God Bless America/God Save the Queen

The Guards

Ironclad plans for a trip are fine until they fail. One of the most positive aspects of traveling independently is the ability to make last minute corrections. Such was our decision one morning at breakfast when we realized that if we hurried over to the Russell Square underground station and headed for Buckingham Palace we might be just in time to see the changing of the guard that was to be held that morning. After all the rest of our day was dedicated to places where there was no need of tickets, so we had all of the flexibility that we needed. We took a deep breath, entered the fray of early morning crowds headed to work and girded our loins for whatever we might find ahead.

The train was so packed that we felt like sardines and it only became worse as we drew closer to our destination. Our foray inside a crowded train would be good practice for the swarm of humanity that we would find waiting at the gates to Buckingham Palace. We realized immediately that we would not get a prime view of the proceedings, but at least we were there and we’d have to just do our best to catch a glimpse of the proceedings here and there.

Unfortunately most of the best spots right along the fence line were taken by very tall men who further blocked the view by raising their arms to hold their cameras high in the air. Husband Mike and my brothers had no trouble looking over the shoulders of the lucky ones who had arrived early enough to stake out a claim to prime property, but my sisters-in-law and I were unable to see much even when we stood on tippy toe. Sister-in-law Becky decided to choose a different point of view and went to the very back of the crowd so that she might see the troops as they marched into the palace grounds. Allison and I found ways of glancing down low and in between the bodies of those who blocked our normal sight of vision. All in all it was a frustrating situation but one that we learned how to eventually make work.

By the time the proceedings began the area was a mass of humanity all craning their necks to see the red coated military men marching proudly across the grounds. They played traditional pieces that most of us had expected to hear, so a sense of great satisfaction swelled over the crowd. I saw enough of the upper half of their bodies to feel a sense of exhilaration, and I had perfected my method of finding tiny holes in the wall of people to make me feel as though I was part of something quite grand.

Standing on my toes and bending down became my official “modus operandi” so I hardly noticed that people from behind were pushing forward to get a view of their own. A woman who had a birds eye view in the front row suddenly became overcome by claustrophobia and decided to leave. Before doing so she offered her spot to me. I could not believe my good fortune as I suddenly stood right behind the fence along with the row of tall men. I was mesmerized by the sheer beauty of what I saw.

The soldiers with their red jackets and polished brass buttons stood tall and stately with their heads proudly bearing the black bearskin helmets that are the trademark of their station and their duties. I saw that they were not just showmen because the guns that they carried were real and quite powerful. They were indeed trained and equipped to be guards. I later learned that many of them had served in dangerous places like Afghanistan. Their precision bespoke of discipline and pride in their work. I was almost giddy at the wondrous sight that I was watching unfold. It was as though I was part of a living fairytale not unlike the ones that my father had so often read to me. I felt like Cinderella.

We were entertained by military songs and modern music, marching, and even a mounted cavalry wearing riding boots and a different sort of cap featuring horse hair. The pageantry was even more glorious than I had imagined it would be and my companions and I were quite delighted.

As is my way I found myself thinking of the rag tag revolutionaries of the colonies of north America who had the audacity to rebel against such a well trained and disciplined army of red coats back in the eighteenth century. It must have required an enormous amount of frustration over the political situation to risk fighting such a group. Little wonder that the prevailing belief was that the so called patriots would soon be put down by the seemingly superior forces and normalcy would return. I’m not so sure that I would have had the courage to side against such a powerful army, and yet I know from the study of my family tree that there were indeed ancestors who chose to join the revolution to free themselves from what felt like tyranny.

I suppose that we Yanks are the wild children of Great Britain. We came from the same stock but the new world changed us. We were far enough away from the old ways that we began to question the authority of a king who was making our lives more and more difficult. We had risk taking in our DNA. Our thinking diverged from the land of our origin and in the end we eschewed royalty and opted for freedom, even though our first form of it was far from perfect. It would take some time before we freed our slaves and allowed women to move to the front so that they too might participate in the grand experiment of the republic.

My spot along the fence of Buckingham Palace standing as an equal to the big tall men who had at first blocked my view felt like yet another metaphor for how far I have come from the time of my ancestors. I have roots in Great Britain that make me proud, but in the end I am a foreigner in that land. Neither I nor anyone not born of the Windsor family will ever be royal, but in my country anyone might aspire to be President. That is the grand difference that came from the revolution of long ago.

I possess all of the traits of an American including great pride in my country and a kind of brash sense of equality with every other human, but I still cherish the traditions of my history. I felt a kinship and a sense of friendship as I watched the ceremony unfolding before me, knowing also that I would not have been standing there were it not for the opportunities that the United States has given me. God bless America and God save the Queen!

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A Walking Timeline Through History

Trafalgar Square

When the best laid plans go awry, pathways to new adventures often show themselves. We were to have spent our morning watching the changing of the guards and our afternoon at Westminster Abbey. The cancellation of the tradition of pomp and circumstance at the palace had sent us scurrying to the Gothic church far earlier than intended, so once we were finished with our tour we became untethered and aimless wanderers around London.

The roads almost inevitably lead us past the halls of Parliament where protests centering on the Brexit issue were a constant feature during our time in the capitol city. We glanced disappointedly at Big Ben which was shrouded by the apparatus of reconstruction save for the face which never changed because it was not working. We wondered as we longed to hear the famous chimes if somehow all of our planning was doomed to go up in flames, but we soldiered on, walking past a highly secured area that housed the home of the outgoing Prime Minister.

There was much stirring behind the gates. We saw official looking men wearing formal  jackets filled with medals leaving the premises with grim expressions. It told us that Theresa May was no closer to creating a plan for transitioning Britain from the European Union to a  more nationalist entity. There was a noticeable tension in the air that hovered over the halls of government and the silence of Big Ben added a metaphorical touch to the chaos.

After walking for what had seemed like many miles Trafalgar Square was in view and husband Mike became quite animated by the thought of seeing the iconic tribute to those who had fought so valiantly in World War I. First, however we would pause for lunch in a nearby pub where I admittedly struggled to find something that appealed to me on the menu. I generally eat a very light midday meal and there was very little of that sort to be found among the traditional English food being offered, so I essentially skipped eating and instead enjoyed a lemonade and a much needed rest for my feet. I used the time to find and purchase the tickets that we would use later that night to see the choral concert at Westminster Abbey.

Once everyone was refueled we headed to Trafalgar Square which was quite joyfully bursting with life, mostly from tourists and street artists. The atmosphere reminded me of the area around St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, Louisiana. There were accomplished musicians and singers entertaining the crowd with performances worthy of Albert Hall. Using only chalk and their imaginations many individuals drew masterpieces on the grand sidewalks of the square. A gigantic fountain surrounded by enormous lion sculptures served as a photo opportunity for everyone who passed by, and of course there was the famous obleisk honoring the courage of those who defended the nation in World War I.

This was indeed a happy area where the tension surrounding the government buildings was replaced with a kind of serendipitous celebration of art and humanity. It felt good to be there and somehow made up for the botched intentions of our morning. We all realized that while we had not achieved what we had planned, we had stumbled upon something that was nonetheless glorious.

Just beyond all of the revelry lay the National Gallery which like so many sights in London was open to the public at no cost, so we decided to partake of its vast collection of paintings and sculpture in the time remaining before our evening engagement. This would prove to be a wonderful decision because some the the most famous artists the world has ever known were featured in the multi-story galleries.

I enjoyed so many of my favorite painters and was filled with appreciation for some about whom I had known nothing. Without a doubt, however, the experience of wandering without warning into a room containing the work of Leonardo da Vinci was the highlight of the visit for me. The funny thing is that I had spied his drawings from out of the corner of my eye and had noted that I felt drawn to to them before I realized that the great master had created them. There was a kind of lively charisma to even the preliminary sketches that elevated the pieces to a level unmatched by any of the other artists.

I might have stood transfixed in that room for hours were it not for the fact that we had agreed upon a meeting time in the coffee shop, and that hour was drawing near. It was with great reluctance that I took one final glance at the glorious paintings and headed down to meet with the rest of our party.

We enjoyed a bit of respite and a great deal of animated conversation over steaming cups of Earl Grey tea as we spoke of our favorite works of art. We all agreed that we had somehow been led to a most enjoyable afternoon by the “gods of travel” and we promised that if we had some additional time later in our trip we would gladly return to this wondrous place to be certain that we had not missed anything.

When we emerged into the late afternoon air we saw that the festivities taking place in Trafalgar Square had not abated. It seemed to be an oasis of cheer and goodwill which was perhaps the intent when it had been designated as a memorial to all that is good about Britain. After the horrors of World War I the citizens needed to remember, appreciate, and celebrate the many sacrifices made. I thought it fitting that the joy of peace time was still very much in the air.

We walked away with an even greater sense of the spirit of London and its people. In a single day we had looked far back into their history and gazed at the gravity of their present. It had been like walking a human timeline during which we witnessed the resilience of the people. We realized that they had made mistakes before, and perhaps were enduring them even now, but always they seemed capable of adjusting their course and moving on the right side of history.

In Search of Morality

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What kind of person do we most admire, someone who possesses sterling character traits or an individual who gets things done no matter what? It’s an important questions with repercussions as to how we decide to raise our children, what kinds of bosses we want to have, and the direction that we wish to traverse in our personal and public lives. At first glance our instincts tell us that it’s a no brainer to assume that we all most likely prefer persons who possess the kinds of qualities that we associate with good values, but if we think just a bit it occurs to us that sometimes those kinds of folks are often overcome by thuggish and rude bullies who demand their way or the highway. If we have a particular goal in mind we may find ourselves leaning toward the pushy sort rather than someone who is kind and soft spoken. We actually bend our own rules in favor of action.

I once worked for an organization lead by a charismatic individual whose style was boastful and audacious. He had a very bad habit of verbally deriding his supervisors and workers on a regular basis. Ironically he demanded a host of positive character traits from his employees including loyalty and compassion when he rarely demonstrated the same qualities in his dealings. The turnover among those who worked for him was enormous because he was known for delivering regular verbal tongue lashings. Surprisingly his business thrived even as his reputation as a tyrant became legendary. The irony was that he pushed his way to success on the backs of very kind people that he had chosen to fill the jobs that he had. While I despised his tactics, I had a certain level of admiration for his accomplishments. I began to understand that we sometimes need different skill sets in the various situation that we encounter, but it worried me that we accepted his brutality.

That being said, I have also worked for exceptional persons who were able to combine a tough will with an accommodating personality. These men and women were known for being competent leaders who always succeeded while also being pillars of all of the positive character traits that society treasures. They led by example and viewed themselves as motivators and coaches training the next generation of executives. They were kind, trustworthy and understanding. Going to work for them each day was a pleasurable experience. Most of us toiled just a bit harder than we might have out of respect for them. They often exceeded goals and expectations without ever demeaning even those who had made mistakes. They behaved like the patriarchs and matriarchs of a big happy family.

In poll after poll whether it be with ordinary citizens or historians the most admired President of the United States for all time is invariably George Washington with Abraham Lincoln coming in a close second. What these two illustrious men shared was an unimpeachable character. They were strong and courageous, but also steadfast in being the best sort of people. Of course neither man was perfect, nobody among us ever is, but they followed a code of conduct that was based on respect and honor. Both men did their best to form decisions based on the good of the country rather than what may have personally made them more powerful. George Washington in particular decried the very thought of being referred to with the salutations associated with royalty. He wanted the presidency to be a position by and for the people, not some exalted throne of power. He even insisted on limiting his time in office lest a precedent of unending authority be set. He was essentially a good and wise man who understood that our president was in essence a servant of the people.

Throughout history we have seen bullies devoid of motivations other than personal aggrandizement rule to the detriment of the common good. While they may have initially appeared to be saviors, the true natures of their goals inevitably became the ruination of the places that they governed. The glee with which they had once been viewed became desperation as a kind of rot overtook their every command. In truth while it takes a certain level of unfettered strength and audacity to be a leader there must also be a foundation of goodness to guide the decisions. Flawed character ultimately leads to selfish acts that destroy everyone in their paths.

As parents, educators, teachers, adults it is up to us to demonstrate the importance of morality to our young. We must always realize that when we preach one set of ideals but live by another our children notice and become confused. They may appear to be distracted by play and the trappings of childhood, but in reality they are always watching and learning from us. If we truly value certain character traits and want to instill them in our young then we must do our best to regularly follow them. Turning a blind eye to bad behaviors simply because doing so gives us something that we desire leads both us and our youth down a slippery slope from which we may one day find ourselves struggling to escape.

There are indeed truly good people who combine the very best of the qualities that we humans most admire. They know when and how to be tough, but also demonstrate compassion and flexibility. They are the true leaders, the ones whom we cherish and attempt to emulate. It’s time that we begin searching for such people in our midst and cast aside the crooks and bullies and rude and unethical people who seem to be so in vogue these days. The future of who our children is ultimately riding on our decisions. 

Quiet Dignity

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I suppose that many of us long for an ideal society in which we all get along and work together side by side for the common good. We’ve had very few moments in history that worked out so well. There have been some events that have drawn us together, but for the most part there is no place on earth where people are continually in general agreement with one another. It’s a sad fact that those who attempt to be kind and understanding are often misunderstood and thought to be weak and wimpy. So it was with George H.W. Bush, a man so recently revered for his sterling character who was in many ways reviled as someone who did not have the backbone to be a leader when he was in office. The same was true of Jimmy Carter. Sadly both men were one term presidents because the voters saw them as ineffective when the truth was, and still is, that it sometimes takes far more courage to stand for honor and conviction than to wield power like a bully.

I was struck by the Bush family’s ability to bring disparate sides together in the hour of their sorrow. It was apparent that every great leader was ultimately in awe of George H.W. Bush’s character, charm and humility. He understood the need for our leaders to support one another and to put petty grievances aside for the good of the country. He was a man who always did what he believed to be best for all of us rather than for himself. That is a somewhat rare trait in today’s super charged political atmosphere where political grudges run deep.

I loved that the Bush family was so willing to take former President Clinton into their fold, treating him like a member of the family. It made me smile to see George W. teasing Michelle Obama even in his hour of deep sorrow. I was deeply moved that former President Carter and his wife came to honor a man who had once been his competitor. Even President Trump managed to maintain his dignity for the occasion, and the Obamas set aside their differences to show him respect. This was as it should be, not just at the end of someone’s life, but in all instances.

We seem to have lost our way, but occasions like the funeral of a great man reminds us of who we are as people and how we should behave. It was the hope of our founding fathers that we would find ways to compromise and get along for the sake of the nation. We have struggled with that concept again and again, even going so far as to split into a civil war. If not for the determination of another good man, Abraham Lincoln, we might not be such a prosperous country today. We might never have become a haven for people searching for better lives like my grandparents.

While I saw a glimmer of hope in the unity on display at the Bush funeral, I also witnessed the cracks that still need to be filled. I was disappointed that Hillary Clinton was unable to find it in her heart to be somewhat civil to President Trump. It would have been a triumphant move for her to demonstrate that she was the better person, but instead she refused to even acknowledge him. I was also disturbed by commentaries that took place almost before Bush was even buried that continued the rabid fighting between our two political parties. I realized that there is still so much rancor in our country that it will take some rare individual or event to pull us back together. Perhaps somewhere in our midst is a George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt type figure who will one day bring us the kind of leadership that we so desperately need. I shudder to think that it will require a tragedy or a war to bring us back together.

I believe that most of us desire a quiet, kind and gentle way of doing business. We have instead allowed fringes on the left and right to call the shots. They are the loudest because the rest of us don’t operate their way. They are encouraged by pundits and journalists hoping to make names for themselves rather than finding the courage to be fair and honest. We have been emotionally manipulated for some time now, and I suspect that most of the people of this nation have grown weary of the tactics, but don’t know how to make them stop.

It is sad that we sometimes have to be faced with tragedy before we are able to see truths that are right before our eyes. We are not better off with extremes. It was never the intent of those who created this country to accept incivility and unwillingness to compromise as the way of doing things. We have to take a deep breath and think about how we really want to be.

It was said that George H.W. Bush was a great manager, but not quite as good as a politician. In truth this is exactly what a president is supposed to be, the person who helps to run the many systems of the country. We have far too many executive orders and ways around the intended processes these days. Our Congress should be making the laws, not a single individual. We desperately need to be reminded that the running of our country should not be the domain of a one person, no matter how charismatic or strong willed he or she may be. The president should be striving to be reasonable with all sides of an argument, not just the ideas of a political party. Always decisions should be made with a wide scope of opinions in mind.

I can only pray that we will one day remember who we are as a nation, admit to our mistakes, and move toward a more all embracing way of doing things. The fighting and snubbing and name calling will ultimately do us no good. Dignity must become our goal again. George H.W. Bush and his family have shown us the way. Perhaps it is time to follow.

A Kinder Gentler Man

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Barbara Bush often mentioned that she had been enthralled by George Bush from the moment that they met as teenagers. He was handsome, athletic, bright, and most of all kind. George was a gentle soul with an inner courage that demonstrated itself during World War II when he enlisted at the age of eighteen in the Navy and became the youngest pilot. The love between him and Barbara only grew during the years when he was gone. He named his plane after her and sent her letters that unabashedly expressed his feelings for her. They married in 1945 and became partners in a life that would bring them both tragedies and great joy.

Barbara was George’s helpmate, supporting him in following each of his dreams. Their journey together led them to places like Midland, Texas where George would make his fortune. Later they moved to Washington D.C. and points all around the world when George decided to serve his country once again in a number of positions that ultimately led him to the White House. Along the way the two of them created a beautiful family, but also suffered the grief of losing a child. Through it all their love and optimism only grew.

Barbara was always there for George. She waited for him to return home from the war. She was the first person he saw when he came home from work. She was the source of comfort when he was dealing with the problems of the entire world. They were a real team, and their’s was the kind of marriage that stands as a model of equal partnership and mutual sacrifice. They became icons of togetherness that we all loved to see. Their union represented the best of love and devotion.

George H. W. Bush was an energetic and driven man. He did well at anything that he attempted to accomplish. He appeared to have a Midas touch, but it was in fact hard work and the backing of his family that kept him going. Mostly it was also his profound love for the United States of America and his belief that it was his duty to serve the country in any way in which he was called upon to do. He had learned that from his father and he passed the lesson on to his children. He knew that our nation had to be tough at times, but he also felt that we should strive to be kind and gentle.

George H.W. Bush was humble. Angela Merkel has called him “the father of the unification of Germany” because he was indeed the person who orchestrated the diplomacy that resulted in the demolition of the Berlin Wall. When celebrations of that event took place he insisted that the spotlight be shone on the German people. He refused to take credit for his work, instead noting that the moment belonged to Germany alone, not a particular man.

George H. W. Bush was fair minded. He loved to compete and wanted to win as much as anybody ever did, but when he was defeated in his bid for a second term as President he conceded without rancor. He hid his disappointment and worked to make the transition for President Clinton as smooth as possible. He left a generous note of encouragement for his successor even as he buried his own disappointment in his heart. Eventually he and President Clinton would become great friends, partners in efforts to help the victims of natural disasters like Katrina. Bill Clinton would become known as “Bubba” in Bush’s family, and the two would become such good friends that they were almost like father and son.

George H. W. Bush taught us so much about dignity, family, dedication, optimism and openness. In his later years he and Barbara lived in Houston, Texas and enjoyed all of the same kinds of things that we all do in this often misunderstood city. He regularly ate pizza at a family restaurant in his neighborhood. He became good friends with the owner and with all of the people that he encountered on his walks with Barbara and his dogs. As he grew frail and wheelchair bound he still found ways to get out to support the Astros and to attend  football games at Texas A&M where his presidential library is located. There was nothing stand offish or patronizing about him. He was as genuine as they come, and we Houstonians loved him and treasured him. He was one of us.

George H.W. Bush impressed those that he met with his earnest attempts to make them feel comfortable. He liked to laugh and enjoy the small moments of his life, especially when Barbara was by his side. He became one of the most brilliant points of life in our city, our country and our world.

I suppose that to me the words “Make America Great Again” would mean to find leaders more like George H.W. Bush, a hero, a statesman, a dignified, humble and honorable man who loved his God, his family and his country with all of his heart. No doubt Barbara was waiting for him when he entered heaven just as she always did here on earth. He is at peace and enjoying his just reward, but we will surely miss him.