Time To Find Them

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We have so many problems across the globe that should be addressed now rather than later, but so often efforts to do something are thwarted by political differences. We have a tendency to wait until something so egregious happens that we are forced to take action, often in a highly draconian way. It seems to me that we too often fail to use the highly creative talents of mankind that are no doubt out there stewing in some unexpected corner. There are great ideas in unexpected places and the people who have them would be more than happy to offer them, but they have no resources for making their inventiveness known.

I have a former student who is one of those individuals who thinks outside of the box. Along with some of his very bright friends he has proven his innovative mettle on a number of occasions. Sadly his ideas have languished in his mind simply because to actually execute them would cost money that he does not have. He needs investors but is not privy to the kind of wealthy folk who might be willing to make a slightly risky investment with their finances. So his brain just smolders with creative genius that goes nowhere.

Aside from landing a spot on Shark Tank the average Joe has neither the resources nor the wherewithal to even know how to bring an idea to life. I have little doubt that the history of the world is awash with books, inventions, and even theories that were never known. How many of these brain children may have changed the world if only there were an avenue for making them real?

I got an email from Salman Khan recently that intrigued me. For those unfamiliar with the name, Khan is the creator of Khan Academy, an online fountain of learning. He himself began by making little mathematics videos for the purpose of tutoring a relative. His efforts ultimately led to a worldwide phenomenon, but not before he had exhausted his own savings and found an influential patron who kickstarted his business when it was about to disappear for lack of funds.

No long ago I attended a speaking engagement at Rice University in which Khan outlined his own entrepreneurial history and his plans for the future. I filled out a form asking to be part of Khan’s email exchanges and was happy to see a message from him announcing a contest that he is sponsoring for young people ages thirteen to eighteen. Essentially he is looking for an unusually extraordinary methodology for teaching some concept. The winner of the competition will receive a $250,000 scholarship. The individual’s teacher will get $50,000 and his/her school will be awarded $100,000.

Something tells me that there will be some extraordinary responses to this call for ideas.  There is nothing like the possibility of a cash prize to bring a world of hypotheses forward. So I began to imagine just how many grand discoveries might be unleashed if we were to make such opportunities available to everyday folk on a regular basis. Think of the possibilities that we might explore.

We know that we need to develop alternative energy sources but we speak more of what we plan to take away from mankind than how we intend to replace what we need with viable substitutes. Why can’t we continually have national contests to find great minds and ideas wherever they may be? Who decided that someone has to live in Silicon Valley or work at a university or major corporation to be taken seriously? Think of the power of incentivizing progress by actively attempting to access genius, not based on grades, test scores or degrees but on real insight.

I know of a man who has been attempting for years to develop a windmill that would operate in a normal backyard, virtually taking the average consumer of electricity off of the grid. He has been unable to develop the buzz that he needs to kickstart interest in spite of great sacrifice and effort on his own part. Where are the kind of patrons he needs to keep his idea alive? Why can’t he be awarded funding to continue his work by some person, group, or government agency willing to invest in possibilities?

There was a time when artists, scientists, and philosophers were supported by those with wealth for little more than the germ of inventiveness. Nonetheless such individuals had to be somehow discovered, and then as now it was a matter of knowing the right people. We need to develop a conduit that will work for anyone in the world, a kind of marketplace in which problems are stated and individuals have the opportunity to receive support and funding for possible solutions. Instead of taking money from the wealthy in high tax rates, why not make it possible for them to get even better tax cuts by investing in research and development of new technologies and methods for industry and education in areas that demand attention. We need to make it easier for inventive souls and those with influence to connect, and it will take more than just a Kickstarter or Go Fund Me proposal.

Climate change is real and disasters related to this phenomenon are already bringing pain and suffering to people all over the world. Get the competitions going now for great ideas. Offer scholarships to young people who think out of the box. Fund the man who is so close to making backyard windmills a reality. Find the people with quirky but interesting hypotheses. Make it possible for individuals like my former student to connect with people who will understand the power of his thinking. Incentivize the search for ideas so that anybody anywhere might be the next titan of energy or the savior of the oceans and waterways.

We need more, not less of people like Elon Musk or Bill Gates. Such thinkers are all around us often quietly grasping the heart of what we need to do, but without the wherewithal to be heard. It’s time to find them.

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You Are Where You Belong

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Everything you did brought you where you are now, where you belong.

—-Bran, Game of Thrones

Both the books and the HBO series of the epic Game of Thrones have been an international success making countless individuals famous and wealthy, not the least of which is the author, George R.R. Martin. Like The Lord of the Rings the story serves as a kind of fantastical history of mankind with a cast of characters with both godlike abilities and disappointing human frailties. GOT as it came to be known is made exciting with dragons, magic, battles and intrigue but at its heart is the story of people. It is one gigantic metaphor for all that each of us endures as we march steadfastly on our personal hero’s journey.

I once wrote an extensive paper about my paternal grandfather for an oral history/folklore class. I interviewed the patriarch of my family over a period of countless hours learning as much about the facts of his life as possible, as well as determining the overriding theme of his existence as revealed by his words and the things that he chose to remember. By the time that I made my recordings he was over one hundred years old and had experienced the most incredible events of the twentieth century which he often used as a comparison to the nineteenth century into which he was born. While his life was filled with hardship and abandonment much like Jon Snow in Game of Thrones he harbored little ill will toward those who had chosen to neglect him, instead patterning his life after those he most admired.

Grandpa often spoke of everyday heroes like the grandmother who raised him with a kind of reverence for nature and people. He was apt to recall a strong man from his childhood community who performed unbelievable feats. He borrowed his name and his greatest admiration from an uncle who had graduated from West Point. He regaled us with stories of people of honor and integrity as though they had been gallant knights of old. He almost pridefully boasted of his own prowess in being immune to the ravages of the smallpox epidemic that overtook his town as well as his determination to boldly walk away from what he believed to be his drunken ways. He journeyed alone from one place to another until he found his ultimate purpose in life which was to love and care for the fair maiden, Minnie Bell, his wife and my grandmother. He was loyal to her and to his children, and he overcame one challenge after another with the overriding belief that his journey was exactly as it had been meant to be.

I cut my teeth on stories from my grandfather and the fairytales that my father read to me. My own life was punctuated with tragedies that changed my course again and again. While I am at heart a person of routine I had to learn how to adapt to sudden and unexpected changes just as we all do. Life is never a straight open road, instead it is a series of twists and turns and rocky pathways. We have to not only be willing to endure the surprises that await us but also to deal with them. Like my grandfather I not only learned how to don my armor in difficult times, but also how to appreciate how each little alteration of the journey seemed to lead me to people and places that I was destined to encounter. Everything brought me to this very moment in time and I know that it is exactly where I belong.

Each of us is a character in our own epic story in which we meet villains, heroes, brave knights who protect us. We are sometimes betrayed, but more often we find comrades who stand beside us through the worst that nature or mankind throws in our paths. We ourselves falter and learn and grow. We are surprised by those who rise to occasions when we had underestimated their bravery. We are humbled by those who seem lost and then fight to redeem themselves. We find true love when we least expect it. We learn how to appreciate the best of our days because we understand that there will also be those that leave us exhausted and bereft. If we are wise we are flexible and willing to embrace change for it is as inevitable as the rising and setting of the sun.

The stories that we tell, that we read, that we cherish have only so many themes, so many literary devices. No matter how fantastical they may be, in the end they are based on our common human experiences and they center on people and how they adapt to the forces that enter their lives. Our history is in fact a personal tale that should remind us of our imperfections and the power of mercy and redemption in moving us forward.

We are living is strange time. All the progress of mankind should be making us happy but instead the world is tinged by discontent. We are walling ourselves off inside our castle keeps, when our knowledge should tell us that eventually the things that we most fear will find a way inside. We need to be open to alliances with those who differ from us and we must develop alternative ways of thinking. We need to search for the real heroes who are often the quiet ones rather than those who boast. Mostly we must remember that each of us has a grand purpose that is not nearly as ordinary as we may believe. Let us rejoice and be happy in the good that we have done and show mercy when we falter, never forgetting that we are just where we belong.

Discovering a Remarkable Story

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I loved my maternal grandmother, Maria Bartacovik Ulrich, but never really knew her. She was a sweet presence in my life, but because she spoke little or no English and I had no knowledge of her Slovakian language we communicated mostly with facial expressions. She was a short, round woman filled with the wrinkles of old age. She kept her hair in a long braid that trailed down her back, at least until she became seriously ill and her daughters cut it to make the task of maintaining it easier. She seemed to be of another world, another century and I always longed to be able to ask her questions and learn more about the girl she had once been. Instead we exchanged smiles as she called me “pretty girl,” and while I loved the simplicity of her greeting I wondered if she actually knew my name or those of my many cousins.

Grandma Ulrich padded around her home in her bare feet which were tiny but often appeared swollen. At gatherings she prepared cups of coffee for all of her guests, bringing the watery brew proudly in enamel cups filled with more milk and sugar than java. I loved that gesture which she repeated hundreds of times when the members of her family filled her home with raucous conversation. I saw her as an exceptional hostess who wanted us to feel welcome in her domain, and we always did.

Grandma Ulrich had lovely blue eyes, and as I gazed into them I wondered what thoughts were behind them. It would not be until long after she was dead that I would do enough research and ask enough questions to learn a tiny bit about her. It amazed me to find that this shy and unassuming woman had traveled alone from her hometown in the Slovakian region of Austria Hungary to Bremen, Germany where she boarded a steamship bound for Galveston, Texas. She came to meet my grandfather who had arrived before her to pave the way of their new life together. Somehow it almost seems inconceivable that such an unassuming woman would have the courage to embark on a journey to a world of which she knew very little. She must have been very much in love, and perhaps she was guided by the exuberance of youth as well.

She arrived not too many years before the outbreak of World War II and for all intents forever lost track of her family back home. My eldest aunt says that Grandma worked as a cook for the laborers on a large farm in an area of Houston on the east side of town. Later she tried a variety of jobs including laboring as a cleaning woman in a large downtown building. When her English improved she even found work behind the counter of a small bakery. This was a daring Grandma Ulrich that I had never known, and even now I have a difficult time imagining the woman who was frightened to leave her home as such a courageous person.

My grandmother was a woman of her times without benefit of any form of birth control other than abstinence, and so she had one baby after another. There were nine pregnancies in a row including one in which she carried twins. By the time my mother, the youngest of her children, was born Grandma had buried two of her babies. Her body must have been in a state of hormonal hell as she yo-yoed from conception into post partum depression again and again. Her tiny home and her life was dominated by rowdy children whom she dearly loved, but I can’t fathom that she ever had a moment to herself.

At some point my grandmother showed signs of a mental breakdown and she was taken away by force to the state hospital in Austin. It was a traumatic time for her and for her children who rarely spoke of it, carefully guarding a secret that was too painful to mention. Once Grandma returned home she would never again have enough trust to leave the safety of her house without putting up a fight. She was content to simply create a daily routine and quietly live out the rest of her days.

I am fascinated by the woman who was my grandmother. I suppose that if truth be told we, her grandchildren, took her for granted. She was someone who was just there, an almost invisible presence in our lives. She seemed simple and yet she was so complex. We thought her witless and yet she must surely have had thoughts and dreams. Like so many women her contribution to the world was unseen and under appreciated. We did not think to connect the dots of her existence and the incredible impact it has had on the world. We assumed that she would not have been interested in knowing that from her humble beginnings in America have come engineers, doctors, teachers, accountants, business leaders, athletes, lawyers. Members of her now very extended family are brilliant and beautiful, and genetics tells us that her contribution to such success is present in all of us. Most importantly the lessons that she taught her children have been passed down through the generations. We may not have been able to communicate with her but her children knew and understood her messages of integrity and hard work. She modeled a steadfastness for them that they emulated often without even realizing how deeply her character had imprinted on them.

If by some magic I were able to see my grandmother again and actually speak with her without the restrictions on communication that once defined our relationship I would want to know everything about her. I have grown to understand how amazing she was and how worthy of my attention to her story should be. Like so many many women she was dutiful and in her role she built the foundation of a family and the future. Her contributions are incalculable but her legacy continues to blossom. Now I finally realize through discovery of her remarkable story that this tiny quiet woman was a tower of strength and I feel honored to be part of the world that she helped to build.

As Unique As A Star

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One of  my former students posted a meme that really struck a chord with me. It went something like this, “How cool is it that the same God who made mountains, and lakes and galaxies thought that the world needed one of you as well.” Indeed every single person is as special and unique as a star or a snowflake or any other of the Lord’s inventions. Some shine a bit more in the world’s eyes, but even the most private and unknown individual has someone who loves and appreciates him/her as deeply as does the Creator.

I suppose that one of the things that makes me the most sad is when a person forgets that he/she is loved. I realize that depression is often caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and requires more than just tender loving care to combat, but I also wonder how we can assure the people for whom we care that they need never feel alone.

Teens are particularly susceptible to such severe sadness that they too often decide to kill themselves to ease the pain that they are feeling. We know that they are sometimes subjected to hormonal changes and bullying behaviors that tear down their confidence and sense of worth. The question is how to reach them before they become self destructive, or even worse violent toward others.

We’ve seen far too many instances of our young people losing all hope. Often they have hidden their feelings from even those closest to them, but in most cases there are clues that should cause us not just to worry, but to take some form of action. Sadly our general knowledge of mental health is sorely lacking, and the resources that we need are often not available. When we add stigmas and misconceptions along with mind altering drugs to the problems we are looking at a volatile cocktail that poses the distinct danger of not ending well. 

In my care taking of my mother and my work as a teacher I was continually frustrated by a system that is more likely to launch into debates about guns than to consider the root causes of the mental illness that leads young people to a state of hopelessness. A psychiatrist once told me that we spend more money on our pets and our diets than we do on treating mental problems. Families who attempt to get necessary help for a loved one are often thwarted at every turn.

There was a recent case of a young woman who was threatening schools with violence. She had become obsessed with the shootings at Columbine High School and indicated that she was going to do something as spectacularly violent. Her saga ended in her own suicide which  provided some relief for those who were fearful of what she might do, but I was disturbed by the fact that she had somehow been allowed to reach this point at all. It is difficult to understand why those who knew that she was out of her mind, had not been able to get her the treatment that she needed before she resorted to such extreme actions. In a proper world there would have been no question that she was in dire need of care. If she had shown symptoms of a heart disease or diabetes she would have been hospitalized, but we generally have a very different attitude toward mental illness.

I would love to see the day come when celebrities host telethons to raise money for mental health. I would be thrilled to witness research projects focusing as much on cures for depression as for cancer. Surely we must see that such diseases of the brain are as painful and horrific as those that affect the other parts of our bodies. Good psychiatrists and therapists should be as honored and funded as cardiologists. Each person’s well being must be top priority. We need to find better ways of insuring mental health.

We have a tendency to look away from the mentally ill person who is living under a bridge or begging on a street corner. We don’t want to hear about the family member who is struggling with anxieties or sadness. We think that a diagnosis of mental illness is akin to treatment by voodoo or witch doctors. We simply don’t want to face the reality that so many are suffering from illnesses that should be treatable if only we had the will to make it so. Until we change we can take away guns and drugs and sharp objects and there will be some so seriously intent on violence to themselves or others that they will still find ways to carry out their missions.

We start conversations about mental illness, but rarely finish them. We pay lip service to finding comfort and cures for families that deal with such things, but then quickly forget to follow through. We can have conferences and send out a few million dollars to help, but until we get very serious about such issues the violence that we see so often will not go away. We will lose too many of our loved ones to the overwhelming sadness that makes them forget how special they are and how much they are loved. It’s way past time for making this a top priority. Every one of us is worth the efforts that we must mount. 

Into the Weeds

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I love to watch all of the programs on HGTV. There are so many good ideas that always appear to be so easy, at least until I try them. Then I find myself taking two to three times longer to accomplish any of the tasks than indicated by the always lovely looking stars of such programs. Not only do I generally end up with a huge mess to deal with but I myself look like a homeless person or a time traveler from the Tudor era when nobody took baths or washed their hair. I have no idea how to stay put together when attempting home repairs, decorating or gardening. In fact, I try to do such things during the week when my neighbors are not around so they won’t see what becomes of me when I begin to sweat and get grimy. I’d hate for them to be thinking, “Well there goes the neighborhood!”

I have lately been working on my yard. Aside from the fact that it almost always rains when I choose a day for such work, I find that I invariably end up looking like I have been participating in a mud wrestling competition. I also have a tendency to get scratched by thorns and bitten by any stray insect that might be around. I do wear gloves and heavy rubber boots, but somehow the injuries to my skin and my appearance have a way of happening in spite of my best efforts, and I always run into some unforeseen problem.

I have a nineteen foot long flowerbed on the side of my house that is filled with double knockout roses that are simply gorgeous at this time of year. I prune and feed them and watch for problems. Generally they are quite lovely, literal car stoppers. I’ve had folks drive by and thank me for brightening the neighborhood with them. So why is it that in the long hedge there is that one bush that doesn’t make it? All of the others did just fine, so why that one that leaves a hole?

It reminds me of the time that I planted a trio of pines in my front yard. They were growing just the way I had hoped, and the look was exactly what I wanted to achieve. Then one day one of them was damaged by beyond repair by a freak accident. Somehow the balance was never quite right again, but I suppose that it could have been worse like the time a tiny tornado moved over the yard taking out everything in sight. I was glad that nobody was hurt and nothing major was damaged, but had to wonder if my yard was some kind of magnet for trouble.

I’ve put down tile floors and painted just about everything known to man. I’m not afraid to do things on my own, but I have learned that if the directions say it will take an afternoon, I must expect that afternoon to turn into several days. I don’t know if I’m just slow or if it’s a rule of thumb for Murphy’s Law to be part of every home improvement project. If there is something that might go wrong, it will go wrong for me. I’ve had to cultivate lots of patience which I suppose is a good thing after all.

My neighbor across the street works as hard as I do to make his home lovely, and it really is, but both of us noticed that the lawn at the house where nobody does anything is the greenest on the street. We were wondering if the key is to neglect and let nature take it’s course. Instead I’m becoming a devotee of Randy Lemmon, a local radio talk show host who has a supposedly sure fire schedule for achieving the perfect lawn. I’ve applied the fertilizers and pre-emergent herbicides as well as the weed attacker exactly as he outlines. I’m waiting to see if the dollar grass goes away and the St. Augustine flourishes. We’ll see. With my track record it will work and then some fool will lose control of his car as he enters the cul-de-sac and make tire tracks on the lovely green carpet.

I suppose that I should just be satisfied that I am not one of those poor souls who has lost a home due to flood or fire or tornado. I saw so much of that during hurricane Harvey. My heart was saddened by the damage that was all around me. Earlier this spring I saw a before and after photo of a home that was totally destroyed by a tornado. I can’t even imagine how horrific such a thing would be. My little annoyances are nothing by comparison, so I should just count my blessings.

Still I am intrigued by the beautiful women who demolish walls, install wiring and plumbing, paint exteriors and still look as though they are ready to model the latest home repair fashions. Seriously, do they not think that we are on to them? Of course they don’t really do any of the work. They just pose for the cameras after some poor soul gets their hands in the muck. They can preach all they want, but I know how it really works, and it is never easy.

I tip my hat to the folks who work in yards or on construction sites every single day. They must have callouses and scratches and dirt under their fingernails. They are hardy souls who wade into the weeds and rarely get the credit for the beauty of the world. I try to remember that they are the ones who dug the holes and carried the bricks. They are my heroes.