First Do No Harm

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I live in Texas along the Gulf coast. My father spent his teenage years in Corpus Christi, Texas, a place where he met his best friends and from hence he learned his love of fishing. He longed to return there to live one day, but he was never able to find a job, so Houston was the next best thing for him.

I grew up visiting Corpus Christi often and hearing my dad’s stories of how wonderful the place was. On top of having it’s own unique culture and feel, it is only a hop, a skip, and a jump from Laredo, a border town with Mexico. As a kid and then as a young adult a trip to Corpus Christi sometimes was the gateway to a quick jaunt to the other side of the Rio Grande. Things were quieter and safer then, so families traveled back and forth between the United States and Mexico with little or no fanfare.

I was raised in a Catholic family which meant attending Catholic school. Back in the day our Catholic parents believed that it was their duty to send us to the nuns and priests for our education. We not only learned the three Rs, but also studied the foundations of our faith, which included discussions of the Ten Commandments and sin.

I sat in classrooms with many of the same kids for years. We became like brothers and sisters. I never noticed that our last names read like a roll call of the United Nations. I did not even think to classify my classmates as Italians, Hispanics, Czechs, Germans or such. We were all just peers seeing each other at school Monday through Friday and then again at church on Sunday. I was probably in my sixties before it fully occurred to me that names like Luna and Villagomez indicated Hispanic heritage of some sort. I seriously just saw people as people because of my upbringing.

My mom and her siblings were first generation Americans who were often taunted not just for their ancestry from Slovakia, but also for their religious beliefs. Nonetheless they eventually melted into the great big pot known as the United States of America, and followed both the customs of both their country and their religion quite earnestly. My brothers, and cousins and I were taught to love our nation and our church as well. Mostly we were cautioned to view life as beautiful and sacred. My mom always asserted that people are people and our differences are usually only skin deep. She believed that inside our hearts we are all pining for the same things.

I’ve been rocking along for my seventy years living the way I was raised with a devotion and gratitude for my country, my state, my church, my family, my friends, and all people. For most of my life I enjoyed a career as a teacher, and many of my students were recent immigrants just as my mother had been. Most of them had come from countries in Central and South America. They struggled with many of the same issues that my mom had faced, and so I felt a particular impetus to help them to feel welcome and beloved in their new home. I also realized that some faced the additional challenge of being so called illegals. They had been brought to Texas as children without any of  the proper papers. They grew up in a state of fear that they might one day be forced to return to a place that had become foreign to them. They were the “Dreamers.”

Of late politics have pushed two issues to front and center, namely immigration and abortion. Ironically those topics are at odds with the way I was taught to think, which is to value human life above all else. On the one hand, I worry about the people fleeing to our borders in attempts to escape hopeless lives, and on the other hand I am increasingly appalled by the almost blasé attitude of the murder of unborn children. The irony for me is that quite often those who are concerned about the immigrant issues think of abortion as simply a matter of choice rather than violence, while those who are adamantly opposed to the influx of immigrants without limits are often deeply saddened by abortion. Somehow I see the two has having much in common, and find it difficult to understand the inconsistencies in current thinking.

I was therefore rather excited to learn that there is a group of pro-life women known as the New Wave Feminists who are demonstrating their genuine concerns for all people and all life by raising funds to bring the immigrants now being held at the border the kind of supplies that they so desperately need. In other words, they are putting their beliefs into action rather than simply complaining about the situations. Their spokesperson, Herndon De la Rosa has expressed their thinking quite beautifully, “We are pro-life because we care about the inherit human dignity of every living person, inside the womb and out,” Herndon-De La Rosa says. She feels a heightened responsibility to not look away from people at the border because “as a Texan . . . it’s happening in my backyard,” she notes. “All are vulnerable and all are human beings.” (National Review, July 8, 2019)

We have too many politicians these days who seem to believe that being bipartisan or using consensus to solve problems is a sign of weakness. They think that there is only one possible way of seeing issues, and anything less than total victory for their causes is unacceptable. As  a result, much of the humanity that I was taught to treasure is being hurt while the fights between ideas rage on. We are indeed all human beings and all vulnerable. Our instinct should be to first do no harm, and then find a way to hammer out a way of dealing with our differences in a manner that considers the value of all humans.

I am not so naive as to think that any of our problems will be easily solved or that our solutions will be perfect, but the reality is that both the living and the unborn are suffering even as we rant and rave with one another. Surely it is time to consider that we will ultimately be stronger by remembering to love while we determine how to honor the inherent dignity of all persons both living and unborn. Long ago we got it wrong when we allowed slavery to continue as we began our country. Perhaps it’s time that we learn from our mistakes of the past and move forward together. 

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I Am the Median

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From a statistical point of view my life has hovered around the median. I represent continuity and moderation and a mix of conservative and progressive points of view. While my life was tragically made a bit unusual for the times in which I lived by my father’s early death, that anomaly was mediated by the environment in which I grew into an adult. I am a product of a small and insular neighborhood in a time when my native city of Houston was still more of a town than a city. My life was guided by routines and traditions that rarely varied. There was an entire village of people both familial and unrelated by blood who watched over me. I grew strong and happy and so loved that I was ready to tackle any challenges that came my way. As an adult I was so busy attempting to reconstruct my own sweet world for my children that I barely noticed how much the times were actually changing.

When I was seven years old I was uprooted from everything and everyone that I had ever known to accompany my family on a journey west where a quiet revolution of opportunity and change was overtaking people like a fever. My days there were painful because I had lost the anchor of extended family and friends that always made me feel so secure. I was among people who were so busy building dreams that they had little time to welcome us. I went to school each day feeling nameless and misunderstood. Ironically my father felt the same way at his work. None of us ever fit in to the race for something unknown that so dominated life in the part of California that would one day be the epicenter of Silicon Valley. Before long we all just wanted to be back home in Texas.

With little more than a wing and a prayer we slowly made our way back to what we had known. Along the way my father searched for a job. His efforts to find work lead us all the way back to Houston, and for the very first time in a long time I recall feeling quite relieved even though we had not yet settled into a permanent home. My father’s deadly car accident left my mother bereft and scrambling to create a sense of continuity for all of us. Luckily we had returned to the people for whom we had longed when we were far away and they gathered in unison to help us every step of the way. Oh, how I loved them and still do!

My mother wisely returned us to the very neighborhood from whence we had moved only months before. We were welcomed like the Prodigal Son. Our life began its constant revolution around church, school, family and friendships. There was a lovely sense of calm about the way we lived. We stayed in the same house until all of us were grown and on our own. We had the same neighbors for years. It was rare for anyone to move away back then. When we went to church each Sunday we saw the familiar faces of people who smiled and greeted us by name. We attended the same school with the same kids who are friends with us even fifty years later. Each Friday evening we visited my maternal grandmother in a gathering that included all of my aunts and uncles and cousins. In the summer we traveled to visit with my paternal grandparents on their farm.

We constantly heard stories from our elders about the history of who we were that carried little nuggets of expectation without being overbearing. At church we learned about the comfort that is always available from God and the ways of compassion and love that Jesus taught the world. Our teachers and our parents spoke openly to us about both the greatness and the imperfections of our country, urging us to always remember our responsibility to maintain a healthy democracy.

We were always a bit behind the fads and movements along the two coasts of the country. We were more inclined to study how things went there before jumping into the idea of adopting radical change without much thought. Our lives were slow and steady like the tortoise. We knew that we would eventually get to our desired destinations, but we did not want to lose sight of more important things like family and friends along the way.

Suddenly it seemed as though both the innovations and the cautions that were brewing along the two poles of our nation roared up around us, forcing us to see the world through different eyes. The titans of media and advertisement from the east coast were burrowing into our brains with television. The movie moguls influenced us with films. Finally the masters of Silicon Valley invaded our lives with computers and smart phones and a burgeoning social media. People began moving around and moving up. Extended families had less and less time for each other and friends were often on the go. We woke up one morning and the city of Houston had become the fourth largest metropolitan area in the country.

Some of what happened while we were sleeping was very good. There were breakthroughs in civil rights that were imperfect, but steps in the direction of equality. Women were provided more opportunities than ever and their voices began to be heard. We acknowledged that love is love regardless of whether the people who express it for one another are man and woman or man and man, woman and woman. Medicine and science made our lives easier and our affluence grew.

At the same time we have lost many things as well. Our neighborhoods flux and flow to the point that the relationships that we form there are constantly changing as people move from one place to another. Our extended families are in far flung places and gathering our relations together becomes more and more complex. Our churches and our beliefs are continually challenged. We fear for our children to play outside alone. We argue and rankle with one another and wonder if how far we change is enough or too much. We feel as though we are being ruled by extremes, either far too cautious or far too willing to upend all that we have known. We have lost our sense of history and our willingness to accept that none of us, not even ourselves, are free from the taint of bad decisions or hurtful behaviors. We judge and decry those who do not share our own philosophies. We honor those who boast and demean while turning our backs on the people who live with quiet dignity and respect. It feels as though we are somehow being manipulated by some unseen hand as though we are merely robots. None of it feels good, and some of us long for the good old days not because we are unaware of the problems that some people faced while we were comfortable, but because we need to bring the village of diverse people who loved us back together once more. We need to feel that sense of chest bursting pride in our families and friendships and churches and cities and states and our country that might have once brought us to a sense of belonging to something special.

We have many folks attempting to understand our thinking and our motivations and I suspect that they are getting us all wrong. They tend to make assumptions about us based on their own backgrounds rather than ours. Suddenly I find myself feeling untethered much as I did when I was seven years old in an environment so different from what I had always known. I understand how it must have been to be my father daring to dream, but realizing that he did not quite fit into a way of life so unlike his own. I am the median, an average person with a big heart and a dream of embracing the people to both the right and the left of me in a hug that says,  “You might want to know how folks like me really feel rather than foisting your ideas on everyone. Your constituency reaches from sea to shining sea and there is a great deal in the middle that you are yet to understand. Maybe it’s time for you to learn.”

When Our Days Were Magic

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It sometimes seems to me that we spend far too much time planning ahead, and far too little time just enjoying the moment. I see evidence of that tendency in all of my daily travels. For example, it’s barely the beginning of July and already the stores are filling with school supplies, uniforms, and fall clothing. It’s bad enough that we push our children back into the classroom before Labor Day, but now we begin eagerly preparing for that moment six weeks in advance. Why can’t we just give our children a break and allow them to enjoy unadulterated fun for a time rather than loading them down with mathematics packets, required summer reading, long essays to complete? We hardly ever give our youngsters time to think for themselves, to decide how to spend their hours. We seem determined to fill every waking hour with activities that we think will help them to achieve more in the future.

Many young folk don’t know the joys of waking up on a warm July day with no plans and no place to go. They have not had the wonderful experience of using their own creativity to make life more adventurous. I rarely see the children in my neighborhood gathering by themselves to play. There are no sounds of games or fort building or any of the many activities that filled my vacations as a child.

I can still feel the exhileration of waking up on those summer morns with the knowledge that we kids had total freedom to face down the day. I can’t recall ever feeling bored, but rather torn between so many ideas for having fun. We often spent the earliest hours of the day in outdoor pursuits because it was still a bit cooler then. We’d ride our bicycles pretending to perform stunts by standing up on the seats or letting go of the handlebars for a few seconds. We travelled to the woods down by the bayou and explored the area with the determination of Lewis and Clark. We’d listen for the calls of the birds and watch for specimens of nature that we’d claim for the cigar box collections that we prized.

Once the sun had climbed high into the sky, and the temperature soared we’d shift gears and begin playing board and card games. There was always at least one mom like mine who gladly offered the kitchen table for a gathering place. We’d have tournaments that lasted for days and pitted us good-naturedly against each other. There was nothing grander than using our skills and a bit of luck to become champions.

We dabbled in the creative as well. We produced plays, performed musicals, and wrote neighborhood newspapers. I remember reading a biography of Truman Capote that told of how he and his neighborhood friend, Harper Lee, used an old typewriter to compose stories about the people that they knew. We did that as well where I lived. None of us ever became famous, but I am certain that my love of writing began way back then.

Sometimes we’d ask our mom to take us to the library, or instead we would ride our bikes to the mobile library that stood by Garden Villas Park. We’d load up with as many titles as allowed, and lie in front of the open windows with the fan blowing on us, enraptured by the stories inside those pages. I was into mysteries back then. I could not seem to get enough of them, and it always thrilled me to unravel the twists and turns of the plots before the big reveal at the end.

Of course there was swimming at one of the city parks. Back then we had an hour to bask in the cool water and then we had to leave for the next group of kids waiting in along line for their turn to enjoy the pool. We’d walk through showers before we were allowed to get into the water and then we’d play Marco Polo and stand on our hands so that our bodies were under the cooling blue waves. It’s remarkable how quickly the time went by, so we celebrated if the life guard decided that the crowd was small enough to allow us an extra hour.

I don’t ever recall our television being on during the day either in the summer or when school was in session. We simply didn’t waste our time on such activities. We had way too many other ideas for amusement. It seemed that there was never enough time to fit our bounty of ideas into those lovely three months when we were our own masters.

It saddens me a bit that so few children today are able to enjoy the kind of childhood that was so commonplace in my youth. I realize that times are a bit more dangerous than those years when we slept with our windows open and rarely locked our doors during the daytime hours. Parents have to be more watchful than our moms and dads were back then. I also understand that taking classes or participating in sports can be meaningful life lessons, but sometimes it’s just as important to provide children with time to figure out things on their own. I suppose that I learned how to think critically, problem solve, and work in cooperative groups during those days of hanging with the kids from the neighborhood without parents organizing us. My free time prepared me for the future in immeasurable ways.

I wish that our children today might know the joy that we did. It was in the summer that I learned to cook or how to earn a little money by doing odd jobs or selling lemonade. I honed my negotiation skills toe to toe with my peers. It was a glorious time, when being a kid meant learning how to navigate and explore. Nothing was rushed. It was summer and each day was magic.

An Exceptional Plan

Great planning results in a great trip. Our recent foray into Great Britain was a success in part because we embarked on a great deal of research long before we departed for our journey across the pond. It began with a copy of Rick Steve’s book outlining the wonders of London that was gifted to us by our good friends Eric and Jenny Brunsell on the occasion of our fiftieth anniversary. Known as “Jeneric” on their travel blog the two have coursed across the globe on week long junkets. They encouraged us to do our homework and then create a master plan.

Once we had a general idea of what we hoped to accomplish on the trip we met with another good friend, Gerald Warren, who travels to London and environs at least once each year and has become quite comfortable leading tours to that great city. We sat down with him over dinner and he shared the nuts and bolts of where to stay, how to get there and the best sights. His insights were incredibly useful from noting that we would get a lower rate on fights from Austin rather than Houston, to helping us find a hotel where we would feel comfortable.

From Gerald we learned that the Holiday Inn Bloomsbury is both a bargain and a great place to stay. It is located in one of the safer areas of London while still being only a block away from the Russell Square underground station. The staff is exceedingly helpful. The food, especially the breakfast, is excellent. The rooms are clean. All in all staying there eliminated any worries that we may have had about where to sleep at night.

Gerald also alerted us as to the best way of getting from the airport to our hotel. We learned that the easiest and least costly route was to take the Heathrow Express train to Paddington Station and then get a black cab from there. His suggestion that we buy a round trip ticket saved us from a great deal of stress on our return trip home. We also spent far less money than we might have if we had simply jumped into a cab to journey to the hotel.

It was also Gerald who urged us to purchase an Oyster card at the underground station. There is a six dollar a day cap to charges on the card so all we had to do is calculate how many days we would be traveling around London and then put that amount on our cards. After that we simply used the card to go from one place to another without any problems. Once we had completed the trip we were able to get a refund on any remaining funds by filling out a form. The instructions for doing so were clearly posted in each station.

My husband Mike and sister-in-law Becky were both project managers in their working days and their skill in designing plans for our sightseeing were invaluable. We met at Becky’s home several months in advance of the trip to determine what we wanted to see and when we would do so. Becky kept careful records that included the cost of each event and the distance between venues. We borrowed from ideas in the Rick Steves book and from suggestions made by Gerald at our dinner meeting. Mike had the idea of using a London city map, also a gift from Eric and Jenny, to note where each place was located and then visit those venues in the same area on the same days. I reserved tickets at a number of places and found hotels or flats for our travel outside of London. Whenever I made purchases for the entire group Becky made note on a spreadsheet that she meticulously kept current so that we would be able to share all of the expenses equally.

Having different points of view led us to do things that we might otherwise never have considered. We ended up in Brighton because my sister-in-law Allison wanted to see a beach. While the area was not quite what we expected we nonetheless encountered situations that serendipitously made our trip even better. My brother Pat wanted to take the Jack the Ripper tour and that too ended up being a grand way to spend an evening. Allison also introduced us to the idea of spending some of our evenings playing games inside a local pub that in many ways was one of the highlights of the vacation. Our unique personalities created a nice balance for the trip and allowed us to experience many different kinds of places and events. 

Since my husband Mike had a stroke during a July 4th trip two years ago I was a bit leery of traveling to a place outside of the United States even though his health has been quite good for many months. Having a small group of people with us gave me far more confidence than I otherwise would have had. We looked after one another and I knew that if anything happened to anyone we would be able to work together to make things go well. My brother Pat and his wife Allison have both driven ambulances and cared for people as first responders. They know how to stay calm in an emergency and that alone eliminated any fears that I might otherwise have had.

Pat not only operated an ambulance but in his multi-faceted work life he drove a mail truck with the steering wheel on the right side, an eighteen wheeler delivery truck, and a fire engine. He was a natural choice for driving around the countryside and he did a yeoman’s job. Nobody else in our group would have been able to chauffeur us around as safely as he did. We instead would have had to take trains and as a result might have missed so many of the sights that we saw from our car.

My brother Mike was our Zen master. He is always so calm and flexible that he kept us all working together. He was our model of patience. He enjoyed himself regardless of the circumstances, never complaining or creating controversy. I often found myself looking to him to keep my anxieties at bay. Sometimes a quiet person who appears to just be following is in fact a kind of silent leader.

I can’t imagine having a more perfect trip than the one that we enjoyed. We used the suggestions and talents of many individuals and then just went into auto pilot once we landed in London. Ours was a memorable trip that none of us will ever forget. I’m hoping that we might be able to come together once again to perhaps travel to Vienna and from there to the birthplace of our grandparents in Slovakia. I know that I am more than ready to begin to planning.

A Roman Treasure

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We often forget that the Romans had outposts in Britain long before the nation had become organized enough to have kings and its own government. There is evidence of the Roman era in great walls around cities like York, and in the magnificent edifices in the city now known as Bath. We journeyed to that ancient area not certain what we would see as we looked farther back into the history of England than even the medieval cathedrals and towns had been able to take us.

The Romans found the natural hot springs of the area and created magnificent spas and temples around them. At the time of their conquest it was a thriving region where Roman citizens came to worship their gods and goddesses and to bathe and relax. The discovery of the remains of the magnificent structures that once stood there must have been quite exciting to those who accidentally found them, and thankfully they understood the importance of unearthing and preserving the ruins.

Walking through the site is a profound experience. There is something quite humbling about seeing the engineering and architecture of people who walked the earth so long ago. The sheer beauty of their creations is breathtaking, but the idea of witnessing how their way of life must have been is even more exciting. They were unbelievably advanced in their knowledge of how to move and drain water and how to build great structures. It is fascinating to think of them traveling to this distant place from Rome and putting their lasting mark on its landscape. We spent hours inside the complex where all of the ruins are housed, mesmerized by the ingenuity of its creators.

The city of Bath is a treasure not just for the contributions of the Romans but also for the magnificent buildings that were created in later eras. It is a place of elaborate churches and beautiful apartment buildings. There is something exceptionally creative about the place that attracts singers, painters, and artists of all sorts. 

We listened to the singing of a woman with a wonderful soprano voice, and jigged in place when a trio of musicians played English folk tunes. We’ve witnessed a number of exceptional street performers in many cities, but we agreed that the artists in Bath were some of the very best. With the pleasantly cool weather and the preponderance of seating we might have tarried all day in the main plaza of Bath had our tour of the Roman baths not taken so long, and we had another appointment that we wanted to keep. We were hoping to get a glance of Highclere Castle where the television hit Downton Abbey is filmed, so we needed to leave by mid afternoon.

We reluctantly said our goodbyes to Bath and were off again in the hopes of taking some selfies in front of the well known castle. First we paused for some lunch at a rest area and perhaps took a bit longer than we should have. When we finally entered the road to the famed estate we were stopped by a sign announcing that no tourists would be allowed after four in the afternoon. Since it was well past five we knew that we had missed our opportunity to explore the grounds. We had been led to believe that we could walk around the area until seven each day, but soon learned that the late hours do not start until the summer. We were profoundly disappointed because we had gone well out of our way to get there, and besides we might have spent more time in Bath had we known that our trip was to be fruitless.

It was time to head back to London and our old familiar haunts. Soon enough we were back at our hotel and planning to meet up in our favorite pub for some dinner and perhaps a game of Jokers and Marbles at the big table that had in some ways become ours. We had a great time recounting our adventures and looking on the positive side of even our disappointments. I enjoyed a lovely bowl of soup with some delicious bread and we women kept our winning record with the game intact. We also had some laughs with the regulars who seemed to come to the pub each evening and made our plans for our final day in London.

We planned a shopping day in some of the most famous mercantile areas of the city for our last hurrah. We agreed to allow ourselves a bit more sleep time and then we would be off to Harrods, Oxford Street, and Selfridge’s to see what wonders were inside these famous places of which we had only heard stories in the past. There was something quite exciting about the prospect of dressing up and mingling with the in crowd along with a horde of tourists like ourselves. I love to shop whether it is in thrift shops or elegant department stores. The thrill of the hunt has always fascinated me. I only wished that my mother was with us to enjoy the moment as well. I know that she too would have been extremely excited about perusing the wares of London’s most exclusive merchants. I seemed almost like the night before Christmas to me.