A Festival of Fall

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One of the grandest discoveries of my retirement has been finding the Houston Garden Club Annual Bulb Mart. When I was first adapting to the concept of having all of the daylight hours to myself I began looking for things to fill the time. I signed up for a class at Rice, found a tutoring gig, began writing daily, and treated myself to going to the movie theater in the middle of the day. Because I tend to be a high energy person I still needed more to keep my mind entertained. That’s when I decided to search on Google for special events around my town. Luckily I found an advertisement for the Bulb Mart, and I’ve been attending ever since.

The ladies of the garden club plan their gala fundraiser all year long, and quite wisely choose a date in mid October when the weather in Houston is generally Chamber of Commerce level glorious. Somehow they avoid the rains that so often are a precursor of fall. I’ve often wondered if they consult the Farmer’s Almanac because in the seven years that I have been attending, not once has there been even a cloud in the sky. In fact the weather has always been glorious to match the moods of all of us who walk around with big grins on our faces as we gaze at the lovely offerings.

The venue for the event has changed from time to time, but it has been held at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Westheimer for the last few years. The main focus of the occasion is on an incredible variety of bulbs including tulips, irises, day lilies, amaryllis, an more. Table after table offers a variety of genres and colors. There are also many plants native to the Houston area as well as those that thrive in our particular growing zone. The ladies who volunteer are always knowledgeable and helpful in providing good information about how to best grow a delightful garden. For those wishing to have more information there are lectures and little seminars happening throughout the two day event as well.

My backyard garden is filled with gorgeous amaryllis plants that burst forth in glory each spring. They are magnificent in variety and color and never fail to fill me with joy. It’s exciting to watch them display their unique features one by one after the winter freezes are gone. I add one or two bulbs each year to go with those that have faithfully bloomed since I first began this glorious tradition.

The plants from the Bulb Mart are made for the gumbo soil, high humidity and rain soaked environment that Houston gardens must endure. I have yet to have any of them fail to flourish. I have a particularly wet side of my house that is exacerbated by the runoff from my next door neighbor’s backyard. Their entire area is dominated by a large pool and concrete decking that makes for intense drainage problems for me. On most days the area that abuts on their property is water logged. I invested large amounts of money trying to find something that would grow in that condition all to no avail. The roots would rot and I would have to try something new. Last year I spoke with the experts at the Bulb Mart and invested in a plant that seemed to be suited for the habitat. To both my surprise and delight the plant has thrived and bloomed with delicate white flowers even as the watery problem has only worsened with the continual rains of September and early October.

I attended the Bulb Mart again this year just as I have for the last seven. It has become a “must do” for me. I get an email in the summer reminding me of the date and I literally plan my October activities around it. This year I pre-ordered a few items to insure that I would get certain varieties before they ran out. The day was as lovely as it always seems to be and I found myself falling in love with my city one more time. The smiling faces of the workers and the shoppers reminded me of what a friendly place Houston is. It’s a kind of small town with four million people. The first hint of fall made me forget the heat and humidity that has kept us indoors for weeks. It was a picture perfect day in every possible way, made better by the joyful plants that I bought to enhance the gardens that bring me peace and contentment all year long.

I’m not a person who can countenance change too quickly. I like a certain orderliness in my life. Too much shuffling around creates a kind of chaos in my heart and mind. I prefer quiet and routine. The Bulb Mart has become a constant for me, a mediating force for the variables of living. I depend on it to bring me peace and contentment. Thus far it has yet to fail me.

If you happen to be in Houston around the second week of October check the events calendar to see if the Bulb Mart is happening. The admission is free and everyone gets an informative little book describing the various kinds of bulbs and when and how to plant and care for them. There are even door prizes for a lucky few. Best of all there is a festive and friendly spirit that is so typical of Houston. It’s fun just to walk around and celebrate the glory of nature at her best.

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Just Keep Going

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We’ve all known people who are sad sacks. They view life through a negative lens. When things don’t go their way, they blame themselves or perhaps their lot in life. On the the other hand we know people that we would describe as being optimists. They encounter just as many disappointments as the rest of us, but they remain positive by finding important lessons to be learned or they see a disheartening event as providing potential for growth. When we look at each type of person we find ourselves wondering how there might be such differences between people. We prefer the cheeriness of optimism, but worry that perhaps each of us is endowed with a set of immutable personality traits that determine our reactions to life’s ups and downs. It feels as though we are somehow the victims of fate rather than the captains of our own souls. 

The truth is that both optimism and pessimism are learned traits, barring chemical imbalances, brain disorders and injuries or mental illness. It is possible for any of us to become more positive if we focus on a few simple practices to assess both the successes and failures that we experience. I’ll use a couple of examples to illustrate how this works.

When I was in high school I ran for Student Body Secretary against two other classmates. We each campaigned for a week, restricted by certain guidelines as to what tactics we might use and how much we were allowed to spend. At the end of the period each of us spoke to the assembled students outlining reasons why they should vote for us, and describing our plans for improving the school. That afternoon everyone voted. I lost and will never know how badly because the actual tabulation of the votes was secret.

If I had reacted pessimistically I might have charged that the rules were unfair and that I had somehow been slighted. Even worse, I may have felt that the defeat was a sign that my peers disliked me. I would have questioned myself and my own self worth. I might even have sworn never again to submit myself to such humiliation, after all during the campaigning a boy had insisted that nobody liked me and that I didn’t have a chance of winning. I might have believed that he had been right.

Instead I chose to be a bit more optimistic about my loss. I was surely disappointed and even a bit saddened that I did not win, that was only natural. Nonetheless, I understood that the two individuals who had run against me were extremely accomplished and even a bit more well known in the school at large. They were good people who undoubtedly attracted the support of many members of the student body. It wasn’t that I was somehow worthless, only that I didn’t quite garner as much support that I needed. I had to pat myself on the back for even trying because it was scary to stand in front of everyone and open myself up to criticism. It was a learning experience for me on many, many levels. I have never regretted my decision to run, and I believe that I actually entered adult life with a bit of an advantage over my peers because I had learned how to compete and how to gracefully accept the disappointments that were sure to come now and again.

My grandson who is a runner has also exhibited the classic traits of an optimist during this year’s cross country season. He had become accustomed to landing in the top rung in competitions, but this year he has been challenged by a team from a school that is consistently taking the prizes. He has found himself just behind them again and again, but instead of hanging his head and speaking of unfairness or wondering if he had overestimated his own abilities he decided to compete with himself. His goal was to keep bettering his own time and thereby inch closer and closer to being in the winner’s circle once again. He has developed a friendship with a runner from another school and the two of them push each other in the races. It’s become their way of improving. What had begun as a frustrating season is now beginning to show progress, mostly because my grandson refused to wallow in pessimism  and instead focused on the things that he had been doing right. He worked on perfecting his strengths rather than worrying about his weaknesses and he is doing better with each passing week. Given that he is only a sophomore, it seems certain that he will be doing great things by the time he is a senior if he keeps up his positive attitude.

We know that being optimistic is a healthy way to be. It makes life easier all the way around, but what are the characteristics that we might learn to use as we go through the ups and downs of our lives?

First, and perhaps most importantly, in a bad situation optimists look for the things that went well, rather than dwelling on mistakes. They are able to pinpoint the good aspects of even a disaster. They also use failures as learning opportunities, ways to improve in the future. They do not take rejections personally either. In other words they don’t obsessively wonder what is wrong with themselves. They understand that sometimes we just can’t quite achieve as well as we might like to do, but if we make small changes here and there we will surely improve. For this reason they tend not to give up. They pick themselves up and try again and again. They also realize that each of us is a bit imperfect and that bad things sometimes happen to good people. They don’t dwell on the negativity or over analyze the bad aspects of an event. They have a healthy relationship with themselves and don’t allow others to intimidate them into feeling inadequate. They are able to take note of all of the blessings that they most surely have.

It would be worth practicing optimism as often as possible. There are certainly times when we deserve and honest critique and we would do well to grow from it. The trick is not to become so obsessed with an idea that we are fated for bad luck or that we are so damaged that we are somehow unworthy of happiness and success. Whenever we find ourselves falling into a kind of pity party, it’s time to consciously reflect instead on all that we know is good. When we do that we will generally find ourselves laughing again, and ready to just keep going.

And In Other News…

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There are some days when the news stories bring a smile to my face. Sometimes I am feeling happiness and on other occasions I am simply amused. At recent day this week was filled with items that brought a great big grin to my countenance.

I started the day hearing the wonderful news that Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz had been recovered. I have to admit that I didn’t even know that they had been stolen, but it was nice to hear a happy ending anyway. It seems that there were several pairs of the iconic shoes which were purchased by collectors. I saw one set when I visited the Smithsonian a few years back. An identical pair was on loan to a museum in Minneapolis because that’s the city where Judy Garland was born. They had been inside a class case that was supposed to have an alarm that alerted police in case there was a robbery. Someone came in one night, broke the glass, and walked out with the beloved shoes leaving no fingerprints or any other clues as to who had been there. For some reason the alarm rang but didn’t inform the local lawmakers and so for ten years the theft has been an unsolved mystery.

The crazy thing is that everyone thought that it would be impossible to sell the slippers, so many worried that perhaps they had ultimately been destroyed. There was even an idea that they may have been thrown into a river or lake. That led to attempts to find them in waterways in or near Minneapolis, but all efforts became dead ends. Amazingly a tip resulted in rescuing the shoes, but at this point the lawmakers are saying little about who the culprit may have been.

It was a feel good story. The kind of happy ending that the old movies always seemed to have. Thats something that often seems a bit hard to come by in today’s world which is filled with so much rancor and so many misunderstanding. For a few moments the newscasters while smiling as they reported on the wonderful news, and so were those of us who heard the story.

Then there was a bit of ridiculousness that occurred at a school in China. It seems that a principal at a kindergarten decided to welcome students for the new school year by hiring a pole dancer to give a demonstration at an assembly for the kids and their parents. The scantily clad entertainer gyrated suggestively causing utter shock among the adults in the audience. To say there were a few complaints is an understatement.

Ironically the principal stood her ground, defending her actions by noting the the dancer has many unique skills. She also defended her actions by insisting that this was an inspirational way to convey to the students that there are many forms of creativity. She was convinced that the children on the whole loved the performance, and questioned the reaction of the parents

This same school administrator had ended last year’s school sessions with a display of weapons and instruments of war. While some of the parents objected to the appropriateness of that particular sendoff, most people got too busy with summer plans to make too much of a stink. When they saw the latest inappropriate display, they felt compelled to speak out. This time their cries of alarm were taken seriously and the principal was promptly fired.

The total cluelessness of the still bewildered former school leader  left me speechless, but also roaring with laughter. I wondered how long it would take Saturday Night Live to do a skit poking fun at this incident. I can only imagine how much more hilarious their portrayal of this educational disaster would be. Knowing the world of schools as well as I do I wondered how many other major faux pas had been made by teachers and administrators whose common sense is sorely lacking. I know that I have seen a thing or two in that regard, and I tell my self that nothing can shock me, but I have been befuddled again and again.

Many long years ago a teacher at one of my schools decided to show a movie to her students. She turned off all of the lights in the classroom to make the environment more closely resemble a movie theater. Sadly the darkness made her drowsy and before long she had fallen asleep. I can’t even repeat what happened after that, but let us just say that things that took place in cars at the old drive inn theaters had nothing on the action that happened in that classroom. After that we all had to abide by a school rule that made us keep all of the lights on no matter what, and encouraged us to closely monitor the students at all times

I probably shouldn’t laugh about such horrific educators, but some things are so ridiculous that there is nothing left but a sense of humor to muck through the craziness. Thus I have to admit to enjoying the story about that Chinese principal. I’m sorry that she lost her job, but really…!

She Still Takes My Breath Away

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Growing up as a child I was lucky enough to live in a neighborhood where families came to stay. It was a rarity to see someone move. For that reason I went to school with many of the same kids from the second grade all the way until I graduated from high school. Among those who grew up with me were a set of twins, Terry and Tommy King.

At the time I thought that they were unique. I had never before seen two people who looked so much alike. It didn’t occur to me that I would one day have two sets of twin grandchildren of my own. Back then Terry and Tommy were like royalty in my mind. They were both handsome, athletic, highly intelligent, and best of all very kind. I suppose that I was not the the only girl in my class who had a crush on one or the other of the duo. By high school, however, it became quite apparent that Terry was already head over heals for a beautiful girl named Dixie.

I didn’t know Dixie very well but whenever she accompanied Terry somewhere she seemed to be a very sweet and gentle person much as he was. I liked her very much and thought that Terry had found a wonderful girlfriend. It was obvious that he was quite taken by her and I wished him well in my heart because he had always been so considerate and gentlemanly to virtually everyone. I was not surprised at all that he was the Vice President of our student body, or that he co-captained the football team. He was not just good at everything, but he was also humble about the many positive attributes that he possessed. It seemed very right that he had found a gorgeous girl like Dixie and that the two of them appeared to be so perfect together. 

We graduated from high school in 1966, and went our separate ways. I went to a couple of early reunions but thenI would not see Terry again until we were planning our fiftieth high school reunion. I had learned that he had married Dixie and that they lived not far from where it did, but somehow our paths didn’t cross. All the while he was living out his life with Dixie and I was living mine.

Terry’s wedding to Dixie was fifty years ago this month. Over the years the two of them created a family and even built a thriving business that took advantage of Dixie’s talents. Mostly their love grew ever stronger, and whenever Terry spoke of Dixie his eyes would light up with affection and pride. Whether having fun or facing disappointments and tragedies they were a team.

Spending a lifetime with another person can indeed be challenging, but somehow Terry and Dixie made it seem easy. Nonetheless, as their daughter describes their journey it took love, commitment, hard work and a never ending sense of family to keep moving forward together. Just as when he was young, Terry along with Dixie was a rousing success at being married. My guess is that he and Dixie knew when it how to balance the serious aspects of a relationship with those that are just plain fun. They have enjoyed decades of friendship with each other and with other couples with whom they laugh and share all of the ups and downs of living. Their mutual reverence for one another, family and friends is truly an inspiration.

I was quite touched when Terry and Dixie’s daughter posted a beautiful tribute to her parents on Facebook complete with a number of photographs of the couple on their wedding day and at various functions over the years. In each and every image the couple fairly glowed with the love that they felt for one another. They were as beautiful as celebrities. Even more wonderful was a comment that Terry left under one particular picture, “She still takes my breath away.”

Sometimes it seems as though the idea of loyalty to a single person for a lifetime has become almost old fashioned. Affairs and divorces are commonplace. It is a truly inspiring thing to see two people so in love after five decades. Our world would do well have have more people like Terry and Dixie to show us the wonder of an unwavering relationship. Through their union the world has been just a bit better than it might have been. Their children and grandchildren will certainly attest to that, but so do those of us lucky enough to know them as friends.

Terry has always been a fine person. He found a woman who matched his attributes and together they have been even more remarkable. All of us who know them send our congratulations on fifty years of growing together in age and in grace. May they enjoy many more.

Grace

Nancy

I have always loved the name Nancy. I called one of my favorite dolls Nancy, and when I grew older I read every single Nancy Drew mystery that I was able to find. One of my all time favorite friends is named Nancy as well, so it was only natural that I would instantly like Nancy Marquina when she was a student in my Algebra I class. Her easy going nature and ever present generosity became immediately apparent, and so I truly enjoyed being in her presence.

Like me, Nancy was new to the world of KIPP charter schools, but she had adjusted to the academic rigors and steadfast rules rather easily. I would learn that her flexible attitude is one of her greatest strengths, but she is also a very determined sort. Each afternoon she attended my tutorials even though I sometimes suspected that she had already mastered the concepts. I think that she enjoyed the review time, but mostly she came to encourage friends who struggled a bit more with mathematics than she did. She became a kind of assistant to me, helping other students who were struggling to learn different ideas.

My favorite moment with Nancy came one afternoon when I was doing my best to once again explain the Distributive Property. I had tried arrows and pictures and all sorts of examples and there were still students who were confused by the concept. Nancy very politely suggested that I use a chant that she had learned from one of her former teachers. She drew a little bunny next to the problem that we were solving and then said, “Hippity hoppity, Distributive Property” as she sketched little footprint tracks as though the rabbit had come to the rescue. She patiently explained that the little creature needed to multiply both of the numbers inside the parentheses, not just one.

I was about to thank her and note that this was a high school class and using bunnies probably would not be appropriate when I saw the smiles of understanding on the faces of the students who had seemed hopelessly lost only minutes earlier. A few examples later proved that they had indeed finally caught on to the process. Since that time I’ve shared Nancy’s cute little idea with many students, and each time they respond positively and with utter delight. I always tell them that it was not my notion, but one from a favorite student. 

I have been fortunate enough to stay in touch with Nancy Marquina as she progressed through high school and later entered college. What I know is that she is someone who is humble and loyal and kind, bringing joy into the lives of the people that she meets with no expectations of having her kindnesses returned. It seems so appropriate that the name Nancy means grace because that is what she brings to people, and with her natural beauty both inside and out she is the very image of grace.

Shortly after I retired form education my nephew asked me to help tutor some of his students in preparation for a high stakes mathematics test. I readily agreed because I still enjoy being able to unlock the understanding of the world of numbers in those who see them as a mystery. I soon learned that so many students had signed up for the Saturday morning sessions that there was a need for one more person to work with them. I made an appeal to some of my former students who had been especially good in math, and Nancy responded almost immediately. She was eager to do her part and I knew from my own experiences with her that she would be great.

Not surprisingly the students fell in love with Nancy. She arrived each Saturday with a big smile and tons of encouragement for her charges. She often stopped to purchase donuts for her crew which only sweetened her relationship with the kids. Mostly she used her caring and empathetic nature to instill the kind of confidence in them that had been missing before she came into their lives. That’s just how Nancy is, someone who is always thinking of others more than herself, quietly making a difference without asking for credit for her good deeds.

Nancy eventually enrolled in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Houston. She took more and more difficult engineering and mathematics classes with a sense of purpose that drove her to be unafraid of the challenges that lay ahead. Over time she felt that something was missing in her major, so she did some research and spoke with some experts to see if there was another line of study that might better suit her interests. That’s when she found the world of Geophysics and it took little time for her to be hooked.

There was nothing easy about majoring in Geophysics, but Nancy has rarely avoided difficult situations. She dove into the task, taking science, mathematics and engineering courses one after another. With a kind of grit that motivates the most adventurous among us, Nancy moved closer and closer to achieving goals that she had quietly set for herself long ago. Today she will graduate from the University of Houston with a major in Geophysics and a minor in Mathematics.

I am so happy and proud for Nancy Marquina. I always knew that she is a remarkable woman. I have admired her spunk and her concern for others for many years. I have little doubt that she will enjoy many more successes in her life. She is one of those people who perseveres when others have quit. She is an unafraid warrior who pushes herself and helps others along the way. She has reinforced my belief that Nancy is a name for very special people. She is grace incarnate.