Happy Birthday USA

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The grills are warming up. The watermelon is chilling on ice. The fireworks will commence at night fall. America is ready to once again celebrate its birthday, but this year the occasion is tinged with a bit of worry. Lady Liberty has a few aches and pains and there is genuine concern from some that the ole girl ain’t what she used to be, and from others that she needs to change her ways. A kind of surliness has overtaken the unbridled delight that used to mark the July 4th holiday, and there are those who wonder if we Americans will ever again find a way to agree on what our country should represent.

Let’s go a few hundred years back in time before our nation was ever conceived. The original thirteen colonies were a rag tag amalgam of different of kinds folks loosely working together while rigidly governed by Great Britain. Many of the people who lived in the cities and towns of the north, the south and the in between had been born and raised in North America, never having ever seen the country from whence their ancestors had traveled in search of opportunity. They were mostly intent on survival and had begun to resent the invasive rules and taxes emanating from a king who appeared to have little understanding or concern for their needs. In reality they had little in common with one another save for their disgust with the status quo, but they nonetheless chose a few leaders from their ranks and sent them to Philadelphia during a very hot summer to discuss the unthinkable, a total break from the mother country.

Their ideas were based on philosophies that were still in the theoretical stage at that time. They spoke of ideals of liberty for common folk and protections of inalienable rights. It was all quite radical, but they were in a revolutionary mood that might well have ended with everyone of them hanging for treason. Their discussions were heated and it took a great deal of compromise to finally reach an agreement that would be mostly satisfactory to every representative. As with all such attempts at reason there were imperfections in the plan that many members of that august group understood might need to be addressed again at a later time. It was a start, and a truly audacious one at that. They were agreeing to stand up to perhaps the most powerful nation in the world. It must have seemed like sheer insanity to some.

As with all things human everywhere on earth there were flaws in both the plan and the people who came up with the ideas that launched the new nation that would become the United States of America, but the brilliance was in creating a system of government that would allow for changes when they were needed while protecting the overall intent of the Constitution. It would take a hundred years and a war among the people before slavery was finally abolished. It would be even longer before Abigail Adam’s wish of remembering the women would result in suffrage for the female half of the country. In fits and starts we have attempted to repair the problems and maintain the republic.

Today we, the people, know that we continue to face problems. Thus is the fate of any government. The great divide between those who wish to move incrementally into the future and those who want to bring sweeping changes to the country continues with more urgency and venom than ever. To the credit of the Founding Fathers, our system of government is protected by checks and balances that may not always appear to work, but eventually seem to right the ship of state even in violent storms. Perhaps the fact that so little is getting done these days is exactly what the creators of this nation had in mind. Until we find a way to work together again maybe it’s not such a good idea to make willy nilly long lasting decisions.

This is still such a great place to live that people from all over the world want to become part of our family. Like all families we squabble and have different ideas about how to accomplish things. We even have members who embarrass us with their vileness. Still we know how important it is to find ways to bridge our differences and accept each other just as we are. That was the main idea set forth in our founding documents. Liberty meant that we would be allowed to live without threat of tyranny. While that hasn’t always worked out, particularly for certain people among us, we seem to keep trying. All of the rumbling and grumbling that we see and hear today is just more proof of our freedom. There are few places on earth were such open criticism is allowed. We must be vigilant in protecting that right regardless of how much we may disagree with the one who is speaking out. We must protect the wearers of MAGA hats, rainbow clothing, and knitted cat hats in the same way with all of our might. It is the right of each American to speak his/her mind. This is the true heart of our way of life and this is the freedom that we should celebrate on this day.

So Happy Birthday, United States of America. Here’s hoping that you may have many many more. God bless you and your people and guide you to be a positive force in the world. Thank you to those brave men who risked their lives in that long ago dangerous time to create such a remarkable example of freedom. Thank you to those who worked to make the improvements that we needed to continue to be a beacon of light. Thank you for my own life which has been all the better because I live in this place known as the United States of America.

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Wanderlust

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I spent a whole lot of years keeping my nose the the grindstone of life. I had two children by the time I was twenty five years old and I devoted most of my days and nights to them. I did teaching jobs of one sort or another for over forty years. Over time I taught every age group from pre-school to high school and subjects ranging from religion to Algebra II. I was as devoted to my students as I was to my two daughters and I sometimes worry that they may have felt in competition with them. My mom struggled with mental illness whose symptoms began to display themselves fifty years ago about the time that mankind first landed on the moon. All in all I never felt comfortable taking too much time away from my duties. There always seemed to be someone who needed me to be around.

My husband was as devoted to taking care of the family and other people as I was. I can count on one hand the number of days that he took off from work, and he often let vacation time lapse because he felt so responsible for happenings at his places of business. Even during the  days when we were newly weds he labored in double shifts at NASA pulling electrical cable under the floor of the Mission Control building to insure that the historic moon landing went off without a hitch. Later he would become a banker and the type of person who spent long days attempting to be of service to his bosses and his customers.

Over the years we found that we had very little time to take trips, and often not enough money to make them extravagant. We eventually purchased a canvas tent and tossed it in the back of our various vehicles to travel across the United States in two week increments. We tended to enjoy vacations in cooler climates since we were depending on Mother Nature to keep us comfortable as we slept at night. We have fond memories of laughing and telling stories inside our humble traveling abode. We always felt safe and happy and blessed to be together enjoying the wonders of our country which we discovered are indeed many.

We created a number of rather corny traditions that still make us smile. We generally began each journey by playing Willie Nelson’s On the Road Again. We’d eat sandwiches for lunch and cook on our propane gas stove for dinner. Somehow the food always tasted better on those adventures than it did at home. We learned how to “rough it” in great style and on those long drives we read a ton of books that we often shared with one another when they turned out to be especially good.

Once our daughters were grown and gone we had a bit more time and money to expend on our explorations even as we spent years paying off the students loans that we had contracted for their college educations. We became a bit more willing to be extravagant on our vacations, flying instead of driving and staying in hotels rather than a tent. Our new found freedom and income spoiled us just enough that we one day found ourselves complaining about sleeping in a tent. It felt as though no matter where we chose to travel it was either too hot or too cold. Besides it became increasingly less comfortable to sleep on the floor and then arise in the morning ready to overcome multiple aches and pains.

We set aside our old camping gear and opted for a trailer instead. It’s not huge, but rather just right for our needs. We’ve taken it all around Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas and even all the way out to San Diego with two of our grandchildren. It’s nice to have an actual bed for sleeping and a real bathroom for taking care of all of our hygiene needs. We’ve had just as much fun in our Sonic as we ever did inside our tent without all of the nuisances that we endured when we were young and hardy.

Now that I am retired I get a case of Wanderlust quite often. I feel compelled to travel as much as I can while I can. While there are exotic places I like to see I find that short and simple trips have their own magic. I’ve discovered the beauty of east Texas and its people. It is a kind of hidden jewel that I had never before thought of as a great destination. I have learned that it is filled with green forests, rolling hills and breathtaking vistas that appear from out of nowhere. The little towns out there hold treasures like the Buttercup Cafe in Gladewater where a young woman and her family make the best hamburgers and coconut cream pie that I have ever tasted. I’ve visited a boutique winery in Mineola filled with amazingly interesting characters and elegantly tasting wines. I’ve wandered around an old home in Tyler that was filled with stories and objects from the past and I’ve sat of an evening in Tyler State Park marveling at the splendor.

I still long to travel across the Atlantic to see Paris and Rome and Vienna. I’d like to visit the towns where my Slovakian grandparents were born. I love New York City and think it would be grand to return there regularly. I’m longing to spend more time in Canada which I consider to be a kind of cousin to my own country. I have yet to visit Alaska or Hawaii and I’ve heard such wonderful things about both of those places.

The clock is ticking. I am going to be seventy one on my birthday this year. Many of my peers have already left this earth and some have been slowed down by illnesses. I want to keep going as long as I can. I have fewer responsibilities now than ever before. I have the time and the wherewithal for traveling, so I plan to take advantage of every opportunity to explore the world around me.

If my travels have taught me anything it is that we humans are even more amazing than the environments in which we live and the things that we have created. People are good everywhere. I’m looking forward to meeting ever more of them.

Without All the Drama

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If I pay too much attention to the news these days it feels as though the whole world is engulfed in a dumpster fire. I’ve had to learn not to get too emotionally involved with the stories that I hear and read about until I do a bit of background checking. To say that journalism has become a bit too hysterical these days is hardly a stretch. I suppose that there is so much competition and so many hours to fill that news organizations have to become a bit salacious just to keep interest alive.

There are indeed many problems in our world today, but all too often our news agencies focus more on personalities, slips of the tongue, and ideas than facts. They give far too much exposure to persons and events that might best be left ignored. They choose to do such things because they know that it inflames people and creates enough stir to bring their stories notoriety. In some ways today’s reporting tends to resemble chatty posts on Facebook rather than attempts to get to the truth of various situations. Reporters argue with individuals as though they are participants in a debate rather than interviewers interested in facts.

I remember the days when there was a morning news report, another at the dinner hour, and a final one at bedtime. The newscasters projected an aura of fairness and seemed intent on providing us viewers with information that we might then formulate to make decisions. Now there is a decided effort to persuade rather than to simply inform. Frankly I have grown quite weary of such methods and I find myself feeling as though I am surrounded by little boys crying wolf. In other words there is so much panic and self righteousness in the voices of the national reporters that I tend to ignore them as much as possible. They have jumped the shark one too many times for my taste, and so I prefer culling through sources that are less inclined to inciting the kinds of rancor that are tearing our nation apart.

I’m a rather moderate person that one might find to be somewhat boring. I rise at about the same time each day and have a set of daily habits that I follow. I attempt to eat a healthy diet and get a bit of exercise. I abhor large crowds and loud noises and tend toward quiet gatherings. I like to spend time with family and friends and in the solitude of my own thoughts. I am a healthy mix of liberalism and conservatism which some say makes me a person with no real compass. I live on a very nice street with wonderful neighbors who represent many ethnicities and beliefs. It rarely bothers me when someone disagrees with my religion or my politics. I tend to think that I am in truth representative of most people. If pollsters and lawmakers want to really know what is on the minds of the nation they would do well to talk with me.

I truly believe that most Americans are very good people who want to be compassionate and open. We are taught from our youth to dream big dreams and very often we see our hopes come to fruition. We love our country even though we know that it has never been perfect, but then what country can lay claim to never having made horrendous mistakes? Each of us face difficulties and tragedies during our lifetimes and often the hard moments require our full attention, leaving us unable to worry about the rest of the world until we are better. Unlike most places in the world ours is a blend of many different cultures and somehow we have generally made our differences work for our betterment.

The problems that we face are real, and not all that different from those in other parts of the world. On personal levels we worry about issues like health, jobs, education and addictions. We know that we are doing the best we can in those areas but believe that we still have a way to go before we will be satisfied. Improvement is a good thing, but we are cautious about changes for change sake. 

On a national level we have different ideas about how to approach immigration, abortion and the violence that seems to be growing more prevalent. Sadly we argue more than we listen. We choose sides and refuse to budge even an inch from our preferences. We search for diplomats, peace makers, mediators and feel as though there are none. We sense that the squeaky wheels are running the show while those of us who are just doing our jobs the way they are supposed to be done are being ignored.

I am and have always been a quiet person. My voice is soft and it gets lost in the uproar of life. I have at times felt invisible. I have come up with ideas that were later claimed by those more boisterous. I have never known how to toot my own horn, nor have I really wanted to do so. I express myself with words and sometimes I am actually heard. I believe that I represent the true silent majority, a group of people who essentially enjoy living rather ordinary lives with a sense of peace. I’ve never wanted fame or notoriety, but I have grown weary of being sidelined by obnoxious persons who pretend to know how my life should be run. I am rather certain that I am but one of a very large group of people who are essentially like me.

I’ve turned off my television and tuned my radio to more soothing channels. I follow news sources that operate from a calm perspective. I spend a great deal of time listening to the sounds of life in my neighborhood. I take more and more time to reach out to people on a very personal level. I enjoy the birds that flock in my backyard and meditate on the goodness of life. I give of my time and talents to those who need me. I have found a semblance of contentment by ignoring the madding crowd. I do not classify people as this or that. Instead I see each person as a wondrous being who is simply trying to find a bit of happiness and a feeling of importance. I choose to see the world as a collection of humans who are more alike than different.  Our cultures, languages, religions and political beliefs may seem to be at odds, but when all is said and done we each just want to be allowed to be ourselves without all the drama.

An Exceptional Plan

Great planning results in a great trip. Our recent foray into Great Britain was a success in part because we embarked on a great deal of research long before we departed for our journey across the pond. It began with a copy of Rick Steve’s book outlining the wonders of London that was gifted to us by our good friends Eric and Jenny Brunsell on the occasion of our fiftieth anniversary. Known as “Jeneric” on their travel blog the two have coursed across the globe on week long junkets. They encouraged us to do our homework and then create a master plan.

Once we had a general idea of what we hoped to accomplish on the trip we met with another good friend, Gerald Warren, who travels to London and environs at least once each year and has become quite comfortable leading tours to that great city. We sat down with him over dinner and he shared the nuts and bolts of where to stay, how to get there and the best sights. His insights were incredibly useful from noting that we would get a lower rate on fights from Austin rather than Houston, to helping us find a hotel where we would feel comfortable.

From Gerald we learned that the Holiday Inn Bloomsbury is both a bargain and a great place to stay. It is located in one of the safer areas of London while still being only a block away from the Russell Square underground station. The staff is exceedingly helpful. The food, especially the breakfast, is excellent. The rooms are clean. All in all staying there eliminated any worries that we may have had about where to sleep at night.

Gerald also alerted us as to the best way of getting from the airport to our hotel. We learned that the easiest and least costly route was to take the Heathrow Express train to Paddington Station and then get a black cab from there. His suggestion that we buy a round trip ticket saved us from a great deal of stress on our return trip home. We also spent far less money than we might have if we had simply jumped into a cab to journey to the hotel.

It was also Gerald who urged us to purchase an Oyster card at the underground station. There is a six dollar a day cap to charges on the card so all we had to do is calculate how many days we would be traveling around London and then put that amount on our cards. After that we simply used the card to go from one place to another without any problems. Once we had completed the trip we were able to get a refund on any remaining funds by filling out a form. The instructions for doing so were clearly posted in each station.

My husband Mike and sister-in-law Becky were both project managers in their working days and their skill in designing plans for our sightseeing were invaluable. We met at Becky’s home several months in advance of the trip to determine what we wanted to see and when we would do so. Becky kept careful records that included the cost of each event and the distance between venues. We borrowed from ideas in the Rick Steves book and from suggestions made by Gerald at our dinner meeting. Mike had the idea of using a London city map, also a gift from Eric and Jenny, to note where each place was located and then visit those venues in the same area on the same days. I reserved tickets at a number of places and found hotels or flats for our travel outside of London. Whenever I made purchases for the entire group Becky made note on a spreadsheet that she meticulously kept current so that we would be able to share all of the expenses equally.

Having different points of view led us to do things that we might otherwise never have considered. We ended up in Brighton because my sister-in-law Allison wanted to see a beach. While the area was not quite what we expected we nonetheless encountered situations that serendipitously made our trip even better. My brother Pat wanted to take the Jack the Ripper tour and that too ended up being a grand way to spend an evening. Allison also introduced us to the idea of spending some of our evenings playing games inside a local pub that in many ways was one of the highlights of the vacation. Our unique personalities created a nice balance for the trip and allowed us to experience many different kinds of places and events. 

Since my husband Mike had a stroke during a July 4th trip two years ago I was a bit leery of traveling to a place outside of the United States even though his health has been quite good for many months. Having a small group of people with us gave me far more confidence than I otherwise would have had. We looked after one another and I knew that if anything happened to anyone we would be able to work together to make things go well. My brother Pat and his wife Allison have both driven ambulances and cared for people as first responders. They know how to stay calm in an emergency and that alone eliminated any fears that I might otherwise have had.

Pat not only operated an ambulance but in his multi-faceted work life he drove a mail truck with the steering wheel on the right side, an eighteen wheeler delivery truck, and a fire engine. He was a natural choice for driving around the countryside and he did a yeoman’s job. Nobody else in our group would have been able to chauffeur us around as safely as he did. We instead would have had to take trains and as a result might have missed so many of the sights that we saw from our car.

My brother Mike was our Zen master. He is always so calm and flexible that he kept us all working together. He was our model of patience. He enjoyed himself regardless of the circumstances, never complaining or creating controversy. I often found myself looking to him to keep my anxieties at bay. Sometimes a quiet person who appears to just be following is in fact a kind of silent leader.

I can’t imagine having a more perfect trip than the one that we enjoyed. We used the suggestions and talents of many individuals and then just went into auto pilot once we landed in London. Ours was a memorable trip that none of us will ever forget. I’m hoping that we might be able to come together once again to perhaps travel to Vienna and from there to the birthplace of our grandparents in Slovakia. I know that I am more than ready to begin to planning.

The Final Adventure

All good things come to an end and so it was with our trip to England. On our final day we decided to go to the “High Street” shopping areas of London. We began our adventure at Harrods which is perhaps the most famous of the city’s department stores. To say that we were in awe of what we saw would be an understatement. We literally walked through aisle after aisle of every single floor and soon learned that we would not be purchasing much unless we decided to take out a bank loan.

I’ve never before seen such a variety of handbags, all of which were gorgeous with prices to match. Virtually every well known designer was featured in the clothing areas. I was drooling at the designs but didn’t feel too badly about having to pass on them because most of them were made for much younger bodies than mine. My sister-in-law Becky inquired about a sweater that she like but decided not to purchase it when she learned of its twelve hundred dollar price tag. The interesting thing is that so little of the merchandise came with a price tag which made me think of the old saw that if you have to ask how much something costs it’s probably too expensive for your pocket book. Nonetheless we enjoyed seeing so many lovely things and wondering who the people are who have the income to purchase them.

One of my favorite areas was the home section that featured incredibly lovely china. I actually bought a small bowl for one of my daughters and didn’t break the bank doing so. I also found a unique pot holder that was reasonable. I had to laugh at the idea that only I would walk through Harrods and end up with a potholder, but the truth is that I love to cook and I enjoy a well stocked kitchen.

I also broke down and bought a lipstick. Luckily the cosmetics were priced exactly the same as they are in Macy’s. I wanted a lovely berry color from the Mac Aladdin collection but they were sold out so I settled on a nice pink that I have already enjoyed wearing. Later I found the Aladdin lipstick at Macy’s and bought it there with fond memories of my foray into the upscale world of Harrods.

Eventually we found our way to the basement where all of the tourists go. The affordable items were down there. I bought a little purse for my granddaughter, some toffee for my grandsons, a couple of tea towels, some tea, and a bag that I now use to hold all of the books that I collected at the various places in London that we visited.

From Harrods we went to Oxford Street and wandered over to all of the bespoke clothing stores. These are places where men order custom made suits that are tailored to fit the individual exactly. I was interested in seeing them because one of my former students is hoping to one day open his own bespoke clothing business and also because Mike had told me about the methodical process used to make the incredible looking pieces. I took Mike’s picture in front of many of the establishments and we all joked with him that he should order one of the suits for himself. Sadly it takes six weeks to complete a suit with numerous fittings in between, not to mention a cost of many thousands of dollars.

Eventually we headed toward Selfridge’s Department Store with a few stops at other places in between. Selfridge’s was a fun place but the quality of the items just wasn’t as exceptional as those at Harrods, and yet the prices were not that much lower. We had lunch there and I splurged by calling a strawberry sundae my meal. Not only was the treat quite yummy but the people watching was great fun, not to mention noting that Selfridge’s sells fresh produce and meat right along with clothing and household goods. Who knew that one might do all of the necessary shopping under one roof?

We ended up purchasing some wonderful Earl Grey tea and a tin of biscuits at the store. The tea was so good that I am tempted to order more when we run out. I wanted the tin mostly because it celebrated Queen Elizabeth as the longest reigning monarch in the history of the country. It has a sweet photo of her and has ultimately become a respository for all of my trip postcards.

Ironically we all decided that we wanted to return to Harrods. Mike and I wanted to purchase a few more items from the gift shop but first we stopped for tea and found out that Harrods also sells produce and meat of very high quality with prices to match. We placed our packages on the floor as we sipped on yummy Earl Grey and shared a divine pastry. It was great to just sit and relax for a time before going back to the basement to get the rest of our purchases.

We had no sooner left the area where we had been enjoying our afternoon repast when Mike realized that he had left the package that he had been carrying. It was the one that held the items  that we had purchased from Harrods earlier in the day. We rushed back feeling certain that someone had found it, and given it to one of the employees. Sadly it was not there and the waitress indicated that a woman had briefly sat where we had been and then very suddenly announced that she had changed her mind about ordering something and had scurried off with a Harrods bag in hand. No doubt she had taken our things probably believing that she was going to find something wonderful inside. She must have been very disappointed to learn that she had a pot holder, two tea towels, some tea and a bit of toffee, along with a purse for a young girl.

We actually had a  good laugh and then rushed around repurchasing everything that we had lost. We did all of this with time to spare as we hurried to the designated meeting place where we eventually were reunited with the rest of our group. We felt that other than our driving adventures we had just experienced the best story of our trip.

We ended our wonderful day at an Italian restaurant that was surprisingly good. We sat back and enjoyed various forms of pasta and chattered endlessly about all that we had seen. It felt somewhat bittersweet to think about returning home but we knew that the morrow would be spent winging our way back to Texas. It had been the perfect ending to a perfect adventure and one that would hold a very special place in our hearts.