El Meson

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He sat by the window sipping on his beer, slowly and methodically eating the Palomilla that he ordered each week. He was a regular at El Meson, a Cuban restaurant in Rice Village. He came at precisely four thirty on Thursday afternoons and chose the same table every time. Invariably the other patrons who came and went while he leisurely enjoyed his fare were somewhat startled to see him because at first glance he appeared to be the image of Ernest Hemingway come back to life. His white hair curled down the back of his neck and met his trimmed white beard at his chin. He always wore a straw hat and casual clothing that was stylish, but a bit rumpled as though he was on permanent vacation on some Caribbean Island. He fit right in to the quirkiness of the area and the restaurant itself.

She had her own table set at a ninety degree angle several feet away from his. She too came to El Meson each Thursday, usually arriving just before he did. She tried different things on the menu, one day eating tapas and drinking wine, another enjoying only flan and coffee. She was elegantly prim and proper and confident. Her white hair was smooth and carefully coiffed as if she had just come from a comb out with her hairdresser. She was dressed in a pair of black slacks with a sharp crease and a soft pink blouse that accentuated her slender build. She too looked like somebody, but not in the same sense as the man. She had the appearance of someone important, someone who wielded power in the city. She might have known the Bush family when they were still alive. She undoubtedly traveled in the same circles as the rich and powerful.

He always left first in a slow kind of hurry, making a bit of a scene about the cost of valet parking. His ritual complete he went home to his books of which there were hundreds crammed into the townhouse that had been his refuge for years. He had once been a distinguished professor of history at Rice University, but now he was mostly retired. Sometimes he offered a course at the Glasscock School of Continuing Education and enjoyed the same kind of admiration from the adults that his graduate students had once showered on him. He had lost interest in his career when his wife was diagnosed with stage four cancer. For months his days and nights had been dedicated to her recovery, only the miracle for which he had prayed never came. She left him bereft and unanchored, filled with a longing for his world to just stop. His life became a series of routines that gave him just enough purpose to stay alive. Going to El Meson each Thursday was part of his therapy. Sitting at the same table and eating the same thing provided him with a small touch of meaning.

The woman who sat across from him always tarried at her table, taking tiny bites and sips so small that her food and drink seemed without end. She was in no hurry to leave. Going home meant being in that grand home that she and her husband had built together. He had been a doctor and she was a lawyer. They had worked hard and realized a dream to have a fine home in West University Place, one of the premier neighborhoods of Houston. They had beautiful children who succeeded at everything that they tried, including careers that took them to locales far away. Their’s had once been a gathering place of great minds. Now she was lonely in her little mansion, in no mood for empty conversations and grand parties. Without the laughter of her children and the presence of her husband she felt empty in her house. She coped by finding excuses to stay away as late as possible. There was nothing there for her anymore, at least not since her husband and died suddenly from a heart attack. El Meson was reassuring and warm for her. There she took comfort in the comical boar’s head that hung above the bar and the sameness of the place.

The seasons came and went and both of them arrived without fail at their self appointed times each Thursday. The waiters came to know them without speaking to them because they made it clear that they did not wish to talk. They were Thursday afternoon fixtures, expected guests with unofficially reserved tables, two lonely people sitting near one another never exchanging glances or greetings. They performed their rituals as though they had been carefully choreographed and rehearsed, and then went their individual ways until Thursday came again.

She arrived that Thursday like clockwork and the waiter dutifully showed her to the table that had become hers by right of routine. She ordered a glass of iced tea and said that she needed more time to decide what to eat. She sat patiently sipping on her drink showing no emotion as four thirty came and went. He had not arrived and the clock kept ticking away. A slight touch of worry showed on her face, but she said nothing other than letting the waiter know that she was still not ready to order her dinner. As the hands of the clock neared five she did her best to hide the panic that was rising in her chest. “Where was he?” she wondered.

A commotion at the door caused her to turn in her chair. There he was groomed and looking dapper in a suit. The hat that he always wore was missing and his hair was trimmed and groomed. She saw that he was quite handsome, an observation that had not escaped her notice even when he was in a somewhat disheveled state. She was relieved that he had finally arrived but also a bit uncharacteristically nervous. She turned back in her chair and did her best to resume her usual state of composure. She laughed inside at how ridiculous it had been for her to worry about him for he was, after all, a complete stranger.

As she lifted her glass of tea to take another sip he stopped at her table and pointed to the chair that sat across from her. “May I?” he cautiously inquired as he began to slowly lower himself into the seat. “Of course!” she smiled and her face lit up the room.

(Indulge me in this bit of fiction. I heard about a local author who just published a book of short stories featuring different areas of Houston. I thought of how much I would enjoy doing something similar and then I encountered two incredibly interesting looking individuals as I ate dinner at El Meson in the Rice Village. I was not able to get them out of my mind and had to create a little story for them before returning to my usual style of writing. I hope you enjoyed this little journey into my imagination as much as I did.)



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I just got around to viewing First Man and I was once again reminded of what an incredible feat the journey to the moon actually was. The movie highlighted the primitive nature of the systems that existed back then making the accomplishment even more impressive than any of us imagined at the time. The movie’s focus was on Neal Armstrong so it almost minimized the efforts of thousands of individuals who made the event possible, and it gave only a brief nod to President Kennedy’s role in supporting the program and inspiring to help in the effort. In truth it was his leadership that created a sense of purpose and urgency to the idea of traveling to the moon.

John Kennedy had a way with words, or at least his speechwriters did. His talent was delivering them in such a way that we all wanted to get onboard with his ideas. He united most of us in realizing that we had the brains and the wherewithal to get the job done. He created a lovely picture of what such an accomplishment would be, and he challenged us to support the journey. In that regard he was a true leader, someone who garnered enthusiasm for a cause without denigrating those who were a bit wary. He made it seem patriotic and wonderful, and remarkable individuals like the astronauts reinforced his thoughts. They were men of high character and intelligence who had served their country and were willing to possibly sacrifice their lives for a lofty goal. That was the real beauty of Kennedy’s ability to rally all of us.

When Neal Armstrong stepped on the moon in July of 1969, John Kennedy was long dead but those of us who had heard his clarion call for the space program understood that he was in many ways the founder of the celebration. The whole world watched those grainy images with a sense of awe, and those of us in the United States felt great pride in the remarkable accomplishment. We knew that some of the best minds in the country had worked long and hard to accomplish the unbelievable. We celebrated not just Neal Armstrong and his crew, but also the best of mankind’s determination and abilities. We remembered with reverence John Kennedy’s words that first inspired us to believe that the impossible was truly possible.

I think of challenges that we have today and I realize that what is lacking is a brilliant leader with the ability to bring us together in common cause. Winston Churchill was able to do this for his country in one of the darkest hours of Great Britain. Franklin Roosevelt kept the people of the United States utterly devoted to the cause of bringing freedom and peace to a warring world. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought the plight of Blacks in our country into crystal clear focus and brokered change without violence or threats. Then there was Abraham Lincoln who desperately worked to keep the country together and to right the wrongs of the past. Each of these individuals had a gift, an ability to describe a brilliant future with stirring words and practical plans. Sadly today’s revolutionary ideas are being voiced in such a way as to alienate half of the population.

Our leaders are not only at odds with each other but at odds with huge swathes of the citizenry. They patronize us by insinuating that we are not capable of taking care of ourselves, so they must do the job for us. In their quests to push their plans forward they demand and foment fear rather than inspire. Whether speaking of the need for a border wall or ways to deal with climate change they use scare tactics and hurl insults at anyone who dares to disagree with them. They seem to be urging us to go their way or take the highway. This is hardly the way to take care of problems if the great leaders of the past are any indication.

I’m a believer that we do indeed need to address climate change but I also feel that we need to do so with a realistic goal in mind. To simply say that we have to completely wean ourselves from fossil fuels without actually having an idea of how to do that other than vague outlines is frightening. People have hundreds of questions that are either being ridiculed or ignored. I find myself feeling like the boy who noticed that the emperor was stark naked while the rest of the crowd acted as though they did not see the problem. We have to consider the consequences both intended and unintended of any actions that we choose to take or not take. That only makes sense. To rally behind either the climate change deniers or those with militant half baked ideas its the wrong course to take. Sadly our leaders are lining up behind one faction or another without steering us in a clear path and making us part of the solution process. We have to understand that rushing headlong into a brave new world is frightening for most people. There is a way to get things done one step at a time without throwing away our way of life. We just have to provide realistic alternatives that may actually work and then get the populace on board by explaining rather than lecturing.

Our young have always been impatient and revolutionary. It was young men who designed our country’s government, but their radical enthusiasm was often tempered by those who understood the need for a bit of caution. Our history is one of moving incrementally toward positive change with a few instances of exponential bursts led by extraordinary people who understood how to help people understand both the problems and solutions without patronizing or ignoring or insulting.

We can keep our union, fight a war for all humanity, bring justice to forgotten people and send a man to the moon. We are not afraid of a cause, but we need a leader who knows how to help us understand our individual roles in the solutions. It has been done before. Perhaps now more than ever we must search for the person who works for the good of all mankind, not just a select group that already agrees with all that they have to say. So far I don’t see such a person on the horizon, but surely there is someone and hopefully he or she will step forward.

A Rainbow Day

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I had a friend who used to celebrate what she called “rainbow days.” Those were the ones in which extraordinary things happened, rare moments when everything came together just as it was seemingly meant to be. I always think of my friend whenever I experience a truly satisfying day, but I have learned that the best of my days are not always manufactured by my good planning, but are often serendipitous. From out of nowhere comes a gloriously fulfilling series of unexpected moments.

Last Wednesday turned out to be a wonderful surprise in spite of the odd way in which it began. I had invited my niece to my home for one of our afternoon tea parties only to realize that there was a scheduled dental appointment shouting out a reminder on my Google calendar. I was more than a bit annoyed at the realization that I was going to have to cancel the meeting with my niece. I mean who really considers time spent in a dentist’s office to be more fun than enjoying good times with a delightful child?

I dutifully resigned myself to being a responsible person even though I possess an overwhelming aversion to dentistry, and found another date on which to enjoy time with my niece. Then I received an urgent text from a young man requesting some tutoring before a big Algebra II exam. He wisely included screen shots of his review for me to consider. I was unable to turn down his earnest plea, and so I found myself hovering over those review pages for most of my morning attempting to recall how to do synthetic division and how to find the zeroes of polynomials. All thoughts of fun seemed to have ended up in a dustbin of duty.

I soldiered on with my newly recalibrated day and soon enough found that I was feeling a sense of joy in working the mathematics problems with such ease. It seemed that all I needed was a thirty second review of some concepts and then I was dusting off all of the rust that had accumulated in my brain. As I sped through the problems I realized how blessed I am to have a mind that is still working so well, and I found myself smiling. The actual tutoring session with the young man went smoothly as well and provided me with great optimism for the future. I realized that he was already well versed in the various procedures and only wanted some reassurance that he was on the right track. I was smiling again just in knowing that he cared so much. I thought of all of the young people working so hard to prepare themselves for their lives as adults and I felt quite happy in contemplating the outcome that seems certain to transpire in our world.

I also ran a few errands during the day, minor things that were of little import. They were eased by gloriously beautiful spring weather. The temperature was perfect and the sky was an azure blue with sunlight promising that the world is following its annual routine just as it should. The trees were flaunting their first growth of the season and everyone that I encountered appeared to be as enchanted with the loveliness as I was. It was as though we were all celebrating the return of the sun after it had been hidden behind clouds and rain for so long.

I chatted with store clerks who were as inclined as I was to take their time. I learned about a woman who never took a single mathematics class in her small town Alabama school. She related how she only went to school half a day and then worked in the fields on her family’s farm. Eventually she went to college, took a couple of math courses, and earned a degree in management. Now she runs a store and teaches classes at a local community college. We laughed and talked as though we were long lost friends. There was no sense of hurry as she rang up my purchases and lovingly wrapped them in tissue. We both knew that we were enjoying a moment that might never come again.

Then I found myself craving some iced tea. I drove through the nearby MacDonald’s and ordered a large unsweet variety. The line was short and the service was quick. I handed over a dollar bill and some change and then it happened. A young man rushed over holding my tea in his hands, He gave me my drink and was about to go back to his work when I simply expressed my thanks for his service. He turned and flashed one of the most beautiful smiles that I have ever seen. I think that my heart almost melted in that moment because his emotion was so sincere, so real. I returned his gift with a big grin of my own and then kept the traffic moving by driving away. That smile stayed firmly planted in my mind, and somehow it filled me with indescribable joy. I see it even at this very moment and it makes me soar with happiness.

The day ended with a super moon lighting up the sky, a gift that made a perfect day even better. I realized that my very ordinary day had become one of those rare rainbow days that I never expected. It wasn’t grand in any way, and yet it was so comforting and satisfying. It reminded me that real joy isn’t always wrapped in a shiny package. It is mostly a feeling that comes from having sincerely meaningful encounters with the people who wander into our world. When all of the forces just seem to be right it doesn’t take much to feel in sync with the universe. That’s when the rainbows of our minds light up the sky, and bring smiles to our faces.

Kindred Souls

Some people in this world are larger than life and my Uncle Bob was one of them. I was only six years old when he died at the age of thirty, but he had left an impression on me than never faded. He and my father had met in Corpus Christi, Texas when they were in high school and along with a third friend named Lloyd they became like the Three Musketeers, eventually attending college together at Texas A&M University. To everyone’s delight when my Uncle Bob met my mother’s sister, Claudia, the two of them fell in love and married. That’s how my father’s best friend officially became my uncle.

Uncle Bob was an athlete who played tennis and climbed mountains. When World War II broke out he enlisted and became a bombardier flying missions over Germany. When he returned from battle he completed a degree in Geology from Texas A&M and found love with my Aunt Claudia. Together they were a stunning couple, young and beautiful and brilliant.

Uncle Bob next enrolled in the South Dakota School of Mines to earn a masters degree in Geology. Before he had finished his studies he was diagnosed with cancer that required the amputation of one of his legs. True to his unflagging spirit he never missed a beat, studying during his recovery and graduating on time with the other members of his class.

After graduating he and my aunt returned to Corpus Christi where he landed a job in a small oil and gas company. At first his bosses gave him a desk job due to his disabilities, but he was itching to work in the field and finally convinced his superiors to give him an opportunity to demonstrate his prowess. He proved to be quite capable of doing the sometimes strenuous work at drilling sites, often being more adept that those without the constrictions that he bore.

Uncle Bob and my dad were quite the pair, two highly intelligent young men with big plans for the future. I remember them laughing together and enjoying each other’s company like two brothers. I loved the times when he and my aunt would stay at our house during their visits from Corpus Christi and we in turn often found ourselves traveling to Uncle Bob’s home which was filled with a museum worthy collection of rocks and minerals as well as his paintings of places he had been. 

Uncle Bob was planning to enter a program for a doctorate when he was once again diagnosed with cancer. This time he endured surgery to remove one of his lungs and was quite sick. While he was in the hospital in Houston my parents were visibly upset and our home was uncharacteristically in a state of turmoil. My mother had just given birth to my youngest brother and my aunt was also expecting her first child. There was a great deal of furtive whispering in those days which culminated in my being quickly enrolled in first grade at the age of five. The adults seriously thought that I had no idea of what was happening, but I was all too aware that my Uncle Bob was not doing well. He had already prepared me for such an eventuality during one of his visits when I discovered him attaching his wooden leg. He treated me with so much respect when he told me about his cancer. I loved him for his honesty and his understanding.

After Christmas of my first school year Uncle Bob died. My parents attempted to shield me from what was happening so I did not attend any of the memorials or funeral events, but I knew all too well that I was never again going to see the remarkable man who had so enchanted me. I also noticed a profound change in my father who would grieve for his friend for what ended up being the rest of his own short life.

My family moved on just as people always do after such tragedies, but in my heart there would forever be a special place for my Uncle Bob. My image of him never grew old, but remained frozen in all the glory of his youth. It was only when I began tracking my ancestry that I began to learn even more about my incredible uncle, and only recently I uncovered a newspaper article about his father that touched me to the very center of my heart.

I never knew anything about Uncle Bob’s childhood or his parents, so I was stunned to learn that before moving to Corpus Christi he had spent much of his boyhood in Chicago. There his mother became ill and died while he was still rather young. Like him, she too had cancer that ended her life far too early. Nonetheless he was the apple of his father’s eye, an only child who brought great joy to the man who guided him through his childhood.

Uncle Bob’s father was a machinist and was apparently rather skilled in his trade. At one point he created a unique steam engine for his son’s train set. He used scrap metal from junked cars and dental tools to build tiny parts that made the details of the model realistic. Over the years the man had kept the treasure which had been loved by his son. When the father was in his seventies and retired he decided to donate his creation to a museum, and the local newspaper ran a featured article about his work.

As I read a copy of the piece I felt a tinge of great sorrow for my Uncle Bob’s father. There was a look of sadness on his old face and the story of how he had worked so hard to please his little son was filled with so much pathos. There he sat gazing wistfully at his creation and possibly thinking of all of the might have beens. Somehow I felt a deep connection to this person whom I had never met because I knew that he had loved Bob even more than I did.

I suppose that there is nothing quite like losing a person who seems far to young to die. The pain never really heals because of a lingering sense of unfairness. I would eventually undergo the even more sorrow only two years later when my father died, and as a young mother I would see my Uncle Bob’s daughter, my cousin Sandra, die at the age of sixteen. Somehow I feel as though these three souls and that old man are linked with me in a primordial connection. I am now a seventy year old like Uncle Bob’s dad was in the article that so touched my heart, and I sense an unexplainable closeness with him. Somehow we are linked as humans through our spirits, kindred souls wandering through life’s experiences. 

A Hard Headed Bunch

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I truly enjoy talking with young people. They are filled with high energy, adventurous spirits, and a sense that anything is possible. Today’s youth are attuned to the environment, justice and a sense that change is not just inevitable, but something very good for all of us. They think about the world at large, not just the tiny corner in which they live. They are worried about the future and dedicated to improving it. They are anxious to get started, ready to demonstrate that they’ve got the chops to take on responsibilities. I love their enthusiasm and I remember when I felt their way.

I’m slower than I once was. Most of what I will accomplish in this life is behind me. I am in my golden years when I have time to think deeply and critically rather than to react. I have years of experience under my belt that have taught me to be cautious before proceeding with any plans. I analyze and search for unintended consequences. I still have ideas and things to say, but I am less certain that I have all the answers than I once was. I’m not yet ready to simply sit by the wayside and hand over the running of things to another generation, but I understand that it’s time to begin the process of doing so little by little. There is a time and a season for everyone, and I know that the young folk will soon be running the show, and deciding how things are going to be. It is the natural way of things that has been moving history forward since the beginning of time.

There has always been a tension between the young and the old, the future and the past, change and the status quo, the progressive and the conservative The differences sometimes appear to create a dangerous gap between generations into which much anger is hurled.

I was on the precipice of my adult journey at a time filled with excitement and promise, but also war and uncertainty. I leaned toward radical thinking about how to fix problems and run things. I was ready to make sweeping changes that I felt were necessary in a time that still seemed so old fashioned. Some of my elders called me and my peers by names meant to be insulting. To this very day we bear the weight of the negativity of the labels meant to define us. Our young men were sent to war, but we were not supposed to have any say in why and how that was happening. We were deemed too young and ignorant of the way things work to be worthy of a hearing. In our youthful exuberance we made mistakes that have been held against us to this very day. The term “baby boomer” is almost an insult to some, meant to define an entire generation of people as somehow selfish and ridiculously inept.

Of course in our hearts we know that such generalizations are inaccurate and unfair, and yet we continue to look at our youth and attempt to categorize them without ever having taken the time to consider their points of view, to think about the way that the times and the society has molded them. We wave off their concerns and laugh at the seeming ridiculousness of their ideas, rather than congratulating them on taking the time to consider solutions for problems that they see. Some among us saddle them with tags that are meant to disparage them and stuff them into square holes in which they rarely fit. We interrupt them in mid sentence to insist on the ridiculousness of their thoughts, after all they have no experience at living so how can they possibly know what we all need?

Few of us are well enough versed in history to know that with the exception of a few men like Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, our Founding Fathers were relatively young men, some of them barely in their twenties. They were bristling with a sense of injustice and filled with revolutionary ideas. It was in fact their youthful points of view that concocted a whole new way of governing. It might be true to say that the thought of a rag tag group of people taking on the might British Empire was both audacious and absurd, and yet with a firm determination they somehow became victorious. They were left with so many questions, so many ways to make mistakes that might cause their creation to tumble down before it ever got started. Indeed the imperfections of what they had done were soon apparent and yet the crux of their idea has endured.

History is in many ways the same song with endless verses. We change and modernize but return to the identical themes, the recurring refrains. Many of the young want to revolutionize the way we live and to do so quickly. The older among us are more cautious, wanting to take things slowly. They see problems and often suggest that doing nothing may in fact be the best alternative, Why change?

We are at one of those watershed moments in which one group thinks that we are doomed if we do not move with speed and another insists that things are mostly fine and hardly in need of an overhaul. One side feels a sense of urgency and another is worried that we will wreck everything if we throw caution to the wind. In such environments there tends to be more shouting at one another than listening and considering differing points of view. Historically wars have sometimes begun this way.

There is usually genuine sincerity in both sides of a disagreement, good points to be made all around. A gifted leader knows how to accommodate as many ways of thinking as possible. Everyone gets a bit and we all mostly win. Such political genius is difficult to find, but when it is present mankind gets to the moon in a few short years, people work together for a common cause.

An image from my youth often comes into focus in my mind. The war in Vietnam is raging. There are so many questions about why we are there and what we hope to accomplish and how we will do it. Young people are protesting what they see as injustice. They are camped at the Lincoln Memorial when the President of the United States comes to visit them. He is wise enough to ask them what they are thinking, but then he virtually ignores what they have to say, arguing more than listening. They too don’t seem to realize that this man is making an effort to come hear them out. They turn on him with blinders and an unwillingness to give him the benefit of the doubt or to learn about his point of view. There is an impasse.

We seem to have rotated into a time during which all sides cling to their preconceived notions and ideas with little hope of respecting one another. We prefer confrontations to conferences, arguments to discussions. We slap epithets on people and refuse to allow them to be more complex than our simplistic classifications. We worship cults of personality rather than ideas. We’ve been here before, and often such atmospheres of disagreement don’t end until we have grown weary of hurting each other. We humans can be a very hard headed bunch.

It remains to be seen how we will eventually proceed. Somehow the future keeps repeating our past.