We’re Only Human

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Remember those stories we heard as young folk about the hardships that our parents and grandparents endured in their youth? You know what I’m talking about. They went something like this, “I walked five miles up hill in the snow to school, both ways.” Of course that’s an old joke about our elders attempting to shame us into believing that we had it easy compared to the lives that they had, but the exaggeration isn’t really all that out of line. The fact is that the act of preparing to be an adult is a tough one in almost any day and age. Behind the glamor of youth there is invariably a great deal of angst even for the seemingly most brilliant and well adjusted, and all too often we forget our own journeys and the mistakes that we made as we attempted to develop ourselves into persons able to contribute to society. We give the impression that all anyone ever has to to is set a goal, work really hard, and then watch the fruit of those labors grow. Somewhere deep in our hearts is the understanding that life is rarely that easy and that the push and pull between the world of childhood and becoming an adult is filled with challenges that often confuse and break spirits.

I continually applaud teachers and the work that they do to help build strong bodies and minds in our young. The best among them are the ones who go that extra mile “uphill” to touch the souls of their students. They understand that their duty as educators is not to play “gottcha” with kids but rather to demonstrate compassion and teach them how to navigate through the land mines that will most certainly litter their paths along the way. Teaching is so much more than conveying knowledge and then testing for learning. It is a process, a continuum that has to be individualized to the extent of realizing that we are all individuals who learn in varying ways. We bring both physical and emotional baggage to the classroom and a good teacher knows how to unpack it and tidy it up. No human is the sum of test scores, and yet we so often send the message that only those who make the grade will survive. As adults we know better but insist on spreading the myth that all hard work is duly rewarded.

I often repeat a story related to me by my husband from the days when he was a student at the University of Houston. He had a brilliant professor who had gone out of his way to know his students. This man took the time to discuss his subject in informal settings devoid of the pressures created by research papers and exams. In a conversational way he explored the gist of his knowledge with them, learning how much more they actually knew than what the snapshots of formalized appraisals might convey. My husband saw this man as a caring mentor, and took full advantage of the opportunities to become almost a disciple of him just as the students of Socrates had done in the long ago.

On one occasion my husband’s nerves got the better of him during an exam. He had one of those classic meltdowns that left his mind blank. The more he panicked the less he remembered. As he turned in his test paper he was certain that he had failed and he was disappointed and angry with himself. He immediately went to the professor to apologize for what might have appeared to be a lack of effort and concern. The kindly man began to talk about each question, prodding my husband to explain what he knew about the topics. Before long they were like two friends having one of those glorious discussions in which it is actually believable that they might change the world with their brilliance. By the end of my husband’s confessional the professor announced that it was apparent to him that his student had a deep command of the information and he promptly assigned a grade of “A.”

We rarely see teaching genius like this. In fact we are often an unforgiving society in which mistakes are held against people with dire consequences. We are proverbial Scrooges rather that Fezziwigs, sending individuals into spasms of self doubt and sometimes even severe depression. The truth is that we are continually spilling milk, messing up, making bad decisions and if we are fortunate we find people who will forgive us and help to redirect us. Sadly we are seeing less and less tolerance for the very normal and natural aspects of being human and our society is paying a very high price for so much indignation.

I had a delightful meeting with a high school counselor last week. He works hard on a daily basis to help young people find their way in our very complex society. Some of the students that he meets appear to have no problem heading straight for success, but most stumble and fall along the way. He makes a point of gently picking them back up and helping them the recover and begin again. He is one of the many heroes who takes the time to redirect and reassure even those who seem to have lost their way. This is indeed how we all should be approaching the people around us instead of abhorring words like forgiveness and amnesty.

We are losing far too many people to a competitive and combative world that chews them up and spits them onto a trash heap of hopelessness. We blithely seem to believe that we must only reward strength and perfection or we will create generations of weaklings. We set mistakes in stone and forever remind people of their faults rather than developing their best qualities. We insinuate that only those with specific talents will own the jobs of the future. We praise the young who excel, but send the message to those who struggle that their value is worth less. We even attack minors who don’t quite know how to act when they find themselves in touchy situations. We forget our duty to guide, forgive and encourage.

Luckily we still have many who quietly understand our human frailties and compassionately teach and reteach. They are educators, parents, friends, bosses, lawmakers who remember what it is really like to be human, those who understand that learning and becoming is a lifelong process that can’t be measured with numbers. Success is not made of discrete moments but rather a never ending progression of starts and stops, victories and defeats, exhilarations and frustrations, wisdom and mistakes. In reality it is never too late for each of us to become what we wish to be so perhaps it’s time that we set aside judgements set in stone whether they be test scores, grades or attempts to determine the content of character that is always evolving. We are all walking miles, sometimes even uphill in the snow, but the journey can and should be an adventure, not a dreaded task.    

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Saturday Mornings

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I can still recall those glorious Saturday mornings when I was still a child. My mom often slept late after a hard week of working, but my brothers and I anxiously awoke to watch the cartoons and shows made expressly for children. We’d sneak quietly down the hallway in our pajamas hoping not to disturb Mama’s slumbers and then tune in our television to our favorite programs in glorious black and white. We had to be careful to keep the volume low because the house wasn’t that big and too much noise would alert our mother that it was time to do the weekly chores. As long as she was snoozing we were free to spin the dial in search of wondrous shows that kept us glued to our seats for hours.

I’m too old to remember the exact order of the shows that we watched but some of our favorites were My Friend Flicka, Kit Carson, Superman, Sky King and Rocky and Friends. Television was still in its infancy but the programmers had already realized the power of devoting hours for children. We’d watch the advertisements for cereals and toys and then urge our mom to purchase them for us. Our mother was never one to be swayed by popularity, so it mostly never worked in our case, but we were nonetheless as enthralled with the silly rabbit longing for Trix cereal as we were with the latest adventures of our favorite heroes. Saturday mornings brought us unadulterated joy, and if Mama was especially tired we reveled in the freedom to just glue ourselves to the screen.

I enjoyed by own childhood memories of Saturday mornings so much that I taught my daughters the wonders of lounging in front of the center of entertainment for a few hours on weekend mornings. By the time they were enjoying the fare designed for their generation everything was in living color and most of the shows were cartoons featuring characters like Scooby Doo. They too found the magic of those early morning dalliances with fantasy while me and my husband enjoyed the luxury of a few extra winks while the electronic babysitter kept our children safely occupied.

Life isn’t quite as simple these days. For one thing there are hundreds of channels from which to choose and most of the big three of my childhood offer very little aimed toward children even on Saturdays. Kids now have to tune in the the Disney Channel or Nickelodeon which feature twenty four hour programming that doesn’t seem to be nearly as fun as what we got to see. Most of the shows are variations on the same themes with “hip” youngsters making fun of their elders and seemingly raising themselves. I grow weary of them after only a few episodes. The writers don’t appear to  be making any great effort to create stories that inspire. There is an inanity about them and a kind of condescending attitude toward young people that assumes that they are incapable of understanding stories with deeper meanings.

As a parent today I would have to install controls and be present to monitor the dialogue and the themes to be certain that they are in keeping with our family’s values. It’s a far more challenging world than the more innocent one that I experienced as a child. Back then care was taken to be certain that children were not exposed to material that was unsuitable. Of course I laugh when I think of Soupy Sales from my generation or PeeWee Herman from that of my children. We kids secretly knew that there was something not quite right about some of their jokes but we kept our thoughts to ourselves because it was exciting to live dangerously without our parents knowing what we saw and heard on those programs.

I still have a difficult time going into action on Saturday mornings. I don’t watch television anymore. I enjoy the quiet and I lounge in my pajamas for hours. Sometimes it might be noon before I choose to get going with the routines of life. Saturday has always been the one day of the week over which I have been able to rule without demands from school or work or my mom or even my children. These days I sit with a cup of tea and read or just listen to the sounds of the neighborhood in my favorite room. Saturdays make me nostalgic. I remember how easy it was to be a child when my innocence made me fall in love with the whole world. Soon enough I would grow and learn of the ugliness that lurks around us, but back then I didn’t have to worry about such things.

I truly believe that those Saturday mornings taught me more than most people might think. My brothers and I learned to be more self reliant as we made our own breakfast and chose our own programming. I found out how to care for animals and what justice is really about from my shows. I enjoyed laughter as a way to relax and feel good inside. My independence was rooted in those long ago mornings and the characters whose stories I watched are still my heroes. They widened my horizons and taught me about honor. I feel quite lucky to have had such experiences that brought happiness and routine to me at a time when I was still feeling uncertain about life without my father.

I suppose that today’s children have their own way of doing things, but I truly wonder if all of those scheduled activities that they do are as wonderful as the leisurely times that I enjoyed. In truth I suspect that when we are young we adapt to whatever is our reality, but I would sure love for youngsters to enjoy a taste of what we had. It was glorious.

In Search of Morality

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What kind of person do we most admire, someone who possesses sterling character traits or an individual who gets things done no matter what? It’s an important questions with repercussions as to how we decide to raise our children, what kinds of bosses we want to have, and the direction that we wish to traverse in our personal and public lives. At first glance our instincts tell us that it’s a no brainer to assume that we all most likely prefer persons who possess the kinds of qualities that we associate with good values, but if we think just a bit it occurs to us that sometimes those kinds of folks are often overcome by thuggish and rude bullies who demand their way or the highway. If we have a particular goal in mind we may find ourselves leaning toward the pushy sort rather than someone who is kind and soft spoken. We actually bend our own rules in favor of action.

I once worked for an organization lead by a charismatic individual whose style was boastful and audacious. He had a very bad habit of verbally deriding his supervisors and workers on a regular basis. Ironically he demanded a host of positive character traits from his employees including loyalty and compassion when he rarely demonstrated the same qualities in his dealings. The turnover among those who worked for him was enormous because he was known for delivering regular verbal tongue lashings. Surprisingly his business thrived even as his reputation as a tyrant became legendary. The irony was that he pushed his way to success on the backs of very kind people that he had chosen to fill the jobs that he had. While I despised his tactics, I had a certain level of admiration for his accomplishments. I began to understand that we sometimes need different skill sets in the various situation that we encounter, but it worried me that we accepted his brutality.

That being said, I have also worked for exceptional persons who were able to combine a tough will with an accommodating personality. These men and women were known for being competent leaders who always succeeded while also being pillars of all of the positive character traits that society treasures. They led by example and viewed themselves as motivators and coaches training the next generation of executives. They were kind, trustworthy and understanding. Going to work for them each day was a pleasurable experience. Most of us toiled just a bit harder than we might have out of respect for them. They often exceeded goals and expectations without ever demeaning even those who had made mistakes. They behaved like the patriarchs and matriarchs of a big happy family.

In poll after poll whether it be with ordinary citizens or historians the most admired President of the United States for all time is invariably George Washington with Abraham Lincoln coming in a close second. What these two illustrious men shared was an unimpeachable character. They were strong and courageous, but also steadfast in being the best sort of people. Of course neither man was perfect, nobody among us ever is, but they followed a code of conduct that was based on respect and honor. Both men did their best to form decisions based on the good of the country rather than what may have personally made them more powerful. George Washington in particular decried the very thought of being referred to with the salutations associated with royalty. He wanted the presidency to be a position by and for the people, not some exalted throne of power. He even insisted on limiting his time in office lest a precedent of unending authority be set. He was essentially a good and wise man who understood that our president was in essence a servant of the people.

Throughout history we have seen bullies devoid of motivations other than personal aggrandizement rule to the detriment of the common good. While they may have initially appeared to be saviors, the true natures of their goals inevitably became the ruination of the places that they governed. The glee with which they had once been viewed became desperation as a kind of rot overtook their every command. In truth while it takes a certain level of unfettered strength and audacity to be a leader there must also be a foundation of goodness to guide the decisions. Flawed character ultimately leads to selfish acts that destroy everyone in their paths.

As parents, educators, teachers, adults it is up to us to demonstrate the importance of morality to our young. We must always realize that when we preach one set of ideals but live by another our children notice and become confused. They may appear to be distracted by play and the trappings of childhood, but in reality they are always watching and learning from us. If we truly value certain character traits and want to instill them in our young then we must do our best to regularly follow them. Turning a blind eye to bad behaviors simply because doing so gives us something that we desire leads both us and our youth down a slippery slope from which we may one day find ourselves struggling to escape.

There are indeed truly good people who combine the very best of the qualities that we humans most admire. They know when and how to be tough, but also demonstrate compassion and flexibility. They are the true leaders, the ones whom we cherish and attempt to emulate. It’s time that we begin searching for such people in our midst and cast aside the crooks and bullies and rude and unethical people who seem to be so in vogue these days. The future of who our children is ultimately riding on our decisions. 

A Rough Draft

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I have a brilliant and inspiring friend who has begun 2019 by writing a blog about her personal journey with a life changing illness that almost killed her on three separate occasions. She is a phenomenal educator and was devoted to helping to change the lives of young men and women through guidance and learning. She was a ball of energy, a whirlwind of ideas that she set forth as the founder of a remarkable high school in northeast Houston. She often left me breathless with her wisdom and her dedication, but I did my best to contribute an exceedingly tiny bit to her cause. I suppose that I felt a kind of mystic kinship with her goals and my admiration for her told me that I should support her because what she was doing was so important.

Without warning she was struck down with one medical emergency after another that left her unable to continue her important work or even to live alone. She returned to the loving arms of her family and slowly began the rehabilitation of her life. She is a new kind of person as a result of the changes that her body has wrought on her. She still dreams of being the dynamic woman with seemingly endless energy that she once was but reluctantly admits that this is unlikely. Now she simply wants to find her new purpose and role within the limitations that have been placed on her. She is a woman in process, or as she so brilliantly noted her efforts are just one more rough draft toward becoming.

I am enchanted with that thought. I suppose that we are all in a chronic state of becoming. Life deals us both blessings and blows that challenge us mentally and physically. We are forced to come to grips with the challenges that force changes that feel uncomfortable. We look at our rough drafts and want to tear them into tiny pieces because the genius that we know is in our souls is somehow not showing forth in what we are being asked to endure.

We may lose an important loved one and wonder how we might possibly continue. We may find ourselves betrayed by someone in whom we placed our total trust. We may learn of a frightening medical diagnosis for ourselves or someone who is very close. Our homes may be damaged, our cars wrecked. We may attempt to improve our lives only to hopelessly fail. It can sometimes seem as though we are wandering aimlessly in a nightmare from which we cannot awake ourselves. We may pray to God and wonder why we can’t seem to hear an answer.

The truth is that our humanness makes us both fragile and strong. We forget that changes are inevitable and that sometimes they are glorious and other times they are devastating. The most wondrous aspect of living is that each of us has the power to reinvent ourselves time and time again. Becoming is a never ending marathon that will stress and strain us and make us very tired. The important thing to remember is that each iteration of who we are is still a rough draft which we can correct and change and make better. Our personal stories are adventures in which we encounter many struggles, but we get to be the masters of how we choose to react to them. If we don’t do so well at first, there will be copious opportunities to try and try again.

Life is so much about redemption. Nobody’s biography is set in stone. We each go from day to day with our imperfections of body and mind. One of the most important skills that we should learn is how to forgive ourselves when we have been less than we wanted to be in a particular situation. It may be difficult to face our weaknesses but once we stare them in the face and then scratch them off of the page of our biographical manuscripts we are free to create new versions of our stories that may indeed be more beautiful than the ones that we had thought to be the end product.

I recently took my niece to see the new Mary Poppins movie. It was a delightful film that I viewed from a very adult point of view. It’s message was one of hopefulness. Mary Poppins demonstrated to her charges that they had the power to overcome whatever adversities they encountered. It was all a matter of how they chose to see the world around them.

I thought of my daughter’s recently deceased father-in-law who always maintained the optimism and joy of a child. He loved stories like Peter Pan and Mary Poppins and the Swiss Family Robinson. He understood that life is about survival but even dealing with great problems can be fun. Like Mary Poppins he saw healing in the act of flying a kite or enjoying a bit of ice cream. The important thing was to love and live and start over again each day.

I appreciate that my friend is sharing both the darkness and light of her story. She will always be an educator in whatever her body allows her to be. I’m thankful that she mentioned that each iteration of our lives is just one more rough draft. We are never truly finished, which is actually quite grand. It means that each day brings us an opportunity to make ourselves even better than we have ever been before.

The Greatest Gift

Gary

My son-in-law, daughter, and grandsons are in a state of grief. Their beloved Boppa died on New Years Day. Boppa, otherwise known as Gary Greene, was a good man who loved his wife without reservation and cherished his children and grandchildren with every fiber of his body and soul. He was also filled with a spirit of fun. He believed in squeezing as much joy out of each day as humanly possible.

Gary was born in Houston, Texas and grew up in an area not far from the Texas Medical Center. He graduated from Bellaire High School and then set out for the University of Texas where he earned a degree in Chemical Engineering. While he was a student there he met his wife Barbara and the two of them fell in love, married and set out on a five decades long adventure that took them all over the United States and around the world. In fact, traveling became one of their greatest joys along with their two children Scott and Terri.

Gary worked hard at his jobs, dedicated to making a comfortable life for his family. He was a Texan through and through but whenever his companies asked him to move he dutifully went where he was needed and turned the relocation into an opportunity to learn more about different places. All the while he always found time to support his children’s interests and to open his home and his heart to their friends. His loyalty to his beloved Texas Longhorns never wavered either no matter where he roamed.

Gary eventually found his way back to Texas as his working years slowly came to a close. He retired to the Austin area and threw himself joyfully into the role of being a grandfather. He took each his six grandchildren on special trips to places like London, Germany, Washington State and such. A few years ago he planned a gala vacation right after Christmas for the entire family in Mexico. On another occasion he took everyone to Hawaii. Every excursion was punctuated with his impish sense of humor, exciting activities and lots of ice cream.

Gary rarely missed the yearly reunion of his wife’s family on Thanksgiving Day. He reveled in the games and songs and loving significance of the event and became known as the resident genealogist, creating expansive charts outlining the history of the family and recording all of the new births. For many years he and his crew were the reigning champions of the washer contest, and he became as loved by his extended family of in-laws as he was by Barbara and his children.

Gary had a sonorous voice that might have served him well as a radio broadcaster. He used it often to tell his many stories and jokes. He also enjoyed singing and had hours of fun in a barber shop quartet. He and Barbara even learned how to square dance when he demonstrated yet another unexpected talent.

Most of all Gary enjoyed watching the birds that live around us. He often rose early in the morning and walked quietly through wooded areas with his binoculars and a scope to catch a glimpse of feathered creatures. It was a relaxing hobby that was so in tune with his affection for nature and the joy that spending time outdoors always brought him.

Gary had been a leader when his son Scott was in the Boy Scouts. He never lost his interest in the remarkable training that the organization affords young people. He often wore his regalia and badges when his grandsons moved up through the ranks in their own quests of excellence in the scouts. Nothing made him prouder than watching them grow into fine capable young men with amazing skills and a love of our earth and each other.

In many ways Gary Greene was an old fashioned kind of man who earnestly embodied the traits of a Mr. Rogers or a Jimmy Stewart. Family was paramount to him and he enjoyed introducing first his children and then his grandchildren to the places and skills and ideas that he had known as a young man. He taught them how to drive and how to fish. He showed them how to respectfully handle a BB gun. He played games with them like Spoons and taught them to love listening to John Denver. He took them rafting down rivers, horseback riding in the country, and zip lining in exotic places. Mostly though he just loved each one them for whomever they chose to be.

There is great sadness among the members of Gary Greene’s family. He has died after a years long struggle with cancer during which he showed them what true courage really is. He slowly lost his ability to walk and his body was riddled with pain, but he continued bringing fun into their lives as long as he could. He has left a big hole in their hearts, but the legacy of joy and optimism with which he approached each day will sustain them for all of their years to come.

Gary Greene really lived and loved. The torch of all that he believed has been passed to his children and grandchildren to remember and honor who he was with their own lives. He demonstrated to them all of the character that one needs to live happily and well. He will no doubt live on as they emulate his spirit, the greatest gift that anyone might ever leave on this earth.