Blanche Dubois proclaimed, in A Streetcar Named Desire, that she had ‘always relied on the kindness of strangers’. I don’t pretend to understand this film, mostly because the first and only time I ever watched it I was in my early 20’s. Note to Self: Add this to my Netflix ‘to watch’ list. That said, this particular line of dialogue has always struck a chord with me. My gut reaction to Blanche’s social situation and how she dealt with her world was one of dismay and annoyance. Was she someone with so little self-esteem that she milked sympathy from others and used her helplessness to her advantage rather than finding (or being able to?) garner strength from within?

Regardless of whether my read on this film hits the mark (and I’ll be the first to admit that it most likely does not) I still maintain that there do seem to be people, sadly the majority of whom appear to be women, who enjoy playing the victim. Truth be told I’ve probably played this role myself at times especially early in my adult life, coming off a hasty marriage and subsequent divorce at a very young age which left me as a single parent and not a clue what I wanted to do with my life. Because I, apparently much like Blanche, had so little self-confidence and was sorely, SORELY lacking in self-esteem, I made many poor choices but never had the wherewithal to question my own contributions to the sad state of affairs that was my life.

Wow. Methinks this might turn into something I hadn’t quite had in mind when I started out…

And so I plodded along making mistakes left and right, friendless and rudderless indeed. My own family was, I’m certain, frustrated and annoyed with my antics (to say the least) and I felt so very alone. If not for my son, the only real joy of my life during that dark, dark time, I may have been (additional) fodder for the gossips wagging their tongues at water coolers and on the production line in the factory where I worked.

The real turning point for me was when I decided to quit my job to enroll in the drafting program at our local community college. I was a Bill of Material coordinator and, having worked closely with the engineering group at our company, I thought drafting might be a good fit for me. I was mistaken but wouldn’t discover that until a few months later. In any case, as a non-traditional student and single parent I was able to qualify for student aid and earned several scholarships along the way. My first class, taken in the summer, was an intermediate algebra class. When I received a ‘D’ on my first exam I was despondent and certain that I’d (yet again) made a colossal error in judgment in quitting my job and embarking on such silliness as thinking I could actually go to ‘college’. However, I was encouraged to take advantage of the tutoring services that were offered and that little nugget of advice made all the difference in the world.

Once I realized that drafting wasn’t for me I did, at the same time, realize that I had a knack for math. Who knew? In high school I took the easiest courses I could to satisfy the mathematics requirements for graduation. With the help of tutors and a strong motivation to succeed, I eventually moved on to take the required courses for a degree in mathematics. I even became a math tutor myself and was designated the honor of Outstanding Math Sophomore. (Fun Fact: My husband, a natural whiz at most everything but especially in math whereas I had to work my tail off to get good grades, was also bestowed the honor at the same time. Both our photos hung on the bulletin board outside the math office where we often studied together. Remembering that makes me smile).

Ultimately I switched my major to Management Information Services and Bill and I both transferred to Iowa State University to finish our studies and obtain our degrees.

This single decision, to quit my job and go to school at the age of 34, a decision my then-boss tried to talk me out of as he thought I was making a grave mistake, was the best, the most important thing I ever did to improve my lot in life. Where I was once overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy, success in school gave me a lifetime allotment of self-confidence. Going to college significantly boosted my earning power as well and, best of all, I met my husband in the process.

I’m a little easier on myself now than I was in my late 20’s and early 30’s. How to separate youthful indiscretions from soul-wrenching errors in judgment, it’s hard to say. Through it all, my son – who deserved better than what he got – to this day sees me as his hero. I can now reminisce about the truly good times we did have together and how I did do right by him in many, many ways. He tells others about the wonderful memories we shared together, how we went camping and spelunking and how he enjoyed and has such an appreciation for the music I loved while he was growing up and our love of movies and yes – film dialogue, to come a bit full circle here.

A few years ago someone, in what I perceived as an attempt to excuse her behavior and poor choices in life, lamented that she was ‘a victim’. She seemed almost to revel in it and I recall thinking of the words Blanche uttered in that famous film. It was, perhaps, then that a seed was planted and I realized I never wanted anyone to perceive me in that way, if ever they did, ever again.

Strength of purpose, clarity of self, motivation to succeed and the drive to challenge oneself are more empowering than the fruits of any stranger’s kindness could ever bestow. Sometimes, though, I do forget these things for myself. Being human I occasionally allow myself to wallow in self-pity but it is an ugly blanket with which to cover oneself and thankfully the mood eventually passes.

While I was taking that first summer math class I befriended another non-traditional student who planned to pursue a degree in engineering. We chatted one day not long after the class first began and she told me she was struck by my self-confidence that very first day and commented on how self-assured I appeared to her.  She said I seemed to ‘have it all together’.  I was dumbfounded. Surely she was referring to someone else. I cannot begin to convey how heady it was to hear someone tell me that. But I tucked it away and reflected on her words many times as I navigated the course of academia to arrive at that amazing day when I received my degree. What I take from that now and wish all to know and consider is that we are often more capable than we realize. It’s scary to try something new. It takes courage to step outside our comfort zones. I am, however, a firm and true believer that the effort is often worth it in the end – even if, nay, especially if the end result is a stronger, more self-assured YOU in the process.

Opening day of Iowa State football was gorgeous – sunny blue skies, slight breeze and warm temps. I love the carnival-like atmosphere of tailgating with the sights, sounds and wonderful aromas, friendly laughter and big-screen TV’s set up for watching the game in the parking lot for those folks without tickets. People-watching at its finest!

Too bad that the game, which started out so promising with a 14-0 lead early on, ended the way it did. Our beloved Cyclones lost 34-14. Ouch! Here’s hoping for better days ahead.

Once again our Iowa weather this year is unusual. We had a bitterly cold winter and come spring, multitudes of Iowans discovered lost shrubs, sickly trees and normally hardy Knock-out Roses that were down for the count. Now, in the month of August, that time of year where I am sick to death of all the heat and humidity and weary of the huge water bills we’ve been paying all summer to water our grass (which, for all our efforts, still manages to look brown and spent), our fair state has been deluged with rain, rain and more rain. In just the past week and a half our little rain gauge has measured out more than five inches of precipitation. Our lawn is as lush and green as it was in June and mowing the lawn demands ever more of our time.

At bedtime last night the rains began yet again – an almost nightly exercise now for about two weeks (or so it seems!) — accompanied by fairly strong winds and plenty of thunder and lightning. During the storm flashes I looked out at the fairway the runs alongside our property and yet again it looked like a small river. Today, the sand traps bear witness to the side effects of all that rainfall.

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Knock on wood – our basement remains untouched. Dry as a bone and no sign of runoff leaching its way indoors. Our house is situated on higher ground in relation to the golf course and water in our yard travels toward the fairway. In the nine years we’ve lived here we’ve been lucky but we know there are no guarantees especially not when record rainfall such as what we’ve experienced here this past month continues to inundate us with all this moisture.

While the rain was initially welcome – grass was getting brown and a bit crispy after a hot spell just last month and riverbeds were dry – I think I speak for most Iowans when I say I think we’re good now. Mother Nature, you can take your foot off the accelerator and back off a little. Not everyone, though, is ready for the rains to end I suspect. Flocks of geese seem just fine with all that water, some of it still sitting on the fairway late this afternoon.

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Tinier creatures yet lap up all this excess moisture, making a (very) brief appearance on our wooden deck rail this afternoon. Later in the day, after the sun came out for a bit, they were gone, all shriveled up. Still though I found them both fascinating and beautiful – in their own way.

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After all the rain we’ve gotten this month, one can only wonder what fall and winter will bring. Does this indicate another harsh winter with record snowfall to match the precipitation we have received in August? Or is that old gal simply getting it all out of her system and a mild December through March is in store for us? Makes no difference to speculate one way or the other. She’ll do as she pleases and there’s nothing we can do but sit back and mentally prepare for whatever comes our way.

Wait. Was that thunder I just heard – yet again?

Is there anything more exhilarating than golfing on a beautiful fall day and to then encounter some of the magnificent horses that pasture alongside the golf course where we live? If I ever win big at the lottery, a huge spread with a few horses to call my own (AND a personal riding instructor) will certainly be at the top of the list!

I got out of bed earlier than usual this morning and went for a walk before 5:00 AM, the first time I’d done so in far too many months. I enjoy not only getting my exercise out of the way for the day but the solitude and quiet of walking my normal route before first light and being able to see the stars (Orion was especially vivid this morning) all the while getting serenaded by the symphony of sound made by birds roosting in every tree I pass by.

Because I have been sick much of the summer this particular routine is one I simply was not able to enjoy the way that I did this morning. As I reflected on that while I walked I considered the meaning and significance of the routines and rituals we partake of – and are subjected to as well – in our lives.

Webster defines routine as ‘a regular way of doing things in a particular order’. Many people, myself included, take comfort in the familiarity of following a set pattern of activity or methodology. My husband and I take delight in how nice it feels to share certain routines together, even things as mundane as sitting at Starbucks enjoying our hot beverages or watching our favorite programs on TV and Netflix. There is also the attention to detail (okay, this one is more me than Bill) of how the bed is made or dishes are put away or clothes are folded. I actually find ironing, which many people think of as a chore, to be a relaxing activity, a routine that I don’t mind doing at all. Bill and I also appreciate the visual delight and calming effect of sometimes taking a longer route to work – bypassing additional albeit faster travel on the interstate in exchange for a longer route laden with those pesky stoplights simply because it offers us the opportunity to perhaps catch sight of deer or turkey in the woods and fields on the edge of the city. It’s a pleasant routine we both enjoy.

An alternate definition of routine provides an opposing, somewhat gloomy view of the word: A boring state or situation in which things are always done the same way. Images of being forced to sit through Mass each Sunday when we were growing up or waiting in the car for hours while Dad ‘looked at trees’ for the sawmill or having to do the dishes after the noon meal in the summer – always a major production with six kids at home and hired men to feed. None of these things were particularly difficult or painful. They were just dull and monotonous and these activities were routinely required as part and parcel of being a member of my family. Routine used here takes on a negative connotation. And is perhaps why something being described as a ‘ho-hum routine’ gets a bum rap.

One’s perspective or outlook on life can go a long way in determining whether it be the yin or the yang when it comes to that which is routine.

This afternoon at work I stepped up to one of the two sinks in the restroom to wash my hands. Another woman followed suit and remarked that usually she washed her hands in the sink that I was using and wasn’t it odd how we get used to using one thing instead of another and when forced to use something else it feels so different. It got me thinking further that we often follow a set routine and when we waver from it in any way we may feel anxious or tense, out of our element, maybe even uncomfortable, awkward or embarrassed.

Routines can be cherished or loathed. They can provide warm fuzzies or feelings of dread. They can be reassuring or sleep-inducing.

Are there any routines that you find pleasant, that bring you joy and comfort? Or do your routines cause heartburn and angst or feelings of trepidation? Please – do tell!

tal·ent·ed: having a natural aptitude or skill for something

One of the few TV shows that my husband and I watch each summer is America’s Got Talent. It is incredible – and very entertaining! – watching so many amazing individuals taking the stage and sharing their talents and skills. Some of the acts are simply fantastic, some are just okay and many fall into the what-can-I-do-to-get-myself-on-TV category – some of which are entertaining, others not so much. The season begins with a panel of judges who decide if the act is worthy of moving on to the next stage of competition. If any of the judges dislike what they’re seeing they hit a button and a red ‘X’ lights up above the contestant accompanied by the sound of one very loud (and annoying!) buzzer. If all four judges give them the ‘X’ the act is over and the competition moves on to the next contestant. Later on in the season it’s up to the American people to do the judging and ultimately select a million dollar winner in the fall.

To encourage talented people everywhere to apply for next season the host of the show, Nick Cannon, proclaims that everyone has talent. Everyone? Everyone has talent? Hmm. I’m not so sure about that. I cannot think of a single thing that I’m able to do that even remotely falls into the TALENT bucket especially as defined above. At least nothing of merit that might win me a million dollars let alone get me past the original audition without sending each judge to slap his or her hand on that button to boot me off the stage!

I’ve never been athletic or musical or artistic. While some might say that I have a good sense of humor, showmanship and a solid sense of delivery is not my strong suit. I cannot sing or play a musical instrument. I’ve performed in community theatre but I fear my acting skills tend more toward the melodramatic than anything theatrical.

Maybe I’m overthinking this. Something a little less obvious perhaps?

I am double-jointed. Does that count for anything? The middle toe on my right foot is shorter than all the others, prompting my dad to jokingly ask me once ‘what are you – a freak’? I make a mean cheesy potato casserole and my nephew loves my cowboy beans. My ciabatta bread is to die for and my sister Theresa thinks I have great taste in movies as well as music from the 70’s. But can I take any of this to the bank?

I better not quit my day job – at least not yet.

Not unless I can come up with a really killer act where I knead the dough to make ciabatta bread with my fingers bent in the double-jointed position while Pulp Fiction plays on a large screen just over my shoulder in time with Norman Greenbaum singing Spirit in the Sky. Now THAT just might be the ticket!

I’ve been told if you’re planning a trip overseas you should begin preparations a year in advance. Perhaps this is so but in my mother’s case her recently completed trip to Ireland (‘twas “wonderful” she sighed!) was booked barely three months prior. In any case we’re contemplating just such a grand adventure ourselves for 2015.

So. Where to go? For the last several years we’ve had serious discussions about visiting Germany. We even went so far as to contact a travel agent to learn about our options. In the beginning we seriously considered backpacking our way across the region, traversing into neighboring countries via Eurail carrying our travel necessities with us along the way. I still find this hugely appealing but perhaps only after an initial trip or two to the continent are firmly entrenched under our belts.

While Germany is still on our bucket list other countries vie for our attention (and travel dollars!) as well. With ancestral roots in Norway, Ireland and England in addition to the Deutschland we have several options to choose from. Not that lineage will be the final arbitrator in where we might go. Italy, Scotland, France and even Istanbul beckon. Disclaimer: That last option is on my list, not Bill’s. I read a fascinating book a few years ago called The Historian. It is a story rooted in the Slavic region of Europe telling the brutal tale of Vlad the Impaler, the basis of the Dracula character as we know it today. Some of the story’s action takes place in Istanbul and I was curious to learn more. After a little research and seeing some incredible photos Istanbul secured a place on my travel To Do list.

We’ve got our work cut out for us but this is my kind of labor. The planning is half the fun (or half the battle depending on your perspective). Having something to look forward to is, for me, the very spice of life: sage, cinnamon, ginger, anise, basil, coriander, cardamom and nutmeg. I love them all! And, so too, do I enjoy the dreaming, the research, the planning and the anticipation of any kind of travel expedition whether it’s a weekend getaway or a trip half way around the world.

We’ve still got a few years left before our passports expire and the Life Clock is ticking away! Stay tuned for further developments.

What is on your travel To Do list? Where do you want to go? Where have you been that you’d return to in a heartbeat? I’d love to hear from you!

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The world is a bad place, a bad place. A terrible place to live. Oh, but I don’t want to die. ~ Reflections of My Life, Marmalade

The news stories that we have been bombarded with for far too long are sobering indeed. Reminders that there are some very bad things and people and places in this world. Although we’re often told that “life isn’t fair” this little pearl of wisdom sometimes seems to be staggeringly true. I recall being told when I was a kid that despite any hardships or difficulties I may have to encounter there is always someone who has it worse than I do. I suppose the reasoning behind this is so that I might put things into perspective and not complain because somewhere out there is someone who is worse off than me and that I should be grateful for what I have. True, so very true. However, my youthful mind took this rationalization a bit further. If this statement was true and there is a person out there, say Person X, who has more problems than me then you could extrapolate that to say there is someone out there who is worse off than Person X. And then someone who is worse off than that person and so on and so forth.  That means (my youthful – and not so youthful – mind is really humming now) there is that one person, that poor schmuck, that miserable wretch who has it worse than every single gosh darn person in the whole entire world. And that is just too much unfairness for this mind of mine, however old, to take in.

While we acknowledge the brutality and horror and unfairness that does, unfortunately, exist in this world there is also much beauty and goodness and light and majesty as well. My oh-but-I-don’t-want-to-die list looks something like this:

  • Children: Their laughter, their inquisitiveness, their energy, their little hands and feet, the way they run and squeal with delight, the way they react to music even when they’re just toddlers, how they learn to talk and reason and think and mimic what they see around them – basically how they are able to LEARN is utterly amazing.
  • My husband: His smile, his patience, his sense of humor, the way he so fiercely loves and cherishes me, his goodness, his green eyes, the gray in his temples and beard and mustache, his can-do attitude, the way he’s been such a good father figure for my son (who thinks the world of him) and well, just pretty much everything about him!
  • The fresh growth of spring: Green buds on the trees, flowers poking up through the soil (incredible!), the light airiness of it all, the promise in the breeze, the wonder of new life all around us.
  • My son: His creativity, his absolutely unique sense of humor, his dedication and love of science and his motivation to learn more and more including how to be a better teacher, his love of music and the way he’s thrown himself into learning to play the drums (which he didn’t pick up until his early 20’s), the way he has always been able to make new friends even as (especially as!) a child, his way of calling me Mother and how, despite the many mistakes I made in that role as he was growing up, he has always been my ally and most ardent defender.
  • Nature: If ever there was an element of this world for which the adjective majestic was intended, the gifts that Mother Nature has provided for us would be it. The changing of the seasons, awe-inspiring mountains and deserts, glorious rivers and lakes, lush forests and mysterious oceans, all teeming with a diversity of creatures. To be still and silent in the midst of such grandeur is to know what it’s like to really breath, to truly live, to just BE.
  • Kindness: This element of the world, when it makes itself known to you at unexpected moments, is perhaps one of the most beautiful things of all. Whether you are the recipient of any act of caring, generosity or warmth or you are merely an observer, to know or experience the beauty of kindness in any of its many forms can move even the most hardened individuals to tears. The best example of kindness? That which is done anonymously, totally without mention to anyone else – ever – in any way, shape or manner, is true kindness for it comes directly from the heart and as such it reaps its own reward. Or rather it doesn’t require anything for its efforts. The doing of the deed is all that truly matters.

So yes, while there is much to lament and grieve for in our world today, much that causes anxiety, pain and fear there are many more causes for joy and celebration. We, too, must remember that we don’t live in a vacuum. The things that touch us are often the result of our choices even while we are sometimes at odds with the platter that was placed before us by way of where we were born, how we have been raised, our genetics and our heritages. But we can choose, we can do, we can decide.

With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy. ~ Desiderata, Max Ehrmann