Take Them Off

beach blue colors daytime
Photo by Stas Knop on Pexels.com

Don’t you just love all of those studies that claim to have discovered something new and exciting? One that I saw recently somehow found that children who run around in their bare feet tend to have higher IQs. Of course the article that described the announcement gave very few details about why that is so and there was no mention of how the experiments or interviews or whatever they used were actually done. Still it is an intriguing idea to think that just tossing shoes aside has the power to transform the brain. Yet another study claims that children who are encouraged to freely explore the environment without shoes will ultimately become more independent. The idea is that they have to be inventive and observant if they are left to rely on their own instincts rather than being hemmed in by adult supervision.

I have to laugh when I hear of such research. Based on these ideas the people with whom I grew up and I should be geniuses. I mean we only wore our shoes to school and church. The rest of the time we let our toes hang out and get dirty from contact with all sorts of things. We were like children raised by wolves as we ran through the woods near our neighborhood finding all sorts of fun that was only limited by our imaginations. There was never a parent around, just us kids, and it was glorious.

We were always doing something wonderful on our street. Sometimes we played for hours on someone’s lawn in very competitive games of Red Rover. I don’t believe that anyone ever broke a bone or had an injury and yet we were so committed to winning that we were rather rough. There were also games of football which did once result in a terrible injury to my brother when he stepped on a broken bottle that had been thrown in the the high grass of a neighbor’s yard. His Achille’s tendon was severed and he might have bled out had our mom not been very well read on how to apply pressure to a wound. After a few stitches he was fine.

One time we got a bit of help from one of the fathers when we created a dugout clubhouse. It was cool place to be on hot summer days and only certain kids were allowed inside. Sadly my mom become worried that it might cave in and bury us alive so we were restricted from entering it ever again. My brothers and I felt a great sense of sadness every time we saw other kids entering the cavelike domain. Eventually more and more moms sided with our parent and the father who had helped to created the place filled the big hole with dirt. Still we had great memories from the short time that we had enjoyed living like pioneers.

My very science oriented brother discovered that if we aimed a magnifying glass toward the hot sun it would burn wood. After that we became world class wood burners, creating intricate designs and using up tons of time as we sat on the hot concrete of the driveway holding the glass just right so that it would make a mark that decorated the wood. We were the hit of the neighborhood with our invention and we burned away until the repetitions suddenly became boring.

There was never a tree that we didn’t attempt to climb. It was glorious sitting high above the landscape sheltered by the branches. A really good tree would have growth that allowed us to lean back and read a book away from the the hubbub down below. My very favorite oak seemed to have been made just for my climbing pleasure and I often went there to meditate and feel the cool breeze blowing over me the leaves that rustled around me. 

All the while that we did such things we were shoeless. Our soles became hard and tough, able to withstand the pokes of gravel and the heat of asphalt. The tops of our feet turned brown from the sun and carried all of the colors from the places we had been. The grocer who had a tiny store down the street never seemed to mind when we entered his premises with our grungy feet flapping down the aisles. As long as we were polite and didn’t bother anything he was even okay if we just browsed or perused the new issues of comic books. I suspect that he knew that sometimes we just used his store to cool down a bit after a race or when the temperature was threatening to reach the one hundred mark.

At the end of each day Mama sometimes hosed down our feet before we entered the house even though we would quickly be shooed to the bathroom to take a cooling bath before going to bed. I must admit that I miss those days when there were seemingly no restrictions on what we might do as long as it was legal and didn’t harm anyone. Since retiring I wear shoes less and less. Now my feet rebel a bit when I stuff them inside the leather of my pumps. They much prefer the freedom of sandals or flip flops.

I tend to believe that the studies that I encountered have some merit. I know in my own case that running a bit wild was adventurous and taught me how to create and get along with my peers. I literally communed with nature by way of my feet so that I know how to avoid getting stung by ants and what it feels like to step in warm tar. With my brothers and my friends I filled the hours with games and ideas of our own childlike making. I suppose that somehow we were all the better for the independence that our parents allowed us to have.

The world is so different these days. I suspect that moms might be reported to CPS for allowing their kids to roam as freely as we did back then. I’m not quite sure how possible it now is for children to be left to their own resources, but one thing I know for sure is that they don’t really need those shoes. Take them off, and see if those brains get smarter. What can it hurt?

Advertisements

The World Is Thirsting

books on bookshelves
Photo by Mikes Photos on Pexels.com

Things were slower, less complicated when I was a child. The noises that I heard came mostly from the hum of daily living that wafted through the open windows of my home. There was a kind of routine on my street that rarely varied, even in the summertime when school was out for three full months. The world became relaxed in June, July and August, filled with precious time that I was able to use however I wished.

The cooler mornings always lead me outside to see if anyone else had ideas for new adventures, but by noon the heat often became too much for us to bear and so we retreated back inside our houses where we were sheltered from the burning rays of the sun, if not the humidity and heat. Most homes on my street had massive attic fans that pulled hot air in through the windows, creating a kind of artificial breeze that made our climate only slightly more bearable. Afternoons were a good time for quiet play and so we engaged in marathon card games or set up never ending boardgames like Monopoly.

Without a doubt reading was my favorite pastime when summer rolled around. I positioned myself on my bed in front of an open window and forgot all about the temperature or any of my worries as I escaped into worlds brought vividly to life with words that painted pictures in my mind. It mattered little what volume lay before me. I was willing to explore new authors, new genres. The excitement was in expanding my universe from the confines of my little house, my street, my neighborhood. Through those books I traveled all around the world and learned of people and cultures. I considered new ideas and felt as adventurous as if I had actually embarked on a junket to the far corners of the universe.

I guiltlessly indulged in the stories that expanded my horizons and taught me the beauty of language. Each summer I was mesmerized by the written word and its power to transport and transform me. I read voraciously like a starved soul, and mentally catalogued my favorite authors and titles. I little understood at the time how much more complicated my life and the world would eventually become, but as the years went by and I entered my adulthood, the luxury of spending hours reading for three months out of the year would become little more than a memory. My time became ever more filled with obligations that absconded with the minutes and hours. I found myself rushing from one thing to do to another. I was lucky to find a few minutes here and there to stoke my passion for reading. I had to steal moments from my always filled calendar, and somehow my favorite thing to do became that last thing that I would do, often reading long after everyone else in the house had gone to sleep. In the quiet of the night I escaped from my own complex world to those of others.

The list of books that I have read speaks to the change in my habits. I have enjoyed most of the classics but I am sadly unfamiliar with so many of the modern authors. I simply haven’t found as much time to discover them and yet so often when I do I am enthralled. I suspect that there is a whole new world of wonder just waiting for me if only I can talk myself into slowing down. I raced through my days for so long that even in retirement I don’t seem able or willing to return to the delightfully slow pace of my childhood. I have bought into the idea that I must somehow justify the merit of each day by ticking off my accomplishments. I am still trying to justify spending three or four hours reading everyday when so many other things need to be done.

Perhaps I must teach myself once again to be more like a child, open to letting each day unfold without plans or expectations. I need to release the stresses and guilts that we adults so often carry like baggage. I must accept that giving time to myself is as important as giving to others. I try to remember that it was in the innocence of childhood that I learned so much that made me who I am today, and those hours reading were invaluable in my development.

I’ve heard that people do not read as much today as they once did. Libraries don’t see as much traffic. Bookstores sell fewer volumes. Newspapers are struggling to sell subscriptions. I know folks who blithely admit that they haven’t read a book in years. We spend time that might be better used reading in the pursuit of other activities  like playing computer games or posting on Facebook or tweeting our thoughts. We feel as though we know more about what is happening in the world, but we rarely bother to read up on the facts behind the headlines. Our knowledge is often limited to the soundbites that we accept from our favorite politicians or celebrities. We believe without going into depth on any topic, learning the history and all of the background. We rush around and rely on others to keep us informed. We have incomplete pictures of the world because even with all of the global communication at our fingertips we still operate in tiny bubbles that rarely give us the big picture. We readily believe whatever lines up with our own thinking rather than challenging ourselves by seeking to delve more deeply 

Reading challenged me when I was in my formative years. It taught me about the history of mankind and the variety of personalities that comprise the human race. I learned to think and to see the difference between a fact and an opinion. Those hours spent feeding my mind that seemed so lazy and even a bit selfish were actually some of the most important moments of my life. There is little that I might have done that would have been more valuable and truly I suspect that it is more important than ever for me and the rest of the world to set aside time to learn lessons from the past and ways to move toward the future.

In spite of the nonstop flurry of headlines and commentaries our world is thirsting for knowledge and information. We are falling victim to propagandizing that is everywhere. Reading is the antidote for our malaise. Just as with exercise, the more we read the better our minds will be, particularly when we don’t limit ourselves to one point of view. I’m ready to begin a journey into the world of books once again. I have a fine list of suggested titles from a friend. I can’t wait to start reading.   

Happy Birthday!

anniversary beautiful birthday birthday cake
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

My mother loved birthdays with the enthusiasm of a child. She was the youngest in a family of eight, growing up during the Great Depression. There wasn’t enough extra income for gifts or even special meals or desserts, so she and her siblings always received a nickel from their father on the occasion of becoming one year older. Mama always said that she like to take her new found wealth to a bakery nearby where she was able to purchase a big bag of broken cookie pieces that she swore were just as good as the ones that remained intact. As the years passed by she and her brothers and sisters would faithfully send a birthday card to one another that always contained a nickel taped inside. I sometimes sensed that she enjoyed that tradition even more than the more expensive gifts that she received.

Today would have been Mama’s ninety second birthday. She often bragged that she and Queen Elizabeth were born in the same year, and somehow that fact made her feel a kind of kinship with the monarch of England. She noted that they shared a kind of resemblance as well, along with the fact of having their first born children in the same year as well. My mother always alerted us to the Queen’s birthday as a kind of hint that hers was on the way.

She was a stickler for celebrating her natal day at the time of its actual place on the calendar. She didn’t like the idea of waiting until the weekend, so even if we planned a party for her when everyone would be able to attend, my brothers and I still had to make a big deal on the correct date. I suppose that’s why I still think about her on June 27, even though it has now been seven years since she died. I think it would please her to know that we have not forgotten how special this day always was for her. In fact, we decided after she was gone that we would gather at her favorite restaurant each year to raise a toast in her honor. As it happens the place we chose is the Cracker Barrel in League City where she spent many a happy time enjoying the homey atmosphere and the kind of cooking that she might have prepared herself.

In an effort to look after our mother while she was still alive my brothers and I agreed to visit her at least once a week on different days. She usually wanted to go out to eat when we arrived, and sometimes she was even waiting eagerly on a bench that stood on her front porch whenever we drove up. That’s how excited she was about getting out of the house, but that was not the case on her birthday. On that day she wanted all of us to come to see her at one time so that it was like a party. She put me in charge of providing the cake, ice cream and candles. She preferred German chocolate or devils food cake, but she was always okay with a change of flavor. God forbid, however, that I would forget to bring the ice cream or the candles. Those things had to be done just right.

She was exceptional at providing us with festive birthdays even when her income was sorely stretched. She made a habit of shopping all year long and setting aside things that she had found on sale. Her gifts were always quite practical and long lasting, but most of all thoughtful. She was sure to come knocking at the door bearing all of the trappings of a big to do, even as we grew older. I never knew how she managed to be so generous, but I always understood that for her a birthday was supposed to be special no matter the circumstances.

When Mama turned eighty we decide to give her a surprise party. We had little idea at the time that she would die less than five years later. We only knew that we wanted to make her day bigger and better than ever. We sent out invitations to everyone in her stable of friends and family, and they all came. My home was crowded with people who loved her and were excited by the idea of letting her know how they felt about her. They had written letters to her that we placed in an album. We huddled anxiously as she walked up to the door and shouted with delight upon her entrance. She cried tears of unmitigated joy and bore the expression of a delighted child as she opened each gift and read each card.

We all miss my mom. She was the heart of the family and a continual source of fun and laughter. She suffered more than most with the loss of her husband at the age of thirty. Her loneliness, lack of income, and mental illness pushed hard to defeat her spirit, but she battled long and courageously to avoid defeat. Somehow no matter what else was happening in her life, she always rallied on her birthday. It was as though that occasion gave her new energy, new joy, a new beginning again and again.

We’ll be going to Cracker Barrel tonight. Not everyone comes each year, but I do my best to keep my calendar clear so that I will be able to make it. I know that the eldest of her grandchildren will be there along with some of their own kids. The people at Cracker Barrel seem to get a bit flustered when we arrive with such a large group. They don’t seem to understand the importance of the occasion, but we believe that Mama is smiling down on us from heaven. The party is for her after all and we intend to celebrate just the way she would want us to do.

Summertime and Burgers

cooked foods
Photo by Dana Tentis on Pexels.com

Even with my healthier diet I enjoy getting a hamburger now and again, especially when summertime rolls around. My dad used to grill burgers every weekend and after he died my mother continued the tradition. I’d rather just pick one up at a drive though than have to go through all of the trouble of making one at home, and in my mind there is no substitute for a Whataburger. I’ve tried In n Out burgers and they just don’t cut the mustard. (Pun grossly intended) The only other version of the American classic that I ever really liked came from a local chain called Chuck Wagon.

The first Chuck Wagon that I visited was on Old Spanish Trail in Houston. It was good but lacked the ambience of the one on Park Place that ultimately stole my heart. It was little more than a truck eatery without wheels. It was a box just large enough for a small crew and a griddle along with places to stash the meat and other supplies. A big hulk of a man labored over the cooking while sweating profusely and wielding salt and pepper shakers like a Samurai sword. He was a sight to behold along with the heavy red faced woman who took the orders. The only seating was outdoors, so unless it was a perfect weather day we would take our food home where we savored the lusciousness of our beef sandwiches that were cooked and dressed to perfection. That hole in the wall lasted for most of my childhood and early adult life and then simply faded away, being overtaken by bigger chains with drive in windows and more variable menus.

For a time there was a great place for burgers on the campus of the University of Houston in a little wooden building called The Woods. It was located on what was then the edge of the campus and run by a couple of ladies who were so business like that they rarely smiled or paused from their work to chat. They had learned how to prepare their juicy delights as quickly as possible to keep the long lines moving. I rarely had the money to purchase their gourmet cooking but when I did I truly enjoyed their culinary expertise. Their fare was dripping with greasy delight that didn’t worry me at all because I was not yet twenty years old and weighed under a hundred pounds. A little fat and cholesterol probably did me more good than bad, and I got plenty of both there. My mouth still waters when I think of those yummy bites of beef. Unfortunately progress and growth required cutting down the trees that gave the place its name and putting in a big building to house more classes and research.

I really can’t take a bad burger and there are so many candidates for that dishonor. I avoid MacDonald’s unless it’s breakfast time. If I’m forced to try one of their traditional offerings I prefer the kiddie version. I find that less burger is best in that establishment. I also avoid Carl’s Jr., Red Robin, Wendy’s and the worst of them all in my mind, Burger King.

I can’t completely explain what I despise about Burger King. It was a favorite of my mom and I always see a big crowd wherever they set up a restaurant. I just almost gag even at the thought of eating there. I suspect that I have some deep seated psychological problem with the place brought on by a traumatic event that I have blocked in my mind. I can’t otherwise think of any other reason for my extreme feelings of loathing. I would literally prefer going without food to consuming a meal from there. In fact, I once did on a long road trip to Chicago.

We had driven from early morning and when lunchtime game we were in the middle of nowhere with few choices for eating. Mike attempted to find a place that would be satisfactory for me with no success. Frustrated, he finally saw a Burger King and announced that I would have to make do. I almost barfed at the thought but decided that my strange feelings were perhaps a bit silly, and so I agreed to give it a try as long as the burger was made according to my specifications. When we got the order and continued down the highway I opened my sandwich only to find that they had used mayonnaise in spite of my very specific demand that mustard be the only acceptable condiment. I wanted Mike to turn around and go back but he was on a mission to make time and told me to show a bit of flexibility and just do my best to enjoy the nourishment as is. Instead in a flash of fury I threw the whole thing out the window onto the highway to the delight of a flock of vultures that immediately descended on the feast. I pouted for hours searching hopelessly for another place to stop. That didn’t materialize until later that night at a service station where the only offering was a tuna sandwich in one of those plastic sleeves. I decided to go hungry and sulk rather than take a chance on being poisoned. Mike on the other hand found the repast to be delightful.

Not long ago there was a news story about a Burger King in Delaware that showed mice crawling around inside bags of buns. The health department rushed out to the restaurant after a report from a customer and found mouse droppings and other filth all over the place. They summarily shut the place down. My stomach heaved as I watched the images and I found myself feeling a bit justified for my strange aversion to all food from Burger King even though I’ve never had any evidence that the ones around here are unclean. 

For now I’ll stick to Whataburger since I don’t indulge in that sort of diet much anymore. A local chef named Killen makes a rather good version that I like to consume now and again as well but his are a bit more pricey. Amazingly the most memorable hamburger that I have ever eaten was in a hotel in Minneapolis. It was so good that I went back for more multiple times before I left that town. The meat was superb and it didn’t hurt that it was smothered in blue cheese which I didn’t initially think that I would like as much as I actually did. My mouth waters just thinking about it.

For me a hamburger is the great American summertime sandwich, but if it isn’t done right, then I’m not interested. I’d rather feed a bad burger to the buzzards than compromise my standards and at least for now Whataburger has my loyalty.

The Lessons of Summer

kid s plating water on grass field during daytime
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

It’s been a tough school year for both students and teachers around here. There was a great deal of trauma to overcome in my neck of the woods. The fall semester began with hurricane Harvey and the spring neared a close with a shooting at Santa Fe High School. I suspect that everyone associated with education in these parts is more than ready to say hello to summer and engage in a bit of unwinding and relaxation. The trouble is that these days there is not always a great deal of rest for the weary.

After a very brief break summer school will begin and many teachers supplement their incomes with that extra bit of cash that working an extra month allows. Sadly some of the students who struggled during the year will have to make up for their lack of attention and effort. Then there are all of those required training classes that educators must take to keep their various certifications up to speed. I’ve also seen signs advertising all kinds of activities for kids that range from football, basketball, baseball and cheerleading camps to art and theater lessons. It seems as though few individuals enjoy summer the way I did back in days that were much slower paced.

Summer was a time for staying up well past bedtime and sleeping in each morning. Shoes stood unused in the closet, collecting dust with the exception of Sundays when they were donned for church. Every day brought new adventures, all unplanned and easy. There were three months of doing whatever sounded good at any given moment, and boredom was an unknown in our world.

My summer uniform was a pair of pull on shorts with a crop top that allowed the circulation of the warm air to keep me as comfortable as is possible in the humid Houston heat. My mother usually cut my hair short for the occasion and my brothers sported almost shaved heads. Our looks were all about simplicity and comfort. There was no need to worry about appearance because we were on vacation from routine.

We always managed to find something wonderful to do, and none of it involved watching television. Of course video games were in a future far far away. Instead we mostly played outside with the hordes of neighbor children who lived up and down our street. We invented all sorts of competitive games and used the middle of the street or someone’s big front yard as our playground. We were continually running and laughing and tumbling so that our knees and elbows were skinned more often than not. When the sun hit its zenith we often retired to someone’s home to play car and board games while our moms quenched our thirst with ice cold water or lemonade. If we were especially lucky our midday snack might include a cookie or some homemade peach ice cream.

Sometimes it was so hot that our moms would send us to our beds to rest a bit after lunch. I enjoyed lying in front of the open windows feeling the breeze that was produced by the big attic fan that worked day and night all summer long. Sometimes the heat would lull me to sleep, but mostly I used that time to read. I kept a collection of books from the library and went through them with such speed that I had to make many trips to the bookmobile in Garden Villas Park.

Of course there was always swimming and it never took much to convince our mother to drive us to the city pool where we had exactly one hour to luxuriate in the cool water playing Marco Polo and seeing who could stand on their hands the longest. If it wasn’t an especially crowded day, which was almost never, the lifeguards would ignore the clock and let us stay longer than expected. We so enjoyed those times, especially when we were joined by one or more of our cousins.

Sometimes I delighted in a world of make believe with my girl friends as we built houses for our dolls and pretended that they were stewardesses or glamorous actresses. I had created all sorts of furniture for my dream home out of milk cartons, tin cans, and cigar boxes. I knew enough about sewing to make pillows, bedspreads and tablecloths. I kept all of my gear in a cardboard box that once held green beans at the grocery store. My friends and I would spend hours with our little rooms spread out on the drive way and our imaginations taking flight.

Like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in film we often decided to produce a neighborhood talent show. Everyone had to audition of course but our standards were fairly accessible. It was rare for an act to be turned away. We’d dance and sing and tell jokes and perform magic tricks all for the entertainment of our moms. Admission was a quarter, a rather exorbitant amount for the times, but we were saving to earn enough money to build a fort. Somehow we never quite earned enough to actually erect the structure that we had envisioned but we did have some rather nice make shift efforts, especially the ones made out of sheets and quilts that we designed on the clotheslines.

Our bicycles were our ticket to exotic places like the bayou or the woods where we felt as adventurous as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. When I grew older I even learned a route to Gulfgate Mall that I followed on my bike with one of my friends. We’d window shop and get cool inside the stores and sometimes even have enough money to actually purchase an ice cream sandwich or a candy stick.

At night we’d lie on our backs in the grass gazing at the stars and telling scary stories. We could hear the whispers inside the households up and down the street because most people had their windows and doors wide open. By that time of day our necks would be ringed with little necklaces of dirt and sweat that we called Grandma’s beads. Our feet would be black from all of the running and playing we had enjoyed. Our contentment was sublime and we seemed not to have a care in the world.

We had little idea back then how much the world would change. It would become rarer and rarer to see children outside all summer long. The kind of unscheduled lifestyle that we so enjoyed would be replaced with carefully choreographed activities designed to keep kids busy and free from boredom. Everyone would be rushing around almost as much as they did during the school year. There would be required summer reading and math packets to complete. The freedoms that we so loved would be replaced with more purposeful pursuits or hours spent in front of a computer or video game.

The sounds of summer that were once so comforting to me are rarely audible these days. Neighbors move in and out. Children are either inside or off doing more structured things. Dream houses for dolls are manufactured out of plastic and little girls only play with them for a short time and then they become too mature to engage in such things even though their ages indicate that they are still children. It’s unsafe for little ones to be unsupervised for even a moment. The freedoms that I enjoyed are unthinkable today and that actually makes me sad. I wonder if the magic of summer vacation is somehow diminished by our efforts to orchestrate it so. Our children have lost a wonderful opportunity to learn how to find simple pleasures in very small things. Perhaps many of the problems we face today might be resolved if we were to once again allow them to get outside and explore the world on their own. The lessons of an unstructured summer may well be the most important of their lives.