Learning by Doing

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The warm weather has been a bit long in coming this year which is just fine with me. I don’t want to live in northern climes where winter lingers until May. Nor do I wish to deal with snow and blizzards, but I do prefer cooler weather that allows me to dress in layers and wear cute boots. My figure is long past the showy stage. The less skin I expose, the better for multiple reasons not the least of which is my tendency to get skin cancers. Too much sun leaves freckles and brown splotches on my face, and my waistline is hardly bikini worthy. Fall and winter fashion serves me best. I can fool the world into thinking that I’m still slender. It’s amazing how many sins a nice long sweater can hide.

Nonetheless  I remember my childhood when I longed for the warmth of the sun, even though my family did not own an air conditioner. How we managed to survive the hot Houston summers with only  open windows and an attic fan is beyond me, but I don’t recall feeling unduly uncomfortable. I suppose that we humans adapt to whatever is customary, and back then summers meant wearing very little clothing and eschewing footwear in favor of bare feet. We’d found comfort under the shade of trees or through strategically created ventilation from open windows. Of course an invitation here and there from a friend whose home was mechanically cooled never went unanswered. Now I don’t think that I would make it through a summer without my thermostatically controlled coolness, and I certainly am no longer willing to reveal the true nature of my physical shape by wearing skimpy outfits.

I wonder what we would do if we were somehow forced to return to those days of ninety degree temperatures inside our homes. To hear some scientists’ claims it could very well happen again. We might once more have to learn how to deal with whatever Mother Nature sends our way. It will take a great deal of cleverness like we used back in the day. For now I’ll just be glad that the continuous state of sweat is but a distant memory, made pleasant by the selective nature of my mind.

I laugh when I think of how my generation grew up. In today’s world our mothers would be reported to CPS for doing things that were just natural back then. We rode in cars without any kind of seatbelts, sometimes even standing on the seats, riding in the front, and hitching rides in the back of pickup trucks like cargo. We had no kneepads or helmets for skating or riding bicycles which we often mounted in our bare feet. We stepped on nails and glass and as long as our tetanus shots were up to date our moms cleaned our wounds, splashed some mercurochrome on them and finished with a bandaid that fell off within minutes of our returning to the streets without benefit of shoes.

We played games in the middle of the road, and Red Rover was one of our favorite neighborhood competitions. We almost always sported scabs on our knees and cuts on our fingers. We’d cool down with water from the hose which also served as our drinking fountain. We roamed the area in little hoards finding adventure down by the bayou or in walks along the railroad tracks. We all knew the sting of hot asphalt on the soles of our feet or sticker burrs between our toes. We’d have make believe battles with the little berries on tallow trees, tossing those makeshift weapons like grenades. I don’t remember anyone losing an eye, but I  suspect that somewhere some poor kid may have been injured in that way.

We were as free as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and just as inclined to mischief. We’d scale mountains of sand meant to be spread on some neighbor’s yard. We’d climb roofs and stand on the peaks like intrepid adventurers who had successfully scaled some high peak. Nothing was out of the bounds of our imaginations and in the process we got tough and learned how to work as teams. We thought out of the box, inventing ways to have fun without many store bought tools.

Summers were great times when we were free as the birds in the sky, little noticing the stifling heat that hung over our childhood games. Now I get weak in the knees and short of wind if I attempt to be too energetic in the hottest times of the year. I’ve grown far too accustomed to the luxury of central air conditioning to submit myself to the tortures of the sun. In some ways it makes me sad to admit that I have lost my toughness. I was once like a young warrior ready for any challenge regardless of the weather. Now I am more like a hot house flower, as I suspect most of us, including many children, have become. So yes, the cooler times of year are now my favorite. That’s when I don’t mind taking a many miles long walk or working all day in my garden. To my utter delight of late there have been more days suited to my taste than usual.

I’m still admittedly proud of the way I grew up. I sometimes think that the “greatest generation” that raised me understood how to treat children far better than we do today. My friends and I have glorious memories of fun that don’t appear to be duplicated by many young folk today. Children have their play dates and formal classes which I suppose are fun, but I worry that they don’t have enough experience in which they make all of the decisions without adult supervision. There’s something quite wonderful about working things out by trial and error. It is a glorious way to gain all sorts of knowledge. The warm weather always reminds me of my outdoor classroom and all of the things that I learned by doing.

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The Lady in the Window

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It was a lovely spring day at the end of March when the bluebonnets begin to emerge in the fields of Texas. Mike and I decided to take a drive to Brenham to see this year’s crop of wildflowers. Since we would be within minutes of Texas A&M University where our grandsons attend college we added a visit with them to the day’s schedule. It just knew that we were going to have a glorious time, and as predicted we were not disappointed. Carpets of red yellow and blue covered hillsides and strips of land along the roads that we traveled. We had not quite come at the most prolific time for the wildflowers, but what we saw sufficiently satisfied us. A stop for lunch at a quaint cafe, a visit to several shops, and a walk through the gardens of the Antique Rose Emporium filled out our adventure. Then it was time to head over to College Station to meet up with our grandsons Andrew and Jack, as well as Andrew’s girlfriend, Araceli.

As we drove along country roads we saw so many sights that made me wonder what the stories of the people who lived there might be. There were majestic farm houses and abandoned shacks, fertile fields and patches of land littered with junked cars. We saw neat mobile homes and those that appeared ready for an installment of “Hoarders.” My curiosity was in overdrive as I viewed poverty and neglect existing side by side with plenty. I wondered what makes the biggest difference in the tenor of a person’s life. I suspect that if we only knew exactly what causes such differences we might be able to one day eliminate them, but for now we struggle to know what to do to make life more secure and equitable.

We had some time to kill once we reached College Station which was alive with the kind of energy that Friday nights seem to engender in young people who have theoretically been studying all week. We decided to pass the time at a Starbuck’s near the apartment where one of our grandson’s lives. As we approached the establishment I noticed a shopping cart filled with sheets and blankets standing on the pavement as though it had been suddenly abandoned. Nobody made a move to investigate or move it. Passersby simply walked around it.

Inside the Starbuck’s a woman swathed in white sheets from head to toe sat alone at a table near the entrance. She was almost motionless as though she were deep in thought. The other customers of the coffeehouse seemed unaware of her presence. They read their books, typed on their laptops and conversed with one another as though there was nothing strange or out of place with the woman. I decided to follow their lead and attempted not to look in her direction too often or to stare in amazement, a bad habit that my curiosity causes me to to do more frequently than I should.

Mike and I ordered our drinks and sat down just across from the interesting soul who was holding court with herself. Her clothing was made entirely out of white sheets, including an elaborate headdress that seemed perfect for an exotic ceremony of some sort. She actually looked quite lovely and I was impressed with her creativity thinking that if I were to try to fashion such an outfit it would surely fall from my body. Her robes were secure and gave her an exotic air. Still I wondered how she was able to sit so placidly without a beverage or any sort of food and appear to be so content with herself, so relaxed. Surely she realized that to others she was an unusual sight, and her cart appeared to be an indication of a homeless situation.

The workers in the Starbuck’s did nothing to disturb her repose. I suspect that after the fiasco that ensured a while back at another Starbuck’s where a manager asked someone who was waiting for a friend to leave the employees were leery to make waves. Thus the interesting figure by the window simply sat trancelike and seemingly without much notice, save from me.

Eventually Jack met us at the Starbuck’s and we left for the restaurant to meet the rest of our party. As soon as we were in the car he noted that we had seen a kind of celebrity in the college community. For lack of a true name he called her “sheet lady.” He told us that she is often seen walking or resting all over the area. He wasn’t sure what her true situation was, but like me he marveled at her ingenuity and survival skills. Nonetheless we engaged in a discussion of the homeless and the problems that they face. He told us of a man who had recently harassed students as they walked to and from class who seemed to be in a kind of psychotic state. He pointed out that the lady on the other hand always appeared to be quite harmless, and so nobody felt uncomfortable around her other than to worry about her safety.

At dinner Andrew remarked that he had seen the lady walking with her cart miles away from the university. He told of a rumor that she was part of some religious group and there her behaviors were part of the rituals associated with the sect. Of course we all conjectured that she was most likely suffering from some form of mental illness. Sadly it appeared that she preferred her vagabond lifestyle to accepting charitable offers for housing with behavioral strings attached.

I still think of the lady in the window even as I sit in my home. I truly wonder what brought her to such a lifestyle and if there is some loved one searching for her. I’m glad that she has a safe place to sit and rest. I hope that when it rains or is cold someone offers her refuge for the night. She appeared to be quite content, but perhaps that was simply a facade. I’d like to know what musings pass through her mind, but then that is a private thing for me to know only if she wishes it to be so. Still I wonder, “Who is she really?”

A Remarkable Man

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My father-in-law, Julio Gonzalez, was born in April of 1929, in Lares, Puerto Rico, a little mountain town where the hillsides were filled with coffee plants and orange groves. He was a joy to his huge extended family of aunts and uncles and cousins, people who would pitch in to help raise him after his very young parents’ marriage fell apart and his brilliant father left him in their care while he continued his studies of medicine in Spain. He grew into a happy boy in the town where everyone seemed to be a relative watching over him, unaware of the worldwide economic depression and the political cataclysms that would lead to World War II. His was a place of fun with his cousins and baseball with his chums. When the winds of war hit the United States he was still a bit too young to join the young men enlisting to fight. His introduction to mortal conflict would be the Korean War when he proudly represented Puerto Rico in the regiment that had once been under the command of General Patton during the earlier war.

He spoke little of being a soldier in Korea. The memories were tainted by the death of comrades, visions that were painful to revisit. Nonetheless he was proud of his service as a citizen of the United States and after his stint in the army he and a buddy agreed to meet up for college. A bit of miscommunication about just where that would be landed his friend in Hawaii and brought him to Houston, Texas where he sat one day in the Cougar Den at the University of Houston when my mother-in-law was introduced to him.

Theirs was an almost instant attraction. They were still talking with each other long after their mutual friends had left. He was quite handsome and she was beautiful. Both of them were incredibly intelligent and managed to converse through his knowledge of English and her fluency in Spanish. She had been married before and had a little boy, my future husband, Mike. She was back in college attempting to forge a future on her own. She had not expected to meet someone who would attract her attention the way Julio had, but life is serendipitous and somehow changed direction for both of them as they fell hopelessly in love in a very short time.

They married and Julio took on the job of being both a husband and father. He was devoted to doing that role well. His whole world would center on being a good and responsible man. Neither he nor my mother-in-law would ever finish their college degrees, but they would use their innate intelligence to build a very good and secure life together. Julio eventually found work at a Hormel plant near downtown only minutes away from where they lived on the near north side of Houston. He began in the meat processing area, doing back breaking work in a cold environment. Eventually he worked his way into the business office where he did accounting and won the hearts of his fellow workers with his jovial ways.

He raised my husband as his own, being as loving a father as ever their was. He was a cautious man who lived frugally, enjoying the simple but most important aspects of life. He toured America with his wife and son, played poker on Friday nights with friends from church, and became a beloved and respected member of his wife’s family. He enjoyed golfing and partying with friends from work, and became more and more fiercely proud of being an American. He’d save for trips back home to see his family in Puerto Rico. His father had become a highly respected doctor who eventually remarried and had a second family of half siblings whom Julio loved with all of his heart.

My father-in-law taught his son to be as quintessential a gentleman as he himself has always been. He instilled a sense of honor and integrity in Mike and modeled all the best qualities of a good husband and father. He became the beloved center of the family as he proved time and again to be concerned and compassionate and willing to sacrifice for the needs of those around him. Year after year passed and so too did so many of the people he had loved including my mother-in-law, his loving partner for so many years.

He was heartbroken after her death, so bereft that his health seemed to falter. We worried that he might succumb to his sorrow, but he is at heart a survivor. He knows how to embrace challenges and keep moving forward. Before long he had not only recovered, but had met a sweet woman who stole a piece of his heart. The two married and now provide each other with fun and companionship.

My father-in-law loves children. He is the kind of man who likes to get down on the floor to join in their games. He runs with them and makes them smile with his gentleness and his playfulness. He spreads love wherever he goes.

It’s hard to believe that he is celebrating his ninetieth year on this earth. He looks far younger than that. He is hale and hearty save for a few minor issues. He still drives his car and takes care of both himself and his wife. He’s a good man who worries a bit too much about his son and granddaughters and great grandchildren. He has worked hard his entire life to insure that they will feel safe and secure. He has loved without bounds and in turn he is loved by everyone lucky enough to know him.

Julio Gonzalez is a quietly remarkable man who has asked for little and given so very much. We hope and pray that we will have the honor of having him with us for many more years to come.

There Is No Better Way

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When I was still rather new in my profession of teaching I took a Myers Briggs test during one of the faculty meetings at my school. It turned out that I was an INFP which translates to someone who is introverted, intuitive, feeling and perceptive. I remember being a bit stunned by the tag of introversion because I assumed that it meant that I would not make a particularly strong educator. After all, a teacher is on view all day every day and to me being an introvert meant being someone unable to deal with other people. I soon learned that my homespun definition was totally inaccurate. Instead the idea describes how I unwind, come up with ideas, find peace. It seems that I am one of those individuals who finds inspiration and comfort on long solitary walks or inside the walls of my home. When I am feeling down I don’t want to go out on the town. Instead I need to recharge my soul quietly.

I have taken different versions of the same test many different times and get the same results again and again. I recently played a Facebook game for fun and ended up being described as a unicorn with my INFP characteristics. It seems that only four to five percent of the population earns that tag. I laughed as I realized why I have sometimes felt like a oddball in life, but it also helped me to realize why I seem to have a gift for understanding people, a talent that worked well with my teaching profession. In many ways I’m just one big gooey mix of emotions that from time to time drive my husband and other highly rational people insane. I greet the world with feelings and intuitions rather than a well thought out rational plan. I’m one of those people who quickly grows weary at planning meetings, which is ironic because a during my working years I frequently found myself guiding such events.

I had a dear friend who was impish and willing to go wherever the winds blew in a social setting, but when it came to more serious matters she planned with a vengeance. I soon learned that our relationship was glorious as long as it was all about fun. Whenever we worked together it went south. She was a person of outlines and scripts, while I preferred to quietly think for a bit and than go with the ideas brewing inside my head. I  corrected on the fly as needed and grew anxious with her need to plot and plan and fill notebooks with written descriptions. I suppose that we drove each other insane in our few collaborations, and so we ultimately abandoned all efforts and simply enjoyed each other informally.

We each have certain preferred ways of meeting the world. I’m not a psychologist so I don’t know if these are innate traits or learned or a combination of both. What I do realize as someone who has worked with thousands of people is that there is no one best way of doing things. We each learn and work and find joy in ways that feel the most comfortable. The person who is the life of a party may not necessarily be the most likely leader, but our styles may determine how those with whom we interact perceive us and how we see them. As a society we often place great value on particular traits thinking that they are the best way to do things. We often judge people by our own characteristics rather than understanding that each style of interaction has its merits.

When I begin ranting and my emotions are in high gear it makes those who are more attuned to rationality and structure feel uncomfortable. I learned over time that I had to curb some of my tendencies and provide more written documentation for my ideas than I might have been inclined to do. What few people knew is that I did not begin with outlines, but rather with ideas from which I worked backwards to create outlines and such. As I worked with my colleagues I found kindred spirits and those who needed more structure from me. I realized that some of my bosses needed little more than evidence that I was doing my job well and others wanted hard copy documentation. I had to learn how to comply with the needs and demands of everyone that I encountered even when it became irritating.

I used to assume that everyone hated meetings, and plans, and goal setting because those things were so abhorrent to me. I soon realized that for many people they are as necessary as breathing. My vague descriptions of the thoughts in my head were not enough for them, and so I found ways to comply in processes that I knew that I would never personally use. I taught my students in similar ways. I knew that some of my pupils were eager to simply jump from a cliff to test their wings and others wanted detailed instruction and practice before attempting trial runs. So too I worked with teachers whose lessons were crafted with the briefest of descriptions and others who wrote out their plans almost word for word. I allowed both versions of planning from members of my faculty as long as I saw good results.

We humans are far more complex and diverse than most of us imagine. It’s why we have liberals, conservatives, and libertarians. It’s the chief cause of our misunderstandings. We tend to see the world through our own lenses and feel confused when we observe someone who is so different from ourselves. Some of us are tidy and others are messy. In truth neither one or the other is necessarily best. The world is as exciting and productive as it is because of our differences, not our sameness. We learn from each person that we meet.

Being flexible and understanding of the people around us is a necessary aspect of our existence. Extroverts are not better than introverts, just different. Democrats are not better than Republicans, just different. Rational thinking is not better than being emotional, just different. When we put all of the various personalities together and truly value them we create a society capable of doing great things. We truly do need everyone because there is on one better way.

Thoughts and Prayers

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Losing someone suddenly and unexpectedly shocks the entire system. One moment the world seems to be filled with promise and the next everything feels as though it has changed. That late night call announcing the accident that took the life of a friend or family member in many ways feels like death itself. The visit from the police to announce that a dear one has been killed by a stranger is a gut punch. Many of us have experienced such life changing events, so we know only too well how the specter of that horrific moment changes us, hovers over us, burrows into our souls.

For most of my life I have relived the moment when I first learned of my young father’s death. I went to sleep dreaming of the family gathering at the beach that lay ahead and awoke to learn that the gathering would take place behind a curtain of sadness and tears inside our living room. I was only eight, but even a child understands the horror of such things. My emotions ruled me for a very long time. I was afraid, angry, hopelessly confused and unhappy. The shock of my father’s death left a gaping wound inside me and the members of my family. I felt as though I was suddenly an entirely different person than the one I had been only hours before I received the horrific news.

I have always understood the deep seated emotions that bury the survivors of such tragedies. The process of healing is a long and difficult road, made even worse in instances when the cause of death is violent. Each time I hear of a mass shooting my heart becomes heavy for the survivors who must pick up the wounded pieces of their lives. I know how long their journeys will be and how different they will feel. I want to tell them that it will take much time for their emotions to feel normal again. I want to hug them, help them, do something for them, but what am I to do from so far away? My only recourse is to keep them in my thoughts, pray that they will find the comfort that came to me in my own time of need.

I have been reading about the tortured souls who lost friends or family members in school shootings. They once seemed happy, content, set for good things in life, but the horror of their situation ultimately overcame them. They were unable to cope with the feelings of depression, guilt, frustration that strangled the very life out of them. They may have covered the depth of their despair with smiles or perhaps they simply surrendered to the hopelessness that they felt. Each of us who hear of them wonder what we might have done to help them, even knowing that there was little that strangers such as ourselves have the power to accomplish. We fall back on the only positive thing that we have. We think of them and pray for them and for their families. We feel their pain and maybe donate to an organization dedicated to helping those stricken with grief. We may even write a letter to a Congress person suggesting changes that will make tragedies less likely. In the end, however, our thoughts and prayers seem to be the best that we have to offer, even as we sense that they may not suffice.

It was the thoughtfulness of the people in my community that ultimately saved me from the brooding and the desperation that I was feeling after my father’s death. My recovery was slow and the compassion of those around me was relentless. I was fully aware of the love that came my way and it ultimately healed me. Knowing that people cared enough to mention me and my family in their prayers meant everything to me, and over the years I have been calmed by the heavenly petitions of devoted individuals who sincerely asked that God watch over me. I have found great serenity in the kindness of prayers.

There are those who would spurn the very idea of thoughts and prayers, insisting that they are little more than worthless utterances that accomplish nothing. I would insist nonetheless that I know their power from personal experience. I truly believe that I might have been lost were it not for the loving support that came from thoughts and prayers directed at me. They told me that I was not alone, that people truly cared about my well-being. Thoughts and prayers are not to be mocked.

I am greatly saddened by the deaths of those left to survive the ashes of mass shootings. I pray for those who have endured the unimaginable horror of such events. I pray that we will find ways to make such occasions more and more unlikely in our country and throughout the world. I pray that we will have the wisdom to find solutions. I pray that we will all understand the complexities of the human spirit and that we will be open and honest in our communications with each other, especially our children. I think and I pray because it is important to do so.

I have a dear friend who keeps a prayer journal. She places the names of those whom she is remembering on Post It notes. Beside the name she writes a brief description of the needs of that person. When she prays she refers to those little slips of paper and personally thinks of them during her very busy days. She is a beautifully selfless and faith filled woman whose sincerity has helped many survive unspeakable ordeals. I believe that the real power of what she does is found in the love that she provides those who are wounded. There is something quite comforting in knowing that another person is taking the time to pray for us. It provides us with hope.

Do not underestimate the power of thoughts and prayers. They have moved mountains and seemingly prompted miracles. We need them.