The Silver Lining

silver-liningEvery time I am in the Santa Fe area I make it a point to travel to Chaco Canyon. Getting to that remote national park is difficult. In the last many miles the road becomes so unbearably rugged that I always consider turning back. Since I know what adventure lies ahead I always choose to continue the journey to my destination. I am never disappointed. Chaco Canyon is one of the great wonders of our country and it is worth all of the effort to see it.

The year 2016 has been much like navigating the trail to Chaco Canyon. There have been many potholes and bumps in the last twelve months that made life a bit more difficult that usual but now that I am at the end of the course I can see the breathtaking beauty of my trek. All things considered, 2016 was another wonderful year in my life even though it may not have been quite as spectacular or free from loss as other times have been.

I learned when I was teaching that I should never judge the worth of a day’s work by a single negative incident. There were many times when I felt like a rockstar only to be plummeted to earth by a negative encounter with a difficult student. Early in my career when I still lacked experience and maturity I was overly critical of myself, always seeking perfection and hopelessly disappointed when my teaching was even slightly flawed. I lost my optimism and felt that I was a failure as an educator on many a day. A wise mentor came to my psychological rescue when she suggested that I begin to list both the good and bad aspects of each week in two columns. She assured me that I would almost always have visual proof that my efforts had been far more positive than I had thought. She noted that we humans have a tendency to magnify and remember negativity so much that it often overwhelms the excellence in our lives. In carrying out her suggestion I learned that even in the most frustrating weeks I had always accomplished way more than I had realized. It became my habit to look at the totality of a day, a week, a month or a year before focusing exclusively on the moments that had seemed to threaten my happiness.

Such it has been with 2016. I lost a friend and a very dear cousin during the year. I took a number of unexpected financial hits that strained my pocketbook and forced me to change some of my habits. I was surprised and disappointed by the results of the political primary races in the spring and then the national election itself in the fall. I grew weary and worried about the massive divide that has so torn the citizens of my beloved country apart. I worried about world events that seem to threaten peace. It would be easy for me to write off the last twelve months as a total loss if I were only to think about the things that made me sad and weary but that would be an incomplete analysis of the year. When I take the time to wander through my memories I realize that I was graced with many glorious blessings in 2016.

The year began in Galveston with all of my children and grandchildren. It was too cold for the beach but we spent time playing games, watching football, enjoying Moody Gardens and The Strand. It was fun and best of all I was with the people that I most love. It was really a dream come true because in most years my kids are so busy with other pursuits that I may see them on Christmas Day and not again until February or even March. I will always treasure January 1, 2016 as a very special day when we celebrated together.

On January 6, Mike and I met with a group of friends at Killen’s Steakhouse. The food was certainly a treat but being with Adriana, Tim, Jenny and Eric was the main attraction. I always feel revitalized just being around them and that evening was no exception. In fact it was one of those unforgettable times that bring warm feelings to the surface whenever I stop to remember.

There were the usual family birthday parties for my brothers, sister-in-laws, nieces, nephews, father-in-law, husband, children and grandchildren. All of them were fun and festive and gave us a perfect excuse to clear off our calendars and celebrate the love that so defines “the best family ever.” Perhaps the most extravagant and wonderful of them all was a Harry Potter themed birthday spectacular for one of my nephews who lives in Dallas. There was a quidditch game, a magician, a sorting experience and some of the best food I have ever tasted. As Muggles, Mike and I were in awe of the magic of that evening.

My sister-in-law retired from her work as a NASA contractor and spent many weeks touring in Europe with her sisters. My brother hung up his boots and retired from the Houston Fire Department after a career that spanned his entire adult lifetime. Both of them had gala parties in which we celebrated their dedication and achievements which were numerous. I felt so proud of both of them and excited that they now have the time to pursue their hobbies and to travel to their hearts’ content.

Of course Mike and I went camping and sometimes met up with our friends Monica and Franz in Huntsville or Blanco and enjoyed the solitude and the local sites together. We even traveled with our long time buddies to Colorado and stayed in my brothers’ cabin for a glorious week in the fall. We enjoyed nature’s colors and the art festivals as well as the food and quaint shops. Mostly we realized just how much we love being with our dear friends.

In the summer we took two of our grandchildren William and Abby on a grand excursion in our trailer. We reveled in the sights from Santa Fe to San Diego. We took that terrible road to Chaco Canyon and almost baked in the punishing summer sun but were enthralled by the powerful images of a past long gone. We stood over the rim of Grand Canyon at sunset and marveled at the beauty of Sedona. We escaped into a world of make believe at Universal Studios in Los Angeles and spent an entire day slathering our bodies with sunscreen at the beach. We sat under a clear sky and watched the stars in the Davis Mountains. We realized how vast and beautiful the United States truly is.

In October I met with many of my high school friends in a fifty year reunion. It was wonderful to see so many of the people with whom I had spent four years of my young life. They each had special stories to tell and even though the evening flew by with the pace of speed dating I walked away with renewed friendships and a glorious feeling that we had all learned our life lessons well. The people there were good and honest folk just as our teachers had wanted us to be.

There were glorious graduations. My cousin earned an advanced degree and a number of my former students became the first in their families to hold bachelor degrees. I gave a party for those who graduated in May and together we celebrated their stunning accomplishments. I felt a sense of pride in knowing how dedicated they had been and what wonderful futures they would surely enjoy.

I watched my grandchildren perform in musicals and plays, in swim meets and cross country competitions, in robotics games and concerts. I realized even more than ever how gifted and talented and hard working they truly are. I understood that in those moments when I don’t get to see them they are busy charting their own trails that will most assuredly lead them to achieving the goals and the dreams that they have designed for themselves. They will be ready to accept the challenges of the future and be the generation that keeps the faith in our family values.

I met with friends and family and former students throughout the year and truly enjoyed those quiet moments when we conversed and considered the challenges of the world. One particularly fun evening was spent with a large group of women laughing at the antics of less than perfect moters in the movie Bad Moms. The film reminded all of us to be kind to ourselves.

It was in the laughter and the love of friends and family that 2016 was transformed from a frustrating year to one that brought me enough happiness and satisfaction to make me optimistic about life and the world in which we live. Those bumps in the road were a mere disturbance far outweighed by the spectacular moments that happened when I least expected.

Happy New Year to everyone. May 2017 bring each of you the love and the happiness and the simple pleasures that make each day just a bit brighter. Look for the silver lining even on the cloudiest of days.

Advertisements

Open Hearts

1ebff25909b8878c31424a09e6757466I was eight years old when my family and I went to the Trail Drive In to see Tammy starring Debbie Reynolds. I truly enjoyed that movie much as today’s young girls like to watch the programs on the Disney Channel. It was a wholesome and uncomplicated film about an innocent seventeen year old who finds love for the first time. I instantly learned the words to the song Tammy that Debbie Reynolds sang so romantically in the film and belted out the simple tune as I rode my bicycle around the neighborhood. Mostly I became an unapologetic fan of Debbie Reynolds after seeing Tammy and never lost my admiration for her even as the years went by and I became a well seasoned woman.

I often caught snatches of the conversations that my mother had with her sisters when I was a child and I knew that they highly approved of Debbie Reynolds. She was an all American princess in their eyes, as uncomplicated and lovely as the character she played in Tammy. One of my aunts often read a magazine called Confidential which was a precursor to The National Enquirer. I remember seeing photos of Debbie Reynolds in the pages of that publication with her husband Eddie Fisher. He was a singer and a heartthrob of sorts but I never particularly cared for him. Because I was still an uninitiated child I thought that Debbie had the most perfect life nonetheless and I wanted to be just like her one day.

Eventually a tremendous Hollywood scandal made the headlines. Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher had been close friends with Elizabeth Taylor and her husband, Mike Todd. They had even named their son Todd. When Mike Todd died suddenly in a plane crash a grieving Elizabeth Taylor found comfort from her good friends, especially Eddie. One thing led to another and the two stars wound up having an affair. Stories about the sordid incident seemed to be everywhere and of course my mom and her sisters were aghast by the turn of events as they whispered comments while they sipped on their coffee. I would have had to have been deaf not to hear them discussing how horrible the whole situation was and how much they felt for Debbie who by then was the mother of two children including a daughter named Carrie.

I loved Debbie Reynolds even more fiercely after that sensational scandal and thought of her as a brave warrior who somehow soldiered on even after enduring public humiliation. It would be decades before I would be able to forgive Elizabeth Taylor for her egregious behavior and I disliked Eddie Fisher forevermore. I was happy when his star power plummeted in the aftermath. He ultimately disappeared from the limelight and his tryst with Elizabeth was short lived, but Debbie continued to perform and remained beloved to me and her fans.

I was grown when I finally discovered the movie that seemed to most accurately depict the duality of sweetness and spunk that seemed to define the real Debbie Reynolds. Singing In the Rain became one of my all time favorite films. The casting was incredible and Debbie more than held her own with giants of the screen like Gene Kelly and Donald O’Conner. There are few scenes from cinema that are as iconic as the one in which she dances with her male co-stars and they all three end up tilting over a sofa. Her star quality shone through and that charisma would never die even after she left the silver screen for a quieter life.

Debbie Reynolds showed up from time to time in Las Vegas and on television programs like Will and Grace where she always seemed to light up the room but it was her daughter Carrie who would eventually become even more of a Hollywood icon than she had been. When Carrie Fisher played the role of Princess Leia in the Star Wars series she immediately became a role model for a new generation of little girls just as her mom had been for me. Carrie was beautiful and intelligent and showed the same spark of independence that her mom had always displayed. Young men across the world fell in love with her more feminist version of the ideal woman. She was an equal to the male characters who fought side by side with her against the dark side of life.

Carrie Fisher had a brilliant mind and went on to display her intellect and her sense of humor in the five books that she eventually wrote. She possessed a sometimes defiant honesty in which she told of her own demons and struggles. For a time she was estranged from her mother because of her willingness to so publicly speak of her life. She suffered from addictions and mental health issues and was never afraid to talk openly about them. She became an outspoken advocate for everyone who deals with the heartache and loss that comes from fighting for their mental well being. She understood that by admitting her own weaknesses she not only freed herself from their grasp but helped others who so often feel abandoned and alone in the battles against their cravings.   

The world was shocked to hear of Carrie Fisher’s death from a heart attack that she suffered while flying home on Christmas Day. Her many fans both young and old recalled the joy that she had brought to them. Her friends and family grieved for the giving and sensitive person that she was. Her mother Debbie was distraught and missed her beloved daughter immediately. Only one day later she too died, possibly from a stroke.

After my father was killed in a car crash at the age of thirty three my grandmother commented that she had lost her parents, many siblings and even a husband but the death of her child was the most difficult thing that she had ever endured. I watched her change from that day forward. She was a fighter who carried on but there was a shadow of sadness that seemed to follow her in spite of her efforts to smile and be optimistic. She spoke often and wistfully of my father and provided me with snatches of her own history as though she was preparing me for her own demise. Eventually she was diagnosed with stage four cancer and she died after a short but painful battle. Somehow I always felt that it was her broken heart that took her and I suspect that the same might be true of Debbie Reynolds. It is just so incredibly shocking and wrong in the grand scheme of things to lose a child.

I feel a profound sadness today as I think of the family of Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher. They will be dealing with a great deal of pain in the coming days and weeks and months. In the end the icons that we so worship as fans are just people like ourselves. They have brothers and daughters and close friends who love them and know them in the most personal ways, “warts and all” as my mother used to say. Behind all of the glitz and glamor of Hollywood are humans who experience the very same feelings that we all have. They give away much of their own privacy to those of us who fantasize about them and make them famous. We share vicariously in their triumphs and their tragedies but we never truly know them. We forget just how human they really are. The death of Debbie Reynolds just one day after her daughter reminds us of what matters the most in life. In the final analysis the most important thing that we do each day is to love and never forget just how fragile the human experience is. We can’t take a single day for granted because we never really know what our final destiny will be. We need to attempt to live with courage and open hearts like Debbie Reynolds and her daughter Carrie Fisher tried so valiantly to do.

Escape the Island

b82b872f6e7410e609a4cf12456bcdfeAt first we were just taking a leisurely stroll down memory lane in the once famous Balinese Room in Galveston. There was time for some world class entertainment and a little drink  from the bar. We wondered if it was true that the margarita was invented here. Then we found our way into the back room where the high rollers gathered and the gambling was king. They were all there, Frank, Dean, Sammy, Peter, the members of the Rat Pack. Before long our fun had turned to panic. Suddenly we had to get out. Playing the slots for money was illegal after all. The Texas Rangers would soon rush into the room to round up those of us who were flaunting the law. The clock was ticking. We became desperate to escape. We knew that all of us would have to work together to save our collective skins. We wondered if we would be able to escape in time to avert certain danger. 

Of course, the Balinese Room no longer exists. The famed nightclub that was a magnet for the rich and famous back in the thirties and forties played out its final hand when Hurricane Ike blasted it from its moorings in 2008, leaving nothing but flotsam and jetsam in its wake. We were instead inside a brand new attraction that opened its doors just before Christmas in the historic Galveston Island Strand area. Escape the Island is a fun-filled brain teasing challenge that features two escape rooms based on Galveston’s colorful history.

For those who are unfamiliar with the newest craze, an escape room is a real time game in which participants must gather clues hidden all around the area so that they may work their way out of rooms within a particular time limit. It requires out of the box thinking, observational skills and teamwork to beat the clock. Everyone contributes to the process with the variety of skills and background that they bring. It is fast paced and demanding but great fun when the “aha” moments that lead to progress prove to be correct. Both the trivia buff and the academic have an opportunity to shine forth. Children and adults alike bring important abilities into the mix. 

Escape the Island is located at 910 21st Street in Galveston, Texas just blocks away from The Strand. It features two escape rooms, the Balinese Room and one dedicated to Jean Lafitte. Both supply great fun and adventure even on cold and rainy days. For those who love to explore Galveston Island and spend time getting to know all of its nooks and crannies Escape the Island will surely become the newest must visit attraction. We took our family there on the day after Christmas and the youngest members enjoyed the challenge as much as those of us who are supposed to be older and wiser. We combined our afternoon outing with a stop at one of the many restaurants that are only a short walk away from the Escape the Island location and all agreed that it was a great way to enjoy unique entertainment in the always welcoming atmosphere of Galveston Island.

I suspect that once the public begins to hear about Escape the Island it will become a must see destination for family outings, date nights, parties, corporate team building, church groups and the like. I have attended planning conferences in Galveston in the past and I can imagine taking similar groups to Escape the Island as part of the effort to jump start the team into thinking about alternatives and building camaraderie. As a former teacher I see Escape the Island as a great vehicle for engaging students in the kind of brain activities that teach them how to become critical thinkers. They will absolutely become totally involved in the process of the game and won’t even realize how much they are learning.

The owners of Escape the Island plan to change the themes and puzzles in the rooms regularly to keep their visitors coming back for more. They are filled with enthusiasm, creativity and ideas designed to keep the visitors guessing. This is only the beginning of what is sure to be a fun way to spend an afternoon or an evening any time of the year.

For more information just call 409-443-5092 or visit the Escape the Island website at www.escapetheisland.com where you can book your appointment. The cost is $30.00 a person but if you bring a group of six or more people like we did there is a discount of $5.00 per person. The owners are willing to talk about other special deals for larger groups like businesses, schools or churches so just give them a call to make your plans. I can guarantee that it will be the most fun that you have had in a very long time.

Once you have your appointment just travel down Broadway until you see a sign pointing to The Strand then turn onto 21st Street and look to your right for the 910 21st Street location. You will see a red brick building that has an Escape the Island sign hanging across the second story. There will be three small palm trees in the front and two old time lampposts. There is parking on the street and on either side of the building. Once you enter the rooms be ready to be transported to another time and place where you will be in for a mind blowing experience that is truly great fun. 

The Terror of Fear

Fear-Is-the-Killer1.jpgterror

noun  1 a state of intense fear 2 a: one that inspires fear (scourge) b: a frightening aspect c: a cause of anxiety (worry) d: an appalling person or thing (brat) 3 reign of terror 4 violent or destructive acts committed by groups in order to intimidate a population or government into granting their demands

We live in frightening times, of that there can be no argument. Still, for the most part we carry on with our daily lives not allowing the fears that reside in our minds to overtake us. Each of us worries to a lesser or greater extent about personal problems that range from difficulties with finances to concerns about a dire medical diagnosis for a loved one. Mostly we have little time or energy to expend on thoughts about the world at large even as we are barraged with daily news reports of happenings in places far from our homes. As long as trouble is not in our own backyard we mostly give only passing notice to pain and suffering. The job of a terrorist is to create an action that is so unusual in its brutal disregard for humanity that it gives us pause and causes us to look over our shoulders and to feel the racing of our hearts. An act of terror is one that makes us afraid of the possibilities of horror in our daily lives. In its most extreme form it pushes us to isolate ourselves in fear.

Even though most of us understand that the odds of being a victim in a terrorist attack are quite literally one in many millions the randomness of such incidents makes us realize that they might happen anywhere and at any time. We might be dining out or celebrating with our coworkers at a party. That stroll down the street in our daily routine may be interrupted by murder and death. The most recent attacks have been in the most unlikely of places. We see that they might as well happen right next door.

We are carefully searched at big events. Our buildings now have barriers, armed guards, metal detectors. We are probably relatively safe at a highly publicized event. Terrorists search instead for the venues in which we have let down our vigilance, places that are so ordinary that it would not dawn on us to be afraid in them. Violence in such situations becomes even more horrifying because it is so unexpected.

My mother suffered from attacks of paranoia in relation to her bipolar disorder. At times she experienced psychotic episodes that were painful and terrifying. She became unable to function and locked herself inside her home in a state of unrelenting anxiety. Only with medical intervention was she able to return to a normal state of mind that allowed her to resume her usual activities. Until then she was convinced that her life and ours were in such grave danger that we should not venture out into the world. Such times were sad and toxic for her. Her illness literally held her captive and kept her from enjoying the beauty of our shared human experience.

In many ways the goal of terrorism is to create a similar sense of impending doom in all of us. The hope is that in witnessing shocking scenes of violence we will all become less and less willing to venture forth in defiance of the threats. The terrorist’s goal is to shut down our normal sense of security. Their desire is to make so many of us afraid that we will demand our leaders to defer to their agendas. It is a game of cat and mouse that all too often leads to senseless harm and a loss of freedoms for everyone. As the perpetrators ratchet up the horror even those who are far away from the events become a bit more wary than they might otherwise have been.

Ironically I learned how to experience the wonders of the world without fear from the strength and wisdom of my mother before she was afflicted with a mental illness. After my father died she was determined to be adventurous while still being cautious. She showed us how to be aware of the people around us and to note the potential dangers of different environments. By being rationally observant we never fell into harm’s way and we were ready with a plan if things went awry.

I recall helping my mother to notice everything that was happening around us. If a car followed us for many miles Mama would pull into a crowded area pretending to be part of a large group. From her I developed a kind of radar that allowed me to note the demeanor of the people around me. It was a skill that came in quite handy when I became a teacher. I was one of those individuals who seemed to have eyes in the back of my head. I generally ferreted out trouble before it even began.

To this day I am unwilling to enter an elevator when there is only one person inside. I take note of the exits in hotels and theaters in case I need to leave quickly. I almost unconsciously watch the people around me. I have developed a sixth sense. I have plans for what to do if trouble arises regardless of where I am. I do not dwell on such things. I simply consider the possibilities, formulate potential solutions and then go about the joy of celebrating life. I refuse to live in fear. 

I don’t mind taking off my shoes, opening my purse for inspection or walking through metal detectors. I know that such considerations are part of a plan to keep me safe. When a TSA agent is wary of a snow globe that one of my grandchildren purchased on a trip to New York City I applaud him for being careful. I don’t become angry when a guard in France gives me a full body search because I decided to bring home rock samples from my travels. I realize that such incidents happen in efforts to make me and those around me safe. They have become part and parcel of our new world order. What I do refuse to do is lock myself away because I am afraid of what might happen if I venture out. Once we begin to fold to the demands of terrorists we are truly doomed. They will not suddenly back away if we are compliant. They will only expect more and more deference to their wishes.

The world is mostly good. Of that I am certain. On any given day it is likely that our routines will be uneventful. Most of us will never see violence up close and personal. We need not fret or worry needlessly. Instead we must work together as world partners to find ways to eradicate those people and groups who would needlessly harm our brothers and sisters. If we stand strong and together the power of positivity will doom them just as it has throughout history. I for one intend to live courageously and to partake of life. I will not allow anyone to terrify me. It is the fear that kills us but only if we allow it to strangle us. Be not afraid.

Christmas Magic

04d8762c-e9ff-48b4-800b-25850e9c6e80_37gzwyg.jpgIt is two days before Christmas and my head is filled with many random thoughts. I was thinking about the live trees that everyone used to have back when I was a child. They were so much fun but invariably half of my family would be ill by Christmas Eve. Little did we realize that we were actually allergic to the lovely natural aroma of pine or fir that filled the air. Once the artificial varieties became available there was no turning back for us. We finally found out what it was like to feel good for the holidays.

In an effort to reproduce the feeling of my childhood days I purchased a scented wax chunk in Colorado when I visited there in the fall. I thought it might be fun to have the illusion of having a real tree with the essence of pine wafting through the air. I decided to burn it this past weekend and within about thirty minutes my head was aching and my throat had begun to close. My nose was running and my eyes were watering. I suppose that I’m just not going to create a forest-like atmosphere in my home ever again. It was sad to realize that my body won’t tolerate that wonderful smell of a Christmas forest.

During the brief moments when my house felt more like my younger days I began to reminisce. I suspect that there is always that one special Christmas gift that remains magical even sixty years later. For me it was finding a bicycle in front of the Christmas tree when I was seven years old. Santa got everything right about that bike from the basket mounted on the handlebars to the color. It was love at first sight and I could hardly wait to change out of my pajamas and get outside to give it a test drive. I felt very grown up because it didn’t come with training wheels. Santa assumed that I would be able to learn how to balance and pedal without any problems. It made me happy that he had so much confidence in me.

My father was my official coach. He held the bicycle up while I climbed on and ran along  beside me until I had picked up enough speed to stay upright. The first few times I crashed almost immediately and even skinned my knee. I was beginning to wonder if I would ever be able to master the art of riding but I was too embarrassed to admit defeat so I kept climbing right back onto the seat and trying again and again. Daddy encouraged me and gave me tips about how to improve. Just when I thought that I was never going to overcome my cycling inadequacies my father let go and I kept going. I even turned around and headed back to him. I suspect that I had one of the biggest grins of my lifetime. I can’t remember another time that I felt so proud of my accomplishments.

That bike would become my constant companion. It took me on adventures and saved me from boredom. I eventually learned how to perform tricks like standing on the seat while holding one leg in the air or letting go of the handlebars while still moving forward. I’m not sure what ultimately became of it. I suppose that I simply outgrew it one day and my mother no doubt sent it to wherever old bikes go.

There really is nothing quite like those childhood days when Santa comes in the middle of the night while children sleep. It is so breathtaking to find the wondrous toys waiting in the morning. I can still see the roller skates and the dolls in the glow of the multi-colored lights. I envision the oranges and nuts that were invariably hiding inside my stocking. There is a part of my brain that will stay forever young with those magical images of Christmases past.

Santa still visits our house. My grandchildren come to stay with me from San Antonio and somehow Old St. Nick manages to find them. They are growing older so he may soon quit coming just as he does with all of us once we are no longer children but we never forget how wonderful he made us feel and we vicariously enjoy his magic in the eyes of the young. It will be sad when my grandchildren too have outgrown him.

I’ve worked hard for the past several weeks preparing a feast for my extended family that I will serve on Christmas Day. I am expecting around thirty two adults and kids to join us this year. It is a riotous time filled with laughter and lots of love. There will be children running up and down the hallways and adults hugging and catching up on all that has happened since last we saw one another. We’ll devour mountains of food and by the end of the evening the house will resemble the Griswold’s home in Christmas Vacation after a squirrel runs amuck.

I always sit in the light of the tree on Christmas night wondering how the celebrations went by so quickly. I’ll think of how fortunate I have been throughout my lifetime. I’ll remember all of the people and the traditions that I have enjoyed over the years and I know I will feel quite content. Somehow the spirit of Christmas finds its way into my heart over and over again regardless of what may have happened in the months that came before.

Merry Christmas to everyone. May this holiday find you feeling that magic of the season and sharing love with those who mean the most to you. I hope that Santa is as good to you as he always seems to be to me.