Saturday, March 15, 2014

Longing for Spring

The spring issues of Victoria magazine invite me to a world of lovely gardens, flowers, trickling streams, potting sheds, and seasonal entertaining.  This is my favorite magazine, and the photos and articles within make me long to walk through my own garden, sip wine on my porch, and rejoice with the unfolding of each new spring blossom.  Today is March 15; we are a week from spring, but the view from my window is one of snow, ice, and starkness. 

March is seldom a pretty month in the Northeast -- snow melts, mud abounds, new snow falls, temperatures rise, teasing of spring, and then plummet once again.  March winds can bring a soft warm breath of spring one day, and a frigid bite the next.  It is a transitional month and carries frustration on its breezes.

My most vivid childhood memory of March is of finally being able to hang laundry outside on the clothesline, instead of from ropes crisscrossing our dark, spidery basement.  As we gathered the "dry" laundry from the clothesline at the end of the afternoon, the scent of fresh air was a tonic for our winter-weary souls.  Often the laundry itself was more frozen than dry, but how we loved bringing its fresh scent into the house, even though our fingers were often numb by the time we finished.

This winter has been a particularly long, snowy season.  Usually by mid-March I am uncovering the last bits of snow from my little patch of snowdrops, and sometimes able to remove the leaf mulch from most of the garden beds.  Today, though, the snowdrops still lie under several inches of snow.  I have enjoyed the beauty of this winter -- I love the deep stillness of falling snow, the sparkle of sunlight on a fresh snowfall, and the beauty of moonlight casting shadows on a world of white.  However, enough is enough!! 

I am anxiously awaiting that moment when I can begin my gardening chores.  A knee injury last year kept me from caring properly for my gardens, so I have much work to do this year.  As I browse through the pages of Victoria, I am planning changes here and there -- moving a few plants, planting more wildflower seeds near the bird feeder, adding new herbs, cleaning out my garden shed so it resembles more closely a little potting shed.  There is so much inspiration and I am impatient to be outside again to nurture and enjoy my little plot of land. The birds are singing their hearts out as I write -- a chorus of songs speaking of spring.  Maybe the second half of March will finally transform our bleak landscape, and spring will at last be here.  We are almost there -- I am waiting for the first whiff of lilacs floating on the morning air.

"There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature -- the
assurance that dawn comes after night and spring after the winter."
Rachel Carson


Monday, March 10, 2014

Technology vs. Humanity

The headline read, "Staples to Close 225 Stores."  Apparently online sales are increasing as sales figures for stores are decreasing.  How sad to see another "bricks and mortar" fatality.  As a business owner, I was a frequent customer at our local Staples.  How I loved browsing through the huge aisles for my office needs -- from pens and paper to calculators to desks and shelving.  The staff was always helpful and knowledgeable, although many of them left for better paying jobs elsewhere.  As I read the newspaper headline this week I thought of one employee in particular.  He is an odd little man -- friendly, helpful, but obviously not a candidate for moving up to a better-paying job.  And I wondered how many people like him will lose their jobs and have difficulty finding work when these stores close.  It is a problem that compounds with each store closing, each downsizing, each manufacturing job which is replaced by technology.

The advances in technology have moved at a dizzying pace in the past few years.  There is so much to love about it.  Businesses do more work with less people and without the factor of human error.  Communication is instantaneous. The average person can shop for just about anything online and have it delivered to his door the next day.  We can conduct just about all of our personal business online -- handling our banking, insurance, investments, healthcare, and even friendships from the comfort of our homes.  The world is there for us at any hour of the day, at the touch of a keyboard or screen. 

Unfortunately, though, as a society, we are paying a huge price for this technology.  Just as well-paying manufacturing jobs disappeared in recent decades, retail jobs are now falling victim to this cultural shift.  Why trudge through a shopping mall, comparing prices and searching for sizes and models, when we can sit in front of our computer and purchase what we want in a quarter of the time?  With apps for our phones, we can even compare prices while in a store to, in effect, narrow the competitive playing field between local stores. Job security has virtually disappeared. Technology has replaced many of the more menial jobs which provided secure employment for the less-educated, less competent among us. Computerized phone systems are more efficient than the operators of old.  Email has created job losses in mail rooms and in the postal service.  The jobs available for the less-skilled do not even pay a living wage in many cases. 

As politicians argue and place blame for our sluggish economy and the decline of the middle class, I think we must consider that one of the largest contributors to income disparity may be our technological society.  Those with the aptitude and education to thrive in the fields of technology and investment receive lucrative compensation, while those who once performed the less desirable jobs with pride are now either woefully underpaid or unemployed.

And yet, we continue down this road as we educate our children.  There is a tremendous emphasis on science and technology in our schools.  We believe our children must be able to compete in this society we have created, and most of our efforts and education dollars are focused on this goal.  In so doing, we leave behind the multitudes of children who are not "wired" for technology.  What is to become of those students whose abilities lie in the arts, writing, philosophy, or those whose abilities will never allow them to perform other than the most menial of tasks.  Aren't we at some point sacrificing our humanity if we attempt to place math and science above everything else?   We say that our children must compete in the global economy -- that Chinese and Japanese children are much better educated than ours.  We fail to consider, though, whether we really want our children's lives to center around education and financial success at all costs.  Maybe this is the time when we should step back and revisit the basic values of our country and try to reverse the trend toward personal and corporate greed.     

Where do we begin to solve the problems facing our society?  They certainly cannot be solved by computers or artificial intelligence.  They cannot be solved by politicians who spend half of their time pandering to their large corporate supporters, and their remaining hours spreading vitriolic half-truths about their political opponents.  Unfortunately, I am not even certain it is possible to reset the course of this nation.

I am certain, though, that we must all ask the questions.  How do we compete in this technological world without losing our humanity?  How can we grow small, local "niche" businesses that are not in direct competition with the huge corporations that have transformed our economy and devastated our quality of life in the workplace?  How do we educate our children so they are able to participate successfully in today's world, and yet lead fulfilling and worthwhile lives?  Our quality of life in this great country depends on how we choose to answer these questions.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Baby Boomer Grandparents

This isn't the way we envisioned this stage of our lives -- just as we finished raising our children and began looking forward to retirement, towards time to pursue interests that had been deferred, time free of responsibilities -- we instead find ourselves taking care of our grandchildren.  Our numbers are increasing as more of us retire, and financial strains further limit the choices of mothers as to whether or not to work.

Life is very different from the years when we were raising children.  Most of us were able to stay home when our children were young, if we so chose.  Now, the costs of housing, food, utilities, and transportation have increased enormously, and in most cases, mothers have no choice but to work in order to provide a secure life for their children.  There are basically three child care options for parents -- working alternate shifts so one parent can be with the children while the other works, day-care, or care by a family member or friend.  It is heart wrenching for parents to place their infant into the hands of strangers for eight hours each day. Fortunately, there is a generation of grandparents who are willing to step in and provide that care for their precious grandchildren.

For some of us, it was the only choice we could possibly make.  Looking into the eyes of my first little granddaughter a few minutes after her birth, I knew I wanted to be the one to keep her safe and secure while her parents worked.  At the time, we ran a contracting business from home, so I was able to care for her and keep up with my office work simultaneously.  I can remember working at the computer with her wrapped snuggly against my chest.  Then, her little cousin arrived ten months later, and his other grandma and I shared his care during the week.  I remember rocking my two precious little ones together in my arms at naptime.  By the time my third grandchild, another girl, was born, our business had failed, and I made the choice to retire, rather than join the workforce, so I would be able to continue caring for all three little ones.  

This is the choice being made by more and more grandparents.  A choice that is a labor of love.  You see us everywhere -- picking up our grandchildren at preschool, waiting at the corner for the school bus, pushing a stroller through the mall with a sleeping infant and a preschooler bouncing along beside us.  You see gray-haired grandpas holding the hands of little ones in the grocery store, grandmas sitting at library story hours with a preschooler listening intently as a baby watches from grandma's lap.  And, we share our stories -- the funny tales, the stories of our utter exhaustion by the end of the day, and the deep rewards of the close bond we have formed with our little ones.

We are giving our grandchildren a priceless gift -- they are secure, free to be themselves, and wrapped in love when they are with us.  We know that the world can be a hard place, especially today when it seems that more and more demands are placed on children at younger ages.  We give them consistency, constructive discipline, loving affection; we pass on stories, family traditions, values.  They are not "one of the kids" in day care -- they are the center of our world.  They will enter the larger world with the knowledge that they are special and unique -- and very much loved.

And, in turn, we receive a priceless gift -- a deep bond with these children who will leave our arms, but will always carry in their hearts the memories of these early days we spent together.  Our stories will be their stories; our homes will always be a familiar haven for them; we will be a part of their treasured childhood memories.  The baby boomer dreams of retirement can wait for a few more years, while we grandparents tend to our little ones -- what could be a more rewarding endeavor!!