Doing The Right Thing In Our Own Backyards

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Back in 2001 a group of city workers came into my backyard while I was gone to “trim” the large trees that grew all over the neighborhood. They left a tangle of branches that literally covered the expanse. My azaleas were mangled from the affront on them as the huge sections of the trees fell carelessly down to the ground. It was a stunning and unexpected mess, but I assumed that a crew would soon enough remove the debris as part of the work, so I tried to remain calm.

A week went by and then two until it became obvious to me that somehow my yard had been forgotten as the tree trimmers moved along in their work. Still attempting to be kind I called around and found out from the city of Houston that it had indeed been a mistake on the part of the crew to leave the tangle of trees branches. I was assured that the matter would be resolved within a few days. Unfortunately yet another week passed with no sign of the expected cleanup. I could see that my grass was beginning to grow yellow which fueled by temper. When I phoned the city again I was in no mood for excuses and demanded action. After a great deal of paper shuffling I was told that according to records my backyard should have been one hundred percent free of the refuse.

It’s a good thing that I was not speaking to the clerk in person because I’m not sure that I would have been able to contain myself. After insisting that I was going to stay on the line until I was able to talk with a supervisor I finally spoke with a quite official sounding man who patronized me from the get go. Essentially he apologized for the confusion and assured me that my name and address would be placed on a list. He noted that city workers were on a new project in my area and they would come to my house as soon as they had finished that task.

Somehow I felt caught in a bureaucratic nightmare that I suspected was never going to end. I suspected that I might have to visit a city council meeting armed with photographs or even attempt to see the mayor. In the meantime my lovely backyard was suffering and I realized that it was going to die if I didn’t take charge and do the labor myself. The problem was that it was an incredibly overwhelming task. Nonetheless I made mental plans to get to work on the weekend if nobody had come by then to take responsibility.

Within a day or so, my emotions were focused on something far graver and more important than my landscape. I had watched in horror as the twin towers of the World Trade Center had collapsed from a terrorist attack. I was in a state of disbelief and horror that evening and needed something to keep my mind busy. I looked out the window at the mess that had so enraged me and decided it was a good time to begin the process of taking control of the situation. I went to work and began cutting up the huge limbs and carrying the pieces one by one to the front yard for pick up by the garbage man. After an hour or so I had not made a visible dent, but the sweat labor had been good for my state of mind. I was accomplishing something in a world gone mad.

After a time some of my neighbors began to notice my trips back and forth and without saying a word they joined me in my efforts. None of us were in the mood for conversation, so we just worked on reducing that pile of destruction one branch at a time. Before long the curb was laden with enough wood to make a nifty bonfire and the azaleas along my fence line were once again visible, looking a bit worse for wear but still very much alive. When the sun began to set we had not completed the task, but we had made a very good start. Over the coming days we would finish the project while also watching the work of digging out that was taking place in New York City. Ultimately my yard was returned to its former lovely state, and with much more effort New York City rose from the ashes of that dreadful day.

I learned then that seemingly impossible tasks begin with small efforts and then grow to fruition with cooperation and determination. It reminded me of the old stories of stone soup and Johnny Appleseed in which the important thing was to make a start and then work together for a worthy and common cause. When I recently saw a post from a friend I was inspired all over again. The suggestion was for each person who visited a beach to pick up and dispose of three pieces of garbage. If we all followed that idea over time we would soon have far more pristine waters. There were comments from several individuals insisting that the problems with pollution and garbage are so big that such a plan would not even scratch the surface, but I found myself enchanted with the idea. It seems to me that most beaches have enough visitors each day that the combined endeavors of each person would be huge. Think about our waters getting a daily cleaning from everyone willing to spend probably less than a minute to dispose of trash that they see. I thought of ways to expand this idea to all sorts of places including city streets, and I became quite excited by the possibilities. What if we carried some of those cheap disposable gloves with us so that we might be ready to spiffy things up wherever we go? Surely with a nationwide concentration on doing such things we would do wonders.

I once worked in one of the KIPP schools and they had a rule for the students, “Leave any place that you go better than you found it.” It meant that our kids not only cleaned up after themselves but took the initiative to take care of any additional problems that they found. Our big crews made quick work of the process of caring for our environment. Why can’t we make this a way of life for everyone?

Sometimes we expend a great deal of time and emotion complaining about situations just as I did with the mess in my backyard. While the city workers were indeed responsible I was actually hurting myself by refusing to rectify the situation on my own. We so often see a bad situation and then want someone else to take care of it. Maybe we should begin to think about doing the right thing in our own backyards.

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Civility

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I do my best to be “woke” as the modern vernacular calls someone who is up to date with regards to modern progressive thinking. I’ve done my share of using the big “F” word, and will admit to being quite imperfect more often than I like. I am fairly permissive in a number of ways and often accused of being too liberal by my conservative friends and family members. That being said, I find myself grappling with the growing incivility of current communication. I wince at the public commentaries that are so raw and mean. They bother me in a visceral way that I am unable to overlook.

I learned long ago that we have multiple ways of communicating that are generally governed by somewhat unspoken but understood rules. The language registers that we used operated one way in public and quite another in private. We generally agreed that in the workplace, schools, churches and such we should talk to one another in a more formal manner. We addressed people with a level of respect that was occasioned by the need to be able to work effectively with one another. The kind of honest speaking that leads to cursing and insults was thought to be inappropriate in the public sector.

We all realize that in the more relaxed domains of home and close friendships we are more often than not inclined to use phrases and expletives to express ourselves. The idea is that in good relationships we sense that it is okay to be more open and honest. Those who truly care about us are generally more forgiving of outbursts. It is less likely that we will be punished for a slip of the tongue.

These kinds of mores have mostly been in effect for most of my lifetime. Some may believe that they are somewhat hypocritical, and I suppose that there are arguments for that thinking. Mostly though we have tended to agree that we have to insist upon a certain level of decorum in public lest we devolve into a kind of linguistic anarchy. So it has been for the most part until recently, and sadly the tendency to express frustrations and anger in the vilest terms is gaining traction.

It would be easy to blame the current tendencies on media or even our president who has a very bad habit of tweeting and uttering whatever is on his mind regardless of how distasteful it is. There are many who applaud the so called honesty of such outbursts. Other become so incensed that they resort to fighting fire with fire. Thus we find ourselves watching an awards ceremony only to hear an actor shouting, “F—-“ the president and then he is given a standing ovation. As a society we have become less and less embarrassed by a form of verbal assault that would have been unacceptable in the past.

There are many arguments from both conservatives and liberals that we have been forced into a battle of words by political events. The cheerleaders for such incidents insist that the fight for justice requires that we speak as openly and honestly as possible. They note that those who have been polite have been unable to actually get things done, and that now is the time to be as forceful as needed. They claim that the uncivil war of words is a battle for the very heart of democracy, and so it must be.

Sadly I find the outbursts to be without merit. They are simply gross and violent expressions of anger that do little more than to incite even more rage, when what we need are solutions. Those will only come from a more rational approach to the many problems that we face. Right now all we are managing to do is create divisions that will remain unhealed until we return to a way of speaking to and about one another that demonstrates respect. An argument built only on emotions generally goes nowhere. Relationships are rent in two when the parties are only yelling at one another. Marriages end. Friendships die. Countries wage war.

Children often cry and scream and throw tantrums when they do not get their way. We have to teach them how to control such emotions, and how to properly express their hopes and desires. It is a huge part of becoming an adult, and our youngsters are constantly watching and learning from us. What are they to think when they hear political leaders and icons of art and industry ranting like spoiled brats? Why would they agree to change their own behaviors when they see so many examples of insults being hurled like school yard taunts by prominent adults?

It is time that we insist on a return to civility, and that will only be accomplished if we remain in our seats and refrain from applause whenever someone chooses to speak from the gutter. We need to make it clear that this is not who we wish to be, nor the kind of behavior that we wish our children to witness.

I once had a student who was attempting to defend the efficacy of violence and cursing. He insisted that the best way to get something done was to be the person with the loudest voice and the biggest gun. I debated him until I had reached a point of frustration and I wrote the word A N A R C H Y across the blackboard. I explained that such battles always lead to a state of lawlessness, chaos, disorder that rarely ends well. It is only when we are willing to honor one another and work together that we have accomplished great things. Sometimes that means defeating those who would resort to ugliness as a way of accomplishing goals. Hopefully we will be able to do that within the confines of civility, because history has shown that when we cannot horrible things happen. 

Happy Birthday!

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My mother loved birthdays with the enthusiasm of a child. She was the youngest in a family of eight, growing up during the Great Depression. There wasn’t enough extra income for gifts or even special meals or desserts, so she and her siblings always received a nickel from their father on the occasion of becoming one year older. Mama always said that she like to take her new found wealth to a bakery nearby where she was able to purchase a big bag of broken cookie pieces that she swore were just as good as the ones that remained intact. As the years passed by she and her brothers and sisters would faithfully send a birthday card to one another that always contained a nickel taped inside. I sometimes sensed that she enjoyed that tradition even more than the more expensive gifts that she received.

Today would have been Mama’s ninety second birthday. She often bragged that she and Queen Elizabeth were born in the same year, and somehow that fact made her feel a kind of kinship with the monarch of England. She noted that they shared a kind of resemblance as well, along with the fact of having their first born children in the same year as well. My mother always alerted us to the Queen’s birthday as a kind of hint that hers was on the way.

She was a stickler for celebrating her natal day at the time of its actual place on the calendar. She didn’t like the idea of waiting until the weekend, so even if we planned a party for her when everyone would be able to attend, my brothers and I still had to make a big deal on the correct date. I suppose that’s why I still think about her on June 27, even though it has now been seven years since she died. I think it would please her to know that we have not forgotten how special this day always was for her. In fact, we decided after she was gone that we would gather at her favorite restaurant each year to raise a toast in her honor. As it happens the place we chose is the Cracker Barrel in League City where she spent many a happy time enjoying the homey atmosphere and the kind of cooking that she might have prepared herself.

In an effort to look after our mother while she was still alive my brothers and I agreed to visit her at least once a week on different days. She usually wanted to go out to eat when we arrived, and sometimes she was even waiting eagerly on a bench that stood on her front porch whenever we drove up. That’s how excited she was about getting out of the house, but that was not the case on her birthday. On that day she wanted all of us to come to see her at one time so that it was like a party. She put me in charge of providing the cake, ice cream and candles. She preferred German chocolate or devils food cake, but she was always okay with a change of flavor. God forbid, however, that I would forget to bring the ice cream or the candles. Those things had to be done just right.

She was exceptional at providing us with festive birthdays even when her income was sorely stretched. She made a habit of shopping all year long and setting aside things that she had found on sale. Her gifts were always quite practical and long lasting, but most of all thoughtful. She was sure to come knocking at the door bearing all of the trappings of a big to do, even as we grew older. I never knew how she managed to be so generous, but I always understood that for her a birthday was supposed to be special no matter the circumstances.

When Mama turned eighty we decide to give her a surprise party. We had little idea at the time that she would die less than five years later. We only knew that we wanted to make her day bigger and better than ever. We sent out invitations to everyone in her stable of friends and family, and they all came. My home was crowded with people who loved her and were excited by the idea of letting her know how they felt about her. They had written letters to her that we placed in an album. We huddled anxiously as she walked up to the door and shouted with delight upon her entrance. She cried tears of unmitigated joy and bore the expression of a delighted child as she opened each gift and read each card.

We all miss my mom. She was the heart of the family and a continual source of fun and laughter. She suffered more than most with the loss of her husband at the age of thirty. Her loneliness, lack of income, and mental illness pushed hard to defeat her spirit, but she battled long and courageously to avoid defeat. Somehow no matter what else was happening in her life, she always rallied on her birthday. It was as though that occasion gave her new energy, new joy, a new beginning again and again.

We’ll be going to Cracker Barrel tonight. Not everyone comes each year, but I do my best to keep my calendar clear so that I will be able to make it. I know that the eldest of her grandchildren will be there along with some of their own kids. The people at Cracker Barrel seem to get a bit flustered when we arrive with such a large group. They don’t seem to understand the importance of the occasion, but we believe that Mama is smiling down on us from heaven. The party is for her after all and we intend to celebrate just the way she would want us to do.

The Banquet Table of Anthony Bourdain

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(It’s taken me a bit to consider what I wanted to say about Anthony Bourdain. I suppose that is okay, because all too often we mourn the loss of someone and then seem to move on to other things. I think that he is someone worth remembering, and we would do well to model his approaches to learning about and loving people. His suicide will never define the incredible person that he was. Mental illness all too often steals some of the best among us away.)

When I think of good times with family and friends it almost always involves food. My grandmother Little was a country woman through and through whose dishes focused on things like fried chicken, fresh fish that she caught herself, pot roast and oodles of vegetables from her garden. Eating Sunday dinner with her was more than just a consumption of cuisine worthy of the Pioneer Woman. It was a communion of love that was special from the Happy Village dishes on which she served her recipes to the strawberries and cream that she spread on thin slices of cake. We understood that those gatherings were a gift from our grandma that we have never forgotten. Our senses somehow manage to recall the bounty that she spread on her mahogany dining table with clear detail. Even decades later we are able to recover the tastes, aromas, and sights from the memory banks of our brains. They serve as a the trademark of the wonderful moments that we shared with her. Those memories keep her alive in our minds decades after she was gone.

We so often associate food with our relationships. My mouth waters just a bit when I think of Ed’s “fancy” that included oysters Rockefeller, red beans and rice and conversation that I will never forget. I smile at the thought of Linda’s perennially delicious dishes over which we sat for hours raising our families together and building  lifelong relationships. Bieu’s pig roasts and crawfish boils always bring a diverse group of people together even when we sometimes have no idea what everyone is saying. Monica gives us a taste of Europe and a feeling of welcoming warmth. Michael grills his burgers as the children play and we reminisce about times past and celebrate those yet to come. Granny’s tea time was a backdrop for serious discussions. Uncle Paul’s  green eggs and ham were the stuff of our jokes that in truth were somehow strangely delicious. The tangerines and nuts that filled bowls at Christmas time reunions represented the bounty that our crazy immigrant family had achieved. Grandma Ulrich with her weak, milky, sugary cups of coffee taught us how to bring elegance and joy to the most simple fare. Food is most certainly intimately intertwined with family, friends, relationships.

Anthony Bourdain was one of those people who understood the power and symbolism of sharing food. He traveled the world, breaking bread in places where many of us would not dare tread. He introduced us to the loveliness of our humanity and also taught us the importance of being respectful to all cultures. He truly loved people not for how he wanted them to be, but exactly the way they really were. His enthusiasm for the unusual was always apparent in his stories and interviews. He understood that there is not one right or wrong way of doing things or being. He was a beautiful man in that regard. There was a complexity of his intellect and ability to use words, but there was also a simplicity in his delight over very small joys.

We need more people like Anthony Bourdain, a man who appeared to be judgement free. One of my favorite stories of him was about his defense of an older woman who wrote a restaurant review column for a newspaper in North Dakota. She became the butt of snarky commentary and jokes after she published an earnest piece about the opening of an Olive Garden in her town. She was polite and complimentary of everything from the decor to the professionalism of the server. For her efforts she was virally ridiculed. It was Anthony Bourdain who came to her rescue by noting quite gallantly that she was providing us with a portrait of a part of our society that we sometimes don’t see, and doing it very well. He eventually invited her the New York City and encouraged her to publish her best work. He took the time to get to know her better over coffee in a moment that so special for her. Ultimately her book became a hit with his help, but what was most telling about this incident was his compassion and understanding that each of us has something to offer, something new that will enrich lives. This I believe was the key Anthony Bourdain’s success.

The best people, like Anthony Bourdain, not only regale us with good food and exciting stories. They also show us how to treat one another. My grandmothers and my mother both modeled the same kind of behavior for me, demonstrating how to find the beauty in every single person. They encouraged me to open my heart free of preconceived notions. I have been all of the better because of that and I have attempted to pass down that way of embracing the world to my children and grandsons.

I often recall a time when I took my eldest grandson to a small neighborhood grocery store that often attracted an odd assortment of characters. As we pushed our cart through the narrow aisles we heard a gaggle of languages and witnessed some rather odd forms of dress. All the while music sung in a multitude of foreign languages blared over the loud speakers. After we had been there for a few minutes my grandson beamed his most glorious smile at me and exclaimed, “I like dis place. It’s happy!” His comment swelled my heart with pride.

Anthony Bourdain continually challenged us to move out of our comfort zones so that we might find the enriching experiences that truly make life so much more interesting and enjoyable. He showed us that the way to do that is to sit down and enjoy a meal with strangers who in the exchange might even become friends. There’s a whole world of people out there who very likely would love to spend a few hours sharing their stories while supping on the stuff of life. Anthony Bourdain showed us how to do that and how to really live. May he now rest in peace with a special seat at the great heavenly banquet table.

People In Boats

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I recently experienced a bout of insomnia that not even a dose of Tylenol PM was able to combat. As I lay tossing and turning I had one of those Roseanne Barr moments in which I began to think about several news items that I had seen and had an overwhelming compulsion to comment on them. Luckily I was a bit too lazy to rise from my bed to do anything destructive with my thoughts other than to use them as a form of sheep counting that eventually led to the slumber I had been seeking. I’d highly recommend the method to Ms. Barr if she ever again has the urge to sleep tweet in the middle of the night. Of course most of the damage has already been done in her case.

There had been several issues on my mind, but the one that I have not been able to simply forget, even in the light of day, is probably of little consequence to most people, but a very big deal to me. It seems that our president was praising the Coast Guard and the wonderful work that they do when he went a bit off topic as he is so often wont to do. His remarks were just fine until he made one of the most ridiculous statements that I have ever heard. “I don’t think the Coast Guard gets enough credit.  And I’ve said it, and I even say it to the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines. I said, I think this year the Coast Guard, maybe in terms of increased branding — the brand of the Coast Guard has been something incredible what’s happened. Saved 16,000 people, many of them in Texas, for whatever reason that is. People went out in their boats to watch the hurricane. That didn’t work out too well.  That didn’t work out too well.”

My eyes almost started to bleed when I read this commentary. I even checked it to be certain that it was true, and it was! I had to laugh at the sheer ignorance of the assertion. Sure there are gawkers in almost all situations but to imply that Houstonians were pulling out their boats for a little ride to watch the hurricane is too bizarre for words. First of all, those of us in Texas know that one doesn’t go out to watch a hurricane. We hunker down as our county commissioner likes to say. We await the conclusion of the event in the safety of our homes, hopefully with the electricity running and the television guiding us with the most current status of the storm. Nobody here has any idea where the president got such the idea that we were boating around for our own amusement during a very dangerous situation.

I have to admit that I was quite anxious during those many days of unending rain. I felt a bit like Noah and wondered if it would have been a good idea to have built an arc in preparation for the storm. I even wished that I still had the old flat bottom boat that we once used to navigate up and down Caney Creek behind some property that we often visited near Brazoria. I would have felt a great deal safer knowing that I had a way out if my home filled with water as was happening to so many of my friends. Their descriptions of the terror of attempting to flee the rising water were breathtaking and for many of them those people in boats were not sightseers, but heroes who took them to safety.

As far as anyone around here knows the private citizens who spent days and nights rescuing people were as wonderful as the members of the Coast Guard who were also invaluable to our cause. In fact things had become so dire so quickly that many of our elected officials encouraged anyone with boats to come to the aid of the thousands of stranded people in our town. There were simply not enough resources from the usual governmental sources to deal with the unfolding tragedy, and so ordinary people did extraordinary things. I have never been so proud of my city and its residents in all of my days. To insinuate that they were only watching the hurricane is not just ludicrous, it is insulting, and we need to loudly and proudly set the record straight.

President Trump has a rather inventive mind. Perhaps he is so busy that he lacks the time to check his ideas before he utters them, but in the case of his remarks about people watching the hurricane in boats he is dead wrong. His words demonstrate a total lack of understanding of what actually happened here. Perhaps he has been so isolated by the cloak of wealth and privilege throughout his life that he does not actually know what it is like to deal with the realities of daily living. He is simply not in touch with the day to day truth of not just my city’s situation but also those of ordinary citizens around the country. He lacks enough empathy and understanding to see problems through others’ eyes. Everything seems to revolve around his own needs, and so he comes across as an uncaring kind of clown.

Like much of the country and the world President Trump has no idea what Texans and Houstonians in particular are really like, We’ve learned to laugh at the insults and stereotypes that are hurled our way. We know how wonderful it is here and not even the heat or the mosquitoes will drive us away. We understand that being a Texan and a Houstonian is one of God’s greatest blessings. We are part of a great big family of people who will not let us down even in times of great need. They will come with their boats and their big hearts to rescue us and it matters not to them who we are or how we look. People in boats came out last August to save strangers. It actually worked out really well, Mr. President, contrary to whatever you may believe. We will never forget those people and their boats, and we thank God every single day that they were willing to place themselves in danger just out of the goodness of their hearts. You might want to learn from them, President Trump.