I’m Not Holding My Breath

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It’s been a particularly warm winter here in the Houston area, a time when it’s not unusual at all to see folks walking around in shorts and flip flops in the middle of February. We’ve had a few cold fronts here and there but mostly the heavy coats have gathered dust in the closet. A warm jacket can last for years in this area because it is so rarely used. It’s more likely that a coat will dry rot than wear out from overuse. Some folks love our temperate climate but I prefer to have temperatures frigid enough to use my fireplace, wear my flannel pajamas and bundle up with a muffler and gloves. So far traditional winter is a bust here.

Snow is an oddity in my neck of the woods. Those of us who live here remember the exact dates of such occurrences when we rushed out to make tiny snowmen even if there was only a smidgen of the white stuff sticking to the ground. The mere sight of white flakes floating in the air creates so much excitement here that students disregard rules and rush to the windows to witness an event that is so rare. We dream of having a white Christmas or making snow angels in January, but we know not to hold out too much hope that our wishes will come true. We have to travel to colder climes to satisfy our desire for walking in a winter wonderland.

If I saw white stuff coming from the sky I would suspect that pollen was descending upon us early. We get our share of that in both the spring and the fall. We have a preponderance of allergies so much so that a doctor once told me that I have the “Houston nose.” When I asked him what that meant he explained that my nasal cavities bore the scars of countless sinus infections brought on by allergens in the air. I worry more about the fact that nothing has frozen the plants or the mosquitoes than the coronavirus. I suspect that we are all in for a world of hurt come spring and summer. A nice cold snap sometimes mitigates the problems with pollen and such but so far everything is blooming as though we are a tropical paradise.

We’ve had more dust blow in from Africa over the years than snow. Now and again everything left outside is dusted with a fine mist of dirt. We don’t need ice scrapers or snow plows but hoses and blowers always come in handy. This year I’ve had to fight the dust on furniture with a vengeance, something that is not nearly as bad in colder weather.

My daughters both lived in the upper midwest for a time. They had to invest of things like waterproof boots, heavy coats, warm hats, and snow shovels. My husband and I once purchased a snow shovel while we were visiting up there just for the novelty. It came in handy for shoveling the leaves that littered our driveway each fall. It worked like a charm and our neighbors wanted to know where we had found such an oddity for clearing the mess from our trees. They were shocked to learn that our nifty device was intended for snow. Many of them had never before seen such a wondrous object.

One year I won an ice scraper at a white elephant Christmas party at school. I had no idea what it was for. I showed it to a number of people who were as baffled as I was. I finally found my answer from a friend who had grown up in Michigan. Sadly I gave it to Goodwill thinking that I would never have a use for it. Lo and behold there was a hard freeze that winter that left the windshield of my car with a thick coat of ice. I wasn’t sure how I was going to remove the offending crystals because I had heard on the news that I should not pour hot water on the glass. An ingenious neighbor made a makeshift scraper out of cardboard and I followed suit. Once I got to school all of the transplanted northerners were happy to accommodate me with the equipment that they brought with them when they moved down south.

We get snowbirds around here, folks who come to visit the area for the winter. I know a number of people who are now retired who have a winter home here and a summer home where there are cooler days in the hot months. It’s a nice way to live if you can afford it but most of us are stuck in one environment or another.

I can’t imagine purposely running away from the cold. I’ve always imagined that I would enjoy several months of snow and ice, but those who have endured it assure me that I would soon grow weary of snow mixed with dirt that becomes a brackish gray from all of the people walking or driving over it. They complain about the short days that grow dark at three in the afternoon and the dreariness that feels endless. When we are watching nature burst forth in blooms in March they still have the possibility of snow and many more weeks of cold.

I suppose that the grass is always greener, or in my case whiter, somewhere else and I should just be satisfied with the weather that I have. Still a lovely white carpet of snow once in a blue moon would be nice. Cold days with soup simmering on the stove would be wonderful. An opportunity to wear my coat would make me happy. I’m still hoping for a snowy day, but I won’t hold my breath.

Pure Bliss

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The annual RV show hit Houston this week reminding me of the time when we first decided to hit the road each summer to see the USA in our Chevrolet. We had a bright blue Chevy truck, a feeling of wanderlust and the germ of an idea about traveling across the United States smoldering in our minds. The RV show nailed our resolve to take some summer trips when we found a super deal on a camper shell for the back of the truck. Mike worked all spring that year turning the interior of the enclosure into a veritable wonder by installing sets of wooden structures along the front and sides that served the dual purpose of holding our gear and serving as platforms for mattresses that would become our beds. By the time summer vacation came around our truck was a self contained traveling machine.

We got married young and life took over to keep us busy with the art of surviving. Before we had even celebrated our first anniversary my mother became ill with first and most frightening episode of psychosis. I was not even twenty one when I had to swing into action to get her the medical care that she needed and bring my younger brothers to our apartment where they stayed while she was in the hospital. I spent that summer visiting Mama in the hospital, caring for my brothers, and keeping up with the bills that came to my mother’s mailbox.

There was no time for travel that year and the following summer the birth of our first child kept as at home as well. After that there always seemed to be some kind of family emergency or illness that left us busy on the home front, including one year when Mike developed a rare disease and ended up spending three months undergoing chemotherapy four days a week. We were in our early thirties when things finally seemed to settle down and thoughts of summer road trips became our dream.

Our first foray in our rolling conveyance, mobile restaurant and makeshift hotel was to Rocky Mountain National Park. We packed away our cooking gear, food, lanterns, clothing and other necessities and niceties in the wooden boxes along the perimeter of the camper shell and placed almost perfectly fitting mattresses on top of the lids to serve as our sleeping quarters. A fourth mattress on the floor of the truck bed would become Mike’s spot for when we grew weary each evening. With a tape deck playing Willie Nelson crooning On the Road Again and piles of books to keep us entertained during the long drive we were as excited as we might have been if we were traveling first class.

We took our sweet time reaching our destination with a couple of stops at campgrounds along the way. It was then that we developed an elaborate system for keeping things organized. Our youngest daughter entered the camper first and skittered to the far back bunk which was the smallest in total surface area. Next came our first born to claim one of the side beds and then me on the opposite side. Finally Mike crawled into the middle space on the floor and we settled down for a few last minute stories and jokes before we finally fell asleep in what we considered to be our high class quarters. With windows along three sides we were quite comfortable and content and mostly excited about the adventures that lay ahead.

Once we reached Estes Park, Colorado we parked our truck in a spot at Mary’s Lake Campground in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. We set up shop under an awning that Mike created from a gigantic tarp. We had two dish tubs for cleaning our cookware and a propane double burner stove for preparing our food. A plastic tablecloth on our concrete dining table completed the scene of our temporary home along with four folding chairs around the fire ring. We could not have been happier about our vacation heaven under the stars.

We’d travel into the national park each day and spend hours hiking and enjoying the majestic views. At night we’d build a fire and enjoy hot dogs, hamburgers, soup, chile or whatever culinary delight we fancied. We could not have been more comfortable or satisfied with our accommodations and we thought ourselves the luckiest and happiest family on the planet.

We took side trips to see a railroad museum, a few ski towns, a mining town, lakes and other wonderful sights. We had contests to see who could find the best souvenir for five dollars or less. We told spooky stories and read book after book. We gazed at the stars in wonder and marveled at the glory of our world.

Over the years we put thousands of miles on our little vacation conveyance and home. We saw Texas, Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, most of Colorado and even the Canadian Rockies. Eventually we outgrew the our sleeping quarters and opted for a gigantic tent for sleeping but we would never forget those glorious summers inside our magical truck when we saw so many wonders of the United States and realized how lucky we were to have each other.

The girls are grown and gone with family’s of their own now. Mike and I have a much fancier travel trailer complete with its own kitchen, bathroom and comfortable bed. Air conditioning and a heater protect us from the elements and we even have a television to entertain us when we wish. It’s perfect for the two of us as we age but on its best day it simply can’t compete with those times when we and our children were young and thinking ourselves so fortunate to have the cramped quarters of that tiny camper on the back of our truck. Those trips were incredible and filled with the most special of memories. I can still hear our laughter as we climbed into our beds after a long day of exploration. It was in those days that we experienced the meaning of pure bliss.   

Pairing the Past with the Future

history_2It’s been nine years since I retired from education but I have continued to regularly work with students. I can state without hesitation that they are learning mathematics at a much higher level and faster pace than any program that was around when I was a student back in the nineteen fifties and sixties. They are seeing quite advanced material but I’m always a bit concerned that there are still too many who are struggling for mastery of the concepts. I fear that we still operate from a one size fits all mentality when it comes to the pacing of our teaching when we still have students chomping at the bit to move forward and even more struggling to keep up with the flow of information. We seem to have made a race of the learning process rather than tailoring it to the individual needs of each student.

Part of the problem that we have is that as we progress there is more and more material to cover within any discipline in the same amount of time that there was over a hundred years ago. This becomes a particular problem when it comes to and subject but particularly with history, whether it be about the state, the nation or the world. Choosing what to cover and what to leave out has created well known problems with the historical knowledge that young people possess after finishing the required coursework in school. When I was a student the curriculum essentially ended with World War II, leaving more time for in depth emphasis on critical topics. It’s been more than fifty years since I formally studied history and so much has happened since then that needs to be presented and discussed, but what has to go to make room for more recent events?

I suppose that if I were to suggest one very major change to the general education programs in our school it would be to have history be an integral part of every single year of school rather than providing a bit here and a bit there as it now is. American History should be taught in the the fourth or fifth grade, again in the eighth grade and for two years in high school with World History being given at least that much time as well. Courses such as psychology and sociology are certainly interesting but they are not as essential as learning about the past and understanding its impact on both today and tomorrow.

We need a better educated population not just in the STEM subjects but also the social science of history. There is great wisdom in the old saw that history helps us to learn from the mistakes of the past. It furthermore helps us to make connections that provide us with tools for analysis of the present.

I sometimes shudder when faced with the ignorance of history that I encounter with far too many of today’s young. I recall talking with a group of students who knew little or nothing about the political differences between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson which lie at the very heart of the arguments dividing our nation even today. They were unaware that we live in a republic rather than a pure democracy and have no idea what that fact implies. They were unsure of what actually happened in the holocaust and new virtually nothing about the Russian Revolution and the Cold War. They seemed to get most of their information from dubious sites on social media and much of what they did know      was either limited or outright wrong.

While we certainly need our mathematicians and scientists to combat our the problems that plague us, we also should demand that our young graduate from high school with a clear understanding of where our world has been and we must insist that the knowledge that our teachers impart is done so without a tinge of propaganda or editorializing. History is best taught from primary sources that demonstrate the differing points of view that led to decisions that influenced events. Students should be able to see how and why such choices affected outcomes. They need to learn that none of us ever operates in a vacuum and that how we react to events is almost always determined by the worldview of our own time in life.

I studied English grammar and literature in college along with mathematics. I learned that analyzing language or writing requires an understanding of the times in which a tract was written. It is far easier to understand characters of a story when we have a concept of what it was like to be them in a certain time and place. History is as important to the study of the great artistic works of writing as knowing literary devices. Our human experience as portrayed in art is dependent on the times in which the works were created and we will never fully understand them if we do not have some knowledge of history to guide us.

Education has essentially been done in the same basic manner for some time now with only a bit of experimentation here and there. We’ve had a kind of revolution with the teaching of mathematics and science that emphasizes both theory and practice using abstract, visual and concrete examples. It’s time that we rethink the scope and sequencing of history classes as well to allow enough time to study events and ideas in depth. It’s a challenge that we seriously need to undertake as overwhelming as it may seem. We owe it to our children to adequately prepare them for the future and the key to doing that well lies in understanding the past.   

The Passage of Time

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I suppose the surest sign of advancing age is in full view whenever someone speaks of the good old days with a kind of reverence. I have to admit to being guilty of that more and more often even though I purport to be a forward thinker. Sometimes it just feels as though everything is changing way too fast. Time is fleeting and for some reason it seems that the older I get the more it accelerates. In just a few short years I’ve gone from being part of a younger generation to serving as one of the heads of the family as all but less than a handful of my elders have left this earth. It’s an uncomfortable feeling to watch traditions slowly change or even die because the world is so demanding of everyone’s time.

I haven’t known whether to laugh or just sigh when I hear my children and some of my former students speak of the times when life felt so much better as though they were speaking of some ancient age of glory that no longer exists. Somehow in our rush toward innovation we’ve managed to make so many things more complicated and more expensive than they have ever before been. The idea of decreasing our workloads and having more time for ourselves and family has seemingly become a broken promise as the hours that we gained through our inventiveness have been filled with new demands at higher and higher costs. Ours has become a kind of pressure cooker lifestyle particularly for our young who worry incessantly about what their futures may be.

There really was a simpler time but it was never trouble free. We humans have grappled with universal problems since the beginning of history. Our need for the basics of survival, security, relationships and self development are part of our makeup. They transcend time, place, ethnicity and politics. When all is said and done we are all searching for the same things and when we witness the death of a superstar like Kobe Bryant we are reminded that even he was after all just like us in his love of family. With all of the adoration that was shown to him, it was inside the small circle of those who knew him best that the ultimate purpose of his life was defined,

I vividly recall my days as a young adult just beginning the process of becoming responsible. I was in many ways playing a role that I was yet to fully understand but I had huge dreams and felt unstoppable. I truly did think that I somehow had a better grasp on life than the adults who had been instrumental in raising me from a child and I felt that it would be my generation that would somehow set the whole world aright in a way that no other had managed to do.

Back then an apartment cost only a bit of change over a hundred dollars and the rent included all utilities. I could purchase gasoline for nineteen cents on occasion. A loaf of bread was a quarter and a gallon of milk was under a dollar. I bought groceries with a twenty dollar bill and dreamed of a glorious time when I might be rich enough to have an income of a thousand dollars a month. My first semester of college cost me less than five hundred dollars but I remember worrying that I might not have the finances to pay for the next semester and the next.

I indeed struggled to maintain a budget even with the seemingly low prices of everything because the cost of living was proportional to the average wages that people made. The first lesson that I learned as a fledgling adult was how much brighter my elders were than I had given them credit for being. I also began to appreciate the sacrifices they had made to care for me and my peers, almost always without complaint. I saw how difficult it is just to provide the basics of life. I was tired most of the time and became more and more in awe of the men and women that I had seen faithfully attending to their jobs day after day when I was still a child. I realized how much I had taken their efforts for granted.

Through each new decade my confidence rose along with my income. So often my progress was offset by rising costs. By the time my own daughters were attending college the cost of a semester ran into the thousands of dollars. Groceries and gasoline and housing prices required far more than they had thirty years before. A thousand dollars a month was a pittance and would not even cover the most basic lifestyle. Worse still was the realization that with all of the dreams I had shared with my generation we had yet to find the nirvana for the world that we had been so certain we would be able to create. Like generations before us we had fallen into the cycles of survival that have ruled mankind for centuries.

Now I’m watching my grandchildren set out toward adult life with the same swagger that I had when I first began to live on my own. Their world is a much different place with pressures and problems and costs that are staggering and yet I have great faith in them. They may not be able to conquer all of the problems, for surely new ones that we have yet to even realize will arise. I have faith that like my peers and my parents’ peers and those of countless generations before us they will learn what they need to do and eventually take the reins to tackle whatever challenges may come.

We live and learn, advance and falter, create wonders and make messes. It is who we are as people. Ideas and things come and go just like we humans do. Costs rise and so do incomes. We chip away at our problems and actually begin to eliminate some. We figure out how to defeat polio and how to build machines that travel into space. We are innovators at heart, essentially kind people who overcome hatred and violence again and again. The costs of improving ourselves and our world may rise but we always seem to find ways to make things happen. Life goes on.

Paying For My Sins

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I spent most of January recovering from the parade of birthdays, anniversaries and holidays that actually began with my husband Mike’s birthday way back in September. For whatever reason our family has very little to do for most of the year and then we go into overdrive in the fall. The temptations that come from celebratory occasions overtook us during the last few months, making our sensible diets only a memory and pulling us from our exercise program with a vengeance. The result has been terrible backsliding and an increased girth around our midsections. Never to be undone by anything or anyone I have found myself working hard for the past several weeks to recuperate from my sins of indulgence.

I teeter between guilt for my inability to look the other way when temptations of cookies, wines and other delights continually passed my lips during the many weeks of revelry and the thought that life is short and I should grab every second of enjoyment while I am able. Still, I do feel better when I am kinder to my body and it always seems worthwhile to have a bit of control over my impulses. Surely there is a nice compromise between total abstinence in the face of goodies and a bit of imbibing in the name of having a good time. Sadly walking that very thin line is not as easy as it may seem and while I expended a great deal of effort doing so, I found myself failing to maintain control time and again when faced with cornucopias of delight .

There’s a commercial for something or another in which a woman is preparing for a dinner party. She is cooking a multitude of dishes to accommodate the dietary preferences of her expected guests. There’s this one on Keto, that one on Paleo, and so forth. I’ve lately experienced the same frustration in putting together a meal so I know the feeling of attempting to make everyone happy. It results in having mountains of different kinds of food at the ready just in case. Being a hostess is becoming ever more complex which is why I try not to foist my own food preferences on others whenever I am invited to gatherings.

As a child I was taught to be satisfied with whatever was offered. My mother suggested that if I wasn’t sure that I really wanted to eat some item I should either take none of it or just choose a small dab of it until I was certain that I would actually be able to eat all of it. Never was I to make comments about what I preferred or disliked. I’ve remembered my manners well over the years and self police myself when out and about rather than regaling others with long descriptions of my current eating needs or preferences. I always find something that works for me or I eat small portions so that nobody is aware that I am on a different sort of diet.

I appreciate that there are many different reasons why some people need certain types of food. My father-in-law is diabetic so I always prepare items that work for him. I have a nephew who has food allergies and his mom, a pediatrician, brings goodies that he can eat so that the rest of the children can have their cakes and cookies while he enjoys his own. I’ve begun to cook with mostly spices rather than salt due to my husband’s heart disease so I always keep a shaker of salt on the table for those accustomed to a bit more punch. I have started to include more roasted vegetables in my menu but I have many fans of my macaroni and cheese as well whom I never deny. In other words I try to create a variety of foods that will take almost every person’s preferences into account.

I love the traditions of our family celebrations but because there are so many one after another I am piling on the calories in a regular succession from September all the way through the first week of January. Each year I have to spend the next many months trying to recoup the progress that I had made with diet and exercise. Like the sinusoidal graphs of trigonometry I go up and down in a regular pattern each and every year. Some call it the yo-yo effect and I am subject to it’s unhealthy effects. I go down and then I go up, down and up, over and over again from year to year. My only small defense of my actions is that I always get myself back in shape. Nonetheless, I often dream of having so much self control that I breeze through the holidays with my healthy intentions thoroughly intact.

I’m like a monk these days, eating mostly vegetables and fruit, avoiding salty, sugary, fatty foods. I’ve closed the rings on my Apple watch for many days now. I make walks and trips to the gym a top priority. My progress is slow but steady and perhaps by next September I will have recuperated from my self inflicted overindulgence. I make resolutions to have more self control when the season of joy rolls around again, but I do love my brother’s pecan pie and my own pumpkin variety. Surely it won’t matter much if I yield a little here and there as long as I don’t overdo. Perhaps if I’m a bit better at measuring just how much turkey and dressing to put on my plate I will be okay, but it’s just so yummy that I want to go back for seconds.

I have made a vow that if I show signs of living as long as my one hundred eight year old grandfather did I will follow his example. When he turned ninety he threw all caution to the wind. He did and ate exactly what pleased him laughing at the idea that something was most surely going to take him out of this world so he might as well enjoy the final ride. He eked out eighteen more years while feeling no guilt when he ate cake and donuts. I like his thinking.

For now I am recuperating from my sins and I have to admit I am also feeling good. I’ll continue my self imposed restrictions and think about how to deal with future temptations tomorrow. Maybe this is the year when I finally learn how to be good and stick with my resolve.