The Happiness Factor

Traveling during Thanksgiving week, “people watching” at the airports and renewing family acquaintance, I was struck by the unhappiness and discontent around me. Oh, we had a great time, everyone was upbeat and full of smiles, but some faces in repose tell another story. I decided the world is full of discontent, anger, envy and bitter gall!

Some people would say the world is in worse shape than ever before but we forget about the World Wars 1 and 2: the bombings, food rations and concentration camps. What about the world-wide flood of early mankind? What about Mount Vesuvius? What about the depraved evil of the Roman Empire? The Inquisition? The Black Plague?

I would say a person’s own individual crises are what drives folks to depression, gloom and doom, suicide and mad attacks upon innocent bystanders. In October, 1929, people didn’t jump off buildings because the world was a mess. They despaired because their own personal finances had suddenly disappeared. The guy who went berserk in Sutherland Springs, Texas, a few weeks ago was angry with his ex-wife’s family, not the world.

So, lots of people lost their savings and their homes in the Great Depression. They buckled down, worked for pennies, scraped to get by, stood in soup lines. They kept up hope things would get better. It took a long time but eventually the economy recovered. Those who survived made a choice to struggle through and they were stronger because of it.

In America, there is one divorce approximately every 36 seconds*. Divorce is hard; it’s tragic and painful and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, yet all those people generally get through it without killing anyone. They make a choice to fight back through the pain and they are wiser because of it.

Those examples are big things; they are huge! But I think we prepare for the big things by the way we handle the little things—bad traffic on the freeway, misbehaving kids, bad bosses, lost luggage.

Angry-face

We can choose to let something make us unhappy!

This week I’ve seen people frowning and growling because the shuttle bus was overcrowded and late. One guy got all upside down because his wife danced with someone besides him. Someone on Facebook unfriended an old friend over something embarrassing. A woman was crying in the ladies’ room because her husband bought something she thought was frivolous. She had $10k worth of jewelry on her hands.

It’s not that these things are easy. It’s a trial when we simply don’t get our way. Trials aren’t ever fun. We can choose to take it hard. But if we choose to be happy in spite of rough times, we can be downright ecstatic when things are going well. We might even bubble over with the giggles.

* Source of divorce stats: http://1.usa.gov/1dMPvI2

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Memory Lane

The geese fly south and the hummingbirds abandon the blooms of the scarlet sage. It’s time, according to their light-sensitive eyes, no matter North Texas had some record-breaking heat this November.

They were right, we remark, as the cool weather finally creeps in. Suddenly, it’s autumn. We notice when it gets chilly enough to start the heaters in the morning.

On a rare day when the temps are perfect and fireplace smoke wafts in the damp air, I remember living in a primitive place in the Ouachita Mountains. Burning wood for heat and opening windows for cooler air, I would celebrate those “just right” days when neither was required.

When it was almost cool enough for heating fires, I’d get in the mood to make bread. The cook stove warmed up our little house just the right amount.

We celebrated Thanksgivings in the mountain cabin with pumpkin pie baked in a wood-fired oven that added a touch of smoke aroma to everything, even store-bought dinner rolls.

 

Walkway at cabin

Rain meant the leaves lost their crunch

Rain, which came often to the yellow-green forest, meant the leaves lost their crunch and the woods got quieter. Or perhaps it wasn’t quiet at all, simply different. In summer there was a constant ki-ki-ki of tiny creatures eating plants, crawling through leaves, dropping miniscule things from the canopy to the floor. That sound disappeared in the cool damp, as did the nightly serenade of tree frogs.

Autumn brought new sounds: wild turkeys gobbling, a mountain stream rushing with fresh water, coyotes setting up their frantic howl and the distant growling of a chainsaw getting the woodpile caught up for winter.

There would be new chores: lots of sweeping as the floor tracked with wet hickory leaves, wood to split, brush to burn, kindling to gather, winter clothing to unpack. I would need to cover tomato plants at night so the green fruit could finish maturing.

The oppressive heat was over and that was worth celebrating when we lived in a place with no fans and no air conditioners. We swapped tank tops for sweaters and got out heavy boots.

I would get excited about the new birds come to feed at our bounty: black-capped chickadees, purple finches and juncos. The phoebes, cardinals and titmice thought a continuous source of seed was a good reason to hang around and they were welcome.

The birds on my feeder bring me back from retrospection. I love walking down that memory lane. There are no regrets for having walked it and no desire to go back, except from the comfort of my centrally heated, all-electric home of the present. We still have birds in the city.

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Two Dollar Shoes

 

Two Dollar Shoes

Everywhere I go, I get compliments on my unique shoes

While Dan and I were on a weekend excursion last year, I picked up some cool-looking, wildly colored casual shoes I thought might be handy on a winter cruise vacation we had planned. They were made of elastic strips, with memory foam insoles, brand new and only two dollars at the second-hand store!

I wore them on a shore excursion in The Bahamas and made memories flipping a Segway machine in the sand, twisting my ankle and wounding my pride.

I found out my little two-dollar investment was a good one. The shoes are exceptionally comfortable, easy to slip on, and the multiple colors make them versatile enough to wear with all my summer outfits.

Everywhere I go, I get compliments on my unique shoes. It’s very tempting to say, “They were only two dollars!” But I resist. Especially since I stumbled across a pair on the Internet and found out they retail for over fifty bucks!

If I had paid $50 for my shoes, I probably would not have worn them to ride Segways on the beach. For sure I would not have dipped my bruised foot into the cool ocean and gotten salt water all over my new shoes! I would have saved them for strolling around on the deck of the ship. If I had known I was wearing fifty-dollar shoes, I might not have put them on in the rain or to go shopping at Wal-Mart. For $50, I would have been trying harder to make them last two seasons, or maybe three.

I see pros and cons here. I’ve really enjoyed my shoes more for having put little monetary value on them. But that may be due to a character flaw of mine. Having been trained by parents who suffered through the Great Depression, I am frugal to a fault. If I spend a great deal of money (or time or effort) on a thing, I tend to want to save it. It is only when a thing is cheap (or free or easy) that I feel like I can simply use it up.

But then I see other people who were “born with a silver spoon in their mouth” who waste wantonly. I consider that a character flaw also.

Little kids will ruin their Nike shoes just as quickly as shoes from the dollar store because they don’t know the difference in value.

Children in the U.S. sometimes waste their public education years because it is “free.” Young, immature college kids often waste their opportunity for higher education because it didn’t cost them anything.

I see people at the grocery store wasting money on junk food and then paying with a government-issued EBT card. Because it’s free food, it doesn’t have to be nutritious or worth what they’re “paying.”

It’s the same way with medical expenses. I find that I’m more cautious about running to the doctor or authorizing tests because I have to pay for it. Families with government-provided or employer-provided health insurance seem to have less caution about spending health care dollars.

Having lived so many years, in so many situations, I suppose I can see both sides of the coin. I think buying fifty-dollar shoes for two dollars is the best!

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A Murder of Crows

In the American South, sometimes it is hard to discern the seasons. The calendar can be a loose guide, but it is seldom ever right on time with the weather. There is a meteorological way of naming the seasons but even that has proved unreliable this year.

September is supposed to be a month of low-pressure cells, cool fronts, sporadic rain and yellow leaves. It is the meteorological beginning of autumn.

This year, however, has been the year of exception in Texas. July and August are typically dry but it rained all summer. Hurricane Harvey flooded half the state. September has been completely dry and exceptionally hot. I’m confused.

I don’t know if I still need to buy BT dunks for the pond and bird bath to kill mosquito larvae. I’m not sure if the hummingbirds need nectar. It’s almost October but I’m still carrying a summer purse.

The first day of autumn has come and gone but I keep looking for clues. Wal-Mart has Halloween costumes but they put those out on Labor Day. The morning glories have started blooming again but the roses still look dormant. The neighbor’s cottonwood is losing leaves but our cypress is not. The state fair starts this week and our lawn needs water. The Japanese maple is not even tinged with red.

When I know that it is fall, I will want to work in the flower beds, clean my oven and buy canned pumpkin. Until I’m sure, I’m not putting my swimsuit away or trading out sleeveless shirts for sweaters in the closet. I’m keeping my flip-flops handy. The gold and orange door wreath remains in the attic.

I had a significant clue this week. When I stuck my nose out the door one morning to test the humidity, I heard a newly formed murder of crows talking about winter accommodations. Crows are to autumn what the robin is to spring.

A Murder of Crows

Like a noisy crowd gathered for a spectacle

Texas Crows don’t move south for the winter but they do change their roosting habits. After a summer of pairing up and fighting for territory, a large group will get together in one area that provides food, water and shelter. They share during hard times.

They can be seen in large congregations in trees barren of leaves. They sound like a noisy crowd gathered for a spectacle. When I see crows gathering and hear them talking, I know that autumn has arrived, even if it is close to 100 degrees F. today.

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Smelling Time

I conjured up an unusual smell this morning, cleaning the coffee maker, dumping the grounds and throwing something in the trash while the garbage disposal was running.

I think it was cherry tobacco! Most specifically, it was Mr. Ellis’ cherry cigars, circa 1963. His domain was the corner grocery of my childhood. Old wood, various chocolates and garlic bologna permeated the air but Mr. Ellis’ cigars surmounted them all.

Cigar

A smell from my childhood

With the phantom or artificial recreation of this odor from my past came a flood of memories—walking to the store on a summer morning, carrying in glass Pepsi bottles to redeem for a huge 16 ounce soda Mom and I would divide for a special summer lunch.

It was a rare thing, but I remember being sent to procure a pack of Chesterfield non-filters on behalf of my dad and Mr. Ellis giving me a gruff, “Do your folks know you’re buying cigarettes?”

I was fond of the old man and sad when he didn’t open the store for a few days. Desperate for something, Mom told me to knock on the door of the little house in back because he lived there. It was a strange man who opened. I never knew Mr. Ellis had fuzzy white hair or whiskers or that he wore undershirts just like my dad’s. He was grumpy but he opened the shop and sold me what I needed.

The closed days became more and more frequent and then one day the store was shuttered for good. Mom told me he was not coming back. I wondered how she knew. We all hoped someone else would buy the shop and open it.

Ellis’ Grocery was our convenience, the place for bananas or bread, candy and frosty soda from a chiller box with ice in it. It was our nostalgia made from screen doors with Rainbo bread handles and Prince Albert in a can and cardboard cigar boxes he would save for you if you asked nicely.

What is it (I wonder) about smells that are so inexplicably linked to memory? Cherry tobacco takes me back to childhood. How can a lemon dish soap used during pregnancy more than forty years ago still trigger a picture of me passing out in the bathroom from morning sickness? Wood smoke every fall triggers memories of our cabin in the Ouachita National Forest. Diesel fuel sparks the summer Mom and I awaited my sister in a bus station on our journey to St. Louis when I was eleven.

A pleasant memory trigger

Orange triggers some pleasant memory for most people

Doctors have experimented with certain smells to trigger memory in elderly people. I think they used things like cinnamon and orange, maybe rosemary—all pleasant smells. I wonder what would happen if they tried cigar smoke and diesel fuel?

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Can I Be You?

“Can I be you when I grow up?” the lady at the gas station asked because she drooled over my little foreign sports car. She made me laugh. It feels good to be envied.

But if she only knew! I have been at the extreme opposite end of the feeling. I remember driving my teenage son’s old station wagon while the family car was having engine repairs. His sister would scrunch down in the passenger seat when the big old hunk of junk would backfire, puff smoke and die at inopportune moments. One day a frustrated motorist shouted, “Fix it or park it, lady!”

Station Wagon

Driving a Big White House Shoe

We both felt near tears but we laughed instead and said we were driving a big, white house shoe.

Pride and humiliation—I wonder if they are innate in us or if they’re learned.

Our parents teach us to take pride in our accomplishments and feel disappointment and embarrassment when we fail. Or perhaps they merely encourage what is already there.

School teachers use pride and shame to encourage good behavior and study. The very system of grading supports comparison of ourselves to other students. Maybe even class “show and tell” gets us started on that path.

Advertisers encourage this thinking, of course, in order to sell goods and services. They know everyone wants to throw the ball like a sports hero, cook like a professional chef, look like a model, and charm like a movie star. Owning what our heroes own or recommend is surely the way to be enviable.

Some of the newest advertising uses shame as well, portraying young people whispering behind someone’s back. Human imagination convinces us we could be the subject of secret derision if we don’t use that product, drive that vehicle or wear that brand.

We are not allowed to see the heartache involved, the plastic surgery, clothes altering, photo airbrushing, contract negotiations or legal wrangling that goes on behind product promotions. We only see what they want us to see.

The same is true of my beautiful car. Success is the finished product you see. You are not allowed to see my fourteen-hour days behind the counter at Quik Trip, hauling rocks up the side of a mountain, living in the back of an office or driving the big, white house shoe.

If that young lady who was jealous of my car could have known the path I’ve walked, would she have been willing to trade places with me? Or would she have said, “No, thank you! I’ll keep the life I’m comfortable with”?

Audi TT

Audi TT looks like success

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Growly Bushes

Dense woods

Dense woods get a little scary…when they growl

A low, threatening growl emanated from the underbrush, halting my trek through the woods. Not sure if the sound was real or imagined, I drew my pistol from the holster and moved one foot through the dry, crunchy leaves.

Grrrrrr. Definitely real; most definitely close enough to make me break out in a sweat. Now I stood motionless in a shooter’s crouch, my feet too far apart to feel comfortable on the rocky forest floor, my gun pointed at a clump of greenery. Each time I tried to move my feet, I was threatened by another deep growl from the bush.

Shooter's Stance

Right or not, when I need to shoot suddenly, my knees bend

Though I stared long and hard, I could discern no movement and no variance in color to give me a clue as to what was hiding less than three feet away.

My body was frozen in place; my mind was going ninety miles an hour. I thought about just firing into the bushes but then I thought if it was a bear this would only provoke it. I imagined being mauled by an angry bear with a .38 slug in its foot.

The growl sounded like a dog to me, so maybe it was a coyote. Only bigger. Maybe it was a wolf. Were there wolves around here?

Why would a wolf hide in the bush? Maybe it was injured. Perhaps it had just given birth. I didn’t want to kill a mother!

What if it was the neighbor’s dog, a huge half-Saint Bernard mongrel who ran loose and enjoyed being a territorial bully. What if he was rabid?

What if it was my husband, pulling a prank? I didn’t want to shoot my husband!

I decided to warn the growler. “I have a gun and I will shoot you!” That didn’t send anyone scrambling from the undergrowth. It didn’t even elicit a growl. I decided to talk some more.

“What’s wrong? Why are you hiding? Are you hurt? I won’t hurt you. I just want to go on my way…” I don’t remember all the nonsense out of my adrenaline-crazed brain but I think my tone got softer.

I survived. But to this day I remain a little surprised at my reluctance to pull the trigger on the unknown menace in the bush.

Our reactions to new, foreign, scary and unfamiliar things can vary widely. Some of us react without thinking things through. Some of us (like me) think so long the opportunity to react (good or bad) passes us by. Some people run; some pull the trigger and run; some talk sweet through their sweat and fear.

Usually the thing we fear is just as afraid of us as we are of it. The people who intimidate are terrified and their false front is to make sure we stay three feet away.

My walk in the woods turned out okay except I’ll never know what growled at me. I will probably continue to talk sweet to growly bushes. Hey, it works!

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