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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Not Yet Down and Out

shutterstock_441927634-1024x683.jpgIt was a sunny day in Houston, Texas on a January afternoon. The streets and highways were filled with people enjoying the break in the cold weather. It somehow seemed impossible that only five or six months ago those same roads were filled with flood water from hurricane Harvey, creating unbelievable images of devastation. Everything appeared to be so normal, and it felt as though the recovery and healing of our scarred city had gone smoothly and far more quickly than anyone might have ever imagined. We had even begun to believe that we might have a good chance of winning the big Amazon prize that would bring thousands of jobs to our area along with millions of dollars to boost our economy. Perhaps it is in our Houston DNA to be upbeat and unwilling to be counted out. We’d done the impossible so many times before that those of us native to this flat featureless plain see our city with different eyes than those of outsiders.

This is a town built on land encircled by bayous that is otherwise landlocked, and yet we have one of the busiest ports in the country, dug from the Gulf of Mexico to a site in the shadow of the place where Texas gained its independence. Somehow our town took a field that had once been home to grazing cattle and transformed it into the center of the worldwide space race. A wealthy academic from the east coast imagined a Harvard of the south and founded the prestigious and renowned Rice University. A doctor imagined a home for cutting edge medicine and convinced benefactors to build a medical center that would one day be a leader in research and talent. We have done the impossible time and again with the help of visionaries who saw beyond the limitations of our geography, and on any give day it feels as though we have miraculously moved beyond the horrors that beset our beloved Houston on those three days in August when the sky rained its fury on all of us.

We all know that things are not always what they seem to be. Those whose homes were filled with brackish water that rushed in through the weep holes inundating their rooms and their peace of mind are mostly still working to get back to normal. The piles of debris that represented the destruction are generally gone misleading observers to believe that all is well. Inside the repair work continues at various stages. The mucking out of water and dirt is done. The walls of water soaked sheetrock have been removed leaving frameworks of studs marking load bearing structures and outlines of rooms. In some cases fresh new sheetrock and paint now brighten the areas. In others the skeletal frames await the resolution of claims that may one day bring the funds for repairs. Carpet and flooring is difficult to find even when there is money to purchase it. Cold concrete has become a way of life for many Houstonians who celebrated Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and the new year with their homes torn apart, and still wait for normalcy to return. They sit on lawn furniture and sleep on air mattresses attempting to stay calm and carry on when in truth they are exhausted and broken hearted.

On that sunny day when all seemed so normal, of course it was not. I drove through a neighborhood that had been heavily impacted by the storms and at least a third of the homes still had huge dumpsters parked in the driveways. Trailers and RVs dotted the landscape and told a tale of homeowners still camping out while their homes recovered very slowly. Daily life has become a marathon for them as they cope with realities and fears that sometimes feel overwhelming. They walk through their days attempting to be as positive as possible even as they worry about the impact this all has had on their psyches and savings.

It has been estimated that eighty percent of those affected by hurricane Harvey did not carry flood insurance. They have had to rely on FEMA for funds to repair their houses and many of them still wait for that money to be forthcoming. Generally the most that they might receive is only slightly more than $30,000, and in the majority of cases it will be far less than that. FEMA does not replace their household goods, so many people are creating massive debts just to begin again. Those who did have flood insurance are all too often waiting even longer for the relief that they need to put their homes back into working order. Supplies are scarce, and the great deals that merchants offered in the early days after the disaster are mostly long gone. Nobody thought that there would still be people in need this long after the catastrophic event.

Our city is wounded and our spirit is being sorely tested. Naysayers warn us that we will never again be the same. Our luster feels somehow diminished as investors and dreamers grow wary of locating here. Amazon passed us over, choosing Austin and Dallas as more worthy possibilities for their center. People from outside our area view our town as an ugly humid place more suited for mosquitoes than humans. They underestimate our determination to overcome the odds that have often appeared to be stacked against us. Houston has always been a city that should never have been, and yet here we are winners of the World Series even as we limp through the worst days of our history. It seems that Amazon missed the essence of who we are as people and may have ignored the very qualities that would have made their venture truly great. They did not understand that the images of courage and community that they witnessed when nature had battered us mercilessly were not aberrations, but rather an unvarnished revelation of who we really are. The secret of Houston is that we are willing to take on any challenge and rise from the muck and the mud to triumph over adversity. This is a hard working city with dirt under its finger nails and visions of a better future in its soul. 

Think of us now and again. We are still here even though we have not yet totally healed. There remains much to do, but you will rarely hear us complain. We don’t want to be pitied or thought to be beyond hope for we still believe that our city has a great future. Don’t pass over us or assume that we are out of the game. This city called Houston is a miracle built on unstoppable dreams. Plan to keep hearing from us. We’re not yet ready to be down and out.

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.

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.

#earnhistory

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My mom was from the generation that grew up listening to the radio. Back in the day people tuned in to hear programs filled with illusions built from sounds and words. The listening experience was glorious with pictures painted in the mind’s eye by announcers and actors with versatile and mellow voices. Since news stories did not include photos or films the reporters had to describe the scene and the best of them created gloriously graphic images that allowed listeners to feel as though they were on the scene. The best sportscasters managed to outlined each play in a game in such vivid detail that those who followed the broadcast might just as well have been sitting on the fifty yard line or behind home plate. It was a glorious era when ordinary folk got up close and personal with the happenings in the world from the comfort of their living rooms.

Mama especially loved Sundays because those were the days when her family honored the sabbath with visits to church, a special family meal and time to listen to favorite programs on the radio. They would gather around and be swept away into worlds of adventure, information and sports. Afterwards her father would hold family meetings in which he iterated character lessons for his brood of eight children. He insisted on honesty, hard work, frugality, ethical behavior and love of country and family. My mother would always refer to the beliefs that he had instilled in her and to those glorious Sundays when they paused from the labors of the work week to indulge in entertainment and sporting fantasies.

In my earliest years as a child the radio was still the center of information and enjoyment in our home. I recall listening to The Lone Ranger and Texas A&M football games with my parents. Eventually my father brought home a television in a lovely mahogany cabinet that replaced the radio as the center of our entertainment needs, but somehow my mom never quite lost her love for the radio. Thus it was that she developed a lifelong taste for certain programming that she followed inside her car or her bedroom. Chief among her regular habits was listening to the Houston Astros baseball games, which she rarely missed season after season. She knew the stats of all of the players and served as an armchair coach offering advice to the air as though the team might actually hear her suggestions. She cheered and rejoiced in their victories, keeping the faith that they were the best team in the country. Even in the lean times she was never willing to give up on her boys of summer and she loved them as though they were members of her own family. She rarely had the money to purchase a ticket to see a game in person, but she had her radio and it was religiously tuned to the games.

You would have thought that Mama was a personal friend of Milo Hamilton, the voice of the Astros for decades. She thought that he was a gifted announcer and she sometimes quoted his pronouncements. She especially enjoyed discussing the games with her grandsons, Shawn and Ryan, and seemed particularly proud that Ryan was named for pitcher Nolan Ryan who thrilled her during his tenure as an Astros pitcher. She knew so many details about each competition that one might have thought that she had actually been present rather than merely a listener. She was entranced by the Astros. They were her team, the one group that she followed with the fanaticism of a true believer.

When she came to live with me in the last year of her life she insisted on having a radio in her bedroom, which my brother Pat provided for her. It was tuned the the Astros station and she knew their schedule by heart. Day or night she dropped whatever she had been doing to lie on the bed upstairs and listen to the games. Sometimes we would hear her cheers or her groans and always she would follow up with a blow by blow commentary peppered with optimism and sound advice for the players. She treasured no gift more than a ticket to one of the games, but by her final year on this earth it had become increasingly more difficult for her to navigate in the vastness of Minute Maid Park. She would grow tired quickly and so her radio allowed her to fully enjoy her most treasured pleasure without requiring her to expend her limited energy.

On the last day of her life my mother remembered that the Astros were playing. When my nephew Ryan came to the hospital to say his goodbyes she insisted that we turn on the television in the ICU. Of course she was unable to speak because there was a ventilating tube in her mouth. She simply motioned toward Ryan as though she was pitching a ball and we all understood what she wanted. It was a touching and very appropriate moment and watching her eyes light up with delight as she shared a final game with Ryan made her final hours as perfect as such a time might ever be.

I’ve thought of my mom all season long as the Houston Astros have proven to be a dominant force in the game of baseball. She would have been oh so proud of them. I can’t even imagine how frenetic her cheering would have been as they brought home the pennant with so much class and style. I’d like to think that she has a home plate seat in heaven and that she and Milo Hamilton have been celebrating the Astros’ victories together. If heaven is indeed  a place where everything is perfect then there has to be Astros baseball there for my mom. I suspect that she has told my dad all about the team that had not even existed when he died and converted him into a fan as avid as she always was. Mostly though I am quite happy that the Astros are truly the team that she always believed they would be.

We’ve had some very hard times here in Houston this year. Many of our friends and neighbors and relatives are still picking up the pieces of their broken lives after hurricane Harvey. Our city has been wounded, but we proved ourselves to be strong. We’ve had a quiet nervous breakdown together and our emotions are still very close to the surface. We cry easily as we think of all that we have endured. Somehow our Astros have been part of the community glue that has kept us focused on rebuilding an even better future. We became the bullpen for our glorious athletes who have brought us so much joy. Somehow it is fitting that the Astros would emerge as the symbol of who we Houstonians are. We celebrate their victories as our own. There is a new determination in Houston as we wish our Astros well as they meet the Los Angeles Dodgers. We are fighters and so are they. We are not willing to give up on our town or its teams. Now the world understands who we are.