Sleep At Night

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By nature I am a quiet person, an introvert who prefers to travel through life unnoticed. Rocking the boat is uncomfortable to me and yet I am unable to simply sit back silently ignoring injustices that I see unfolding around me. For whatever reason I often find myself in situations in which I feel compelled to speak out for some individual or cause that appears to need my voice. The people that I most admire are those who are willing to go against the grain when situations require courage. My heroes are invariably the ones who were willing to sacrifice for the issues that they deemed more important than their own safety and comfort.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy spoke of such souls in his Pulitzer Prize winning book Profiles in Courage, an homage to those who do what they believe to be right and just even as the consequences for themselves are difficult. My grandfather guided me with his own stories of strong individuals that he had encountered during his long lifetime of over a hundred years. As I entered high school he gave me the gift of a book entitled Great Lives, Great Deeds that recounted the bravery of historical figures who bucked the thinking of their times by seeking justice for the downtrodden. I suppose that my own need to do the right thing incubated over time as I witnessed extraordinary acts from ordinary people and realized how even small examples of kindness have the power to change lives.

When I was in high school my classmates elected me as their representative on the Student Council. I was admittedly so shy that I did little more than attend the meetings and rubber stamp the decisions that more confident students suggested. Back then I was more of an observer than an activist. It was not until I was twenty years old and I found myself responsible for the health and safety of my mother and brothers that I develop the backbone and the grit to speak my mind. I was essentially forced to be the spokesperson for my family when my mother had her first terrifying break from reality due to her bipolar disorder. In the space of mere days I had to overcome my many fears.

What I learned from my first foray into adulthood is that I indeed had a forceful voice that I could use to get things done. I drew on the example of the strongest people that I knew and would be forever inspired by the sacrifices and compassion of my mother’s best friend, Edith, who was one of the few people willing to stand by my side and help me to get the medical care that my mother needed even though it meant straining her once strong relationship with my mother. She taught me firsthand how powerful love can be.

Somehow I became more and more aware of all of the troubles that abound in our world and I began to take small steps to right what I perceived as wrongs. Most of the time such attempts caused few problems for me, but now again I had to face tyrants and irrational situations that left me wounded and scarred. I learned that taking the risk of speaking out was not without consequence but ultimately left me satisfied that I had a purpose.

I once worked at a school that was quite lovely mostly because of the gifted leader who guided the faculty. I had some of my happiest moments as an educator while working for her and she was so accomplished at protecting all of us that I hardly noticed that she was many times fighting battles for our welfare and making enemies in the process.

There eventually came a time when the school board questioned her policies and held a closed door meeting to determine her fate as our principal. I joined forces with a handful of hearty colleagues to show support for her. We went to the meeting hoping to be allowed to speak in her behalf but we were denied access so instead we decided to stay just outside of the conference room until her destiny had been decided. The discussion went on for hours and from time to time members of the committee emerged for a break saying nothing as they took note of our vigil. After what seemed like an eternity they finally voted to keep our beloved administrator and one of the spokesperson came out to tell us that our refusal to leave had swayed their thinking. They realized that anyone capable of engendering such faithfulness was worth keeping in the school.

Sadly the controversy took its toll on our principal and a couple of years later she chose to retire. The board found a new woman to run the campus who ruled with an iron hand and a tendency toward harsh criticism of the faculty that was not balanced with efforts to find positivity in anyone. The very air was heavy with dread and working there became a bitter chore so I decided that I had to do something to foment change.

I attempted to diplomatically speak out for my peers and for my students. I couched my comments in language that was intended to sound helpful. I carefully crafted a kind of history of our experiences at the school along with a polite set of concerns. I had thought that the new leader might benefit from my willingness to help her to see the discontent that was running through the school like a virus. Instead she was furious with me.

She called me to her office and grilled me mercilessly for over six hours without a bathroom break or even a drink of water. She demanded to know the names of teachers who had complained to me and accused me of fomenting rebellion. She filled a legal pad with notes as she grilled me as though I were a suspected felon. It was only when the school day ended that she finally chose to allow me to leave with a stern warning that I needed to mind my own business and let her make decisions as to what was best for the school.

I was devastated and alone. Other teachers attempted to comfort me but expressed their fear of crossing the woman who had treated me like a criminal. I began to wonder if I had made a terrible mistake in attempting to help. I eventually brokered a deal with the principal that I would agree to depart at the end of the semester if she would essentially leave me alone. I had said my piece and there would be no further need for me to provide her with insight into the feelings of the faculty. I refused to give her even one name of the many who had come to me with their concerns.

I left the school with a heavy heart and sense of utter failure. Over time things fell apart there just as I feared they would. Ultimately members of the school board called me to ask for my help in providing grounds for firing the principal. She had run the campus into the ground with a massive turnover of teachers and students, not to mention creating chaos with the budget. What had once been a premier campus was now a hot mess.

Speaking out is not without its rewards and personal satisfaction but sometimes it can be heartbreaking and fraught with trouble. I learned how to do things better from that encounter but I also realized the satisfaction of knowing that I had in truth done what needed to be done. The board told me that my situation had not gone unnoticed and it began a movement to set things right in the school once again. It also led me to a new school where I spent some of the best years of my career. Mostly it allowed me to look at myself in the mirror and provided me with the ability to sleep at night.

Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die

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Willie Nelson did not look very good at the Country Music Awards earlier this month. He appeared to be having difficulty breathing as he sang Rainbow Connection. It was quite sad to see him struggling to do the very thing for which he has been such a star. Since I had tickets for his performance at the Smart Financial Center on November 18, my birthday, I was rather worried that watching him perform might be a sad occasion marking the beginning of his demise. He is eighty-six after all and not in the best of health. To my great joy the Willie Nelson that I saw that night was beyond spectacular.

From the moment that Willie stepped on the stage he was magical. His gray hair was woven into his trademark braids and he wore nothing fancy at all, just a teeshirt, some jeans, boots and a straw cowboy hat over his signature bandana. His face was carved with the deep wrinkles of time and the adventures and misadventures of his lifetime. His hands were bent and worn but they still made sweet music beat up old guitar, Trigger. His voice was strong, with no sign of the breathing trouble that seemed to plague him only days before. He sounded just like himself and he played with joyful enthusiasm sometimes urging the audience to sing along with him which we happily did.

His playlist included favorites like On the Road Again, Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground, and Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys. He paid homage to old friends like Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings with pieces that he had once sang with them. He poked fun at himself and those who believe that his time has passed with songs like Roll Me Up and Smoke When When I Die. He seemed to be having great fun proving the naysayers wrong while at the same time facing his own mortality. There was a bittersweet tone to his performance that brought both smiles and tears.

There were a few lucky folks who received priceless treasures as Willie tossed his cowboy hat into the audience and later threw out some bandanas as well. All of us fans were in awe of his talent and his stage presence. Somehow he made his performance seem so personal, so moving. With an amazing energy he literally went from one song to the next without taking a breather like some artists do. It was all so good that we would have liked to have him perform for hours but we all seemed to know that he had given us his all and when he walked away he looked tired but happy with himself. He enjoyed our adulation while at the same time seeming to be so humble.

Willie Nelson is a Texas treasure. As a young man he went to Nashville only to be told that he just didn’t have the right personality or voice to be a successful performer. Instead he wrote music for other singers, like Patsy Cline who made Crazy an iconic country western tune. Eventually he found his way back to Texas and the Austin music scene where he proved that he was commercially popular as a performer in his own right. In fact, his unique style, melodious voice, and uncanny ability to play the guitar made him a worldwide phenomenon.

Willie has never forgotten his Texas roots. He performs in front of a gigantic Texas flag, lives in Texas, and draws much of his material from his Texas experiences. His band is a family affair with few electronic devices beyond microphones. His little sister is on piano and other siblings and children accompany him as well. All he seems to need to create unforgettable music is his own guitar, a bit of percussion, a harmonica now and again, the piano, a big bass and a few other instruments here and there. Of course there is also his unique voice that is so enticing whether he’s singing about going to pot or describing the joys of love.

I have seen some great performers in my time, but I have to say that Willie Nelson remains at the top of my list. I felt that seeing him on my birthday was a very special gift that I will forevermore cherish. He is beautiful in his very essence. His hands strumming his guitar are a work of art. His face tells as much of a story as the lyrics of his songs. Willie Nelson is pure poetry. The stuff of legends, and I actually got to see him one more time.

As I grow older myself I realize that experiences are the true treasures of our lives. The trips to places far away, the occasions when we see or hear greatness are the things that we will remember at the end of the day. I have been blessed to have had so many wonderful moments. Seeing Willie Nelson is a thrill that will bring a smile to my face whenever I think of it. I wish that there were a way for me to express my undying gratitude to him for all of the joy that he has given me through the years. I love you, Willie andI hope that you will be able to do what you so obviously love to do for a long time more.

Lazy Days

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Writing two hundred sixty blogs a year for at least ten years has stretched my imagination, and no doubt kept my aging brain from turning to mush. Much like a baseball player who participates in hundreds of contests during a season sometimes I hit homers and sometimes I devolve into a slump. I suppose on some days my humble offerings sound a bit like broken records and those who are faithful readers may even wonder if I’m reaching the end of relevance. As I’ve often noted I am like a hunter in deer season, constantly searching for that one topic that will resonate. Today I will embark on a new writing challenge given to me as a gift by my grandson’s lovely girlfriend, Araceli, whom I already view as a cherished family member. She presented me with a book of two hundred writing prompts which should serve me well whenever I sit staring blankly into the air attempting to generate a decent idea for my writing.

The first challenge in the book is to describe my favorite way to spend a lazy afternoon. It’s more difficult for me to speak of such a thing than one might imagine because in truth I don’t often allow myself to just be lazy. When I do, however, it is quite glorious and no doubt rather good for my general health. While I’ve enjoyed a purpose driven life, it’s grand to be aimless now and again, to throw determination and routine to the wind and momentarily live the life of a slug.

I have to confess to enjoying junk food and movies of the kind that turn the body to fat and the brain to mush. Staying in my pajamas all day long is my idea of heaven on earth. Sitting in an easy chair watching rom/coms or mysteries while munching on cheese dip and Doritos is a sinful but glorious pleasure in which I don’t often indulge, but when I do it feels so delightful. On those days I don’t bother with healthy meals or taking out the trash. My mantra becomes, “I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

When I was growing up my mom had to run a tight ship to keep things running smoothly. As a single parent she played multiple roles. I could almost set my watch based on what my family was doing at a certain time. We followed a strict routine with the exception of Saturday afternoons and evenings. My mother was insistent that we have a time devoted solely to having fun. That might mean indulging in a shopping spree at the local five and dime store with a whole quarter to spend on frivolous items like bubbles or coloring books. Other times it would be an evening sitting in the dark watching our favorite late evening television programs like Weird while munching on banana pudding or chocolate pie. It was always fun and relaxing and a way for all of us to recharge our internal batteries before tackling the new week of challenges.

As my mother grew older and perhaps even wiser she expanded her lazy interludes to include a bit of time each day. That’s when she would indulge in watching her favorite soap operas, or spending time at the nearby mall window shopping and talking with other older folk who got their exercise and social contact by walking in a big circle around the circumference of the stores. I used to think of her pursuits as a sign that she was running down, but now I know that a bit of laziness is actually good for the soul.

I find myself more and more often realizing that there is no need to rush. I will manage to get things done even if I just sit for a time daydreaming or gazing at the sky. The dust on my furniture will return with regularity but I don’t have to wipe it away each time it appears. A thicker patina will bother no one. In my quest to focus more and more on what is important such tasks gain less and less priority while slowing down to enjoy moments has become a more worthy cause.

I like listening to the sounds of my neighborhood for no reason other than to hear them. I enjoy wandering through antique stores, not in the hopes of finding a treasure, but simply to imagine who might have once owned the trinkets that line the shelves. I might easily spend the rest of my days on earth reading all sorts of books. I can set my little robot to sweep across my floors and let my microwave oven do my cooking. A swish of some Clorox wipes accomplishes as much cleaning as I actually need, so why not increase the number of lazy days? I suppose that I have surely earned them and I know firsthand how invigorating they can often be.

I become the laziest whenever my husband and I take our trailer to a scenic state park. On those days I like to sleep in and casually dress for the day. I enjoy being serendipitously led by whatever I opportunity I chance to see. Sometimes my road map on those days takes me to wonders that I had never before considered, and sometimes they only mean sitting in a comfortable chair under the awning watching the antics of squirrels, raccoons, deer or wild turkeys.

I suppose that we all need more lazy days, not fewer. Somehow we often feel guilty for indulging in moments of aimless bliss when in truth we are more likely to find our inner bliss when we slow ourselves down. So here’s to lazy days however we may choose to spend them.

Our Horrific Infinite Loop

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There has been another school shooting in Santa Clarita, California. A sixteen year old brought a gun to school inside his backpack, fired it before entering at the beginning of the school day, and killed two innocent bystanders as well as himself. Once again we are stunned and worried and left wondering what had driven a young man to do something so egregious on his sixteenth birthday.

Accounts indicate that authorities were initially baffled about the motive. The young man was an athlete who gave no signs of having a grudge or being bullied. He was quiet and generally thought to be a nice young man. Sadly there were indeed indications of trouble that may not have been adequately addressed. The clues were there but putting them together in the environment of a large public high school where teachers and students are often overworked can be difficult if not seemingly impossible. There are young people falling through the cracks across the nation and their fates are too often going unnoticed.

The puzzle pieces of the shooter’s life were there if anyone might have had reason to suspect that he was about to blow. His father died in December two years ago when he was only fourteen. His dad had been an alcoholic who often fought with the boy’s mother. Eventually the ravages of alcoholism caused the father to die of a heart attack and it was the sone who found his father’s body. The father and his boy had gone hunting together in happier times. The dad had a collection of guns and even made his own bullets, none of which is horrific in and of itself but it indicates that the shooter had access to weapons. The sixteen year old lived with his mother, a single parent who was no doubt stretched to her own limits both emotionally and physically. His life was a powder keg just waiting for the moment to blow, particularly given his age. Sadly I find myself wondering if anyone ever took the time to talk with him, counsel him, make certain that he was psychologically sound.

We humans have a tendency to be stoic in public. We hide our suffering, pretending that nothing is wrong even when we are dying inside. We are all too often afraid of uttering the truth. We worry that people’s perceptions of us will change if we reveal the hurts we are experiencing. We have all had experiences in which we trusted someone with our deepest thoughts only to be hurt by them, or even worse to be asked not to talk about such things. It sometimes seems that our society wants everyone to put on a happy face and pretend that all is well.

My happiest times as an educator took place at KIPP Houston High School mostly because so much time and financial investment was dedicated to have a fleet of counselors along with caring teachers who were encouraged to get to know every one of their students. For a student body of just under five hundred individuals there were six counselors, two Deans of Students, grade level teams that met weekly to discuss concerns about their pupils, and four Grade Level Chairpersons. At any given time there were multiple adults ready to help each student through troubles. We watched carefully for changes in personality, unusual behaviors, fluctuations in grades, lethargy or mania. When we saw worrisome signs we provided intensive counseling for both the students and their parents. We knew and loved our kids. Their well being came before anything in our focus. While we did not have a perfect record, I believe that we demonstrated how much we cared to the benefit of the entire student body.

One of my daughters recently noticed that an Advanced Placement elective was causing great stress for her son. She immediately contacted the school and set up a meeting with the teacher, an assistant principal and a counselor. She voiced her concerns and requested that he be reassigned to a history class that his twin sister was taking since he always enjoys learning about the past. The switch would have taken place within the first six weeks of school and would have required no major overhaul of his schedule since the elective and the history class were at exactly the same time. The history class only had eighteen students so it would not have burdened the teacher who had expressed excitement of having my grandson in his class. It seemed to be a grand solution for a young man who makes good grades and is generally happy and relaxed about academics, but just felt a disconnect with the elective.

The powers that be at the school not only refused to make the change in schedule, but they did nothing to address the issues of anxiety that my daughter had revealed to them. Instead they took a defensive stance making my daughter feel as though she was a trouble maker rather than a concerned parent, and embarrassing my grandson with insinuations that he wasn’t tough enough to take the heat even though he was doing well with advanced classes in Pre-Calculus and Chemistry. In other words they shoved the problem under the rug and moved on without consideration of my grandson’s individual needs.

I suspect that many mega high schools operate in such a manner with disregard for students’ unique requirements. I understand the limited resources of time and energy for teachers because I have been in their shoes. What bothers me most is that schools so rarely have the budgets to hire enough auxiliary staff to provide intensive support for every student. With dedicated professionals and a restructuring of the campus to create small groups of students who become members of a school within a school, it is more likely that someone will notice those who are troubled and become advocates for them before they reach a breaking point. I have seen such a system work miracles in leaving no child behind.

As a larger society we also need to be willing to hear things that make us uncomfortable. At a recent collegial gathering of individuals who had just completed a college level class together the topic of the California shooting entered the conversation. The usual thoughts about guns came to the forefront and sides were quickly defended. Ultimately there was no resolution because one of the participants yelled out, “Can we change the subject! I don’t want to talk about this!”

It’s time that we forced ourselves to have those very difficult discussions. Problems do not go away simply because we refuse to speak of them. In fact, they only grow more dire the longer we ignore them. It’s time we get our priorities straight. It’s time we make it easier for troubled individuals to find the help they need. Turning away from troubles, quibbling among ourselves and changing the subject will only cause us to experience horror in an infinite loop.   

We Will Persist

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We hear about wars, violence, poverty and other ills almost instantly these days. The problems that people face with health and relationships are openly discussed. We debate how to deal with them while also feeling a sense of satisfaction that we are becoming a more “woke” society even as some cling anxiously to old ways of thinking and doing things. We are so anxious that we consume medications, alcohol and even illegal drugs to still our pain. We begin to wonder if we are somehow mucking up our own existences and those of our children. We believe that surely we are capable of doing far better in our efforts to make the world safer, kinder, more peaceful. We believe that we have the tools but somehow fall short. We hear lectures about our imperfections and feel guilt. At least we are led to believe that we have somehow been complicit in the demise of all that is good.

Now that I am retired I have time to indulge in classes in history, travel to places whose evolution of thought shaped the world in which we live today. I have learned that if there are any strict conclusions to be drawn about the state of the society in which we now exist it is that we have come a very long way from the darkness that once ruled. In centuries of old not even kings and queens were immune from travails that were devastating and deathly while the common folk were at the mercy of the whims of a ruling class into which they had little hope of gaining admittance. Slowly but surely the marvelous imagination of humankind has changed all of that.

Queen Anne, of the Stuart line in English royalty, endured seventeen pregnancies only one of which resulted in the successful birth of a child. That son died at the age of eleven. At the close of the seventeenth century life was often brutal even for the wealthiest. Families toiled with little hope of reprieve from their labors. It was not uncommon for a worker to earn less than twenty pounds in a year. The idea of freedoms was only beginning to take hold and would burst forth in the next century in an imperfect but revolutionary form that would slowly but surely change the trajectory of potential for all people.

I think that we all too often underestimate the miracles that are all around us. While we have yet to achieve human perfection in any of our social constructs we have come farther than even our most courageous and enlightened ancestors dared dream. Women still lose babies but not to the extent of long ago times. When a child is born there is a sense of assurance that he/she will grow into adulthood, a luxury that we take for granted in ways that would astound the parents who came before us. We complain about injustice, just as we should, without celebrating enough that we already have so many freedoms that did not exist in the long ago. In other words we may be living in the best of times without even realizing it.

That does not mean that we should be content with the status quo. There is always room for improvement, but our guilty breast beating may be overly dramatic. The truth is that most of the evil and want in the world is an anomaly rather than a way of life. When I drive down a crowded freeway in my city I notice the jerk who weaves in and out of the traffic without regard for safety because he is the exception, not the rule. Millions of people across the globe are living with a sense of decency, thus we take note of those who are cruel and unjust. We see them because they are so unlike what we have come to expect.

I only need sit in the room where I write to witness the ingenuity and glory of humans. I hear music coming from a device that brings the greatest talent of the world into my home. I work by the lights that were unknown for thousands of years. I tap my fingers on the keys of a computer that holds more knowledge than the great library of Alexandria. I am immune from cruel diseases that my grandfather saw firsthand. I have works of art hanging on my walls that might have once been only the possession of kings. I am warm in the winter and cool in the summer because machines that keep me comfortable whir away. I hear the buses conveying the neighborhood children to schools where they receive educations that were at one time only the purview of the wealthiest. I am free to worship and think as I wish and even to openly tell people my thoughts without fear of being imprisoned. How can I not be thankful for my many privileges when I think of how wonderful life has become for an ordinary soul like me?

No, we are not yet perfect, but we are far from being deplorable. We are moving forward continuously and often at a pace more rapid than at any time in history. We will no doubt see many more great wonders that are products of our human capacity to think and invent. There are geniuses and thinkers and visionaries among us who will lead us forward and past the turmoils that threaten our well being. It is our way and I have every confidence that we will persist.