. A few lamps would be nice and bookcases to hold my treasured volumes, but I suppose that I might even eliminate that necessity by purchasing electronic copies of my favorite titles. I’d need a refrigerator and a stove and I’ve grown accustomed to having a microwave oven, a coffeemaker and a toaster. I could wash dishes by hand but I wonder if that method is as efficient as doing a load now and again in the dishwasher. I also must have a clothes washer and dryer or at least a clothesline in my backyard along with some cleaning tools to keep things tidy. A few changes of clothing and some towels would round out my needs, and yet I own so much more than that and seem to think that it is important to preserve it all in a kind of shrine to my accumulations that takes twenty seven hundred square feet plus a garage and an attic to store. I don’t want to live like a monk, and I find nothing wrong with decorating and collecting, but I sometimes imagine my children and grandchildren one day culling through my things and wondering what to do with all that I possess. 

My mother once told me that she had never been owned by things. She commented that she might have carried all that really mattered to her in two suitcases which is in fact what she did in the last two and one half years of her life. She spent those months living with me and my brother with little more than a weeks worth of clothing changes, her bible, and a radio for listening to Houston Astros games during baseball season. She had uncluttered her life so totally that she had few worries related to possessions. When she died the distribution of her estate was uncomplicated and debt free. My brothers and I could not have had an easier task. Her life was in order because so little of it focused on things.

I know people in Houston who are back in their houses after having to leave when four feet of water flooded the insides back in August. They once again have walls instead of bare studs, but they walk on concrete floors and sit on lawn chairs. Somehow they are happy because they feel the warmth and security that they worried had been destroyed by the waters. They realize that it was never the things inside that made their houses feel like home. Perhaps each of us should consider how much we truly need and begin to live with less dragging us down. We may find freedom, joy and purpose in learning to live with what we need rather than being possessed by our wants. Perhaps my grandmother had the right idea all along.

A Nation of Hermits

Hermit-crab-GettyImages-597303469-58b66f6f5f9b586046c36d9e.jpgI have been told that my grandfather went shopping every Friday after work. He visited a bookstore and purchased a new volume to read during the coming week and then bought a few groceries which he carried home in a reusable mesh bag. (He was obviously way ahead of his time.) It was an outing that he enjoyed. As a child I accompanied my mother on Saturday shopping excursions. Sometimes we rode the bus into the downtown retail district, but mostly we went to the malls that were just then becoming a new phenomenon all across America. I looked forward to those times with great anticipation because they meant that I would receive a quarter to spend in any way that I chose. When I became an adult I kept the Saturday tradition going with my own daughters and I have warm memories of fun times together.

Eventually my girls left home and I enlisted my mother as a shopping partner once again. As she grew older I religiously visited her every Friday afternoon after work and our adventures always included dining out followed by an excursion to one of her favorite stores. She literally spent hours studying the items displayed in every aisle and buying only those offered for the best possible prices. She always appeared to be so happy just window shopping and I loved being with her talking about this and that as we went about our weekly routine. I suspect that I somehow developed a psychological connection between retail therapy and joyful memories of my mother, because to this very day I find wandering around my favorite stores to be calming.

I sometimes worry that the act of browsing inside boutiques and such will go the way of the dinosaur. I recently heard a news story in which an economist predicted that three fourths of all of the retail merchants that we now know will be gone within a couple of decades, replaced mostly by online giants and mega stores like Walmart. People are more and more often using existing brick and mortar establishments to see what products are like so that they might order the same things from Amazon for lower prices. More and more often we hear of stores closing their doors forever for lack of customers, and even those that appear to be doing well are struggling to keep up with the momentum of online shopping. It seems that people would rather spend their time on weekends enjoying family activities and traveling than perusing racks of clothing inside buildings. Furthermore the cost of renting space and paying for upkeep makes it difficult for traditional establishments to compete with the deals that online businesses are able to provide. The American shopping experience is rapidly changing.

Ironically we are in a sense returning to the old days of the catalog. In the early days of the twentieth century people who lived in more rural areas often shopped from a Sears or JC Penny catalog. Virtually anything that they might have wanted was available including kits for building homes. My father-in-law lives in a house in the Houston Heights that was made from designs sold in the early nineteen hundreds. It is a style that might be seen all across the country because it was a favorite of the catalog buying public during that era. Now we have online inventories from which we can choose most of the things that we use and have them delivered directly to our homes, often without having to pay shipping costs. With a few keystrokes we are able to order our medications, appliances, clothing, gifts and even groceries. There is little reason to get dressed up and venture out. It’s just so much easier to visit the electronic stores.

I have often believed that given enough reasons not to have to leave my home I would easily evolve into being a hermit of sorts. I wonder if today’s world is so fast paced and stressful that most of us are tempted by the idea of finding solace inside the walls of our homes as often as possible. We now have the capacity to enjoy movies, music and culinary experiences without ever venturing into crowded establishments. With Netflix and the like we are able to spend an evening watching great entertainment with all of the snacks we might desire for less than a third of the cost of going to a theater. Best of all we can do it in our pajamas and pause the action at will.

The world is always changing and those of us who cling to past memories may have to learn how to keep up. It appears that the big malls of yesteryear may become empty caverns of curiosity that our grandchildren and great grandchildren will view with wonder. They will marvel at the quaint idea of wandering from one shop to another as a form of entertainment. They will laugh at the impracticality of such ideas as they order their goods and receive them within hours from drones that drop them on their doorsteps.

In some ways the ever changing way of doing business is actually quite wonderful for seniors like me. As we become less and less able to get around we will still be able to procure the items that we need for comfortable and happy living. We will have little need to have a car or worry about transportation. With Uber as our chauffeur and Amazon as our marketplace we will be able to be independent far longer than previous generations. The only thing that worries me is that as we as a society spend more and more of our time inside our homes we run the risk of becoming isolated. Unless we couple the convenience of home shopping with concerted efforts to stay connected with other people we will fall prey to some very unhealthy habits.

It will be quite interesting to see what actually happens in the coming years. The stores that I frequent are still quite busy and I find it difficult to believe that everyone will be accepting of the idea of reinventing the ways of commerce and abandoning the brick and mortar experiences. Nonetheless I have been proven wrong many times before. I laughed at the idea of recording television programs for future viewing. I never dreamed that Blockbuster Video would become a memory of the past. I believed that Amazon was only a phase along with home computers and smart phones. There is no telling what actually lies ahead.

I now have devices in my home that turn on lights and monitor the area while I am gone, ready to alert the police in the event of trouble. I can view the rooms from hundreds of miles away. I receive my medication at my doorstep and purchase all of my Christmas gifts each year without ever having to search for parking spaces at a mall. I watch programs at my own leisure and truly believe that one day I will not have to drive my car because it will be programmed to get me from place to place on its own. I have a robot that cleans my floors just like Rosie in the Jetsons. I eat meals that only require a few minutes of heating time in the microwave. I am as automated as a science fiction story of old and there is definitely going to be more to come. I only hope that in our quest to make our homes all providing castles we do not fall into the trap of becoming a nation of hermits. The temptation is there. We will have to make certain that we find other ways of interacting with our fellow humans. I’m sure that someone already has ideas about how to accomplish that.

A Really Bad Day

7356295658_c810209e1d_bWhen my mother and I attempted to pay for our purchases the clerk at the register made it patently clear that she was irritated, even including an obvious eye roll as my mom fiddled inside her purse searching for the money that she was certain she had placed there before leaving the house. As the saleslady’s anger grew ever more palatable I suggested that we put the items on my credit card and worry about repayment later. Mama smiled at my ingeniousness and then noted that if we were going to do things that way she wanted to get another blouse that she had admired but had not brought enough cash to buy. Without even noticing how beet red the now furious cashier had become she dashed away and left me standing alone at the counter.

There were no other people waiting in line, and for a brief moment I considered lighting into the offensive woman who seemed intent on letting us know exactly how she was feeling without regard for the old saw that the customer is always right. Instead I casually began chatting her up. I thanked her for being so patient with my mother as though I had not noticed her obvious irritation. I explained that my niece was getting married in a few days and my mother was excited about walking down the aisle as her grandmother. I continued by noting that Mama had purchased an elegant suit several weeks earlier but it no longer fit because she had lost a great deal of weight. We had found out after a visit to the doctor that she had lung cancer that was very serious. Her clothes hung on her because the disease was ravaging her body. Without even taking a breath I mentioned that my mom also suffered from bipolar disorder and sometimes became quite confused. I ended my tale by once again commending the worker for being kind and noting that Mama loved her little outings to the store as well as being able to talk with other people.

By this time the woman’s eyes were filled with tears. She took my hands and quietly spoke of how she truly understood. She revealed that her own mother had died of cancer and she told me how much she missed those special times when the two of them had done things together. Her demeanor was now soft and loving and we shared a quick moment of kinship just before my mother came back with her blouse and a big smile. The saleslady was effusive in her new found kindness for Mama. She gave her coupons to bring down the final cost of her items. She wrapped the purchases in tissue paper and placed them in a special shopping bag. She ended the transaction by wishing my mother Godspeed.

As we walked to the car Mama commented on how sweet the clerk had been. She appeared not to have even noticed the dramatic change in her behavior. She collared a store manager who was standing near the exit and heaped effusive praise on the lady. The manager beamed with pride and promised my mom that he would surely make note of his employee’s exceptional customer service in her file.

We encounter so many people in our daily dealings. Not all of them are pleasant and when we find the surly ones it is usually tempting to read them the riot act. We make lots of assumptions about the individuals that we meet without ever really knowing them or allowing them to know us. It is often easier to respond to rudeness in kind rather than to attempt to diffuse the situation. There are indeed some individuals who are simply as mean as snakes and will never change, but in most cases displays of anger or irritation are not personal. Instead they are an indication of something brewing in the person’s life that is affecting the way they act. Time and again in both my private and professional dealings I have found myself in emotionally difficult situations in which I have somehow faced hostility for no apparent reason. When I take a deep breath and delve a bit deeper I almost always learn that the person screaming at me is shouldering incredible levels of stress and my encounter is only the last straw in a long series of difficulties. By putting myself in their shoes for a moment I have almost always been able to bring the tension down to a reasonable level.

As both a teacher and an administrator I more than once found myself listening to a parent who was ready to choke me. I generally allowed him/her to vent for a brief time and then countered the ugly comments by saying that I could tell by the powerful words how passionately the individual cared about the welfare of the child. I spoke to them as a parent who had now again found myself defending one of my girls. I noted that I was happy to know that we all cared very deeply for the student under discussion because that concern would translate itself into developing a useful plan for making the necessary changes for success. By ignoring the meanness and concentrating on our commonalities as people I was usually able to bring control to the situation and provide the parent with a satisfactory conclusion. I was not faking my understanding. I truly know that there are times when each of us comes undone by life’s events. At those moments we can only pray that the people with whom we interact will show us the concern that we need.

Whenever my mother was in a state of full blown mania she could be meaner than a junk yard dog. Her personality at such times was nothing like the almost angelic person that she really was. Her brain was out of balance, chemically causing her to behave in ways that even she did not like. Thank God she was generally surrounded by people who knew and loved her who ignored the rantings and ravings that spewed from her mouth. They would quietly call me to report that she wasn’t doing well and once I got her back on track with her medications she would return to the person who was adored by all of us who were lucky enough to bask in her unconditionally loving nature.

Of late we have seen a number of situations that went ridiculously out of control. People have been assaulted simply for delivering bad news. We’ve seen riots at airports and road rage that leads to murder. I would strongly suggest to everyone that we do our best to stay calm even in the most concerning circumstances. Someone has to maintain a cool head when times get tough or things will be said or done that are regretful. We should always attempt to understand the other person’s point of view before going off into a tirade of our own. Sometimes it is even best to just quietly step away when we realize that nothing that we do or say will quell the anger. Engaging in a war of words is never a solution. Demonstrating an attempt at making peace on the other hand will sometimes lead to a satisfactory resolution. Stay calm. Try to understand. Don’t take so many things personally. It may not be you who is having the really bad day.

Leaving Oz

wizard-of-ozI decided to give up politics for Lent. It seemed a very worthy goal since I was becoming more and more overwrought by the pronouncements coming from the various factions these days. I had become so distracted by the continual chatter that I was losing track of what is most important and feeling a level of stress that I have not experienced since I retired from work. In the spirit of being more contemplative and aware of my fellow man I felt that eschewing controversial Facebook posts, news programs and television channels that focus on twenty four seven updates of the latest and greatest battles in our nation’s capitol would make me a better and more reasoned person and clear my brain enough to allow for spiritual reflection.

I was doing quite well until my eye caught a political opinion discussion on one of my friend’s social media wall and I fell into the trap of reading all of the commentaries. Since I had been out of the loop for quite some time I had to do a bit of research in order to determine my own thoughts on the matter. It didn’t take long for me to become irritated by what I learned and thoughts of the morass in Washington occupied my mind for hours regardless of how hard I tried to set them aside.

I attempted to distract myself with a shopping trip and even purchased a new pair of shoes, the universal panacea for all depressing moments. Nonetheless I found myself wandering somewhat aimlessly around the stores with a growing feeling of dread that ultimately led to a full blown anxiety attack of the kind that I used to get when I was student and a big exam was looming in my future. Somehow I could not shake the feeling that the people whom we selected to lead us are mostly bumbling fools who may not be much help if a real crisis were to arise. This filled me with a kind of foreboding premonition that some vague but terrible event was going to happen. It made my chest tighten and my head hurt.

Realizing that not even the power of retail therapy was going to lift my spirits I drove back home with my shoes, a birthday gift for a nephew and a carton of eggs while breaking my dietary fast with a bag of Sour Patch Kids. (When I fall off of the wagon I do it in a big way.) There I found an empty house that only made my senses even more attuned to the crazy thoughts that were buzzing in my head. A feeling of old school guilt rushed over me for having broken my Lenten promise. My regret in having failed to keep my promise only seemed to compound the funk that was overtaking me.

When my husband Mike finally returned from an excursion to Harbor Freight I confessed to him that I had broken my political fast and it had sent me into a tailspin. He suggested that I join him outside on the patio in our backyard. At first I was like a nervous cat jumping from one conversation to another, making little sense in my effort to avoid the one topic that I had promised to eliminate for forty days and nights. Eventually I simply sat quietly and as I listened to the sounds of the neighborhood I slowly began to relax.

The children next door were taking advantage of the warm sunny day by swimming in their pool. Their laughter was contagious and I found myself joking about my transgression. I watched birds swooping through the yard as though they were involved in a game of aviary quidditch. I took a walking tour of my garden enjoying the colors and aromas of the roses, hibiscus, amaryllis, impatiens and flowering vines. I felt my optimism slowly returning and suggested that we grill some salmon and vegetables then dine outside.

We feasted on the bounty from the sea and farmers’ fields while sipping on a lovely Chardonnay. I could feel my pulse slowing and my mind regaining its footing. I forgave myself for being weak and silently promised not to engage in political thoughts or discussions for the remainder of the lenten season. I found a calmness that allowed me to later slumber in peace and to laugh at my own ridiculousness.

I suppose that I will not be able to avoid thoughts of politics forever. I realize that I have a citizen’s duty to stay informed. There will be battles that I must fight to keep our nation free and moving in the right direction. I can’t take a permanent vacation from responsibility and yet it is admittedly nice to avoid the furor that is so commonplace. I have come to believe that I must be careful to take my fact finding in small doses and from reliable sources. If I encounter contentious discussions in which there is only babble rather than honest attempts to present all points of view I intend to remove myself as quickly as possible. I am quite done with emotional outbursts and news presented more as an editorial than a repository of information. I neither want nor need interpretations of evidence from people who claim to be without bias. I am perfectly capable of determining reality without the push and pull of pundits. I don’t need to read the thoughts of others on twitter, not even those of the POTUS. In fact, I think we would all do well to abstain from the banter and the bickering.

Ours is a nation that responds to our wants and needs. If the vast majority of citizens were suddenly to tune out the blather it would eventually stop. The truth is that all of those people who seem to be shouting at us are in the game to advance careers and their own sense of power and wealth. If they realize that they have lost us as an audience they will change or go away. As long as we feed on their rabble rousing they will continue to annoy us. It is up to each of us to let them know that we are no longer interested.

I intend to slim down my political musings. I will find new sources that provide primary facts rather than secondary interpretations. If there is a law or a budget proposal I will read the details for myself and sort out my concerns with my own research into the issues. When I see a smoke screen I will assume that there is a fire and I will douse the flames without emotion. If my lenten sacrifice has taught me anything it is to avoid the propaganda and focus on the better nature of mankind.

I’m feeling better now. I will admit that there is much happening in Washington D.C. that both bothers and infuriates me but I also realize that working myself into a dither will help no one, least of all myself. My more meditative spirit has revitalized my willingness to seek truth, not from those who would distort reality but from the quiet souls who still insist on simply shining a light on the words and actions of our leaders. We don’t need third party interpretations. All we need do is watch and listen and then follow the dictates of our hearts. We will all be better for taking a different approach than the Oz-like fantasy that has defined politics for far too long. I’m gong back to reality. It feels much better there.