Tag Archives: learning new things

Outdoors in the Midwest – Cuivre River State Park, Missouri – or having time to do what you love

There are nature people and there are people who don’t do nature.  Though I don’t understand the people who don’t do nature, I will forgive them if they want to skip this post, because it is all about my love for nature. 

One of the absolutely best parts of being semi-retired (or fully retired, though I wouldn’t know by first hand experience) is the chance to pursue interests that I wouldn’t otherwise have much time for. Nature/natural history/outdoor and active travel is one of mine.  We don’t live near the mountains or the oceans or large National Parks so we fill this interest on vacations and in less dramatic ways by volunteering with nature organizations and visiting state parks and other more modest but equally delightful outdoor locations. 

This past weekend our Master Naturalist group met for a state conference at Cuivre River State Park in Missouri.  I had never visited this state park on the Eastern side of the state.  In a state with some great state parks, this is one of the best.  Though the park is North of the Missouri River it has a landscape more like the Ozark Hills.  I took mini-classes on insect interactions with plants, invasive diseases and insects that threaten some of our most gorgeous forest trees, and big river ecosystems.  We camped in the state park, popped corn over the campfire with friends, and met lots of other nature nerds.  

October is usually one of the best months in this part of the country.  It is cool enough that mosquitoes and humidity are not a problem but usually warm enough to be comfortable.  The leaves are changing colors.  It could have been cold and rainy.  But it wasn’t.  It was perfect! 

We joined this organization four years ago and I’m amazed at how much I’ve learned.  And how much there is to learn. 

What are we encouraged to do in order to stay healthy and happy as we age?  Exercising, learning new things, and building social networks.  How lucky I am to have an avocation that fills all three.  Exercise doesn’t feel like a chore when you are trooping through the woods looking for interesting mushrooms.  Learning about birds from avid bird watchers is a hoot – especially if it involves owls.  And sharing interests is a great way to make new friends.

What else? – dancing to a blue grass band in the open air – even convincing Bill to join me, walking around camp in the moonlight, the constellation Orion in the early morning, getting to learn from experts who love sharing… 

What passions are you exploring in your retirement?  What new things have you learned?  How do you share it?


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Fearless Theatre – Fearless Living

I almost didn’t go to see Eric Rosen and Matt Sax’s new musical, Venice. I suppose it was that word, “musical” that nearly stopped me.  Having seen one too many productions of Oklahoma, Sound of Music, and Cats – all of which are perfectly pleasant ways to spend an evening – I’m not a big fan of musicals.  Too predictable – both the music and the plots. 

So when we were picking our third Kansas City Rep production to see this season, I wanted to skip the musical and see Bus Stop.  But our friend thought a musical would be fun.  Sometimes she defers to my choices.  This time I deferred to hers.  Wow!  By the time we headed to the theater, I had heard a little more about the production and knew that this hip hop “musical” was no little love story interspersed with catchy tunes. Set in a place that could be any of the war ravaged cities of the past, present, or future, the music pulled us into a story of far larger themes, peace and war, courage and fear, hope when there might be no reason for hope…  It was as theater should be, challenging, involving, emotional and thoughtful.    

If you are interested in learning more about the play, I’ll direct you to the professional reviewers (see links at bottom of this post), who have more experience at describing performances than I do.  What I want to talk about here is the tendency that older people have to play it safe.  Many older people become more conservative, more cautious in our choices of entertainment, food, music…  The people at this play who seemed disturbed by the language, the sexually charged dances, and the difficult themes were all older.  But I noticed one gray haired woman listening to some young adults during intermission.  She stopped them to say, “I’ve just learned to appreciate this play from listening to your conversation.  Thanks.” 

Plays are way less predictable than movies.  The acting can be off.  The music can be silly.  Sometimes you can’t figure out the point.  Sometimes you fall asleep.  But when it is good, it is transforming. 

So why do older people tend to fill the dinner theaters rather than taking a chance on works that can make us think and feel?  Why don’t we risk heartburn for a chance to experience the flavors of Thai cuisine?  I know, I know – not all older people do this.  Some become artists in retirement after years of grinding away at their corporate jobs.   Some hike the Grand Canyon or bicycle in France.     

But for many of us, what an opportunity missed.  When we no longer need to support children or avoid offending a boss, when we finally have time to recover from a vacation or meal that didn’t turn out as we hoped, why don’t we take chances?  Why don’t we cover our walls with bright and glorious art work instead of traditional paintings? 

Eric Rosen, the artistic director of the Kansas City Repertory Theater (and the director/coauthor of Venice) chose as this season’s theme, “fearless theatre”.  Though it may trivialize his risk taking season, I’m thinking of co-opting his phrase and living a fearless old age.

Kansas City Star review of Venice

Pitch review of Venice

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Pawpaws, the recession, and our retirement

It’s almost pawpaw season.  Two Septembers ago, on a cloudy Saturday, my husband asked if I’d like to go pick pawpaws.  He had noted the location of some fruit bearing trees in a park a few miles from our home.  So we took some cloth bags and trooped into the woods.  The ground was wet and my walking stick sunk clear to bedrock as we balanced on a slope just above a stream.  To really get this picture, you have to remember that we are not youngsters.  We are well into middle age and have quite a few grey hairs between us.  We laughed and had a lovely time.  Bill shook the trees and I scurried around chasing the oblong  fruits that fell and rolled down the hill. 

pawpaw seedlings

pawpaw seedlings

On the way home we turned philosophical and told ourselves that if our retirement plans did not work out as expected we could still have a great time doing things like picking pawpaws.  I think that this autumn day in 2007 was the first time that we articulated a growing unease about the economy.   The newspapers were still reporting rising housing prices and the stock market had been soaring.  I don’t know what news story or intuition told us that things couldn’t continue in this way.

Most people don’t really know what a pawpaw is.  Perhaps they remember the song, “Picking up pawpaws, put them in the basket” from their childhood. This is not a fruit that you will find in most supermarkets.  The pawpaw is the only temperate climate member of a group of tropical plants.   The flower is deep burgundy and smells a bit like rotting meat.  In Missouri pawpaws often grow as an understory shrub or small tree.  The yellow fleshed fruit has a sweet tropical flavor.  I used my pawpaws to make sweet bread and cookies.  And I saved the seeds to grow trees for our backyard.   

Of course the stock market dropped later that October in 2007, and again in 2008 on into 2009.  The housing bubble burst and a lot of people found that they weren’t as rich as they thought they were.  Bill and I have always been the slow and steady kind of money managers so while we aren’t quite as well off as we thought we were, we’re fine.  We didn’t refinanced our house to pocket its equity or put all of our retirement money in the stock market. Our retirements will probably proceed as planned, though perhaps postponed a bit. 

But that lingering uneasiness remains.  Are we stepping back from the brink or is a financial depression still a possibility?  How might that affect any of us?  And so we react, sometimes in anger, sometimes believing every rumor that we hear.  The world isn’t how we thought it was and that makes it easy to doubt our old assumptions.  Perhaps we should all take a deep breath, take a walk in the park, pick pawpaws and bake some cookies.


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Volunteering – new friends, new ideas, and a lot of free t-shirts

When I switched to part-time work a few years ago, I took advantage of the extra time to explore some interests of mine.  One of these interests is natural history.   Here in the Midwest that generally includes river systems, woods, and especially prairies.  I missed spending time in the outdoors. I also wanted to pay back some of the volunteer time that I had not been able to give when my son was growing up and I worked full time. 



There is an urban nature center near where I work called The Discovery Center.  This nature center has as part of its mission to introduce city children to the outdoors.  On a bleary January day, I stopped in to see what they were about. When I mentioned to the receptionist that I was interested in volunteering, she told me to wait and called the volunteer coordinator.  After a short training course held for several evenings and watching some other volunteers working at a simulated river, helping children make bird houses, and learn about mammals, I was ready to go. 

It has been a lot of fun.  I’ve learned why natural rivers meander, how the Missouri River once looked with flocks of Carolina Parakeets flying overhead and bison roaming the nearby plains.  I’ve learned how to read animal prints and how different kinds of birds use air currents to migrate. 

Even better, the sponsoring agency, the Missouri Department of Conservation, thanks its volunteers by taking us on hikes and short trips to places I would have never known about.  I’ve visited a private research cave, learned where Paw Paws grow in a local woods – and sampled this unusual fruit.  I’ve collected Monarch butterflies for school children to band.  I’ve met more people who share this interest with me than I have in the last 20 years of living in this city.  And did I mention the occasional free t-shirt?  It seems that everytime I volunteer with some organization, I get a free t-shirt.  I’m sure that I have enough to last into my 90’s. 

This nearly free activity has done the following for me:

  •   I’ve been able to explore a passion and get insider information about places to explore.  
  •   I’ve added to my knowledge and been challenged to learn a new skill – working with groups of children – something that any teacher will tell you is not always easy.  I’ve been able to learn from experts.
  •   I’ve met a group of like-minded people.
  •    I’ve been able to contribute to a cause that is important to me.

Talk about a great value!  Have you found a volunteer activity that lets you explore some passion that the work world didn’t fill?  I’d love to hear about it.

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