Dear Mr. Z

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Dear Mr. Zuckerberg,

I heard you testifying before Congress last week, and I for one totally understand and appreciate you purpose in founding Facebook. I have enjoyed the benefits of being reunited with long lost friends, as well as being kept up to date with family events since I joined several years ago. Each morning I go to my Facebook wall while I eat breakfast and find out who’s having a birthday or anniversary and what has happened overnight. This early morning routine has become a very pleasant part of my day. I really don’t know what I would do without Facebook because I am now retired and don’t often get to see or hear from my friends in any other way.

I write a daily blog and have a page to introduce my topics and to invite people to read my work. You don’t charge me a thing for doing that or for getting together with friends, so I just want you to know how much I appreciate your amazing creation. I live in Houston and during Hurricane Harvey when fifty one inches of rain fell on our city Facebook became my main means of knowing how family and friends were doing. I learned who was in trouble and who was lucky enough to make it out of harm’s way. My Facebook friends and I looked after one another during those intensely stressful three days and then were able to help one another in the weeks after the water subsided. I was able to quickly find out who was looking for assistance and what they needed. I felt that Facebook was a godsend in so many ways. I can’t imagine enduring that tragic time without the information that came to my wall. I never really thanked you for that, but I feel that I especially should now that you are under fire.

We Houstonians had so much fun sharing our enthusiasm for our Astros as they raced toward a pennant. It was good to be able to smile and celebrate after the undeniable stress of the floods. My wall was filled with excited comments and wonderful memes. You have no idea how great that made all of us feel. Along the way so much money was raised via Facebook for people in our city who had been so affected by the rising water. I’m not sure that would have happened otherwise. Facebook made our devastation real.

I’ve joined prayer chains that began on Facebook, and been the recipient of prayers in my own times of need. I’ve found interesting tips for home care and beauty regimens, as well as suggestions of books that I might enjoy. Mostly though I have smiled over and over again at the photos that fill my wall. I’ve seen newlyweds, babies, graduates, puppies, birds, gardens, and so many lovely images that brighten my days. I know that this is what you envisioned for all of us who enjoy your creation.

Of course you run a business that must generate income somehow and so there are advertisements. I don’t mind those at all. I have to admit that I mostly just ignore them, just as I do the political posts. In fact, I really do doubt that any memes or articles or even fake news influenced many folks in the last election. I generally find that people believe what they believe and aren’t affected by ads or emails or any of that. I also don’t think that you should have to police what is happening on people’s walls. You should not have to become a censor or arbitrator. In fact, that would actually be creepier to me than knowing that once in a great while someone may create an advertisement to entice me to think in a particular way.

Long ago I understood that we can’t believe everything the we see on the Internet. Only a very foolish person would take something as gospel without doing a bit of research to determine its veracity. I always do my homework, and I’ve found that most of the people that I know do as well. Admittedly I wasn’t a fan of President Trump and so I paid no attention to positive commentaries that appeared on my wall. On the other hand most of the people that I know who do like him voted for him mostly because they simply did not want Hillary Clinton or they worked at jobs that they felt he supports.

Anyway, I hate to see big changes on Facebook just because a political group used information to target potential voters. If I’m not mistaken the Obama campaign did something similar and everyone thought that it was genius, which it was. Our world is changing and we need to move along with it. You are an innovator and what you have given us is wonderful. I really do hope that things work out well for you in the end, and that Facebook doesn’t change too much.

In the meantime I don’t mind getting political emails from both the far left and far right. I actually find them interesting and sometimes even humorous. I use Google and Amazon and Apple, so the odds are quite good that someone somewhere knows a bit about me. I write this blog and pretty much tell whomever is willing to read my words about my life and my feelings because I have nothing to hide. I’m not so easily influenced by any form of propaganda, so keep up the good work and know that I’m someone who will stand behind you. Thank you again for bringing so many of us together from all around the world. You’ve done a very good thing.

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It’s Time To Do What Is Right

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He’s a sweet child, innocent and earnest with a bit of Tom Sawyer mixed in. He works hard and is able to manipulate numbers with the best of them, but when in comes to the questions on the STAAR test he sometimes gets befuddled. He wants to be like his dad whom he adores, a smart engineer. Somehow he loses confidence whenever he compares himself because, after all, the STAAR test often challenges his abilities and makes him feel less than. He worries a great deal about how he will do on the mathematics test because he has to work slowly to be certain that he is correct in his analysis of the questions. He gets most of the answers correct, but often has to hurry to finish in time and that’s when he just has to make a best guess. He wants to be thought of as smart and competent, which he is, but that test threatens to make him look bad, so he becomes anxious. His teacher confided that she doesn’t think he will pass. He goes to his mother in a state of panic and cries. He wonders what he will do if he fails. Suddenly his head is so filled with fear that he can’t think. All of the concepts that he understands so well become jumbled and he has difficulty remembering things that he has mastered. The high stakes of the test have him discombobulated and he is only ten years old, already a worried old man having to deal with the trajectory of his future when he should be outside enjoying the lovely spring weather with his friends.

He took the STAAR test on Tuesday. It will be a while before any of us know how he did. I prayed all day Monday that he would remain calm and be able to reach into his memory bank to work the problems. He is able to tackle operations with fractions better than many high school students that I have taught. He understands how to perform operations with expressions as well and how to turn a linear graph or a table into an equation. He is able to discuss financial terms like gross and net income, property and payroll taxes. He is very bright in every way, but that test seems evil to him. The questions purposely have hidden meanings that he sometimes doesn’t catch. The problems may take as many as four steps to complete. When he’s nervous he might miss the catch, and he was very nervous on Tuesday.

I tried to show him how to tackle each question. I reminded him not to tarry too long on a single problem. I urged him to draw pictures of the given ideas. Together we underlined important information and crossed out whatever didn’t matter. He caught on quickly and his daily grades in school improved. He was named the student of the month because his teachers saw how hard he was working, and because he is so wonderfully kind. Still he was so concerned that he might not do well on the test, so I attempted to calm him. His parents also did their best to raise his confidence level. We all quietly worried that he was working himself into a state of mind that would interfere with his ability to do as well as he is capable.

Each school year I find myself railing at the STAAR test and other instruments supposedly used to measure the abilities and achievement levels of students. They are cold and supposedly objective ways of determining how well students and schools are doing, and yet we all know that they favor certain types of children over others. As a teacher I often witnessed kids who did little or nothing in class hit home runs on standardized tests while others who were almost religious in the way they applied themselves crashed and burned. According to the exam they had not learned all that they should have, but I knew better because I was so familiar with who they were. Some of those same youngsters who flopped on the state exams went on to graduate with honors from college and to be highly successful in their chosen careers. It angered me that so many decisions were being made about them along the way based solely on a one day test created by a company that makes millions of dollars spewing out questions that many adults would be unable to answer correctly.

I recall a time when one of my principals complained that the teachers in the mathematics department were not raising student scores enough. He demanded that they work harder. Since I was the department head I took his criticisms personally and felt a bit defensive. I wanted him to know what the teachers and the students were dealing with so I gave him a seventh grade mathematics test and told him to complete it in the allotted time frame. Just as I would have with the kids I monitored him while he worked the problems. From time to time he looked at me in frustration and I read his body language to mean that he was beginning to see how difficult the tests can be. When he was finished I graded his work immediately. He made a sixty seven. He was crushed and asked me to never reveal his score to anyone. He then met with the mathematics teachers and praised them for their dedication. He told them that he understood just how difficult it was to prepare the students for the tests. His encouragement brought results. Every single teacher had better overall scores than in the past. Perhaps the tests had been easier, but I prefer to think that when the teachers felt more support they transferred their own feelings to the students.

I seriously question why we put students and teachers and even principals through the misery of yearly standardized testing. I worry about the well being of our children and question putting them through such stressful situations when the overall results of such measures don’t actually correlate to ultimate success in life. We are deluding ourselves in thinking that the exams are fair because every study has shown that they are not. Mostly they turn off the natural curiosity of children and their willingness to take risks. So many psyches are being crushed making the “I hate math” crowd grow larger and larger when we might instead encourage our children to explore the world of numbers without worrying that they will be harmed. Math can actually be fun, but not so much when it is used to label an individual.

I suppose that I will continue my yearly rant with no effect, but I feel compelled to defend all of the boys and girls who live in fear of the humiliation that sometimes comes from them. I refuse to be quiet until somebody finally listens and considers the true worth of such measures. Instead of making testing companies rich, perhaps it is time that we enrich the lives of our young by pulling the plug on such high stakes testing. It’s well past time to use our heads and finally do what is right.

  

Filling the Cracks With Gold

gold-ingots-golden-treasure-47047.jpegIn Japan a broken object is often repaired with gold. The flaw is viewed as a unique piece of the object’s history which makes it more beautiful. Unknown Author

I am admittedly a control freak, so when things break or go awry I tend to freak out. I prefer routine, everything in its place. I suppose that my obsessive compulsive tendencies are derived from my father’s death when I was a very young child, a time when I felt my world spinning out of control so much so that I worried that my future would forever be horrific. Of course that did not happen, but I have had my share of unwelcome and difficult events, so much so that I prefer stability over excitement.

That being said, there is always seems to be something beautiful and unexpected that comes from even the most devastating tragedies. After my father died my brothers and I became more intensely close, and our mother made certain that we would feel safe by moving to a wonderfully wholesome neighborhood. I lived in this almost idyllic place until I was an adult. The friendships that I enjoyed there as a child are still rock solid strong. The beautiful memories that I made at a time when I had worried that my life was surely over have been the gold that repaired my broken heart.

I find that this occurs again and again just when I begin to waver and worry too much. It happened when our hot water heater overflowed and flooded part of the house. Even though I was happy that we were home and able to limit the damage, I began to fret over all of the dire possibilities of the things that might take place. Since all aspects of the repairs have taken far more time than I had thought that they would. I literally began having anxiety attacks at night because I was certain that mold was growing in the walls of my home and that it would become a toxic waste dump. I imagined all sorts of scenarios while we waited for insurance adjusters and repairmen.

Of course, as it turned out things began to fall back into place bit by bit. We have a nice new hot water heater and we have chosen new carpet that will be installed once the walls and the door frames and other things that were damaged are once again as good as new. While the experts take care of all of that, I have been moving things out of closets and packing them away in the garage so that the rooms will be ready for the carpet. In the process I encountered a box of photos and papers that I had stashed away long ago. The items had sat unnoticed for quite some time, so I decided to cull through them to decide what I wanted to keep. In the process I found the names of my grandfather’s parents. It was like discovering gold on my property because I had grown up knowing very little about him. He had died before I was born and my mother had no information about her own grandparents because her father was an immigrant from Austria Hungary in the area now known as Czechoslovakia and so was her mom.

I was so excited by my discovery that I posted something about it on Facebook and a few minutes later a cousin called to verify that my information was correct and that she had even more. I am now able to trace my ancestry back to my great great grandparents, all because I was forced to moved things so that workers might set things aright in my home. Had it not been for the accidental leaking of the hot water heater there is no telling how long that box that contained the key to my ancestry might have languished. Once again the broken object ended up being a golden moment, a beautiful light on my past.

I have friends who are far more faith filled than I am. They don’t worry as much because they just know that there is a vast eternal plan that is working as it was meant to be. I suppose that they have fewer middle of the night panic attacks than I do, or conversations with God that sound more like that between a parent and a recalcitrant child. My experience has proven that I am never alone, and yet I out doubt Thomas over and over again. I suppose that it is just my nature, but I must surely drive those who have to put up with me a bit crazy at times.

Luckily I always seem to find my way back, and realize that I have never really had it so bad. My life is probably about average compared to most. I lost people that I love, but so has everyone else, and in some cases their tragedies have been so much worse. I happened to get a hint about my all time favorite uncle when I was putting in the new names of my great grandparents on my ancestry.com family tree. The document that Ancestry found was his death certificate and its details made my heart weep for my aunt and for my uncle’s parents. He was only thirty one years old, and an only child. The sarcoma that began in his leg had metastasized to his lungs and other major organs. He left behind an infant daughter. I thought of how bereft everyone must have been. I was only five at the time and I felt as though my heart had been shattered. My father was never quite the same after his best friend had died. Somehow all of my trials and tribulations put together did not seem as harsh as this, and I chided my self for temporarily rolling in self pity.

The broken parts of my life have always healed and made me strong and resilient. I see the cracks and the scars, but they make me more beautiful, for surely they make me more compassionate. I truly understand what it is to hurt and to be afraid, but I also know that the human spirit is far more courageous than we think. The gold that always seems to come after the worst times is real and it is lovely.

A Circle of Friendship

Susan's party

We sat around the table talking about our high school days, wondering how it is even possible that by the end of this year all of us will have entered our seventies. We recalled the times when we first met and wondered how some of our absent friends were doing. Somehow we each felt exactly the same as we had when we were teenage girls even though the calendar belied our somewhat vivid imaginations. We were celebrating Susan’s birthday and and anticipating Linda’s. Charles had enjoyed his on Sunday. Each person who was present is quite special to me in one way or another.

I had met Susan, the woman of the hour, when I was only six years old. We were both in second grade and had the same teacher. She lived within walking distance of my home and we often rode our bicycles around the neighborhood laughing and singing. Her voice would ultimately become the music of an angel, but back then we were just two little girls having fun.

We went all the way through high school together, and Susan’s father often drove us to football games on Friday nights. When we were in college we both worked for Holiday Inn one summer making reservations and a pretty good sum of money. Susan was one of my bridesmaids when I married almost fifty years ago, and we both had daughters named Catherine but with different spellings, if I remember right. For a time we played bridge every Friday night and shared cheesecake and lemonade and lots of laughs. We lost touch for a time but managed to eventually find our way back to each other. We marveled at how easily we got right back into comfortable conversations as though we had seen each other only the day before. Now Susan is seventy, but somehow looks exactly as she did when I first met her, and is definitely as sweet.

I’ve known Monica as long as I have Susan. In fact the three of us had the same teacher in the second grade. Monica and I have always somehow managed to keep the fires of our friendship alive. In many ways she is much like the sister that I never had. Her husband and mine get along famously and we have taken camping trips and vacations together that are among the best memories of my life. Monica is thoughtful and creative and a genius when it comes to common sense. She’s someone who knows how to keep my flighty tendencies grounded. Our children grew up together and still get along famously. I can’t imagine what my life might have been like living without Monica by my side.

Linda is the person I always wanted to be. She is beautiful and kind and good at everything that she tries. When we were in school together I thought that she was the most perfect person ever, and the truth is that I was not being hyperbolic. We really became close while we were in college and our bond has only grown stronger over time. When her boys and my girls were growing up we spent hours together in the summers going crabbing and eating snow cones on hot days. Our children learned how to swim from the same teacher, and we often cheered for our Houston Cougars at parties that featured Linda’s culinary genius. I learned how to cook and decorate and even how to be a more caring person from Linda.

Carol is the glue for our Class of 66. She is the historian and secretary all rolled up into one. She keeps is apprised of birthdays, illnesses, parties, and even deaths. She is like a walking encyclopedia when it comes to knowing the whereabouts of everyone of our former classmates. Her heart is big and warm and she makes each of us feel loved and important. Without her we’d probably all drift apart, but she keeps the fires of our friendships burning brightly. I have grown so very close to her. She has been the happiest surprise of the past few years. I never intend to let her go again.

Shirley has the power of serenity. Somehow her sincerity and brilliant smile have always calmed me. Just sitting next to her brings serenity to my heart. Most people are only remotely interested in the things that others say, but Shirley gives off a vibe that indicates that she takes everything that quite seriously. She remembers conversations and asks how people are doing long after they have spoken of troubles. Even when her own life is in an upheaval she thinks of everyone else first. She has a very special talent of expressing profound compassion without even having to say anything. Her eyes are like windows to her beautiful soul. I have to admit that I always leave her feeling renewed.

I only recently realized that Jeanette and I were in the same class together in the first grade, so I suppose that I have known her the longest. She was a cheerleader when we were in high school. She always seemed to be smiling and having a great time. It’s uplifting to be around her. She has a cheerful aspect that brightens our reunions. I didn’t know her well until recently and I find myself regretting that we did not become close earlier because I like everything about her. She is down to earth and loyal and incredibly thoughtful in a very quiet way. She does wonderful things for others without fanfare, asking nothing in return for her generosity. I’m hoping that we manage to stay in touch now that we have found each other because she is one hundred percent the kind of person that I adore.

Janis is an icon. In many ways she was the consummate leader of our class. She wears a necklace that says Go Go which says it all about her. She is a ball of energy who gets things done no matter what is needed. She is a highly successful business woman which doesn’t surprise me at all. She uses her influence to lead charitable causes and help her city to become a better place. She is everywhere doing her magic and just being around her is inspiring, She motivates me to be better than I am, to do more. When it comes to women leading us to the future, Janis is at the front of the pack.

When we were still in high school Janis had a car and I didn’t even have a driver’s license. When we had to go places she always made sure that I had a way to get there. When we were seniors I was the May Queen and as usual my hair was a mess. I have never figured out how to deal with it. Janis very sweetly styled my locks and redid my makeup so that I looked truly regal. I walked out feeling so pretty and confident because she had taken the time to help me. I’ve always remembered that kindness.

Charles was the only male in our group. He and I both went to the same church for many years after we had graduated from high school and college and created families. I always enjoyed seeing him, but I eventually moved and thought that we would never meet again. It was a great surprise when he showed up for Susan’s party. He is so down to earth and sweet.

It’s rather remarkable how wonderful my school mates have become. There was something magical about our youth and our upbringing. We have all worked hard and loved mightily. We have terrific children and adorable grandchildren. We simply enjoy being with one another with no pressure or expectations. Our circle of friendship has grown ever stronger and made all of us just a bit better because of it.

Store Closing

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There was a time when my Saturdays were spent shopping in downtown Houston. Back then we would dress in our best duds and ride a bus to the center of the city. We spent most of our time in Foley’s department store, a multistory affair with the best buys down in the basement. We’d look at clothing, furniture, and household items hoping to find great bargains. It would take hours to peruse all of the items, but once in a while we had time to check out other stores along Main Street and even take in a movie at one of the theaters. It was always great fun, but it wasn’t long before malls were opening in the suburbs taking away much of the business from the old city establishments. Slowly the places downtown closed one by one for lack of customers and our focus turned to the centers near our neighborhoods.

By the time I was a teenager I was frequenting Gulfgate Mall almost every single Saturday. I would start at one end of the complex and browse through every store until I had reached the last store. It was a kind of gathering place for everyone, and I often encountered neighbors and friends from school while I was there. As the suburbs moved farther and farther from downtown Houston newer shopping areas opened like Almeda Mall and then Baybrook. We adjusted to the changes as they came enjoying the weekend adventures at our favorite stores and restaurants.

The time came when Gulfgate Mall was torn down and rebuilt on a smaller scale with none of the retailers who had once been there. Almeda Mall also changed bit by bit until the only original merchant was Palais Royal. Only Baybrook remains as a somewhat viable shopping center in our end of the suburbs, but the hometown feeling that was once part of the experience of going there is diminished. Somehow the old weekend activity of haunting the local mall is going the way of the dinosaur just as downtown did.

It seems that hardly a week passes that we don’t hear of yet another store closing its doors. Sears is gone, leaving only memories of exciting features like a full service candy counter and aisles and aisles of tools and appliances. I first sat on Santa’s lap in a Sears store that used to be located on the corner of South Wayside and Harrisburg Boulevard. We purchased plants for our yard in the garden area there and bought our school clothes each August. It was torn down years ago and the other big Sears stores followed one by one. There are no more Sear’s catalogs or Christmas wish lists, nothing to remind us of the grand old days when the company even sold kits for building homes.

Toys R Us is in the process of shuttering its entrances, leaving behind hulking empty spaces and parking lots. I have so many memories of following my grandchildren up and down the rows and rows of toys while they carefully chose a special item. I delightedly watched two of them enjoying the huge store on Times Square in New York City when we visited not long ago. Such stores dedicated to only toys have become few and far between.

I find myself checking off so many of my favorite places that are no more. Where are Casual Corner, Coldwater Creek, Baker’s Shoes, Woolworth’s, Foley’s, Joske’s, Grant’s, B Dalton Bookseller? They have disappeared from the landscape leaving behind places that have little interest for me, and sadly there are signs of trouble for so many more that I actually enjoy. I worry about Penny’s and Macy’s all of the time because I still visit both of those places, but I hear that they are struggling to stay in business. I wonder what will become of the malls and where I will be able to go to purchase shoes and clothing. I certainly can’t do such things online.

I’m not easy to fit. I have to try on eight pairs of shoes to find one that works. Double that number for dresses. I can’t just look at a photo online and determine if it is going to be right for my body or have the quality that I expect. I find it alarming to think that my sources of basic items are evaporating before my very eyes. Target and Walmart are fine, but they don’t have all of the things that I need, nor do I get the same joy out of shopping at such places as I do when leisurely strolling through a mall. Somehow the passing of the mall tradition makes me as sad as when the downtown area withered away. Changes are fine, but sometimes I actually feel victimized by some of them.

I recall visiting Los Angeles more than twenty five years ago. At the time I was stunned to learn that so many of the banks there were little more than ATM machines. The personal aspect of having people to help with financial matters was stunningly absent and it never occurred to me that this was a trend that would ultimately make its way to my own town. The changes that are happening in retail may be making more money for the various companies, but they seem to be doing little for the customers or the people who used to have jobs in those places. Everything is moving faster and faster and we don’t seem to be willing to slow down just to walk in the town squares greeting our neighbors and friends as we purchase our goods. Instead we order online or drive through pick up stations and hurry on our way. Something rather refined is ending and we just don’t appear to have much time for others anymore. It’s become a rush, rush, rush way of life with the personalized touches fading away.

There was a time when we knew the man who fitted our shoes personally. He would take half an hour to make certain that our feet would be caressed by the leather that we put on them. He talked with us about our lives and knew about our ups and downs. Now we look through boxes trying to find our sizes and then walk around hoping that the shoes will feel okay after we have taken them home. Nobody helps us until we walk through a long queue line and get to the cash register. The idea of customer service is almost a thing of the past, and it saddens me. I miss those wonderful days of elegant window displays and retailers who really cared. I truly hope that we don’t throw it all away.