Bears Sighted in Cuba

“We have to get to know each other better, it makes us understand one another better, trust each other more, and live together more peacefully”

– Motto for the United Buddy Bears, an international art exhibition promoting peace among nations.

Buddy Bears in San Francisco de Asis Plaza
Buddy Bears in Havana’s San Francisco de Asis Plaza

We were very fortunate to be in Cuba when the United Buddy Bears were being displayed at the San Francisco de Asis Plaza in Havana. The brightly painted fiberglass bears represent the over 140 countries recognized by the United Nations and are designed to promote peace, tolerance, and international understanding. They stand hand to hand to represent the people, culture, history, and landscape of the different countries, not the political systems.

The design on each bear was created by an artist from the individual countries and, no matter how large or small, or rich or poor each country is, they have the same size bear and are equal in standing. It was interesting to see how the various artists choose to represent their country – many were quite beautiful, some (including Cuba’s) were a little humorous, and others inspiring. All were fascinating.

The bears were first exhibited in Berlin in 2002/2003, before moving on to Austria in 2004. They have now been shown in over 23 countries, including Hong Kong, Japan, Australia, Egypt, Israel, Argentina, and India.

Buddy Bears

In March, the United Buddy Bears leave Cuba for their next destination, Santiago de Chile. I tried to determine if they were scheduled for a stop in the United States, but was unable to find anything. I hope they will not only be displayed here, but will also be embraced with the same generous, open-hearted spirit they have found elsewhere.

Cuba's Buddy Bear
Cuba’s Buddy Bear

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

U.S. Buddy Bear
U.S. Buddy Bear

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BB Lineup 2

 

 

 

 

Cuba: Separated from the U.S. by 90 miles and 50 years

There are many reasons why the tiny nation of Cuba had such a huge hold on my imagination for so many years. Some of the lure was the image I had of a country frozen in time; most of the buildings, infrastructure, and automobiles pre-date 1961, when the United States began its trade embargo. What I knew of the culture and the people was also appealing; I’ve always been attracted to the Latin ethos, perhaps because it contrasted so strongly with my plain vanilla self. And then there’s the arts – especially the music and the dancing – which had a special hold over me.

The beauty of Salsa
The beauty of Salsa

Just a few years ago, traveling to Cuba as a U.S. citizen would mean breaking the law. The travel ban was relaxed somewhat in 2009, which allowed Cuban-Americans to travel freely to Cuba. When, in 2011, “people-to-people” visits were sanctioned so other U.S. citizens were able to travel to Cuba, albeit with certain restrictions, I started to research my options. I hoped to find a tour that had a good mix of organized excursions and unstructured free time so we could explore our surroundings on our own. Last October, when I found one that fit my requirements, I signed up for the next planned trip without hesitation.

Very early on the morning of our departure, a group of 18 mostly strangers gathered together, visas in hand, in the Charter Airline terminal at Miami airport. Exhausted but excited, we began the process of getting to know one another as we made our way through the series of steps necessary for U.S. citizens to travel legally to Cuba. About 2 1/5 hours after we arrived at the airport we boarded our plane for the short flight to Havana’s Jose Marti Airport.

My first glimpse of Cuba!
My first glimpse of Cuba!

When we landed and I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac, I could barely contain my emotions. I had dreamed of this moment for so long it was hard to believe that I had finally made it. I was in Cuba!

After making our way through immigration, retrieving our bags, and going through customs, we exchanged dollars for CUCs and we were on our way. Our first day’s agenda included a short orientation walk in Old Havana, lunch, and a tour of the Havana Club Rum Museum before checking into our hotel in downtown Havana.

Jose Marti International Airport
Jose Marti International Airport
Taxis wait for passengers in front of the airport
Taxis wait for passengers in front of the airport
The first of many government-sponsored billboards and murals we saw
The first of many government-sponsored billboards and murals we saw
Catholic church in Old Havana
Catholic church in Old Havana
The Havana Club Rum Museum
The Havana Club Rum Museum
The view from our hotel room in Havana
The view from our hotel room in Havana

Stringing Together the Florida Keys

Because our journey to Cuba would be launched from Miami, my husband and I had an opportunity to fulfill another long-held desire: to drive the scenic coastal highway along the Florida Keys. Although we had been to Florida several times before, we had never tacked the time onto our vacation necessary to make the journey. This visit though, we added a few days to explore the area, which had the additional benefit of allowing us to acclimate ourselves to the three-hour time zone difference before we reached our main destination.

Although I was aware that the Keys – and especially Key West – had become a bit of a tourist trap, I still wanted to see them for myself. I was intrigued by pictures of turquoise waters and distinctive architecture, fascinated to read about the time Hemmingway spent in Key West, and inspired by the romance of the many songs written about this beautiful necklace of islands along the coral archipelago.

42 overseas bridges span the islands from Key Largo to Key West
42 overseas bridges span the islands from Key Largo to Key West

There are more than 800 islands that make up the Keys but fewer than 50 of these are inhabited (“Key” is derived from the Spanish word Cayo which means small island).  The Overseas Highway that stretches from Key Largo to Key West is a series of causeways and bridges — including the spectacular Seven Mile Bridge – and provides plenty of vistas along the way. It was built to replace the Overseas Railway that was constructed in the early 1910s and then destroyed by a category 5 hurricane in 1935. It takes about 3 – 4 hours to drive the 110 mile route, depending on traffic and the number of stops needed to admire the scenery and, of course, to grab a cheeseburger in paradise.

We only had two days set aside for our visit and, looking back, we should have allowed for more. There is a lot to see and do on these beautiful and captivating little islands.

Hemmingway's house and museum is home to 40 - 50 polydactyl (six-toed) cats
Hemingway’s house and museum is home to 40 – 50 polydactyl (six-toed) cats. If you look closely, you can see Truman’s “thumb”
The study in Hemmingway's Key West home
The study in Hemingway’s home, where it is said that he wrote “To Have and Have Not,” a novel about Key West during the Great Depression
In Key West a marker indicates the southernmost point in the continental U.S. (just 90 miles from Cuba!)
In Key West a marker indicates the southernmost point in the continental U.S. (just 90 miles from Cuba!)
Sailing into the sunset
Sailing into the sunset off the shores of Key West
The crowd at Mallory Square gathers to watch the sunset
The crowds at Mallory Square gather each night to watch the sunset
After the sun set, the crowd applauded and disbursed, unaware that the best part of the sunset occurs several minutes after it disappears below the horizon
After the sun set, the crowd applauded and disbursed, unaware that the best part of the sunset occurs several minutes after it disappears below the horizon

59 Candles

I hate my birthday. Actually, it’s not so much my birthday – as a child, I loved the attention and getting presents – it’s the month that my birthday falls in that I dislike.

Growing up, I was always so envious of my friends who had birthdays in late spring and summer. They got to have beach parties, and pool parties, and parties in the park. Because my birthday is in January, my parties always had to be held indoors. It was cold outside and sometimes wet; not exactly party weather.

HB4Not only is my birthday in what is often the coldest month of the year, it is in early January… just days after the holidays. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard a version of this joyful birthday greeting: “Oh great, it’s your birthday. Jeez, we just had Christmas and now I have to think about your birthday?” Um, sorry?

 

Fortunately, my parents always made a big deal about my birthday, just as they did for my two brothers. I never had to open a combined Merry Christmas/Happy Birthday gift or was made to feel that the timing of my birthday was inconvenient (after all, it was kind of their fault, right?). In fact, it was the year they forgot my birthday that I knew something was terribly wrong and my brothers and I needed to step in and become their vigilant care givers.

In just a few days, I will enter the final year of my fifties. The year I turned 29, 39, and even 49, didn’t have much significance for me. Those 365 days ticking down to my next decade didn’t seem like they were leading to anything terribly transformative. For some reason, 59 feels different.

According to several dictionaries, “middle age” is considered to span between the ages of 40 and 60. Before turning 40, a person is considered to be a “young adult.” Once that person turns 60, according to the definition, he or she has now reached “old age.” OLD AGE?? I can’t speak for everyone in my age range, but I certainly don’t feel like I’m just one short year away from being of “old age.” I have a lot of friends who are several – some who are many – years older than I am and I don’t consider them to be of “old age” either.  Some are still working and some are retired. They travel, they volunteer, they are involved with their families, friends, and their community.

I wonder if we need to create another definition for the years after 60. I’m not in denial that, at some point in the future, “old” will be an apt description of my age, but it sure isn’t what I’d define myself as being now, or a year from now, or, I hope, for many years to come.

Over the next 365 days, I might put some thought into coining a new phrase to describe the years following my 60th birthday. Even better, I think I’ll just continue to be active, engaged, creative, and connected, and let my reality define my age.

A Backward Glance at 2014, Part 3

Rather than making New Year’s resolutions that I’d probably break before the end of January, I decided to look back on 2014, the first year of my retirement, to see how my vision corresponded with my reality. In Part 1 and Part 2, I explored six specific areas of focus. Here in Part 3, I look at three more.

Learn new things – C

When I envisioned my retirement years before I actually made the step, I knew they would include ongoing education. There are so many subjects I want to learn about and, fortunately in my city, there are many avenues I can take to pursue this knowledge.

Osher is an amazing resource for lifelong education
Osher is an amazing resource for lifelong education

I’ve already taken classes on Photoshop and social media (both free through the Continuing Education system) and there are so many other subjects I am interested in. We are fortunate to have several colleges in the area that offer courses through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute that I plan to take advantage of. If you haven’t heard about Osher, I encourage you to Google them and see if they offer classes where you live.

I’m giving myself a C because I sort of took the spring and summer off right after I left work. I expect to refocus in the new year and feed my brain on a regular basis.

Be creative – B-

I’ve always been a fairly creative person; in fact I was a graphic design major in college. For those of you who haven’t reached 50 yet, it’s probably difficult to picture a time when design was done without a computer, but that was my world. Soon after I graduated, I decided not to make a career out of art and get into something more stable and lucrative.

I’ve dabble in artistic pursuits on and off over the years, but I looked forward to the free time I’d have in retirement to reawaken my creative side. I’ve made some progress, mostly in photography, but I want to do much more.

Care for and nurture my marriage – B+

This is the biggie. I wasn’t sure how being together almost 24-hours-a-day would affect my relationship with my husband. As solid as our marriage is, I realized that we needed to be mindful of this huge change in our lives. Would each of us get enough “me time”? Would we still find joy in being together? Would we drive each other crazy?

Looking back on the past year, I think we’ve done a great job adjusting to our new reality. It takes a lot of work, flexibility, and good communication, but isn’t that true of any relationship? I consider my husband my best friend and I know we are each other’s biggest fan. We can always improve (hence the B+, not an A), but there is no one else I’d rather find joy with or drive crazy.

 

So, tomorrow night is New Year’s Eve and we plan to spend a wonderful evening with good friends. We may even stay up until midnight (or, not). 2014 turned out to be a very good year and I look forward to filling 2015 with great adventures, personal growth, fulfilling connections with others, healthy living, and much laughter and joy. I wish the same for you.

A Backward Glance at 2014, Part 2

In my previous post, I looked at some of the goals I made for myself in my first year of retirement and tried to honestly assess what I did well and what I didn’t. Here are three more of my goals and my evaluation of my progress with them so far.

Get Organized and Off-Load Stuff – C

My husband and I are making some strides in this area. We’ve donated, recycled, tossed, and sold quite a bit of stuff. We also are careful not to bring too much into the house. But, there’s still a lot left to go through and get rid of. I knew this would take time, so I’m fairly pleased with our progress.

One of many bags of work clothes that we don't need anymore
One of many bags of work clothes that we don’t need anymore

Because we have some items to get rid of that have value (at least to someone), I have been selling them on eBay. Although it’s been kind of fun, I’m not happy with how the boxes and shipping materials have taken over our guest room. What used to be the one room that was always neat and clean now looks like a poorly organized warehouse. That mess will need to be resolved somehow in the near future or my foray into e-commerce will have to end.

Keep Busy and Stay Productive – B

I am very easily entertained. Since I’ve been retired, I’ve learned that trait can be a good thing or a bad thing. I can spend a good part of the day on the computer, or reading a good book, or wandering around an interesting part of town. I can Pin with the best of them, get lost exploring the rooms on Houzz, and read and comment on my favorite blogs… all day long. A book can captivate me from morning to evening, and there is always a new one waiting for me when I finish. And then, of course, I love taking walks… just about anywhere… the further the better. And if we stop for lunch, even more better. So, keeping busy? No problem.

Staying productive? I guess it depends on your definition of “productive.” I’ve always worked best with deadlines and in retirement, a lot of those deadlines go away. I know I can do better at accomplishing tasks that I don’t want to do, but need to be done, and ensuring those things get done in a reasonable amount of time. I intend to start that as soon as I finish my book.

Stay Connected – B-

This is a bit of a challenge since many of my friends are still working. More than a few lunch dates have been cancelled due to unexpected conflicts at work. Since that was my world not too longs ago, I always understand and am happy to reschedule.

My husband and I have discussed our need to be more proactive about connecting with people we care about – and expanding our circle of friends. It’s too easy to just rely on each other for our entertainment. Although we always happily say “yes” when we are invited to someone else’s gathering, we need to be better about planning get-togethers and extending our own invitations.

 

In Part 3, I’ll assess my efforts and outcomes in three other areas, including the biggie: focusing on maintaining a positive, enjoyable, and loving relationship with my husband – despite being with each other almost 24-hours a day.

A Backward Glance at 2014, Part 1

Although I don’t have a tradition of making New Year’s resolutions, I think it can be helpful to take stock of the year gone by and look for ways to do more of what worked and improve on what didn’t.

2014 was a year of big changes for me because on May 16, I made the leap into retirement. Some of the changes I experienced were predictable, but some took me by surprise. I’m happy to report that most were positive, but some… not so much.

Here’s how I think I did in a few categories (more in my next post):

Embracing Retirement – A+

It's hard to predict what is around the retirement corner
It’s hard to predict what is around the retirement corner

No one can predict how well they will take to a life change as major as retirement. I remember approaching the date with a mix of excitement and trepidation. I was grateful that I had the opportunity at a fairly young age, and I looked forward to joining my husband who retired two years previously.  On the other hand, I had a good job, an almost non-existent commute, and work friends that I enjoyed and knew I would miss. My fear was that I would wake up one morning and realize that I had made a terrible – and irreversible – choice.

I know now that I had nothing to fear. I wake up every day thankful that I don’t have to go to work. I stay in touch with several of my work friends and none of our conversations that are about work make me want to dive in again.

Diet and Exercise – C

I really had every intention of putting together an exercise program and sticking to it. Nothing crazy or too time-consuming; I wanted consistent and semi-challenging. Even just walking my three-mile, hilly course around our neighborhood would have been a great start. I envisioned taking up yoga.

That didn’t happen.

The worst part is that I have no excuse. Weather – too hot or cold – is seldom a barrier in Southern California and I actually enjoy exercising once I get started. It’s the getting started that has been the problem. I’m fortunate to be in pretty good shape despite my lethargy but I know I can’t rely on my good genes forever.

Fortunately, I have been successful in keeping my weight in my target range. I was concerned that being at home with the refrigerator just a few steps away would be my undoing. Although the temptations are plenty and my husband and I go out to lunch more often than we probably should, we manage to eat fairly healthily. In addition, I continue to follow the Fast Diet, a way of eating based on intermittent fasting. After learning about Dr. Mosley’s research on a PBS program almost two years ago I lost the weight I wanted to, and have kept it off without feeling deprived. It’s not for everyone, but it works for me.

Travel – A

Birds of a feather in Abilene
Birds of a feather in Abilene

A couple of months before I retired I went on a two-week cross-country road trip with a friend. She had made this trip many times alone, traveling between her home in Pennsylvania and Southern California, but this time I decided to tag along. It was great fun and I saw many parts of the country I hadn’t seen before.

In June, my husband and I traveled to Northern California for a three-week adventure that included car club activities and visits with both sides of our family. It was the first time we’ve vacationed that a work schedule didn’t force us to come home earlier than we wanted.

In the fall, we took off for a three-week trip to the big island, Hawaii. We were fortunate to have a very generous friend who opened her home to us for the entire time. Staying in someone’s home and having the luxury of time made the trip very special. Not only was our host an excellent tour guide, we didn’t feel that we had to choose between snorkeling, relaxing, and sight-seeing – we could do it all.

 

In my next post, I’ll look at several other retirement goals I have and assess my efforts and outcomes for those.

Is Your Tinsel All Tied Up In a Knot?

Yesterday, my husband and I attended a holiday open house hosted by a former co-worker and his wife.  Although they live quite a few miles from our home, it’s an annual event we always look forward to. Now that we are retired, we are especially happy to have the opportunity to catch up with many of the people we used to work with.

Our hosts’ house is always decorated beautifully for the party. We haven’t been to their home at other times of the year so I don’t know what it looks like on other holidays, but it is obvious that Christmas is a BIG deal to them.  My understanding is that they start decorating in late October and are always scrambling up to the last minute to get everything done before their open house.

Tree1

They have four full-size Christmas trees and several table-top vignettes scattered throughout their home. The room that normally functions as the husband’s office has the largest Dickens’ Village display I have ever seen. The room is also decorated with 20 – 30 golf-themed Santas and elves. One of the three Christmas trees in the living room has an owl-theme. The other two trees are crammed full of beautiful, sparkly ornaments. In a hallway off the living room is a table full of dachshund-themed ornaments (the couple doesn’t have children but they lavish their love on their fur-babies).

Although all of the trees and the table vignettes are impressive, the most eye-catching decorations are the (possibly hundreds?) Santas and elves that line the tops of cabinets, open areas just below the ceiling, fireplace mantel, and bookshelves. Even though it appears that not one more figure could possibly find a spot, every year one or two new ones are added.

Elves2

As beautiful as the whole effect is (and it really is done quite well), I can’t help but think about the time it takes them to set everything up, keep it all dusted throughout the holidays, take it down in January, then store everything until next October. Although I know it is a labor of love for them – and I enjoy seeing it every year – I am grateful that hyper-decorating isn’t part of our holiday tradition. I like to display some holiday sparkle, but everything we do can be set up in one day, enjoyed for about a month, then taken down and stored in just a few plastic bins.

Several of the people at the party last night are recently retired and more than once the conversation turned to our individual efforts to pare down and off-load stuff. Not all of us have been equally successful but most share the goal of freeing our lives of unneeded things and instead filling them with experiences, friends, and passions.

We each have to find the path that works best for us. Our hosts find their bliss in decorating every inch of their house and sharing their joy of Christmas with others. I, on the other hand, am happy to enjoy their holiday exuberance at the open house, but then come home to our more understated decorations.

Death Didn’t Take a Holiday

We had a death in the neighborhood yesterday. Actually, we aren’t sure when our neighbor died. It could have been yesterday, but more than likely he had been dead for several days – or more – before being discovered. The last time his neighbor across the street saw him alive was on Thanksgiving. She later became concerned after noticing that his garbage hadn’t been brought curb-side for pick-up and that a flyer hung on his door hadn’t been touched.

We live in a fairly tight-knit neighborhood. We pretty much know everyone up and down both sides of our long block. There are a lot of long-time residents; one or two are the original owners of their late 1950’s era homes. It’s almost impossible to walk from one end of the block to the other without stopping multiple times to chat. It is the type of neighborhood many people want to live in—friendly, sociable, supportive, and connected.

John’s mother was one of those original owners. Before Audrey passed away several years ago, she put the house and a sizable amount of money into a trust for her son. She did this because she knew that John wouldn’t be able to care for himself because of his mental illness. Despite his violent behavior towards her and others, and his pattern of eschewing medication for his bipolar disorder and instead feeding his meth habit, she decided that the best place for her son was in our neighborhood.

Most of the time, we were able to ignore John and his craziness. He could often be seen walking in the area wearing multiple layers of clothing (even in the summer) and large headphones, constantly talking to himself. Other than being odd, he was mostly harmless; he avoided us and we avoided him. Other times, though, he’d become enraged and verbally attacked those who lived around him. He was enough of a threat that a few neighbors took out restraining orders against him. It was not unusual to see several police cars in front of his house. We quickly learned, though, that it’s not possible to force a mentally ill person into treatment if he refuses. Even if he doesn’t have water or gas service because of unpaid bills. Even if it is obvious that his mental and physical health is deteriorating. Even if we think he could be a threat to himself or others. Even if.

John had a sister and two kids from an earlier marriage. All had been victims of his abuse and all had become estranged from him over the years. Once his mother died the only people who “cared” about him were those who could profit from him; the ones who took advantage of his mental state by crashing at his house, eating his food, or selling him drugs.

So, now John is dead and the neighborhood is breathing a sigh of relief. Whether he died of drugs or a heart attack; whether he had been dead one day or six before being found, we’ll probably never know.

What we do know is that he died alone and without a friend in the world. His kids – both now young adults and seemingly reasonably-adjusted – will live with a memory of a father they could never know. They also now have a house to dispose of- the inside of which is probably so disgusting a sane person wouldn’t live there. They have a lot of work ahead of them to get it in any shape to sell.

We are a neighborhood that looks out for one another. We help each other with house and car projects. We celebrate good times together and support each other when bad things happen. But, this one got away from us. We watched helplessly as John’s life careened out of control and spiraled down to its inevitable conclusion.

I admit that I wasn’t sad when I found out that John had died. His pain is over and his neighbors no longer need to be afraid of what he might do. I am sad that we can’t, as a society, do more to aid these tortured souls. Because of lack of funding and a few probably well-intentioned laws that had unintended consequences, we are often helpless to intervene.

I think we can do better.

Having a Cool Yule

Wow, here it is December 1, and I haven’t purchased a single Christmas gift. I didn’t leave the Thanksgiving dinner table and head to the mall. I didn’t set my alarm for o-dark-thirty the next morning so I could join the Black Friday throngs standing in line to save a few bucks. And now my Cyber Monday virtual shopping carts are empty.

Many years ago my brothers and I, along with our spouses, decided to stop buying gifts for each other. Every Thanksgiving, we’d each write our name on a slip of paper and put it in a bowl. Then we’d draw a name and that would be the only one of the six of us we bought a gift for. $50 limit. In addition to that gift, my husband and I bought presents for each other, our parents, a niece, a grandniece, and a couple of friends. Pretty simple.

This plan worked well for several years but, after awhile, even the one gift seemed silly. The $50 gift price limit soon became a gift card exchange which didn’t feel very personal… or needed. So, a few years ago, the six of us decided to stop exchanging gifts with each altogether. Now, with my parents’ passing my husband’s and my gift list has dwindled down to just a few people. For the most part, we don’t even exchange gifts with each other. Sometimes we’ll buy each other little things for fun, and we can usually identify an upcoming trip or a household need that becomes our joint “gift” to each other, but usually there’s not much under the Christmas tree… if we even have a Christmas tree.

I'm pretty sure some of these gifts under my family's 1964 Christmas tree are now on eBay.
I’m pretty sure some of these gifts under my family’s 1964 Christmas tree are now on eBay.

These decisions have helped to change the holiday season for the better. I don’t experience the stress I used to because now I no longer am focused on buying PERFECT GIFTS. My husband and I can stroll the mall and enjoy the hustle and bustle and the lovely displays, but not get wrapped up in the craziness.

Do I sound like a bah humbug? I’m really not. I love the holiday lights, decorations, music (as long as it doesn’t start before Thanksgiving) and the parties. I don’t love the crass commercialism and the media-driven expectations. I’m also not against Christmas presents; if I happen to think of the perfect gift for someone, I’ll get it. If not, I don’t spend time running around desperately trying to find something. I’ve never been particularly religious but the whole idea of Christmas gifts seems odd to me anyway. Why is the focus on buying things for each other when the “reason for the season” is supposed to be about peace and joy?

In addition to the stress relief, our move away from buying and receiving presents has been beneficial in other ways. At this stage of our lives we are actively working on getting rid of “stuff.” Thanks to thrift stores, eBay, consignment shops, and the landfill, I finally feel like we’re making progress. No gifts means no more stuff. Besides, instead of a friend or loved one spending their time searching for THE PERFECT GIFT for me, I’d much prefer they give me the gift of time spent together, enjoying each other’s company.