A Kind Revolution

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I think about things all of the time. Some people might call my mental gymnastics worry or anxiety. I simply see myself as having a very active mind. Some people have difficulty standing still. They are always moving about. I find it hard to shut down the thoughts inside my brain. I am always observing, asking questions and considering solutions for problems. Sometimes my mental processes are so active that I have to calm myself just to relax enough to sleep.

Lately I’ve really been considering the effects of climate change and ways in which we might address the issues associated with the storms and droughts and other weather events that are plaguing our earth more and more often. When I look for guidance from experts and I ask probing questions I generally find myself feeling as though nobody is actually prepared to consider all of the consequences, unintended or certain, that may occur from choosing one plan of action over another. It’s frustrating because it sometimes feels as though the issue being presented as a zero sum game regardless of which of the extreme sides one decides to choose. Instead I think that there is surely some alternative that is more viable.

On the one hand we are being told that our time for hesitation is long gone. We must begin to accept draconian measures if we are to avoid economic collapse and social/political chaos. The warnings are dire and not totally unfounded based on scientific research but they also seem to ignore some very basic questions that seem to have no real answers. The very scenario of economic doom might also come to pass if the most exacting sacrifices are indeed enforced. Little thought has been given to how to radically change the ways in which we do almost everything so that people do not lose their livelihoods. It’s difficult to get a major road built in under ten years so why should we believe that we can totally redesign how we live in a short time without leaving large sectors of the world’s population in economic danger?

On the other hand there are the climate change deniers who seem stubbornly unwilling to accept the facts about how we humans have literally changed the workings of the earth. They are gambling with our futures by insisting that the whole idea of climate change is little more than a hoax being propagated on the world as a means of upending political systems. If they have their way we may in fact one day find ourselves having to relocate the people of entire cities and the hardships of the Great Depression will seem like a cakewalk compared to the human upheavals that may transpire.

Somehow I find myself thinking that the most invested groups are running the show while the rest of us sit back ignoring the possibilities. My innate logic tells me that there must be a better way. If we all agree to work hard to do things to lessen the impact of climate change then perhaps we can forestall scenarios of doom and gloom while continuing to search for more intelligent solutions.

The truth is that we have too many cars rolling down the road at any given hour. Back when I was young most families owned a single vehicle. The drivers had to take turns using the family car. I remember going on the bus with my mom to do our shopping because my dad had to take the auto to work. When we had appointments in places not serviced by buses we would drop my father off at the bus stop and he would ride to work that way. We lived by the school so we were able to walk everyday. In fact, we walked and rode our bicycles to a number of places. We managed to get everywhere we needed to go by being flexible and inventive.

With a bit of sacrifice and a willingness to consider other alternatives to having multiple cars much of the carbon footprint from driving might be mitigated. Even better would be to make more and more autos that are hybrids or reliably electric at affordable prices. Neighborhoods should consider allowing residents to move about in electric golf carts or community trolleys. Bike lanes should automatically become standard on side streets. Businesses should encourage employees to ride share by providing bonuses or parking for those who do.  Governments might provide tax incentives for those willing to take such steps as well. Cities need to invest in more viable and environmentally friendly mass transportation systems and be rewarded for doing so. The modern world should begin to look like the imaginary one of futuristic thought. 

There is a home in my neighborhood that is fitted with Tesla solar panels. Our climate is particularly well suited for such innovation but the cost of installing such systems is prohibitive for most people. If lawmakers are truly serious about taking bold steps to reduce the carbon footprint then they need to help make it financially feasible for the average homeowner to invest in solar energy or other alternatives. Just as the government built the nation’s highways after World War II this can be a national campaign to redesign the way we get energy for our homes but it has to be affordable for it to work.

We must also encourage all forms of energy innovation. I know of a man who has been attempting to sell the idea of having personal windmills in every backyard but he has encountered far too much opposition. While his inventiveness may need a bit of tweaking I wonder why nobody has encouraged his designs by investing in research to make it better. Think of how Thomas Edison changed the world as it was known in a very short time because the movers and shakers of Wall Street saw merit in his ideas. Capitalism does not need to be a foe of climate change believers but rather a source for encouraging new ways of doing things that will make the world a better place for everyone.

There has been much criticism of older and past generations of late but we might also take some pages from their stories. They built houses that have lasted for centuries. The designs took advantage of cross breezes so that air conditioning was not required to be cool. They built foundations on pillars that raised homes from the water of floods. They installed clotheslines in every backyard to use the sun for drying laundry. They recycled virtually everything including packaging for purchases. I wore many a dress handmade by my grandmother from the cloth of flour sacks. Old clothes were turned into warm quilts that were used in piles to eradicate the need for heat. Most people kept vegetable gardens in their yards.

We have to educate the populace to be flexible and willing to think outside of the box. This means taking the brilliance of mankind and using it not just to create an uproar but to formulate more efficient and evironmentally friendly ways of living. We can incentivize good habits and create a movement that works for everyone in an ever changing world. We need to begin to think ahead planning our moves with a willingness to quickly adapt them to whatever situation arises.

Most people despise lectures about what they have done wrong but they enjoy the idea of  being part of progress through innovation. Surely the same people who were able to put a man on the moon in only a decade can move the environment to a better place without robbing the rich or leaving the poor in a state of desperation. We can do this as surely as we went from a sleepy and isolated nation to the heroes of World War II. It may take a few sacrifices and changes in the way we live but it will also include exciting new ways of doing things that will be better than anything we have ever seen. We should join together in a spirit of optimism to design a kind revolution for saving our planet that respects everyone. We can do it!

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We Can Do It!

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It’s true that the city of Houston floods, and that flooding affects large numbers of people whenever it happens. What is not necessarily true is that the floods that we see are something new in the grand scheme of Houston city life. As a matter of fact there are recorded incidents of inundated streets from time to time dating back over one hundred years. Both my mother and my mother-in-law spoke of witnessing Mother Nature’s soggy fury in their childhoods. The city’s proximity to the Gulf of Mexico which is only about fifty miles away makes it vulnerable to violent storms that dump indescribable amounts of rain in a short period of time. Add to that the countless bodies of water that dot the landscape and a recipe for periodic trouble emerges. 

Before World War II Houston was a rather small town. Neighborhoods ringed the city center which has the highest elevation in the area. People studied the behavior of the bayous and the patterns of storms and built homes accordingly. To this day it is extremely rare for the houses near where my mother and mother-in-law grew up to flood. There was a certain care taken in choosing a site on which to build a homestead but the war created a demand for oil and Houston became a boom town with its location near production sites and its port to deliver the products.

The growth of Houston necessitated new neighborhoods and the new suburbs were sometimes built rather hastily with little regard or knowledge of flooding patterns. Nonetheless there was still so much open land that drainage was often accomplished by vast open fields. In the meantime the population continued to expand so that more and more of the raw land was being developed into roads, businesses and houses. The prosperity continued without any sign of slowing all the way into the nineteen eighties and with it came construction in areas that previously might have been considered unsuited for safe habitation. The old timers had always had a sense of where the water might flow in a big storm, but the push for expansion negated all of their concerns. 

All of the places where I lived as a child in Houston often became islands when big storms came but literally they have never once taken on water inside. Not Allison nor Harvey nor our most recent Imelda have encroached on them. My husband’s experience has been the same. Many of the places around town that flood regularly were built from the nineteen sixties to the present. They were erected on land too close to bayous and river ways which made them attractive in dry spells but posed danger when the rains came. The demand for housing created more and more risk taking thus increasing the likelihood of damage and loss when the inevitable storms come our way.

My husband lived within walking distance of Interstate 45 and remembers when it was being constructed. He used to watch the construction crews create the roads and the overpasses. In the evening when they went home he rode his bicycle on the unopened highway. He pointed out that the massive system was actually designed to serve as a place for water to go when it rained so that the side streets in the neighborhoods would be spared. Whenever he sees images of a flooded freeway near his home he notes that the construction is working as it was supposed to do. His old house is always high and dry and the addition of that massive expanse of concrete has actually protected it from harm.   

It has only been recently that there have been serious discussions about how to deal with the big storms that are certain to rage over Houston and flood the streets just as they always have. The question becomes how we might manage to provide housing that will withstand the effects of the weather. It is apparent that some areas will need to be turned into parks or wildlife refuges and construction will need to take storms into account. Hunkering down in safe conditions until the rains end is not all that inconvenient, but having to repair thousands of homes that fill with water is unnecessary and untenable.

Stricter rules about where and how construction takes place have to be considered. Advanced drainage systems should be installed. More land needs to be left open. Bayous should be deepened and widened. The city should invest in studies and partnerships with engineers in places like the Netherlands where once historic flooding has been virtually eliminated with modern technologies. There are things that can be done with a bit of imagination and sacrifice if only we have the will.

Houston proves again and again that it is a magnificent city because of its people. When disaster strikes ordinary folks come to the rescue without regard to race or socioeconomic status. Nobody riots or loots or burns places down. Instead they rise to the occasion again and again. Perhaps the time has come to think of improvements that might prevent some of the destruction. It won’t be easy and it will cost a great deal but the investment will make Houston stronger in every conceivable way. Our ancestors understood the dangers from the periodic flooding. They built for safety and long lasting value. With all of the modern technology that we have we should be able to do things even better than they did to transform this glorious and worthy city into a model of human ingenuity.

Summer Is Coming

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I have a love/hate relationship with summer. I enjoy the long days and the possibilities of adventure, but the season brings back memories of tragedies that I have endured, and then there is the heat and humidity that slows my energy and puts me in a state of lethargy. “Summer is coming” is a phrase that causes worries to silently fill my head. I fret about storms and hurricanes that may find their way to the places where me and my family and friends live. I feel a caution and not too little anxiety in summer that does not leave me until the end of September when the first hints of fall shorten the days and cool the air. I suppose in my distrust of summer I am quite different from most of the people I know.

I do not like the heat of summer. I seem to wilt and lose my energy as the mercury rises. I become sluggish and prone to stay indoors. I don’t like using all of the electricity that is needed to keep my home at a reasonable temperature, and I hate summer fashions that leave so little to the imagination. Summer is a time when I suppose I should head to cooler places for a long stay, locales where I may still need a jacket and do not require machines to cool me.

Summer is the time when far too many people that I have loved have died. I have a difficult time recalling birthdays, but I seem to always remember the dates on which my favorite people left this earth. I go into a kind of quiet sadness at the same time that everyone else appears to be celebrating the joys of warm days outdoors. I harbor groundless fears during that time, watching for signs that someone I know will have a heart attack or a stroke or a mental breakdown because summer is when those I care about have endured such things. I don’t want to dwell on the negative, but somehow the timing of tragedy in my life almost always coincides with the summer months, and so I am cautiously optimistic when June rolls around.

Hurricane season coincides with the summer, and it terrifies me. I fear the weather reports, and watch for signs that a storm may come my way. I know the kind of destruction that those heartless freaks of nature impart on humanity. I have seen firsthand the sorrow that they may bring. I cry at the thought of a Katrina or Harvey or Maria randomly choosing an area to destroy. I don’t think upon such things every minute of every day or I would surely go insane, but I do carry a healthy fear in the back of mind. I remain alert and prepared until the danger has passed.

I worry about too much water and too little when the summer comes. I’ve seen entire forests on fire and witnessed the loss of whole towns in images on my television. I’ve watched my own plants whither under the hot summer sun unless I ply them with water that I feel guilty using when there are people dying of thirst in some parts of the world like Jordan where water is only available once a week. It seems so ironic that California may be on fire at the very same time that homes are filling with the ravages of rain in my city.

As a child I loved the summer. My mother would cut my hair each June so that breezes might caress my neck. I’d live in shorts and sleeveless tops with bare feet grown brown from the sun and the dirt. I’d run and play and ride my bike with hardly a notice of the heat. I’d enjoy the peaches, plums and watermelon of the season, and the freedom of lessons and homework. I had few worries other than how to fit all of the fun with my friends into each day. I’d read books next to an open window in the high heat of the afternoon or join in a competitive card game with my playmates. I never thought of the weather or its consequences. Worries about tragedy were not on my radar, at least not until my father died.

I sometimes long for the innocence of my youth when “summer is coming” meant swimming at a city pool and Sundays at Clear Lake with my cousins. Summer meant total freedom with adventures that would have rivaled Tom Sawyer. My skin would freckle and brown and I never once worried that I might be damaging my health or in danger of developing skin cancer. I was a free range kid of the highest order, running without shoes in the woods, romping in the muck of the ditch behind my cousin’s house, and playing almost arm breaking games of Red Rover with the multitude of kids who lived up and down my long street. I quenched my thirst from the garden hose and played from the first light of dawn until the street lights came on in the dark. I don’t recall feeling uncomfortable when I went to bed in our unconditioned house where the temperatures had to be in the high eighties. Nor did I ever worry that some evil might come into our home by way of the open windows that never closed during that season, even when we were away running errands.

Perhaps I have become too old to fully appreciate the summer. I get hot and cranky if I am outdoors for too long. I dislike the feel of the sunscreen that I am compelled to slather all over my body to protect me. I don’t like the way I appear in shorts and skimpy tops. I’ve become grumpy about the very time of year that once enchanted me, and that actually makes me sad. I so want to feel the unbridled pleasure of my youth when I lived in the joy of the moment rather than considering what might go wrong. Returning to that kind of exuberance is something that I intend to seek. Summer is coming and I want to make the most of it and be unafraid.

Winter In My City

winter-weather-and-chimneys-houston-tx-lords-chimneyThe weather on Christmas Day was glorious, but the days following have been cold, damp and dreary. The only thing to do in such a situation is make soup, hot chocolate, tea, coffee or all of the above which is exactly what I have been doing. Being from Texas my first inclination was to make chicken tortilla soup, but I’m known as the soup and bean queen so I had a number of possibilities, including a really mean potato leek concoction that I sometimes prepare. Somehow the standby chicken tortilla soup seemed most perfect for the occasion, and so I settled on preparing a steaming pot to take the chill off of the day. I suspect that I’ll be making all sorts of delicious brews in the coming weeks because winter in Houston is brief but almost always rainy and bone chilling when it occurs.

Coats last forever around here because we don’t really wear them that much from year to year. I’ve got jackets and capes that have served me for decades. Sweaters go out of style long before they become threadbare. They are more likely to dry rot or get eaten by moths than to fall apart from use. I always wonder why the stores carry so many heavy items in October and November when the temperatures are most likely to be in the eighties, and then replace them with spring clothing just when it finally becomes cold enough to use that sort of thing.

The few times that I have been in traditionally cold climates I have truly enjoyed the frigid weather. I’m told that I would soon grow weary of winter weather if I had to live in such places, but as a visitor who rarely witnesses low temperatures or snow, I get quite excited by what I consider to be normal climate. I’ve got wonderful memories of walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago with snow falling on my face. The best such event, however, was in a little mountain town in Austria where I went on a nighttime sleigh ride through the countryside. I was so cold on that trip that I literally lost feeling in my limbs even though I was wearing long johns as well as snow boots and woolly socks that I had purchased from L.L. Bean. I’ve had those shoes for twelve years now and never had occasion to wear them again. I keep them just in case but unless I travel far from home in the winter I don’t expect to need them ever again.

My idea of truly enjoying a snowy place would have to include having someone to shovel the white stuff from my driveway and sidewalks, not to mention retaining an experienced driver to take me on my errands. I haven’t mowed my lawn in years, and I don’t think I would enjoy shoveling snow either. I just want to enjoy the experience like a tourist, and then return home when I grow tired of the work associated with winter.

Even in my temperate climate I somehow I love the wintery moments far more than the summer. I like log cabins in the mountains and hillsides glistening with snow. I enjoy sitting by a warm fire and wearing layers of clothing with cute boots and warm gloves. I like hearing the crunch of snow under my feet and building snowmen. Somehow in spite of the fact that I have always lived near the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and rarely experienced a true winter, I long to have that experience. It just seems more natural than wearing Hawaiian shirts and flip flops in the middle of January. Still, I love my hometown and have no desire to leave except for a brief interlude that might provide me with the winter wonderland of which I dream.

It’s ironic that so many snow birds come our way for the winter because they have grown weary of the long relentless winters. They’ve traded in their snow shovels for RVs that allow them to be sun seekers. One of the prime spots for such folks has traditionally been Rockport, Texas, a small town only a few hours away from Houston, which welcomes folks from northern states each winter. The town is usually filled with refugees from Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and other frigid places. This year there is no town of Rockport. It was quite literally blown away by hurricane Harvey. There are tent cities in vacant lots even six months later, and there is a grave shortage of places for the natives to live. The rebuilding has been brutally slow because in some ways Rockport has been forgotten and many of the citizens worry that the quaint seaside town will never again be the same. The regular visitors have had to find other places to stay this year and it’s possible that they will never return again now that they have been forced by circumstances to find an alternative location for wintering.

I suppose that the grass is always a bit greener in places that are not like our own. We wish for things that we don’t have without really thinking about the implications. I never consider how much work it might be to live in a place that fills with snow, while those who come to our neck of the woods rarely consider the horrors of the hurricanes that now and again come our way.

I suppose that I will have to be content to have a kind of make believe winter experience. I’ll wear my winter gear when I can and enjoy our small doses of soup weather with an appreciation for not having to endure the more difficult aspects of Jack Frost. I’ll crank up the fireplace and maybe even build a bonfire in our outdoor pit on cold dry days. I know that I probably appreciate the cold more because it is so rare, something very special around here. Soon enough it will be warm again and I’ll be donning my sleeveless shirts and sandals.

I’m afflicted by never ending hot flashes. I’ve been told that if they have not gone away by now, they never will. I’ve done research to find out how I might minimize them and learned that the best way to do so is to live in a cold place. Since that is not going to happen, I’ve had to learn to live with them much as northerners understand how to avoid frostbite. It’s funny how we adapt to whatever our situations may be.

This is still my favorite time of year even though it’s wintery aspects are short for those of us who live this far south. I’ll miss going to visit the Whooping Cranes that winter in Rockport each year. I hope that their habitats will be sufficient for them because I suspect that the humans who generally protect them are busy with their own survival this year. We’ll all make do with what we have, but I still have hopes of a snowy January day.

No Tongue Can Tell

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Imagine living in an island city filled with beautifully colorful buildings that look almost like doll houses. The streets are filled with smiling happy people who bask in the sunny days and enjoy the ocean breezes. Along the shore on a pier out in the ocean there is a huge ferris wheel that citizens reach on a train that transports them over the water. There is a port that brings goods and money into the area from all over the world. It provides jobs that make the citizens some of the wealthiest in the nation. This is surely a place that must be paradise, a dream come true for all who dwell here.

Now consider that news arrives of a coming storm. Reports differ as to its potential strength. The local meteorologist does not believe that it will be particularly harmful. The signs from the ocean appear to be mild. There is no reason to panic or leave. It’s simply time to batten down the hatches, get together indoors with neighbors and celebrate good fortune. You watch as the ocean asserts its power and the sky grows dark. The streets of your town begin to fill with water, but nobody is particularly worried. They’ve seen this kind of thing before. It will blow over and the sun will return. Maybe the wind will create the need for a few repairs, but nothing more.

By nightfall you become a bit more concerned and invite frightened friends to your more substantial house. Things should be just fine, but as the squalls come ashore something is very different about this hurricane. It is more frightening. Too many things are blowing past the windows. The water is inching rapidly toward the front door. You and those with you climb to the second floor to wait it out. The tension in the group becomes more palatable. Your heart begins to race and you have thoughts that you want to wish away.

Something slams into the side of the house. Suddenly there is an open hole the size of an entire room. The place is breaking apart and everyone becomes hysterical. You see water raging past filled with flotsam and jetsam and people who do not appear to be alive. The floor on which you are standing begins to crumble. You grab at a portion of your once fine home that has suddenly become the foundation of a makeshift raft. You carefully place your children on the flimsy lifeboat and search for your spouse who has suddenly disappeared under the water. You are in a panic, not knowing what to do. Should you dive under the darkness in an attempt to find her, or is it best to look after your children? You pray to God for strength and protection. You want this horrifying night to be done.

You float aimlessly for hours. As far as you can see  there is unspeakable destruction. Little do you know that it is far worse than you imagine. Perhaps it is best that you are ignorant of the true extent of the terror, because you might lose all hope if you know what has really happened. You calm your children and wait for the sun to rise. You want to cry, but know that now is not the time.

When the day dawns the winds have ceased and the waters have begun to recede. The vision before your eyes is unimaginable. You want to shield your children from the truth, but the death that surrounds you is so massive that there is no possible way to keep them from knowing what has happened. Your once majestic city by the sea is gone, never again to be one of the most important places in the country. A later accounting reveals that more than six thousand of your friends and neighbors and fellow citizens have died in the hurricane, a count that will not be equaled even a hundred years later.

The task before you and other survivors is daunting. Some have already decided to just leave, but you want to stay in this place. It has burrowed into your heart, and even with all of the pain that it has created you can’t bear to go somewhere else. You join the building process and silently hope that you will find your relatives and friends who are missing, but you never do.

Your city will become a small town, no longer destined to be as glorious as it once was. You help to build a seawall designed to keep the raging waters at bay. You work to raise the entire island, a modern marvel of engineering. You are proud of those who work to bring things back to a semblance of normalcy. You are a survivor of something so terrible that you will never be able to adequately speak of its horror. You don’t want to talk about what you lost. You try not to think about the orphanage that no longer exists, or the tiny souls from there who were eventually found buried under the sand with their caretakers next to them. Yours is a story for the ages that you will never want to repeat.

This is a true account of the great storm of 1900, a category four hurricane that moved right over Galveston Island in Texas. To this day there has never been another natural disaster in the United States that claimed so many lives. In the course of only a few hours the once thriving city was decimated, and would ultimately be reduced to a sleepy place that mostly attracts tourists and brave souls who find themselves in love with the tropical atmosphere. Many of the homes of 1900 still stand, reminders of a time when some of the most powerful and wealthy individuals in America lived and worked in the once bustling city. On a sunny day it is easy to imagine how wonderful life must have been before the true danger of being there was revealed.

The ghosts of a magnificent time and place lurk along with those who died so tragically in a single night. There is something indeed special about Galveston that can’t be described until someone has spent time there in the changing seasons. It is easy to fall in love with this town, but those who choose to make this island home must understand that danger is always possible.

After 1900, the improbable happened. A swampy little place called Houston became the titan that Galveston had been. The people there dredged a channel from Galveston Bay inland to create one of the busiest ports in the world. Houston would grow to become the fourth largest city in the United States, and until just this year would not experience anything resembling the tragedy that befell Galveston in 1900. Hurricane Harvey flooded the streets and homes of Houston, but thankfully did not even come close to killing the number of people who died long ago in the place just fifty miles south. Still those of us who have lived in Houston and visited Galveston understand better than ever the need to respect the storms that form in the Atlantic from June to November each year.

Now that hurricane season is over we have some time to relax before considering what we must do to make this area less likely to crumble under the brunt of a killer storm. The potential for disaster will roll around again just as it does each year. It’s important that we try to imagine the possibilities so that we will plan wisely and take precautions when danger becomes imminent. We more than most know what it is like when Mother Nature grows surly, and we understand the we can never be complacent about her power to change our world in an instant. Ours are the kind of stories that no tongue can tell.