She Was One of the Best

I never cared much for science in school. Biology involved way too much memorizing of terms and Physics was impossible for my brain to actually visualize. I enjoyed Chemistry because it was like a beautiful puzzle where all the pieces seemed to fit nicely together. Only once did I have a teacher who made me feel excited about science and that was in what we called Junior High back in my day. That’s when I encountered an educator named Mrs. Colby, a delightful woman with so much passion about all things related to science that her fervor was contagious, and I caught the bug. 

I was in Mrs. Colby’s class during the early days of space travel when flights lasted only minutes and technology was still rather crude. NASA was being built in Houston and the original astronauts were buying homes down in the Clear Lake area while being feted around town as heroes. For a time there was a temporary NASA facility not far from the school where I listened to Mrs. Colby rapturously explaining how the rockets that would carry them into space actually worked. It was the first time in my life that I actually cared about such things. 

We learned about our own atmosphere and what it meant to travel fast enough to break through our protective covering of oxygen into the weightlessness of space where there is no air. Mrs. Colby made all of those facts sound incredibly fascinating like science fiction that had somehow become real. I remember feeling a sense of history and great importance in her lessons, so I clung to her every word. 

One day she rolled a television into the classroom and prepared us to watch John Glenn become the first American to orbit the earth. She so giddy with excitement that I realized we were about to witness something quite extraordinary. I watched with the greatest anticipation and wonder that such a feat was even possible. I believed in that moment that Mrs. Colby was giving me a great gift of being part of something that I would remember for the remainder of my life. In that moment I thought that she was magnificent with her explanations of what was happening and her joy in humankind’s ingenuity. 

Mrs. Colby was a very rational woman who taught us to think. Perhaps that is what I remember most about her. She showed us the value of the scientific method and demanded proof for our hypotheses and statements. She spoke to us of the painstaking processes that led to great discoveries. She helped me to understand how very complex all systems are and how unraveling truth is critical to our existence. Somehow I don’t recall all of the facts that she taught us, but I do remember her admonishing us to be willing to look beyond the seemingly obvious by taking the time to do our research and apply logic to every situation. 

I never saw much of Mrs. Colby once I moved on to high school. I had classes with one of her sons, but never thought to ask him how she was doing even though I often felt so much gratitude for what she had taught me. The years passed and I lost track of her and her son. I often spoke of her and her influence on me and my memories of her were always so warm. At my fiftieth high school reunion I learned from her son that she was still alive and as passionate about the world as ever. It made me smile to think of her advancing into her nineties with her brilliant mind still observing the world around her. 

Last week Mrs. Colby left this earth for the great unknown. I’d like to think that she experienced some grand feeling of floating weightlessly into space toward new adventures in her next life. I imagine her analyzing her situation and wondering what made her transition possible. Like a true scientist I believe she would have been fascinated and delighted by the process and wishing that she had a way to tell us all about it. 

Some teachers leave a lasting impression on us. Mrs. Colby was one of those people for me. Junior High was a horrid time in my adolescent life. I felt awkward and lost in rather typical ways. For the most part seventh and eighth grade are enshrouded in a kind of fog in my mind. My math teacher in eighth grade terrorized me even though she was probably a nice lady. I can’t even remember anything about most of my other teachers. I waded through the gawkiness of those days with a kind of dread with the exception of the hours spent with Mrs. Colby. She broke through my self absorption and presented a way of viewing the world around me that was filled with optimism and possibilities. She focused my mind on the joys of learning and exploring and creating. She was in a word quite wonderful. 

I wish that I had been able to convey my deep appreciation to Mrs. Colby while she was alive. I suspect that few of us take the time to actually thank the educators who have meant the most to us. Mrs. Colby was that rare teacher who changed the trajectory of my life. For that I have always been grateful. I will never forget her and I hope with all of my heart that she is now resting in blissful peace. I’d like to believe that she is now on a grand adventure and finding answers to the many questions that she so often posed. Godspeed, Mrs. Colby. You were one of the best.  

A True American Hero

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Some days we wake up with so many plans and then something unexpected happens and our minds go into a tailspin. Nothing that we had thought to do seems as important as it did when we first awoke. We get a new perspective about everything. Such it was on the morning that I wrote this blog. I had many ideas for my topic for the day when I suddenly learned that Colin Powell had died. The news was so shocking that I literally was unable to remember my previous thoughts. I only knew that I was overwhelmed with a great sadness and sense of the highest respect for this great man. 

It seems that General Powell died from complications of COVID-19, which somehow seems so incredibly ironic given his amazing and often dangerous military career and the fact that much of the country is acting as though the pandemic is over. The realization that he was fully vaccinated makes it even more difficult to accept. He was such a strong and powerful man of impeccable character that he seemed almost invincible, and yet a tiny virus was his ultimate undoing. 

Colin Powell was one of my heroes. He personified the qualities that I most value like integrity, honor, loyalty, courage, intelligence, kindness. I had once hoped that he would one day be President of the United States because I believe that he was a very good man of the kind that we truly need in order to bring our country out of the divisiveness and anger that seems to only grow worse as forces deny truth, foster lies, support our worst human traits. Colin Powell not only loved this country, but he was also willing to understand, note and attempt to correct its flaws. 

The death of Colin Powell feels like a kick in the gut. It’s one of those moments when I falter just a bit and ask questions that might better be left unspoken. Why is someone so good, so principled taken from us while we are plagued by others who do nothing but attempt to rile us up and turn us against one another? Why can’t we all see that Colin Powell’s is the example that we should follow, not the rowdy, self-centered power hungry individuals who dominate so much time in the media these days. Colin Powell’s death is a reminder to us all that even the powerful are not immune to the most mundane aspects of humanity. In remembering his remarkable life we should all pause to take stock of how we have been acting of late. We must ask ourselves if we are truly working as he always did for the good of all of the people in our country, not just those who appear to share our views. 

The time has truly come for all of the posturing and political power playing to cease. The truth is that each and every one of us might lose our lives or the lives of loved ones in this battle with COVID-19 and its effects. This is not a time for selfishness, but rather a moment when we have the opportunity to make sacrifices for the good of humankind. COVID-19 does not care what country we inhabit, what color our skin may be or what language we speak. It does not respect borders or religions or any of the categories that we humans have invented for dividing ourselves into tribes. It is simply waiting to attack and in our fury with one another we are allowing it to continue to win. 

From the beginning this has been a world war against a tiny virus that we should have been able to control but for our hubris and self-righteous indignation. We have worried more about whether or not we will be able to get the exact cuts of meat that we want at the grocery store than how to share our knowledge and tools for fighting the disease. We are more focused on an election that is still a year away than on human suffering that is happening today. Many of our leaders care more about power than bringing us back together. We are pandering to the lowest common denominator of our human traits rather than having the courage to admit that we will continue to lose great men like Colin Powell every single day until we are able to join hands and work together to fight for what we know deep down in our hearts is right. How many more must go before we cease and desist with our carping?

I realize that Colin Powell was eighty four and therefore more vulnerable to COVID-19. I know that he had multiple myeloma which no doubt made him less likely to maintain the antibodies that he needed to fight the virus. Some might say that it was simply his time to go and the fact that COVID-19 accelerated his demise is neither here nor there. Nonetheless, to me his death should be a reminder to us all of how far we have deviated from the very best characteristics of our American democracy. Our fall from grace has created a fertile breeding ground for hate and chaos and the virus. None of this needed to happen, nor should it have happened, and yet here we are. 

I would like to think that we might come together in mourning for Colin Powell. There would be no more fitting tribute for him than to be inspired by his character and willingness to give so much of his life to protect us all. He was a true American hero. Let us honor him by returning dignity and respect to our nation. We might start by naming one of those military bases with Confederate names after General Powell. He most certainly earned that small tribute. Let’s go even farther by ceasing our internal civil war and reuniting in a spirit of doing whatever it takes, not matter how long it takes to help pull our country and our world from the brink of destruction. We can do it. We have done so before. The time for coming together is now.

In Memory

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Some mornings I arise and have no idea what to write about in my blog. On those days I search for inspiration in many different places. This morning my mind seems to be in a state of overload. I have so many thoughts of fabulous topics that I am hardly able to focus. If I had the time I would literally spend the entire day creating one essay after another. Instead I must choose only one idea, and that is as difficult as attempting to pick one flavor of ice cream in a store with a multitude of varieties. I suppose that in such a situation I would ultimately default to butter pecan, my all time favorite. Thus it shall be with today’s offering, a bow to a story of our humanity, the topic that seems to have driven my entire life. 

One of my former bosses has endured the most horrific tragedy imaginable. This past summer his eldest son was shot and killed in a road rage incident. He and his two boys had enjoyed a wonderful evening of attending a Houston Astros’ baseball game. The trip home should have been a joyous one, but instead turned into a nightmare that seems more fitting for a movie than real experience. 

The traffic around the baseball stadium can be dreadful after a game. People are jockeying to get out of parking lots and into the proper lanes for merging onto freeways and roadways as quickly as possible. It can be a maddening experience even in the best of circumstances. On this particular evening it was as frustrating as usual. My friend nonetheless allowed several cars to move in front of him in an effort to be gentlemanly. He ultimately decided that he had done his share of being kind and moved forward. This angered a man who was out on parole from a previous conviction for violence. There was a quick exchange of some well known hand signals and my former boss drove on toward his home thinking nothing of what had just occurred, just another night in heavy Houston traffic.

It soon became apparent that the felon was following my friend, moving at speeds of up to eighty miles an hour. He was not going to let his anger subside. He was determined to seek revenge for the slight of being cut off from the flow of traffic and the insult of that hand signal. In a state of panic my friend tried to lose his pursuer and then the unthinkable happened. The sound of a gun shot rang out inside the car, then another. My friend’s eldest son had been shot in the head. 

I don’t know how my former boss had the presence of mind to speed his way to a hospital emergency room, especially given that the crazed shooter was still chasing him. In the chaos of the moment he managed to call 911, but much of what happened later became a blur. His beautiful son died that night, and his world has been upside down ever since. His tragedy is one that none of us will truly understand, but he has attempted to record the evolution of his feelings in daily posts that are so brutally honest that they are often difficult to read. Nonetheless, they are some the most inspiring thoughts that I have ever read.

My friend wants good to come from his son’s death. He urges all of us to perform random act of kindness to counteract the evil that exists in the world. His hope is that we can overwhelm ugliness and violence with goodness. Still, it is incredibly difficult for him to control his anger, especially given that the perpetrator of this horrific crime is out on bond until his trial which may not come for two or three years. The unfairness of this flaw in our justice system haunts and taunts him. He wonders how it is possible that an admitted murderer can be roaming freely while his beloved son is gone forever. 

There is nothing that any of us can say that will help my friend. His agony is so real and only he can learn to deal with it. All we can do is listen and offer our support. His honesty is courageous and inspiring. His journey through hell is gut wrenching. I search for his posts each morning and cry over the hell that he is enduring. I want to be able to give him more than inadequate words that sound so hollow and trite because he is allowing all of us to learn from him in the most extraordinary ways. 

My former boss is an exceptional educator. His entire life has been about teaching generations of young people. He has dedicated himself to preparing his students for life. He is very good at what he does, but now his motivation is stronger than ever. He understands that the future lies in the young men and women in his school and in schools across the world. He wants to impart the wisdom and the determination that they will need to face even the most unimaginable horrors. He desires to keep them optimistic even as it is almost impossible for him to see past the ugliness that lurks in so many corners of his reality. Each day for him is a balancing act of maintaining optimism and surrendering to his rage. 

In situations like this, words all seem banal. Advice seems to be patronizing. What do any of us know of how it feels to have a beloved family member murdered? All we can do is learn how to really hear the voices of victims of violence and injustice. We can do our own best to take a deep breath and be kind wherever we go as my friend requests we do. We can make special efforts to do something nice for someone every single day in honor of the young man whose beautiful life was so unfairly and brutally ended. We can love and appreciate what we have rather than being continually dissatisfied. We can learn how to be more honest and compassionate with one another. These are the things that my friend hopes that we will all learn from his tragedy. Let him be our teacher. His lessons are real and important. Taking them to heart may be the most wonderful thing that we may do for him in memory of his beautiful son. 

Keeping It Simple

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I hit a milestone the other day. I received my fourth Prolia injection since the beginning of the Covid pandemic. I get the shots every six months, so doing the math tells me that it has been exactly a year and a half since I first became aware of that we had a big problem in early March of 2020. I remember wearing a mask to the infusion center on that day and sensing the tension at the in the clinic where I get the medication. At the time I had no idea how many innocent souls would eventually die from this virus, nor did I truly understand how much my life and those of the entire world would change. I suppose that I believed that we would all isolate for a brief time, flatten the curve, and somehow quickly stop Covid-19 in its tracks. In the beginning helping the cause was kind of an adventure, a challenge to remain safe and well.

So much has happened since that first of my four Prolia shots during a pandemic. Like almost everyone I have been touched personally by the illnesses and even tragic deaths of loved ones who contracted the virus. I have watched our nation devolve into a kind of civil war of wills, dividing us between masked and unmasked, vaccinated and unvaccinated. I have witnessed a weariness that does not appear to be going away anytime soon. I have had to adjust to a hermit-like lifestyle punctuated by a calendar almost devoid of social appointments. I have reverted to the simplicity of my youth when my mother’s financial condition forced her to find joy in the most ordinary things. That early training has served me so well during the past eighteen months. I have been able to adapt to my new normal, and for that I am so very thankful. 

Each morning is much the same for now. I arise fairly early and open all of the blinds in my windows to the rays of the rising sun. I prepare a small breakfast and take it to my front room where I see the children gathering for the school bus on the corner of my street. They invariably bring a smile to may face with their chatter and laughter. They literally set the tone for my daily mood. 

I check the news on my laptop and then make certain that my blog is properly posted on Facebook and Twitter. I no longer have the hundreds of readers who once regularly perused my offerings, but that is alright. I used to have a rather large contingent of people who followed me religiously, but I suspect that some of my views have driven them away. Now I mostly write for the sheer joy of doing so. I suppose that it is a selfish endeavor, a daily challenge that reminds me that I am still very much alive in a world that has lost so many. The couple of hours that I take creating my sentences, paragraphs and general themes make me happy. I balance my writing with listening to the sounds of my neighbors, and it is always comforting to realize that we are all still doing well. 

I teach or tutor ten students a couple of days each week. I suppose old educators never really retire. I like being able to help my kids understand mathematics. I work with them on everything from fourth grade algorithms to the more intricate nuances of functions in Algebra II. On days when I am not teaching them directly I inspect their homework to determine whether or not they have understood the processes that I have taught them. I plan for the next sessions. My hours are filled with meaning when the school year is in session. I don’t have time to fret over staying at home without an end to my self imposed isolation in sight. Being with my students is so delightful that I hardly miss cavorting around town.

My mother used to take us for short rides as a form of entertainment. My husband and I have followed her example and done a great deal of exploring around the area with our car. Since I am an inveterate people watcher I truly enjoy watching the world from the windows of our truck. There is a quirkiness about the people and places around me that is fascinating. Laughing and talking with my husband as we take our little treks is as enjoyable now as it was when we first met over fifty five years ago. 

Several times we have taken longer journeys. It has been wonderful to experience sunrises and sunsets in different places. We’ve learned how to see the smiles in people’s eyes even as masks cover their mouths. We laugh at children who seem to have taken to wearing masks so much more easily than so many adults. We feel a stronger kinship with the people around us than ever before. We have been reminded of how precious each person is. We have so much more patience and understanding of them. We value everyone in a more intense way than ever before.

Dinner time has become an almost sacred ritual in my home, just as my mother made it be when I was a child. Now my husband and I prepare dinner together, often turning the process into a time for learning new recipes or cooking techniques. Sometimes we pour some wine and toast the good fortune of our day. We share conversation and laughter, and when the days are not so hot we gather in our backyard to enjoy the feasts we have prepared. We hear the children playing, the adults coming home from work, and watch the birds and butterflies that flit around our garden. Life is still very much around us and it is beautiful. 

We’ve gained the requisite Covid twenty pounds like so many that we know from indulging in Oreo cookies and ice cream as a substitute for a life on the town. We promise to begin exercising in earnest once again lest we have to purchase all new clothing, but for now our chubbiness does not seem to matter as much as it once might have. We are just happy to be alive and well. We don’t really miss all of the extra frills of consumption that seemed so integral to our lives only eighteen months ago. It takes very little to make us joyful these days and somehow that seems to be a very good thing.  

The Butterflies Are Talking To Us

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I get butterflies in my stomach whenever life becomes uncertain. That jittery feeling seems to affect my entire being whenever I have to speak before an audience or enter a room filled with strangers that I must impress. The butterflies descend upon me when my observational skills and anxieties combine to warn me of impending tragedy. I felt the full force of such fluttering as rain fell relentlessly in my city for days and nights during hurricane Harvey. Those butterflies were rather indelicate with me each time my mother retreated into a cycle of psychosis and paranoia from her bipolar disorder. In those moments I felt as though I was suffocating under the weight of fear for the for life and spirit of my mom, but they also prepared me for the battles that ensued. 

I love butterflies. They are beautiful and peaceful most of the time. The bring out my smiles and seem to brighten the world. Somehow using them to describe the jittery feeling that comes and goes with the worries of the world seems to be a kind of oxymoron, a ridiculous metaphor for the anxieties that we all feel. It underplays the pain that fear wreaks on our bodies and minds as we navigate through the ups and downs of life. It is one thing to get butterflies in our stomachs on a roller coaster where the outcome is fairly certain, but quite another to apply it to real life. We’ve all experienced or at least witnessed how horrific situations can come in the blink of an eye. The extent to which the butterflies invade our well-being depends greatly on what kinds of tragedies we have endured. 

Someone who has battled cancer gets those butterflies each time he/she returns for tests to determine whether or not the offending disease has returned. A victim of violence is forever searching for signs of danger. I find myself feeling uncomfortable anytime my loved ones are traveling in a car. If I could encase them all in tanks rather than ordinary automobiles, I would. I become an eight year old child whose father died in a car wreck over and over again. Those butterflies overtake me and make it impossible to even breathe when I think too long and hard about the possibility that someone I love may be harmed just as my daddy was. I have had to learn how to use every aspect of my mind and body to chase the butterflies away when their warnings overwhelm me.. 

Right now the butterflies are gathering in my stomach with regard to the state of the world. I hear of earthquakes in Pakistan, floods in Italy, fires in the western United States and the nervous flicking of wings tickles my concerns. I observe the disunity and anger in my own country and the roar of flapping wings shouts warnings in my ears. I see suffering across the globe and those tiny creatures cause me to lose my balance, to stumble as I try to determine what I might do to help. I don’t want to simply surrender to those feelings that make me feel so uncomfortable, but I also flounder under the realization that I do not even know how I, as one person, may make any kind of difference when there is so much to be done. 

I hate those butterflies, but I also love them. Their warnings are real. They tell me to be alert, to take a deep breath, to proceed with caution but to move forward nonetheless. They prepare me for what may come. They let me know that I do not have to be ambushed by unexpected surprises. I have learned how to overcome my own reluctance again and again. I know that I can make it through pain and sorrow. The butterflies simply allow me to be forewarned that tough times may be ahead. Perhaps I should simply surrender to them rather than fighting them as though their intent is to harm me. It really is okay to be engulfed now and again. Each of us will have those moments. We don’t have to be soldiers clad in armor. Admitting to our fears  while also doing our duties can sometimes be the most productive way to face horror. 

Perhaps we too often lose sight that the butterflies in our stomachs are a mechanism that helps us through the toughest of times. They warn us to be vigilant. They are a sign that we care. They are an alert system that measures how we are responding to the dangers in life. They are not an enemy, but rather a most remarkable form of protection for our well being. We would do well to heed the flapping of butterfly wings in our souls. We can use that energy to propel ourselves forward with more courage and stamina than we may have ever thought we possess. 

Being stoic and resolute has a limited effect on bettering a situation. If we humans are to survive we need to be willing to speak of the butterflies in our stomachs. We will find in such admissions a commonality that spans the world. The woman in India whose home is so hot that her family cannot sleep knows of those butterflies. The young black man who is innocent of wrongdoing has felt those butterflies rising into his chest when he is stopped by police for some unknown reason. The refugee from a desolate country is overwhelmed by butterflies as he attempts to sneak his family across the border to a nation of greater freedom. If we begin to listen to the stories of butterflies rather than automatically judging those telling the tales, perhaps we will begin the process of making the world a place where the butterflies have to land less and less frequently in our stomachs. The butterflies are talking to us with each flap of their wings. I think it is time we listen.