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My Evening with Martin Luther King, Jr.

Ever since Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday became a national holiday in 1983, I have remembered, if only for a moment, sitting in a folding chair in the Valley Missionary Baptist Church in Reseda, California in 1966 in rapture as Reverend King, in person, began the evening’s speech with the words, “I have a dream.” He delivered his famous speech to a few hundred gathered in the church that night. We knew he would speak, but we had no idea he would make that speech.

English: Dr. Martin Luther King giving his &qu...

English: Dr. Martin Luther King giving his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in Washington, D.C., on 28 August 1963. Español: Dr. Martin Luther King dando su discurso “Yo tengo un sueño” durante la Marcha sobre Washington por el trabajo y la libertad en Washington, D.C., 28 de agosto de 1963. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He first made the speech on August 28, 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before 250,000 civil rights supporters during the March on Washington.

For some reason, perhaps because I moved to Georgia recently, this year, with his birthday coming soon, that night in 1966 entered my consciousness and wouldn’t leave, so I must write about it.

Reverend King began the speech with a reference to the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed millions of slaves in 1863 and observed that “…one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free.” The speech was ranked the top American speech of the 20th Century in a 1999 poll of scholars of public address. With some irony I note that Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is generally considered the top speech of the 19th Century. In most versions of the speech he repeated the phrase,“I have a dream…” eight times.

By 1966 when I heard Reverend King deliver the speech, the country’s turmoil over the civil rights of African Americans continued and would get worse, much worse. We have come along way since then, but Reverend King’s dream has not yet been fully realized.

I have heard many great speeches, both in person and via electronic media in my 73 years, including John Kennedy’s inaugural address. No words, written or oral, ever affected me the way Reverend King’s speech did. His words were inspiring, and his passion was truly contagious. Of course, I went to the Valley Missionary Baptist Church that night already sympathetic to the civil rights cause, or I wouldn’t have gone there. What the speech made me realize was that recognizing civil rights of African Americans was not just fair and desirable, but necessary for America to survive. It had already taken far too long. And it reverberated in my consciousness beyond African Americans, for all groups of  Americans who were not recognized as equal to white males, including women. I believe that the speech had a similar affect on many Americans who heard it. We realized that it was simply impossible to continue treating African Americans or anyone as less than human, and such treatment was still the reality in 1963 and 1966. Equality for all Americans was the biggest issue of the 20th Century and continues to be the biggest issue in the 21st Century.

As for me, I shook the great man’s hand, which was a thrill that has lasted a lifetime, but it was the speech that inspired me to march for civil rights in my youth and to lend my support to this day to political candidates who support civil rights, not just for African Americans, but for people of all colors, national origin, faiths, ages, genders and sexual preferences. Though we have made great progress in the last fifty years, to paraphrase Robert Frost, we have miles to go before we sleep.

What They Have

I stumbled out of my tent at our lakeside campground in Malawi, Africa and headed for the black iron gate.  Several monkeys followed me. I waited at the gate, greeting my 12 fellow tour group members as they arrived in groups of two or three.  Shouting and laughter of young male Africans reverberated from outside the gate.  I wondered aloud if they would swarm around us to try to sell their crafts, art or trinkets, an experience tourists in Africa commonly encounter.

The gate opened, and we braced ourselves.  A young man stepped in and closed the gate behind him.  He said hello, shook the guard’s hand and waived at us.  He shouted his long African name above the din, but I didn’t get it and forgot to ask him.  I’ll call him Kea, the name of a Tanzanian man I met later in Zanzibar.

“I will be your tour guide,” Kea said, as the voices outside quieted. “The name of the village we will visit is Mbamba.”   (The “M” is silent.) Kea collected $5.00 each for the tour, then opened the gate and asked us to follow him.  In a flash the men crowded around, then disbursed among us as we walked.  Two of them walked on either side of me.  One, a tall, chunky man with short hair introduced himself as Cisco and asked me my name.  I told him, and we shook hands.  The other said he was Bush Bebe (phonetically spelled)—unlikely, I thought, as I shook his outstretched hand.  “Glad to meet you,” he said.  His head was shaven, and compared to Cisco he looked about four feet tall.  Cisco said he lived in the village with his grandmother.

“I live in the village too,” said Bush Bebe.  I noticed that two young men flanked each of the other tour members.  Everyone chatted as we walked.

Neither Cisco, nor Bush Bebe, mentioned selling anything, but I was certain they would.  At the end of the tour my prediction came true. I bought a t-shirt that we designed together.  As we stood outside the campsite gate, we agreed that on the back it would have a map of the five east African countries we planned to visit and pictures of a fisherman and women grinding cassava into flour.  The village name, Mbamba, would be on the left front.  I chose a black shirt and said it was up to them to choose colors for the graphics.  They said it would be ready outside the camp gate at 6:00 o’clock.  Obviously, their sales technique was effective.  I probably wouldn’t have bought anything, certainly not a $35 t-shirt, before we became “friends.”  I handed Cisco the money with only a fleeting thought that I might never see them again.  About five hours later, at two minutes to six, the guard walked over to our camp and told me Cisco was waiting for me.  The shirt is beautiful.

We walked along the dusty path—it hadn’t rained in a few days–toward the village, surrounded by the lush foliage and red and yellow flowers sprinkled about the jungle-like terrain.  I recognized mango trees, cassava and groves of banana plants.  Cisco said he was 19, had gone to secondary school and hoped to go to the university.  His English was clearer and more grammatical than most of the Africans I had talked to. He said the villagers usually spoke Swahili among themselves.  Bush Bebe said he was in secondary school.  They both said they had lived in the village their entire lives and intended to stay.

We began to see thatched roof huts near the path.  In about a mile we reached a small outdoor market and a water pump surrounded by thirty or so huts—the village center.  Small wooden tables and brightly colored cloths draped on the ground were covered with fruits and vegetables—tomatoes, corn, potatoes, avocados, beans, bananas, fruit I didn’t recognize; and arts and crafts–paintings on animal skins of traditional dancers, animals, warriors; and wooden carvings of the wild animals of Africa–elephants, zebras, wildebeests, giraffes, monkeys, lions and leopards.  There were handmade drums and local woodwind and string instruments of various shapes and sizes, and CD’s of African music.  I doubt if anyone in the village had a CD player.

A line of women waited at the water pump chatting with each other and their children.  As a child worked the pump handle, a woman filled a plastic tub.  When it was full, she hoisted it up to her head, took the child’s hand and walked down a path with the heavy tub balanced on her head.

Kea asked us to gather around.  The scene at the water pump continued.  Kea said that most people in the village were subsistence farmers, growing cassava, tomatoes, beans, corn, rice, bananas and mangos.  Some kept chickens.  A few earned a living from tourism. There was no other work for the villagers.  He told us that the well and pump had been provided by a charitable foundation, that it was the only source of potable water for the village.  People who lived on the outskirts had to walk miles for water.  He led us over to the outdoor market and said what we saw was the surplus produce that the villagers grew and arts and crafts the villagers made.  He didn’t mention the CD’s.  Nor did anyone try to sell us anything.  He said there were no mangos or cassava flour at the market, because everyone grew cassava and mangos.

Kea said he would take us to visit the village school and the hospital, and then we would come back to the village center for lunch.  He asked us if we would like to visit his home.  We all said, “Yes.”   Our individual guides left us.  Cisco said they would rejoin us when we came back to the village.

We followed Kea for 50 yards or so.  He gestured toward a hut made of mud bricks and a thatched roof.  “That’s my home.”  He said matter of factly that the thatched roof leaked.  “I wake up with water dripping on me.  Needs lots of maintenance.”  He laughed.

The 13 of us couldn’t fit in the small home–a living room with a smoldering fire on the dirt floor, about eight feet square and two other tiny rooms with openings in the interior mud walls.  We took turns, entering in two compact groups.  He said they cooked over the fire.  He pointed at a small table and two chairs.  “This is where we eat,” he said, as he pushed them to the side to make more room.  It was the only furniture; the house had no plumbing or appliances.

“Two bedrooms,” he said, pointing again, “mine and my grandmother’s.”  The bedrooms were just large enough for a single bed sized pad on the dirt floor—nothing else.

He said one in five people in the village was infected with HIV, more women than men.  He didn’t say, but it occurred to me that was why he and Cisco lived with their grandmothers.  Probably, their mothers had died of AIDS.  In answer to a question, he said that the average age for girls to marry was 15.  Men, women and older children all worked on the farms.

As we left Kea’s home and headed up the dirt path for the school, 25 to 30 children appeared from somewhere.  They looked as young as 3 or 4 and probably as old as 10.  A boy on my left and a girl on my right grabbed my hands.  They chattered away, always smiling.  I couldn’t understand a lot of what they were saying, but they asked where I was from.  They smiled broadly and shook their heads up and down when I said the United States.  The girl, about 10, wore a dirty beige dress that was too big for her.  The skirt almost touched the ground.  The top was torn and top buttons were missing, exposing most of her chest.  Many of the children were dressed in near rags, likely hand me downs from long ago.  Only a few had newer, brightly colored clothes.  Most of the girls wore dresses.   The boy who held my hand, about 7 or 8, dressed in red shorts and an oversized yellow t-shirt, had a mango partly in his mouth, covering most of his lips.  His hand was sticky.  Several of the children picked up ripe mangos that had fallen from the trees, split them open with their hands and shoved them in their mouths.

As we walked, although it was just past 9:00, the humid heat closed in.  Sweat covered foreheads and dripped from noses. We passed cassava fields and mango and banana groves.  Each hut had crops growing behind or beside it.  Those working on their small plots of ground were either cultivating with hoes or planting by hand.  Kea said that they harvested by hand.  We walked by dozens of people working, and many walking, usually carrying something on their heads—no vehicles or animals, except chickens.  A girl, probably no more than 16, bathed a protesting baby in a plastic tub.  I commented that babies the world over disliked baths.  Cisco smiled and nodded.

In our travels in east Africa, except in the cities, we saw few vehicles or animals.  Occasionally, people cultivated with a hand plough.  Only once did I see an ox pulling a plough. There was no irrigation.  Usually, there was enough rain, I assumed.

As we continued to walk behind Kea, I wondered how far the school was, but I didn’t ask. The children sang, first together, then by themselves.  Sometimes they skipped in the sweltering heat.  They were almost always smiling, chattering or laughing when they weren’t singing.  The older children looked after the youngest.  No adults came along, except Kea.

The two children holding my hands pulled me up to the front next to Kea.  He smiled and asked me where I was from.  “United States,” I said.  He smiled broadly.  “Obama,” he shouted, raising his hand in a fist.  I smiled back, nodding.

“Yes,” I said.  I voted for him.  “Good.  He’s a good man,” said Kea.

I asked if the people of the village had enough to eat.  “Yes, usually,” he said.  “We take care of each other.  If a family is in need, we help out. We look after each other.”  I asked about crime in the village.  “Crime? No, none,” he said.  We kept walking.  Most adults and children near the path waived at us with big smiles as we passed.  A man standing in front of a hut walked up, patted me on the shoulder and said “Welcome.”

After walking more than a mile from the village center, we finally arrived at the school.  It was made of the same mud bricks as the houses, but with a sheet metal roof.  I counted ten classrooms.  It was a Sunday, so school was not in session.  We followed Kea into a classroom.  The children stayed outside, laughing, playing, shouting, much like a group of American kids would have done.  The classroom floor was concrete.

One of the teachers started his presentation.  Kea shushed the children outside without much effect.  The teacher told us there were eight grades and ten teachers.  They taught math, English, Swahili, art and music, he said.  I thought of our schools in the United States that were eliminating art and music from the elementary school curriculum. Music and art flourished all over east Africa.  Are art and music more important to the poor?

The teacher told us there were about 1,500 hundred students in the school.  For most it was all the education they would get.  Some went to secondary school in a larger village that required them to leave their parents.  A few went to the university.  He said that the school was built by charitable donations and it survived because of charity.  He pointed to a plain wooden box with a slit in the top and asked us to donate.  Most of us did.

After the teacher’s presentation, we looked around the classroom.  The books on shelves in the back, except for math and English, seemed almost random, donations, I assumed, including many novels, some classic—Ivanhoe—some not so classic—Danielle Steele—for children? I saw no children’s books.  The children’s art hung on the walls, much like an elementary school in the United States.  They depicted mostly village and family scenes.

I asked the teacher if the school had a computer.  He said they would like to have one, but they didn’t.  After I got home, I read an article in the New York Times about an organization that was dedicated to providing computers for all African children by 2012.

When I trudged out the classroom door, sweating, I thought of the children that would be sitting in the sweltering classroom on Monday. Our child companions rejoined us, shouting, “Hi,” laughing and holding our hands again.

We walked about a half-mile down another path to the hospital, a brick building, smaller than the school.  It had a main room with a concrete floor, where we congregated—again the children stayed outside—and two other rooms in the back that we didn’t enter.  I didn’t see any x-ray machines or other medical equipment that you would expect in a hospital.  Maybe equipment was in the back, but then where were the patient rooms?

The hospital administrator, a tall, thin, young man, who spoke excellent English, told us that care at the hospital was free.  Like the school teacher, he asked us for donations.  Nobody asked any specific questions about the care that was given.  I can’t imagine that it was much beyond first aid, but I don’t know.  Nevertheless, the man spoke to us with a sense of importance and an urgency and pride in what he was doing.

By the time we went outside to join the children, it was even hotter.  They still laughed, skipped and chattered as we took the long walk back to the village center.  Different children held my hands this time and asked me questions—where was I from, was it hot there, did I like living in Boston, how many people lived in Boston?  Sometimes I couldn’t understand what they asked.  Kea had told us that English is their second language.  A couple of times they skipped off for a moment, and then came back and grabbed my hands.

When we got back to the village, our individual guides rejoined us.  At the village center near the water pump, a large blanket was spread out on the dirt.  About 20 yards back a fire under a grill flared and smoked. Kea asked us to sit.  Men and women set down large bowls of food and brought plates, spoons and forks.  Others handed us bowls of soup–sweet potato, Kea said.  The women dished chicken, beans and rice from the steaming bowls onto our plates.  The food was spicy, similar to the spices in Indian food.  We were served bread made from cassava flour.  It all tasted good.  The portions were huge.  I feared embarrassment from wasting food I couldn’t finish.

The children stood behind us talking and laughing.  Someone asked why the children were not eating.  Kea told us they would be given what we did not eat.  They were excited, he said, because they didn’t get chicken very often.  We all left a lot on our plates, especially chicken. When we finished eating, adults handed the children our plates.  They gobbled the food quickly.

I gave a few children coins.  They grabbed at them with gusto.  Others gave them pens and paper.  Children in towns and villages we had passed through begged for pens and paper when we stopped.  That was usually their first request.

The children who had pens and paper sat down in the dirt and started drawing immediately, but Kea interrupted them, put away their pens and paper and organized them into a line.  Drummers appeared and started playing.  The children danced and sang and invited us to join them. They tried to teach several of our women how to do the traditional African dance.  The village men laughed and beat their drums.  Whether they were dancing, singing or just talking, they reverberated a vibrant energy.  The joy was contagious.  We danced with them.

It was easy to focus on what the people of Mbamba don’t have.  They don’t have vehicles of any kind, either personal or for work; washing machines, dryers, refrigerators or any other appliance; electronic entertainment, such as radio, TV, Walkman, IPod or computers; showers, bath tubs or toilets; animals or machinery to help farm; diapers; modern toys; telephones; air conditioning or heating; make-up; deodorant; tissues; glasses; dental care; flooring; curtains; electric lights or any means of irrigating their crops.  Instead of lawn mowers, they use machetes to “mow” during the wet season when the grass grows high. As best I could tell, they had no underwear.  At least, the children didn’t. The list of what they did not have seems endless.

What they have is less obvious and concrete, but defines their lives: joy in their everyday lives; a sense of community; the pleasure of helping someone in need; the gaiety of lives filled with music and dance; the fulfillment of creating music and art; the satisfaction of eating what they planted, grew and nurtured with their own hands; the natural peace of connection with the land; living surrounded by the natural beauty of the landscape and wild creatures of Africa; the love of an extended family and clan; small, simple pleasures; the accomplishment of making with their hands things they need to live; the time to enjoy the company and comradery of each other and their children; real human communication with those they care for; respect for and from each other; the incomparable enjoyment of watching and nurturing children; knowledge of what is really necessary; I suspect, the joyfulness of sex without it being promoted endlessly by media; the ability to distinguish the important from the unimportant; acceptance of life; acceptance of death; thankfulness for what they have.  These people, desperately poor by our standards, lacking every comfort, convenience and entertainment that we deem necessary, are alive in the most human sense of the word.

In every village, town and city we visited or passed through in east Africa, most people we came within hearing distance of waived, smiled and said hello.  Many said, “Welcome,” asked where we were from. Some tried to sell us something, and some did not.  Everyone, selling or not, was unabashedly friendly.  Never before in any other place have I had so many conversations with strangers.  They were curious, as well as extroverted.  They asked questions.  They wanted to know about us. They were interested in other human beings, and they took the time to show that interest, and to try to relate to all of us.

When they found out I was from the United States, they often invoked the name, “Obama.”  Many asked if I had voted for him.  A few asked if I knew him.  Most said something positive about him.  Pride showed on their faces, not just in Kenya, but in Mbamba and everywhere between.

I remember a similar openness, friendliness and zest for life when I was growing up in a small town in California in the 1940’s and 50’s.  It no longer exists in the America I know today.

It has been said that all other things being the same, it is better to be rich than to be poor.  I suppose that if you isolate those two conditions, that is true.  But life is more complex than that.  It cannot be isolated into rich or poor.  Life involves a complex set of conditions, relative wealth being only one.  The villagers of Mbamba taught me that wealth is not the most meaningful condition and may even distract one from real human fulfillment, as it has many Americans.  Of course, if you do not have enough to eat to quell hunger or to maintain health, or are sick with no means to obtain medical care, or have no shelter, life cannot be fulfilling.

I don’t mean to imply that the people of Mbamba do not suffer or to minimize the hardships they endure.  If I thought their lives were nirvana, I would give away all my assets and move to Mbamba to be a farmer. But many Americans could learn something valuable from the way they live with what they have.

The people of Mbamba taught me that if you have those necessities, you don’t need anything else.  You don’t need what Americans strive for, so desperately that if we don’t have enough of what we seek—and we never seem to have enough—we numb the effects of our perceived failure with pills and alcohol; we don’t experience either the pain or the joy that life brings.  Many of us never realize what we have done to ourselves.

When the singing and dancing in Mbamba concluded, the children who had accompanied me on our tour ran over, said good-bye and hugged me.  I hugged them and turned my head away so they couldn’t see my tears.  My tears were not for them.

 

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Are You A Bigot?

I have sailed through my adult life believing that I had buried the prejudices of my parents who were imbued with the bigotry common among middle class Euro-Americans born in the first half of the twentieth century. My parents looked down upon African Americans, Germans and Japanese (because of the World Wars), Mexicans, Jews, Catholics and what they called white trash. In effect, they looked down upon anyone who was not like them and attributed to everyone in those groups specific shortcomings. Germans were heathens. Japanese were sneaky. Catholics were sinners who hated Protestants and advocated against use of birth control so that they could populate the world with more Catholics. Jews were dishonest and stingy. Mexicans were lazy. Native Americans were drunks. African Americans had an abundance of serious shortcomings: sloth, uncleanness, perpetrators of violent crimes and stupidity. I heard this litany of bigotry throughout my childhood, rejected it at about age 16 and proudly considered myself unprejudiced.

The basic tenet of bigotry is attributing some characteristic (usually, though not necessarily, negative) to an entire group of people, instead of considering each individual based on his unique characteristics. That is, not all––not even a majority––of the individuals within the groups judged by my parents possessed the negative characteristics by which my parents were judging them.

I have recently realized that my conclusion that I had rejected my parent’s bigotry was an illusion. Sure, I wasn’t guilty of the same bigotry. I didn’t judge individuals in those groups judged by my parents in the same way. Nevertheless, I am guilty of bigotry.

When I moved to Georgia, although it became apparent that attitudes toward African Americans had changed drastically since the mid-twentieth century, I was reluctant to make a diligent effort to befriend any Georgians because I was believed that they were far right wing conservatives, mired in the dogma of their churches, intolerant of those with views different from theirs, hiding a closet bigotry against gays, liberals and Californians (which I was). Generally, I thought they were hard-hearted people, despite the fact that the only two Georgians I knew did not fit that description.

In the past week I have met two Georgians while walking my dog down by the St. Marys River four blocks from my home. I was reluctant at first to seek their friendship. One was a woman who recently moved here from Texas; the other is the pastor of a local Protestant church. I was certain that they would possess the characteristics that my bigoted mind assumed. Nevertheless, they reached out to me, and I didn’t want to be rude. As you might guess, I learned that neither of them possessed the assumed characteristics. As a result I became painfully aware of my bigotry.

Are you a bigot?

 

Normally, I publish only my own musings here, but I was so impressed by this piece by author Anne Lamott that appeared on Face Book that I couldn’t resist publishing it here.

What Would I Do If I Weren’t a Writer

by Anne Lamott

During the chat at peopl.com, someone asked what job I would like if I wasn’t a writer, and I wish I could reprint it here. But as I also said during the chat, I am a completely hilariously incompetent humanoid when it comes to technology, so I can’t do that.

But I can try to answer it again. I semi-sort-of remember what I said.

I’d like to sit out in the very quiet courtyard at St. Andrew Presbyterian, with a bowl of cherries, and a bowl of M&M’s as communion elements, and talk to people one at a time.

I’d teach people what we tell our Sunday School kids, that they are loved and chosen, AS IS. My grandson says things like, “There’s another boy in with class with beautiful brown skin, like me.” And he’s four. If women confided that they don’t swim even when it’s very hot because they have tummy roll or jiggly thighs, I would show them mine, and we’d go off to swim together in our terrible underwear together, even if it was just in a little kid’s inflatable pool in the projects across the street.

If people were grieving, I would sit with them while they cried, and I would not say a single word, like “Time heals all,” or “This too shall pass.” I would practice having the elegance of spirit to let them cry, and feel like shit, for as long a they need to, because tears are the way home–baptism, hydration–and I would let our shoulders touch, and every so often I’d point out something beautiful in the sky–a bird, clouds, the hint of a moon. Then we’d share some cherries and/or M&M’s, and go find a little kid who would let us swim in his or her inflatable pool. I’d tell the sad person, “Come back next week, I’ll be here–and you don’t have to feel ONE speck better. It’s a come-as-you-are meeting, like with God, who says, “You just show up, my honey.”

If people want to know the secret of writing and art, I would say, “Write badly. That’s what we all do. Just do it. No one cares if you write or paint or dance, so YOU’d better. Nevr give up. read more poetry. Then find someone who will edit your work for you, like a friend or associate who needs someone to edit his or her work; or a teacher; or someone you pay, if you can. Without this, you are doomed. No one can help you if you don’t have a tough and respectful reader. Not even Jesus can help you. But you are still loved and chosen. Here, have some cherries.”

I would also be available in the courtyard to register voters. This is what we re going to do when we’re very old and the ice caps are like Slurpees: we are going to stick together, huddle together for warmth, register voters, and share our cherries and chocolate. I promise, this will be enough–always has been, always will be.

Also, I would subtly be trying to suck people into coming to St. Andrew on Sunday to worship with us. (services at 11:00.). You will end up feeling TOO loved, and maybe a little overly chosen. It’s incredibly sweet.

I would tell people that no matter how awful their thoughts and behavior, God HAS to love them–that’s His job. And I am Exhibit A–God has to love me, and this is not my fault. I didn’t trick Him or Her, or hide the grossest stuff. God just loves; period. Go figure. It’s a great system. My pastor Veronica says that when you want God to enter your life, you don’t invite Her to have tea in your living room, which you’ve completely cleaned for the occasion. You have to invite her all the way in, and let her see the closets, as is, AND–this is the bad news–you have to show her the Bad Drawer. The one in the kitchen, or in your bedside table–you know the one I mean, the one filled with thumbtacks and patches for inner tubes, and the broken dog collar, litter and stuff you couldn’t give away–the dump would barely take it–that proves how insane. You have to pull it all the way open, and say, “This is part of the package…” There won’t be anything there god doesn’t see every day. God, will say, “Dude. Thanks for showing me. Let’s get to work. Hey–are the any of those cherries left?”

This to me would be a perfect job, sitting with God and you, at the safest place on the earth for me, being real, together, shoulders touching, looking up at the sky from time to time.

Musings on This Year’s Cross-Country Road Trip

Last year when I took a 16-day road trip across the southern part of the United States, I published a short book about the trip, Diversity: A Road Trip Across the U.S.A., which included some general impressions I had about various people and things that I observed. This year I took a month-long road trip with my dog across the northern part of the country. I’m not going to write a book about it, but I do have some observations to make.

  • Pennsylvania is far more beautiful than I had imagined, having only visited Philadelphia and Pittsburg in the past. It is a State of gorgeous, greener-than-green forests and hills, with lovely old small towns nestled among them. It also has a lot of Revolutionary and Civil War (e.g., Gettysburg) history and in Longwood Gardens what may be the most beautiful public gardens in the country.
  • Cape May is a lovely beach town.
  • The Allegheny Mountains (hills by western standards) are serenely beautiful.
  • As an ardent baseball fan, Camden Yards is still one of my favorite parks.
  • The 19th Century sausage houses of Old Town Milwaukee are fascinating, as well as one of the few places outside of Germany to enjoy delicious, authentic German sausages. The aroma alone made me salivate.
  • Minneapolis is among America’s most beautiful and cosmopolitan cites.
  • The suburbs of Pittsburg are lovely.
  • The Great Northern Plains in May, though, of course, flat, are beautiful, broad and big.
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  • Yellowstone National Park is amazing in its beauty. It has every natural beauty you can think of, except an ocean. The wildlife is stunning. The Hotel at Yellowstone Lake is magnificent, and if you stay in the cabins (rather than the Hotel itself), it is not expensive. Four days there was not enough.

    English: Yellowstone Lake from Two Ocean Plate...

    Yellowstone Lake from Two Ocean Plateau, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, 1963 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • Utah may be the most beautiful State. Salt Lake City is interesting. The receding Lake is sad. In the south, Canyon Lands National Park and the surrounding area is stunningly beautiful––colored rocks in formations that you never dreamed possible.
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  • Laughlin, Nevada is sad.
  • Entering Southern California from the East is ugly. I’m surprised a lot of people didn’t just turn around and go back home.
  • Although I suppose statistically the majority of Americans live in big cities or metropolitan areas now, I was amazed at how many live in small towns of hundreds or a few thousand people. I imagine them living relatively simple lives, but I could be wrong.
  • There are still parts of the country where there seem to be no brown people, but that is changing quickly.
  • As I found and discussed in my book last year, the diversity of Americans continues to amaze me.

Musings About What’s Wrong with California

Based on a long experience with California, I am convinced that there is more wrong with California than there is right. I was born in California and lived and worked there until I was 66. I spent another year there in 2011-2012. I know of what I speak, albeit my opinion, after having lived for three years in Boston, a year in Paris and almost a year in southeast Georgia.

The basic problem is that there are TOO MANY PEOPLE. A few weeks ago I drove from Simi Valley to Ventura, normally, without much traffic, a 35-minute drive. It took me an hour––stop-and-go traffic from Thousand Oaks all the way through Oxnard mid-day on a Saturday. We’re not talking about rush hour. I was late for my engagement. On another recent trip I ran into stop-and-go traffic on Interstate 5 from the 210 interchange to the Grape Vine. These are not heavily populated urban areas for the most part. I know from previous experience that Northern California is no different––perhaps worse, especially on any Interstate that has an “8” or a “6” in it. Of course, California is infamous for having virtually no public transportation (San Francisco excepted).

Anywhere you go you can be faced with long, frustrating delays, and when you get there throngs of impatient people. Californians spend an enormous amount of time in their cars. Because, in my mind, time is more important than money, that it takes so long to get anywhere and that how long is unpredictable, deters me from coming back to California.

Another problem is the extremely high cost of living (especially housing cost) anywhere that California’s famed climate makes it pleasant to live, i.e., near the coast. The rest of California (except the mountains, where there are few jobs) is desert. Retiring to California is insanity for all but the wealthy because the cost of living is so high.

But, still, when it comes down to it, the real problem is simply too many people. The reason for all these people is that it used to be a great place to live, and many people erroneously believe that it still is. There are trade-offs elsewhere. Hardly anywhere is the climate as pleasant as the California coast, but in my opinion, other factors make the South, Midwest and the Southwest—even the East if you don’t mind snow––better places to live.

A Way to Generate Greater Happiness

Lowering expectations to avoid disappointment is a form of mind control that leads to less sadness and greater happiness. Our minds generally are responsible for determining how “happy” we are in life, assuming we have enough to eat and shelter, though I have talked to homeless people who seem happier than some middle-class people. Those who exert some control over how their minds anticipate and react to events in their lives seem to be the happiest. Our minds generate expectations that make us unhappy if they are not fulfilled. What we expect is in the mind and nowhere else. As I learned to control my expectations shortly before and during retirement, I became a happier person.
We tend to set firmly in our minds what we expect to happen, how we expect to feel about a situation that may occur, and what others will say or do. When something different from our expectations happens, we are unhappy and respond in various negative ways; anger or hurt feelings, expressed or unexpressed, are the most common.

These feelings of anger and hurt often manifest themselves in action: verbal expression of these emotions; verbal attack on another; physical attack on another; withholding or modifying a relationship, such as withholding benefits that we normally bestow on the other person, or some sort of punishment, such as withholding affection, sympathy or empathy that we normally would express. Other forms of punishment of the other person for failing to meet our expectations could be withholding money, taking legal action or convincing others to take action against the person.

These reactions, rather than making us happier, exacerbate and deepen the negative, unhappy feelings. Feelings of unhappiness are caused by expectations that in many cases are too high. In marriages or domestic partnerships, for example, we expect our partners to have sex with us on a regular basis. Our expectation may even be specific, such as twice a week. We also may expect our spouse to cook the evening meal. We expect a close friend to call at least once a week. We expect a close friend not to say anything negative about us to other people. We expect drivers to follow the rules. We expect our adult children to call regularly. These expectations set us up for disappointment, unhappiness and negative emotions. If we don’t compound unhappiness by negative conduct, we may keep the negative feelings in and harbor resentment, which eventually will come out.

It is difficult to avoid expectations. At the first book reading I went to for my book Digging Deep: A Writer Uncovers His Marriages, four people showed up. I was disappointed because I had unrealistic expectations. I could have saved myself from that disappointment if I had not developed those expectations. Fortunately, I realized that, shortly after the reading, which helped to dissipate the disappointment.

One certainty in any relationship––with friend, family or lover––is that the relationship will change. Nothing lasts forever, especially relationships. Failure to expect changes often results in unhappiness. I try to expect changes––in effect, to expect the unexpected. It is not easy. The change could be a pleasant one that creates greater closeness, but it could be a distancing or even estrangement. If we expect change, it will reduce its negative impact.
It is common to create expectations of how others should act, and most people do it constantly. Everyone has bad days, failures and mood swings that make life harder. We should not expect significant others or friends to be at their best all the time. Human beings are flawed. We must understand this and expect flaws to manifest themselves in everyone.

Lowering expectations also makes it easier to forgive, to allow people to make mistakes and not be angry or disappointed. We would do well to lower expectations of those we care about, and let them be human. Having spent a lifetime expecting others to act in a certain way, I don’t always succeed in lowering expectations of others. This kind of growth is an ongoing process that never reaches perfection.

We also have to deal with the expectations others, especially those close to us, have of us. We need to find out what they are, discuss them and resolve whether we can meet them or whether they need to be changed. Compromise may be required to sustain the relationship.

We need to lower expectations of ourselves too. Strive for perfection, but don’t expect it. Everyone fails, and not everything is going to be easy or easily completed. I have learned to lower expectations of myself, but this requires constant vigilance. I am not perfect, and after a lifetime of having expectations of myself, like my expectations of others, it is difficult to change. I must constantly remind myself that I will not always succeed and cut myself some slack. But even partial success in lowering my expectations of others and myself has led me to a healthier life without all of the stress and demands that I used to place on myself. I, like others, will sometimes be mean, incompetent and inconsiderate.

It probably is impossible to not have some expectations. However, the fewer expectations we have and the lower they are, the happier we will be.
“Retirement: A Memoir and Guide” shows how all retirees, like the author, can overcome the challenges retirement brings by preparing emotionally, discovering a passion, maintaining close relationships with adult children and grandchildren, avoiding loneliness, living in the moment, minimalizing, achieving happiness by lowering expectations, slowing down, deciding where to live, finding new friends, appreciating the beauty that surrounds us, travel and meeting other challenges that come with retirement.

Reflections on the First Half of My Road Trip Across America

 

Looking back on the first half of my month long road trip across America (my fourth, all using different routes), I have learned some new things about America, its people and myself. From a combination of my experience and reading Stephen Braxton Thompson’s fascinating book, American Nomad, as well as my own previous trips, I know that I am only scratching the surface in a month. Thompson spent a year and still didn’t see everything he wanted to see––Big Sur, for example.

At the front of my consciousness right now are the pleasant surprises: the stark oddity of Stone Mountain outside of Atlanta; the cuisine in Greensboro, North Carolina that I wrote about in a previous post; the diversity and sophistication of Baltimore; the beauty and lushness of the Pittsburg suburbs; the serene lushness and the touch of old fashioned America in the Allegheny Mountains; the verdant beauty of the Brandywine region of Pennsylvania; the friendliness, and helpfulness, of the American people.

While I am dismayed at the repetition of chain motels, restaurants and gas stations near most of the Interstate exits and elsewhere, most of the rest of the east coast I have visited is beautiful, diverse and exciting to experience. While there was evidence of hard times and poverty, there was also evidence of prosperity and vitality in the people of the right side of the country.

On the negative side is the horrible traffic I found in all big cities. It used to be that traffic was bad in only a few big American cities, but Americans’ love of the automobile and their unwillingness to spend money on good public transportation (except in a handful of cites like Boston, San Francisco and New York) has created a nightmare of traffic in almost all cities that you could describe as more populous than small, and the traffic jams in most of them extend far beyond the city centers. As a few examples (some from previous road trips), I cite Philadelphia, Atlanta, Denver and Houston. The traffic detracts greatly from the cities’ pleasure, vitality and functionality. We spend far too much time going from here to there in our cars. The Interstate Highway system, while efficient and wonderful in many ways, has spawned monsters. I have stayed off the Interstates as much as possible, providing me the opportunity to experience Americans living, not just driving.

I’ll end this piece with the single highlight of my trip so far––the Longwood Gardens in the Brandywine region of Pennsylvania, an hour’s drive outside of Philadelphia. I have visited most of the famous gardens in the world, but Longwood ranks up there with the greatest. I hope that most of you will be blessed to see Longwood some day.

 

Musings for Foodies and Those Who Just Enjoy Good Food

I am not a restaurant reviewer, and this is not a restaurant review. One of my greatest pleasures in life is enjoying a fine meal prepared by talented chefs and served professionally in a pleasant ambiance. I stay in cheap motels so that I can afford to enjoy this indulgence.

Much to my surprise I found an outstanding restaurant in, of all places, Greensboro, North Carolina. I  enjoyed one of the best meals I have had since leaving France and Italy at Table 16 in the old downtown (late 19th Century)section of Greensboro, 600 South Elm Street.

I decided on the Chefs Choice, 7 courses of small plates chosen by the chef. It wasn’t cheap ($60), but to me, it was well worth it.

If this were a restaurant review I would have made sure I understood all of the ingredients of each dish and would have taken notes so that I could describe it here. I didn’t, and I can’t. It wasn’t southern food, though one of the plates included grits. There was a pork dish, a couple of fish dishes, chicken vegetable combinations and a multiple fresh fruit cheese cake for dessert. The wine selection was excellent for a restaurant in this location.

The ambiance included perfect lighting and original paintings of (appropriately) food, including one of oysters that you could almost taste. The service was impeccable.

I won’t spend that much money for dinner often on this trip, but I will not forget this meal for a long time to come. If you are ever in Greensboro, North Carolina or live in or near there, and you enjoy a fine meal, I highly recommend it.

 

Cross Country Road Trip Adventures with My Dog

(1 comment below)

I am having another great adventure on a road trip across the United States, this time with a dog. I have taken road trips with small children (many years ago), so I thought it would be similar in terms of extra chores––well not really. Of course, I anticipated the need to keep in my consciousness at all times her need to pee and poop and the slightly less emergency needs for eating and drinking water. Fortunately, she barks at me when she needs to pee or poop, which is helpful, but she also barks at me for other reasons, and I haven’t yet mastered understanding of the barking language. It is quite different from English. There are much less mundane chores required and experiences to be had, which I intend to write about. They can be quite humorous, that is, if one keeps his sense of humor at a high level. This morning, for instance, when I went to take a shower, just after I got into the shower, Penny (the dog) began barking at the closed bathroom door. Not wanting her to disturb my neighbors, I got out, dripping water everywhere, and slipping, without falling, thankfully, on the bathroom floor, I opened the door, let her in the bathroom, and climbed back into the tub-shower. I was able (barely) to keep her from climbing into the shower with me by a couple of sharp rebukes. What I did not anticipate was what happened when I got out of the shower and grabbed a towel to dry off. She, helpful canine that she is, began to help me dry off–with her tongue, of course. So, although I felt cleaner after the shower, I’m not so sure in terms of bacteria that I was cleaner. Penny seemed to be having a good time.

Comment

I have been a fan of yours since our days in the zendo. Even though I can claim no credit, somehow I am personally proud of all your success. I can legitimately claim great taste from the first time I heard your writing.

I love your dog tales! Funny, sweet and real. Hope you both continue to experience great adventures on your journey! Look forward to joining you via your words.

Neola Mace

Thank you so much, Neola. I am flattered.

Boyd Lemon

 

Musings on How to Get Along with Your Adult Children

My relationships with my adult children are among my most important. Unfortunately, many retired people are estranged or emotionally distant from their adult children. Relationships with adult children, like any other relationship, are only as good as the effort we put in, and they must be delicately handled. I decided to put in the necessary effort and exercise sensitivity so that I could have the closest relationships possible with my adult children. There is a built in opportunity there that would be a shame to ignore.

Sometimes it seems to parents that we are doing all of the work to foster the relationships, but staying the course and being patient will pay off. Because of divorce and overwork I damaged my relationships with my children by not being there for them when they were young. I have tried to repair the damage, and to a large extent I have succeeded. It takes reaching out, patience, and sometimes waiting for them to forgive or mature. Most important, it requires you not to interfere in their lives. It is not always easy to relate to adult children, and it is also not always easy for adult children to relate to their parents. It may seem to the parents like another teenage phase, and to the adult children that they are not being treated as the adults that they are certain they are.

Before I moved to Ventura, my older daughter, Julie, had moved to Simi Valley, about a 45-minute drive from me. Soon after, by coincidence, my other three children moved a few miles away. My younger daughter, Marsha, by that time a high school English teacher, got a job at nearby Hueneme High School. My older son, David, entered the PhD program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, 23 miles away; and my younger son, Adam, came to live with me to attend college at California State University, Channel Islands. They are the products of three marriages. For the first time, we all lived in the same county. This wonderful turn of events was not all coincidence. I had nurtured relationships with them.

My rewards were priceless. I visited with David and Marsha every week, with Julie every couple of weeks and I lived with Adam. Sometimes we all got together. It was a fun, special time that brought us all together as a family for the first time.

After two and a half years, we all moved away, I to Boston, David to Sacramento to a new job, Marsha to Hawaii to live with her boyfriend and eventual husband and Adam to Paso Robles, California to work in a winery. Julie had given birth to a daughter and a son during the time I lived in Ventura. She stayed in Simi Valley with her family. Nothing ever remains the same. Those two and a half years were precious and could never be duplicated.

Children in their twenties and thirties still need their father and will seek him out, if he knows how to treat them with respect as adults, and the groundwork laid, if done with love and sensitivity, can last a lifetime.

I don’t know why, but I knew instinctively how to nurture close relationships with my adult children. I didn’t read any books. I didn’t consult with a therapist. I did give it some thought. I realized that if as teenagers they resented being told what to do and how to live their lives, they certainly would as adults. In their 20’s and even into their 30’s they were still experimenting with their independence. As adults, they had the power to estrange themselves from me. I knew that they would perceive the slightest criticism, even gentle advice, as a threat to their independence, as an effort to interfere with and control their lives.

I determined not to interfere or express any judgment of their conduct or their decisions and not to give advice unless asked. I assured them that if they sought my advice, I would give it, and if they decided to reject it, I would not be upset or critical or ever say, “I told I so.” They noticed that I kept these promises, that they could trust me.

We are still parents, but to a great extent we have to get our heads out of the role of parents as we knew it when they were children. Sure, I cringed inside at some of their decisions, especially when they were in their 20’s, but I held my tongue. They suffered the consequences and learned from their mistakes, including a bad marriage, a disappointing long-term relationship, experimentation with drugs and abuse of alcohol. But none of their conduct or decisions were life threatening and all are fine, responsible adults now.

When they were in their 20s and 30s, they sometimes sought my advice. Now that they are older they rarely want my advice, and I don’t offer it, though I have a feeling they are comforted to know that I am here to ask.

I sometimes engaged in activities that they relished, even if I wasn’t enamored with the activities, so that I could bond with them. I went to NASCAR races with Adam, though I wouldn’t have gone if he hadn’t been passionate about them. It was a good way to bond with him.

More often than not, I traveled to where my children lived. Before they lived near me, it would have been a financial hardship for them to travel to me. As they got older, and especially when they had children of their own and demanding jobs, and I retired, it has been more convenient for me to go to them.

Another practice that I applied was to be respectful of their schedules, especially as they got older. It is important to give adult children space. They have their own lives, and demanding more time and attention than they are willing to give me, or complaining about not seeing as much of them as I would like, would result in resentment and less time with them. The mantra is, “Don’t complain; accept the time that they give.” I say the mantra to myself when I feel like complaining that they don’t call or invite me over as much as I would like.

My reward, for which I am grateful, is a close, trusting relationship with each of them. Each one is different, and our relationships are different. I have to keep that in mind. My daughters are more expressive and forthcoming about their lives, their worries and their dreams. My sons, like many men, are less expressive and more standoffish than I would prefer. I accept that. It is the way they are, and I cannot change them.

I haven’t found relating to my adult children in the way I have described difficult, although I tend by nature not to be a controlling person. Some parents may find it more difficult and have to consciously work on avoiding the pitfalls.

When my youngest, Adam, graduated from high school, I wrote him a letter telling him that I considered him an adult, and that I would no longer give him unsolicited advice. I wanted him to know that I would not try to control his life, that he was responsible for his own life (except for my financial help through college), but that I would be available to him if he needed me. I have kept my promises.

Parents who rarely see their children, have a distant relationship or are estranged usually have interfered in their children’s lives and continued to treat them as if they were children. Some demanded more attention than the children were willing to give.

Children and grandchildren can be a rewarding part of old age, if the relationships are handled with understanding and sensitivity.

A certainty in all relationships is change. This is just as true in relationships with our children as it is with friends. As our children reach their late 30’s and 40’s, another adjustment arises and for me has arisen recently. My children don’t seek my advice anymore. They no longer need it, and that created in me a lonely, rejected feeling. After forty plus years, I am no longer needed—by anyone, since I do not have a spouse or a partner. It hurts. I need to be needed, but that is my problem, not theirs. I must accept that my children no longer need me in the way that they did. This phase of our relationships is the transition to my needing them more than their needing me. If I don’t accept the change, if I interfere when I am not wanted or whine, I risk distancing them further or losing then. Married children rely more on their spouses for support and less on us. They have busy lives, and they don’t have as much time for us as they did in their 20s or early 30s. We must be understanding, even when it hurts—and it will, for many of us. Remember the mantra “Don’t complain.” Complaining will only distance them more. Be grateful for whatever time they give, or at least act pleased––and be resigned.

This difficulty in adjusting to my children not needing me anymore has resulted in my discovering something about myself that I was only vaguely aware of. I have a need to be needed. Reconciling this need with reality is a current challenge.

I am grateful that all four of my children traveled as far as 3,000 miles for my 70th birthday party, and what a wonderful celebration it was. It is sad to see people in their 60s, 70s and 80s estranged or distant from their children.

Challenges and sadness are always a part of life, and they are going to be a part of retirement. In early 2012 the baby boy who was to be my fifth grandchild and my older son’s first child was stillborn. It was terribly sad for me. My older son, who is 40, had wanted a family all of his adult life. It saddened me deeply to see him hurt so much and not to be able to do anything about it. I can’t “kiss it and make it better” anymore.

If you are living life, the world is unpredictable, and there will be challenges. Leading a fulfilling retirement does not mean there are no challenges or sadness, but it does mean that you can better deal with those challenges.

When my children had children of their own, I was tested again. If I interfere in even a small way, I risk the relationship. Sometimes I don’t agree with their parenting. Other times I admire it. But I keep my mouth shut, except to compliment them when appropriate. I don’t criticize or offer advice. Their children are their responsibility, not mine. Only they and their children will live with the consequences. My adult children are especially sensitive to criticism of their parenting, probably because they feel that my parenting was defective, and they are right. We all have damaged our children, no matter how hard we tried to be good parents. They will damage theirs; it is a part of the human condition.

When my older daughter, Julie, was pregnant with my first grandchild, I wrote her a letter promising her that I would not interfere with her and her husband’s parenting or give them unsolicited advice. It is difficult at times, but I have kept my promises to Julie and to my younger daughter, Marsha. We all have ideas about how to parent, and I am no exception. I have to remind myself frequently not to interfere. And the truth is my daughters and their husbands are all better parents than I was, all the more reason to keep quiet.

Grandchildren are one of the joys of retirement for many people. It is a wonderful experience to watch them play and grow without the responsibility of raising them. Some of us are better at relating to young children than others. We must each develop our own way of relating to them. Trying to be somebody that you are not will not work. Young children sense when you’re faking it. I am not good at relating to babies, and I am more of an observer than a player with young children. I will not try to fake being someone that I am not. However you relate to your grandchildren, those relationships can be immensely rewarding for all.

One joyous way of relating to your grandchildren is traveling with them (without their parents), but make sure that they are old enough to enjoy it and not be bored. Unless you take them somewhere designed for children, such as an amusement park, they should be at least eight to ten years old before you take them with you very far from home. Of course, it depends on the maturity and interests of the child. Experiment first with somewhere not far from home. Consider their interests and talk to them about your plans first to gage their interest. If they are not enthusiastic about your proposed trip before you leave, I would reconsider. Some ten year-olds would be thrilled to go to Paris; others would be bored and ruin your trip. So be careful. Traveling with your grandchildren can be a disaster, or a memory they will cherish for the rest of their lives.

Some grandparents shower their grandchildren with gifts. I am not much of a gift giver. I think that spending time with them is more important, but I am far from the perfect grandparent. I simply suggest that you give careful thought to whether you overdo your gift giving.

Another word of warning: We are not on this earth in our retirement years to be baby sitters for our grandchildren. We should not let our children take advantage of our willingness to take care of the grandkids so that the parents can go out or go on vacation. To the extent we are willing, our children should feel privileged. Some children abuse this privilege. My children have not; I would prefer that they ask me to babysit more than they do, but I offer occasionally and otherwise leave it up to them to ask.

If your children abuse the babysitting privilege, when they ask you, don’t agree immediately; tell them you’ll check your schedule or use some other delaying tactic that allows time to think about how you feel; if your children are reasonably sensitive that sends them a message. Grandma, who is usually the one they ask, should check with her husband before agreeing, if he is to be involved. Don’t make babysitting the grandchildren a conflict between spouses or partners. Discuss the issue and compromise, if you need to. The question I would always ask myself is simple: do I want to? If the answer is yes, then of course I would respond affirmatively, but if I looked upon it as a chore, I would politely decline, unless there was an emergency. I have not had to decline, because my children don’t often ask.

Although most grandparents enjoy babysitting their grandchildren, if the problem is that the children are asking too often, a heart-to-heart talk and the setting of reasonable boundaries should resolve the problem. They may or may not react happily, but if you speak with kindness and consideration, they will eventually understand. If they don’t, so be it. I wouldn’t want to spend my retirement as an unpaid babysitter. Of course, if after serious introspection, you decide that is the best choice for you, then go for it, but be sure that the authentic you wants to do it, and you’re not just offering out of guilt or some inauthentic emotion.

I realize that some grandparents may fear jeopardizing their relationship with their children and grandchildren if they refuse to babysit. If that is the case, I would question the authenticity of the relationship, but that is my opinion. You will have to do what you think is best for you.

 

Some Observations of Southern Culture

I can hardly claim to be an expert on Southern culture. I’ve only lived in the South (southeast Georgia) for seven months, but I have some observations derived from compariting my experience with the cultures of California, Boston and Paris, where I spent more time. By their nature comments on a culture are general and cannot apply to any individual who lives in that culture unless one has spent time observing the individual. Generalizing on cultural traits and then applying them to an individual or to all who live in that culture is a process from which dangerous bigotry and prejudice arise. My observations are of cultural traits and should not be applied to any indiviudal Southerner that one does not know personally.

Having set forth those sincere disclaimers, here are some traits that I have observed:

  • Southerners are more polite, formal and friendly. By that I mean they usually speak to strangers they pass on the street with some sort of formal greeting, much like the French Bon jour, usually, “hi, y’all.”
  • They take the time to converse with anyone they have met previously and often with people they have not met before.
  • Neighbors know each other.
  • They take care of their own. That is, private charity, organized and unorganized, is alive and well here. There are numerous food banks for people who have no money for food. There are constant drives to raise money for people who have experienced personal tragedy. Neighbors help neighbors in need. Southerners are good samaritans.
  • If you need help with something, no matter how trivial or how imporant, someone is usually willing to volunteer to help without your asking, but definitely if you ask.
  • Everyone goes to church. Organized religion plays a bigger part in people’s lives here. Often social life for many people centers around their church. The churches tend to be small, but there are many of them. Generally, there seems to be tolerence of those who go to a different church. Even Catholics seem to accept as friends those who are Protestants. I don’t know about Jews; there seem to be few Jews in my community, and I simply have not been able to observe any interaction, one way or the other.
  • There is definintely general prejudice against Muslims. I don’t know if this prejudice exisited before 9/11.
  • There are some, but not many, Hispanics here, and I cannot tell if prejudice exists. I suspect it is about the same as it is in other parts of the country.
  • The majority are consevative Republicans who support small government. There is tremendous distrust of anything the government does, especially but not only, the Federal Government. This culture believes in rugged individualism. They expect people to carry their own weight.  Yet, as I said previously, they take care of their own. They are generous in helping those in need, but privately, not through government aid. And I must say, at least in small communities, such as the one I live in, this system seems to work. There are far fewer homeless people here than in the North or West.
  • People here are highly respecful of the military, perhaps because most of our military these days consists of people from the South. There are also a lot of retired military personel who live here.
  • There has been a monumental change in the treatment of African Americans in the past 50 years. I see many mixed couples, mixed friendships, co-workers and African Americans in public everywhere without any evidence of prejudice or discrimination. African Americans have all types of jobs from fast food service to doctors, nurses and technicians at the local hospital. I see no difference between the way they are treated here and in other parts of the country. That means that prejudice and discrimination still exist in some ways, just as it still exists in the North, but I don’t see any difference here. For example, in the local high school, which is integrated, but has a majority of white students, Miss Camden County High School of 2013, elected by her fellow students, is African American, something that 50 years ago would have been unthinkable here.
  • People here, especially whites, are socially conservative. Most still do not accept gays, or transvestities, and are against gay marriage. Most would like to see abortion banned. However, I can see glimmers of these attitudes changing among the younger generation. I suspect that 50 years from now these attitudes will have gone the way of segregation of the races.
  • It is difficiult to find organic food here. People generally eat unhealhfully––mostly fried food, simple carbohydrates, lots of sugar and few fruits and vegetables. As a result, obesity, along with its resulting health problems, is an epidemic here. The majority of people are overweight and a substantial minority are obese. I don’t have actual statistics, but I can tell by reading the obituaries that life expectancies are lower here than in the West and North.
  • A much higher percentage of people of all ages smoke here.
  • This is beer country, as opposed to wine.
  • Pork is more popular here than in the rest of the country.
  • People walk slower and talk slower.
  • They spend more time with their famlies and less time in their cars.
  • They lead simpler, less dramatic, some might say, boring lives; family is all-important.
  • The culture is closer to the culture I grew up with in a small Southern California community in the 1940′s and 50′s than the current Southern California culture.
  • They use modern tecnnology, but they don’t seem as enamored and comfortable with it as people in the North and West.
  • They love big, old American cars.
  • They love trucks.
  • They love motorcycles.
  • A lower percentage of adults ride bicycles and jog or work out.
  • They are not as health conscious.
  • They seem more fatalistic about life, death and life’s travails.
  • I think there are fewer egotistical people here; they consider themselves less seriously and are more able to laugh at themselves.
  • I think there are fewer obnoxious people here.
  • They seem more comfortable in their own skin.
  • They like country and blue grass music and tend not to like opera and classical music, although, of course, as with all of the other cultural traits, there are many exceptions.
  • I find it a pleasant place to live. Perhaps younger Californians or Northeasterners would find it boring.

 

 
 

 

On the Boston Bombing

 I do not share the great joy that many Americans seem to be feeling and expressing about the arrest of the Boston bombing suspect. I grieve for the loss of four lives and the severe injuries that the bombing caused, but I also grieve for the two brothers, one dead, one seriously injured and arrested. If they indeed were the perpetrators, what could have caused them to commit such a heinous act? We may never know or understand.

I feel an overwhelming sadness. With little evidence that has been released to the public, most Americans seem to assume, contrary to one of our basic principles of criminal justice, that the younger brother is guilty. If you think about it, we the public have not been informed of any persuasive evidence of guilt of the younger brother. The only evidence we have been informed of is video showing that he was nearby when his brother set down a black bag which may have contained one of the bombs that exploded, that he was with his brother at the crime scene before the explosions, and that he was with his brother when one of them (we don’t know which) murdered the M.I.T. policeman, hijacked a car and threw explosives at police. That’s it. That’s all we know. Now, I realize that the police must have more evidence against the suspect (notice use of the term suspect, even by the police) than they have made public. However, police, in their zeal and under enormous pressure to hunt down a suspect and make an arrest sometimes arrest innocent people. I cast no blame on police in general or the police who risked their lives to catch the person they think is guilty of these crimes. I am simply saying that there is a reason to presume that a suspect is innocent, and to let, first the Grand Jury, and finally a trial jury determine guilt, rather than assuming it with insufficient evidence to support it and contrary to our rule of law.

I am also saddened by the party-like celebrations that many of the citizens of Boston engaged in last night and the expressions of similar joy on the social media. I understand feelings of relief that Bostonians are now safe and that a suspect has been arrested. I don’t understand the celebration. The arrest does not bring back the lives of those killed or the limbs of those maimed. It is just the first step in trying to achieve justice. And how tragic that two young men who potentially had useful lives ahead of them are ruined, one dead and the other who may lose his life and, in any event, will probably not have a life worth living. How is that cause for celebration? The ranting and lashing out against Muslims in general is even more tragic.

What I feel is sadness and pity for the suspect and further sadness for the people who celebrated. In no way do I condone the terrible criminal acts that took place, and I want justice to be achieved, but I realize that many who read this will think that I am a yellow-bellied, weak kneed, bleeding heart. Some will probably even accuse me of supporting terrorism, which couldn’t be further from the truth. So be it.

 

A Unique Opportunity for Americans

The blocking by the Senate of the gun purchase background check legislation that 80 to 90 percent of Americans said they support provides a unique opportunity for the citizens of our democracy. Ninety percent of Republican Senators and 5% of Democrat Senators voted to block the bill that the overwhelming majority of Americans support.

Rather than ranting and raving about it, there is a simple solution. The people of those states where  Senators who voted to block the bill are running for re-election in 2014 and who are among the 80 to 90 percent that support the bill should simply vote against those Senators. That is the way democracy works, and it is important that people exercise this power that only people in a democracy enjoy, far more important than the bill itself. We simply cannot allow Senators to block legislation that Americans want and that even a majority of the Senate supported. (The bill just didn’t get the 60 votes necessary to prevent a filibuster.) We must send a clear message to Congress.

I supported the bill because it seemed the sensible thing to do. We all abhor gun violence. However, in my opinion, it doesn’t deserve the publicity and mass hysteria that it engendered. Requiring a background check to purchase a gun would not prevent much gun violence––maybe none––any more than actually making illegal possession of recreational drugs stopped people from using them or Prohibition prevented people from drinking alcohol. Criminals and mentally ill people would still have obtained guns.

What is important is that the Senate defied the strong will of the American people, and we don’t often have the opportunity to show Senators that they cannot get away with that in our democracy. I’m sure they are relying on the American people to forget by the fall of 2014. I hope we don’t.

 

 

Happiness Is Increased By Lowering Expectations

Lowering expectations to avoid disappointment is a form of mind control that leads to less sadness and greater happiness. Our minds generally are responsible for determining how “happy” we are in life, assuming we have enough to eat and shelter, though I have talked to homeless people who seem happier than some middle-class people. Those who exert some control over how their minds anticipate and react to events in their lives seem to be the happiest. Our minds generate expectations that make us unhappy if they are not fulfilled. What we expect is in the mind and nowhere else. As I learned to control my expectations shortly before and during retirement, I became a happier person.

We tend to set firmly in our minds what we expect to happen, how we expect to feel about a situation that may occur, and what others will say or do. When something different from our expectations happens, we are unhappy and respond in various negative ways; anger or hurt feelings, expressed or unexpressed, are the most common.

These feelings of anger and hurt often manifest themselves in action: verbal expression of these emotions; verbal attack on another; physical attack on another; withholding or modifying a relationship, such as withholding benefits that we normally bestow on the other person, or some sort of punishment, such as withholding affection, sympathy or empathy that we normally would express. Other forms of punishment of the other person for failing to meet our expectations could be withholding money, taking legal action or convincing others to take action against the person.

These reactions, rather than making us happier, exacerbate and deepen the negative, unhappy feelings. Feelings of unhappiness are caused by expectations that in many cases are too high. In marriages or domestic partnerships, for example, we expect our partners to have sex with us on a regular basis. Our expectation may even be specific, such as twice a week. We also may expect our spouse to cook the evening meal. We expect a close friend to call at least once a week. We expect a close friend not to say anything negative about us to other people. We expect drivers to follow the rules. We expect our adult children to call regularly. These expectations set us up for disappointment, unhappiness and negative emotions. If we don’t compound unhappiness by negative conduct, we may keep the negative feelings in and harbor resentment, which eventually will come out.

It is difficult to avoid expectations. At the first book reading I went to for my book Digging Deep: A Writer Uncovers His Marriages, four people showed up. I was disappointed because I had unrealistic expectations. I could have saved myself from that disappointment if I had not developed those expectations. Fortunately, I realized that, shortly after the reading, which helped to dissipate the disappointment.

One certainty in any relationship––with friend, family or lover––is that the relationship will change. Nothing lasts forever, especially relationships. Failure to expect changes often results in unhappiness. I try to expect changes––in effect, to expect the unexpected. It is not easy. The change could be a pleasant one that creates greater closeness, but it could be a distancing or even estrangement. If we expect change, it will reduce its negative impact.

It is common to create expectations of how others should act, and most people do it constantly. Everyone has bad days, failures and mood swings that make life harder. We should not expect significant others or friends to be at their best all the time. Human beings are flawed. We must understand this and expect flaws to manifest themselves in everyone.

Lowering expectations also makes it easier to forgive, to allow people to make mistakes and not be angry or disappointed. We would do well to lower expectations of those we care about, and let them be human. Having spent a lifetime expecting others to act in a certain way, I don’t always succeed in lowering expectations of others. This kind of growth is an ongoing process that never reaches perfection.

We also have to deal with the expectations others, especially those close to us, have of us. We need to find out what they are, discuss them and resolve whether we can meet them or whether they need to be changed. Compromise may be required to sustain the relationship.

We need to lower expectations of ourselves too. Strive for perfection, but don’t expect it. Everyone fails, and not everything is going to be easy or easily completed. I have learned to lower expectations of myself, but this requires constant vigilance. I am not perfect, and after a lifetime of having expectations of myself, like my expectations of others, it is difficult to change. I must constantly remind myself that I will not always succeed and cut myself some slack. But even partial success in lowering my expectations of others and myself has led me to a healthier life without all of the stress and demands that I used to place on myself. I, like others, will sometimes be mean, incompetent and inconsiderate.

It probably is impossible to not have some expectations. However, the fewer expectations we have and the lower they are, the happier we will be.

The Legacy of the Boomer Generation

 We have read a lot about “The Greatest Generation,” which got us through the Great Depression and saved the world from Hitler. The next generation, the Baby Boomers, of which I have always considered myself a part (though I was born a few years before the official date), has been regularly maligned as self centered, greedy and materialistic. Like individual human beings, each generation has its positive and negative attributes, its heroes and anti-heroes, its devils and angels. I don’t want to denigrate the contributions of the so-called Greatest Generation, but we shouldn’t forget its bigotry, its degradation of half the population, and, after all, it did produce Hitler and Mussolini along with Roosevelt and Churchill.

It may be a little too soon to analyze in any detail the positive contributions of the Baby Boomer generation, but I’d like to suggest some as we enter our senior years. Most of us came of age in the 1960’s and 70’s. Since 1960, although we have seen the usual wars and inhumanities, in only about two generations, we have seen greater progress in acceptance, tolerance and equal rights in the United States and Europe than in all previous generations combined.

The recent book and movie, The Help, reminded us how whites in the south treated African Americans in the 1960’s. I live in Georgia now, and treatment and attitudes of the overwhelming majority of whites toward blacks, especially the youth here, is amazingly different. I am not suggesting that there is no prejudice, but there has been a monumental change in conduct and attitude in less than 50 years. A few months ago our local high school, integrated but majority white, elected an African American girl as Miss Camden County High School. Fifty years ago nobody would have thought that could ever happen in Georgia. As for the rest of the country, in California in the 1960’s, although African Americans did not have to use different toilets or drinking fountains or sit in the back of the bus, in nearly every other aspect of life we practiced segregation. Although some segregation in schools and housing still exists, there has been great progress in assimilation. In the 1960’s in Southern California it was rare to see an African American on most of the beaches, in restaurants (except in their neighborhoods) or in any public gathering outside of their neighborhoods. Now, we encounter African Americans in virtually all public places. The same is true of Boston, where I lived from 2007 to 2010. Though I don’t doubt that discrimination in employment still exists, African Americans are now employed at all levels.

The integration of Latin Americans has progressed similarly, but somewhat slower, I believe because of the greater numbers and the language barrier for some.

People in their 20’s and 30’s, as well as children, are likely to have friends of different skin colors, races and religions, something that was rare in the 1960’s and before, but which the younger people give little notice of.

I graduated from law school in 1965. There were two women in my graduating class, both of them older women. By the 1990’s there were more women than men in American law schools. This is just one example of the progress we have made in equal rights for women. The number of women in the workplace now exceeds the number of men. Women are Senators, judges, doctors, lawyers, CEO’s and participate in all walks of life. The majority of Americans believe that women should be able to choose whether to terminate pregnancy, though the controversy, especially among devout Christians, rages on. We have not yet reached total equality at the upper socio-economic levels, but in a few decades, we have made startling progress in that direction.

We have made great progress in acceptance of people who are not heterosexual. As I write this, it appears that gay marriage may become legal everywhere. We still have a ways to go, but gay bashing is becoming far less common than it was just a few years ago, and more gay people are unafraid to publically admit their sexual preferences.

We have made similar progress in accommodating our disabled citizens. Fifty years ago, they were rarely seen in public because they could not physically take advantage of most of our public facilities, and when they did appear in public they often were made fun of. That rarely happens now.

Religious tolerance has progressed at a slower pace, probably because of the passion that some people have for their own spiritual views. Nevertheless, progress has been made. I see less hatred of Protestants for Catholics, Christians for Jews and greater understanding of and respect for Eastern religions. The greatest challenge to religious tolerance now is the hostility Muslim extremists have created in the Jewish and Christian populations against Muslims. We can only hope that this hostility will lessen as, hopefully, the extremists go the way of the Nazis of the 1930’s and 40’s.

Many Baby Boomers have traveled the world and experienced the differences in culture as no previous generation anywhere has. These experiences have produced a greater understanding and appreciation for the vast differences in human cultures and values.

Much injustice in the world still exists, but the progress we have made in a relatively short time in tolerance and acceptance of people different from us has been monumental and historic. I believe that in the next 30 years more progress will be made, and the Baby Boomer generation will be heralded by future generations for our initiation of and contribution to tolerance and acceptance of all humans of whatever gender, race, religion, physical capacity or sexual orientation. That will be our legacy.

Comment from a Reader

I really enjoyed your commentary on the baby boomers, of which I am at the younger end, born in 1959. My husband, however; born in 1951, is rather cynical about the boomers. I remind him of some of the same points you have made, but I would like to tell you of some of the discussions we’ve had. One of the things I notice is ecology. When I as a little kid, back in the 1960′s, it was no big deal to just toss your trash out the car window. I don’t know who we thought was going to pick up after us, but we didn’t think a thing about it. Now people never do that sort of thing. Same thing with pollution. The hippies, flower children, whatever you want to call them, really changed people’s mind about the damage we were doing to the planet. I would also say that in the 50′s and 60′s, music changed from being a form of entertainment to a way to express yourself. (Maresy Doats, Really?!) Thank you for your viewpoints, and for providing this forum.

 

Sheila Keit

 

 

We Are Liars

We all lie––constantly, every day! You lie. I lie. If you think I have been smoking something illegal, I’ll help you understand. We usually lie about how we physically and emotionally feel. We often lie about our opinions of things so as not to offend someone. We lie about our fears, usually by denying them. We feign confidence when we are really insecure. We don’t disclose feelings or facts that would make us look bad or odd. This I would call a passive lie, a lie of non-disclosure.

Lying is not an inherent human characteristic. Young children when they first communicate do not lie. Even when they learn to talk, for awhile they don’t lie. They communicate exactly how they feel about everything. They soon learn to lie from their parents. We teach them to lie by our example. Then, when they tell certain kinds of lies, we punish them. To avoid punishment, they must learn what to lie about and what not to lie about.

If we did not lie, others would consider us so odd that they would shun us. They don’t want to hear the truth. Imagine the following scenarios.

Acquaintance: Hey, what’s up?

You: Well, I was just thinking about death, and I am terrified of dying.

Friend: Hey, let’s go get a cup of coffee.

You: I would like a cup of coffee, but I really don’t feel like being around you right now.

Friend, excitedly: I just booked a two week cruise to the Caribbean.

You: I don’t know why anyone would want to go to the Caribbean.

Friend: How do you like my new shirt?

You: I think it’s hideous.

Acquaintance: Hey, good to see you. How have you been?

You: Lately I’ve been thinking about committing suicide.

Any of these responses to a friend or acquaintance, while truthful, would at best make them think you were really weird, and at worst would make them flee from your company, never to cross your path again.

We don’t want people to think we are odd or weird, let alone refuse to have anything to do with us. So, instead of being truthful, we lie.

Now, I know that we call these lies “little white lies,” meaning that they do no harm.  We sincerely think that. The harm that it causes is that nobody gets to know the real us. They think they know us, but they don’t know us at all. They have a highly distorted picture of the real person hiding behind these lies. Likewise, we have a highly distorted view of them. People don’t really get to know each other.

We don’t really want people to know who we are. We don’t want them to know what we fear, what our insecurities are, what makes us feel inadequate, when we think we are worthless, or incompetent, etc. We want them to think we are someone we are not.

Doesn’t this strike you as being odd?

 

Why Congress Won’t Ban Assault Weapons and How It Will Get Done

The media’s talking heads and many others wonder why roughly 65% of people polled in the United States are in favor of banning assault weapons, but the President can’t get Congress to even vote on the bill, let alone pass it. The cynical among us attribute it to the evil influence of the National Rifle Association through their large contributions to Congressional campaigns. I don’t believe that it is quite as sinister as that. (Incidentally, since even the majority of the N.R.A.’s members support a ban on assault weapons, the interest that the N.R.A. is advocating is not that of its members, but is that of the gun manufacturers, who probably contribute huge sums of money to the N.R.A. to do their bidding).

The reason Congress will not vote to ban assault weapons is because Congress is organized so that the largely rural states have more votes, especially in the Senate. Remember that the Senate has two members from each state. In the Senate Montana has as many votes as California. Wyoming and Rhode Island each has as many votes as New York. Even the House of Representatives, because of gerrymandering, is organized so that the big cities have fewer votes then their proportional population. That is one reason why in 2010 the Republicans gained a substantial majority in the House, but only two years later Obama was re-elected. The support for guns and against so-called big government and government “interference” is greatest in these rural areas, just as the Republican Party controls most of the rural areas in the country, while most big cities vote Democratic.

I am not saying that the N.R.A. has no influence Congress, but I don’t think it is as strong as many believe. The influence comes from their constituents, as it should be. For example, Harry Reid, the Democratic Leader of the Senate, whom one would normally expect to support gun control, is from Nevada, a state in which the majority strongly opposes gun control. He is listening to his constituents, and he represents a State of 4 million people but has a vote equal to that of Senator Feinstein of California, where 38 million reside.

Our forefathers, as wise as they were in forming our federal government, did not foresee that eventually we would change from a country of farmers to a highly developed industrial and technological country of many big cities. They set up the Senate to limit the power of the federal government and make sure that the States had more power. This haunts us in many ways, but particularly when it comes to issues such as immigration and gun control, which the white majorities in the rural areas oppose.

However, maybe this ebb and flow of power, even deadlock, within the two major political parties of our country, which has stymied progress and frustrated us all, is a good thing. Maybe, if all of the changes that you and I would like to see happen immediately, whether that be the policies advocated by liberals or conservatives, were adopted all at once, it would cause at best unrest and instability and at worst revolution. Maybe it is better that the changes happen more slowly than we would like to see.

I am confident that we will see an aggressive program to protect the environment; truly equal rights for women, minorities and people of all sexual orientations; a fair immigration policy; a fairer tax code; sensible gun control; programs to eradicate hunger and homelessness; and a better educational system. However, I don’t think it will happen right away, or even in our lifetime, and that might be a good thing.

I have learned that during the debates about our Constitution in the 1780s, the majority from the north were opposed to slavery and would have liked to have banned it in the Constitution. However, they realized that if they were able to ram it through, it would divide the country in two and/or cause a new revolution. Even three generations later the disagreement over slavery, in part, caused the Civil War, or as some here in Georgia still call it, The War of Northern Aggression. Throughout world history dramatic and sudden change has often resulted in a situation worse then it was before the change.

The changes will come when, despite the influence of the so-called special interest groups, the people demand it by vigorous action, not just responding to polls. That is the way a democracy works, especially one that has all of the checks and balances that our Constitution provides. Some day, the people will rise up and demand a change in our nation’s gun laws because culture will have changed, and sensible gun control legislation will be adopted. Until then, we will have to live with it.

Free Lodging for Travelers––Yes Believe it!

As many of you know, my second passion (after writing) is travel. I love to travel, and I try to travel economically. The three biggest expenditures when you travel are transportation, hotels and food. I skimp the most on hotels. With rare exceptions, I don’t hang around the hotel. I use it to sleep, and I don’t want to spend a lot of money for a place to sleep. My only requirements are that it is reasonably clean and not too noisy to sleep. Location is important too. I also look for alternatives to hotels. I have often used http://airbnb, an online service where people rent out a room in their home or even an entire apartment or house for less than you pay for a hotel room. You should do appropriate research on location, bathroom bathroom and kitchen facilities, but for most places there are plenty of reviews by previous users that you can rely on and photos of what is offered.

Recently, I have discovered another alternative––house sitting. Many years ago, I heard from a friend of a friend that her friend who owned a home on the beach on the north shore of Oahu was looking for someone to house sit. They were going to be away for some time and didn’t want to leave the house vacant for that long, and they needed someone to water their indoor plants. I and my then wife and three children stayed there for three weeks one summer––free lodging. It was wonderful. I have never done anything like that since, though I have travelled all over the world. No friend ever offered, and It never occurred to me that it could work with a stranger’s house. Now I learn that there is a website where people offer their homes for house sitting, and others request homes in specific areas to housesit. Indeed, there is more than one way to skin a cat, as the old saying goes––sorry cat lovers.

House sitting is different from a house exchange or swap, where someone stays in your house while you stay in theirs, and that wouldn’t work for you if you don’t have a great house in a desirable location, or you simply don’t want strangers staying in your home. House sitting is very simply looking after other people’s homes while they’re away. People have all different reasons that they take on a house sitter: some have pets that need looking after, others have a garden that needs weeding and watering. Some might have a pool and some people might just want someone in the house to deter any opportunistic burglars. Whatever the reasons, there are an increasing number of opportunities for travellers to look after other people’s homes and pets while they’re away over on house sitting sites like TrustedHousesitters.com. There is no obligation to reciprocate.

With house sitting what you’re offering is yourself and your services as a house or pet minder. Homeowners tend to look for people with experience, a well-filled out profile and police background checks. All of these are obtainable: a well-filled out profile takes some time, a police background check can usually be picked up for around USD10 and references and experience – well, start with friends and family first and work from there! (You can read through the job descriptions of current assignments and get an idea for what homeowners ask for.)

Angela Laws has been house sitting with her husband John for the past five years. During that time she’s managed to stay in beach houses in California, apartments in NYC and vineyards in France – all for free (you can read a little more about her adventures in this interview with MetroNews.ca). Her top tip for wannabe house sitters is to build up a report with the home and pet owners – read the job description thoroughly and make sure you answer all of their requirements in your initial application email. “I’ve had pet owners tell me that they get applicants who never even mention the animals” she says.

Retired travellers tend to do well on Trusted Housesitters. There’s something synonymous about the word retired and responsible and that’s ultimately what homeowners are looking for, someone or a couple that they can entrust their home and pets with for a few weeks or months. If you need any inspiration take a look at Valerie & Edward.

A Way to Live More Fully: Being Present

One of the advantages and joys of retirement is the time to figure out some things that you just couldn’t focus on when you were working full time. Figure out how to live more fully. One way is to “be present” or “live in the moment” as much as possible. When you are present you notice and find joy in the beauty around you that you never noticed before. It really works, but you have to make the effort because most of us have spent years out of the present––planning or worrying about the future, regretting or reminiscing about the past.

Being present means focusing on what is in front of you at the moment. The first time I was aware of another person who was “being present” was while talking with a woman I had recently met. There was conversation all around her, and her attention was not on me. I asked her a question. She turned to look at me and answered the question fully, which took several minutes. During that time she continued looking straight at me, concentrating totally on what she was saying and my reaction. Weeks later, I was eating dinner with a friend and noticed how she focused on chewing and the taste of the food, and did not converse much during the meal. When either of us talked, she stopped eating and was “present” for the conversation. Without trying, these women taught me what “being present” is.

The more we practice being present, the less frequently our minds will wander back to the past or forward to the future. I practice observing everything around me wherever I am—just being. I practice when I am doing mundane, everyday tasks. When I brush my teeth, rather than daydream or think about what I am going to do that day, I focus my attention fully on brushing my teeth, noticing exactly where I am brushing, what it feels like, what it tastes and smells like and the sound that it makes. When I do the dishes, I try to concentrate totally on that, rather than daydream about something. When I walk on the beach, unless the purpose of my walk is to think about something, I try not to think of anything except what I see, hear and smell on the beach. What a difference from when I used to walk on the beach and afterwards barely remember the walk! Being present is experiencing life; anything else is less.

Living in the moment 100 percent of the time, even if possible, would invite disaster for all but cloistered monks. Sometimes, it is necessary to plan future activities or desirable to think about what we have learned in the past in order to solve present problems or avoid present threats to our well being, but clinging sentimentally to the unending stream of items that have flowed through our lives detracts from living.

Why Do We Make Art?

 Making art, whether it is writing, dance, music or visual, is often excruciating emotionally, exhausting, lonely and rarely remunerative. Why do we do it––in my case writing and occasionally drawing? I have often asked that question and always felt that my answer was shallow, inadequate, incomplete and uninformative. My answer has been, “…because I have to.” It is true that I am compelled to write by forces that are difficult to understand and explain, but I should be able to do better than that.

 As I was ruminating over the question off and on, in a recent email a stranger who had read one or more of my books provided one clue. He wrote:

“Just love your work, especially Digging Deep. You have inspired me to dig deep and to be honest about how I think about my past and how I go about discovering what my true passion(s) are.”

Receipt of a comment like this is inspirational and rewarding. We all like to be praised, but for me (and I suspect most artists), it is more complicated and deeper than that. Art is communication, often on a deep level. At least, I like to think mine sometimes is. I believe that human beings are wired to want to communicate meaningfully with each other, and the way we introverts communicate most effectively (and sometimes profoundly) is through our art. When we have reached another human being through our art, as apparently I did in this instance, it is supremely rewarding. Why we make art is more complicated than what I have just described, but I believe I have hit on one reason, the desire, the longing to communicate something that touches another human.

Joyce Carol Oates, in her typically articulate and “hit the nail on the head” style, explains another reason that hits home:

“One of the motives for creating art is a feeling of homesickness, that you’ve lost something. That’s very powerful and haunting and you can’t quite get to it in your conscious life. Through your imagination you’re inhabiting this invisible and palpable place. That’s one of the reasons why people write–that’s why I write–out of loneliness and homesickness you’re evoking this lost world.”

As I understand her point, through expressing our imagination in its broadest sense, through our art, we relieve ourselves to some extent from and make useful these feelings of loneliness, homesickness and loss that are inherent in conscious human life. That rings true to me.

Perhaps, practicing artists feel what Oates describes more intensely than most others, and that compels us to make art, to try to experience some sanity, some use of the loneliness, homesickness and loss, and feel some purpose for our bewildering existence.

Facing Loneliness

Loneliness is a common problem for people who live alone and especially for retirees. Even those with a spouse or partner must have friends, or their marriage or partnership will suffer. Partners may die or leave. It is important to have a supportive friendship network in place. It is a problem especially for those, like me, who live alone and tend to be introverts. Some people have a problem ever being alone. Some truly enjoy a lot of solitude. Both groups need some human interaction, and even with a network of friends, many of us still face loneliness at times.

Of course, in reality we are all alone inside our heads. Nobody can join us in our minds. The degree of discomfort we feel from being lonely relates to what we tell ourselves that it means. If we realize that everyone is lonely from time-to-time, and that it is simply a circumstance that bears no relationship to who we are or our value as a person, it does not feel so uncomfortable. What makes it severely uncomfortable is if we feel that loneliness means that we are inadequate, that it is our fault that we don’t have enough friends, that we are inferior. These kinds of thoughts pervade our minds when we feel lonely, sometimes on the surface, but sometimes deep within, and it is difficult to purge such thoughts.

When I feel lonely, I remind myself that loneliness will not last forever; it will pass. For me, as a single man, loneliness is most profound at night and occurs most markedly when I am home, especially if I have not been out and about for a day or two. I find something to do out of the house. Of course, visiting a friend or family member would be the best cure, but they are not always available. Some of the things I do to resolve feeling lonely include:

• I keep a local paper that announces what is going on in town each week. There usually is something going on that interests me enough to get me out.

• Often there is a movie I would like to see. For me, watching a movie in a theater is much more likely to relieve loneliness than watching one on TV at home. When I go to the theater, if I’m feeling lonely, I indulge myself, have some popcorn—with butter.

• I haven’t joined the local senior citizen’s center, but I could if loneliness became a serious problem. I remember that participation in a senior citizen’s center relieved my mother of loneliness after my father had died.

• Nighttime is usually when I am most likely to feel lonely. I try to plan some nighttime activities: take a class at the local adult school; schedule exercise for the evening if that is practical; look at the local newspaper and see what is going on at night in my community.

• I get out of the house and do something; I try not to be picky. There is something of interest going on somewhere. If I keep an open mind as to what might be enjoyable, I usually find something. Sometimes if I’m feeling lonely and have difficulty finding something that sounds interesting, I try something anyway, even if it doesn’t sound appealing. Often, I am pleasantly surprised. The worst thing to do is to sit around home and mope.

• If it’s daylight, sometimes I go for a hike in nature. Although it is solitary, the natural environment and just doing something sometimes makes me feel less lonely, like I’m a part of something else. I walk on the beach and sometimes stop at a restaurant for a beer.

• Most cities these days have live music. That is often my diversion from loneliness.

• I’m not a golfer, but, if I were, I would go to a golf course or driving range. I know that there often will be a threesome delighted to have me join them. Or I would practice at a driving range. Similarly, if I played tennis, I would seek out tennis partners.

• Sometimes I call a friend. Some of my best friends live far away. Sometimes calling them relieves my loneliness. Call as many people as you can think of. They may not have the time to get together, but they might take a few minutes to talk on the phone.

• Just going out to dinner helps. I don’t sit at a table and stare at the other people enjoying each other’s company; I sit at the bar and strike up a conversation with somebody else at the bar or the bartender, if he or she is not too busy.

• I go to a baseball game, if the home team is in town; even a college or high school game is good enough. Baseball is my game, but, of course, basketball, football, soccer or any sport works just as well.

• I go to the horse races once in a while. I don’t bet much, but I try to strike up conversations with people I sit near.

• I go to some type of event that I have never been to before—a polo match, a flea market, a cat show?

• I write letters to my friends and family, old-fashioned letters, not email.

• I go for a massage.

• I exercise. I don’t like gyms, but they do get you with other people.

• I go to a lecture or class, or browse a bookstore.

• I attend Meet-Up Groups of writers.

• I go wine tasting and talk to the other tasters.

• I take a train somewhere, anywhere, and go to the bar or café car and strike up a conversation with someone.

• I go to a park, and watch a kids’ soccer game or Little League game.

• I go to a play or concert or visit a museum, anywhere that there are people. Even if I don’t talk to them, it feels less lonely just to be around people.

• I converse with people in online groups such as Linked In and Yahoo Groups. I joined writers’ groups on the Internet and participate in lively discussions about writing, publishing and promoting books and articles. That not only relieves loneliness to some extent while I’m online, but it may eventually result in face-to-face interaction.

• Occasionally, when I’m lonely, and nothing works to alleviate it, I just feel it. I consciously focus on how it feels to be lonely. I don’t cry from loneliness anymore because I don’t feel like it, but I used to, and if you feel like it, cry. Then think about how that feels. Sometimes if I focus on my loneliness in a meditative state, eventually it passes.

I avoid taking any medication for loneliness. Clinical depression is another story, and requires professional intervention. However, taking medication (or alcohol) for loneliness or even episodic depression results in dependency, and, from my observation does not solve the problem. Loneliness is closely related to episodic (as opposed to chronic) depression. It may feel the same. In the book Flourish, Martin Seligman, founder of the Positive Psychology movement, discusses the ineffectiveness of antidepressants for episodic depression. He also provides a strategy for curing episodic depression. (It is important, too, to distinguish between depression and sadness. Everybody experiences sadness, and it will dissipate in time. Depression lingers.)

Writing helped me to feel that I was doing something worthwhile, something that mattered. That played an important role in helping me break free from the loss and loneliness that I felt. Good relationships with my children and friends helped. I still feel lonely occasionally, but it passes.

 

 

                      

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

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