Sunday, January 31, 2010

At sea

This cruising thing is new to me. Pretty cool, to be sure, but a bit out of my league. The food has been very good, as have been the amenities. Staff has been very friendly with smiles all around. A thought I had earlier this week was that Norwegian Cruise Lines really knows how to throw a week-long party. 24/7 fun, that’s for sure.

Perhaps a bit too much for us introverts, though. Still, all are encouraged to do what they need to do. Stay in where it’s quiet? Room service no charge. Gambling? All day and all night when out in the Gulf. Reading library? Check. Internet time? Check. Television in your stateroom? Check. Entertaining evening show? Check. (For us, a Cirque de Soleil act one night and a Second City troupe for two. Other shows, too, but we passed in favor of quiet time.)

I’ve spent time nightly standing at the prow of the Norwegian Spirit in the dark looking out over the sea passing all around us. Wind up there has been strong, and meditative. A line from Cooleridge’s Ancient Mariner would be appropriate, I suppose. Of course, with him, it was the calm that made life so tough. ‘Tough’ is not an adjective I would use for a Western Caribbean cruise.

I’ve spent more time on the balcony of our stateroom, up here on the highest lodging deck of the ship, deck 11. Our first morning out from New Orleans was just beautiful with bright sun streaming in our port side room. For Ohioans trying to escape winter, it was absolutely perfect. Cindy even interrupted her early morning sleep to come join me on our balcony for a few minutes. She closed her eyes and let the sun penetrate her skin. Her red glow is an image first etched in my memory years ago on our first spring break trip to Florida. The girl seems to blossom under the warm sub-tropical sun.

This is our last day on the cruise. I thought I would blog more often, but the truth of the matter is I rather enjoyed being on vacation. NCL touts ‘Freestyle Cruising’ -- doing/eating what you want when you want -- and that’s pretty much how we’ve handled things. It’s been a nice break from schedules back home.

This morning, as we head north back toward New Orleans, we are experiencing our first ‘rainy day.’ The ambient temperature is comfortable (70s) but humid (90%). We’ve passed trough a few rain squalls so far by 9 am. I walked 30 minutes of rounds of the Promenade Deck this morning for a bit of exercise. I worked up a bit of a sweat, but the air conditioning here in the stateroom now is quite comfortable. Vacation, indeed. And a hot breakfast here in a few minutes, too. Life could be tougher, you know? ;-)

[Written: Saturday, 30 January. Posted: Sunday, 31 January]

Today’s elder idea: Water, water everywhere / But not a drop to drink / Water, water everywhere / And all the boards did shrink...

Samuel Taylor Cooleridge, from The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner

It’s the only line I can remember from Mr. Hemmert’s English class -- and not at all true on the Spirit.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Points South

From the look of the graphic accompanying this blog, you could rightfully assume Cindy Lou and I are off on a cruise. Indeed we are! It will be our first.

Actually, our first cruise was supposed to be the first fall Cindy Lou was out of the classroom. I thought it would be a spectacular way to celebrate her successful run as a classroom teacher. Unfortunately, fall 2005 was also the season of Hurricane Katrina. As with this trip, we had hoped to hop across the Gulf of Mexico for a restful and fun week. Our Carnival ship was to depart Mobile. After Katrina hit the Gulf coast and it was apparent how much death and destruction she wrought, we tried to cancel our trip. Carnival said no. We were really distressed, thinking how hard it would be to drive through the hammered South just to get on a boat for fun. Within a couple days of our departure, however, Carnival contacted us with the cancellation notice. It seems that our boat was to be used for emergency housing in the short term. Good for Carnival.

This time, however, we picked a travel time that was outside the hurricane season. And to make it even sweeter, this time we depart from the Port of New Orleans, our adopted ‘favorite big city in the US.‘ This time, too, we’re on Norwegian Cruise Line, a company that promotes ‘freestyle cruising‘ that lets you eat whenever you want. No formal dress. Phew. I don’t know about you, but I hate to think about taking a tuxedo on vacation.

And to make our embarkation day even better, the New Orleans Saints host the Minnesota Farves at home on that very day for the NFL divisional championship. We should be able to watch the game on TV as the boat leaves port for our journey across the Gulf. Go Saints!

As you might imagine, there is still much to do today. I’ve got the newspaper stopped, but need to get word to the post office yet. And, no, I haven’t packed yet, but I do have an impressive pile of stuff gathered from around the house that needs to find a spot in the car. So we’re doing okay.

Oh. And to round out this trip -- this time celebrating Cindy Lou’s birthday in late January -- we travel over to the space coast of Florida to watch Endeavour launch on Super Bowl Sunday. At least we hope it launches that day. All things seem to be in order so far with the shuttle. And after that early morning launch, we’ll have a few days on Cocoa Beach to soak up some sun before we head back north for one more month of winter. I don’t know how often I’ll be able to file an updated blog entry, but I’m confident I’ll be able to send up a few.

You know, I really like this retired thing.

Today’s elder idea: 2010: The year of the Freestyle Vacation.

Norwegian Cruise Line

Monday, January 18, 2010

S'no secret

Here it is a winter Monday morning just a bit more than a week after a decent four inch snowfall blanketed the Miami Valley. We had a pretty cold week and the snow stuck around nicely. But this morning, after a pretty ‘warm’ weekend -- mid 40 degrees or so -- only the deepest piles of snow remain. The rest has melted into memory.

And in that seasonal reality, is today’s blog idea: snowy days when one can stay at home and just watch it come down is a gift that’s hard to beat. True, I never had a winter job that I had to get to, no matter what. I suspect grocery story workers, gas station attendants, and police and fire departments don’t share my joy of snowy days. They have to make it in. It is only the extraordinary snow event -- a blizzard or the 12-incher -- that shuts down the majority of businesses until things get unburied.

I suppose it is the teaching profession that honed my joy of snowy days. Snow predicted? Even if it’s just a dusting, Cindy Lou and I would watch the late night news hoping the prediction was improved to a deeper snowfall. The first thing we’d do when the radio alarm came on at 5:45 am was listen for school announcements. And on those days when we’d hear, ‘Huber Heights City Schools, closed’ we’d give a little hoot and pull up the covers for a bit longer winter’s nap. When we got up later in the morning would be plenty of time to begin the refiguring of lesson plans to see how we would adjust to the loss of one instructional day.

But for me, one of the true joys of snow is the quiet world it creates. The accumulation on the lawn hides the winter brown of the front yard grass. And in the back of the house, where we are mostly bushes and trees, the snow gently settles on limb and branch to change its look in ways we know will be only temporary, but nonetheless beautiful. While it’s falling, a wonderland of change is taking place. The ‘sin’ of autumn’s fallen leaves is covered quickly in a good storm, and in my mind, at least, the natural transformation is a time for contemplation.

And that, I suppose, is this part of the world’s snow secret. On a heavy snow day, the world changes before your eyes in just hours. And it’s more than just visual. Mundane shopping trips are postponed, sometimes even church closes. Busy schedules change. The world slows down. Folks are known to pick up books they got for Christmas they haven’t had time for yet, grab a blanket, and a late morning read on the couch ensues. We don’t burn wood for essential heat in our house, but on snowy days I like to fire one up just for the ambience and the wood smoke smell that lingers in the house.

But especially for me, it’s the walk in the snow that really makes my day. Yes, the driveway will need shoveling, and that can be a backbreaker. But before I tie into snow’s removal, I love to walk out in it. Traffic is minimal, if at all. And the quiet. It’s almost tangible. The soft white stuff soaks up sounds that leaves me in a place I don’t find myself very often: true silence. No TV in the background. No phone ringing. No hum of computer fans. Just quiet.

Well, maybe the laughter of an accompanying grandkid who’s out of school for the day cuts through the snowfall, but that’s part of the snow secret, too. Good stuff. Makes life in these parts pretty special.

Today’s elder idea: Kindness is like snow. It beautifies everything it covers.


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Western zen

I’m not big on new year’s resolutions. Like so many others, I’ve never been successful at keeping them for longer than a couple of weeks, if I ever even get started with them in the first place. I must admit, though, there is a positive feel to ending a year with the hope of putting some poor habits aside in the attempt of doing life better.

For me this year, there were two resolutions: first, in conjunction with the lovely Cindy Lou, we committed to working out three days a weeks at the rec center. Weight has something to do with this one, though both of us would feel better if we just got a bit more tone in our bodies. So far, pretty good. We’ve missed a few days, but we’re still on schedule. She likes the walking machines, I’d prefer just walking the indoor track. We spend about one hour doing what we do, then get back to our regular business. I must admit, too, that like going to church, our rec center visits have the potential of broadening the ground we share and deepening our relationship. Besides, we’re having some fun together.

My second new year’s resolution was a more personal thing. Many moons ago a counselor suggested I try reading Jon Kabat-Zinn’s zen masterpiece, Wherever You Go, There You Are. Steven offered that some of my angst with living might be alleviated by being more zen and practicing mindfulness. That was Kabat-Zinn’s mantra: practice regular meditation, and in so doing, the power of the universe can be better realized in our own lives.

I tried the meditation road for a while, but I could not stay with it. I liked the quiet sit, but I could never quite figure out where it fit into my day. Morning would be best, of course, but then there is the daily walk I’m supposed to take (that was another morning resolution from long ago), the daily newspaper to read, and the myriad other things that retired folk find on their calendar. Still, I thought taking on a short chapter from Kabat-Zinn’s book every day might get me back into a deeper spiritual track.

I am still hopeful, but when I just now picked up my copy to scan for the graphic included above, it was the first time I touched the book in 2010. A new year’s resolution failure already by January 12? Maybe, but I know Kabat-Zinn is there when I need him. And to be honest, I do feel that I’m pretty mindful in my life. Whatever I’m doing, I do try to be present with it. I haven’t missed any weekly blogs this year yet. That’s good. And when I’m in the kitchen, I love to get into food prep. And I’ve done a little bit of writing. So I think I’m pretty zen in some ways.

Still, my Western life style keeps me buzzing around pretty often and the zen of being still eludes me. And I guess that is the point of my blog today: I am weary of concluding for some time now that by living the natural lifestyle of mid-America, I am somehow missing the deeper truths of life and the universe offered by Eastern zen philosophers.

So instead of feeling guilty for already giving up on Wherever You Go..., I feel a bit more comfortable today just believing that life is as it should be and I’m making way honestly and authentically. I’m no lazy bum and I try to be aware of what’s going on around me, whether that’s nature- or people-based. I guess I want to think that what I’m doing is good enough. Not that I don’t have more to learn. It’s just that feeling like I’m missing the philosophical boat every day -- that isn’t a natural part of my Western thinking -- leaves me with way too familiar feelings of guilt. Rather not go there if I don’t have to.

I think I know that living a mindful life might look different to different people. If the truth be told, I’m pretty happy with mine the way it is.

Still, I’d recommend Wherever You Go, There You Are. Good stuff to fold into living.

Today’s elder idea: To allow ourselves to be truly in touch with where we already are, no matter where that is, we have got to pause in our experience long enough to let the present moment sink in; long enough to actually feel the present moment, to see it in it fullness, to hold it in awareness and thereby come to know and understand it better.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

from Wherever You Go, There You Are

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Old friends

Lost a good friend earlier today. Totally unexpected. Age mate. Actually, just one day younger than I am. She’s the one in the picture on the left. Married one of my oldest and dearest friends -- the guy in the middle -- back when we were all just kids.

We didn’t think we were kids then, of course. We were pushing 21, for pete’s sake. We knew we didn’t know everything, but we had confidence we’d cypher out the puzzles, whether social or personal. Her name was Jana. He is Richard, though most call him Dick. Her death is a mystery.

We were all going to turn 60 in March. God willing, the remaining three of us will. Just not Jana. Oh, and the party we were already planning. You see, Dick’s and my birthday are both 23 March. Jana’s was the 24th. (The other gal pictured here is Mary. Her birthday is 6 March.) Ever since our 40th birthday in 1990, we’ve had a party for friends and family every five years.

Dick and I are particularly good buddies because after our high school days -- we’re both Carroll HS 1968 -- we rented a house along with another high school buddy, John. John and I were attending dear old Wright State U, while Dick finished at ITT and took a real job making real money with real benefits in the lumber/millwork business. Oh, the parties we had! Not too many, but cool. Lots of friends. Ping pong, talk, some guitar music and song amid the smoke in the bedroom. Couldn’t tell you what kind of food we had. I’m sure it wasn’t much, but nobody complained. At one party, a friend of mine lamented the absence of his girl who lived in Ravenna, Ohio, up by Kent State. I was between girlfriends, but had a hot prospect in Cleveland. I looked at him, he looked at me, and then he said, ‘I’ll drive.’ I said, ‘I’ll share the gas.’ And away we went to see the women. Such a visit that was.

Since those days on Samuel Street, John went to work for the state (social work) and I took a job teaching in Huber Heights. Dick carried on with lumber -- and was the first of our triumvirate to move on. He and his girlfriend, Jana, were ready to make the commitment. Indeed they did. They ended up with two lovely daughters and -- so far -- a couple of grandboys.

A couple months before that 40th birthday party, I got a phone call from John’s mother-in-law. She spoke haltingly and I couldn’t quite comprehend what she said. Perhaps it is more accurate to say I didn’t want to understand what she said: John had suffered a brain aneurism and was at death’s door. It wasn’t good. He lasted a few days, but never was able to tell anybody anything. Many of the folks from those good old parties gathered one more time to escort John to his final resting place. Still, the 40th birthday party went on. John’s picture, placed on the mantel, was toasted many times that evening.

And now as we plan our 60th birthday party -- Jana had been in on the details -- we’ll have another picture on the mantel. Such a shame.

Still, we know we’re all headed in that direction. As I say every once in a while, ‘Nobody’s getting out of here alive.’ And it’s true. Cindy and I have been to three or four funerals lately of folks about our age. And every time we get home, we talk about our own demise. And we hug and are grateful for one more day.

I feel great loss. Jana was a sweet spirit. Dick hurts. Their girls hurt. Jana won’t get to watch those little boys grow up. That’s one of the things that gets to me most. I so much love to work and play with my own grandkids. She has been deprived of that joy. Same with John. Shoot, John didn’t even live long enough to meet his daughter-in-law.

And I guess that makes me lucky to still be here. Trust me. I know.

Today’s elder idea: Can you imagine us years from today, sharing a park bench quietly? How terribly strange to be 70.

from ‘Old Friends’/ Simon & Garfunkel’s Bookends (1968)

Monday, January 4, 2010

Peace and values

As a dad and granddad, I’ve been interested in how kids grow up for many years now. Surely I wanted my own girls to end up with a meaningful career, a house in a safe neighborhood, a trustworthy car, and enough food in the pantry to insure nobody went hungry. In addition to those concrete things, I wanted my kids and grandkids to grow up and older with a solid sense of community values.

I hoped fairness and honesty would be front and center values for my progeny. On the most part, I’d say they met my expectations. Sometimes I wish I could make an honest comment that would be accepted, perhaps even put into play in raising their own kids. There are times, however, I have come to accept that dad’s ideas are unwelcome. I don’t always like it, but I accept that my girls are now women and mothers of their own families and my thoughts/ideas/suggestions merely come from another generation whose prime time has come and gone.

Still, my heart hurts when I realize one of my most sincere dreams from the 60s -- peace -- does not rank high in either my daughters’ or their children’s hierarchy of values.

Around Grandpa Tom’s house it was made known summers ago that we don’t play with guns here. No ‘shoot ‘em up’ stuff on the Wii, either. Golf, tennis, and bowling are cool, but no shooting countless villains while storming, often, a bastion of goodness. Kids these days get a charge out of being big bad Darth Vader. They seem to forget he stood by as a willing apprentice while planets of (fictional) good people were destroyed in one fell swoop. Being the bad guy and wearing black is cool. I suppose Johnny Cash thought the same thing, too.

I do know that I ‘played guns’ when I was a kid, too. It was cowboys and Indians back then. And, yes, the Indians were the bad guys. Reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and teaching history for over a decade has changed that. I’m not so sure these days just who is the bad guy. Conservatives would probably condemn me for thinking it just might be us more often than not.

Still, I have held throughout my adult life that treating others with peace is one of my richest core values. And not just neighbors, students, or spouses either. Nature’s people deserve the same, too. Sure, I discourage squirrels from cleaning out my peanut feeder, but I have made a daily practice of offering bird seed and water to Nature’s People, even on days with freezing temperatures like this one.

Surely peace is a deep and complicated value that defies simple analysis. I feed birds, but how about my eating chicken and turkey? Isn’t raising critters for butchering a kind of brutality? Shouldn’t all self-professed peaceniks be vegetarians or vegans? Maybe. I tend to think that eating a balanced diet is the way Earth operates. I need not be ashamed of my meat-tearing incisors.

I have watched the 10-something boys use sticks and plastic golf clubs as rifles, firing away at phantom enemies, dropping them in great numbers. They even seem to enjoy being ‘hit’ themselves, tumbling into a heap of temporary death now and then. I suppose I did the same thing. I still give the ban on violence lip service, but I accept the kids are acting out something that is beyond my control.

Still, it hurts to know that peace does not rank a higher place in family values that I tried to instill as a young dad beginning almost forty years ago. I suppose all I can really do is model how it’s done through my own behavior. And trust me, I’ll continue to encourage kids to set out the model train on the basement floor and get creative with blocks instead of getting zoned out on Call of Duty or Halo. There are days it seems like a lost cause, though.

Today’s elder idea: If we are to teach real peace in this world, and if we are to carry on a real war against war, we shall have to begin with the children.

Mahatma Ghandhi