Win Win

920x920Houston has been looking like a winner of late, which is quite grand given what happened a little more than three months ago. We’re still celebrating our World Series championship and to top everything off we got a lovely dusting of white flakes last week that literally made everyone smile. The landscape that had been covered in a different kind of precipitation back in August look like a picture postcard with every rooftop and tree glistening with just enough snow to create a winter wonderland.

We’ve really needed those little bits of joy because there is till so much recovery work needed. It breaks our hearts to know that there are still people not yet back in their houses. For some the journey home has been long and hard. Many were turned down for relief funds and others are being told that they will have to raise their foundations before getting permits for repairs. Families have wiped out their savings and in some cases spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for which they have had to get loans. While the rest of us have been getting ready for the holiday season, they’ve been consumed with worry. Still, we are all Houston Strong and the viral photo of a Houstonian cheering on a plastic lawn chair during the final game of the World Series inside his stripped down home seems to represent who we are.

You can imagine how wonderful we felt when we learned that not one, but two of our hometown heroes had won the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Award. Both J.J. Watt and Jose Altuve are beloved figures here in H Town and their twin win was glorious, because there are times when we wonder if anyone even knows where Houston is or that it is the fourth largest city in the nation. It sometimes seems that Cleveland is more identifiable to the world than Houston, but much of what is best about our city has put us on the map this year. Watt and Altuve are among our finest treasures and we are swelled with pride in knowing that they have been duly honored.

J.J. Watt is the kind of man that everyone mom wants her son to become. Aside from his tremendous talent on the gridiron he is a truly fine and generous human being. We’ve all come to realize that he is a gift to our city both on and off of the field. He’s perhaps our most reliable player when he’s not injured and so he is undoubtedly the fan favorite. When he immediately stepped up to help raise funds for those affected by the floods we were not surprised, but we were definitely grateful and humbled by his efforts which paid off beyond all of our wildest expectations. This was one of J.J’s most public moments of largesse, but those of us who live here know that he has been constantly and often very quietly doing wonderful things for the people of Houston.

J.J. Watt has been known to show up at hospitals and nursing homes. He even takes the time to attend high school sporting events to encourage local athletes. He is a superstar who has somehow managed to maintain his sense of humility. We are in awe of his towering presence, but we also view him as the guy next door because that is the way he wants to be. He’s our neighbor, one of us. His pain is ours, and so when his leg was shattered fairly early in the season we were heartbroken for him. It was as though one of our own sons had been sidelined. Now that he is enjoying the honor that is so well deserved we find ourselves celebrating with him as well.

Jose Altuve has played his heart out all season long on the Houston Astros. When our city was so devastated he became a man with a mission. He was determined to work harder and better to bring a win to our town. He made it known that he and the team were unwilling to let us down. In perhaps the darkest hour that Houston has ever experienced he was a beacon of hope, a bookend for J.J. Watt.

Altuve too is a young man who works hard to be his very best both on and off of the baseball diamond. He is a team player who understands what he must do each time he walks up to the plate. Somehow he appears to be less concerned with personal acclaim and more focused on sharing his athletic brilliance with his fellow players and his fans. He understood all too well how much we needed the championship that had eluded us for decades, and on an evening when many were watching in rooms with concrete floors and only studs for walls he and his teammates took us to the Promised Land. We were as united as we had been back in August when we were working to help those affected by the storms, only this time we were deliriously happy. He gave us an unexpected gift and demonstrated that his heart was bigger than his entire body. In stature he is the exact twin of J.J. Watt.

Sometimes the universe appears to align in such a manner that the most deserving receive the awards. In a year punctuated by a great deal of suffering and ugliness it is refreshing to be reminded that there are still exceptionally talented and noble individuals in our midst. J.J. Watt and Jose Altuve are the role models that we need for our young. They are the heroes who rank with the legends. All of us in Houston are proud to embrace them as our own.

The Christmas lights in H Town are burning a bit brighter and with a bit more hopefulness. The world has been set aright for once. In their great wisdom the editors of Sports Illustrated have chosen two individuals who represent the very best of the human spirit. Our congratulations will never be enough to thank J.J. Watt and Jose Altuve for all that they have given us. They are heroes whose stories will be enshrined in the crazy history of this incredible town. The mere mention of their names will bring smiles to our faces as we will always remember how much they meant to us when things seemed so bleak. All of Houston will be forever grateful and strong.

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Christmas Treasures

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I love decorating my home for the holidays, but it is always a somewhat bittersweet time. I don’t do coordinated colors and high fashion. Instead my Christmas ornaments come from a varied collection that dates back to a time even before my children were born. This year I have three trees in different rooms of the house. Each of them is filled with memories more than loveliness. They include trinkets made by my children and elegant china and crystal pieces. I have things that I purchased on vacations and at least twenty years of Hallmark ornaments that have tickled my fancy. Friends and family members who have gone to heaven gave me a number of the things that hang on the green limbs of my trees and I recall the times that we shared each time that I take the treasures out of the seven boxes that store them for eleven months out of the year. I shed a little tear here and there as I think back over the people and the years that each piece represents. Setting up my trees is a nostalgic time that requires just the right music or Christmas movie running in the background while I work to place each ornament just so.

I laughed this year as I hung the proof of my longtime loyalty to the Houston Astros front and center on the big tree in my great room. I have two ornaments celebrating the team that I purchased so long ago that I can’t recall exactly when or where I came upon them. Other teams are represented as well. Of course I have one from the University of Houston, but I also boast a little sled from Purdue and a bauble from Oklahoma State University that I purchased on the occasion of my brother’s graduation on a bitterly cold December day. Perhaps my most unusual team decoration is a Houston Oiler blue football player made out of yarn emblazoned with the number of the kicker Tony Fritsch. I bought that one at a craft sale long before the Oilers had moved to Tennessee and changed their name. Perhaps it’s time for me to find a J.J. Watt.

My first Hallmark ornament was a replica of Mickey Mouse as Steamboat Willie. It portrays him whistling and steering his ship so contentedly that I smile every single time I see it. To this day it remains my favorite among all of the members of my now extensive collection. I have an obvious preference for all things Mickey or Minnie. Various renditions of them dominate my selections. This year I added a metal lunchbox with Mickey’s image that even includes a tiny thermos inside. That one takes me back to my youth and the warm milk that I drank along with sandwiches that were always a bit stale after sitting in my locker for several hours. I can almost smell the aroma of all of the homemade lunches that my classmates brought and I hear the clink of the lids at they clattered open on the long tables where we sat never dreaming that we would one day grow old.

I also have a thing for Snoopy and Charlie brown. I can’t seem to get enough of those delightful characters. My favorite in the mix shows the whole gang singing in front of a scraggly tree. It makes me think of some of the fresh trees that we had when I was a child. It took a bit of work and a great deal of tinsel to transform them, but when they were finished they were so lovely. I used to lie on the floor gazing above at the lights and the shimmering icicles. Our mother gave us very serious lessons on how to distribute the silver slivers so that they hung just right. I haven’t seen any of those of late and wonder if they are even made anymore. They were almost as messy as the needles that fell from the limbs of the trees, but they were enchanting as they reflected in the glimmer of the colored lights.

For several years now I have purchased the annual Swarovski crystal ornament, a tradition that I began in 2005 after visiting the factory in Austria. Each year is celebrated with a different snowflake crafted in beautiful glass and marked with a tiny silver date plate. They hang so delicately and catch the light in their gorgeous facets. I have made it a yearly ritual to purchase the newest one around the time of my November birthday. I suspect that the lovely creations will one day become heirlooms along with the china gingerbread men that I collected for many years.

When I was still working I signed up to purchase a set of Victorian houses that came to my house once a month for at least two years. They are quite delightful to me and represent the kind of home that I often dreamed of owning, but was never quite able to do. They remind me of the structures in the Houston Heights, a neighborhood where my grandparents lived when I was very young, and where my father-in-law now resides. They literally speak of Christmas to me and the gatherings that we shared each year when my daughters were growing up. We always drove to my in-law’s house so excitedly in anticipation of a great feast and lots of love and laughter. My mother-in-law eventually passed the holiday tradition down to me when she found the efforts needed to cook for so many to be too taxing. Even though I have done my best to create a new tradition, I suspect that everyone who once went to her home misses the feel of that old house and her special touch as much as I do.

I’ve got Harry Potter and Cinderella, golden aspen leaves and glittering pine cones, marshmallow men and gnomes, angels and nativity scenes. The story of my Christmas life fills the trees, telling of fun and friendships and memories. Tying all of it together is Santa Claus who laughs and smiles and glitters with glee. I’m a sucker for anything prtraying the jolly old man. I so vividly recall the magic of his visits when I was young. I can still feel the excitement of trying to sleep on Christmas Eve so that his sleigh might land on our roof to deliver toys for me and my brothers. I never quite understood how Santa did all of the wondrous things that he did each year, but I believed with all of my heart, and I still do. Christmas is truly a time for family and friendships and love and maybe even a miracle or two.

It’s been a tough year for so many in Texas, Florida, California and Puerto Rico. Many of us  have lost loved ones and worried over those who are very sick. I suspect that we need Christmas a bit more than ever. It seems as though we are rushing it here in Houston, but I understand why. Our trauma has been great and we are still reeling and recovering from the floods. Things appear to be back to normal, but there are many who are not yet back in their homes. They may be spending Christmas in a hotel, an apartment or in a room in someone else’s house. Many of their own Christmas treasures washed away in the waters. I thought of them even as I gazed at my own collection that made it through unharmed. My tears of joy and nostalgia were tinged with a touch of sadness for all that has been lost. Still, the real message of Christmas is one of hope. The reason for the season is still about a baby born in a humble manger who came to provide us with the promise that we are never alone. Perhaps this year it is more important than ever to remember what our celebrations should be all about. It doesn’t really matter what our religious beliefs may be, but that Christmas is all about love.

We Believed

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I sometimes wonder why anyone from some place else would choose to move to Houston, Texas. My father-in-law came to my hometown accidentally. He and a buddy were supposed to meet up at “U of H.” He forget to ask what the “H” stood for and a search of universities led him to believe that he needed to enroll at the University of Houston. After he had traveled here he went looking for his friend only to eventually find out at his pal was at the University of Hawaii. Things worked out well for him when he met my mother-in-law in the Cougar Den and they fell in love. He’s been here ever since.

My maternal grandfather came over as an immigrant from Austria-Hungary just before the outbreak of World War I. Houston was advertising all over Europe back then in an effort to entice workers who were needed for the growing community. Sometimes the flyers that they posted stretched the truth just a bit with photographs of beautiful mountains in the background that may have caught the interest of those thinking about relocating. Unfortunately they would soon enough learn that Houston was as flat as a pancake, but there were indeed jobs here which was probably more important to my grandfather than lovely landscapes. He too set down permanent roots. Eight of his children would be born in Houston and grow up on the east side of town. None of them ever left other than to fight a war. They purchased homes and raised families and grew old, always feeling great pride in a town that is not always understood by the rest of the world.

I first met Houston, Texas on the day of my birth in November, 1948. Not long after that my parents purchased a brand new home in the southeast part of town. My little world revolved around my town that did not yet have a population of even a million people. As I grew, so did the city and about the time that I was entering my teen years a professional baseball team that would play in the the National League came to town calling themselves the Colt .45s. They played in an outdoor stadium that attracted mosquitoes and tropical heat. None of that deterred those of us who were fans of baseball from buying cheap seats in the outfield for great entertainment on summer evenings. I suppose that it was way back then when I developed my love of the hometown boys of summer. Those were halcyon days that made us believe that we had our own field of dreams.

Eventually a local promoter named Judge Roy Hoffeinz came up with the seemingly ridiculous idea of building an indoor stadium that would keep us cool on even the hottest days with air conditioning and cushy seats. In the meantime as with most things related to guns the name of the team became controversial to some and in the end a compromise was made to change the name of the team to the Houston Astros. It seemed an apt title given that Houston was the center of the space exploration universe at about that time, and we had grown and grown as a city.

At first the big domed stadium that Hoffeinz built appeared to have been a boondoggle because the grass would not grow in the insulated environment. Not to be discouraged by a little problem, efforts were made to create an artificial turf that would become known as Astroturf. It worked and yet again Houston rose above it’s doubters, a trend that seems to be part of the city’s DNA.

Another major hiccup occurred when the glare of the sun on the roof made it almost impossible for the players to catch fly balls. They would look up and be blinded, a situation that was untenable in baseball. The laughing began anew but would not last for long as creative minds engineered ideas that eventually solved the problem. The Astrodome became known as the Eighth Wonder of the World, but the team itself was not quite as lauded. Still we loved our Houston Astros and attending a game was always a great treat. We watched the uniforms and the roster change as the owners and managers did their best to bring the city a winning season. We got close now and again, but much like the city itself there always seemed to be a bump in the road that brought us back to the reality that nobody in the world loved Houston and our Astros as much as those of us who lived here did.

I grew older and Houston grew bigger, while the Astrodome became a shadow of its former glorious self. We needed a new stadium to reflect the grandeur of our city and so we built a park on the site of the old train station where so many had first encountered Houston in their quest for a better life. Somehow it seemed a fitting place, especially to me because in the long ago my grandfather had lived in a rented room not far from where the stadium now stands. The team itself would flux and flow, sometimes seeming to be in reach of glory and at other times playing to near empty crowds while losing more games than any other team. Nonetheless there were those who kept the faith even in the leanest of times. It’s what we tend to do in Houston, a city built on impossibilities that somehow always became possible. After all, who would have thought that an inland city would one day boast one of the busiest ports in the country?

My mother led our clan in cheering the Astros through one season after another. She eventually became too old and weary to navigate the ramps and stairs at the ballpark but she never missed a game on the radio. Lying in the dark she let her imagination take her out to the ballgame. and her love for the Astros remained loyal and unabated. She knew every player’s name and stats. She offered armchair advice, and she taught us to be as true to our team as she was, something that was not always easy as we watched our shining moments come and go.

The colors of the uniforms changed as often as the roster of players. We went to the American League and had to become accustomed to a whole new group of opponents. We sometimes sat in the magnificent park with so my empty seats that I wondered how the owners were going to be able to pay to keep the lights operating. History plodded onward and we remembered our favorite players of old like Jose Cruz, Nolan Ryan and those wonderful “Killer Bs” who took us all the way to the World Series only to go down in flames in four games. Still, nothing could deter us from loving our Astros.

This season our beloved team showed sparks of brilliance again and again. We dared not hope that maybe, just maybe this would be Houston’s year as they took one victory after another. By August it was clear that they had a shot at history, but then a hurricane came to town leaving many of our citizens devastated by floodwaters. For a moment our attention was diverted from baseball and concentrated on saving and helping our neighbors. We wondered how we would ever move beyond the destruction and what would become of our city. We were as low as we have ever collectively been, but in the spirit of who we are we came together just as we always do. We demonstrated to the world what Houston is about. It became clear as we saw everyone pitching in to help why we truly want to live here.

Once we had gone back to school and work and the tasks of solving the problems made apparent by the storms, we looked up and noticed that the Astros were still on a trajectory to success. We watched as they moved forward and became the living symbol of all of our own hopes and dreams and beliefs about our town and its people. They drew us together just as the floods had done, only this time we felt happy. We loved them even more deeply for giving us this wonderful gift at the very time when we most needed it. Our city became intoxicated with Astros fever. We knew that we had all earned this moment in time. It somehow seemed inevitable that our team would win it all, and of course they did.

I’ve thought all the way back to those early days when everyone thought that the very idea of Houston was ridiculous. Nobody ever imagined that it would become the fourth largest metropolitan area in the country. Nobody believed that the baseball team in the crazy rainbow uniforms would ever amount to much. Nobody thought that we would be able to recover from the utter devastation that befell us only weeks ago. Most of the experts thought that once the Astros met with a team of the Dodgers’ caliber they would fold. Those of us who love Houston believed and believed and believed again and again and this time our team understood what they had to do. They won the World Series stunning those who just don’t understand how we Houstonians are. For those of us who live here, there was no mystery at all. Houston just might be the greatest place to live on planet earth and it has nothing to do with beauty or lack of problems and everything to do with its people. Thank you Astros for demonstrating the spirit of this grand city. We will never forget how wonderful you made us feel.