Premonition

pexels-photo-247676.jpegOn a typical Sunday last May I had a major panic attack. It was so painful and foreboding that I spoke to no one about it. Instead I went to some of our local stores and walked around hoping to be distracted enough that I would be able to return to a state of calm. Sadly nothing worked, and I ended up retiring to bed later that night still feeling as though something horrific was about to happen either to me or to the world at large. Insomnia kept me from sleeping for hours until my body finally collapsed from exhaustion, leaving in a state of relative comfort. By the next morning I had returned to my more normal cheery self and I set aside the dreadful feelings that had so plagued me the day before. I decided that I was simply having one of my May attacks that have been brought on over the years by remembering the day that my father died when I was eight years old.

The human mind is wonderful, but it also has the power to send us into dark corners  filled with unfounded fears. Still I have often wondered if we are even close to understanding the capacity of our brains and the abilities that this remarkable organ holds. In truth I believe that we have yet to unlock all of the potential that lies inside our minds. I sometimes think that those we call geniuses are actually people who have found ways to probe into depths of abilities that the rest of us do not encounter. There is still so much to be learned about how we think and what we have yet to discover how to use.

I am if anything very rational and practical, but I also have an emotional side that takes hold of me from time to time just as on that Sunday. I have been known to feel as though I am experiencing a moment of ESP. It does not happen often, but when it does I feel almost overwhelmed with forebodings that I do not understand. One particular instance came years ago as I was driving home from a class that I was taking at the University of Houston. For some reason I felt compelled to stop at a store to buy a black dress. I vividly remember walking around as though I were in some sort of trance, and I must have looked a bit lost because a salesperson walked over to see if I needed some help. I told her that I needed formal attire suitable for a funeral. Bear in mind that nobody in my family had died. I just sensed with a kind of urgency that I would need the proper clothing for such an occasion, and so there I was in the store no doubt appearing to be a alarmingly confused.

I rather quickly found exactly what I wanted, paid and left with a sense of relief. It wasn’t until I reached my home that I felt a bit silly, and wondered how I would explain my strange purchase. I was happy to see that none of my family members had arrived from work and school, so I put the garment in the back of my closet where I thought it would stay until reality proved that I had been a silly goose. Much to my surprise I received a phone call from an aunts a few days later letting me know that one of my favorite uncles was in the hospital, and he was not expected to live. He had been mowing grass when an aneurysm burst inside his brain, and he had been unconscious since then. He did in fact die a few days later.

A chill came over me as I thought of my compulsion to purchase the dress that I would undoubtedly wear to his funeral. I did not know how or even why, but somehow I had foreseen death. It would not be the last time that such feelings would lead me to have some cosmic sense of impending doom. Thus when I felt such overpowering anxiety last year I wondered for weeks what it meant.

At first there were a few minor things that happened to friends and family that made me think that my worries were all for naught. I forgot about the overpowering nature of my thoughts on that Sunday and began enjoying the summer with abandon. The days and weeks were so glorious that I envisioned having one of the grandest times of my life. I journeyed to Cancun and had a most enjoyable experience. I made plans to spend the Fourth of July with family and shortly thereafter to go camping with long time friends. I would end my vacation time in Colorado from whence I would travel to Wyoming to view the total eclipse of the sun. Without warning none of that happened. My world was jostled upside down and torn apart on July third, the day on which my husband had a stroke.

So much changed after that. His prognosis had been grim, but the two of us were determined to adapt our lifestyle to the new reality and reclaim his health. There would be no camping trip, and we would forego the travel to see the eclipse. Our focus was on eating well and exercising and enjoying each moment of even the most routine days. I thought of my fears on that Sunday back in May and began to believe that my premonition had been real and it had been about my husband. I was thankful that things had not turned out as horrifically as my feelings had lead me to believe that they would.

Then came the rains over Houston, fifty one inches over a period of only a few days. I was in a panic as I watched my beloved city drowning. I worried constantly that my husband would have another stroke and die because we would be unable to get to a hospital for help. I felt the full weight of my premonitions bearing down on me as I wondered if Houston would die. I have rarely felt so emotional as I did during those four tension filled days. I wondered if I would ever be able to tell anyone about my crazy hours of anxiety that appeared to be coming to full fruition in the horror of what was happening. I only shared with my husband and because he knew that I had been right about such things in the past, he was willing to respect my sense that I had somehow felt the coming of the terrible events.

Unlike those truly gifted in the use of the mind, my intuitions are always vague, much like the fortunes buried inside the cookies from a Chinese restaurant. Because life is a series of both good and bad events my feelings that something terrible is about to happen has a fairly good chance of coming true based solely on the odds. Still I think that there is a bit more to them that my just being in a low state of mind now and again. I only wish that I had more understanding of what might be happening inside my mind.

My husband seems to think that I am actually just a very observant person, and that my subconscious  stores the information that I note causing me to formulate hypotheses that I can’t explain. For example, I may have noted slight changes in my uncle’s appearance that lead me to worry about his health without actually realizing that I was doing so. Perhaps the same was true in what I saw in my husband’s countenance. I had certainly had misgivings about his general state of well being because he was overweight and rarely exercised. My mind was making connections and drawing conclusions that revealed themselves in my so called premonitions.

Who knows where the truth lies? We may in fact have the ability to predict the future by developing aspects of the brain that have mostly been hidden from us. It is such a complex organ and I can’t help but believe that in the coming decades we will learn more and more about it, and in the process find ways to harness more of its power. For the time being I am simply happy that as of now I have had no overpowering feelings of impending doom. I’m ready for an uneventful summer.

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Elon, Larry, Mike and More

Starman_SpaceXIt’s been a very long time since I have felt the rush of excitement that I used to get whenever a new space mission was televised. I grew up in an era of rocketry firsts that literally took my breath away when they were happening. I saw Alan Shepard become the first American to go into space. I watched John Glenn make history with his orbits around the earth. I was tuned in when Neil Armstrong uttered his famous words as he stepped onto the surface of the moon and worried with the rest of world when the crew of Apollo 13 announced to Houston that they had a problem. I marveled at the Space Shuttle and the very idea that there might be a vehicle that could return from a journey to be used again and again. I was watching in horror when the Challenger blew up just after launching. I enjoyed the advances that allowed astronauts to make repairs and live for weeks in a space station. I believed that the most wonderful qualities of humans were encapsulated in the space program and as it all seemed to fade away I felt a sadness that was difficult to explain. Then seemingly from out of nowhere came a most remarkable feat that has reawakened my belief that one day in the future we will be able to journey across the universe.

The launch of Falcon Heavy by SpaceX last week was so stunning that I literally found myself crying tears of sheer joy and excitement. Everything about the event was spectacular from the music by David Bowie that accompanied the liftoff to the glorious humor that sent a cherry red Tesla into orbit with its Starman passenger gleefully hitching a ride. Perhaps even more stunning, however, was watching the booster rockets return to earth and land precisely on target to be used again, a triumph that at one time seemed impossible. Elon Musk, the innovator and maestro of the flight is surely a pure genius, who like Da Vinci and Einstein before him has an ability to see the world in ways that move all of mankind forward in our quest for knowledge. He is one of those people who does the impossible. He has managed to make America and humanity great again in ways that no politician has enjoyed.

Progress has always depended on those who are unafraid to gaze into the future. They are the dreamers and risk takers among us. Sometimes we scratch our heads as they announce their ideas, thinking them foolish or worse. We can’t always comprehend the seeming silliness of their notions, but they believe nonetheless and are compelled to move forward in spite of the negativity that often surrounds them.

I have a friend named Larry who long ago announced that he wanted to start a business selling t-shirts with messages and illustrations on them. This was at least fifty years ago at a time when shirts of all sorts were generally plain and of all one color save for stripes or plaids. The very concept of clothing with more personality seemed strange to those of us with whom he shared his proposal. He wanted to set up a kiosk inside a mall to sell his wares. He had heard of a machine that would place a decal on a shirt using heat. He imagined people flocking to personalize their clothing, We instead insisted that he would be wasting his money and his talents to pursue such a bizarre notion. How were we to know that he was indeed on to something very, very big? He was a seer of sorts, while we were too tethered to thoughts of how things had always been to be willing to accept his out of the box thinking.

On another occasion when we visited Larry he proudly showed us a huge box near his television. He explained that the machine would record any program that he wished to keep for the future. We were polite as he explained how it worked and what its uses might be. Inside our heads, however, we felt that his had been a ridiculous purchase. After all,  we wondered, who would ever want to make a recording of a show? Once you watched it why would you want to see it again? We simply did not have the vision that Larry had. Our ability to see ahead was far too limited. Unlike Larry we were not willing to think of the world as it might be.

My brother Mike was very much like Elon Musk and Larry from the time that he was only three or four years old. He walked around with a book written by Werner von Braun that told a tale of man one day  going to the moon. He tucked it under his tiny arm like a treasured toy and gazed at the illustrations of rockets and living quarters in space vehicles as though he was enjoying the characters of a little Golden Book. He told everyone who would listen that one day a man would go to the moon and that he was going to be a mathematician so that he might help to design systems for building the craft. Adults laughed good-naturedly at his assertions, but he was totally serious, and he built his life around those goals. He created a marble computer when he was in high school that won him the Grand Prize at the Houston Science and Engineering Fair. He went to Rice University and studied mathematics and Electrical Engineering. In time he went to work for Boeing Aerospace in conjunction with NASA and eventually authored the computer program for the navigation system of the International Space Station. He too was someone who was always able to envision a future that was far more exciting and complex than most of us are capable of realizing and he sustained the confidence to follow his journey.

Now I have a grandson named Jack who is imagining the possibilities of one day being part of the SpaceX team designing software. A granddaughter named Abigail is already recording ideas for making the care of animals more humane. Grandson William is writing stories about the future. The odyssey of the mind continues with amazing individuals who see a box of junk as a source of possibilities. These kinds of people turn problems into magical creations. They are the thinkers and dreamers who move us ever forward. They are the future and instead of chuckling at their imaginations we would do well to encourage them to propel us forward. 

Living With Passion

27751901_10214050313705370_7567982830482257335_nI suppose that it is a natural human trait to want to be someone who makes a difference in people’s lives. Sometimes that just means being an exceptional friend, or parent or co-worker. Most of us leave a small but nonetheless meaningful footprint on the earth. Some of us achieve a wider reach. Joann Stringer was a woman who impacted a multitude of lives in an exceptional way.   

I did not know Joann Stringer personally other than through contacts at parent/teacher meeting, and yet I loved her and even modeled my own teaching style after hers. She was a biology teacher at South Houston High School for twenty six years and both of my daughters as well as scores of my former students spent time in her classroom. She had a gift for making what might have been a difficult subject not only understandable, but also fun and exciting. Both of my girls came home from school filled with gleeful stories about the topics that she had introduced to them. They felt that she had opened a whole new and interesting world that had hitherto been unknown to them. Best of all she did so in a gentle and loving way that took into account the needs of each of her students. They never felt stressed or unworthy in Ms. Stringer’s care. There was no time in which they believed that she had been unfair or had not tried hard enough to teach difficult concepts. As a parent I appreciated their anecdotes about a truly caring and passionate teacher. As an educator I quietly filed alway those stories to use in my own classroom, knowing that I was learning from a giant in the profession. 

Even after my own children had left Ms. Stringer’s classroom I continued to hear about her magical abilities. Former students would tell me of how her inspiration had literally changed the courses of their lives. So many of her pupils realized possibilities that they might otherwise have never considered with her encouragement. They became doctors, nurses, researchers and even teachers. They fondly told and retold stories about this incredible woman who had so influenced the trajectories of their lives. I understood what they were telling me because one of my daughters who is presently launching a career as a science teacher often mentions how much she hopes that she will be able to teach as effectively as Ms. Stringer.

Joann Stringer truly dedicated her life to the thousands of students who came to her as freshmen, uncertain about what high school life would be. She reassured them and helped them to find their best selves. She made Biology seem almost easy with her artful explanations and exciting activities. They remember skinning rats, dissecting cats and even being reminded of how to be more mannerly. Ms. Stringer took them on field trips and mentored them as they followed pathways to careers in science. She kept in touch with them, attending their weddings and congratulating them as they reached so many adult milestones. She was in every way an exemplary teacher, the kind that we wish for all of our young people.

Joann Stringer retired in 2011. She pushed herself to keep going long after she might have taken the opportunity to rest. I suspect that she was so devoted to her calling that she was reluctant to leave even as she grew more weary. She suffered from a number of illnesses in her final years but still managed to reach out to her students via Facebook. She always seemed ready and willing to continue to assist them. Last week she died, leaving so many bereft, but also grateful for the imprint that she had made on their lives.

I watched as my Facebook feed filled with one tribute after another for this incredible woman. She indeed lived her life so fully that we would all do well to emulate the best of her qualities. I doubt that she grew rich in a material way, but her spiritual and emotional rewards were surely beyond our ability to count. As we walk through this life each of us has a vocation, a reason to be. Joann Stringer found hers and ran with it like a champion.

I suppose that Joann Stringer is still teaching those of us who knew of her in her own unique way. Her life is a lesson in itself. She showed us that our goal should always be to discover whatever we were meant to do, and then execute our talents unselfishly and with passion. Each of us has something to share, and Ms. Stringer taught us how to do that well. Perhaps it was her ability to help mold young people into happy and productive adults that was after all her greatest contribution to this world. Thousands of her students are paying forward the gifts that she helped them to develop. Her work was of the greatest importance for the future of our society and her impact will be felt for years to come.

I truly hope that Joann Stringer knew how loved and appreciated she was. I will always remember meeting her as a parent and feeling so reassured by her gentle words and her sincere smile. Now she will rest with the angels and we will hopefully carry on her work wherever we may happen to be.

The Least We Can Do

california-mud-slides-2018I watched a great program on black holes not long ago. I did my best to keep up with the theories, but the very ideas behind them are totally mind blowing. The universe is amazing and mysterious and we humans are only slowly learning about it using the mathematics and technology that we presently have. I suspect that we have yet to fully realize the depth of understanding needed to unlock all of the secrets, but there are great minds doing their best to unravel the puzzles. Somehow it is humankind’s nature to ask questions and seek answers. We want to know why things happen the way they do, and our creativity leads us ever forward in our quest. Nonetheless, we often find ourselves in frustratingly unprovable situations where it takes a leap of faith to become a believer.

I think of Galileo and the tragic persecution that he endured simply because a sector of his society was unwilling to accept his assertion that the earth was not at the center of our universe, but merely a kind of satellite coursing around the sun. The full acceptance of his ideas would not come in time to save him from a merciless punishment based on an ignorance that appears so clearly in retrospect, but was a bit more difficult to discern in the moment. We humans not only want to progress, but we want rock solid proof before we are willing to accept theories that are far different from our learned way of thinking. It is in our natures to be wary, just as Thomas the apostle was a doubter.

I find it quite interesting that there is a great divide between those who believe that the earth’s climate is changing and those who deny that this is the case. The premise of climate change is that we humans have a dramatic effect on our environment as we use and sometimes abuse its resources. Our numbers are so great that we literally change the natural world with our habits, and sadly we are accelerating a warming trend that is causing ice to melt in arctic regions and weather to be more erratic. Using data and scientific understanding of air flows and currents, those concerned with climate change urge us all to adopt habits designed to begin to heal our planet before it is too late. They point to droughts across the globe, strong hurricanes, and bone chilling winters as proof of the major changes that are taking place. Most of the scientific community is in agreement with these ideas.

At the other end of the spectrum are climate change deniers who insist that the data used to prove that our world is rapidly deteriorating is flawed. They argue that we have always gone through periods of drought and cold and that killer hurricanes are as old as the sea. They scoff at the idea that humans are somehow responsible for the very natural ways of weather that they believe continues with or without us. They use economic arguments to push for more use of fossil fuels rather than less. They believe that arguments about the climate are mostly political and as such support those who ignore the warnings of scientists. They liken the evidence that is presented in support of a theory of change to magic.

As someone who believes in God, but can’t actually prove that He is a true presence in our lives, I find the deniers to be short sighted. It is purely my faith in the promises of Jesus that guides me to prayer, devotion and a certainty that I will one day be united with my Lord in heaven. I have no rock solid proof that I am correct other than the words in the Bible and the teachings of my church, and yet I find no reason to doubt that I have found the truth. My own religious faith makes me wonder why any of us would be so wary of the much more concrete findings of scientists who have demonstrated with hard data that there are indeed great changes taking place that are associated with our habits of living.

I remember attending the funeral of a man that I knew who was originally from China. He had once been a Buddhist, but eventually accepted the beliefs of Christianity. His wife inserted elements of both Buddhism and his Baptist faith into the ceremony for him, noting with a bit of humor and irony that she didn’t want to take any changes that he might have accidentally made the wrong choice. I’ve often thought of her wisdom in conjunction with climate change, and I find myself wondering why anyone would be willing to risk being wrong by ignoring the warnings that Mother Nature appears to be sending us in greater and greater profusion. It would be far smarter to listen to those who are more educated about such things than to join in the rants of people whose sole purpose is to seek power. Namely, if each and every one of us began to live just a bit differently whether or not we are totally convinced that we in fact have an impact on the world it surely would not hurt us one iota. Like the wife who was unwilling to take a chance that her husband had been wrong, why would we want to hand off a more dangerous future to our children and grandchildren? What would it hurt to at least listen to what the scientists have to say? How could conserving just a bit more of our resources actually hurt us?

Our world is far more fragile than it appears. I have watched it being scarred of late in the most egregious ways. My city filled with water and so many homes were damaged and destroyed. Those of us who live here still shudder when thunderstorms rage overhead. We spent two days last week battling icy roads and temperatures lower than they had been in decades. All the while we watched homes burning in California and mudslides encasing them when it finally rained. We hear of Puerto Ricans still waiting for power to return months after a hurricane devastated the island. The damage to our earth is happening so often that we are almost becoming numb to its forces. We live in grave fear of terrorists and suggest that becoming more isolated from the rest of the world will keep us safer and at the same time ignore the one area where we have the power to make real change. In other words we can and should admit that we can do better in using the treasures of our planet.

Some things just make sense. Taking care of what we’ve got begins with each one of us. It’s far past time to be so silly about something as serious as the healthy functioning of the land on which we live. It can no longer be denied that our earth is sick and we must all work to bring her back to a better state. If is takes sacrifice, so be it. It’s the least that we all can do.

Yesterday Today and Tomorrow

default-1464355425-834-scientists-believe-they-have-explained-the-great-flu-outbreak-of-1918A hundred years ago in the fall of 1918, there were many who seriously wondered if the world was coming to an end.  A great war was still raging in Europe and decimating the young male population. Across the globe there was unrest and a general feeling that life would never be quite the same again. The worst surprise of that autumn was to come in the form of a tiny virus not yet visible to the human eye with the microscopes of the day. It would lead to an outbreak of influenza that eventually killed as many as five million people worldwide and hundreds of thousands in the United States. One sneeze from an infected person had the potential to infect ten thousand, and for a time nobody knew what to do.

It appears to have begun at a military base in Kansas where it was first thought to be little more than the typical seasonal outbreak of illness. It soon became apparent that the new strain was unlike anything doctors and biologists had ever before seen. It started with coughing and a fever that quickly grew ever more severe. It filled the lungs of the ill with so much fluid that they literally drowned. Before long there were not enough beds or doctors for the affected, and not enough coffins for those who died. During the months of September and October of that year the disease spread like wildfire, sparking dire accusations that the Germans had somehow planted germs in the bodies of soldiers fighting in the trenches. The fact that German troops were just as susceptible to the sickness did not allay the fears of those who were losing loved ones and friends so rapidly that it felt as though there was nothing that was going to stop the rampage of death.

More American citizens died during those weeks than in all of the wars of the twentieth century, and yet there was no cure, no idea of what the cause might be. For some reason the virus was more likely to spare the very young and old, but was most deadly for strong and healthy adults in their twenties and thirties. It would be years later before researchers found the virus that had wreaked such havoc on the population, and began to understand that the sickness had burned itself out when those who survived became immune without any form of medical assistance. Our understanding of such diseases grew over time, but always there continues to be a silent fear that something similar may one day return to infect humanity like a plague.

I had never heard about the horrific influenza of 1918, until I read a book shared by my daughter. She is a nurse and science teacher who has a great deal of interest in such things, and she thought that I might find the topic interesting as well. I was stunned to learn about the horrific events and to realize that none of the older people I had known who would have been young adults during that period had ever mentioned the event. I was particularly surprised that my grandfather who was well known for his vivid stories of the past had not brought up the topic. Since I was unaware of that part of history I had not known to quiz him about what he remembered regarding that sad chapter, and so I was not privy to his eye witness account.

Historians conjecture that this particular episode must have been so personally horrific that those who had endured it did not want to speak of it again. Perhaps it was the impetus for the roaring liveliness of the twenties when people appeared to throw all caution to the wind. Living through such tragedy must have caused people to view the world much differently than they otherwise might have. Most certainly they would have wanted to blunt the memories that must have been quite horrific. When the next decade of frivolity was followed by a worldwide depression and eventually another war, the personal stories of illness and death might have seemed trivial to them by comparison. In truth, they would have been right to wonder if the bad news would ever stop, and when it finally did they most probably decided never to speak of it again.

My father-in-law served in Korea during the war there. He has only mentioned what he saw there once in all of the years that I have known him. His eyes filled with tears as he recounted his experience and his voice was shaky. It was much too painful a memory for him to think about for very long. I have noticed that my uncles who fought during World War II were just as reluctant to share stories of their adventures as were my peers who fought in Vietnam. I suppose that there are events that are so horrible that we prefer to bury the thoughts of them deep within our psyches. It is simply too much to dwell on them for very long. 

I suspect that those who were witness to the 1918 influenza epidemic simply did not want to speak of the unspeakable. They lost loved ones and friends in a matter of days and weeks. They worried that the horror might return at any moment. To dwell on their heartbreak and fears would have been unbearable and so they did not include mention of the outbreak in their tales of living. The story languished until curious souls began to ferret out the details and bring them to light once again. What is a curiosity for those of us removed by a hundred years was all too real for those who were there when it happened.

Each generation has its share of tragedy. For those of us who grew up just after World War II the events etched permanently inside our brains include the good, the bad and the ugly. We recall with clarity exactly where we were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It pains us to think of the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy that made is wonder if anarchy was going to rule the day. Many of have personal tragedies that affected us as well, the death of a father or hearing that a friend was killed in Vietnam. We smile when when we think of the first man to walk on the moon, and recoil at the vision of the twin towers in New York City falling like toy constructions before our eyes. These things affect us and change us and our ways of viewing the world, but we don’t often speak of them because the thoughts associated with them are too powerful and emotional. I suppose that the reality is that no matter how conversant we are there are no words sufficient to describe such things, and so we are silent just as my grandparents were about so much of the history that affected them.

Today we have new worries, but mostly go about our business hoping and praying that none of our biggest concerns will ever take place. Our natures compel us to be optimistic and to carry on even when situations seem dire. Like Scarlett O’Hara we believe that tomorrow will be a better day and we concentrate our thinking on the future rather than the past and the present. It’s how we survive. Still, there is something so fascinating about events like the influenza epidemic of 1918, that we can’t avert our gaze. We have to look if only for a moment so that we might remember that we are not immune to the same kinds of heartbreaking situations that plagued our ancestors. We are as human as they were, and we can only hope that when faced with tragedy we will respond well and not be judged too harshly for any mistakes that we make.

It’s all too easy to form opinions of what might have or should have happened. but we will never know what we might actually have done if we had faced similar hardships. It must have been a dark time, but somehow those who came before us found a way to keep moving forward without focusing too much on a past that they could not change. Perhaps we might learn from them and embrace each new day as an opportunity rather than dwelling on the heartache of the past. Yesterday is gone, today is an opportunity, and tomorrow allows us to repair any mistakes we have made. It’s the cycle that keeps the story of humanity alive.