I Choose Not To Walk On the Wildside

I’ve rarely been wild in all of my life. It’s not so much that I think of myself as being above risky behavior. It’s that I don’t like the way such things turn out. Probably the craziest I have ever been was to get drunk a few times. I hated the way I felt the next morning. I really don’t like having headaches and feeling nauseated. I get migraines and I don’t need to chemically induce that horrid aching by putting so much alcohol in my body that I get the exact same symptoms. I’d rather enjoy a drink or two and then call it a day. Besides, I’m what is known as a cheap drunk. It does not take much for me to be dancing on the table and giggling uncontrollably. 

I suppose control is my middle name. I like to be in charge of what is happening to me as far as it possible. I’ve had my share of unexpected illnesses, accidents and tragedies. I don’t want to be guilty of bringing them on myself. I proceed through life with caution, a trait that I suppose began when I was still a child.

I wasn’t always that way. In fact, I used to puzzle my mother with my tendencies to push the envelope. Then my father died, a person who also liked to try absurdly dangerous things. My mother had all but predicted his untimely death in a car crash or some other accident because of how careless he was. He was an adventurer and believed in the idea of living life to the hilt. After he died I saw how difficult it was for my mother, and I swore to myself that I would not become another reason for her to worry. I became cautious to the extreme. Whenever I smelled trouble I went home. 

Besides, I always tended to be that person who gets caught doing bad things. I don’t know why I was so vulnerable to detection but it never failed that my improprieties would be revealed and I would have to face the consequences. Only one time did I get by with being disobedient and that was a close shave. 

The kids in my neighborhood loved to hang out in a big drainage area near the bayou that ran through my neighborhood. My mother was concerned that I might get hurt if I accompanied them, so she absolutely forbade me to ever go inside the huge tunnel that dumped run off from the streets into the a big sewer. It was not until I had been tempted multiple times that I finally gave in to my curiosity and went with my buddies to the forbidden place. 

I was having a great time and thinking how absurd my mother was to think that there was any danger in what I was doing when I slipped on an accumulation of algae and fell into the running water. I managed to right myself quickly, but my all white clothing was covered with green slime and I had scratched my shins as well. I was certain that I would be in deep trouble when I went home. Since running away was not an option in my mind, I had to eventually go to my house and face the music.

When I got there my mother was gone. She had left a note on the kitchen table letting me know that she was going to run some errands and then visit her sister for a bit. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I Immediately shed the evidence of the dirty clothes and combined them with a load of towels that needed to be washed. I ran a cycle praying that no stains would persist and give away my infraction. Amazingly they came out snowy white. 

I was able to pretend that the scar on my shin was from falling from my bicycle onto the pavement. It pained me to lie to my mother, but in the world of kids sometimes it is what must be done. To atone for my sin I vowed to never again visit that foul drainage area. After all, it wasn’t even that much fun. I never told my mother what had happened and I feel certain that she never knew. 

I was not so lucky with other incidents and so I essentially learned that it was far better to live within the laws of moderating my behavior. By the time I was an independent adult I was beyond the temptations of excess and continued leading a reasoned life. I can honestly say that I have never once broken the law in any manner. I even pay taxes on income that I earn that is paid to me in cash. I don’t even speed, although I once received a ticket for going too fast that I still swear was bogus. 

I have approached the pandemic with my usual caution. I follow the suggestions from the medical community to the letter. I stayed home for many months, ordering groceries and supplies to be delivered to my home. I wore masks and became fully vaccinated. I’m looking forward to getting a booster in the near future. My rationale is the same as it was when I did not want to become a burden on my mother. I do all of these things to not only protect myself, but also to protect the people around me. I have immunocompromised people in my family. I have people with comorbidities that might affect their ability to overcome the virus. I care for people in their nineties. I have young nieces and nephews who are too young to be vaccinated. I see it as my duty to do everything possible to keep them safe. 

I have always believed that on the day my father died I advanced in age and maturity from eight years old to thirty-five. I became an old soul who rarely experienced the wildness of teenage years. I have never regretted being that way. I’ve enjoyed life no matter what the circumstances. I don’t feel the need to prove myself by being risky nor do I feel that my freedoms are under siege when I follow laws and recommendations. It’s who I am and I’m proud to say that being so has brought me a sense of feeling honorable. 

Perhaps some would see me as being arrogant or audacious or self-righteous, but I see my behavior as being always aware of how anything I do affects everyone else. I strive not to hurt anyone. It’s a good feeling to be that way. I choose not to walk on the wildside.

Unsolved Mysteries

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I still remember the first time that my friend Lynda shared one of her Nancy Drew mystery books with me. She pushed the volume into my hands assuring me that I was going to love it. Since it was summertime I had all day to devote to reading, and by the evening I had finished the story and was eager to borrow another one of the titles. Thus began my fascination with detective stories, murder mysteries, and true crime. 

My voracious interest in solving “who done its” was only interrupted by the requirements of my high school and college English classes. Even then I found creative ways to feed my appetite for the genre by exploring new authors to challenge my sleuthing skills. I soon found that I not only had an interest in detective stories, but was also rather adept at solving cases long before I had turned the last pages of each volume. I also developed techniques from some of the very best investigators like the master of them all, Sherlock Holmes. 

I’ve learned over time that my uncanny interest in crime is shared by people all around the world. There are many of us whose addiction to unraveling human puzzles fuels the abundance of fictional and real life crime stories in books, movies and television channels dedicated to the darker side of human nature. I suppose that for me the challenge is to attempt to follow the thread of clues both physical and psychological that unravel the truth behind foul deeds. 

My mother insisted that I missed my true calling and should have worked for the FBI or the CIA. Sometimes she balked at what she referred to as my nosiness, and at other moments she appeared to take pride in my ability to logically piece together seemingly unrelated bits of information to uncover villains. For me it has always been a kind of game in which I challenge myself to determine the identities of the culprits long before they are finally revealed.  

I’ve added true crime to my passion for the fictional mysteries of evil. I am fascinated by stories of people whose emotions lead them to horrific places. Nonetheless I am appalled to realize just how dark and desperate some humans among us are willing to become. I find myself watching and observing the people around me like some undercover cop intent on stopping foul deeds before they occur. I take note of faces, reactions, body language wherever I go. I once even saved myself and the party with whom I was walking from a mugging by noticing that we were being followed.

There were a series of murders that occurred along or very near a corridor of Interstate 45 from far north Houston, Texas to Galveston that remain unsolved to this very day. In each case a young attractive woman or young girl was last seen in the vicinity of the highway and then later found dead. Some theorize that each case is unrelated to other and simply a fact of life along a major road. Others believe that all of the women were killed by a single killer who went on a rampage of murder and then suddenly stopped. Among the possible victims of this supposed serial killer was a young girl who disappeared when she was out for a run. Her remains were later found dumped in a neighboring town. To this day her case is cold and no suspect has faced a trial for her death. The same is true of the many other instances of young women killed near the infamous route.

I’d love to find a real life Sherlock Holmes and lay out the facts that are known about each victim. If there is indeed a connection among their murders, surely his masterful mind would find the commonalities. He would be able to discern the difference between copycat murders, coincidences, and a possible serial killer who went on a murderous rush before finally going silent. So far nobody else has found a breakthrough in the various cases, but there was once a suggestion that the murderer may have moved on to a new locale when the danger of being discovered became too imminent. Others have wondered if the perpetrator ended up in prison for some minor offense or perhaps had even died.  

I suppose that my love of reading and writing and people watching has caused me to develop a rather vivid imagination and fascination with human nature. My interest in the macabre topic of murder is in stark contrast to my quiet and unassuming nature. I’m also somewhat of a cock-eyed optimist seems an unlikely sort to delve into the realities of criminal minds. I suppose that I simply will never truly understand what drives anyone to violence so foul that it results in the taking of a life. My interest is perhaps spurred by wanting to comprehend the kind of evil that seems so unnatural to me. 

Sherlock Holmes was a man of unemotional logic and reasoning. He was able to solve his crimes because he rarely allowed his feelings to interfere with an analysis of either his victims or his suspects. In truth it’s difficult for most of us to be so dispassionate. We put a human face on every crime and even find ourselves wondering what horrific chain of events brought both actors in the tragedy to such an horrendous moment. It defies our desire to avoid cynicism. I suppose that for me, solving the unsolvable fulfills a need to prove that we humans care enough to attempt to remove evil from our midst. I wish that the unflappable mind of Sherlock Holmes were real so that we might solve the many mysteries that defy us once and begin to truly understand what we need to do to prevent such tragedies once and for all.

Talking About The Weather

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When my grandparents were in their late seventies they fulfilled a dream to live on a farm. They were not just retirees who sat on the front porch admiring their land. They were full fledged cultivators who worked from the crack of dawn until late in the evening growing crops which my grandmother then canned and shared with family and neighbors. It was hard work, but they reveled in it and not even our summertime visits to their place halted their labors. Usually by the time that we awoke each morning they had already been working in the fields for hours. 

By noon the sun would be bearing down so brutally on the Arkansas land that my grandparents would take a break from their labors. We would sit on their front porch sheltered by an overhang shielded by screens designed to keep the bugs from invading our space. Big box fans did their best to move the mostly still air and Grandma provided cold drinks to quench our thirst. Since none of us had air conditioners in our homes back then, we endured the heat without too much complaint, but when the temperatures inched over one hundred degrees our talk would almost always focus on the weather. 

My grandparents lived in the hills near a tiny town called Caddo Gap, Arkansas where summers were ferociously hot and winters brought snow and ice. In the fall they enjoyed the changing colors associated with that time of year and the spring marked the beginning of their months of toiling over their crops. Their’s was a cycle repeated over and over again in tandem with nature. Sometimes a flash flood would hit and keep them captive in their home until the waters receded, but they were always prepared to survive with their fresh supply of milk from their cow, eggs from their chickens, and canned vegetables in the cellar. The seasons and the weather ruled their days and nights and thus were a constant topic of discussion.

There was a time when talking about the weather was noncontroversial. It just was a fact of life that everyone took for granted. Depending on where one lived there were certain weather events that tended to occur regularly and some that were a less frequent but possible occurrence. I grew up near the Gulf of Mexico and understood that now and again a hurricane might come our way. Preparing for such an eventuality was commonplace. We knew what supplies we might need if a big storm headed our way. We kept stashes of batteries, flashlights and water along with gas stoves and canned foods to sustain us if the worst happened. I remember filling the bathtub and all of our big pots with water in advance of hurricane Carla with the idea of having a means of flushing toilets and washing ourselves if our utilities were damaged. Sometimes it would take weeks for the electricity to come back and we adjusted until things returned to normal once again. 

Somehow the storms and droughts and tornadoes and fires and blizzards seem to be happening more often than in the past. When they come their intensity is often more extreme as well. Even if nobody ever mentioned phrases like climate change or global warming I suppose we would sense that the weather is not exactly as it once was. There is a frightening uncertainty about it that even belies our preparations. We don’t expect three or four days of unrelenting downpours that bring six feet of water into our homes and yet that has happened more and more often. We are not accustomed to such long stretches of drought that our forests become kindling but it has almost become a way of life.

We humans are innately control freaks. We have long had dominion over the land and sometimes over other people. It’s been quite some time since most of us have had to produce what we eat. In well developed countries we tend not to notice the weather much until it is unusual. We enjoy our cooled and heated homes and cars and take those things for granted. Life seems so good and so perfect. There are no noonday breaks from the sun for us. We keep working in our air conditioned or heated bliss. Our food is delivered in trucks. Weather is an inconvenience only when it interferes with our routines. Somehow we have ignored it for so long that it only gets our attention when it wreaks havoc. Otherwise we don’t seem to notice the impact that we are having on it, and that our impact is not good. 

Talking of the weather is no longer an everyday thing like it was for my grandparents whose progress in the fields depended on what was happening in the atmosphere. As with so many things these days the weather has become political. We fight and disagree over how to address it, or whether it is even necessary to address it. We expect our government to stay out of the business of harnessing our habits of creating problems, and then expect that same government to save us when a weather disaster occurs. We seem either unwilling or incapable of becoming more attuned to the sacrifices we each need to make if we are to undo all of the damage we have done to our planet. It is almost unthinkable to consider spending a summer in the south without air conditioning, and yet it was done all the time before about the middle of the twentieth century. We don’t want to do the heavy lifting of scaling back our misuse of the earth’s resources. In fact we don’t even seem to want to talk about it, and we make fun of those who do. 

My grandparents were in tune with the weather. They grew up in a time when there often was no glass on the windows of their homes. They learned how to survive the heat of summer and the cold of winter. They worked around the vagaries of temperature and climate. They wasted nothing and used little. All of that changed as we became more modernized and began to take our conveniences and our government for granted. We want it all and we want it now, a concept that would have been foreign to my grandparents. They understood the need for sacrifice and sharing quite well. They would not have understood our hesitation to conserve and cultivate habits that enrich the natural resources of our world. They would have easily spoken about the weather and our role in it rather than denying that we have any impact whatsoever in the acceleration of disastrous events. 

So let’s really begin talking about the weather and what we will have to do to keep it from ultimately making life more difficult for all of us. If we love our planet and each other it’s time for some hard conversations and some new ways of living.  

A Real Prince of A Man

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Time magazine has named Harry and Meghan as members of the one hundred most influential people of 2021. Sadly people are mocking both Time and the couple as being unworthy of such an honor. I would like to submit that not only are they in fact incredibly influential, but also rather courageous for bringing a discussion of mental illness into the public consciousness. The mere fact that people view their honesty as a kind of selfish weakness is proof that we are not yet ready as a society to deal with mental illnesses in a rational and productive way. 

We all know that Harry was only twelve years old when his mother, Diana, died. He has often spoken of how traumatic that event was for him. He has spent much of his life attempting to deal with the scars that her death left with him. For the most part he was forced to combat his fears and sorrows alone because our world seems to believe that children are so flexible that we need not worry much about their reactions to tragedy. Furthermore, we are all expected to adapt to challenges with a stiff upper lip, and this would be even more true for Harry given his royal background. The truth is that he is still dealing with the backlash of his enormous loss. In speaking publicly of his torment he hopes to let people know that their own trials and fears are worthy of attention, respect and therapy. 

Harry is aware of his mother’s struggles with mental illness as well. She attempted to be as honest as he has been and was often degraded because she brought her issues to light. She was a beautiful woman who married a future king and as such she was expected to be perfect, always in control of her emotions. Her mental afflictions made it impossible for her to be so. She suffered in the public eye. In many ways she was destroyed by the general refusal of society to accept that mental illnesses are real, not the imagination of weak individuals. They afflict individuals regardless of their status in life. For the most part they make people feel uncomfortable, and so as a whole we do not want to talk about them. We nervously shun anyone who broaches the topic the way Harry and Meaghan have begun to do. 

Frankly, I believe that are doing a great service to the world at great personal cost. They both know that their honesty has generally resulted in insulting backlash and yet they persist. They are willing to endure the negativity to present an important message about the presence of mental illness in the world and the lack of understanding associated with it. For this they should be resoundingly commended.

I have often written about my father’s death and my mother’s bipolar disorder. For decades I hid those things from even close friends. They have been stunned to learn that I was only eight when my father died. They did not realize that much of my shyness and quirky behavior stemmed from the fear of death that I felt as a young child. Because nobody ever talked with me about what had happened I know for certain that I still retain unresolved issues. I am different than I might have been and different from others as well. Keeping my feelings under wraps only compounded the frightening feelings that haunt me even to this day. 

Eventually my mother became overwhelmed by the symptoms of bipolar disorder. I became her caretaker at the age of twenty. I spent the next forty years finding doctors for her, making sure that she took her medications, putting her back together after psychotic episodes. It was daunting, but what made it even worse is that I did not feel comfortable sharing her story and mine with others. The few times I tried I sensed the discomfort in my confidant. I realized that people cringe with discussions of mental illness. I mostly kept the truths of my life to myself and I often felt so alone. 

When my mother died ten years ago I went public just as Harry has done. Some people have been very supportive. Others have backed away, unwilling to listen to the horror of mental illness. I have written many blogs on the topic. I have completed a book. I sob just thinking about the impact that mental illness has on the victim and the families. I understand exactly what Harry is attempting to tell us. I know that it is something that he believes is important. I realize that he hopes to once and for all time being mental illness out of the shadows of indifference, fear, and myth. I too pray for these things because I have seen the destruction of a beautiful human being, my mother, first hand. 

I applaud anyone who broaches the topic of mental illness. It is not a sign of weakness. It is not a selfish act. It is not a way of getting attention. It is incredibly hard to do because those of us who attempt such conversations know all too well that we are driving many people away when we try to educate others on the realities of this dread disease. I tip my hat to Harry while I also chide those who would be cruel enough to ridicule a man who has endured so much sorrow and sincerely wants to help others. We won’t ever be where we need to be with mental illness until there comes a time when everyone applauds Harry rather than mocking him. He is indeed a prince of a man, and I believe that his mother would be quite proud of him.

The Limousine

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I’m an ordinary soul. Until I was well into my forties the only time I rode in a limousine was on the sad occasion of my grandmother’s death. I suppose that there may have been some folks who rented limousines for their senior proms, but I never knew any of them. When I got married, my new husband and I left the wedding reception in his father’s car. It was a bit fancier than the old Dodge that he inherited from his grandmother that would become our means of transportation in our early years of marriage. Somehow it never occurred to me to dream of cruising in a limo. It was something that I did not miss at all, and then came an unexpected opportunity.

I was teaching in a middle school that held an annual fundraiser. Not so surprisingly the government never gives enough funding to education to cover all of the expenses needed for providing students with an exceptional learning experience. Virtually every campus turns to fundraisers to earn extra cash, and ours involved turning our students into competitive salespeople hawking a variety of candies, wrapping paper and home products. Students received different kinds of incentives and awards for their efforts in making the fundraiser successful. Even the teachers got some perks if the kids in their homerooms exceeded expectations.

One year I found myself in charge of a homeroom filled with go-getters who were determined to win the most coveted prizes. As a result I became a kind of rockstar of fundraising even though I secretly harbored a hate for those things. One week the salesmanship of my students gave me a shot at grabbing cash in a machine that pumped out bills of varying value for one minute. After a few minutes I figured out a winning technique and walked away with close to seventy-five dollars. My prejudice against turning our kids into door to door salespersons began to wane ever so slightly as I pocketed the gains of their efforts.

At the end to the weeks long process the individual students who sold the most were part of a lottery for the grand prize which was an afternoon riding anywhere they wished in a limousine. One of my students won the coveted reward ,and our entire homeroom was excited for him. There was a catch, however. He had to have one of his parents accompany the group on the glamorous journey. Unfortunately both his mom and dad worked long hours and insisted that they could not miss work for anything so frivolous. My students was devastated until his mother suggested that he find out if a teacher might be allowed to serve as the chaperone. When his plan was approved, he asked me to be the adult who would ride along. Because he was a wonderful young person, I immediately agreed.

The student chose three of his best friends all of whom were polite, well-behaved, hardworking souls. I knew that the adventure would be relaxing and without any trouble so I became excited about what we might do during our five hours rolling around Houston. The plan that the boy created was a testament to his lack of experience living the high life, but it turned out to be great fun.

Our first stop was at a miniature car track not far from the school. All of the boys raced each other for a couple of hours at no cost. When they had finished they spent a few more time playing gaming machines while the limousine driver waited patiently for his next command. Once their gaming interest was sated my student suggested that we drive to a local fast food drive-in where everyone ordered burgers and shakes. By this time the boys had endeared themselves to the chauffeur who quite willingly lowered his window when the food was delivered to the car, and in his best English accent said, “Pardon me. Can you bring us some grey poupon?”

We all laughed hysterically while the server insisted on knowing who the mystery boys in the back of the limousine might be. Playing his role perfectly the driver insisted that he was not at liberty to say, but they were rather famous stars who were out enjoying some fun in between filming. By that time my role was to pretend to be the nanny.

We ended our journey at a collectable comic book store where each of the boys perused the merchandise while a clerk eyed them with interest. Eventually they each chose an item and the chauffeur paid. The student who had won the prize noticed that the store sold lottery tickets and asked that we get one of those as well. When the clerk hesitated and pointed out that it was illegal for minors to buy such things, the prize winning boy quickly noted that he wanted to buy it for me, his nanny. He explained that he wanted me to perhaps win so that I would not have to work so hard anymore. He told the clerk that I was such a lovely woman that he wished for a better life for me.

The rattled clerk sold us the ticket on the proviso that one of the adults would have to pay for it. The chauffeur quickly complied since he was the man with the funds from the fundraising company. As the baffled young man behind the counter handed me the ticket he whispered his inquiry, “Who is that young man? Is he famous or something?”

I smiled and told him that I would be fired if I were to provide that information and we left almost running to the limousine lest we burst into laughter and blow our cover. Even the chauffeur was part of our silly shenanigans at this point. He opened the window that separated him from the rest of us and boasted that he had never had so much fun. He complimented me and the boys for being so polite and well-behaved. He admitted that he had been wary of this job, but all of his fears had been for naught. As he left us at the front of the school he bowed and wished all of the young men a wonderful future.

I was only in a limousine three more times after that. Two were as part of funeral trains for loved ones. The third time was with a student who was participating at the state final of a debate contest called the Great Debate. Once again I had been lucky enough to be chosen to accompany him along with his mother and the school sponsor of the debate team. We were squired around Dallas to the hotel where he would meet his debating foe. In a time before the Affordable Care Act his task was to advocate for the creation of a national healthcare system.

The judges were impressive dignitaries including a justice of the Texas Supreme Court. His opponent was a confident fellow who appeared more than ready to tear apart my student’s arguments. Because I had once been a debater myself I knew that both young men would have to be on their best game to win. I was nervous for them.

From the start my student was disarming. If he was anxious, he did not show any hesitation. He answered each point that his rival made with great clarity. The competitor came back with equal force. I worried that the judges would have a difficult time discerning whose arguments were the strongest and defect to personal beliefs. Still, I felt very good about the abilities of my student whether or not he ultimately won.

During the time that we were waiting for results my student admitted that he had indeed been apprehensive the entire time. He was impressed with the abilities of the other debater and felt that in many ways the contest had been a draw. We were all quite tense until the judges finally returned.

They too spoke of how difficult it had been to make a decision. They noted the consistently excellent debating skills of both young men. Ultimately they had leaned toward my student as the winner. He would earn a nice check to apply to his tuition at Georgetown University where he planned to begin his college studies in the fall. We cheered with the greatest of joy.

We rode back to the airport in the limousine catching the eyes of everyone we passed on the road. I’m sure they wondered if some dignitary was inside. I knew that the young man at the center of our ride was one day going to do such great things that he would indeed be a distinguished individual. For now his future lay ahead and it seemed fitting that he would launch it like the rockstar that he was.

I doubt I will ride in a limousine ever again but I’ll always remember those two unique times with my students. Nothing gives an educator more joy than being part of the lives of truly wonderful young people. Both of these boys were winners then just as they are now. They deserved to be treated like someone special because they were. It’s too bad that everyone does not have such a wonderful experience as a reward for just being good. We too often neglect to acknowledge the most exceptional young people among us, complaining instead about those who are troubled. Maybe we’d do well to spend more time rewarding the virtue that abounds.