The Golden Girl

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I have the most amazing friends! Their posts on Facebook invariably make my day. They seem to have a direct view into my heart and the things that matter to me. I suppose that we are friends because our spirits are kindred in one way or another and they often humble me with their wit and wisdom. There are so many days when they target the very concerns that are consuming my heart without ever realizing that they have hit such a tender target. A few mornings ago I shared several of the memes and stories that they posted because they were exactly what I needed in that moment.

Among them was a heartfelt admission from one of my former students, a young woman who in many ways had been a kind of “golden girl” in her class. I met her when she was a freshman in high school and was immediately taken by her obvious charisma. She was beautiful then and had become even more so in the ensuing years as maturity gave her a kind of polish. Intellectually she was outstanding in every sense. Her academic acumen was sharp and I saw her as a deeply gifted and talented individual. While her forte was writing, she was nonetheless one of the best in virtually every subject, easily rising to the top levels among her peers. Amazingly she was also a natural born leader who had the ability of assessing any situation and taking charge with a kind of ease. As if all of that were not enough, she was incredibly kind and compassionate, a trait that did not escape the notice of both her teachers and her classmates.

This magnificent person became a student at the University of Texas where she struggled a bit to find herself. Eventually she came back home to Houston and spent some time reassessing who and what she wanted to be in her life. She worked to put herself through college at the University of Houston and in the process developed managerial skills from her jobs. After earning her degree the KIPP Charter schools hired her to work in development. She brought so much heart and understanding of the organization and its goals that she has risen rather rapidly though the ranks. Her ascendancy does not surprise me at all because she is one of those rockstar individuals who consistently shines even in a crowd.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting this young woman for dinner. In a turn that speaks to her thoughtfulness she presented me with a replica World Series ring from one of the Houston Astro’s game that she had attended. She had noticed that I did not have one and that I had expressed my desire to get one from a silly post that I had placed on Facebook. While everyone else ignored my audacious request, she had taken it to heart thus proving to me what I already knew about her. She is the whole package, a woman with enormous gifts and and even bigger heart.

I had thought that nothing about this woman would amaze me because I deeply understood her talents and her drive. One morning when I was reading the offerings on my Facebook newsfeed I found the following post from her:

I have been meaning to write this post for a while, but haven’t because I’ve never been one to put my business, good or bad, on social media. But I want to share this because I have come to terms with it. I have suffered from depression, I can’t tell you when it started, but I do know it went unspoken for longer than it should have. I thought that what I was feeling was normal, that the thoughts I had were normal. It wasn’t until I opened up to a friend about what I felt and what I thought that I realized how wrong I was. I was urged to talk, to seek help so I did. I started taking anti-depressants and sleep medication. A year and half later, things are better… most of the time. What people need to understand about depression is that it doesn’t have “a look”, you can’t always tell when someone is dealing with depression. Most of us live with it and are trying our best to get through it, we have good days. But some days are worse than others, and it’s more than just being sad and no we can’t just “snap out of it.” Yes I tried exercise, I tried meditation, I tried talking, I tried everything I could think of and some of it helped. At the end of the day I have accepted that this will come and go, that I needed to take the good days as wins and know that bad days will pass. I may not be the best at dealing with this, but I am dealing with it and I’m here for anyone who has questions, who needs someone to talk to or who just needs someone to listen.

I was literally overwhelmed with admiration and gratitude upon reading this post. In one moment she had proven herself to be even more remarkable than even I, one of her most ardent admirers, had ever dreamed. I fully understood how much courage it had taken for her to expose herself to potential criticism for I have witnessed so much ignorance about depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses in my own efforts to educate the public. In a single paragraph my lovely student perfectly described what life is like for those afflicted with diseases that invade the mind. I am over the moon in awe of her, and I have shared her words with others whom I know who have also walked in the shadows and confusion and loneliness of depression. Her beautiful description of her journey to health has already helped people that she does not even know to face their own battles.

We often see individuals who appear to be as perfect as anyone might be without realizing the challenges that they actually face. The beauty of my student and now adult friend is that she understood how much good would come from admitting to the struggle that she has endured. I feel that I am now one of her pupils learning what true determination and strength actually is. I am so grateful to know her. She is even more remarkable than I dreamed.

Get the Ball Rolling

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My two greatest fears are drowning and burning in a fire. I have had nightmares about both scenarios since I was a young child. I suppose that my fear of fires began when a man on our street died in his bed as his house became a blazing inferno. I vividly recall seeing the damage to his home and watching him being wheeled out with a sheet over his body. I was probably no more than four or five years old when it happened. I stood by my mother as I witnessed this tragedy, but never spoke to her of the horror that I felt. I only internalized the terror that it wrought in me, and worried about what I might do if my own home one day went up in flames.

I have smoke alarms and a ladder upstairs under a bed that can be used as a way of getting out through a window if the exit routes are blocked. I am very conscious of sounds and smells in the night and I used to drill my daughters when they were still children so that they would know what to do in the event of a fire. While the thought of losing my home to fire is one of my worries, I still feel as though the odds of it happening are unimaginable. I suppose that nonetheless my phobia has led me to closely follow the stories of wildfires in other parts of the country and to wonder if any such event might ever happen to me.

I have been both horrified and saddened by the most recent fires in California. The videos of individuals fleeing in their cars past walls of flames, burned out vehicles and structures reduced to ash is incredibly frightening. I find myself thinking about those images and the unfortunate souls trapped in a kind of hell on earth as they attempt to save their lives. The fact that so many did not make it, is sobering. One minute these folks lived in a delightful town that was truly a kind of paradise and the next all hell broke lose with little or no warning. They have returned to a landscape that not even a war might duplicate. There is literally nothing left of their material lives other than the clothes on their backs.

While still being alive is dear compensation given so many who have died and are missing, it is little comfort to think of having to start over from the ground up. So many questions and fears must be overtaking their minds. They have literally lost the sense of security that usually comes with having a home filled with all of the memories of a lifetime. How will they ever again sleep peacefully at night? Where will they go? Will they be able to stay and still feel safe? How will the world ever feel the same again?

I have no idea what we all might do to help these souls, but I suspect that if each and everyone of us became committed to sending them hope and supplies and funds for rebuilding their lives the goodness might help to assuage some of the that sadness must be overwhelming them at this moment. I know that those in Houston who lost their homes to the floods of Hurricane Harvey were bolstered by the kindness of both friends and strangers. While they still flinch when it rains and relive the moments when they had to flee their homes, they all tell of the ways in which people gathered like a village to ease their pain and suffering. It was in such human compassion that they found the courage to begin their lives anew.

I’d like to think that we will suspend our negative commentaries about what they might have done more to prevent those fires in the first place, or suggestions that they had somehow chosen places to live that were not meant to be inhabited. When water or fire is consuming your home it is not the time to hear lectures on what should have been. Instead voices of understanding and love are what is needed. Luckily there always seem to be caring souls among us, but in such extreme cases we need even more of them. It is up to us not to just have feelings but to help in constructive ways.

Here in the Christmas season many people search for families and individuals whom they might help in tangible ways. I’d like to suggest that the people in California who have lost so much represent a most noble cause. We might set aside a certain amount of money each day in December to be sent to organizations that will be helping in the rebuilding process. We may want to purchase a single household item each day to send to some family or group. How wonderful would it be to buy a book each day to ship to schools and libraries? One person doing this might not make a dent in the needs, but if our whole nation worked together like so many did in the aftermath of hurricane Harvey, just think of how much more quickly the affected people might return to at least a semblance of normalcy. Such programs might be organized through schools or churches for maximum effect. Whole families may want to forego a present or two in order to instead purchase necessities for the people affected by the fires. Those with building skills might offer their services. College students could urge their fraternities, sororities and clubs to make the burned out families their special projects.

It’s up to us now not to criticize, but rather to find constructive ways to help. There will be plenty of time later to determine what changes must happen and how to insure that they take place. In times like this fault finding means little. Compassion and empathy and meaningful help are the things these unfortunate souls need. Let’s get the process started.

The Diary of a Working Woman

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We still don’t have a woman president, but nonetheless we appear to be living in an era that is focused on the accomplishments of the female half of society. While this is very good news, it is actually nothing new for me. I happened to grow up in a family headed by a woman going it alone. I was surrounded by strong female role models for all of my childhood, and they inspired. I married a man whose mother was brilliant and forward thinking, so he and I became coequal partners from day one. I’m an independent person who has always had my own thoughts and goals. Nonetheless I know for certain that being a woman who so-called “has it all” in terms of love, marriage, family and career is often a daunting task. In fact, there are many moments for women in the workplace that are wrought with major challenges that are not always met with understanding by bosses and even female coworkers.

My daughters will point to how lucky I was when I was immersing myself into my vocation of teaching. Whenever they became ill I only had to call my mother-in-law and she would come running across town to watch them while I went to work. I missed very few days because of a sick child, and never had to worry about their care when I was devoting my time to my students. My girls didn’t even have to be “latch key” children because that same mother-in-law met them each afternoon and stayed with them until I returned home. She often prepared dinner for my family as well. I would not have been able to afford a babysitter or nanny on my teaching salary, so having my mother-in-law as a backup was a godsend. She allowed me to be far more dedicated and reliable than I might otherwise have been. For most women who work, dealing with childcare related emergencies is a nightmare and an additional stress added to pursuing a career.

I was blessed with incredibly understanding bosses throughout my entire work life. It made a huge difference in my outlook because I also had to watch over my mother. There were times when her mental illness became so problematic that I would have to miss work days to get her the medical care that she needed and then  monitor her progress with medications. I never felt that any of my principals lacked the empathy that I so needed from them on those occasions, but I beat up on myself and felt as though I was somehow shirking my duties to my students. It was a no win situation that always made me wonder if I was being fair by hanging onto my job even knowing that I might have to be absent more than I wanted to be.

I ended my career rather abruptly and at least three years before I had intended to retire. My mother was living with me, an arrangement that made caring for her a great deal easier than if she had still been in her own home. I worried less because I knew that she was safe, and my brothers did their parts in taking her to doctors’ appointments and entertaining her. Still, things became so uncertain in my final year of work. My boss announced that he would be leaving at the end of the school year, and at about the same time I learned that my mother had lung cancer. The future looked rather murky to me. I realized that I would not be able to depend on the compassion from my principal that had allowed me to balance my job with my home life. I had even reached an agreement with him to work a four day week by taking a twenty percent pay cut so that I might have more time for my mother. I worried that a new person would be more demanding of my time, and so I determined that I had finally reached an impasse and needed to retire. Such is often the fate of a working woman who also embraces the role of caretaker.

My school was in a state of fear in my finals days. There was great uncertainty among the members of the faculty as great changes loomed before them. At the same time the demands of my home life had gone into hyper drive. My mother was growing weaker and requiring more visits to doctors. I was glad to have the extra day to be with her each week, but I was still drowning in responsibilities from every possible corner of my world. I didn’t seem to have enough time to give to anyone and so there were those who criticized me and questioned by devotion to either my work or my family. I was like one of those circus acts in which the entertainer rides a unicycle on a plank teetering on top of a barrel while juggling balls, spinning rings, and holding a ball on a stick that is held between the teeth while keeping a tiny hat on the head. I felt as though I was responsible for the entire world and doing a rotten job of maintaining any semblance of order. I know for certain that many people thought that I was slacking off when in truth I was operating with little sleep and no down time whatsoever. I managed to get everything done but felt that my efforts were not up to par.

I recall a day when I had left my mom at home alone even though she appeared to be far too ill to fend for herself. It was near the end of the school year and a feeling of chaos reigned over every aspect of my world. I was one of those women who was attempting to make everyone happy and comfortable, but I felt as though I was doing a very poor job. I noticed late that night that a particular project was due by midnight, but I was so exhausted that I decided to get some much needed sleep and rise early to attempt to sneak in my work. I was successful in refreshing myself for a short time and I finished the assignment only six hours later than it should have been sent. I congratulated myself on averting a tragedy and went off to meet a new day.

Later that afternoon I received a frantic call from the head of the schools. He demanded to know why my work had been late. With a measured calm I explained my situation in detail and apologized with great sincerity. It was in fact the first time in all of my years of working that I had ever missed a deadline. Unfortunately the man reminded me that there were never good excuses for being irresponsible. He upbraided me mercilessly without even once expressing any kind of concern for my mother or the people at my school whom I had been working so hard to shelter from all of the worry. He even admitted that the actual last day for the district to submit all of the work I had turned in was two days away, and that nobody would ever know that mine had been six hours late. Nonetheless rules were rules and I would have to live with the fact that I had ruined a student’s changes at receiving a large scholarship for college.

My own experiences as a working woman are not at all that unusual. A woman balances so many responsibilities that weigh heavily on her and create stresses that her male counterparts often do not understand. It is not uncommon at all for a woman to be the glue of her family as well as in her workplace. The caretaker and maternal instincts are so often deeply embedded in women’s DNA. While they may want to be rockstars at work there is a tug and pull between their careers and their families. Our society has yet to design ways to smooth out the challenges, and for those whose salaries do not translate to enough income to provide nannies, housekeepers, baby sitters, or proper daycare the stresses become enormous.

I have witnessed so many women reduced to tears because their work life and home life clashed. They broke down in frustration and felt that few understood or even cared about their dilemmas. When a woman is a single parent without the kind of safety nets that I so enjoyed, the plight becomes even more difficult. So while we applaud the women who have found ways to lead us into a new kind of world we have to remember those who are all alone in carrying the weight of a thousand different problems. We need to support them and share their burdens when we can. 

What Is A Good Birth?

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I vaguely remember studying heredity in biology when I was a fifteen year old sophomore in high school. I recall learning about the work of Gregor Mendel in which he unlocked the mysteries of producing various traits in peas. The study of genetics was as fascinating to me as it must have been to those who first began to unravel a bit more of how nature works. By the beginning of the twentieth century Charles Darwin had proposed his theory of evolution, Thomas Edison had begun to light up cities and towns, and Alexander Graham Bell was busy bringing a new form of communication to the world. There was great excitement among scientists and inventors as mankind progressed from the mostly rural horse and buggy days into a brave new world of automobiles and an industrial revolution. I suppose that it is only natural that a group of researchers began to consider the possibility of learning how to eliminate the weakest traits of humans by controlling genetic pairings much as Gregor Mendel had done with peas. With the exciting goal of creating stronger and more healthy people Sir Francis Galton describe a whole new science which he called eugenics, meaning “good birth.”

The original motives that propelled eugenics may indeed have been noble, even as they were naive. The driving thought was to prevent the suffering that so often plagues humans by weeding out the weakest traits deemed to be the result of heredity. Thus the eager scientists began to codify the pairings that appeared to create intelligence, beauty, good health, and athleticism while also identifying those that led to “feeble mindedness” and disease. Little consideration was given to the role of environment or to the consequences of classifying individuals as fit or defective. Sadly such practices advanced dangerous ideas like warehousing those with mental illnesses or learning difficulties in asylums away from the public. Some states even willingly passed laws allowing so called experts to determine which people needed to be sterilized for the sake of a “better” society. Invariably certain ethnicities were determined to be more perfect than others which lead to changes in immigration laws.

In retrospect it is easy to see how horrific the eugenics culture that arose actually was, but there was a kind of tunnel vision about the movement that was so enamored with the science that few bothered to consider the ethical consequences of the various studies. Surprisingly many of the theories were enthusiastically embraced even by individuals who were seemingly forward thinking like Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Margaret Sanger, and Alexander Graham Bell. Eugenics conferences attracted renowned scientists from around the globe and behind the ivy covered walls of universities there was great excitement about the potential for improving the lot of the human race. Few appeared able to see the horror or that the idea of classifying human traits might lead to very dark places.

There were incidents that began to give pause to the excitement, including the case of a young woman who had been sent to an asylum because she was thought to be incapable of caring for herself due to her lack of mental acuity. Her mother had also been deemed unfit and was institutionalized as well. When the girl became pregnant and delivered a child judged to be as “feeble minded” as the other family members authorities decided to sterilize the her rather than risk bringing even more weak children into the world. The girl fought to prevent this atrocity and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court where Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes proclaimed that society had a duty to prevent the continuation of defective families that become a drain on national resources. She was sterilized!

Sadly such events were not isolated as state after state enacted laws that allowed medical personnel to determine which women were flawed enough to warrant sterilization. Individuals were judged by the appearance of traits like mental illness, addiction, ethnicity, and even poverty. Immigrants from places like southern or eastern Europe were thought to be a threat to America with their ignorance and “dirty” ways. Die hard eugenists believed that it was their duty to keep the best traits pure by limiting contact with those who seemed to be damaged.

It was not until a scientist named Hermann Joseph Miller from the University of Texas demonstrated the complexities of human heredity that the eugenics movement began to lose its luster. When news of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps reached the world, its link with eugenics insured that all thoughts of meddling with human heredity were mostly put to rest. Eugenics became an embarrassment that was secreted away.

I shudder to think of how my own family might have been viewed through the lens of eugenics. My maternal grandparents were from one of the countries thought to be inferior. Had they not arrived in the United States before the immigration laws became more constricted I might not be writing these words today. My maternal grandmother had a mental breakdown as well and spent time in a state hospital in Austin. Luckily Texas was not one of the states allowing involuntary sterilizations or she may have been deemed a candidate for such a procedure. My paternal grandfather spoke honestly about his father’s alcoholism and his own. Until he took control of his addictions he was hardly the kind of person who would have been deemed worthy of fathering children.

My family demonstrates the folly of the so-called scientific judgements of eugenics. In spite of what appeared to be undesirable traits the descendants of my grandparents are some of the most intelligent and productive individuals in society. From those so called defective genes there are now medical doctors, teachers, lawyers, doctors of philosophy, mathematicians, scientists, engineers, business men and women, ministers, athletes. We put the lie to the very essence of eugenic arguments that some groups of people are so inferior that they must not be allowed to produce. Thankfully the scientific community regained its wits and turned away from the ignorance that it was propagating, but not before millions had suffered and even died.

The black mark of eugenics should give us pause. We should always question any ideas that claim legitimacy while admitting that there are still many unknowns. Just because those who are better educated insist on the righteousness of their ideas does not make them so. When our hearts tell us that something feels wrong, we need to listen. Sometimes our instincts are more in tune with reality than those propagating unproven theories. We always have to ask ourselves if generalities can be believed. 

Confessions To Santa

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Santa has come to town. I saw it with my own eyes when I watched the Thanksgiving Day Parade. I learned long ago that I better not lie or he just might leave me lumps of coal on Christmas Day. Since I have absolutely no use for lumps of coal I suppose that the time has come for me to be totally honest about a few things.

I keep talking about my new healthy lifestyle and how great it makes me feel, but if I am one hundred percent honest I have to admit that I still miss a number of foods and lifestyles that I have attempted to forego. I haven’t prepared mashed potatoes or gravy for well over a year and I am known for making the yummiest versions on the planet. I long for a big heaping plate of butter filled potatoes with a well of gravy that is so full that it drizzles down the sides. There is no better comfort food on planet earth other than maybe macaroni and cheese. Not that I mention it I might note that I’ve given up all forms of pasta with cheesy sauces even though I do love such delights so much. My mouth is watering at the mere thought of how yummy cheesy dishes are.

I have to look away whenever I pass a donut shop, or see the long line of cars going through a drive through at Popeye’s Chicken on Tuesday bargain days. In the Hill Country of Texas I pretend that I am not the least bit interested in having a kolache, even though my mouth waters at the very sight of one filled with cherries or apples. I sometimes dream of enjoying a gigantic cinnamon roll with a cup of steaming hot tea. I don’t really know what a sugar plum is, but visions of butter pecan ice cream dance through my head even in the winter. I truly wonder if I will have the fortitude to avoid Borden’s egg nog over the holidays. The list of transgressions that I would like to make goes on and on, and I start pouting which is also a big no no when it comes to Santa Claus.

Everyone who is even minimally familiar with me recalls that I truly delight in an ice cold Diet Coke. I became habitually addicted to that drink when I first began having migraine headaches. I found it to be a quick fix for the nauseating symptoms that would overtake me without warning. Before long I was “medicating” myself with a Diet Coke first thing in the morning, at lunch time, and in the afternoon. After spending two years rebuilding bone by injecting myself with Forteo each day it seemed a bit ridiculous to potentially undo all of my hard work by drinking sodas, so at the beginning of February last year I went cold turkey on Diet Coke. I haven’t had one in all of that time, but my mind still longs for the way it calmed my headaches and felt so right with certain foods. I keep wondering when or even if I will ever be able to attend a party, enjoy some TexMex or watch a movie in a theater without longing for my one time favorite drink. Water is good and good for me, but sometimes it just doesn’t cut it.

I cheat with my eating mostly when I take a trip or go out with other people. I can’t enforce the strict rules that I usually apply to myself when I’m at home. Sadly I find that my body totally rebels when I do so, and I have to begin anew to cleanse myself of the offending foods. I gain three or five pounds in a single day and turning back is always difficult. I try to be steadfast in my determination to be healthy, but it can be a battle when everyone is ordering coconut cream pie or berry cobbler. Fasting from such luxuries is almost impossible in those cases and I cave in to group pressure. It then takes me two weeks to get back into the program.

The holiday season is coming. I know that the temptations will be overwhelming. I’ll try to offset my transgressions with more exercise. I’ll work a little harder at the gym, another activity that I have to admit is sometimes annoying to have to do. I always feel very good after I go, but it’s so easy to procrastinate and make excuses for skipping a day here and there. I whine that it’s unfair that I can’t eat whatever I wish, sit on my tush reading or watching movies all day, and still say fit and trim. I don’t like how I feel when I am bad, but I am so tempted to just throw in my hat and to be that way. After all, I’m seventy years old. Why should I have to be so fastidious with my diet and exercise?

Then I know that I must stay determined to keep to my regimen going as much as possible, so that when I have opportunities to fudge just a bit, it won’t be a disaster. I know that I can’t live like a monk all of the time. It is okay to take one cookie as long as I follow up with a walk. A wedge of pumpkin pie won’t kill me if I cut back on the sugar and carbs the rest of the time. The one thing that I will not do is take even a sip of Diet Coke because my craving for it is still so strong that I fear what will happen if I do. I now get my caffeine from nice warm mugs of Earl Grey or some Lusianne tea over ice now and again. Most of the time I now crave water instead. It’s my new habit, and one that is far better than any I have had in the past.

I feel much better now that I have admitted my weaknesses. I suppose that in confessing to Santa I have also realized that I am somehow managing to control my imperfections, while also indulging my cravings only once in awhile rather than as a routine. I do want to be strong, so I will push myself even when I truly don’t want to do so. I’m not so much worried about finding coal under my tree on Christmas day as learning that my bad habits have affected my health. It feels too good to feel good.