Like a King

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A bed is such a simple thing that many of us take for granted that we will have a warm and safe place on which to rest our weary bodies each night. It hasn’t always been so, and for some it remains a luxury.

My mom used to speak of her sleeping arrangement when she was a girl. She and her three sisters shared a single full size bed, as did her four brothers. I sometimes think that I don’t have enough room on a queen bed with only my husband taking some of the space. I can’t even imagine how cramped it must have been to be crammed together with three other people, especially as they began to grow. I suppose that we adapt to whatever situation we have, but such living arrangements seem horrible to me.

I’ve had students whose only wish was to have beds of their own. One boy made horrific grades and fell asleep in most of his classes. When I quizzed him as to why he didn’t get more sleep at night he reluctantly admitted that his bed was the living room sofa. He further revealed that he had to wait until all of his family members were ready to slumber before the couch became his own. He noted that on most evenings someone was still using what should have been his bed until two or three in the morning. When I asked why he didn’t either use a vacant bed or ask the persons who were hogging his space to leave, he claimed that nobody would have agreed to an alternate plane. They just expected him to wait until they were finished using his resting place. He insisted that his situation really wasn’t that bad. 

I’ve heard of babies sleeping in dresser drawers and youngsters lying on the floor with only a blanket and a pillow. It seems that there are more people enduring discomfort while they dream than I had ever realized. Of course as we travel around the world we find that many cultures use only mats for resting and some families sleep under the stars each night.

Our ancestors often slumbered in a communal room on the floor along with the family animals. If they were lucky they had a bit of clean straw to ease their bones, but often they dreamed right next to the earthen floor. The wealthy had bed frames with ropes stretched across to hold a kind of cloth envelope of straw or down. It took a very long time to collect enough feathers from the ducks and the geese to make a comfy mattress.Those with such luxuries were indeed quite fortunate.

Now we have all sorts of mattresses designed for the needs of virtually every body type, and some that adjust to conform to anyone who happens to lie down. We use sheets with so much thread that they are like soft butter on our skin. We have a variety of pillows and even play ambient sounds to hasten our sleep. Still there are those who toss and turn in a state of insomnia that ultimately requires the use of sleep aides, music or meditation. We generally have some of the most comfortable sleeping arrangements in the history of humankind and yet we are often filled with anxieties that rob us of the slumbers that we need.

There is something so very personal about a bed. It is akin to a pair of shoes, fitted to the contours of specific people with specific needs. We think of our beds as a kind of refuge, but for some people unspeakable horrors occur in beds. There is an irony that some of the most egregious crimes take place in what should be the sanctity of a bed. It’s difficult to think of a bed as an instrument of horror. 

I have had students who had beds but chose instead to sleep on the floor lest a stray bullet find its way through the walls and into their bodies. It always made me cry to think of young people dealing with fears that nobody should ever experience. I always worried about those kids who were so tired that they were unable to keep from nodding off by the middle of the school day. There were certainly those who simply chose to play video games or send communications to friends on their phones all night, but some of them truly did not have a decent place to sleep or they were even afraid to sleep.

Many of us decorate our beds and the rooms where they stand. Our choices of color and fabric speak volumes about who we are and what our sleep means to us. A bedroom is a place where we are generally truly ourselves. What is there or not there tells a short story about us and the kind of existence that we enjoy or from which we hope to flee. Whatever the case we humans tend to adapt to our circumstances. My mom laughingly spoke of the routine that she and her sisters developed so that everyone would be comfortable in their tiny bed. They learned how to sleep in the same direction and turn in tandem at regular intervals. She maintained that she never had a complaint nor missed a night of blissful sleep, but she did appreciate the extra room when her eldest sister got married.

Now that I think about it, I feel that my own bed is a great treasure, a kind of blessing for me. I suppose that I need to be more thankful when when lay down my head, pull up the covers, and ask Alexa to turn out the lights. I sleep like a king. I am indeed fortunate.


The Power of Prophecy

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As a teacher one of the things that I hated to hear from a student was, “I’m no good at math.” Even worse was hearing such a sentiment reinforced by a parent who insisted that nobody in the family had ever done well with numbers. I knew that such thinking created a self-fulfilling prophecy whose hold on the mind of the student was difficult to undo.

If we or someone who knows us convinces us that something, whether good or bad, is true about us we tend to react in ways that reinforce the thinking. In education it’s often called the Pygmalion Effect. Researchers consistently have found that it is possible to affect outcomes merely by continually making particular comments to individuals or groups. If that happens to be about a lack of math skills, for example, it becomes more and more likely that mediocre success or even total failure will result. As humans we tend to give up trying when we believe that our efforts are futile.

I have a grandson who is doing quite well at Texas A&M University where he is studying computing in the engineering department. His classes are quite challenging but when I recently asked him how he was doing he immediately stated that his expectation was to make all A’s and perhaps one B in his courses. I was pleased to hear that he has set up a positive challenge for himself which he believes that he has the capability of achieving. Even if he sent a curve he understands that he has what it takes to nonetheless be ultimately successful. Because all of the people around him also believe in him, his faith in his abilities is reinforced. The interesting thing is that success bears the fruit of more success and the prophecy comes true.

Most of the time I encountered just the opposite effect with far too many of my students. Somewhere along the way the teachers and other adults in their lives had convinced them that they were academically doomed. They would relate stories of educators who had called them lazy and insisted that they would be lucky to graduate from high school much less a college. By the time I got ahold of them they were beaten down and unwilling to believe that I might help them. I had to work very hard to convince them otherwise.

Self-fulfilling prophecies are not just about academics. We are capable of convincing ourselves that we are klutzes or even that we are unloveable. I had a friend who became certain that she was only attractive to abusive men, and so she quit dating altogether after a few tries at meeting men seemed to prove her point. Someone who is told that he/she is ugly eventually gazes into the mirror and sees only horror. I’ve heard parents telling their children that they were losers, and then they wondered what had happened when those same kids began to exhibit defeated behaviors. We are the product of all that we hear and think about ourselves. If the negativity is repeated often enough it becomes the insight that we use to judge our personalities, our appearance, our intelligence and even the way the rest of the world sees us.

For these reasons it is critically important for all adults to monitor the things that they say to young people. If an entire class is told again and again how lazy and lacking they are, they might just give up and play the role of which they have been accused. If a young person makes a mistake he/she feels bad enough, but when those blunders are brought up again and again by the people who are supposed to care, a whole new personality of defeat begins to form.

When I was in middle school I was not yet five feet tall. I remember a PE teacher setting up the equipment for track. She brought out hurdles and measured distances for running. The first time she asked me to perform a task it was to jump over the obstacle. In reality I was no doubt too small to leap as high as I needed to be to clear the bar. Instead I slammed into the frame, toppling the entire apparatus and slamming my face into the dirt. The teacher’s reaction was not to coach me or demonstrate how I might do  better next time. Instead she simply barked that I was the most nonathletic, uncoordinated person she had ever encountered and shook her head in disgust.

Hers was a prophecy that went into effect immediately. From that day forward I avoided athletic pursuits like the plague. I explained to anyone who would listen that I was an blundering klutz and every time I was chosen last for teams my feelings were summarily reinforced. It was not until college when a kindly coach kept me after class for private lessons in every imaginable sport that I realized that all I had ever needed was for someone to show me what to do. I never became an athletic star, but I at least felt less subconscious of my abilities. I did fine until I joined a volleyball team at a school where I was teaching, and in a competition one evening one of the members of our group yelled at me just like the middle school coach had done and all of the old angst came flooding back. It paralyzed me with fear of any kind of participation in a sport. Old prophecies are difficult to overcome without help and understanding.

It is important that we see development for what it is, a gradual progression that moves at different paces for different individuals. We are all fully capable of learning how to succeed at most things, but our rate of improvement will vary widely depending on the totality of our genetic makeup and the environments in which we live. If we are surrounded by adults who understand such things and then provide us with optimism and expectations that we will ultimately succeed we are likely to reach our goals.

Life is a combination of nature, nurture, hard work, and beliefs. The thoughts that we have and that we hear are perhaps the most powerful forces in determining our ultimate fates. For that reason it would behoove every single adult who is in contact with others, not just the young, to think before speaking. Those words and attitudes will either create genius or destroy potential. We have to always remember that making mistakes is as much a part of learning as mastery. When someone falls it is up to us to let them know that we still have faith that they will one day overcome. The prophecies that we speak should always be filled with optimism and positive expectations even when progress is slow.

One Hundred Years

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When I think of my Aunt Valeria I think of her raisin and pecan cookies that she called “hermits” and her carrot cake that was the best that I have ever tasted. She was is a woman with simple tastes, not needing much in the way of luxuries to be content. She was born in April of 1919, the first daughter of Paul and Mary Ulrich, two recent immigrants from the Slovakian region of Austria Hungry. Of course, if you do the math, you realize that she is turning one hundred years old, a milestone that few of us ever reach, but I’ll talk about that later.

Aunt Valeria was a good child who dutifully helped her mother as the family grew and grew. She was there to watch the birth of most of her siblings and to help her mother care for them. By the time she was sixteen she was already well schooled in household duties and the intricacies of raising children, for she had been a source of great assistance to every one of her eight brothers and sisters, often setting aside her own needs to care for them. She was the essence of the responsible eldest daughter, but she had fallen in love and was hoping that her father would be amenable to the proposal of marriage that her boyfriend, Dale, had delivered to her. She waited expectantly as Dale asked for her hand in a deep conversation in which his true intentions were being assessed by her dad.

Dale passed muster and before long he and Valeria were married. They settled down in a bungalow on the East end of Houston where he would be close to his work at one of the refineries that were popping up along the Ship Channel. He was as good a man as ever there had been, and he was quite handsome to boot. Valeria loved him with all of her heart and wanted little more than a quiet and steady life with him. Before long they had a baby boy whom they named Leonard who was followed by another named Delbert Dale who quickly earned the nickname D.D.

The boys went to St. Christopher’s Catholic School and attended mass each Sunday with their mom who was devoted to her faith. They were already teenagers who had matriculated to St. Thomas High School when Valeria surprisingly learned that she was again pregnant, this time with a little girl. Valeria gave the gorgeous child the name Ingrid after the beautiful movie star Ingrid Bergman who had so impressed her in The Bells of St. Mary’s.

The family squeezed into the house that had been Valeria’s home since the earliest days of her marriage and made do with the tight fit, adding a little bed to the dining room to accommodate everyone. Dale often suggested that they purchase a bigger home, but being a practical woman Valeria never felt the need to expand. She was happy in knowing that the house was paid for, free and clear. She had grown up in a much smaller place with more people, and she had seen the hardships of the Great Depression. She was not willing to take financial risks that to her seemed unnecessary.

I remember visits to my Aunt Valeria’s house. My mother loved and admired her older sister so much. The two of them called each other on the phone every single day, and my mama often spoke of the wise advice that she received from her sister. Aunt Valeria represented stability and no nonsense to me. She was the first person to come to my mother’s aid in the middle of the night when my father died. When a kid at my school insisted that I would be sent to an orphanage if my mother also died, I was able to protest that I knew that my Aunt Valeria would take care of me even though I had never asked her if that was true. I simply assumed that the extra little bed in her dining room was there for me if I ever needed it.

Aunt Valeria liked to watch Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby on television. I recall sitting on her sofa, which was perennially covered with a sheet to make it last longer, while the two crooners enchanted her. She had copies of movie magazines on her coffee table with tantalizing headlines about scandals and such. I always wanted to read them or at least sneak a peek at what was inside, but children didn’t dare do such things back then.

Aunt Valeria was very religious, devoted to her faith. She often tuned in to hear Bishop Fulton Sheen preach. When I had to sit quietly while she and my mother listened to his homilies I silently squirmed inside wishing that I were watching my father’s comedies or my uncle’s westerns. Nonetheless I was always deeply respectful of my Aunt Valeria because my mother was so in awe of her. I felt that I was in the presence of someone quite special and I truly was.

When I think of my Aunt Valeria I immediately hear her little giggle and see her face with an impish smile. She has always been responsible, but also a bit girlish with her joy for music and movie stars. Some of my all time favorite moments were spent seeing musicals like Oklahoma with her in gilded movie theaters that we attended in our finest regalia. I liked being with her because she always made me feel special, happy and so relaxed. I knew that she loved me and hoped that she understood how much I loved her.

Somehow my Aunt Valeria was always the person who showed up whenever I needed someone on whom to lean, but the years went by and she and her beautiful first love, Dale, grew older. One day he died quite peacefully just as she was serving lunch to him in the house that they had purchased decades before. She was bereft and alone, so she called my mother more and more often, the two of them sharing their widowhood and all of the love that they had for each other. Eventually Aunt Valeria became disabled and moved to St. Dominic’s Village where she would receive the kind of care that she had always given others. My mom and I often visited her, bringing her a burger from Burger King or potato salad from Pappa’s Barbecue. Always we snuck in a coke and a snickers bar and Aunt Valeria was as delighted as a child with our presence.

When my mother spent her last year of life in my home I grew to look forward to taking her to see Aunt Valeria for those visits. It seemed that my aunt was ageless and her magical effect on my mother and I was a constant in our lives that we dearly needed. After my mother died there was a kind of sadness in my aunt that I had never before seen. I suppose that she was slowly watching one loved one after another pass away while she still remained. Now there are only two of her siblings left and they are no longer healthy enough to make the journey to visit her. Even her children are growing old and becoming less and less able to be as devoted as they once were. She spends her days in a never ending routine, but whenever any of us visit that same beautiful smile lights up her face and we know that we have made her happy.

One hundred years of service to everyone that she ever encountered is my Aunt Valeria’s legacy. She asked for little, but has given so much. She has been her mother’s helper, her husband’s partner, her children’s devoted caretaker, her sister’s lifeline, my rock in a world that was so confusing and frightening, a faithful servant to her God. Her one hundred years have been well spent. There is no feminist or member of Pantsuit Nation who is as phenomenal as my aunt. Hers has been a life well lived.

Happy Birthday, Aunt Valeria!


Negativity in a World of Plenty

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I’ll be visiting London in may. In preparation for my tour I’ve been immersing myself in films, television programs, and history from Britain. I’ve learned about the Victorian era and the age of the Tudors. One unmistakable thing that I have learned is that even for kings life back in the day was often short, ugly and brutish. While we may romanticize life before our time, the reality is that the average person had a really tough time.

When Henry VII was king in the fifteenth century people slept on straw along with the dogs and livestock. They didn’t take many baths and there was no such thing as shampoo. They were no doubt a rather rangy bunch who hardly dreamed of reaching ages that are commonplace these days. They were unlikely to do a great deal of smiling for portraits even if they were royalty because their teeth were probably rotten and black, when they weren’t missing completely. Medicine was built more on superstitions and old wives’ tales than any real knowledge of disease and how to combat it. Times were hard for most people with little sanitation and a looming threat of starvation. Small wonder that many people chose to risk the uncertainty of traveling to the new world once news of its so called discovery reached their ears. The chance of finding something different must have been tantalizing.

The Victorian era was not a great deal better if one were born without wealth. It was a hard life for the average soul both in Great Britain and here in their rebellious cousin, the  United States. Homes without electricity or indoor plumbing were still very much the norm, and work was often dirty and mind numbing. Forty hour weeks with benefits were still dreams of the future with most folks working themselves into states of bad health with little concern about either their safety or their welfare.

The twentieth century eventually led to modernization, but not before people had endured two world wars, a devastating depression, and a flu epidemic that killed millions. It saw revolutions that placed countries under the rule of communist despots, and the murder of untold innocents by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, among others. Somehow the people of the world soldiered on and slowly began to develop economies and political systems that allowed greater numbers of individuals to live with opportunities and modern conveniences that not even kings might have imagined.

Today here in the United States and many European countries and other rapidly developing parts of the world advancements have been so great that we live in relative comfort with our food, appliances, cars, medical care, educations, and ways of life. We take our beds and our shampoos for granted. Our daily showers are just part of an under appreciated routine. Even our dogs live in greater comfort than people did five hundred years ago.

While we have made such great advances for virtually everyone, we still seem to spend far too much time complaining about what we do not have. We envy those who have more and plot to find legal ways of taking what they have earned and so that we might have a share of it. Instead of appreciating what we already own we moan about what we are yet to have, rarely sacrificing our visits to restaurants or the small luxuries that were unheard of for any but royalty in another time. I wonder why we spend more energy listing our grievances than counting our blessings.

There is certainly nothing wrong with improving the world, making progress, but we have become a world filled with gripes and jealousy. We see far too many people wanting to take rather than give. We forget that the great strides forward in history have had their costs in hard work and innovative thinking. We seem to believe that if we simply legislate equality of living standard it will miraculously overtake society and all will live blissfully. History tells us that such thinking has no basis in fact. Lenin did not create a society that built better lives for the Russian peasants than they had experienced under the czar. Such a dream must be built on the ingenuity and drive of individuals, not the dictums of a government whose chief goal is to maintain power.

Having a purpose and a feeling of contributing to the greater good of family, neighborhood, village, and society is what makes us happy with our states in life. It is not what we own or how much capital we store in a bank that brings the contentment that we desire, although it doesn’t hurt to have those things. In the end it is how we feel about ourselves in relation to those around us that brings us happiness. Each of us has many talents that we may use to keep the engines of a society roaring. There is great satisfaction to be found in contributing love, ideas, work, service. When we are engaged outside of ourselves we don’t have time to nurse anger or hard feelings. Going to bed tired but filled with a sense of doing something meaningful brings restful slumber and contentment.

I used to do a daily exercise as a teacher to keep from being discouraged by minor problems in my classroom. At the end of the day I listed all of the things that appeared to have gone right as well as the experiences that made me smile. I made sure to go minute by minute, period by period so that I would not miss anything. Then I would write down my grievances and mistakes. There was never one day when the bad happenings outweighed the good. It taught me to be conscious of what I had working for me that would help me to improve what was going wrong. My perspective was centered on the positive and thus my solutions tended to be optimistic as well. I was honestly able to exclaim that being an educator was a joyful experience because I was consciously looking for the good.

We have much. All of us do, even those with very little still have more than their ancestors. We must build on the progress that we have made and ask ourselves what got us here and what we have changed along the way. We can make things better, but not if all we do is grumble.

Ripper Street

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Mike and I just finished binge watching five seasons of Ripper Street on Netflix. It was one of the most well written and intriguing series that I have followed since Breaking Bad. The story begins in 1889, right after one of Jack the Ripper’s last victims was found, but it is not just a story of that killer’s crimes. In fact the title is more of a metaphor than an indication of the way the plots will unfold. More than anything it is a look into the gritty world of Victorian England in Whitechapel and the horrific conditions there that troubled otherwise hard working and hopeful people. It centers on four characters associated with the H Street Police Station, one of the roughest law enforcement assignments in all of London at the time. The lead investigator is Edmund Reid, an man tied to his job by memories of the horrific murder of a possible Jack the Ripper victim. He is nobly assisted by Detective Bennet Drake, a man filled with tragic demons whose heart yearns only for goodness and love. Captain Jackson is an American expatriate with a murky past who reluctantly serves as a medical examiner for the police. His wife “Long” Susan Hart is the madame of a Whitechapel brothel with a questionable story as intriguing as her husband’s.

The series features beautiful phrasings and word pictures from the characters who use language to communicate the intricacies of their minds and hearts. As the five seasons unfold we learn of the tragedies that have haunted each of the very real people who inhabit the stories. It is a kind of Shakespearean tribute to the difficulties of living during that era told through the eyes of sympathetic but imperfect people. It grips the viewer with both compassion and revulsion. Much like Breaking Bad almost everyone is neither all good nor all bad, but simply doing whatever it takes to survive. The stories challenge us to think out of the box with regard to human nature and individual worth. It is a fascinating look at both history and the complexities of the people who live it.

There is a kind of gritty realism to the stories, but in the end it is in the relationships and their complicated intertwining that the best of the writing takes place. Each role is so beautifully acted that by the series end there is a sense that we have known and loved such people. The writer is realistic in his portrayals of the times and the characters, so much so that even the most outlandish storylines seem plausible. Everything in Ripper Street is a metaphor for life and death and the challenges that people faced in a time that is almost unimaginable to those of us who live in the modern days of plenty.

The series originally aired on BBC but was canceled after only two seasons. Netflix picked up the option to continue it for three more seasons and it has proven to be one of the most popular offerings ever. It actually ended in 2016, but has garnered such a faithful following that it continues to rank high on both Rotten Tomatoes and Netflix viewership. It is the kind of series that bores an ear worm in the brain, causing one to think about the times and the people long after watching one of the episodes.

Mike and I discovered the series after we had enjoyed a number of BBC and Netflix detective shows. We joked that the title was perfect for me because I have always had a morbid fascination with the Jack the Ripper cases. We soon enough found that the title was somewhat misleading, but we had almost immediately fallen in love with the story and the amazing characters. Soon we were sitting down in the evenings watching one or two episodes each night. Sometimes we spoke of the plots and the people during the day wondering what would happen next as though we were following the adventures of dear friends.

If you enjoy a good detective story, tightly described characters, the allure of Victorian England, and a brilliant use of the English language Ripper Street will most certainly delight you. It has elements of all the best and most popular series of our times. There is a bit of Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards, and Breaking Bad in the evolution of the stories and characters. As with those brilliant classics, saver perhaps House of Cards, the writing stays amazing until the very end.

So many writers begin to lose their mojo as the years on the air take their toll on originality and believability. The plots jump the shark and the players become caricatures rather than believable individuals. Ripper Street sometimes flirts with such disappointments but always finds a way to redeem itself. It is well worth a watch, especially for those who are fans of good old fashioned sleuthing with a touch of the exotic.

I’ve been chasing after mysteries from the time I was a girl poring over my Nancy Drew mysteries. I devoured Sherlock Holmes and graduated to Agatha Christi, eventually moving on to the more modern authors of brilliant detective work. Ripper Street has won a top spot in my list of favorites. I only wish that somehow the stories of Reid, Drake, Jackson and Hart might somehow be resurrected for a prequel perhaps. I still long to know more about them and dream of the kind of reincarnation that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle pulled off when the demands of fans urged him to bring Sherlock back to life after his seeming demise. I guess I’ll have to find solace in Better Call Saul until something  akin to Ripper Street come along.