No Accounting For Fate

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…here’s the thing about life. There’s no accounting for what fate will deal you. Some days, you need a hand. There are other days when we’re called to lend a hand. That’s how it has to be. That’s what we do for one another. — President Joseph R. Biden, January 20, 2021

No truer words were ever spoken and President Biden ought to know. Just when he thought his world was a beautiful dream it turned into a nightmare when his wife and a daughter were killed in a car wreck on a trip to purchase a Christmas tree. If ever there is someone who can identify with what happened to him it would be me. I understand why he has never really gotten over that tragedy because even sixty four years later I still have vivid memories of the Memorial Day morning when I awoke to find that my father had died in a car accident the night before. 

These kind of horrors plague us all and when they happen we really do depend on the kindness of others to see us through. In my own case there was a community of relatives and friends and neighbors and a young Catholic priest who came to the rescue of me and my family. I don’t see how we would have made it without them and it is the reason why such relationships have always been of utmost importance to me. 

My Aunt Valeria was there from the first moment that my mother called her hysterically in the middle of the night. My Uncle William demonstrated a simple kindness that I have attempted to emulate for all of my life. My Uncle Jack helped us to find a home and a car to provide us with the security that we feared we would never again feel. That young priest comforted my mother over when her mental state was crashing. People brought us food and walked with us until we once more found our footing.  

Later I would observe my mother sitting with a neighbor whose life was falling apart. I saw her reaching out to the sick, taking food to those in need. She was one of those people who understood the need to reciprocate for all of the goodness that had been bestowed upon her. Her generosity was legendary and when she died my brothers and I learned that she was even more giving than we had realized. 

We are at a crossroads in our country. We will either defeat the pandemic together or suffer the consequences of refusing to sacrifice for the common good. Unless we are willing to give a little of our freedom by wearing masks, social distancing and getting vaccinated there is no telling how long we will suffer from this virus that has no respect for us. It’s well past time for each of us the play a part, to lend a hand in the battle to control this illness. 

We want to be viewed as the greatest country on earth and we have a good argument for earning that title but we also must be willing to admit that being the best does not mean that we are perfect. There is definitely much work to be done. We might begin by having a willingness to learn about those who are different from ourselves. Listening is a wonderful way of beginning a process of repairing the difficulties that we have historically ignored. We need to really hear the voices of those who still face inequities that we have never endured. 

There are ways that each and every one of us can make a difference with our environment. We have so many wasteful activities. If we simply thought about our actions with a mind toward eliminating or even just reducing the damage that we do to our earth I suspect that we would soon notice the kind of healing that we need. I know that in my neck of the woods hurricanes are a constant threat. When one hits our area the damage is epic. We not only need but greatly appreciate the help that we receive but we rarely change our ways once we have returned to normal. We build more neighborhoods on land that flooded even when it was originally an open field that help water that might have gone inside someone’s home. We eschew attempts to create mass transit systems to get all of the cars off of our roads. When we should reciprocate with better behavior we just carry on as usual disregarding our own parts in the dangers of future weather events.

We often want help from our country but then do not want to assist in the efforts to keep our nation safe and equitable. We want to get but not to give. It’s time we accepted the one truth of living and that is that fate will deal us some horrific surprises and when it does we all hope that someone will give us the helping hand we need. When times are good we should all be looking for the places where others need our hands to survive. It’s how community is supposed to work and that is a challenge that we would do well to accept. 

The Worst Job Ever

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I’ve been working from the time I turned thirteen years old. At first I mostly did babysitting for people in the neighborhood. I kept busy from Friday night to Sunday evening during the school year watching children from infants to one who was my age whose parents did not trust her to be alone. When I turned fifteen I worked at a medical clinic as a summer replacement for the front office personnel. I must have stunned people because I still looked like I was about ten years old but I earned the respect of my bosses because I did the job well. I worked from nine to five for eighty eight dollars a month. It wasn’t much, especially after deducting Social Security payments,  but who else was going to hire someone so young?

I eventually found work with Holiday Inn making reservations and renting cars. That was an interesting experience because I talked with people from all over the United States. Among my customers there were even a few well known people. On one occasion I got a call from Jerry Lee Lewis, the rock and roll singer and piano player. I knew who he was but I was supposed to be highly professional so I just stuck to the process of finding the hotel and room that he wanted. Ultimately he became aggravated because I had not swooned over the idea of talking with such a noted celebrity. He asked me if I even realized who he was. When I acknowledged that I indeed realized his identity he wondered if I was excited over being able to help him. I played along and Insisted that I was absolutely thrilled to be talking with him and that it had been the highlight of my day. 

I enjoyed that job. The pay was good and we got bonuses for renting cars and meeting certain goals. At the end of the summer my boss even encouraged me to consider making a career of working for Holiday Inn. I was pleased that she liked my work but determined to get a college education and a different kind of career.

Before I ultimately earned my degree and became a teacher I did a series of different jobs to earn some extra cash. One of them was an afternoon gig at an on site daycare center at the apartment where I lived. It seemed to be a rather easy work since I didn’t even have to drive there and the director promised to provide me with dinner each evening. I liked children so I jumped at the opportunity to work there. 

It was not long before I began to have second thoughts about the place. It was very unclean and the children were virtually neglected unless I was there. The director lived in an apartment attached to the center with her family. Her own children often joined whatever group I was watching and bullied the other little ones. When I corrected them my boss would chide me and tell me that it was not my responsibility to manage them. 

The meals that she served the children were filled with starches and sugars. There was rarely a vegetable or fruit to be found. Often the food was cold and on more than one occasion I found bugs crawling on the serving trays. Of course I quit eating there but I worried about the little ones who were supposed to be in my care who sat innocently consuming dinners that I found to be disgusting. When I mentioned my concerns the director insisted that she was following health department guidelines in meeting the children’s nutritional needs. 

The toys for the children were mostly broken remnants from her own children’s toy boxes. I never once saw them being cleaned nor did I have the materials for taking care of that myself. Eventually I purchased some soaps and disinfectants to use for that purpose but they quickly disappeared so I became more and more distraught over conditions. That’s when I was transferred to the baby room which reeked of urine. I found infants lying in sopping wet diapers on soiled sheets. I was disgusted by the slovenly conditions so sometimes I took items home at night and washed them myself just to make things more sanitary. I even sanitized baby bottles and nipples that often looked as though they had not been properly sterilized. 

I suppose that I finally hit the wall when one of the children stayed day and night in the nursery for over a week. When I enquired as to why the little girl’s mom had not come to pick her up I was commanded to mind my own business. The director told me that it was neither her responsibility nor mine to question why the mother was gone so long. Somehow even though I was a very young adult I knew that the situation was far from being appropriate. I began to worry and literally lose sleep over the horrific conditions and wonder if I was somehow complicit by my silence.

I had a yearly medical exam with my doctor about that time and I confided my concerns to him. He counseled me to quit lest something tragic happen while I was working there. Additionally he gave me a number to call to report everything that I had seen. It was with great relief that I turned in my resignation the following day but my heart was till broken when I thought of the children staying there. I called the health department and provided a vivid description of what I had seen. Even as I spoke I felt as though the person at the other end of the line was not taking me seriously and I was right. Things continued as usual at the center and nothing was ever done to improve conditions. I cried for those children but there was little more that I might do.

Every other job I had from that moment forward was wonderful but I still think of how strange that whole situation was. I hated that I had not been able to make meaningful change for those children. I still wonder if it would have been better for me to stay so that at least sometime someone actually cared about those little ones. I marveled at how cruel the world can sometimes be when people do not have the money for higher quality care. Psychologically it was a truly horrible job, the worst I would ever have. 

I suppose that the only positive that came from that work was that it taught me to really care about all of the children that I would later encounter. I realized that many of them were coming from backgrounds that made their lives difficult. I became a voice for them and I learned how to keep advocating until something was done. Never again would I take indifference for an answer. Out of the horror of that day care came my determination to advocate for those who have no voice.

A Woman of Distinction

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I sometimes feel as though I was born with a desire to be around people with kind hearts and a sense of fairness. Perhaps I simply observed my mother and then believed that everyone should be like her. People often boast that children in my Baby Boomer era learned how to properly conduct themselves from strict rules that included paddling, but I don’t recall ever being spanked by my mom. She had a gentle way of modeling the behavior that she expected from me and my brothers. She set limits and sometimes even lectured us, but brute force was not one of her tools. Whenever we had disagreements during the day she made sure that we understood that all was forgiven before we fell asleep at night. She had high exceptions for all of us but her demands were gentle and always couched in unconditional love. 

When I ventured out from my home even as a very young child I set high standards for the people that I encountered. I suppose that I unconsciously compared them to my mother. If they were just and compassionate I liked and admired them. If they exhibited even a hint of cruelty I lost regard for them, although I did so in a respectful way because my mother had taught me to defer to my elders unless they were abusive or immoral. 

I watched my mother quietly nurturing the people in her world. She rarely brought attention to her charitable nature but I witnessed it often enough that I understood how wonderful she was. The only times I ever saw my mother being combative was whenever she felt that some person or some group was being bullied or hurt. Then she became ferocious in her defense of them. She was not one to simply sit back and look away from injustice. 

Mama had a disturbingly low income in the final years of her life and yet her generosity even for complete strangers never waned. After she died I found countless letters from charitable organizations thanking her for her donations to their causes. Given that she sometimes sat in the dark or without heat to save on her utility bills it amazed me that she had been so giving and yet it was all in line with her character. 

My mother truly loved people and she never understood why they would want to hurt one another. She cried at the thought of man’s inhumanity to man, a topic that she often discussed. She abhorred violence and even though she often boasted of her generation’s efforts in bringing down fascism in World War II she was opposed to the war in Vietnam because she did not feel that it was a worthy endeavor. She wrote papers defending her views and became more political during that time than I had ever known her to be. I have no idea how she voted or what her beliefs were other than loving her country to the point of becoming emotional. She kept such things to herself unless she saw a moment when someone or some cause needed her voice.

My mom took a fancy to Madeleine Albright because she was the first female Secretary of State who also happened to be from Czechoslovakian ancestry just as she was. Mama delighted in comparing Secretary Albright to her own mother and noting how proud she was that someone much like her had risen to such a noble and important role. She also found it fascinating that Ms. Albright collected pins to place on the lapels of her suits. Eventually Mama would begin giving me and my daughters delightful pins each Christmas, a tradition that we have continued over the years. I suspect that this was my mother’s quiet way of letting us know that she wanted us to be as dedicated to the protection of all people as Madeleine Albright was. 

My nature is to blend into the woodwork. I don’t like drawing attention to myself and I certainly don’t like controversy. I prefer to be a peacemaker, a diplomat. I like bringing people together with a common goal. Nonetheless my mother showed me that there are indeed times when I must find the courage to speak out. I’ve found myself in difficult situations time and again because I knew that being silent was being complicit in unacceptable behavior. I’ve gone on crusades for justice more than one time and while my mother cautioned me not to be too outrageous I suspect that she was proud of my willingness to take risks to improve the lives of others. 

I often tell my daughters that they come from a long line of very strong women with their Grammy, my mother, in the forefront. I have urged them to stand up for what they believe to be right just as she always did and I have also tried to do. I’m happy to say that while they would prefer to live quietly and without notice they are unafraid to speak out for what they believe to be true. 

My mother once told me that there was a time when women asked their husbands how to vote and sometimes even how to think. She was thrilled that I felt free to be myself and to have my own beliefs. She taught me how to be strong without being unkind. She showed me how to gently and respectfully create change. She was a woman of the highest character who had learned the importance of putting people first. I could not have had a better role model if I had chosen one myself. She was truly a woman of distinction and a gift to all who knew her.

Bravo for Museums

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I have always been a museum freak. I recall when the Houston Museum of Natural Science was a tiny adjunct to the zoo. It featured a handful of artifacts and few dioramas but I still loved the place almost as much as watching the sea lions frolic. I am seriously someone who would enjoy spending an entire day wandering through any kind of museum but I’m the most happy when there are not many people present at the same time that I am. I prefer a quiet and leisurely stroll through exhibits when I am able to read every line of the signs or spend time gazing at the objects on display analyzing every detail. 

My favorite kind of travel either centers on scenery or museums. New York, Washington D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and London were enchanting to me because of the incredible amount of history, science and art that they house. I would return to any of these places in a heartbeat knowing that there are never enough hours to see everything in a single visit and in most cases the exhibits are constantly changing.  

There is something quite exhilarating about seeing the Rosetta Stone in person or gazing at an original painting from Leonardo da Vinci. Those are reverential moments akin to being in a great cathedral. The feelings I experienced standing in the room where the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence is impossible to describe. I am certain that their spirit still hovers in the air. I closed my eyes and could almost hear them debating over how to proceed with their grand experiment in democracy. 

I was once asked to choose my favorite kind of museum and I find that impossible to do. I suppose that history is the most fascinating to me so I’ve particularly enjoyed venues that focus on events of long ago and the ways in which people lived. I often become quite emotionally involved with stories or objects belonging to important figures of long ago but I also like learning about common folk. Humans have been creative and inventive for all time. It seems to be in our DNA to make the world a better place than the way in which we found it.

Nonetheless, I find a visit to an art museum to be enchanting. I sometimes think that art is a sign of humankind’s highest form of intelligence. Certainly building a better society through politics, engineering or science makes us more comfortable but the fact that we have a longing to beautify our environment is rather amazing. It has little to do with keeping us safe or fed or warm. It is seemingly frivolous and yet we have a longing to express ourselves beyond the practical and the results over the centuries have been magnificent. It is through art that we truly rise above the toil of living. 

During the pandemic I have realized how much art has kept my anxieties at bay and prevented my mind from focusing too much on the problems that we all face. Art is a respite that nourishes the soul. It matters not if it is the work of a Renaissance master or the imagination of a modern day pop artist. Art is also film and music and all of the wondrous things that appeal to our senses and set us free from our troubles. I think that we might have gone into a state of national depression without the art that kept us entertained and marveling at the glories of being human.

I never cared much for science as a subject in school but I can’t get enough of the incredible displays of science inside a museum. Whether it features geology or paleontology, medicine or space travel I find exhibits outlining our genius to be captivating. I must admit that I am in awe of the kind of minds that it takes to uncover the secrets of how things work. In truth I do not always understand what the theories or the mechanisms are but I truly appreciate the blood sweat and tear that went into discovering or building them.

I suppose that one day in the future our present era of pandemic will be featured in museums. We we will then see how future generations view the history we have made. Some among us will become known as heroes and others as people unable to meet the challenges of the virus. I have little doubt that we will celebrate the scientists and inventors, the medical experts and those who understood how to challenge the virus and ultimately (I hope) lay it to rest. We will fondly remember the singers, musicians, actors who kept us entertained during our times of isolation. There will be museums celebrating our healthcare workers and first responders. We will remember how important so many of our workers were. Perhaps our whole way of teaching may change and technology will become ever more important. There will be museums about the pandemic and if I’m still around I will most happily visit them and remember this stunning time. 

We treasure the best of our humanity and remember the worst of our temperaments all for the same reason. We need to know where we have been if we are to move forward. We need our museums and soon there will be new ones dedicated to women and people of Latin descent. I am already excited about visiting them. They are treasures that we must always protect for those who come after us. Museums are great.

Laughter Is the Best Medicine

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My father religiously read the newspaper each day. He subscribed to the evening edition and parsing the pages was a given in his daily routine. He would change from his suit into khaki pants and an undershirt and then lie back on the couch with his face hidden by the newsprint pages that he inspected with total interest. Now and again he would notice me watching him from across the room and ask if I wanted to see what the comics had to say. I would eagerly sit next to him as we laughed at the daily series of humor in graphic form. 

After my father died I followed the cartoon page for years in his honor. Over time my tastes changed from Dennis the Menace to Peanuts to The Far Side but I always remembered how wonderful it had been chuckling with my daddy who had a wicked sense of humor that I am certain I inherited. I suppose that my favorite comics these days are satirical which no doubt would have pleased my dad because Pogo was his absolute favorite. Back then I did not understand the underlying jokes of that incredible series of commentaries about government. I just thought it was a goofy presentation of swamp animals who said silly things that made little sense to me. How prescient the cartoonist had been because it seems to me that there are still swamp creatures holding office in our government and so much of what they say is absurd. 

I’m glad that I live in a country that allows satire to run free. I know that some humor is very dark and insulting but most of the time it is an acceptable way to point out the flaws in our humanity. Our hypocrisy as people is so much more vividly revealed under the pen of a gifted cartoonist. Sometimes one picture is worth a thousand words. When it tickles our funny bones the effect is even more powerful. We remember humor and it makes us think in ways that a heated debate never accomplishes. 

Our political system has been tested to the limit these days and with it has come phenomenal editorial satire. Gifted artists pick up on the ridiculousness of our leaders in their feigned appearances and their questionable actions. They capture silliness in memorable images that cause us to understand the madness that surrounds us. I would so love to be able to sit with my father once again and study today’s comics together. I know we would surely laugh but we might also enjoy remarkable discussions about the state of the world. I missed out on being able to do that with him, one of the biggest regrets of my life. I think that we would have truly enjoyed learning from each other. 

The current situation in our democratic republic is so bizarre that it lends itself to the most remarkable comical cartoons. I have found myself laughing hysterically on a daily basis but then I realize the seriousness of our situation and I want to cry. Our way of governing has been seriously damaged in ways that will haunt our nation for decades to come. Most seriously has been the harm inflicted on our election processes. I am heartbroken by what I have witnessed and I think back to Russian taunts from my childhood that boasted of eventually destroying our country from within. Somehow as a nation we have unwittingly fallen victim to the lure of hoaxes and frauds to an extent that large numbers among us question our very foundations. The fact that they have been led by the President himself is concerning beyond anything I might ever before have imagined. Surely our enemies are crowing with delight as they watch us tearing one another apart. 

There is wisdom to be found in the comics. Political cartoons have been around far longer than we might imagine. When I toured Yorkminster cathedral a couple of springs ago the guide pointed out satirical images that the builders had left behind in the stonework and some that had made their way into the stained glass. We human have been sending messages through the imagination and creativity of imagery for hundreds of years. Amazingly the ideas are understandable even centuries later. 

I have found myself more and more often turning to the comics even before looking at the news. I find not only great wit but incredible foresight in them, much of which translates into a universal and timeless language. Peanuts and its characters are as meaningful today as they were fifty years ago. Pogo might have been created fifteen minutes ago. Mad Magazine and The Far Side continue to be relevant. 

Comics are my favorite way of tuning in to the pulse of society. Why not have a good laugh along with a cry? The balance of emotions has a way of putting everything into perspective. Laughter is indeed one of the best medicines that we possess.