The Quest

MichaelSome people seem to have a destiny. They know from an early age what they want to accomplish in life, and then pursue that dream as soon as they are able. My brother, Michael, is one of those people. When he was still a toddler he walked around the house carrying a book by Werner von Braun describing a futuristic journey to the moon. It was filled with illustrations depicting how the spacecraft might look complete with drawings of the accommodations inside. Micheal studied the book carefully even before he was able to read, and he told anyone who asked that he wanted to be a mathematician because he liked numbers.

Michael was true to his word, graduating from Rice University with a degree in Electrical Engineering and later earning a Masters degree in mathematics. His job search involved deciding what sounded the most exciting because he was recruited for a number of positions. It did not surprise any of us when he chose to work for a contractor with NASA. After all he had been fascinated by space from those early days and by the time he was ready for the workforce mankind had already found its way to the moon. Sensing that there was more to come he eagerly began what would be a long career associated with our nation’s exploration of space.

I don’t think I have known many people as eager to go to work each day as Michael always was. His job was fun, exciting. He never told us much about what he was doing other than to sometimes speak of the long hours that he devoted to his occupation quite willingly. It was only over time as we prodded him with questions that he told us about his work with the International Space Station. We learned that he had been part of a unique team that developed the computer program for the navigational system for this extraordinary feat. He was proud of his contribution, but quite humble in his description of the need for precision in all of the necessary mathematics, noting that a slight mistake had the potential of causing a spacecraft to overshoot the destination and wander forever in space.

Michael’s work with NASA also led him to a meeting with the woman who would become his wife, the love of his life. With a characteristic determination he decided to call her but soon found that she was not easy to find because her name was more common than he had realized. Not to be daunted, he dialed one number after another until he finally reached her. By then he was already hooked and determined to win her heart. The two of them worked at their NASA related jobs and raised three terrific children in Clear Lake City, the home of NASA and many of their dreams.

Michael spent the entirety of his career working toward the various goals of the space program. He was so well regarded that his superiors often urged him to stay a bit longer than he might have. Finally he decided that it was time to enjoy the fruits of his labors in retirement. so in December he left his full-time position with the promise to return one day a week to help in the transition from his expertise. His was a glorious career that brought him great satisfaction and an unparalleled sense of purpose.

Micheal plans to travel, spend time at his cabin in Colorado, and spend more moments searching the heavens with his telescope. He will be free to revel in reading and enjoying music and his grandsons. I suspect that he will continue to see mathematics as something fun to explore, and will no doubt keep abreast with any and all steps forward in the quest to learn about the vast universe in which we live. His curiosity knows no bounds and will not be subdued by a lack of formal work.

All of us are very proud of Michael and his achievements. His brilliance never fails to stun any of us. We all marvel at the intricacies of his mind, especially my grandson Ian who has seemingly followed in his uncles footsteps by showing tendencies toward genius early in life much as my brother did so long ago.

My mother was always unabashedly enchanted with Michael and his capabilities. She nurtured his talents and encouraged him to follow his dreams. She would be quite happy to note his accomplishments as would my father if he had lived long enough to see his son finding so much joy and success in his career. I suppose that nature and nurture joined together magnificently in creating the outstanding person that Michael became.

We will celebrate Michael’s birthday tomorrow as well as his retirement. There is something somewhat poetic about the fact that he was born on Three Kings Day, the Epiphany. Three wise men followed a star on a long ago day and found the meaning of life in the form of a child born in a stable. Like those men Michael too was a wise man whose quest lead him to a most satisfying life. He has seen and done wondrous things all while looking toward the stars.

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Becoming

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My guess is that many women received Michelle Obama’s book, Becoming, for Christmas. I know that I did and it has been a joy peering into the life of the woman who once served as our First Lady. I’ve enjoyed biographies and autobiographies from the time that my reading skills went beyond tales of Dick and Jane or David and Ann. I’ve devoured hundreds of them and it little matters whether or not the subject of each book is accomplished or ordinary. I simply enjoy learning more about people, and from my reading I have concluded that most people are similar in their hopes and dreams, even those who lived long ago. For that reason it was fun to learn that someone as brilliant and highly regarded as Ms. Obama is really not all that different from any of us. the honesty and humanity with which she told her story is surely the reason that she is beloved by so many, and why she ranks at the top of the most respected women in the world.

Michelle Obama’s life began in the most ordinary of circumstances. She was born into a loving Chicago family and spent her youth living in a rented upstairs apartment on the south side of that city. Her mother and father encouraged her and her brother to pursue education as a way of leveling the playing field of life that is too often difficult for minorities and those of lower socio economic status. Her journey was wrought with challenges that she overcame with a feisty spirit and determination to work hard and prove her own worth.

I thought of my own circumstances as a young girl as I read of the times that Michelle Obama fought to show the naysayers that she was indeed highly capable. While I will never know the horrors of racism, I can identify with the kind of negativity that was often hurled at women as they attempted to compete in a male dominated world. I also knew the roadblocks created by living in a low income single parent family where advantages were mostly nil.

I found myself understanding Michelle Obama’s frustrations and fears as she undertook the journey of becoming the person that she is today. Hers was not an easy path to follow even though on the surface it may have appeared to onlookers to be charmed. Time and again she worried that she might not be as good and strong as she wanted to be, and then set her sights high and did all of the hard work that her dreams required. Luckily, like me, she had parents who convinced her that she had everything that she might ever need to be a resounding success. She chose to believe them rather than those who discouraged her.

As I read the pages of Ms. Obama’s book I found myself considering the idea that each of us face difficulties and setbacks as we strive toward particular goals. We are told that certain aspects of what we hope to achieve may be impossible, sometimes even by well meaning persons. How we react to the negativity determines so much of the trajectory of our lives. How we allow the circumstances of our situations to define us often colors the results of our efforts.

I grew up in a world in which powerful women in the work force were a kind of rarity, and yet I met some remarkable role models along the way, not the least of which was my own mother. A next door neighbor was an artist and architect who recognized my talents and  encouraged me to use them. Another neighbor was a lawyer who often invited me to her home to discuss the world in a very adult fashion, something that she believed that I was quite able to do. I was charmed by these women who were trailblazers in a world where women still mostly stayed at home caring for families. They taught me that I might be anyone that I chose to be.

When I first began high school the principal told me that he did not think that I would be able to keep up with my peers in the honors classes, but that he would give me a short probationary period to demonstrate my abilities. Like Michelle Obama I accepted the challenge with every bit of fight that I had inside. I worked twice as hard as I might have just to prove that I was equal to the others, and I not only secured my place in the prestigious academic program but graduated with honors four years later.

In the same school my college counselor insisted that I choose a state school rather than one of more exclusive institutions. He pointed out that my low income would stand out among the wealthy and powerful sons and daughters from a class well above mine. He worried that I would feel far too uncomfortable in such places, and suggested that I set my sights a bit lower. Since few in my family had even attended college I heeded his advice unlike Ms. Obama who determined that she would shoot for the stars and then lasso them with her intellect and work ethic. As I read about her own forays with those who felt that she was unsuited for a university like Princeton I cheered her for choosing to take the risk. She possessed one the most important character traits that one might have in this world, grit.

Becoming is an important book for all women to read regardless of political preference. It is not so much about beliefs regarding the essence of our country as it is about the very personal values that a woman or perhaps anyone must cultivate to enjoy life on one’s own terms. It is the story of a girl who used the very best of the talents with which she had been blessed to became an accomplished individual in her own right and then the equal partner of one of the most powerful men in the world. Her story is one of hope built on determination and a willingness to ignore the voices of negativity that have always seemed to abound in our world. Michelle Obama is indeed a role model for the ages and a mentor for helping each of us to become our very best.

The Universe Awaits

DannyI truly love all of the young men and women who were once my students. Still, now and again there are those who stand out just a bit, making me certain that they will have a glorious life ahead. One of those is Danny Martinez. I have written about Danny in previous blogs. His faith is a beautiful thing to witness and whenever I need a special prayer I always make certain that Danny is on my prayer chain. His earnest belief in the power of God is quite special. He likes to remind me that I should already know that God is caring for me, and in every case I find his words to be true.

Danny is also a person filled with optimism and determination, a man who is not willing to give up no matter how difficult things become. It has been said that grit, or the willingness to persist, is one of the most important adult qualities. If that is so, and I believe it is, Danny will go far in life.

Danny is the first to tell the stories of the time in which he made a dramatic change in his life. He was only in the fifth grade but already having scrapes with the law. He was going nowhere fast, and somehow he peered into a dreary future and decided that he needed to become a better person. He saw education as the pathway to the kind of existence that he wanted. He yearned to be an engineer and maybe even to one day be selected for a job at NASA so that he might have a shot at being an astronaut. In pursuit of that goal he buckled down and became the kind of student that every teacher dreams of educating. By the end of his high school years he was admired by his classmates and all of his teachers, earning him the highest honor that the faculty give to one senior each year.

Danny headed to the University of Texas Permian Basin for college. His struggles continued. His family’s car broke down on the way to the campus and lacking the money to stay in a motel his loved ones slept inside their car. Danny had few opportunities to travel home because the cost of doing so was too much. He might have complained about his fate, but in characteristic fashion he looked on the bright side of things and soldiered on without mentioning his travails. His optimism and sense of purpose impressed those he met, and so he made many friends at the university and caught the eye of his professors as well.

At one point Danny finally managed to get an automobile to drive back and forth but sadly had a very serious wreck that might have severely injured him save for what appeared to be a miracle. Danny was certain that God had a plan for him and so he was not discouraged even when it took him longer than he had anticipated to earn his degree. He kept working hard and believing that God’s grace would pull him through. In the process he became beloved on campus and just last year was named the outstanding student. Everyone saw his indomitable spirit just as we had when he was back in high school.

Danny graduated this month and I suspect that he is only at the beginning of what will surely be an incredible future. Danny is not one to give up, nor is he likely to forget his humble beginnings and all of the people who have encouraged and supported him along the way. He already knows that God is by his side, and he proclaims the joy that his relationship with the Father has brought him.

Danny grew up in the north side of Houston, in a place where there are many temptations to take the easy way out. He chose instead to put in all of the effort he needed to demonstrate his heart and his abilities. Not once did he make any excuses, even when times became tough. He simply carried on taking one day at a time, convinced that he would be able to achieve a life that had at one time seemed almost impossible when he spoke of it to those who would listen. In the process Danny has influenced members of his family and friends to make the kind of changes that he has. He is not only propelling himself forward, but also bringing others with him. He is indeed an exquisitely beautiful soul.

I am bursting with pride over Danny’s accomplishments. I still recall the first time I met him when he was a freshman in my second period Algebra I class. He was so welcoming, and he encouraged the other students to behave and take advantage of the opportunity to learn. Even then he was extraordinary,

I know that my friendship with Danny will continue and I look forward to watching him navigate adult life with the same aplomb that he has always shown. “Congratulations, Danny Martinez. The universe is waiting for you, and we know that your impact will be as incredible as you are.”

A Different Drumbeat

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It may surprise some of the folks who only know me in one narrow aspect of my life that I tend to be someone who marches to my own drumbeat. If, however, you consider the totality of my life it becomes a bit more apparent that I’ve mostly done things my way. At school and work I was always the “good girl,” that person who was loyal and dependable. I tended not to make waves, but when things became just too uncomfortable for my way of seeing the world, I usually left in search of a place that allowed me to be the person that I felt I needed to be. A few times I pushed the envelope a bit too much before departing, but I am proud to say that I stood up for the ideals that make me who I am.

I’m known as a very forgiving person, but I prefer to think that I have a knack for seeing and understanding differing points of view. We humans are a diverse lot, and it would be ridiculous to believe that there is actually a one size way of thinking that fits everyone. Only in certain extreme cases is it true that there is an identifiable wrong or right, such as with murder or hate. Most actions or statements that bother us are in reality simply different ways of interpreting or reacting to life. These are the gray areas that create tensions and rifts between people, and are the causes of our feelings of anger and even betrayal. It is in such instances that I have a knack for realizing that there are indeed many different ways of tackling problems, some of which seem contrary to one another.

Thus it has been for me my whole life which has given me the reputation of being a soft hearted person. The truth is that I am able to take a deep breath when I disagree with some person or situation and then very rationally analyze our differences without becoming emotionally entangled. My mother realized that I had this talent and often suggested that I should have gone into law and become a judge. She marveled at what she saw as my fairness, but to me this “talent” is just the way I am.

I suppose that my ability served me well as a teacher and later a school administrator because I was never too quick to rush to judgement of a student or parent or teacher. Instead I wanted to assess each situation not so much from my own set of standards but from the realities facing each individual. I often realized that a parent who was cussing me out was simply frustrated  and at a point of extreme confusion and hopelessness. By validating the anger and and really listening to concerns I diffused many horrific scenes and reached a mutual solutions to problems. In other words, I was able to see the driving forces behind behaviors that were far deeper than just rudeness or refusal to follow protocols.

Sometimes the unfairness of life has little to do with rules and everything to do with feelings. While we may not be able to understand someone’s anger, we can listen for the unspoken words that lead to their hearts. How each of us feels is so complex that actions and words alone may not truly reveal the truth of the matter. For that reason we need not be so quick to react. Sadly, it has become the way of society to tap out a few keystrokes to demonstrate either our approval or disapproval of anything and everything that we observe. Sometimes we do such things with complete strangers whom we cannot possibly know. It is a terrible habit that sometimes leads to violence from those with unsettled minds. We must be careful and a bit more kind lest our words or reactions fuel flames that are already burning. It is possible to change the course of history if we are cognizant of the power of our commentaries.

President Barack Obama was often criticized for noting that many individuals who turn to illegal activities are lost souls unable to find any direction or sense of hope in their lives. He suggested that helping our young in particular to find positive pathways might prevent acts of terrorism or violence. As an educator I believe that he is absolutely correct. I have watched young men and women change under the guidance and concern of someone who chose to help them rather than to grind them down. People seek acceptance and when they find it from the good, then they themselves often become good. When it only comes from those who are hateful trouble looms for all of us.

Notwithstanding those whose minds are so evil that no amount of kindness or understanding will help them, we each have the power to reach others simply by having a willingness to understand why they believe and act the way they do. It is not up to us to be judge and jury of their behaviors, but instead to demonstrate our care and concern. I know from forty years of working with people that such methods actually create miracles. Self-righteous behaviors are off putting for everyone. They presume correctness when there may not be a clear cut standard. Punishing, judging, ignoring are mechanisms that rarely have as much effectiveness as listening, teaching, understanding. 

A recent example from my own experience may explain the point I am attempting to make. It is a somewhat silly example that escalated into some very unfortunate commentaries on social media. It centers around an incident on The Voice, a singing competition on NBC. Over the course of a season the number of singers competing for the top spot are slowly but surely whittled down by the coaches and the viewers until there are four finalists who vie for the championship.

This season a most unfortunate dilemma occurred when one of the contestants became ill and unable to participate on the live show. The situation became even more complex when she was one of the three persons with the least number of votes from the previous evening. In such cases the performers sing a quick song and there is a so-called Instant Save by way of Twitter.  The young lady, who happens to be fourteen years old, could not sing, but the producers chose to allow the viewers to vote for her anyway based on past performances. In an ironic twist her coach, Adam Levine, had two members of his team in the bottom three and one of them actually sang that night. In a rather bumbled moment he praised the present team member for his performance, but noted that he could not just ignore how wonderful the young girl was and urged the viewers to consider voting for her as well. Surprisingly she ended us winning a spot in the semi-finals and at the same time became an object of rage along with Adam Levine.

I saw things a bit differently from those who were insisting that Adam Levine be fired and the young singer be disqualified. I suspect that Adam meant no harm in his crudely crafted plea. Instead I think that he felt terrible that such a talented young girl might lose her opportunity because fate had dealt her a blow at such an inopportune time. He tried to demonstrate his support for both of his team members, but it was all in all a terrible place for anyone to have to be. I suppose that no matter what he may have said or what ultimately happened he would have been criticized, but the level of anger was far beyond what it should have been.

When I suggested on social media that we all needed to put the situation into perspective and calm down just a bit I was pilloried as though I had defended the actions of Adolf Hitler. I was called some vile names and even told to just “shut up.” I ended up congratulating all of the talented singers and wishing them the best in the future as well as noting that the variety of opinions being expressed was part of life. Nonetheless there were those who were intent on vindictiveness. Ironically I understand and accept them as well, but worry that our society has become so filled with anger that we become unhinged over a television program. There is so little willingness to forgive in today’s world and that is a tragedy.

I suppose that we will one day grow weary of the ugliness and things will ultimately change. I already see signs that give me hope.

Taming the Beast

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Worry is common to all humans. We think about things that concern us, sometimes mulling over solutions in our heads. Worry can a positive motivator that helps us to do things well, but it can also become so unleashed that we find ourselves in a state of anxiety that interferes with our ability to perform even routine tasks. Those who suffer from anxiety disorders often become unduly depressed. Life becomes so stressful that it actually physically hurts.

I have felt those pains of anxiety at different times in my life. I generally assumed that there was something defective in me whenever I reached the point at which events piled up on me with such a vengeance that I felt as though an enormous elephant was sitting on my chest. I’ve experienced such attacks during the times when my mother was in the throes of her bipolar disorder, or whenever my schedule became so filled that I was rushing from one task to another. I was especially prone to such feelings back when I was a student juggling family and work with my studies. I had to learn how to “tame the beast” that threatened to leave me drained of my energy because I knew that I had responsibilities to shoulder. Mine was a long journey to understanding just how much I might push myself so that I would not break like my mother had done.

I began to realize that keeping myself healthy was my top priority in spite of my tendencies to want to be a servant to others. I likened my situation to being on a plane when the oxygen masks come down in an emergency.  I had to secure my source of air first and then help those around me. That meant being able to read the signs in my mind and body that told me that I was heading for a fall. It also required a kind of restructuring of my daily rituals. I had to set limits for myself with an understanding of exactly how far to push. 

Long after I had graduated from high school one of my former teachers admitted that the faculty had experimented with my class. They had attempted to determine just how far they might drive us before we fell apart. He confessed that they went too far in some cases and did a far better job of challenging students without breaking them in subsequent classes. It was a revelation that stunned me because I had literally thought that there was something wrong with me because it had been so difficult to stay on top of all of the work that we were required to do. He insisted that I had passed with flying colors at the same time that some of my classmates were crashing and burning. What he didn’t realize is that I sometimes studied far into the night, feeling exhausted beyond measure and worried that I was intellectually deficient. Nonetheless, I learned how to balance my week day marathons with inestimable amounts of sleep on weekends.

When I went to college I first attempted to carry eighteen hours of coursework but learned that it was too much. I scaled back to fifteen hours and carefully selected a variety of difficult and easy courses. I immediately created calendars outlining my daily duties for studying as soon as I received my syllabi. I literally parsed out every hour of every day and stuck with my plan religiously. Doing this helped me to manage my worries because I even allowed for unforeseen emergencies and still met every deadline with ease. I almost never found myself cramming at the eleventh hour, and I came to realize that the crazy demands of my high school had been largely responsible for helping me to craft a plan that worked for me.

I have carefully and meticulously followed this kind of regimen throughout my lifetime. It has carried me through times that threatened to undo me and my family. Still some events are so horrific that not even a steadfast plan will work. In those moments the old familiar symptoms of insomnia and weight on my chest often returned. That’s when I would glance at my calendar and create a “mental health” day. I knew when to sneak in such a luxury and did so without guilt. It might end up being a day in bed catching up on much needed sleep or I might spend it enjoying pleasures like watching a movie marathon or enjoying a day at the beach. Such pleasures always seemed to be enough to clear my head and help me to focus on whatever I needed to do rather than on my concerns about what might go wrong.

I hide my worries well. I find that there is a time and place for them during which I revel in them and allow them to wash over me. Then I walk through my “magic door,” an entry way to the tasks at hand. I have learned to work hard and then play hard. I am able to compartmentalize each of the segments of my life. It is a survival skill that I suspect I first discovered when my father died and I felt as though I would never again be the same. I realized then that work was actually a kind of panacea for all of my worries both real and imagined. If I concentrated on doing other things my anxiety was held at bay at least temporarily.

I do indeed feel for anyone who is paralyzed by fears and worries. I have deeply felt their pain and know how debilitating it can be. I understand that they do not wish to be held captive by emotions that steal their energy and enthusiasm. Sometimes not even the best of intentions or efforts can still the voices that take away their joy. In those moments they must reach out for help beginning with the people who love them most. Other times the most courageous thing that they may do is to seek medical guidance as well.

Those who are anxious are often the most caring and responsible individuals among us. Their feelings are so deep that they can become paralyzed when the world is too much with them. We can all help, but the worst possible response to their pain would be to provide them with platitudes about getting a grip on themselves. What they are experiencing is so very real and painful. Their journey to healing begins with love. Only then can they begin to “tame the beast.”