Elon, Larry, Mike and More

Starman_SpaceXIt’s been a very long time since I have felt the rush of excitement that I used to get whenever a new space mission was televised. I grew up in an era of rocketry firsts that literally took my breath away when they were happening. I saw Alan Shepard become the first American to go into space. I watched John Glenn make history with his orbits around the earth. I was tuned in when Neil Armstrong uttered his famous words as he stepped onto the surface of the moon and worried with the rest of world when the crew of Apollo 13 announced to Houston that they had a problem. I marveled at the Space Shuttle and the very idea that there might be a vehicle that could return from a journey to be used again and again. I was watching in horror when the Challenger blew up just after launching. I enjoyed the advances that allowed astronauts to make repairs and live for weeks in a space station. I believed that the most wonderful qualities of humans were encapsulated in the space program and as it all seemed to fade away I felt a sadness that was difficult to explain. Then seemingly from out of nowhere came a most remarkable feat that has reawakened my belief that one day in the future we will be able to journey across the universe.

The launch of Falcon Heavy by SpaceX last week was so stunning that I literally found myself crying tears of sheer joy and excitement. Everything about the event was spectacular from the music by David Bowie that accompanied the liftoff to the glorious humor that sent a cherry red Tesla into orbit with its Starman passenger gleefully hitching a ride. Perhaps even more stunning, however, was watching the booster rockets return to earth and land precisely on target to be used again, a triumph that at one time seemed impossible. Elon Musk, the innovator and maestro of the flight is surely a pure genius, who like Da Vinci and Einstein before him has an ability to see the world in ways that move all of mankind forward in our quest for knowledge. He is one of those people who does the impossible. He has managed to make America and humanity great again in ways that no politician has enjoyed.

Progress has always depended on those who are unafraid to gaze into the future. They are the dreamers and risk takers among us. Sometimes we scratch our heads as they announce their ideas, thinking them foolish or worse. We can’t always comprehend the seeming silliness of their notions, but they believe nonetheless and are compelled to move forward in spite of the negativity that often surrounds them.

I have a friend named Larry who long ago announced that he wanted to start a business selling t-shirts with messages and illustrations on them. This was at least fifty years ago at a time when shirts of all sorts were generally plain and of all one color save for stripes or plaids. The very concept of clothing with more personality seemed strange to those of us with whom he shared his proposal. He wanted to set up a kiosk inside a mall to sell his wares. He had heard of a machine that would place a decal on a shirt using heat. He imagined people flocking to personalize their clothing, We instead insisted that he would be wasting his money and his talents to pursue such a bizarre notion. How were we to know that he was indeed on to something very, very big? He was a seer of sorts, while we were too tethered to thoughts of how things had always been to be willing to accept his out of the box thinking.

On another occasion when we visited Larry he proudly showed us a huge box near his television. He explained that the machine would record any program that he wished to keep for the future. We were polite as he explained how it worked and what its uses might be. Inside our heads, however, we felt that his had been a ridiculous purchase. After all,  we wondered, who would ever want to make a recording of a show? Once you watched it why would you want to see it again? We simply did not have the vision that Larry had. Our ability to see ahead was far too limited. Unlike Larry we were not willing to think of the world as it might be.

My brother Mike was very much like Elon Musk and Larry from the time that he was only three or four years old. He walked around with a book written by Werner von Braun that told a tale of man one day  going to the moon. He tucked it under his tiny arm like a treasured toy and gazed at the illustrations of rockets and living quarters in space vehicles as though he was enjoying the characters of a little Golden Book. He told everyone who would listen that one day a man would go to the moon and that he was going to be a mathematician so that he might help to design systems for building the craft. Adults laughed good-naturedly at his assertions, but he was totally serious, and he built his life around those goals. He created a marble computer when he was in high school that won him the Grand Prize at the Houston Science and Engineering Fair. He went to Rice University and studied mathematics and Electrical Engineering. In time he went to work for Boeing Aerospace in conjunction with NASA and eventually authored the computer program for the navigation system of the International Space Station. He too was someone who was always able to envision a future that was far more exciting and complex than most of us are capable of realizing and he sustained the confidence to follow his journey.

Now I have a grandson named Jack who is imagining the possibilities of one day being part of the SpaceX team designing software. A granddaughter named Abigail is already recording ideas for making the care of animals more humane. Grandson William is writing stories about the future. The odyssey of the mind continues with amazing individuals who see a box of junk as a source of possibilities. These kinds of people turn problems into magical creations. They are the thinkers and dreamers who move us ever forward. They are the future and instead of chuckling at their imaginations we would do well to encourage them to propel us forward. 

Living With Passion

27751901_10214050313705370_7567982830482257335_nI suppose that it is a natural human trait to want to be someone who makes a difference in people’s lives. Sometimes that just means being an exceptional friend, or parent or co-worker. Most of us leave a small but nonetheless meaningful footprint on the earth. Some of us achieve a wider reach. Joann Stringer was a woman who impacted a multitude of lives in an exceptional way.   

I did not know Joann Stringer personally other than through contacts at parent/teacher meeting, and yet I loved her and even modeled my own teaching style after hers. She was a biology teacher at South Houston High School for twenty six years and both of my daughters as well as scores of my former students spent time in her classroom. She had a gift for making what might have been a difficult subject not only understandable, but also fun and exciting. Both of my girls came home from school filled with gleeful stories about the topics that she had introduced to them. They felt that she had opened a whole new and interesting world that had hitherto been unknown to them. Best of all she did so in a gentle and loving way that took into account the needs of each of her students. They never felt stressed or unworthy in Ms. Stringer’s care. There was no time in which they believed that she had been unfair or had not tried hard enough to teach difficult concepts. As a parent I appreciated their anecdotes about a truly caring and passionate teacher. As an educator I quietly filed alway those stories to use in my own classroom, knowing that I was learning from a giant in the profession. 

Even after my own children had left Ms. Stringer’s classroom I continued to hear about her magical abilities. Former students would tell me of how her inspiration had literally changed the courses of their lives. So many of her pupils realized possibilities that they might otherwise have never considered with her encouragement. They became doctors, nurses, researchers and even teachers. They fondly told and retold stories about this incredible woman who had so influenced the trajectories of their lives. I understood what they were telling me because one of my daughters who is presently launching a career as a science teacher often mentions how much she hopes that she will be able to teach as effectively as Ms. Stringer.

Joann Stringer truly dedicated her life to the thousands of students who came to her as freshmen, uncertain about what high school life would be. She reassured them and helped them to find their best selves. She made Biology seem almost easy with her artful explanations and exciting activities. They remember skinning rats, dissecting cats and even being reminded of how to be more mannerly. Ms. Stringer took them on field trips and mentored them as they followed pathways to careers in science. She kept in touch with them, attending their weddings and congratulating them as they reached so many adult milestones. She was in every way an exemplary teacher, the kind that we wish for all of our young people.

Joann Stringer retired in 2011. She pushed herself to keep going long after she might have taken the opportunity to rest. I suspect that she was so devoted to her calling that she was reluctant to leave even as she grew more weary. She suffered from a number of illnesses in her final years but still managed to reach out to her students via Facebook. She always seemed ready and willing to continue to assist them. Last week she died, leaving so many bereft, but also grateful for the imprint that she had made on their lives.

I watched as my Facebook feed filled with one tribute after another for this incredible woman. She indeed lived her life so fully that we would all do well to emulate the best of her qualities. I doubt that she grew rich in a material way, but her spiritual and emotional rewards were surely beyond our ability to count. As we walk through this life each of us has a vocation, a reason to be. Joann Stringer found hers and ran with it like a champion.

I suppose that Joann Stringer is still teaching those of us who knew of her in her own unique way. Her life is a lesson in itself. She showed us that our goal should always be to discover whatever we were meant to do, and then execute our talents unselfishly and with passion. Each of us has something to share, and Ms. Stringer taught us how to do that well. Perhaps it was her ability to help mold young people into happy and productive adults that was after all her greatest contribution to this world. Thousands of her students are paying forward the gifts that she helped them to develop. Her work was of the greatest importance for the future of our society and her impact will be felt for years to come.

I truly hope that Joann Stringer knew how loved and appreciated she was. I will always remember meeting her as a parent and feeling so reassured by her gentle words and her sincere smile. Now she will rest with the angels and we will hopefully carry on her work wherever we may happen to be.

What We Are Asked To Do Is Love

life-is-just-love-17101942I recently found this post on the Facebook wall of one of my friends from high school,

Here’s one of my favorite Merton quotes…“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.” ~Thomas Merton.

It seems as though we are failing to do much of that lately as a society. Too many people are judging, getting their feelings hurt, and becoming angry. It is easier said than done to follow Thomas Merton’s dictum to love unconditionally. It is very much the fashion these days to require people to think alike or write them off as unworthy of good will. If someone dislikes Donald Trump he/she all too often extends that disgust to anyone who defends Trump or his actions. If a person thinks that illegal immigrants should all be sent back to wherever they originated that individual may become belligerent with anyone who suggests that we treat such people with a bit more humanity. There’s enough ill will going around to keep us bickering from now until the end of time. Many among us are resolved to disdain differences of any kind.

When I was growing up there was a boy my age who lived two doors down from my house. His mother and mine were very good friends, but he and I never really got to know one another. I was too busy playing with my girlfriends, and he was out with the boys. Even as we advanced through high school we never clicked in spite of our mothers’ friendship. Nonetheless I always viewed him as a very nice young man so it seemed only natural for me to request that he become a Facebook friend when I found that he had an account. He appears to be a sweet and incredibly happy grandfather with a brood of grandchildren who adore him. He’s also got a bushel load of opinions about almost every subject imaginable.

To my surprise I appear to be a source of great anger for him. He apparently dislikes the way that I think. While I don’t have an issue with that, I find it interesting that his feelings become so explosive whenever I mention something that is contrary to his way of considering. I would never have imagined him to harbor such strong feelings, but I hear echoes of societal chants that have become so commonplace. I suspect that he was riled up long before I came along, but I have become a trigger for him even though that is never my intention. He’s accused be of be ignorant and a traitor. I never know when I am going to push one of his hot buttons and set him off.

I try to simply ignore his rants because we share a common childhood and I truly loved his mother. I actually feel badly that he is so worried about certain things that he cannot even control his distasteful remarks. It tells me that he genuinely believes some of the propaganda to which we are all subjected on a daily basis. It is all designed to split us apart so that someone else might retain power. It flies in the face of ideas like loving someone just because he or she should be automatically worthy of our understanding and acceptance as a human being.

I understand that he views me as someone who is naive and who lacks comprehension of the real world and how it works. Of course I am realistic enough to know there are some people and situations that are so broken that they are dangerously evil. We have institutions to judge whether or not they should be allowed to exist among us. For the sake of safety we do indeed have to sometimes make hard choices and punishments. Still, there are remarkable souls who are so generous of spirit that they are able to forgive and to love in spite of transgressions. I suppose that such is a kind of perfection to which we might all aspire.

We are all human and as such our love is sometimes imperfect, at least when it comes to giving it to someone whose beliefs seem so contrary to our own. Perhaps the best we can do is to simply accept them and attempt to understand that it is impossible for all of us to agree on so many fundamental questions. Instead of becoming irritable or judgmental I think that what Thomas Merton is suggesting is that we set aside our differences and enjoy one another just as we are. After all, who among us is so perfect as to have all of the answers? We have all been wrong at one time or another. We have all failed at something. We have all said or done things that we later regretted.

I think that our neighborhoods, our cities, our nations and our world would greatly benefit once in awhile we were reminded that what we are asked to do is love. 

The Balancing Act

BalancingThere it was, a meme that spoke to me more than I cared to admit. “You’re killing yourself for a job that would replace you if you dropped dead within a week.” It’s a rather simplistic thought that generalizes a bit too much, but it’s point is thought provoking. It’s main thrust might be applied to almost any situation in life with just a few changes of words. The fact is that we sometimes become so over involved in certain situations that we lose sight of what is really most important in our lives. Our work ethic overtakes us to the point of wearing us down, and then we grieve when we realize that perhaps our efforts were not appreciated nearly as much as we had thought. Finding that sweet spot that allows us to achieve balance in our lives is one of our greatest challenges, and one that is far more important than we might imagine.

We are taught the importance of hard work from the time that we are quite young. In today’s world those lessons begin earlier and earlier as very small children are enrolled in early education programs, sports clubs, music lessons and a host of activities that keep them busy from the time that they awake until they fall into their beds at night. Some tiny children have an endless round of appointments designed to develop the best of their talents. Parents and nannies help them adhere to carefully orchestrated schedules. Admittedly there are many children who thrive in such circumstances, but there are others who begin to show signs of stress in the form of crying fits, behavior changes and exhaustion.

I have seen such children hanging limply onto their parents with vacant looks and sometimes even fear. When I worked in an after school program for pre-schoolers and kindergartners it was sometimes difficult to keep them awake because they were so tired. Many of them had arrived at the school at seven in the morning and would not be picked up by their parents until six in the evening. They were grumpy and probably would have benefitted more from play time at home than the all day structure that ruled their little lives. Smaller doses of opportunity generally work better for little ones, but we all too often adopt a more is better philosophy forgetting that all of us need respite from the daily grind now and then.

As children grow older the demands on their time and energy only increase. Not only do we plan their hours, but we also introduce them to the glories of competitiveness. We expect them to perfect their skills and talents so that they will eventually become champions. Of course there is nothing innately wrong with that, but often in our quest to help them to become their best selves we over extend them so that their hours are filled, leaving them with little time to explore and create on their own. Sometimes down time can be more powerful in helping youngsters to begin to know themselves than keeping them so busy that they can’t really think, It is when they are on their own that they organically develop and learn through trial and error.

By high school the pressure on our teens can be overwhelming. Not only are they expected to do well academically in as many Advanced Placement classes as possible, but also to participate in extracurricular activities and community service. As one young man recently noted, they generally have about seven hours to themselves each evening if they stay up until midnight, less if they go to bed earlier. If they are involved in athletics or other organizations that number of hours may be reduced by two or four hours each day, leaving them only a short amount of time to study and just relax and be a teenager. Research has shown that most high school students are sleep deprived from attempting to pack so much into their daily schedules.

One of my grandsons decided on his own to remedy the trend of over extending. While he was in high school he achieved balance by carefully limiting the number of activities and advanced classes in which he was willing to participate. He realized that he was more often enriched by discussions at the family dinner table or late night intellectual conversations with his father and older brother. He understood the importance of quiet times without obligations attached to them. He saw that far too many of his peers were crashing and burning because they were carrying way too much excess baggage on their shoulders.

When we finally go to work we want to impress our supervisors as well as our peers. We are often willing to go an extra mile to demonstrate our loyalty, which is all well and good if we also remember our own personal needs. When our job becomes an obsession then we may want to step back just a bit. if we see that family and friends are suffering because we are continually absent, a real problem is beginning to brew. When we can’t even rest without dwelling on our work, we may have become over involved. 

I’m not particularly someone to give advice regarding work life balance because there were multiple instances when I became so focused on studies or work that I totally neglected those who really loved me. I have been competitive to the extreme at times, and sadly my efforts were not always noted and appreciated by my superiors. Luckily those dearest to me were always there to pick up the pieces of my disappointments. At some point along my journey I finally managed to find a kind of work/life balance that made me far healthier than I had ever before been.

I am a living example of someone who looked outward and did my best to impress people who no doubt would have quickly found a substitute for me had I dropped dead. I worked so hard to be the valedictorian of my high school that I missed many of the joys of friendship and adventure that are an integral part of growing up. My achievement was soon forgotten and I found myself having to prove my mettle again and again in real life. I strove to be that person who demonstrated a willingness to be the last woman standing in pursuit of the goals of those for whom I worked. When others went home, I stayed behind to help, sometimes even when my own children needed me to be with them. I regret that I pushed myself so hard, but I am also thankful for dear friends like Pat and Bill who gently counseled me to learn how to focus on what was most important in my life. With such guidance and the support of my family I eventually found ways to have it all. I was able to clock out from work and leave it behind while I luxuriated in the warmth of home. It took me far too long to get there.

If I had one bit of advice for young men and women who are just beginning their careers or for new parents it would be to follow the wisdom of one of my teachers from long ago. He told us that we all needed to be fully present in whatever we were doing, never allowing ourselves to dwell on other things that were bearing down on us. He emphasized that we should work hard and play hard with equal vigor. He cautioned us to adjust whenever we found ourselves too preoccupied with any one thing. Keeping that balance, he suggested, would make us both healthy and happy. His was a message that all of us would do well to hear. Unfortunately I ignored his message for far too long. I’m glad I finally got my head on straight.

It’s Ten O’Clock

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It’s ten o’clock. Do you know where your children are?” If you grew up or were a parent in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s you heard this question every night before the late newscast came on. It was a public service announcement that made sense then, but may be a bit confusing in today’s world. Back in those decades most children were what we now call “free range kids.” They played outside for hours at a time, often with little or no supervision other than a quick glance outside a window from a parent. They wandered away from home to visit with neighborhood friends, not always bothering to check in with parents before doing so. It wasn’t unusual at all for children to return outdoors after dinner to play in the dark under a street light or on someone’s front porch. It was a time of innocence when parents and kids both rarely worried about being harmed. Everyone knew everyone else and watched over one another. Perhaps the freedom that little ones enjoyed back then was fueled by naivety, but it was highly unusual for someone to be lost or harmed, there was little reason to worry.

The closest thing to a dangerous experience that I recall came when my youngest brother was playing a game of football in his bare feet in an overgrown field of grass. Hidden in the tall weeds was a broken bottle with its ragged edge pointing upward. When he stepped back to catch a pass he placed his unprotected foot on the shard of glass which immediately severed his achilles tendon. He bled profusely, but my mom and I miraculously got him to the doctor’s office in time to get it stitched back in place. I remember my mother instructing me in how to apply pressure to the wound to keep the bleeding to a minimum while she drove the car. I was quite frightened but didn’t let my mom see my fears. Of course at that time none of us were wearing a seatbelt and my mother did not carry health insurance either. The former was not yet invented and the latter was too expensive. The doctor did all of the surgery in his office proclaiming again and again that it was a miracle that my sibling didn’t bleed to death on the way over. I suspect that our final bill was little more than around twenty dollars and that even included pain medication that the doc threw in for good measure.

Needless to say times have changed so very much. Parents who allow their children to roam freely today run the risk of being reported to CPS. Few doctors would meet a patient at the office and take care of such a serious situation, especially if the family was uninsured. The world often feels far more dangerous than it ever did back then. Most of the time there are very few children playing outside for hours, and never all alone. They are busy with more carefully planned activities. Play dates have become the norm rather than random knocks at the door from friends seeking adventure. Children spend hours involved with computer games and surfing online. The real dangers lie in encounters with child predators masquerading in anonymity. Bullying either online or with texts has become epidemic. It’s no longer a matter of wondering where your kids are, but of whom they may be encountering on the worldwide web. The simplicity and innocence that marked my childhood and that of my own children seems to be a relic of the past. Parents have to be more careful than ever, even as they hover nervously.

I’m  not certain when everything began to change. Perhaps my experiences come from living in a city that had fewer than a million people when I was young and then somehow became a behemoth of over four million in a short period of time. Being in a place that large certainly makes a huge difference in how willing parents are to allow their children the freedom to interact without their watchful eyes. The dangers seem to grow exponentially in a major urban area. Still it just seems that over the years we have become more worried as a whole society. Maybe our twenty four hour news cycle has made us more aware of what might happen if we ride a bicycle without a helmet or drink from a water hose. I still wonder nonetheless why we no longer see children roller skating down the sidewalk or climbing the tree in the front yard even when their parents are around to guard them. Where are the street basketball games? When did our kids stop playing hop scotch on the driveway? Are they missing something wonderful, or is their world actually just an improved version of ours?

Children today certainly appear to be happy enough. I’ve always known youngsters to be quite adaptable. They tend to accept whatever reality is theirs. They don’t feel that they are missing something that they have never experienced. The child who lives in a high rise building in New York City learns to play in different ways from a counterpart growing up on a farm in Iowa. Both of them will tend to be perfectly happy as long as they are nurtured and loved. Perhaps the nostalgia that old folks like me have is thought to be quaint or even strange by the children of today. They would think it unwise, perhaps even crazy to ride down a highway in the bed of a pickup truck. They might easily bore of lying on their backs staring up at clouds searching for shapes of animals.

Sometimes it’s difficult to tell if things are getting better or if we have lost something special that we once had. I suppose that the reality is that we will always move ever forward, and while it may feel pleasant to lose ourselves in memories we are better served by joining in the forward progress. We have surely learned a great deal about how to be healthier and safer than ever before. We understand what smoking will do to our overall health. We realize that wearing seat belts and engineering safer cars has truly saved lives. We have used our common sense and our inventiveness to prevent harm and injuries to our most vulnerable. I suppose that it is a very good thing that we no longer have to ask where are children are when the clock strikes ten.