Win Win

920x920Houston has been looking like a winner of late, which is quite grand given what happened a little more than three months ago. We’re still celebrating our World Series championship and to top everything off we got a lovely dusting of white flakes last week that literally made everyone smile. The landscape that had been covered in a different kind of precipitation back in August look like a picture postcard with every rooftop and tree glistening with just enough snow to create a winter wonderland.

We’ve really needed those little bits of joy because there is till so much recovery work needed. It breaks our hearts to know that there are still people not yet back in their houses. For some the journey home has been long and hard. Many were turned down for relief funds and others are being told that they will have to raise their foundations before getting permits for repairs. Families have wiped out their savings and in some cases spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for which they have had to get loans. While the rest of us have been getting ready for the holiday season, they’ve been consumed with worry. Still, we are all Houston Strong and the viral photo of a Houstonian cheering on a plastic lawn chair during the final game of the World Series inside his stripped down home seems to represent who we are.

You can imagine how wonderful we felt when we learned that not one, but two of our hometown heroes had won the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Award. Both J.J. Watt and Jose Altuve are beloved figures here in H Town and their twin win was glorious, because there are times when we wonder if anyone even knows where Houston is or that it is the fourth largest city in the nation. It sometimes seems that Cleveland is more identifiable to the world than Houston, but much of what is best about our city has put us on the map this year. Watt and Altuve are among our finest treasures and we are swelled with pride in knowing that they have been duly honored.

J.J. Watt is the kind of man that everyone mom wants her son to become. Aside from his tremendous talent on the gridiron he is a truly fine and generous human being. We’ve all come to realize that he is a gift to our city both on and off of the field. He’s perhaps our most reliable player when he’s not injured and so he is undoubtedly the fan favorite. When he immediately stepped up to help raise funds for those affected by the floods we were not surprised, but we were definitely grateful and humbled by his efforts which paid off beyond all of our wildest expectations. This was one of J.J’s most public moments of largesse, but those of us who live here know that he has been constantly and often very quietly doing wonderful things for the people of Houston.

J.J. Watt has been known to show up at hospitals and nursing homes. He even takes the time to attend high school sporting events to encourage local athletes. He is a superstar who has somehow managed to maintain his sense of humility. We are in awe of his towering presence, but we also view him as the guy next door because that is the way he wants to be. He’s our neighbor, one of us. His pain is ours, and so when his leg was shattered fairly early in the season we were heartbroken for him. It was as though one of our own sons had been sidelined. Now that he is enjoying the honor that is so well deserved we find ourselves celebrating with him as well.

Jose Altuve has played his heart out all season long on the Houston Astros. When our city was so devastated he became a man with a mission. He was determined to work harder and better to bring a win to our town. He made it known that he and the team were unwilling to let us down. In perhaps the darkest hour that Houston has ever experienced he was a beacon of hope, a bookend for J.J. Watt.

Altuve too is a young man who works hard to be his very best both on and off of the baseball diamond. He is a team player who understands what he must do each time he walks up to the plate. Somehow he appears to be less concerned with personal acclaim and more focused on sharing his athletic brilliance with his fellow players and his fans. He understood all too well how much we needed the championship that had eluded us for decades, and on an evening when many were watching in rooms with concrete floors and only studs for walls he and his teammates took us to the Promised Land. We were as united as we had been back in August when we were working to help those affected by the storms, only this time we were deliriously happy. He gave us an unexpected gift and demonstrated that his heart was bigger than his entire body. In stature he is the exact twin of J.J. Watt.

Sometimes the universe appears to align in such a manner that the most deserving receive the awards. In a year punctuated by a great deal of suffering and ugliness it is refreshing to be reminded that there are still exceptionally talented and noble individuals in our midst. J.J. Watt and Jose Altuve are the role models that we need for our young. They are the heroes who rank with the legends. All of us in Houston are proud to embrace them as our own.

The Christmas lights in H Town are burning a bit brighter and with a bit more hopefulness. The world has been set aright for once. In their great wisdom the editors of Sports Illustrated have chosen two individuals who represent the very best of the human spirit. Our congratulations will never be enough to thank J.J. Watt and Jose Altuve for all that they have given us. They are heroes whose stories will be enshrined in the crazy history of this incredible town. The mere mention of their names will bring smiles to our faces as we will always remember how much they meant to us when things seemed so bleak. All of Houston will be forever grateful and strong.

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The Silence Breakers

person-of-year-2017-time-magazine-cover1In what has become an anxiously awaited tradition Time magazine selected its Person of the Year last week. Much as has often happened this year’s winner of the cover spot was a group of women known as the “Silence Breakers.” In bold moves that have toppled the reputations and careers of a host of powerful men, women both famous and unknown have stepped forward to reveal acts of sexual harassment and violence long hidden from the public eye. In a veritable deluge of accusations the stories have dominated the news cycle for weeks and pointed to a societal problem that has generally been unspoken but well known. The tales of mistreatment have included men of all stripes and have initiated a national dialogue that heretofore existed mostly in the shadows.Many wonder how and why so many women are suddenly speaking of incidents that they kept secret for decades. Particularly among doubters there are questions about why it took so long for them to reveal what happened to them and what has made the present time so different that the #metoo movement that has gone viral.

I suppose that for some the first thoughts go back to the story of the boy who cried “wolf” so many times that when the sheep were really being attacked nobody was willing to listen. Some wonder if the number of accusations has been exaggerated by a kind of mass hysteria, and I suppose that it might be easy to go to that place. Instead I would venture to suggest that the very reason that so many women have been silent is because of the doubt that is historically associated with such incidents, particularly when the man involved is a powerful person. We only need to consider the denials and insults that ensued when a number of women spoke out against former President Bill Clinton. Paula Jones was described as trailer trash. Monica Lewinsky was defamed. Kathleen Willy was thought to be unhinged. Such are indeed the reactions toward women who have the audacity to reveal acts of personal degradation that have been perpetrated on them. It is little wonder that there is great fear when it comes to speaking of such things. When a man who brags of highly degrading behavior with women then goes on to be elected to the highest office in the land it makes all of us fearful of being heroic.

There is also the strange psychological phenomenon in which the victim actually wonders if somehow she either imagined the abuse or brought it upon herself. I can attest to such situations myself that I did not discuss for a very long time because what happened was so shocking that I was unable to know for certain that it even took place. One of those times occurred when I was a young adolescent at the beach with my family. As I walked along a fishing pier my gaze was suddenly averted toward an old man with a smirky grin on his face. He pointed downward and that is when I saw that he was exposing himself to me. I turned and ran away, but I was so embarrassed that I said nothing to anyone. Instead I stayed close to my aunts and uncles and told everyone that I was feeling sick. I have since learned that my reaction is very typical. My mind twisted the shocking event into something for which I felt responsible.

Even as an adult I hesitated to admit to a situation in which one of my coworkers frightened me with highly suggestive language. I kept it to myself for many days before speaking of my discomfort to my husband who insisted that I inform my boss immediately or he would. I felt a great deal of relief when my employer believed my story and began to investigate other whispers that he had heard about the man. In only the space of a couple of days the offender was fired from his job and a number of us felt immediately safer. The news of the man’s departure was greeted with applause.

Sadly not all such situations turn out so well. On another occasion in which I informed the Human Resources Director of the highly unprofessional behavior of a supervisor I was accused of attempting to foment a rebellion. It was long after I had decided that my only recourse was to leave that job that it was determined that everything that I had said was true and that the reality was even worse than I had described. It had felt horrible to be deemed a trouble maker and someone who might be stretching reality. While I treasured the fact that I had done the right thing, I also understood why so few women are willing to endure the humiliation that I suffered at the time. The pain associated with being a witness can be quite real.

My mother was a beautiful single parent, someone who was quite attractive to men. She often told me of situations that became very difficult for her. In her infinite wisdom she taught me how to proactively avoid the pitfalls. She instructed me to watch how much alcohol I drank when I was out at night so that I might be in control of my faculties. She noted that I would be better served if I did not dress too suggestively. She taught me how to sit and stand and carry myself around strangers. She cautioned me to never ever meet with a man alone in a hotel room. She even worried about the moments when I was in a car at night with a male that she did not know well. At times I thought that she was overly paranoid or that she only imagined her allure, and yet over time I realized that she knew exactly what she was saying to me. Her intentions were profoundly protective and effective in a world that can be hazardous for women.

I’d like to believe that there is a movement afoot that will make things safer for women in both the workplace and private life, but when a politician who is accused of child molestation is ahead in the polls I lose heart. When the members of his party are unwilling to speak out for what is right, I become cynical. I realize that we have a very long way to go and that mothers still need to school their daughters in how to take care of themselves. I also understand how brave the “Silence Breakers” are, because I know that even now there are those who doubt their motives and perhaps even think of them as liars.

I believe that we all have to be silence breakers to the extent that we have to condemn the actions of men who sexually harass women. The process of reeducating our society begins with each one of us. It’s critically important that we teach our children the importance of mutual respect and individual dignity. Our actions will be more important than our words. When we condone sexual abusers by ignoring their grievous actions we are guilty of creating an environment that accepts the degradation of women as simply locker room antics. Instead we must send the loud and clear message that such behaviors are wrong and that those who cross the line of propriety will be duly punished.

We must take this movement seriously, and be just as angry with anyone who falsely accuses a man as we are with the perpetrators of indecency toward women. It is well past time that we make the relationships between the sexes less fraught with dangers. It is obviously possible because the numbers of men who treat women with the respect that they deserve far out distance the predators. We have the capacity for making incidents of sexual harassment less and less frequent if we all agree that we have reached a watershed moment, and if we honor the women who finally took the first step in regaining control of their lives. 

Update: In a dramatic election decency won last night. Thank you, Alabama.

Propagate the Good

domestic-violence-recently spent a glorious weekend with relatives in Dallas. We had three days together and in between dinners, walks, movies, and a big party we talked about today’s problems. My niece commented that while the world sometimes appears to have gone crazy, most people are in fact very good. She suggested that the best way to make society better is for everyone who is decent to propagate the good. In other words, it is not enough just to quietly follow the golden rule, but it is necessary for each of us to spread goodness much like a bumble bee pollinates flowers. She insisted that we must be purposeful in our efforts to demonstrate all that is right and just.

There are many reasons why some people are angry and prone to negative behaviors. Some of them stem from evil, but others are simply the result of giving up on life. Recently a young man attempted to hang himself at the high school which serves the students from my neighborhood. It hit all of us hard to know that someone so very young had felt so hopeless that he was ready to end it all. I still don’t have any idea what exactly may have lead to his dramatic cry for help, but whatever it was must have been horrible in his mind. I can’t help but wonder if this incident might have been prevented if only the people around him had shown enough kindness to propagate the good. Perhaps he might never have reached such a point of desperation.

One of my high school friends posted a message that her granddaughter had written in response to this terrible tragedy. The young girl attends the school where this student had tried to kill himself. She hinted that he may have been a victim of bullying. She urged everyone to be kind, to watch their words, and to notice whenever someone is suffering. She suggested that each of us has a responsibility to speak up when we see cruelty and to assist anyone who appears to be suffering.

We tend to get very busy, so that we often purposely look the other way if we see someone being abused. It’s easier to just shrug and ignore such situations, but we never really know how a victim will react to the pain of being emotionally or physically tortured. Such individuals often need a hero, a person strong enough to stand up for them or at the very least comfort them. When we walk away from such situations the message that we send is that the world is an uncaring place.  Little wonder that so many people feel alone in their trouble and decide that it would be easier to stop the pain with death. How many times might such thoughts be changed by a bit of kindness?

Even as adults it is very difficult to stand up to bullies and the type of toxic individuals who berate and insult others. Those kinds of people are more often than not intimidating, and since so many people are unwilling to confront them doing so requires tremendous courage. When the obnoxious person is an elder or in a position of power it is even more troublesome to even think of standing up to them. They harm their victims with relative impunity and begin to believe that they are untouchable. Meanwhile the person who is the brunt of their bullying begins to feel that there is no means of relief.

Of late we’ve witnessed far too many instances of people unfairly exerting their power over others. In some cases the ugly behaviors are insults and in others they are actually physical attacks. We’ve learned that often such activities were generally known and tolerated by large groups of witnesses out of fear.  In spite of the fact that most of us believe that propagating the good means stepping up to the plate even when it is frightening to do so, we continue to be reluctant to take the initiative.

I heard of a young man who went to see a play that featured acting by some of his friends. His intent had been to demonstrate support for the cast but things took a bad turn. He and a group of classmates sat together at the performance and one of the group began to kibitz and joke about the play’s message. Soon enough they were all laughing inappropriately and angering members of the audience as well as the actors. The young man felt horrible about what was happening but rather than moving, asking his buddies to cease their rude behavior or at least sitting in silence he chose to go along with the antics. His apologies only came after the director expressed his anger. He had allowed himself to become involved in a situation that he felt was wrong, but he simply did not have the courage to do what was right. His was a case of allowing peer pressure to dictate his poor judgement.

Each of us has no doubt been guilty of such cowardly inaction. We really don’t want to get involved in something that might get messy. It’s easier to just ignore acts of ugliness. Few among us are able to honestly say that we have never left an individual to fend for him/herself in a bad situation, even understanding that our intersession might have ended the abuse.

I wonder how many times a suicide might have been stopped had someone been willing to defend a tortured soul, or at least to seek help for him/her. We know how harmful words and actions can be, and yet we are all too often seized with fear when faced with such realities. If such unwillingness to become involved were confined to the very young it might be understandable, but all too often even adults prefer to protect themselves, their relationships or their jobs rather than speaking the truth that might make a world of difference for someone who is being unfairly targeted with hatefulness.

There are indeed more good people than bad, but when the good people are silent we end up with innocents being loaded into boxcars that carry them to concentration camps. When we refuse to speak we may later find someone battered or even murdered. If the good people shout with a collective voice they will be heard just as surely as the world eventually listened to the words of Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King. Goodness must be shared if it is to have the desired impact on the world. 

A Whole New World

hqdefaultGrowing up with a single mom in an era when such situations were quite rare gave me a different point of view than many of my contemporaries. I was raised to believe that I was capable of accomplishing anything that I chose to do. My mom was liberated out of necessity and she was a feminist out of choice. She was also as American as apple pie, someone who cherished freedoms and served no masters other than her God. She never wanted me to clean houses or wait on tables. While she saw such jobs as honorable work, she often noted that her own mother had done such things in order to lift up her children, and it should not be our fate to be at the beck and call of either the wealthy or the powerful. She believed that we were as worthy as any other humans and that we must never bow down in submission to anyone, not even a queen or a king or a president. I suspect that she would have enjoyed seeing the Obama family approaching Queen Elizabeth on equal footing. She truly saw the United States as a place where each man or woman had the potential to rise into the higher echelons of power. She viewed education and the use of intellect as the most direct pathway to individual success, but she never pushed me or my brothers one way or another. Part of our liberty lay in the ability to make our own choices.

Mama adored the Queen of England, not so much because of her royalty but mostly because she carried herself with such dignity. She had the same kind of affection for Eleanor Rosevelt and Jackie Kennedy because she saw them as distinctly American royalty, women who were equal in every way, and sometimes even a bit superior, to their powerful husbands. She truly saw these two as being more regal by way of their accomplishments and in the manner in which they carried themselves than most of the blue blooded royals throughout the world. She was inspired by both of them, particularly after they proved themselves to be such strong individuals after the deaths of their spouses. Because of my mother’s philosophies I suppose that I  grew up without the traditional female filters that had so defined women for eons. I quite arrogantly understood my own capabilities and simply forged ahead, announcing my plans to my husband rather than conferring with him to get his approval. Luckily I married a man whose own mother was strong-willed and he saw nothing unusual about my way of doing things.

My brothers are in turn married to incredibly independent women who have always marched to their own drumbeats. Their partnerships, like mine, are based on mutual respect. Neither of them feel that they or their spouses should play a dominant role in their marriages. They have loving and faithful wives, but always coequal partners who share both the burdens and the blessings of married life. There is no competition in their roles, but rather a strong sense of mutual respect and support. They are as thoroughly modern as my mom was.

Women everywhere are breaking stereotypes and punching holes in glass ceilings. In some corners of the world they are sometimes held back by cultures and traditions that do not deem them to be as worthy as men. Even here in the United States we still struggle to understand and encourage the female half of the world. Recent news developments have proven that we have a long way to go before we see the universal acceptance of women as fonts of power in their own rights. Still the evidence of their abilities and potential has always been right before our eyes. Everyone has a story of a remarkable woman that carried her own weight even when it was thought that doing so was crude and maybe even rude. Our minds regarding women are indeed changing even if the pace is slower than we wish it to be.

It’s not really so difficult to help young girls to become as strong as we hope they will become. All we have to do is allow them to make their own choices and to understand that we support them regardless of which direction they want to go. In our typical folly we sometimes think that we have to throw the baby out with the bath water to foment change. In other words we go from swathing baby girls in pink and showering them with thoughts of being princesses to insisting that they eschew fashion and all study to become engineers. It’s important to understand as my mother did that the key to raising mighty women lies in encouraging them to follow the destinies that lie within their own hearts, not ours.

Even the staunch and staid monarchies are slowly but surely changing. This week Prince Harry announced his engagement to a woman who might have been scandalous in a bygone era. She is a divorced biracial American actress, but none of that appears to matter as much as the fact that she is an amazing woman or that she and Harry are very much in love. She has established herself as a success in her own right, and she has been honored for her compassion and the causes that she supports. In the new frontier she does not have to be of royal decent to forge an alliance with a prince. While she is indeed quite beautiful, I suspect that it is her generosity and openness that captured Harry’s heart. I think that my mother would be quite pleased to hear of this remarkable development.

I have great hopes for society even though we women still have miles to go. More and more often we are being accepted in the halls of commerce, academia, manufacturing, and politics. Right here in my own little corner of the world a tiny young lady kicked the winning field goal in this year’s gridiron rivalry. Women are winning seats in local, state and national government at a faster rate than ever before. More than half of today’s college graduates are female. We go places and do things that were once taboo. We still have a long way to travel, but there are positive signs that women are finally enjoying more and more of the kind of freedoms that my mother so appreciated and desired. We have some kinks to iron out and bad thinking to overcome, but the future looks brighter for young girls all of the time. 

I have only one granddaughter. She sometimes has to fight her way to be part of the group of six young men who are my grandsons. She is all too often unfavorably compared to her twin brother by well meaning teachers and relatives who have not discerned how truly remarkable she is in her own right. She has very special talents that will no doubt take her far. She is unafraid to take risks and she works twice as hard as the guys to reach her goals. She is determined to make her own individual mark on the world, and I believe that she will find the success that she seeks. Like the female trailblazers who have come before her, including her great grandmother, she is on a mission to change the way we do things. If she maintains the courage to focus on being herself, she will be able to ignore the naysayers and the slights and find her way. If my mother were still here she would remind my granddaughter that she is just as important as a queen, maybe more so. She would urge her to hold her head high and follow her dreams. After all, even a girl from an ordinary family who has proven to be quite competent on her own may soon be a princess. It’s a whole new world and it is good.

Changing Lives

Poverty-In-America

Again and again I am reminded by experts that my brothers and I are not supposed to be doing as well as we are. On a recent offering on NPR I learned that the odds of making it out of the cycle of poverty while growing up in a single family household are daunting, and yet my siblings and I not only managed to break a cycle that had haunted our ancestors for generations, but we also managed to be emotionally healthy as well. At the end of a glorious Thanksgiving Day that we shared together the three of us sat back and attempted to analyze the factors that had been important in bringing us to our current state of happiness and success.

We all agreed that it would have been impossible for any of us to make it as adults had it not been for our mother. She was at the center of our upbringing, a task that she took perhaps even more seriously than most. She understood that from day to day she played the role of both mom and dad. Every major obligation was placed squarely on her shoulders, and her start after my father’s death could not have been more difficult. We had no car, no home of our own, no money in the bank, no life insurance pay out, and she had no job. Things were so financially grim that I caught on to the direness of our situation even though I was only eight years old. I had enough sense to rightly interpret the whispered concerns that I heard my aunts and uncles voicing as they worried about what would become of us. Somehow my dear mother would manage time and again through thrift and intellect to weave gold out of straw, and keep us afloat as a family without ever burdening us with her troubles, but she never would have been able to manage all alone.

I suspect that had our mother been virtually on her own the enormity of her task might have broken her far sooner than it ultimately did, but she was surrounded by people who continually supported her and me and my brothers. I found great comfort in the knowledge that we had guardian angels who always showed up when we most needed help. Their efforts on our behalf began on the day of my father’s death when our house filled to the bursting with members of our extended family, long time friends, and people from our temporary neighborhood and church. That trend would continue for all of our days as children and it would provide reassurances to us that someone would be there to catch us if we suddenly began to fall.

I still remember my Uncle Jack taking us to purchase a car after Daddy’s wreck with the funds that Mama had received from the car insurance policy. Even though the automobile that he was driving at the time of the crash had been virtually brand new and fully loaded with all the bells and whistles of the day, the check barely paid the balance of what was owed on the car that had been destroyed, and left only a pittance for a down payment on a new vehicle. Uncle Jack, who was a worldly wise and frugal man, counseled my mother to purchase a replacement that was within her means. He found a stripped down Ford with a standard transmission, rubber floor mats and a color that nobody would have chosen on purpose, that was advertised for an amazingly low price. He brokered a deal with the salesman by appealing to his sense of decency. Still my mother gazed at the ugly car and insisted that it was hardly the kind of model that my father would have chosen. It was Uncle Jack who insisted that she was going to have to learn how to make do with what she had. We drove away and used that “Charlie Brown” car for the rest of my childhood. It took us wherever we wanted or needed to go, but mostly it represented possibilities and the strength of individuals like my uncle who would take care of all of us for years to come.

It was the same Uncle Jack who guided us to the home where all three of us would grow into adults. It was a far more modest place than the ones that we had been viewing with my father. Most importantly, though, was the fact that the neighborhood where it stood was filled with incredibly good people who would become the steadying force that my brothers and I needed. Over the years we shed all of our fears and came to feel infinitely secure because of our neighbors who always seemed to be teaching us things and helping our mother with household repairs. It was a wholesome and safe environment that was made even better when Mama was wise enough to center our world on the nearby church and the school where we would make lifelong friends and build the happiest of memories. Everyone knew of our tenuous situation, and while they never openly discussed their sympathy for our plight, they quietly made extra efforts for us. There was a generous spirit that followed us and kept us from harm. We mostly took all of the people for granted as children are wont to do, but deep in our hearts we understood how important they were in helping to shape us into confident adults. We learned from everyone that with a bit of hard work and imagination we would ultimately be just fine.

We were admittedly more fortunate than most children who struggle with poverty. We had a huge village of adults who took us into their hearts and never let go. With our mom encouraging us to use our natural gifts and talents wisely, and a great deal of motivation from teachers and mentors we were able to break the chains of economic hardship. Today few would ever imagine that our life stories might have made us just a few more statistics had it not been for the love and wisdom that surrounded us when we most needed those things. We know that it is never impossible to rise above even the most challenging circumstances which is why I suspect that we have in turn spent much of our lives attempting to help others just as we were so magnanimously assisted. Our altruism was born in the knowledge that each of us has an opportunity to help our fellow human beings and to touch hearts in ways that alter the trajectory of lives.

It saddens me to know that we still have so many young children who are feeling broken, alone, afraid and powerless, but I regularly see the same kind of good people as those who helped my family by stepping up to make a difference. In this season that is often defined by plenty and excess each of us has the power of reshaping destiny. Even the very smallest of attempts that we make to share the wealth of our good fortune, talents and love with those who have less may create the very spark that sets a soul on fire. I was the recipient of all that I needed to redefine my life, and my gratitude for the many souls who made my rise possible will be eternally boundless. Go forth and seek out the suffering. Listen to their cries. Embrace them and you will change the world.