Visions of Sugar Plums

One of my annual pilgrimages is to the Nutcracker Market in Houston, Texas. It’s a yearly gala hosted by the Houston Ballet in a fundraising effort that has grown into an extravaganza that takes place just ahead of the Christmas season. It provides a gathering of unique merchants from all across the country inside the vast halls of the Reliant Center, offering everything from holiday decorations to furniture. It is also one of the most interesting places to people watch, or should I say mostly women watch. Thousands of ladies converge on the event starting early on a Thursday morning in November, with a rare male joining their ranks now and again. It is a carnival, a celebration, and at some moments a truly crazy experience.

I have to admit that I had never even heard of the Nutcracker Market until one of the school administrators with whom I worked told me about almost thirteen years ago. She was shocked to learn that I had never been and decided to show me the ropes by inviting me to join her in taking a “sick” day from work and playing a bit of adult hooky. I reluctantly agreed because it was not my style to be anything but dependable, but the lure of adventure ultimately caused me to agree to her plan.

I was mystified as to why she insisted that we travel in one car on the morning of our glorious day off until we reached the entrance to the parking lot and sat in a long line of traffic waiting expectantly to get inside. We had to leave the car so far away from the hall that we must surely have satisfied our daily exercise routines before even reaching the next huge line of women purchasing tickets. Even though we had begun our journey early in the morning it was almost ten before we finally walked into shopping Nirvana.

Since I have a tinge of Attention Deficit Disorder I was almost overcome when I saw the swarms of people, the array of colors, and the bazaar like atmosphere that lay before us. Thanks to my friend I was able to keep a semblance of focus under her tutelage. She took me to the best vendors first and even insisted that we buy mimosas to calm my anxiety of not knowing where to first turn. We walked from one stall to another in a determined hike that must have been miles. All along the way were women feverishly searching for items that they might never find in a big box or department store. My friend was a veteran of the Nutcracker wars so I felt confident that I would not make any mistakes. She knew where to find the less frequently visited restrooms, and how to secure a table for lunch which she insisted had to be catered by a tamale company that came every year. We talked and laughed and tried on clothes and filled our bags with gifts for friends and family and for ourselves as well. When our purchases became too heavy or bulky my friend demonstrated how to get tons of things inside one bag that we paid to be stored for us for a small price until we were finished shopping. When we finally felt the first tinges of exhaustion we realized that we had been inside the strange world for well over eight hours, and it was growing dark outside. We left as happy and chatty as when we had started earlier that day and vowed to return again.

My friend left the school where I had been working and I lost contact with her but I was hooked and had to go back to the Nutcracker Market each season. Over the years I have found different partners and groups willing to accompany me to the astoundingly celebratory event. During all that time I have watched the crowds swell to unimaginable sizes and the outrageousness of the shoppers become more and more interesting. I still go into a kind of ADD trance when I first enter the scene, and I doubt that I would be capable of navigating the rows and rows of merchants without someone to keep me focused. Those with whom I have gone come and go, either because they have moved away or they just can’t quite handle to zaniness. Nonetheless I remember my times with them with great fondness.

This year I attended the market with my sister-in-law, Allison, who is a great partner in any situation. She’s full of energy and laughter and has a knack for taking on any challenge with a relaxed and optimistic attitude. I was quite grateful that she was driving because the craziness began in the parking lot where there were already of groups of women sitting in lawn chairs enjoying breakfast and a few cocktails to gird their loins for the shopping battle ahead. We ended up parking so far away that walking from my home would not have been a much farther distance. As we searched for a spot to leave her car we saw ladies wearing matching shirts and exotic headdresses. There was a carnival atmosphere in the air and I became as excited as a child.

As usual my brain froze up once we got inside. I knew the drill but there were so many choices and my mind started jumping around like a pinball machine. Allison took charge much to my great joy, and after a time I calmed down enough to actually see what I was doing. We found great gifts from friends and family members and chatted like two sisters. Our bags became as full as Santa’s sleigh and still we walked and walked and walked viewing the great wonders and sampling soups and candies and muffins. As is always the case we lost track of time, and of the world in general. For those wonderful hours we were in our element, just having fun without a care, bonding the way women so often do.

About seven hours into our adventures our feet and our knees and our pocketbooks told us that we were done for this year. We took a trolley to the edge of the parking to retrieve Allison’s car and drove through the parcel pickup station to claim the treasures that we had found. We returned home a bit tired, but feeling so close to one another for what we had shared. It had been another wonderful day at the Nutcracker Market.

I’m already plotting and planning for next year. I hope that Allison will want to go again because she is a fabulous partner. Visions of sugarplums danced in my head as I dreamed last night. I suppose that if truth were to be told it was not the actual shopping that was so much fun, but rather the time spent with my sister-in-law and thousands of women letting their hair down and having a good time. We were a motley crew with smiles on our faces, and for a brief moment in time our cares and woes were set aside.

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Finally Learning Who I Am

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If you’ve followed my blogs even  intermittently you know that I have researched my paternal grandfather for many years all to no avail. I literally cannot find records of him until 1930, even though he was born in 1879. I’ve looked for his father and again there is no sign of him ever providing data for  a census or a document certifying his death certifying his death. Grandpa’s mother is even more of a phantom because she died in childbirth when she was evidently quite young.  My grandfather was supposedly raised by a grandmother, and I have found women with the same name as hers but none of them fit the profile that Grandpa gave me. I’ve had the best luck learning about the man who eventually became my grandfather’s guardian, but I cannot find a familial connection between him and my Grandpa. I once wrote to some of John Little’s descendants and none of them had ever heard about him being a guardian for a young orphan. So there it has stood and my frustrations just grow and grow, but I think that I may have contrived a plan that will unlock the mystery of my heritage. I’m convinced that I will receive a treasure trove of information if I have the courage to set the idea in motion.

So, I am officially throwing my hat in the ring for the presidency in 2020. I’ll be running as an independent because I don’t think either party will have me, and I’m not so sure that I would have them. I disagree with both on far too many issues, so mine will be a lone wolf attempt at winning the highest office in the land. I’ll begin by being open about who I know that I am, and then I’ll let the journalists and politicians do the work of uncovering my past to provide a more complete picture. I suspect that I will learn a great deal that I have never known, and since it really doesn’t matter whether I win the office or not, I’ll at least get the information that has so far eluded me.

I like to think of myself as being like honest Abe. In fact in one of those little quizzes that show up on Facebook I learned that I am most like Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama. I don’t have anything that I want to hide, so I will provide an outline of what I know to be true.

I joined the Students for a Democratic Society when I was at the University of Houston. There is a photo of me front and center in one of the school yearbooks. It was some time later that I learned what a radical organization SDS actually was. My sole purpose back then was to speak out against a war that I felt was steadily going in the wrong direction. Of course, nobody is going to believe in my innocence when I run for office but it will be worth the brouhaha just to find out about Grandpa. I’ll be branded as a radical, but that’s okay since I know that I’m a rather boring sort and always have been.

Both my maternal grandmother and my mother suffered from mental illnesses so I suppose that someone will decide that my quirks make me appear to be a bit flaky in my own right. I’ll own the fact that I can sometimes be a bit cray cray, but so far I’ve made it without an official diagnosis. I probably could have done a better job of finding help for my mom, but in the long run I feel comfortable in asserting that I did my best.

With all of my years in education there is surely someone who disliked me who will step forward with assertions that may shock me. If I wronged anyone I am greatly sorry. Forty years of working with children can be quite stressful, and I suppose that I may have uttered my frustrations a time or two. I know that when I was in charge of the educational program at one of my churches I, along with my co-director, was accused of being an agent of the devil because I was not a nun. That may eliminate a few potential voters along the way, but surely my own story is so mundane that someone will decide to reach far back into my history to find some obnoxious ancestor to darken my reputation. I’m in the hopes that when they do they will finally solve the mystery of my grandfather. I am tired of wondering if he simply sprang up in a cabbage patch.

He admitted that his father was a n’er do well, so I won’t be too surprised about what will turn up in that regard. I know that my great grandfather was a heavy drinker who preferred good old Virginia moonshine, according the Grandpa’s recollection. My grandfather himself even went through a period of inordinate imbibing until he became disgusted and decided to become a tee totaler. I’ve never cared much for anything more than a glass of wine or a Margarita, so my reputation should remain intact in that regard.

The funny thing is that I have more records about my grandparents who travelled to the United States from the Austro-Hungarian Empire than I do about my Grandpa Little. I know what boats they came on, what port they arrive in, and even who their parents were and when they were baptized as infants. It’s always seemed strange to me that somehow my paternal grandfather should remain such a mystery. So I can’t wait to use my campaign as a way to launch an investigation. If the FBI can’t vet me, then surely some hungry journalist will do the job. Maybe I’ll even get a spot on that program on PBS that find the formerly unknown ancestors of celebrities.

I’ve got a thick skin, so it won’t matter if they find some embarrassing facts, I just want to be certain that nobody makes things up. I’m looking for accuracy here so I can finally tell my siblings and our children and grandchildren from whence we came. Who knows I might even shake up the race a bit with my really strange amalgam of ideas about how our country should be governed. That alone will probably bring out more information that I actually need.

I think I may be on to something. I’m looking forward to finally knowing who I am.

And In Other News…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Mothers, Our Angels

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I recently participated in a podcast dealing with the question of how to form meaningful relationships. As I told my own stories I realized how much I had learned about compassion, gratitude, courage, loyalty, trust and other important morals from my own mother and those of my friends and cousins. I suppose that in many ways I lived a kind of unblemished childhood with the exception of my father’s untimely and unexpected death. From the many women that I encountered, the mothers of my peers, I learned the lessons of being someone on whom others might depend. These were wonderful women who opened their homes and their hearts to me little realizing what an impact they would have on my own development and worldview.

I have sadly been reminded again and again of what these ladies meant to me as they one by one die from the diseases of advanced age. Just last week I learned of the death of the remarkable mother of one of my high school friends. I had only met this woman once, but in that brief encounter I was taken by the way in which she welcomed me and made me somehow feel quite special. I would tell people about her and that brief encounter from time to time as the years passed. It was only in reading her obituary that I realized what a truly stunning life she had lived, and I felt proud to have known her no matter how fleetingly. 

The women who were my role models were children of the Great Depression. They were young and on the verge of beginning their lives as adults during World War II. Their early years were often punctuated with sacrifices that few of us born in the second half of the twentieth century will ever completely understand. In spite of varying hardships they all maintained a strong sense of optimism and can do spirit that followed them into their roles as mothers. They passed down their love of family to all of us, both male and female. They were devoted to their children without hovering like helicopters. They worked hard to maintain a sense of peace and contentment inside their homes. They rarely complained, instead celebrating the blessings that they had, regardless of how small they were. They were an exceptional group, and it pains me to see their generation slowly leaving our earth, because they were living breathing angels who gave their all to be certain that we would have good lives.

These were not women who were always barefoot, pregnant and under their husband’s thumbs, even though many of them never worked outside of the home. They were strong and able to overcome incredible challenges. They worked for the betterment of their little corners of the earth through jobs, volunteer work, keeping their families safe and happy. Often their responsibilities included elderly parents for whom they lovingly took into their homes. I used to enjoy visiting with the old ones who became part of the big extended families of my friends. It was not until my own mother came to live in my home in her final year of life that I realized the difficulties of caring for an adult day in and day out. The women I had witnessed had always made it seem so easy.

The women who continue to inspire me thought it natural to pitch in whenever someone was in need. They’d bring food, condolences, and a helping hand to any tragedy. They were not the least bit afraid of long hours of back breaking work. They did whatever needed to be done with little fanfare or need of accolades. 

If I were to make a list of the women who taught me how to live a purpose driven life it would begin with my own mother but then continue almost endlessly, for I always found something remarkable about the generation that came before me. Mrs. Barry showed me what love and loyalty really meant when she stepped forward to help me during my mother’s first mental breakdown. Mrs. Daigle taught me how to be the consummate hostess regardless of who came to my door. Mrs. Bush demonstrated courage over and over again, even in situations that might have overwhelmed a lesser soul. My aunts showed me how to keep family close. Mrs. Janot helped me to understand how to balance the daily toil of living with fun. Mrs. Frey demonstrated how to fully utilize my own talents and creativity. Mrs. Wright helped me to discover my own worth. Mrs. Loisey was my teacher who showed me the impact of a great educator. Mrs. Pryor helped me to understand the possibilities found in giving myself to the community. Mrs. McKenna brought beauty and music into my life. Mrs. Martin showed me the new worlds to be found in books. Mrs. Brochtrup seemed to be a living saint whose faith inspired me. Mrs. Caldwell, Mrs. Gallerano, and Mrs. Cash made my life more fun and interesting by spending hours  guiding me in Girl Scouts and on our school’s drill team. Mrs. Mandola was elegant and made me feel that way as well. All of them had a way of making it clear that they genuinely cared for me. They listened to me and valued what I had to say. They understood the importance of every relationship, but probably never realized what an enormous impact they had on me.

Our mothers were our angels on earth, and now so many of them are our angels in heaven. I do miss them and the calmness that they always brought to me. When we speak of women’s rights and the roles of women we would do well to look to these wonderful ladies for examples and guidance. They were far more amazing than our society gives them credit for being. From them I learned what it really means to be a woman.

Invest In Experiences, Not Things

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Love and romance are the stuff of literature and film. From Odysseus and Penelope to Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy we humans have lived vicariously in the stories of two people whose love seems almost destined to be. We gleefully celebrate as romantic tales unfold. There is something in our natures that is drawn to the happiness that comes from the joining of two compatible souls in marriage, and so we revel in the joy of young couples who agree to love, honor and cherish one another. Our human experience is enriched by love, but that first flush of emotion is often challenged by the routines and surprises of daily life. Sustaining the fires that brought two people together in the beginning can be fraught with problems, which is why so many dreams are dashed by unfaithfulness and divorce. It is quite an accomplishment and an inspiration when couples are able to continue their devotion to each other through decades of both happiness and disappointment, health and illness, riches and financial difficulties. We are inspired by those who are still in love even as their hair grays and wrinkles line their faces.

We were reminded of the power and beauty of true love in the touching example of George and Barbara Bush, a seventy three year marriage in which their feelings never appeared to wane. Barbara thought George was the most beautiful person she had ever seen when she was only sixteen years old and a lifetime later she still boasted to her nurses that he was the most handsome man on earth. The two had most surely become a team, one working for the good of the other in every aspect of their days together. They were as complimentary as cream and sugar, adding spice and flavor to their individual strengths and talents. We admire and desire the companionship that they achieved and search for ways to incorporate their kind of devotion in our own lives.

Back in the nineteen sixties another love story was quietly unfolding on the University of Texas campus. She was a tall beautiful and fun loving young woman from San Antonio named Barbara who had come to Austin filled with hopes and dreams. He was a bright engineering student named Gary with a big inviting smile. They enjoyed crazy dates at Zilker Park and fall days at football games where they cheered for their Texas Longhorns. It didn’t take them long to realize that they wanted to become man and wife, and so on an April day in nineteen sixty eight they were married in the company of family and friends. They had little idea how much adventure lay ahead, but they somehow knew that whatever happened they wanted to be together.

Gary’s Chemical Engineering degree would take them to many different places, and all along the way they would explore the history and landscapes and befriend the people that they met. They decided early on to invest in experiences rather than things, and they lived by that ideal by taking trips to the places that they had both longed to see. Barbara was as masterful at planning their excursions as Rick Steves and each year they set forth on expeditions to learn more about their world. Those vacations became a cornerstone of who they were and created memories that would cement their time together.

Of course family was always paramount and that included rituals like a Thanksgiving reunion with Barbara’s clan that they rarely missed. Each year they joined their ever growing group of aunts uncles and cousins in a celebration of life. Even as they had their own children, a boy and then a girl, they welcomed new members of the extended family with great happiness. The foundation of who they are and what they believe was found in those gatherings filled with laughter, song, stories and food to nourish both body and soul.

Somehow the years flew by and in spite of the usual kinds of troubles that come into everyone’s lives Barbara and Gary were able to navigate their way hand in hand, dealing with problems together and maintaining hopeful optimism. They worked hard and played hard and centered their lives on each other and their children. They built traditions and character and did their best, always with an eye to keeping their own passion for each other alive.

Before long the circle of life had repeated itself as their children made their way to the University of Texas where they met their own soulmates and repeated the lessons that they had learned from their parents. Barbara and Gary welcomed the new members of their family with the same openness and love that had always been so much a part of their natures. They celebrated as one grandchild after another enriched their lives, and all the while they continued to have fun with each other, never forgetting the importance of a hug, a kiss, a compliment, or a good laugh.

There were hardships along the way of course. Gary’s dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Barbara’s sweet mom developed cancer. Gary’s brother died far too young also from cancer. They watched as people that they loved developed life threatening illnesses. Gary had a frightening heart attack. Their children and grandchildren endured difficulties. Through it all both Barbara and Gary remained rocks of strength, compassion and wisdom. They held hands and together weathered each storm that came their way, and then they found a way to celebrate with an exciting trip with family or friends, never losing sight of their promise to invest in experiences rather than things.

It’s not an easy thing to reach a fiftieth wedding anniversary in today’s world. Statistics are rife with stories of broken dreams and promises. It takes hard work and determination and more than a great deal of love to keep a relationship happy and strong. Barbara and Gary Greene have mastered the process and their secret appears to be in working together with neither person more or less than the other. They value each other in all that they do and then purposefully find ways to celebrate the life that they have. Carpe Diem is not just a platitude for them, but a way of living. The generosity of spirit that they have always shown to one another extends to everyone that they meet leaving them surrounded by people who support their journey together.

Happy fiftieth anniversary, Barbara and Gary. All of us who are part of your beautiful love story have been blessed and inspired by both of you. Thank you for showing us how it’s done.