The Boy Who Cried Wolf

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My father read to me from the time that I was very young. He repeated the lilting phrases of classic poems and shared the words of fairytales and fables. He told me that there were lessons to be learned from literature, and that in olden times the stories were used to teach children. So it was with the tale of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. I was fascinated by the young shepherd boy who amused himself by pretending that wolves were attacking his flock. Each time he yelled, “Wolf, wolf!” the townspeople would run to his aide only to find him laughing at them. When a real wolf actually appeared and he cried out for help nobody came because they no longer believed a thing that he said. My father cautioned me to always be truthful and to use my words carefully lest I be viewed as someone who lies. Even in my very young state of mind I understood what he was saying.

Over the years I have done my best to be an honest person, but along the way I have met those who speak falsehoods. Sometimes those folks have actually gotten by with their half truths and exaggerations and it has infuriated me. I’ve wanted to reveal their fabrications and leave them looking like the hurtful individuals that they were. Most of the time though I simply cut them out of my little world, walking away glad I that I learned of their deceit early enough to save myself. Of late I am teetering a bit because I am discovering more and more secrets about people that I might have heretofore trusted. My caution and cynicism is growing by leaps and bounds as even the press and people once thought to be role models are outed as liars. I chide myself for forgetting my father’s cautionary words and getting caught being made a fool.

I don’t know if the present state of the world is really any different than it always has been, but with all of the information that we have I can’t decide if we know too much or too little. Maybe my nativity and ignorance was actually bliss, or maybe it fooled me in potentially dangerous ways. Whichever is the case I now find just a bit of that bliss being threatened by my unwillingness to quickly accept all of the stories that I hear as fact. I have grown wary and suspicious which may be to my benefit, but also feels a bit cranky.

Even the most unknown person now has many vehicles by which he or she may become instantly famous. A viral tweet or Instagram photo has the power of reaching the entire world. We take bits and pieces of information and form instant opinions about people and situations that we do not truly know. Many times the very ideas that we support are being held together by exaggerations if not outright lies. We become pawns in a game that can turn dangerous if we are too ready to believe. We have seen many such examples in the news, and yet we too often remain gullible, particularly when the person or persons speaking have points of view that reflect our own. We fall for propaganda without enough thought or attempts to seek the truth.

I don’t know anything about Jussie Smollett. I have never watched Empire and I might never have even heard his name before he reported that a hate crime had been perpetrated against him. At first I paid little attention to the affair other than to feel a bit sad that anyone had been as cruel to him as he asserted they had been. Of course the story did not end there. We soon learned that Mr. Smollett had manufactured the entire scenario in a crazed plan to gain attention and perhaps become a more popular and well known figure. Now even folks like me know a bit more about him, and sadly he is more infamous than famous. He will be remembered as someone who lied about a very serious situation.

There are truly hateful acts being played out all around us. We indeed need to find the evil doers who would espouse violence against anyone for reasons of race, religion, sexual orientation, or politics. They need to be punished for their transgressions and made examples of how not to act. When someone like Jussie Smollett deliberately lies about such serious matters he hurts anyone who has ever attempted to right the wrongs of hate crimes. He diminishes the chances that victims will be believed and evil doers will receive justice. He becomes one more boy who cried wolf and lessens the possibility that we will pay attention to cries for help in the future. When the members of the press run with his story without vetting it, the issue becomes even worse. We have all forgotten the idea of waiting for evidence before forming opinions, making it easier for someone like Mr. Smollett to connive to fool us.

We’ll soon forget Mr. Smollett. He will become but a blip on our radar, but the memories of his falsehoods will tinge our sense of trust. Those who are truly hateful and who would actually hurt people with whom they do not agree will celebrate a seeming victory without realizing that we all came out losers in this affair. Once again we showed how divided we are and how unwilling to give even an inch we have become. All we have seen is indignation rather than a willingness to look inside our own hearts. The press and the pundits are using this story to bolster their already formed opinions rather than reflecting on how they are in many ways the very people who are driving such acts of desperation.

The story of the boy who cried wolf would not have lasted as long as it has if it did not somehow speak universally to our human natures. We seem to have ignored its message of late and forgotten ideas like searching for facts before accepting tales as truth. We are routinely favoring and indicting individuals and groups without taking the time to search for truth. It is definitely time to be more wary.  

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Ignoring the Distractions

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My foray into genealogy has provided me with a clearer understanding of the history of at least one branch of my family. My paternal grandmother was a Smith, descended from John William Seth Smith and Christina Rowsee. Her roots center on Kentucky, Virginia, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Despite the southern bent of her background she was not a child of Dixieland. In fact, her father was a soldier in the Union army with the Kentucky Volunteers. Still her hard scrabble story was typical of the people from those places who lived in an era during which life was often uncertain and harsh.

Grandma never had the time or the opportunity to take advantage of education, leaving her illiterate but not unwise. She possessed a folk knowledge and a strength that came from living in corners of the country that were often untouched by modernization. She embraced what she saw as her role in life, that of a partner in the daily contest for survival. Little in her life was easy, and yet she was a happy and content person, not out of ignorance but out of a feeling that she had enjoyed the fruits of progress in the march of time.

She reveled in the joy of knowing that her son had achieved levels of education and success that were beyond her dreams. She took pride in having plumbing and electricity in her home as she recalled times when such things were yet to become the norm. She took little for granted and was a model of thrift even going so far as to make clothing out of the flour sacks that held the lovely white ingredient for her biscuits and pies. She was a woman who straddled the agrarian society of her birth and the industrialized wonder of her later years, and she marveled at the glory of it all.

I try to imagine the kind of life that she and those who came before her must have led. I recall so well her folksy manner of expressing herself that seemed quaint and of another time even in the early nineteen sixties. Memories of her ways have become for me a kind of link to her parents and how they must have talked and believed. I witnessed the hint of her Kentucky background even though she never actually lived there. Like the earnest and hard working folk who struggle to this very day in that part of the country, she was never afraid of long days filled with sacrifices and back breaking labor. She was a survivor, someone who gallantly faced whatever came her way with determination and a sense of wonder, but still she worried. It was as though she understood all too well the fragility of life. She knew how quickly all for which she had worked might go away.

Kentucky has been in the news of late with sweeping generalizations about its nature as a state. We’ve been hopelessly focused on an event in which nothing really happened until our collective anger and beliefs set our discourse on fire. We’ve aligned ourselves with one side or another without actually knowing anything about the players in this farcical debacle. We’ve drawn conclusions and made judgements based on soundbites of a few seconds and photographs taken out of context. In an instant we’ve turned on a group of young boys and even more so on each other. Our outrage and indignation has occupied our thoughts for days which is ironic given that if we want to focus on Kentucky there is a far graver issue of which we barely speak.

Much of the state of Kentucky is reliant on coal mining, an industry that is slowly dying and causing its workers to die as well. Entire generations of people have worked in the dark cramped caves filled with dust that invades their lungs and quietly begins to ravage their bodies. We have eagerly taken that coal to run our electrical plants. Coal has fueled the very progress that so awed my grandmother. It has kept the northern climes warm in the dead of winter. We have given little thought to the price of our modernization. We don’t worry much about the people who have been left to face harsh economic times and even worse medical problems that are decimating young men who never realized what the act of working each day would do to them.

The real tragedy related to Kentucky has nothing to do with a few teenagers who may or may not have reacted well to a supercharged situation. It is instead to be found in the towns where the mines and the factories have become empty shells. It is to be witnessed in the rising numbers of people with are literally suffocating as they attempt to breathe with their damaged lungs. The fact that we are not outraged for them on a national level speaks to the twisted ways in which we find ourselves viewing the world these days. We have somehow got it wrong all the way around as we quibble over nothing while real problems fester.

My great grandfather who served in the Union army with the Kentucky Volunteers was sick and tired after the Civil War. He eventually hid himself away in the remote forests of Arkansas where he quietly tended his land. He had seen and buried the dead at Shiloh. He must have understood the horrors that come when we lose our way in anger. I suspect that if he had the chance he would caution us to calm down and strive for more understanding and compassion.

We are all far more complex than the sides that we choose, the uniforms that we wear, the work that we do, the places where we live. Life is a continuum, a marathon, an opportunity. It’s time that we once again learn how to move forward from our mistakes and agree to disagree now and again without pushing each other away. There are very real problems that we must tackle, and none of that will happen when we are distracted and filled with anger. It’s past time to prioritize. There are coal miners needing our help, young people watching to see how we guide them, issues crying for our attention. Perhaps we all need to take a deep breath and reach across the chasms.

A Great Destination

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It’s January and I have roses and azaleas blooming in my yard. Houston is a funny place. Some years the weather is like Florida or southern California. The temperature stays in the sixties and seventies for most of the winter and the plants are fooled into thinking that it is already spring. Now and again we actually get some ice and snow, but generally our winters are mild. It’s one of those lovely things that makes up for the heat of the summer, and it’s still just cool enough to allow women to wear their boots.

Houston was named a top place to visit by Forbes magazine. Lots of folks wondered why in the world anyone would choose our city as a destination. After all our roads are perennially under construction and the traffic can often be brutal. Most of us who live here take it for granted that nobody would come for the scenery with our flat as a pancake landscape. What we don’t seem to think about are some quite wonderful attractions that we have that might actually be quite appealing for visitors.

For some time now Houston has been ranked as one of the best foodie towns in the country. It competes nicely with New Orleans, New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles. There are some who believe that the food here may even be the best in the country. We have some amazing chefs and they don’t just provide a meat and potatoes kind of fare. The diversity in our city brings cuisine from all over the world and innovations in cooking that make it worthy of a visit for anyone who enjoys fine dining at its best.

Of course it may seem ridiculous to think that anyone would want to visit H-Town just to eat, and that’s a good point, but there are still lots of things to do here. We have sporting events at the professional level year round and our universities provide additional athletic venues that are lots of fun. Our museums are wonderful and boast variety from science to medicine to space to modern art. It would take a week to visit each of them and the effort would be well worth it.

Speaking of the arts, our Alley Theater is world renowned and it’s not the only cast of players in town. There’s also the Houston Symphony, the Houston Ballet, and Theater Under the Stars. At any given moment there are great musicians and comedians playing in town at Jones Hall, the Reliant Center, the Toyota Center, the Smart Financial Center, Jones Hall, the Woodlands, the Wortham Center or the Hobby Center. Our universities also host plays and musical festivals which are of exceptional quality.

Shopping is world class as well with the Galleria attracting folks from all over the world and smaller places like Memorial City, Highland Village, or the Woodlands offering a wonderful experience in their own right. There are even outlet malls and quaint shops dotted all over the city and its suburbs. Houston has a number of Farmer’s Markets as well that offer everything from spices to pottery along with fresh fruits and vegetables.

A short trip of about an hour will take visitors to Galveston with its beaches, historical homes, and quirky shops. There’s fun to be had swimming, boating or just relaxing in the sun and sand. The seafood there has its own unique taste and ranks with some of the best to be found anywhere.

I think that those who are quick to make fun of Houston’s designation as a great place to visit forget about how fun a trip here might be. With the right planning a traveler can catch the Houston Rodeo or spend a day at the Nutcracker Market. We host quilt shows that feature exhibitions from all over the world. The Houston Garden Club Bulb Mart is a fall favorite along with some of the most glorious weather that the city has to offer.

Those of us who live here are always so busy that we don’t stop to think of how much there is to do at any given moment. For a newcomer the possibilities for fun and entertainment are almost endless. We don’t boast any mountains or grand natural wonders but our springtime Azalea Trail is breathtaking. A trip along Buffalo Bayou is a wonder. A day spent at Brazos Bend State Park is both educational and inspiring with its up close encounters with wildlife and its observatory aimed at the heavens. A drive through River Oaks is a fun as visiting the lovely homes in New Orleans.

I suspect that an out of towner would easily be able to fill a calendar with activities for weeks just with things I have mentioned and I haven’t even skimmed the surface of the many sights that we have here in Houston. I totally understand why my city was chosen as a great destination for anyone hoping to have a great vacation. In fact, I’d like to challenge Houstonians to try a “staycation” someday to enjoy what our great city has to offer.

I am the first to admit that Houston has its flaws but I have yet to travel to any place that is perfect. In the grand scheme of things Houston can be lots of fun and even provide a few nature activities for those who prefer the outdoors. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to find more than enough to do. 

Where Were the Chaperones?

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My head is filled with so many thoughts as I sit here on a chilly morning attempting to focus on one topic rather than the variety of ideas that are racing through my mind. It’s a holiday today so the sound of children chattering as they load onto the school bus that stops across from my house is missing from my usual routine. I’m often inspired by those little voices because more than anything my life has been devoted to preparing our young ones for the future. Hearing them is always music to my ears and I often long for the days when their journey in the big yellow bus might have brought them to me. Like the mothers that hover over them as they depart, I too became thoroughly engrossed in concern for their well being, so it is only natural that even in retirement I think of what they need to know and learn if they are to have the strength and determination that they will need to navigate through the challenges of life.

I had to learn how to be an observer in my work, someone who rarely missed a single thing that was happening or about to happen in my classroom. Mine and that of all teachers was an exhausting job. I had to wear “Granny Gump” shoes because I rarely sat down. My bladder stretched to an unhealthy volume because I did not have the luxury of attending to it right away. Every minute of every day I assumed the role of a guardian angel for each of my students. I believed that I had a responsibility to provide them with more than just a knowledge of mathematical concepts. I was indeed responsible for their very safety and I took that charge quite seriously.

I had a love/hate relationship with field trips. I enjoyed the times when my students had opportunities to learn more about the world in an up close and personal fashion, but I also became hyper vigilant in such circumstances. I was about as relaxed as a secret service agent whenever I was out and about with them. I counted heads and watched every movement, listened to every word. I learned from experience that bad things might happen in the blink of an eye. For that reason I enlisted the help of multiple chaperones and stressed the importance of each adult keeping track of their designated group. I despised occasions when the leaders of the trips allowed the students to run freely even inside a contained area. I felt the need to watch over them every second, not so much because I did not trust them, but because I did not trust what kind of bad situations they might find themselves in if no adult were guiding them.

I’m saddened by the stories of last weekend regarding the group of young boys from a Kentucky High School who found themselves in the center of controversy in an incident that occurred near the Lincoln Memorial. The full details of the what happened vary depending on whether or not the context of what occurred is taken into account. That being said I find myself thinking of how easily this entire situation with the students might have been avoided if only adult chaperones and a set of rules had been followed. I find myself wondering why nobody was in charge.

Rule number one would have been to break the large group of young men down into manageable groups of five or six students assigned to one reliable adult who was either a teacher, administrator or parent. That individual needed to be instructed to keep his/her group in sight at all times. After all, most of the kids were minors and even though they may have thought of themselves as being perfectly capable of navigating through Washington D.C. alone the school ultimately was responsible for them while so far away from home.

Another little trick for keeping the boys safe would have been to coordinate the clothing for each day of travel. This can usually be done with special trip shirts or uniforms. One day might be all blue shirts, another white and so forth. In such circumstances it becomes quite easy to spot the members of the school even in a crowd. Extraneous items like baseball caps and such might be purchased as souvenirs but not worn in the public excursions. With such rules there would be no worry that someone might be offended by the appearance of the students because they would all look the same.

Any teacher or adult who has ever been on a trip with a group of high school students knows that even with the best possible planning things can and do go awry. Nonetheless, with a good procedure and lots of instruction regarding what is and is not permissible things certainly go more smoothly than if the youngsters are left to their own resources.

What happened on the National Mall was unfortunate. A large group of boys was allowed to tour on their own and instructed to meet at the Lincoln Memorial at a certain time to wait for a bus. With protestors lurking around every corner and some of the boys wearing political caps leaving them without adults to supervise was negligent. As minors they were almost certain to find trouble in the highly charged atmosphere. They may have reacted badly but we have to remember that their adolescent brains still don’t work as well as we might wish. It was naive and dangerous to leave them to their own resources.

I suspect that everyone over the age of thirty can point to something that they did as a teenager that was foolish and perhaps even brutally wrong. In retrospect we may wonder what we were thinking, but the truth is that we probably were simply reacting rather than forming any rational ideas. Very few people can honestly say that they have been perfectly perfect particularly in sticky situations. I suspect that these boys got caught up in something that they did not know how to control and I blame a host of adults for both agitating them and not properly being there to help them.

The take away from this story should be the acknowledgement that the adults dropped the ball. They were not around to guide and protect school boys who might have learned some valuable lessons if things had been handled properly. There were many teachable moments during the confrontation. Sadly the people who might have guided them were nowhere to be found. As a former teacher and a parent I would be demanding answers from all of the adults who failed our young on so many levels regarding what seems to have happened. Where were the chaperones when they were needed?

Peace On Earth

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We have a human longing for peace on earth, goodwill toward all people. Somehow it feels as though such sentiments are little more than an ideal, a dream, and yet we are driven to at least try to make the world a better place. Ironically much of the rancor that occurs as we do our best to create harmony arises from our differing interpretations as to how to achieve such a lofty goal. We are only too aware of limited resources and the role that they play in our everyday relationships. We desire to be fair, but we also have tendencies that drive us to protect ourselves and those that we love. The tension between wanting to be magnanimous and satisfying our need to feel safe has been the enigmatic force that pushes and pulls us, and often leaves us quibbling rather than working toward a common good.

History has demonstrated time and again that there are indeed very good people sacrificing themselves in the service of others, but there are also evil doers who care little for anyone but themselves. Somehow we have to be astute enough to identify who is who lest we fall for propaganda and promises that rely on our fears and our darker sides. At the same time we cannot be naive about the ways of the world lest we become martyrs to noble causes without the grit to overcome the darkest aspects of human nature. Progress toward the peace that we so desire sometimes requires defensive measures that invoke violence. Thus is the conundrum of human history.

Watching the news these days makes it very difficult to believe that we will ever again find a measure of calm. There are hot spots all over the planet, and they have nothing to do with climate but rather everything to do with our grievances. We have battles between rich and poor, this religion and that, the powerful and the powerless, male and female, the educated and laborers, one nation and another. It’s difficult to find a place anywhere on earth that is immune to the disagreements that result from our diversity of opinions. It can be quite disheartening to watch the rancor playing out even as we pray for love and kindness to be the order of the day. We wonder and worry about the future and what it may bring.

Then we witness the death of a very good person like George H.W. Bush. We have the opportunity to see the entirety of his life. We hear his philosophies and mull over his words. We realize that there is indeed reason for optimism. We see that in spite of sharing our own tendencies to make mistakes and wrong choices he managed to live a life mostly comprised of forgiveness, compassion and a willingness to adjust his course when he needed to rethink his ways of meeting the world. We realize that qualities like honor, service, devotion to family never really go out of style. We see that true courage is not brash or insulting, but rather quietly committed to a cause. We learn from a man like President Bush that being a leader means cherishing those that we lead. We find that embracing defeat makes us champions. Somehow in viewing the life of such a man we find the hope that we have been seeking.

I doubt that we will change overnight simply because we have been reminded of how to bring out our better natures, but somehow I suspect that we will pause long enough to rethink the course of our nation and our world. We will begin to remember what is most important and we may even learn to get along again. We will search for the good rather than focusing on grievances. We will ask not what others can do for us, but what we can do for them. Then we will be back on the path to peace.

Somehow we humans keep repeating the same choruses over and over. We fight for a time and then grow weary. We work together for a time and then grow jealous. We forget those who struggle and then remember to work as hard for them as we do for ourselves. The patterns seem to repeat themselves with regularity, but we don’t have to be caught in a wheel of fortune over which we have no control. We can become more peaceful bit by tiny bit, but it will require a willingness to open our minds and to be more forgiving,

I read a profoundly wise article recently that spoke to the idea that it is often our self righteousness that leads to the battles between differing factions. We fail to see the reasons why people believe as they do. Instead we condemn them for what we see as faulty thinking. We spew epithets at them and posture as though we are somehow better. The anger between each side only grows. Sometimes the most difficult stance that we may ever take is simply to be nice even when we are being misunderstood.

I think that this is the essence of the message left to us by Jesus Christ, and whether or not we believe that He was indeed a savior and the son of God His example shows us exactly how to behave toward one another. In this season that celebrates His birth we should learn about and think about His life because it was a model of what is best in each of us. If we do nothing more than celebrate Him as a great historical figure we should still emulate His way of life, for it was profoundly wise. He demonstrated how to find peace on earth good will toward men by embracing and forgiving even those who have wronged us. It’s a difficult task, but one that will lead us closer to the world we desire.