Sunday, May 15, 2016

Spring Garden: Tulip Time

May 15th and Tulip Time has come and gone. But I was on my game enough to capture some highlights  and share them here.

What was different about this year's tulips is that I didn't pull the leaves and stems last year after they bloomed and replant new bulbs in the fall, a practice I've been doing for at least 10 years. When I worked in the Netherlands for Gallup  back in the mid 2000's, the Dutch folks told me that they treat  the tulip as an annual and if I wanted the best, most robust blooms, I should pull the stems and leaves immediately  after they bloom, then plant new bulbs in the spring.  It's more work and expense, but you always get a full crop of tulips.  So I did.

With retirement looming and thinking about tightening the expense column of the garden ledger, I decided last spring to keep the tulips as they were until the required 6 weeks after bloom time so the bulbs could recharge. The risk with this is that you may not get as full of a bloom as you did the first year the tulips were planted. But a risk worth taking I thought.

You can imagine my delight as the ground thawed and the tips of the tulips began to emerge. And when the blooms came, better than I had expected, I was really pleased.

If you go out in the garden today and look for tulip foliage, you will find it doing the required 6 weeks after bloom recharging. One more year,  I think. We'll see at Tulip Time next year.

The picture below ( obviously not a tulip is the flowering crab that we planted in our front yard in remembrance of our daughter-in-law, Patti, who passed away several years ago from lupus. Every spring it reminds of her even though she is with us always.

Spring Garden: Iris Fest

Today is May, 15th which means that we are right in the middle of iris season here in Nebraska. It has been a glorious spring so far after a relatively mild winter. All of that means that the iris bloom this year has been as abundant as I can remember.

I have a very clear memory of walking into the backyard at 935-35th Street in Des Moines, Iowa on a spring day in May of 1960. As we piled out of the car at our new home, I quickly found my way to the backyard. What I discovered I've never forgotten: bluebells, lily of the valley,bleeding hearts, peonies, lilacs and iris. Lots of iris.  So my love of spring flowers, especially iris, comes from an experience that was imprinted in my memory at that moment in time.

Now that the tulips, daffodils, crocus and hyacinths have faded away, and with the early summer hodgepodge of flowers yet to appear, it is showtime for the iris collection in the garden. And what a show they have put on this year. I have small clumps of iris that haven't bloomed every year and all of them have produced flowers this year. And the larger, more robust groups have delivered as usual.

Here is a sampling of the iris (and a few other spring blooms) that are delighting us with their show of color this spring. By Memorial Day, most of them will have closed their show and will give way to the flurry and cacophony of the summer garden. But for now, they are headliners, putting on yet another beautiful spring Iris Fest performance. Enjoy!

This iris is called "Batik"
This iris is in a clump where there has to be 40 or 50 blooms.

This iris didn't bloom last year, but what a rich  shade of orange.

This iris didn't bloom last year either.

This iris is also one of the more robust and vigorous performers.
What a lovely combination of browns, fairly unusual for iris.
I love this almost black-like deep purple of this iris.
This might be my favorite this year, so delicate and  light.
I call this "butterscotch custard".

Count the blooms in this group!

Here are some other spring performers on stage during Iris Fest.

This is False Blue Indigo shot from ground level looking up at the lovely blue-ish sky
The lovely and fragrant blooms of "Little Kim" the Korean dwarf lilac.
A close-up of a Weigela  shrub, a lovely spring bloomer.
Another shot of "Little Kim" dwarf lilac just before she blooms and fills the yard with her sweet fragrances.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

A Major Milestone of the Social Variety

With any luck, in less than 12 hours, I will achieve a major life milestone. One I have been working on and investing in for over 47 years. A milestone that some say I would never achieve.

This milestone is not unique to me for I will be sharing it with millions of others who, like me, have waited a long, long time for this day.  

I will be sharing this milestone with Georgette, who first achieved this milestone a year ago. Watching her experience this milestone has only made me anticipate this day even more than I ever could have imagined.

While we are sound asleep, sometime during the dark of night, unless I am up letting Grace out for a pee and some nocturnal sniffing, this event will take place.  And when I awake, it will have occurred without a sound or any other outward signs that something significant and well-earned has happened. 

I will rise early to head off to my part-time job, but first, I will brew a cup of McDonalds Premium roast coffee in the Keurig and take my usual early morning position in one of the recliners in our living room. I'll reach up and turn the switch on the lamp 3 clicks to light the darkened room. With my I-pad in my lap, I will take a few sips of the hot, fresh coffee in order to brace myself for the realization of 47 years of work. Normally I would flip to the local newspaper's app and scan the news of the day and perhaps scroll through my news feed on Facebook. But this  is a special day and those rituals will have to wait a few minutes and seconds longer.

With the anticipation of 47 years, I will take a deep breath, maybe two, then more deliberately than usual, will enter the log-in and password into the boxes on the I-pad. Holding my breath, and if all goes as I expect it to, this milestone will be revealed as the magic of digital technology delivers the evidence in a matter of seconds. Years ago, one would wait patiently for a human to hand deliver this milestone directly to their home, often waiting days and weeks.

As my eyes quickly scan the screen, I suspect my heart will beat a bit faster. 47 years of working for this. 47 years of investing in this. The time has finally arrived for me to......get my first of hopefully many, Social Security checks.

What? Is that the sound of a lead balloon?  

What's the big deal you say?  

Yes, I know it isn't really a check.  I signed up for direct deposit, after all it is 2016. Give me a break. 

Sorry for sounding a tad bit defensive, but this milestone is a big deal to me. And don't even think about calling it an entitlement, I worked hard for this milestone, beginning with my first job at McDonalds way back in 1968. 

If you know me, then you know I have my tongue firmly implanted in my cheek as I write this, trying to concentrate as Georgette just shouted out "what is emulsify?" at the TV followed by Alex Trebec responding with "right you are!" ( one of our new retirement rituals is watching Jeopardy at 4:30). 

I've discovered that retirement is a pretty good gig, at least is has been for me so far. After doing not much of anything during the holidays ( except enjoying the holidays), I started a part-time job on Jan. 2. I'm back on the clock only this time it's a digital clock instead of one of those noisy time clocks like we had at McDonalds.

I get asked all the time "how is your retirement is going?" My usual response is, "pretty well so far, but what do I know, I've never done this before". And I've never received a social security check or deposit before so I'm really not sure what to expect when it finally arrives.

I suspect I will dance a little jig of joy when I see the deposit. 

I will mark the moment with a quiet reflection for a life of work well done.

And for that point on, it will be no big deal, just one of those things I will scan the screen for once a month. 

Unless some day it isn't there when it's supposed to be, like some people suggest.

But I don't have much control,if any over that, so I'll worry about that later. 

Besides, Jeopardy is calling. Broadway for $800, Alex.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Remembering Dr. King

"Let us turn our thoughts today to Martin Luther King
And recognize that there are ties between us
All men and women living on the earth
Ties of hope and love, sister and brotherhood
That we are bound together in our desire to see the world become
A place in which our children can grow free and strong
We are bound together by the task that stands before us
And the road that lies ahead we are bound and we are bound"

                                                                              James Taylor

The streets are quiet for an early Monday morning when I remember that it is a holiday and the schools are closed. Martin Luther King's birthday is today. Almost immediately I am taken back to that day in 1968 when as a 9th grader at Callanan Junior High in Des Moines, Iowa, I experienced a watershed moment.

I never really liked the Catholic grade school we Kingkade kids attended, so when my parents announced towards the end of my 6th grade year that we were all going to be attending public school next year, I was thrilled. Thrilled enough to share it with my classmates on the rough and tumble playground then next day. "I'm going to Callanan next year",  I proudly announced. "Oh yeah, well the ni^*+*^ are going to beat the crap out of you", claimed one of my peers.

While that rocked my enthusiasm for a moment as I silently walked away, I distinctly remember thinking "I don't think so". Why I didn't confront that boy,  I'm not sure because his statement certainly did not match my view of the world, not that my world was all that big. 

It should be noted that I was attending an all-white school where one of the games played on the playground was called "Black Tom". Boys would line up on one end of the yard and then race to the other end.The last boy to make it went immediately to the middle of the field and when the boys raced back across the yard again, he would tackle someone. Then there were 2. On it went until there was but one tough guy left to try to make it across the yard without being tackled. It was unsupervised, it was rough and I never played.

Not only did I not get the "crap beat out of me" at my new school, I soon come to love nearly everything about going to school there everyday. Not that it didn't have it's challenges. 

Physical education was new and so was taking a shower after gym class, as we called it. Early on in the year, I overheard a few of my black peers talking about skin color in away I'd never heard before.  "Hey bro, your mama is butterscotch", said one to another as he was laughing and snapping his towel at him. "Oh yeah? Well, I seen your daddy and he is blacker than burnt toast!"  More howls of laughter and towel snapping. I was a bit shocked to say the least and was pretty sure that was a conversation I needed to stay out of. 

Another learning moment occurred when I playfully addressed one of my new classmates by saying "hey boy" when I  was met with an angry response that included, "Boy? Don't you call me boy!" As I scurried away I heard something else said about "boy" being a slave term. Lesson learned.

I can see now that while I realized it or not, my parents had prepared me to deal with moments just like those. They openly talked about politics,  civil rights and the issues of race that were occurring in the country at that time. I remember my mother telling me how my dad went to bat for a black man at the newspaper who he saw being discriminated against. Never was a bigoted word or action tolerated. And when I came home from school that fall mimicking the dialect of my new black classmates, I was quickly told to "knock it off, you don't talk that way". My father made it clear that what I thought was funny, he saw as disrespectful.

In the summer of 1967, I was nudged into participating in a youth project sponsored by an inter-city group called the Northern Brotherhood Leadership Conference. We met in a house in a part of the city that was to be the epic center of what was referred to as "race riots" the following summer. The message from my parents was to "get involved and make a difference" but mostly, don't be afraid.

News didn't travel as fast that day as it does now, so by the time the TV stations  had interrupted regular programming with  the news of Dr. King's assassination, I was in my room, sound asleep. My mother came and woke me, crying and angry about what seemed like a bad dream. We talked, I suppose I mostly listened, then I went back to sleep. It was a school night, after all.

The junior high I attended was racially mixed, which meant black and white in those days.  And while there had been some tension and mild unrest amongst the students, most days found us occupied with things that junior high kids are consumed with- relationships, clothing, music and all the drama that goes with emergent hormones. We mixed freely and relatively easily, all things considered. 

But as I headed across the freeway bridge on 31st Street and into the brick school building on that Friday morning, I was afraid. But not enough to stay home.

It wasn't long when the rumors started. "There's going to be fights" "Someone is going to get hurt". "There's going to be trouble". I could see the anger and hurt on my classmates faces. You could hear  it their voices. I thought I understood and I knew I didn't understand it at all. 

In gym class, some of us were sent outside to play softball while others stayed inside with the teacher. Things were not as usual this day-what would otherwise be an uneventful game of work-me-up softball became a chaotic game as my hurt and angry classmates vented their emotions. When it came my turn to bat, one of my black classmates stepped in front of me and grabbed the bat out of my hands, provoking me with some comments I don't recall. I just remember the tension. I stepped back not wishing to add fuel to the fire when another black classmate yelled, "He's OK, let him play". He handed me the bat, the game resumed and the moment passed.

Later that day we had an assembly in the auditorium where two of our faculty, Mr. Harris, a black art teacher who was also a minister, and Mrs. Hyde, a black english teacher,  provided words and wisdom that seemed to calm the anger and soothe some of the hurt, at least for the moment.

We went home for the weekend and returned the next Monday and the school year went on without much ado. But we were changed as young people, in similar ways and in ways I couldn't and may not yet fully understand.

Today, I'm even more grateful for the leadership shown by the faculty who challenged us to honor the legacy of Dr. King with compassion, dignity and respect.

I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to experience that time and place where I learn so much more than math, English or music. 

I'm grateful for parents, who with all their shortcomings, taught me the value of treating every human being with respect and to not be afraid.

And I'm grateful my family today does not look like me.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Memories Don't Burn

The first I heard of the fire  was in a text that Georgette sent me last night. It was brief.

"Fire @ M's  Pub--explosion" followed by the sad emoticon. 

I texted back "Noooo" to which she responded with "Sounds Bad".

I quickly jumped on one the local TV stations app on my I-phone where they were reporting that the fire, which broke out around 3pm after an explosion apparently triggered by the overpowering smell of natural gas, was still raging out of control. The images posted online of flames shooting through the four story brick building located at the center on Omaha's historic Old Market District told me all I needed to know-that we had celebrated our last meal at our favorite restaurant as we knew it.

One of the things I love about living in a city like Omaha is that even though the Metro population is  inching towards a million people, it's really a big little Midwestern town. Seems everyone knows someone who knows someone who knows someone. So while the thought of a fire at our favorite restaurant took me back to the last time we dined there, my next thought was about my friend Ron, one of the co-owners of M's Pub. 

Most of us have experienced a time when some force of destruction and peril is occuring, threatening things we hold near and dear to our hearts and there isn't a damn thing we or anyone else can do to prevent it from happening. This was one of those times for Ron, the employees and patrons of this 43 year old establishment, and to a large degree, the brave and heroic firefighters who did everything they could do on a bitter sub-zero day to minimize the destruction.

It turns out Ron was in Phoenix and heard about the fire when a friend texted him. It was a miracle no one was seriously hurt, and ironically, the smell of gas was so string that many of those in the restaurant and the lofts above it, had started to evacuate when the explosion occurred.

By early this Sunday morning all that was left was an icy shell of the old brick walls that were the backbone of an establishment where Georgette and I, along with countless others, dined, imbibed, savored  and celebrated some of the best moments of our lives. Anniversaries, Valentine's Day, and even retirements were celebrated at M's, the most recent being on Dec. 18th, the day I retired. When you had a special moment to celebrate, you went to M's.

Omaha's Old Market, along with the Omaha Zoo, compete year after year as the city's top attract is for visitors. With cobble stone and bricks streets and horse drawn carriages, the Old Market sits downtown not far from the Missouri River, amongst the old warehouses and turn of the century architecture. M's had a tall ceiling, creaky wooden floors, brick walls that were painted white, and a large bar that was smack dab in the middle of the place. It was the oldest operating restaurant in the Old Market and besides having really good food, had a really cool vibe. You could wear jeans or you could dress up and still fit right in. The wait staff was impeccably professional. The place was always bustling. When you needed to recommend a place to dine for our of town guests, M's was a sure bet.

When I first met Georgette and was getting to know her, I remember her telling me at M's was her favorite restaurant. I got to know Ron a few years later and always loved telling him how good our last meal was whenever our paths crossed. I usually run into him on Saturday mornings at a gathering place we both frequent and was looking forward to telling him about my retirement celebration meal at M's. I hadn't seen him for several weeks. Now I know he was in Phoenix. 

I couldn't find his contact information today but I did message his brother, also a friend, and asked him tell Ron that he and his employees were in my thoughts and prayers. A few minutes later I heard back from Mark acknowledging my message and stating that Ron was doing OK, all things considered. And a few minutes after that, there was an interview with Ron on a local TV station-he was back in Omaha but hasn't yet gone downtown to look at the destruction. His concern at the present was for his employees and the other businesses in the Old Market that will be affected by collateral damage from the fire.

Ron has a strong faith and deep support network, he'll be OK, but I can't imagine how he will feel when he experiences the full brunt of this tragedy. 

The Omaha community will rally and hold out its loving arms as well. That's what strong communities do. Omaha is not alone In that way, but when it happens for those that we know and care about, well, it's special to us.

And Georgette and I, we'll have our memories because memories don't burn.

Our favorite place to sit was in the back corner
where we had a good view of the place.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Retirement-Week One

It's about 3 in the afternoon on a Friday and my first week of retirement is winding down. The house is quiet, not a sound to be heard but the whir of the furnace every now and then.  Georgette is sitting in one of our windsor chairs with Grace the beagle sandwiched between her and the armrest, both dozing, napping or in some state of slumber. I'm in the other windsor with my I-pad in my lap, a cup of decaf on the stand next to me, listening on my earbuds to a live Kenny Loggins/Michael McDonald concert from 1988 that I downloaded from the Internet. 

I'm discovering that retirement, at least this early phase I am in, is a creative process of weaving old routines into new routines. Blessed with an abundance of time that was once relegated to a full-time job, this is truly a "quality problem" as far as problems  go. The notion of retirement wasn't really an expectation of most Americans until after WW II, when people started to live longer, had Social Security or pension as a means of income and the notion that leisure was a good thing.

My leisurely day did not start out as leisurely as  the current state of the household I described in the opening of this story. Instead of getting up at the butt-crack of dawn and trudging off to the gym, I slept a little longer than I would have pre-retirement, then headed off to the neighborhood high school to meet with the young man I mentor at 8am, a routine that I've kept for the past 10 years. From there, I headed to the gym where I got talked into joining a group exercise class ( I normally work out on my own). I must have had "sucker" written all over my face because this class,  which is called "Insanity", lived up to its name. I survived and may even try it again (there is something kind of cool about being 63 and participating in a class called "Insanity") but that remains to be seen. 

After a light lunch, it was time to crank out the snow blower to deal with the inch or 2 of slush that covered our driveway and was destined to turn into a glacier when the temperatures drop into the teens tonight. That was followed by a session on the I-mac finalizing my health insurance purchase necessitated by my departure from the full-time career. Once that was accomplished, it was time to settle into the windsor chair and join the relaxed crew in the serene living room. That brings us up to the present time.

What's on tap for the rest of this day, you might ask?

Well, we won't be hitting the early bird special at the Golden Corral Buffet, that's for sure. Although after that insane group exercise class, I could eat a horse. I'm sure Georgette has dinner planned and from there, we will head over to the neighborhood high school to watch a boys basketball game using the "senior passes" I picked up this morning while there for mentoring. Free basketball-a perfect activity for us old folks. The game starts at 7:15 and is done by around 8:45 and since we live just down the street, we can be home and in bed by 9:30. And the popcorn is cheap, not like the rip-off prices at the movie theaters. Must be mindful of our retirement budget, you know.

I don't know if this will be typical of most Fridays in retirement, after all it is pretty early in the journey. Plus, it is winter, cold and snowy and I suspect in spring and summer, garden time will prevail and naps will be taken in the patio alongside the bevy of flowers that will be in bloom.

The other days of this week found me at my new part-time job at the fitness center on several days, working on some projects here at home and venturing out one afternoon to spend some gift certificates while most of the rest of the world was at work.

Week one of retirement is almost In the books - weekends don't count because I had those before. Just enough structure to keep me from waddling all day. Plenty of open time to improvise or create spur of the moment adventures. Some familiar, some new, with a bit more space in-between. 

I think I could get used to this retirement thing.

Friday, January 1, 2016

You Say Retiree, I Say Retired......

But let's not call the whole thing off just because of semantics.

A couple of days ago I got to use the word "retired" for the first in a formal sense when referring to myself. It felt weird, I'll admit. I'd better get used to it because I  officially retired from my full-time professional career on December 18th and haven't shaved, taken a shower or changed my underwear since. Actually, I am showering and changing underwear daily, but the shaving has been intermittent.

Several days after I retired, I got an e-mail from a former work colleague who put "Hey Retiree" in the subject line. That also felt weird and I responded back by stating that "I may be retired but I'm not a retiree." Retirees head for Denny's Restaurant at 4 in the afternoon for the early bird senior special, flock like a birds to Florida or Arizona in the winter,  populate bingo parlors and ride on tour busses to Branson, Missouri to see the Osmond Brothers or whatever is left of Lawrence Welk's cast of characters such as Bobby and Sissy, Guy and Ralna, the tap dancer Arthur Duncan or maybe even Myron Floren if he is still alive. 

Forgive me for deploying some cheap stereotypes of retirees, but I'm finding out this whole retired thing might take more getting used to than I imagined. I mean if I'm struggling over the use of a word, what am I going to do next week when the holidays are officially over and almost everyone else goes back to work? Go to bingo? Head to Denny's? I don't think so. 

For starters, I'm going to enjoy Sunday nights even more than ever and not just because Downton Abbey's final season begins this week. I've heard from good sources that Sunday evening, minus the anticipation, anxiety or dread of a work work that looms over you, becomes one of the little joys of being retired. Gone is the mental rehearsal of what the work week will bring, thus freeing the retiree up to simply enjoy the evening, Downton Abbey not withstanding. I think I can get used to this.

Here's a list of other things I could get used to as a newly retired guy:

  • Not setting an alarm to get up at the break of dawn everyday in order to get to the gym before heading off to work, with one eye on the clock and the other on the next piece of equipment I need and what my plan B will be if some turkey hogs it, because one must always keep on schedule, no matter what. Instead, I'll be waking up naturally and getting to the gym after the morning rush, then heading home to have breakfast, coffee with Georgette and maybe even join her and Grace, the beagle for a walk on a nearby trail. 

  • Going to movies in the early afternoon during the week, where the tickets are discounted and  crowds don't exist. Never mind that we will be sneaking in a can of soda and a bottle of water and bypassing the $11 dollar bag of popcorn since we are on a retirement budget-we both love going to movies and I can get used to seeing a few more. 

  • Time to plan, putter and putz around in the garden. The first of many garden catalogs started showing up in our mailbox last week and even though the ground  s covered in snow, their presence activates my anticipation of another gardening season. Gardens are meant to be puttered and putzed in, so I've heard. I have little experience in garden putzing but I've heard that it is quite satisfying and I'm hoping to master the art of "gartzing" which is a word I just made up. It is the combination of "garden" and "putzing". Yeah, gartzing, I think I can get used to that too.

  • Then there is the issue of all the stuff (shit, depending your point of view) that I've accumulated over the years that has been occupying space in basement. Record albums, CD's, music memorabilia, paraphernalia, crap, junk or any other term one would use to describe the objects that will end up in a dumpster should I experience an untimely passing. Forgive me for being morose, but is there such a thing as a timely passing? Irregardless of the timeliness of one's departure from the material world, there's a bunch of shit waiting for me to get my shit together, or least get rid of some of it. And since I really don't know what I have, I'm looking forward to taking a walk down memory lane as I sort through and give my stuff the proper disposal it deserves.

Such will be some of the life of this retired guy. And yet, the matter of "retired" vs. "retiree" still needs to be resolved. 

Earlier when I referenced using the term "retired" in a formal sense for the first time, it was when I was filling out a job application for a part-time position at the fitness center I belong to. When I was asked for current employer on the job application, I smirked as I write down "retired". Yep, I start this week working for a few hours,  a couple of days a week doing customer service work. How crazy is that? Retire one week, get a part-time job the next.

However, I've been told that this a normal thing for a......get this.... retiree to do.  In fact, when I looked up retiree in several dictionaries, the common definition is "someone who has retired from an occupation or profession". I guess that makes me a retiree, no matter what I think of the word. 

I guess I've got some adjusting to do with this whole retirement thing. If it's like anything else if learned about life, there will be much to learn and how I approach it will have much to do with how I experience it. 

So I've decided you can call me retired or a retiree.

Just don't call me late to dinner for the 4pm early bird special at Denny's.