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. 

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The Quest

MichaelSome people seem to have a destiny. They know from an early age what they want to accomplish in life, and then pursue that dream as soon as they are able. My brother, Michael, is one of those people. When he was still a toddler he walked around the house carrying a book by Werner von Braun describing a futuristic journey to the moon. It was filled with illustrations depicting how the spacecraft might look complete with drawings of the accommodations inside. Micheal studied the book carefully even before he was able to read, and he told anyone who asked that he wanted to be a mathematician because he liked numbers.

Michael was true to his word, graduating from Rice University with a degree in Electrical Engineering and later earning a Masters degree in mathematics. His job search involved deciding what sounded the most exciting because he was recruited for a number of positions. It did not surprise any of us when he chose to work for a contractor with NASA. After all he had been fascinated by space from those early days and by the time he was ready for the workforce mankind had already found its way to the moon. Sensing that there was more to come he eagerly began what would be a long career associated with our nation’s exploration of space.

I don’t think I have known many people as eager to go to work each day as Michael always was. His job was fun, exciting. He never told us much about what he was doing other than to sometimes speak of the long hours that he devoted to his occupation quite willingly. It was only over time as we prodded him with questions that he told us about his work with the International Space Station. We learned that he had been part of a unique team that developed the computer program for the navigational system for this extraordinary feat. He was proud of his contribution, but quite humble in his description of the need for precision in all of the necessary mathematics, noting that a slight mistake had the potential of causing a spacecraft to overshoot the destination and wander forever in space.

Michael’s work with NASA also led him to a meeting with the woman who would become his wife, the love of his life. With a characteristic determination he decided to call her but soon found that she was not easy to find because her name was more common than he had realized. Not to be daunted, he dialed one number after another until he finally reached her. By then he was already hooked and determined to win her heart. The two of them worked at their NASA related jobs and raised three terrific children in Clear Lake City, the home of NASA and many of their dreams.

Michael spent the entirety of his career working toward the various goals of the space program. He was so well regarded that his superiors often urged him to stay a bit longer than he might have. Finally he decided that it was time to enjoy the fruits of his labors in retirement. so in December he left his full-time position with the promise to return one day a week to help in the transition from his expertise. His was a glorious career that brought him great satisfaction and an unparalleled sense of purpose.

Micheal plans to travel, spend time at his cabin in Colorado, and spend more moments searching the heavens with his telescope. He will be free to revel in reading and enjoying music and his grandsons. I suspect that he will continue to see mathematics as something fun to explore, and will no doubt keep abreast with any and all steps forward in the quest to learn about the vast universe in which we live. His curiosity knows no bounds and will not be subdued by a lack of formal work.

All of us are very proud of Michael and his achievements. His brilliance never fails to stun any of us. We all marvel at the intricacies of his mind, especially my grandson Ian who has seemingly followed in his uncles footsteps by showing tendencies toward genius early in life much as my brother did so long ago.

My mother was always unabashedly enchanted with Michael and his capabilities. She nurtured his talents and encouraged him to follow his dreams. She would be quite happy to note his accomplishments as would my father if he had lived long enough to see his son finding so much joy and success in his career. I suppose that nature and nurture joined together magnificently in creating the outstanding person that Michael became.

We will celebrate Michael’s birthday tomorrow as well as his retirement. There is something somewhat poetic about the fact that he was born on Three Kings Day, the Epiphany. Three wise men followed a star on a long ago day and found the meaning of life in the form of a child born in a stable. Like those men Michael too was a wise man whose quest lead him to a most satisfying life. He has seen and done wondrous things all while looking toward the stars.

What Is A Good Birth?

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I vaguely remember studying heredity in biology when I was a fifteen year old sophomore in high school. I recall learning about the work of Gregor Mendel in which he unlocked the mysteries of producing various traits in peas. The study of genetics was as fascinating to me as it must have been to those who first began to unravel a bit more of how nature works. By the beginning of the twentieth century Charles Darwin had proposed his theory of evolution, Thomas Edison had begun to light up cities and towns, and Alexander Graham Bell was busy bringing a new form of communication to the world. There was great excitement among scientists and inventors as mankind progressed from the mostly rural horse and buggy days into a brave new world of automobiles and an industrial revolution. I suppose that it is only natural that a group of researchers began to consider the possibility of learning how to eliminate the weakest traits of humans by controlling genetic pairings much as Gregor Mendel had done with peas. With the exciting goal of creating stronger and more healthy people Sir Francis Galton describe a whole new science which he called eugenics, meaning “good birth.”

The original motives that propelled eugenics may indeed have been noble, even as they were naive. The driving thought was to prevent the suffering that so often plagues humans by weeding out the weakest traits deemed to be the result of heredity. Thus the eager scientists began to codify the pairings that appeared to create intelligence, beauty, good health, and athleticism while also identifying those that led to “feeble mindedness” and disease. Little consideration was given to the role of environment or to the consequences of classifying individuals as fit or defective. Sadly such practices advanced dangerous ideas like warehousing those with mental illnesses or learning difficulties in asylums away from the public. Some states even willingly passed laws allowing so called experts to determine which people needed to be sterilized for the sake of a “better” society. Invariably certain ethnicities were determined to be more perfect than others which lead to changes in immigration laws.

In retrospect it is easy to see how horrific the eugenics culture that arose actually was, but there was a kind of tunnel vision about the movement that was so enamored with the science that few bothered to consider the ethical consequences of the various studies. Surprisingly many of the theories were enthusiastically embraced even by individuals who were seemingly forward thinking like Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Margaret Sanger, and Alexander Graham Bell. Eugenics conferences attracted renowned scientists from around the globe and behind the ivy covered walls of universities there was great excitement about the potential for improving the lot of the human race. Few appeared able to see the horror or that the idea of classifying human traits might lead to very dark places.

There were incidents that began to give pause to the excitement, including the case of a young woman who had been sent to an asylum because she was thought to be incapable of caring for herself due to her lack of mental acuity. Her mother had also been deemed unfit and was institutionalized as well. When the girl became pregnant and delivered a child judged to be as “feeble minded” as the other family members authorities decided to sterilize the her rather than risk bringing even more weak children into the world. The girl fought to prevent this atrocity and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court where Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes proclaimed that society had a duty to prevent the continuation of defective families that become a drain on national resources. She was sterilized!

Sadly such events were not isolated as state after state enacted laws that allowed medical personnel to determine which women were flawed enough to warrant sterilization. Individuals were judged by the appearance of traits like mental illness, addiction, ethnicity, and even poverty. Immigrants from places like southern or eastern Europe were thought to be a threat to America with their ignorance and “dirty” ways. Die hard eugenists believed that it was their duty to keep the best traits pure by limiting contact with those who seemed to be damaged.

It was not until a scientist named Hermann Joseph Miller from the University of Texas demonstrated the complexities of human heredity that the eugenics movement began to lose its luster. When news of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps reached the world, its link with eugenics insured that all thoughts of meddling with human heredity were mostly put to rest. Eugenics became an embarrassment that was secreted away.

I shudder to think of how my own family might have been viewed through the lens of eugenics. My maternal grandparents were from one of the countries thought to be inferior. Had they not arrived in the United States before the immigration laws became more constricted I might not be writing these words today. My maternal grandmother had a mental breakdown as well and spent time in a state hospital in Austin. Luckily Texas was not one of the states allowing involuntary sterilizations or she may have been deemed a candidate for such a procedure. My paternal grandfather spoke honestly about his father’s alcoholism and his own. Until he took control of his addictions he was hardly the kind of person who would have been deemed worthy of fathering children.

My family demonstrates the folly of the so-called scientific judgements of eugenics. In spite of what appeared to be undesirable traits the descendants of my grandparents are some of the most intelligent and productive individuals in society. From those so called defective genes there are now medical doctors, teachers, lawyers, doctors of philosophy, mathematicians, scientists, engineers, business men and women, ministers, athletes. We put the lie to the very essence of eugenic arguments that some groups of people are so inferior that they must not be allowed to produce. Thankfully the scientific community regained its wits and turned away from the ignorance that it was propagating, but not before millions had suffered and even died.

The black mark of eugenics should give us pause. We should always question any ideas that claim legitimacy while admitting that there are still many unknowns. Just because those who are better educated insist on the righteousness of their ideas does not make them so. When our hearts tell us that something feels wrong, we need to listen. Sometimes our instincts are more in tune with reality than those propagating unproven theories. We always have to ask ourselves if generalities can be believed. 

Inventing a New Way

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When I was growing up I knew a number of elderly people who lived with their children who cared for them until the day they died. It wasn’t all that unusual to see households composed of extended family members. My own maternal grandmother lived with her two bachelor sons and the rest of her children often took turns sitting with her whenever she became too sick to leave her bed. She died peacefully in her home with her loved ones hovering over her.

My husband often speaks of his grandmother and mother caring for his great grandmother who had been struck down by a stroke. It was an exceedingly difficult task because the woman was unable to move on her own and she had become chronically irritable because of her afflictions. He often heard her screaming at the ladies who attempted to tend to her every need. They understood that she was the victim of her circumstances, but that knowledge didn’t make their task any easier.

By the time I became an adult the idea of having several generations living under one roof seemingly went out of style. I only knew of a couple of people who opened their homes to elderly relatives. One was a very compassionate neighbor who lovingly cared for her invalid mother-in-law. It was hard work because the woman could never be left alone. One time I went to help out by sitting with the sickly lady, and I was physically and mentally worn out by the end of the session. 

I had one other friend whose mother lived with her, but the older woman in this case was healthy and energetic and helped greatly with duties around the house. I used to love visiting their home because the two women laughed and joked with one another constantly and always offered me fresh cookies that they had baked together. They made their somewhat unique situation seem almost idyllic.

Eventually my own mother spent a little more than two years living either with me or my brother. She was in relatively good health, but her mental difficulties required more and more monitoring as she aged. She and I both struggled with the enforcement of her daily medication intake. She felt that I was overstepping my bounds, and I felt beset upon by the battles that ensued each day. If it had not been for the clash of wills, I would have viewed her time in my home with great joy. I liked having her at our dinner table each evening and talking with her about my work day. She possessed a kind of folk wisdom that helped me, and I valued her opinion. She appeared to be doing very well while in my care, so it was shocking to learn that she had lung cancer. In fact, I was reluctant to believe that she was as sick as she was. I’m still happy that I was able to provide a safe and loving place for her until the very last few days of her life when she had to go to the hospital. 

The number of elderly individuals no longer able to take care of themselves without some supervision will continue to grow as the “Baby Boomers” enter their seventies and eighties. The question becomes how our society will be able to adequately care for those who require assistance in their daily routines. There are already a number of companies that are creating technologies that may support the younger generation in dealing with the coming surge.

Of course there are some people whose illnesses require twenty four hour care. Nursing homes will no doubt become crowded, but what I know from friends is that they are not the only answer. I know many people who realized that their parents needed to be in a more professional facility than their homes, and then found that they had to monitor the care they were receiving on a daily basis to insure that it was being carried out properly. It was an exhausting experience that required energy, patience and joint efforts by siblings.

The idea behind many of the new devices being invented and used is to provide caretakers with systems to monitor all of the necessary activities of older adults. There is technology that will detect heart problems, recognize when someone falls, note when a person has not moved for an inordinate amount of time. check blood sugar, send alarms when daily medications have not been taken, and alert caretakers and first responders in the event of an accident or health emergency. The Echo Dot is capable of turning lights on and off, playing music, setting clocks and even running microwaves and ovens. The Roomba will vacuum a house on a schedule and then return to recharge after doing the work. There are devices that help people to get out of their beds and into wheelchairs without human assistance. Cameras can run a feed to caretakers even when they are offsite.  Doors can be locked and unlocked without from afar. The cell phone has already changed the ways in which we communicate. Before long there will be self driving cars that will allow the elderly to just key in a destination and then sit back until arrival. Uber and other such forms of transportation are already taking people places with little or no trouble. Because all of these inventions will no doubt be profitable, I expect inventors to come up with even more new and better ideas at a rapid pace. 

Best Buy is banking on this kind of revolution happening to the extent that they are going whole hog into to the business of providing their older customers will all sorts of ways of taking care of themselves and keeping their children less anxious about what may be happening to them. While such a focus from major retailers won’t solve every problem, it will go a long way to encourage those with great ideas to monetize them and make them available to the public. It’s going to be exciting to watch our society change in the ways that we deal with our aging population.

Of course there is no substitute for the loving concern of family members. Even in the present it’s a bad idea to put an older individual in a facility and then just walk away. There has to be a routine of visiting and checking to be certain that all is going well. What we do know is that most people wish to stay at home as long as they can, but sometimes that just won’t work for a multitude of reasons. When we manage to find the right environment for them so much worry is lifted from everyone’s shoulders. The coming world may make our choices more plentiful and easier than they have ever been. I will enjoy watching the progress unfold.

Mastering Our Machines

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Our high tech world is glorious until it is not. We are surrounded by machines that are designed to make our lives easier, and most of the time they do. When something goes awry, however, we go into a tizzy. Our links with the world suddenly create chaos and frustration. We’ve perhaps taught Alexa to turn the lights in homes off and on at particular times, but when the Internet goes down we have to scurry again to do things by hand. Our phones keep us linked to the world wherever we go, but in a power failure they are as useless as bricks once they lose their charges. Without all systems working in tandem our computers and cameras and irrigation systems go awry. We are reduced to doing things by hand in the old fashioned ways. We get frustrated and because of that the tasks become more difficult than they need to be. The beauty of our mechanized world is glorious, but when it fails to deliver it adds to our angst.

We now take much of our progress for granted. In just a little more than a century the world has changed so much that our ancestors would not recognize the earth that they once inhabited. My own grandparents had no electricity or even indoor plumbing in the homes of their youth. They rode from place to place in horse drawn buggies. Their homes were heated by fireplaces and cooled by open windows. They communicated with far away friends and relatives with letters that often took weeks to arrive. They witnessed radical changes in their adult lives that transformed their daily routines. By the middle of the twentieth century they were literally in awe of all that they had witnessed, and spoke of seeing the first lights and hearing of the first planes with a kind of reverence.

My own lifetime has been dominated by a kind of inventiveness that was almost unimaginable. I am from the first generation that grew up with daily doses of television. I watched mankind venture into space when such feats seemed to be the stuff of science fiction. I worked in a building that headquartered IBM in my city and I recall entire floors of computer equipment that was less powerful than the laptop that I own today. The phone that I used as a child was tethered to the wall by a cord. Now I carry my means of communication inside my purse, and wear a watch on my wrist with powers that would have made comic book heroes of old green with envy The advances in science and technology came so quickly and regularly that we almost take them for granted, so much so that we become discombobulated when something causes them to fail.

The old ways seem ancient and yet it was not that long ago that we were hanging clothes on lines to dry in the sun. Television was limited to three or four channels that often went off the air at midnight. Student research required long hours culling through books in libraries and writing notes on index cards. Calculations were done with paper and pencil or maybe gigantic adding machines with a hand cranks. Somehow we managed without our current raft of devices that have become commonplace, and we’re not quite sure how we did that.

My father-in-law uses a computer that is somewhat out of date. He owns a big screen television and subscribes to a cable provider. His cell phone is quaint because it is not of the smart variety. He has accepted the newer technology only reluctantly, and usually has to rely on his son when problems with his devices occur. He admits that sometimes the new fangled machines frustrate him more than they help. He marvels at what they do, but wonders if it is worth it to try them given that he has done without most of them for ninety years.

I suppose that I might be more inclined to my father-in-law’s way of thinking were it not for my husband. He likes to be a pioneer in the use of all that is bright and shiny and new. He seems to think that he inherited that trait from his grandfather who was always the first on the block to try the latest inventions. He reads Wirecutter regularly and watches the Apple announcements with regularity. His computer reminds him of events and keeps track of business. He’s souped up our home with devices that automatically do all kinds of tasks. He enjoys discussing and installing innovations with my brother and one of my nephews. It all works quite nicely, and admittedly makes life easier, but when it goes amiss he grows frustrated.

I suppose that I most enjoy being able to write with a word processor. I recall all too well the pain of attempting to type on an electric typewriter. One slip of the finger on the wrong key required an application of a white liquid to hide the error. My printed copies were always filled with little polka dots that shouted out my incompetence with a keyboard. I much prefer the forgiveness of my laptop that gives my papers the appearance of perfection.

Once my essay is done I load it onto a website that schedules my work to appear at a certain time on a particular date. It is a lovely process that allows me to enjoy my favorite hobby of writing. Nonetheless, things do regularly go wrong, and then, like my husband I become anxious and irritable. Glitches steal my time and my joy. I bemoan the horrors of things that do not work, forgetting about how hard the same tasks actually used to be.

Our technology is grand, but I suppose we have to be careful not to allow it to overwhelm us. It’s okay to spend a day without cable television. We can wash our dishes by hand if the dishwasher breaks. We don’t really need our phones every minute of every day. Sometimes it’s actually good to take a moment to just enjoy the world without the artificial sounds and workings of machines. Putting them aside for a time stills the soul and puts us back in touch with our connections to nature and the universe. We need to now and again remind ourselves that we should be the masters of our machines, and not the other way around.