It pays to be flexible in retirement

I thought retirement was going to be peaceful and calm. I was dreaming.

Take two recent back-to-back days, for instance. My wife and I could have gotten ulcers from our on-again, off-again schedules. Instead, we merely went with the flow as we have learned to do.

This particular Tuesday was packed. We skipped our morning Zoom yoga session in favor of hosting Neva’s first cousin and his wife for breakfast before they headed back to Ohio. Of course, Neva did her usual over-the-top hospitality thing.

We looked forward to their long-awaited in-person visit, their first in two years. But there was a problem. I host a Zoom writing group on the first Tuesday of every month at 10 a.m. I knew the lively conversation would last well beyond the Zoom meeting’s starting time. I had no choice but to excuse myself from the enjoyable party.

When I started the Zoom writing meeting, a couple of folks were already waiting to get in. Others arrived late. Since we were in three different states, we spent the waiting time catching up until everyone was present.

The meeting went well with lots of excellent readings and constructive comments. Though the two hours flew by, I was exhausted. Zoom tends to do that to me.

After a light lunch on the porch, I decided to mow the yard since the grass was tall and my afternoon was open. I had to finish by 3:30 p.m., though, so that I could go with my wife to pick up our middle grandchild at the middle school at 4 p.m. Nana was to drop me off at our daughter’s house on the way to taking the youngest grandchild to soccer practice.

From there, I was to ride with our daughter and her husband to watch their oldest play baseball in a neighboring town. However, that plan got altered and then totally scrapped when the home team changed the game start time to 7:30, not 6. It was one big “Never Mind.”

The next day wasn’t much better. All the hustle and bustle activities got squeezed into a late afternoon-early evening time frame. The plan was to host our daughter and whatever family members could attend for dinner.

Nana had made beef stew, and they would all eat and go to the high school for the first live band concert in more than a year. The middle grandchild would play the French horn with the high school band.

Because I had a previously scheduled appointment in town, I was to join them for the 6 p.m. concert after rushing home to enjoy the stew. The high school is just a five-minute drive from our home.

Of course, that all changed when we learned that the band concert started a half-hour later than initially scheduled. Consequently, Nana made a stew run to our daughters, and she and I ate a quick supper on the back porch.

We arrived at the football stadium just as the wind began to pick up. Band members, including our grandson, struggled to keep their sheet music from blowing into Pennsylvania.

To comply with school rules for large gatherings, each musician wore a face mask. So did audience members. Those playing wind instruments, like our grandson, tucked the mouthpiece underneath their masks and played on. Somehow, someway, they pulled it off.

My wife and I were duly impressed with the performance. Given the conditions, the students sounded great.

No matter the circumstances, we wouldn’t have missed any of those activities. In retirement, being flexible pays big dividends despite life’s frenzy.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

This June is a Gateway for All

We have all been waiting to exhale, especially this year, once June arrived. We had that same perspective a year ago, but we were wrong.

Last year the estimation was that summer’s warmth would lessen the spread of the coronavirus. Just the opposite happened. People gathered, and the virus spread.

This June appears to be different. The fact that nearly two-thirds of American adults have received at least one vaccination makes it so. That has resulted in the waning of the virus here in the U.S. However, other countries continue to struggle as new variants emerge, spread, sicken, and kill.

But in June 2021, a different feeling is in the air. June is that stepping stone into sunshine, smiles, and satisfaction. People in the U.S. are once again getting together, though some are doing so cautiously.

June is the gateway to summer. The summer solstice late on June 20 merely anoints the welcomed season.

June means longer and generally warmer days than previous months. With health restrictions significantly reduced or altogether eliminated, life in June just might help us all feel “normal” again.

Graduations, vacations, weddings, reunions, picnics, and Little League baseball games are a much better bet to occur with June’s arrival. Church congregations that met remotely are beginning to hold in-person services, some outside, others with controlled numbers assembled indoors.

I’ve always welcomed June from adolescence to this day. School often finished around Memorial Day, which turned us outdoor lovers loose. I still feel that way all those decades later.

But there is something sacred about this particular June. It’s more than just the freedom to move about, go swimming, fishing, hiking, or wearing T-shirts and shorts.

The pandemic isn’t over, but here in the U.S., it seems to be subsiding. Still, we are approaching 600,000 deaths in our great country and 3.5 million globally. Those are sobering figures.

I recall the wise advice of a farmer friend from the weeks-long drought that began in June 1988. Local hay crops had failed, and shipments of baled hay arrived from the Midwest. Many farmers bought the imported bales at exorbitant prices.

When they got it home, they discovered that the hay bales that looked good from the outside had more weeds than nourishment on the inside. I asked my friend if he had purchased any of the high-priced, weedy fodder.

I have never forgotten his reply. “My father once told me that when you see others running for something, you should walk.” So, no, he hadn’t.

Consequently, my wife and I will welcome June without much fanfare. We’ll follow our grandson’s traveling baseball team when we can. We will continue to be cautious about eating inside public places, preferring to dine at establishments that offer outside seating.

We have and will continue to visit vaccinated friends. We’ll use June to ease into renewing our travels, including seeing our son and his wife for the first time in two years.

I’ll continue to hike, but I will be careful to choose the days, watch the weather, and avoid weekends. I’m not a snob or prude. Crowded trails are not my thing.

When we do get out and about in June, we need to be cautious for practical reasons. Reports from many eastern states indicate that ticks are thick this year. Once back inside, check yourself, your children, and your pets. The physical effects of tick bites are devastating.

We can rightfully celebrate June’s arrival. But let’s continue to be alert and careful every step of the way.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

A Pretty Pink Surprise

Since we moved to the Shenandoah Valley four years ago, I have planted two dogwoods in our yard. A white dogwood stands in the front yard between our driveway and the property line with the neighbors to the east. The tree sprouted beautiful silky white blooms six-weeks ago.

I kept watching for hints of buds on the pink dogwood that I had planted outside our bedroom window. It was a Mother’s Day gift for my wife in 2019, and I had it placed there so my wife could see it each morning as it bloomed. Dogwoods are notorious for not blooming for a few years after being transplanted, however. So, I wasn’t too disappointed when the pink dogwood didn’t bloom when all the other native dogwoods did in April and early May.

But the other day I looked out and tiny pink buds were bursting open to the morning sunshine. At first, they were dainty. But as you can see, the unfurled flowers are gorgeous.

“A Pretty Pink Surprise” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Memorial Day is for remembering

A Virginia man prepares his Memorial Day decorations.

Memorial Day is for remembering. As a septuagenarian, the bulk of my life is behind me. Memories fill my daily life, but especially so on this solemn weekend.

In the years between ages 21 and 51, I started my career as a public school educator. I met and married my energetic and valiant wife. Our daughter and son were born. I simultaneously served 27 years as a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician.

I consider those the best years of my life. That is true, not because of anything I did, but because of the people I met and interacted with in the communities where I lived, worked, and served.

To list all the folks would surely be impossible. So, I’ll share a few meaningful examples of those who helped me along life’s way.

Of course, I have to start with my parents, Dick and Marian. In the post-World War II era, men were the breadwinners, and women were for the most part housewives, teachers, nurses, or secretaries. That’s just how it was, and I am exceedingly glad those societal expectations are no longer the norm.

Dick and Marian Stambaugh at their 65th wedding celebration.

At 6 foot 2 inches, Dad cut an imposing figure for that era. But he lived like a child turned loose in the world. He loved our mother dearly, but he never saw the need to help much around the house.

Mom always had supper ready when Dad came home from work. After we ate, Dad would often go on some adventure, whether to tend the garden we had on a friend’s property two miles away or to a church softball game.

Mom took things in stride as best she could. None of us five kids ever doubted her love, but we sure tested her limits. Mom was as kind and sweet as she was stalwart and unafraid to have a necessary word or two with Dad or us when needed.

Dad served in World War II on the U.S.S. San Diego, a Navy light cruiser that saw action in 16 major Pacific battles. They never lost a man. Dad was proud of his service but seldom talked much about it. His father, Merle, served in the Army in France in World War I.

Grandpa was gassed by German forces and treated in a field hospital that kept no medical records. He suffered from those damaged lungs until he died at age 72. He never received the financial or medical help that he needed and consequently lived a hard life.

My wife’s parents, Wayne and Esther, took me in like the son they never had. I knew Wayne liked me right away because he ushered me to the barn to see the pigs on my first visit to the farm. My wife said it usually took suitors three trips before they got that introduction.

Family members weren’t my only influencers. I boarded with Helen, a kindly woman, the first year that I taught. We became lifelong friends. Never married, Helen graciously adopted our family as her own. Our daughter and son were the grandchildren she never had.

Many others guided me through life, too: teachers, friends, other family members, even strangers. I cherish the times they spent with me. They all revered the past, never feared the future but sensibly lived in and for the moment at hand. So should we.

You have your saints, too. Remember them we must, for that is what they would want us to do. It is what we all want once we are gone. It’s why we have Memorial Day.

Dad at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., Sept. 12, 2009 as part of an Honor Flight.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Mole Hill Sunset

Mole Hill is a landmark in Shenandoah Valley’s Rockingham County. The forested nob is actually the remnants of a volcano’s core. That hasn’t deterred locals from farming and living around its base.

Mole Hill is properly named. The Allegheny Mountains in the western background dwarf it in comparison. Still, Mole Hill attracts birders, bikers, and sunset gazers alike.

This photo was taken about two miles east of Mole Hill near Harrisonburg, Virginia. With evening fog setting in, the fiery sky looked as if it had recently erupted from this local favorite hotspot.

“Mole Hill Sunset” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Paying it forward creates multiple rewards

The horizon is the limit on paying it forward.

The bulletin board in the coffee shop caught my attention. I moved closer to read its contents.

I quickly discovered that this billboard that you often see in mom-and-pop establishments was no ordinary advertising venue. The notes posted on it were all different but had a common theme.

This public service space was a pay-it-forward board. Pay-it-forward is when a person pays for something for someone else, usually anonymously. Paying it forward can be contagious. Doing so often leads to others returning the favor for future customers.

The examples pinned to the café corkboard were self-explanatory.

“For a parent,” read one. “For an aspiring archeologist,” and “for a pharmacy technician,” read two others. The notes ran the gamut of the human experience, including medical workers for their efforts in fighting the pandemic.

Situated in a northern Virginia town close to the Appalachian Trail, through-hikers often frequented this café to refuel and refresh themselves. Generous donors recognized their likely needs and provided an opportunity for the trekkers to enjoy a prepaid lunch or latte. Individuals were free to take the specific note or envelope that fit their situation.

Other pay-it-forward messages were for National Park workers who spend their careers helping others enjoy the great outdoors. In this particular case, nearby Shenandoah National Park sprawls 105 miles along Virginia’s famous Blue Ridge Mountains.

The pay-it-forward bulletin board.

Regular visitors to the national park know that these dedicated park employees work hard for the money they earn. Many donate time helping out stranded motorists or searching for lost hikers.

I’m sure recipients appreciated the many kind gestures posted. I suspect that some may have also added their own pay-it-forward envelopes to the crowded board.

Last December, a pay-it-forward event that happened at a Dairy Queen in Brainard, Minnesota, received loads of media coverage. It became known as a chain of kindness.

Genuine benevolence began to flow during the lunch hour on December 3 when a man reached the drive-thru window and said that he wanted to pay for his lunch and the order for the car behind him.

That started a chain reaction of events that lasted into three days and involved 900 cars. Everyone kept paying for the vehicle behind them no matter what they had ordered. The Dairy Queen manager said that all of the kindness had energized her and her staff.

Paying it forward can be a spontaneous experience, too. During the devastating ice storm in Texas last February, the manager of an H.E.B. grocery store made an impromptu, impactful and gracious decision to pay it forward.

Customers seeking to stock up on food and household items to weather the storm and power outages packed the store. Suddenly, the store’s power went off. None of the cash registers worked without electricity.

Store employees asked all of the customers to come to the checkout counters. With shopping carts full, the lines of the crowded store were long. Customers expected an extended checkout when the line began moving.

Cashiers merely waved the customers through to the exit. People started crying when they realized what was happening. No one paid for anything.

In the parking lot, people helped one another load groceries into their vehicles. They, too, began paying it forward.

The grocery chain’s generosity didn’t stop there. H.E.B. donated $1 million in groceries to 18 Texas food banks.

Life offers a myriad of opportunities to pay it forward. As we go into this day and all the days ahead, let’s be alert for those unique chances to anonymously and graciously help others however and wherever we can.

Another beautiful sunrise, another day full of opportunities to pay it forward.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Reward at the Summit

Lunch with a view

Hiking has its rewards. Reaching the summit of a peak is one of them. Hikers often celebrate with some cool water and a light lunch to refresh their body’s energy. This hiker is doing just that while also enjoying the gorgeous view from Hawksbill Summit, the highest peak in Shenandoah National Park. New Market Gap in the Massanutten Range is in the distance.

“Reward at the Summit” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Slow down for the rest of May

Enjoying the outdoors is one way

Hightop Mountain, Shenandoah National Park.

Don’t look now, but we are in the middle of May already. May always goes too fast for my liking.

Ideally, it would be nice to put a speed limit on each of May’s 31 days to slow their pace. Of course, that is a romantic pipe dream.

There is an antidote. We can each slow down, take our time, enjoy all that is around us.

Here in the Shenandoah Valley, I am grateful to be part of a hiking group that helps me do just that. It’s a program primarily designed for retirees, so going slow is what we do.

The group generally hikes twice a month and almost always in the gem of the valley, Shenandoah National Park. Each outing is limited to a dozen hikers. The leader is a retired bank president who volunteers in the park by keeping trails open for hikers.

I can’t participate in every hike, but I try to do both hikes in May if I can. The leaves of the mountain forests have yet to unfurl, allowing many wildflowers and trees to bloom. Plus, hikers’ nemeses, heat, humidity, and insects, are scarce.

Our leader plans the hikes and reminds us to come ready for the cool mountain temperatures and bring plenty of water and a lunch. We often trek to a precipice that overlooks the rolling countryside that dominates the Shenandoah Valley.

Mosey might be a better way to describe our hikes. We usually take four or more hours to hike three to four miles roundtrip. Pokey we may be, but we indeed have a glorious time enjoying each other’s company and the beauty we encounter.

It’s not unusual for us to climb 1,000 feet or more in that distance and back down again. Along the way, we frequently stop to enjoy and photograph the floral display spread out for us like a colorful carpet on the forest floor.

On our latest trip, we enjoyed seeing both large and small-flowered white trilliums, patches of red trilliums, wild geraniums, yellow and blue violets, black haw bushes, and hawthorn trees in bloom. Wild strawberries blossomed low while towering tulip poplar buds opened high above.

To reach the summit of Hightop Mountain, we walked the Appalachian Trail (AT) that snakes its way the entire length of the national park. We meet other day hikers like us, section hikers, and through-hikers.

Section-hikers walk the AT one section at a time, returning multiple times later to do more hiking. Through hikers are the serious ones. Their goal is to hike the entire 2,500 miles of the AT.

Most start at the trail’s beginning in Georgia and hike north to its terminus in Maine. In doing so, they experience an unfolding of spring over and over from the south to the rugged northeast.

Our group tries to give way to these more experienced hikers, but they are often as curious about us as we are about them. They often share their trail names and hometowns, and off they go.

We then return to observing the songbirds singing and flitting all around us and the many varieties of wildflowers as we meander. At our age, we have no choice to simply take our time to be safe and to inhale both our surroundings and the refreshingly cool mountain air.

Perhaps that is a good lesson for all of us. Slow down. Take your time. Enjoy all you encounter, moment by moment, breath by breath. Maybe then the remainder of May will gladly join you.

Our lunchtime view with a through hiker.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Devil Strip Beauty

On a day trip last month, this two-toned beauty of a dogwood caught my eye. I hadn’t ever seen a dogwood blooming with both pink and white blossoms. It was ironic that this glorious tree was growing in the devil strip in front of a church in Luray, Virginia. For those unfamiliar with the term, a devil strip is the grassy area between the sidewalk and the curb. In my research, I found the origin of the term to be a bit fuzzy. Nevertheless, I wanted to share this lovely tree with you before we got farther into spring.

“Devil Strip Beauty” is my Photo of the Week.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021

Mountain to Mountain

I live in one of the prettiest places in the world. I can be atop the Allegheny Mountains in less than half an hour. They are the mountains in the far distance, center to left in the photo.

In less than an hour, I can be driving on the enchanting Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, which runs 105 miles along the Blue Ridge Mountains. This photo was taken less than a month ago from Rockytop Overlook on Skyline Drive.

The peak in the center of the photo is the southern tip of the Massanutten Mountains east of Harrisonburg, Virginia. These old age mountain ranges can’t compare in beauty to the younger, sharper, snow-covered Rocky Mountains. Nonetheless, I find beauty in the mountains that border and bisect the Shenandoah Valley even on a mostly cloudy day.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2021