An Ounce of Caution

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Here in Houston we get hurricanes from time to time and they are capable of causing great damage from both wind and rain. I worry during the long hurricane season that runs from about June through October in this area. I get especially anxious around the middle of August until the middle of October because that seems to be the time in which we are the most likely to get a violent storm. I’ve learned how and where to hunker down if I decide to stay in my home until everything blows over. I prepare myself both mentally and physically in July while there is still time to get things in order without a rush at the last minute.

I’ve learned to have plenty of batteries, flashlights, lanterns and water on hand along with a supply of nonperishable food. My mother-in-law taught me to fill all of the bathtubs and big pots in the house with water ahead of the hurricane so that I will have a good source of that life saving liquid for some time. I’m always happy that I have a gas stove because even if the electricity goes out I am still able to cook. I store away anything that might blow around in my yard and put tape on my windows. Then I usually go to my father-in-law’s house in the Heights. It’s been standing there for over a hundred years and is rarely affected by anything other than the loss of electricity.

There are more precautions that I have wanted to take but somehow I just never get around to accomplishing the necessary tasks. I have friends who cut and store plywood to cover windows. They have each plank numbered according to the area of glass it is designed to protect. There are many years in which the custom designed works of caution do little more than gather dust in the rafters of the garage, but when a storm threatens in the Gulf of Mexico they are ready to prepare their property while everyone else is scurrying around like folks gone mad.

My husband and I have looked at various generators from time to time as well, including the ones that are permanently affixed to the natural gas supply and designed to automatically kick into gear the moment that the power goes out. The folks who have those experience a small blip and then everything continues working as though nothing had happened. The rest of us with no backup system might find ourselves operating like our ancestors with candles and oil lamps until Reliant Energy gets around to repairing the lines. It can be miserably hot and humid, not to mention cut off from information since none of the electronics work. I’ve tried to encourage my husband to make an investment in some kind of generator, but so far he has not seen a reason for purchasing an expensive item that may be used once in a blue moon.

The hurricanes that I remember are Carla, Alicia, Ike and Harvey. We stayed with my Aunt Polly during Carla when I was just entering the eighth grade. The storm did a great deal of damage around the area but our home suffered nary a scratch. For Alicia we went to my father-in-law’s house. Again our own place was high dry and untouched but the electricity stayed off in part of the neighborhood for weeks. I was a teacher then and the schools did not reopen for quite some time. Ike sent us back again to my father-in-law’s place. I was awake when the storm passed over Houston and I marveled at the strength of the house. It was like watching a hurricane in a movie. The windows barely moved in spite of the power of the storm. For Harvey we stayed in our own home. We had no idea how devastating that event would be for so many of our friends and family, but we luckily came through unharmed. Nonetheless I recall becoming uncontrollably anxious as I watched images of my city going under water. I was certain that we would have to bail at some point, but somehow the water kept miraculously draining.

There is something quite serendipitous about Mother Nature. It’s difficult to predict where she will aim her fury, but there is enough time with the approach of a hurricane to get a fairly good idea of the path that it will take. There are ways to prepare and usually time to do so. The only trick is to get things done early because once it seems certain that an area will bear the brunt of tropical fury  most of the needed supplies will fly from the shelves of the stores leaving only blank spaces for those who have procrastinated.

While I become anxious each summer lest a powerful storm come to our city, I know what I need to do when the threat is clear. Tornadoes and earthquakes are another thing entirely. They come with little or no warning which to me makes them doubly frightening. Living under a constant threat of such things would no doubt make me a basket case just as it has done for those in Houston whose homes flooded with the nonstop rains of hurricane Harvey. Now when thunder and lightning roar in the sky they worry in ways that they never did before. I suspect that living in an earthquake or tornado area might have a similar effect.

My family lived in both northern and southern California for a time when I was eight years old. I recall real estate agents instructing us in what to do in the event of an earthquake. We even had periodic drills at school. I was terrified because we learned that such incidents are rarely predicted. I feared that I would be away from my parents when one struck or that some enormous piece of furniture might fall on top of me. I found myself checking out buildings for strong areas and ways of exiting and wishing that I might return to Texas where such things were exceedingly rare.

My daughter often experienced tornado warnings when she lived in a Chicago suburb. She kept a closet under the stairs cleared so that she might readily run inside with her babies whenever the sirens began to blare. It was nerve wracking because things happened so instantly. I suppose that none of us ever know when we will become entwined in the wrath of nature but it’s always a good idea to have a plan of what to do and how to keep in touch with friends and loved ones when such events come our way.

My brother was a first responder and always told us to check for exits in movie theaters and hotels. He cautioned us to use stairs rather than elevators in an emergency situation. As a teacher I took part in planning and drills for all sorts of possibilities. I learned to be ever alert. I’d like to think that I am ready for just about anything, but I also understand that the world is filled with the unexpected most of which we luckily never experience. Still I am reminded each summer to be prepared. An ounce of caution never hurts. Maybe this year I’ll buy that generator just to be sure.

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When Our Days Were Magic

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It sometimes seems to me that we spend far too much time planning ahead, and far too little time just enjoying the moment. I see evidence of that tendency in all of my daily travels. For example, it’s barely the beginning of July and already the stores are filling with school supplies, uniforms, and fall clothing. It’s bad enough that we push our children back into the classroom before Labor Day, but now we begin eagerly preparing for that moment six weeks in advance. Why can’t we just give our children a break and allow them to enjoy unadulterated fun for a time rather than loading them down with mathematics packets, required summer reading, long essays to complete? We hardly ever give our youngsters time to think for themselves, to decide how to spend their hours. We seem determined to fill every waking hour with activities that we think will help them to achieve more in the future.

Many young folk don’t know the joys of waking up on a warm July day with no plans and no place to go. They have not had the wonderful experience of using their own creativity to make life more adventurous. I rarely see the children in my neighborhood gathering by themselves to play. There are no sounds of games or fort building or any of the many activities that filled my vacations as a child.

I can still feel the exhileration of waking up on those summer morns with the knowledge that we kids had total freedom to face down the day. I can’t recall ever feeling bored, but rather torn between so many ideas for having fun. We often spent the earliest hours of the day in outdoor pursuits because it was still a bit cooler then. We’d ride our bicycles pretending to perform stunts by standing up on the seats or letting go of the handlebars for a few seconds. We travelled to the woods down by the bayou and explored the area with the determination of Lewis and Clark. We’d listen for the calls of the birds and watch for specimens of nature that we’d claim for the cigar box collections that we prized.

Once the sun had climbed high into the sky, and the temperature soared we’d shift gears and begin playing board and card games. There was always at least one mom like mine who gladly offered the kitchen table for a gathering place. We’d have tournaments that lasted for days and pitted us good-naturedly against each other. There was nothing grander than using our skills and a bit of luck to become champions.

We dabbled in the creative as well. We produced plays, performed musicals, and wrote neighborhood newspapers. I remember reading a biography of Truman Capote that told of how he and his neighborhood friend, Harper Lee, used an old typewriter to compose stories about the people that they knew. We did that as well where I lived. None of us ever became famous, but I am certain that my love of writing began way back then.

Sometimes we’d ask our mom to take us to the library, or instead we would ride our bikes to the mobile library that stood by Garden Villas Park. We’d load up with as many titles as allowed, and lie in front of the open windows with the fan blowing on us, enraptured by the stories inside those pages. I was into mysteries back then. I could not seem to get enough of them, and it always thrilled me to unravel the twists and turns of the plots before the big reveal at the end.

Of course there was swimming at one of the city parks. Back then we had an hour to bask in the cool water and then we had to leave for the next group of kids waiting in along line for their turn to enjoy the pool. We’d walk through showers before we were allowed to get into the water and then we’d play Marco Polo and stand on our hands so that our bodies were under the cooling blue waves. It’s remarkable how quickly the time went by, so we celebrated if the life guard decided that the crowd was small enough to allow us an extra hour.

I don’t ever recall our television being on during the day either in the summer or when school was in session. We simply didn’t waste our time on such activities. We had way too many other ideas for amusement. It seemed that there was never enough time to fit our bounty of ideas into those lovely three months when we were our own masters.

It saddens me a bit that so few children today are able to enjoy the kind of childhood that was so commonplace in my youth. I realize that times are a bit more dangerous than those years when we slept with our windows open and rarely locked our doors during the daytime hours. Parents have to be more watchful than our moms and dads were back then. I also understand that taking classes or participating in sports can be meaningful life lessons, but sometimes it’s just as important to provide children with time to figure out things on their own. I suppose that I learned how to think critically, problem solve, and work in cooperative groups during those days of hanging with the kids from the neighborhood without parents organizing us. My free time prepared me for the future in immeasurable ways.

I wish that our children today might know the joy that we did. It was in the summer that I learned to cook or how to earn a little money by doing odd jobs or selling lemonade. I honed my negotiation skills toe to toe with my peers. It was a glorious time, when being a kid meant learning how to navigate and explore. Nothing was rushed. It was summer and each day was magic.

Summer Is Coming

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I have a love/hate relationship with summer. I enjoy the long days and the possibilities of adventure, but the season brings back memories of tragedies that I have endured, and then there is the heat and humidity that slows my energy and puts me in a state of lethargy. “Summer is coming” is a phrase that causes worries to silently fill my head. I fret about storms and hurricanes that may find their way to the places where me and my family and friends live. I feel a caution and not too little anxiety in summer that does not leave me until the end of September when the first hints of fall shorten the days and cool the air. I suppose in my distrust of summer I am quite different from most of the people I know.

I do not like the heat of summer. I seem to wilt and lose my energy as the mercury rises. I become sluggish and prone to stay indoors. I don’t like using all of the electricity that is needed to keep my home at a reasonable temperature, and I hate summer fashions that leave so little to the imagination. Summer is a time when I suppose I should head to cooler places for a long stay, locales where I may still need a jacket and do not require machines to cool me.

Summer is the time when far too many people that I have loved have died. I have a difficult time recalling birthdays, but I seem to always remember the dates on which my favorite people left this earth. I go into a kind of quiet sadness at the same time that everyone else appears to be celebrating the joys of warm days outdoors. I harbor groundless fears during that time, watching for signs that someone I know will have a heart attack or a stroke or a mental breakdown because summer is when those I care about have endured such things. I don’t want to dwell on the negative, but somehow the timing of tragedy in my life almost always coincides with the summer months, and so I am cautiously optimistic when June rolls around.

Hurricane season coincides with the summer, and it terrifies me. I fear the weather reports, and watch for signs that a storm may come my way. I know the kind of destruction that those heartless freaks of nature impart on humanity. I have seen firsthand the sorrow that they may bring. I cry at the thought of a Katrina or Harvey or Maria randomly choosing an area to destroy. I don’t think upon such things every minute of every day or I would surely go insane, but I do carry a healthy fear in the back of mind. I remain alert and prepared until the danger has passed.

I worry about too much water and too little when the summer comes. I’ve seen entire forests on fire and witnessed the loss of whole towns in images on my television. I’ve watched my own plants whither under the hot summer sun unless I ply them with water that I feel guilty using when there are people dying of thirst in some parts of the world like Jordan where water is only available once a week. It seems so ironic that California may be on fire at the very same time that homes are filling with the ravages of rain in my city.

As a child I loved the summer. My mother would cut my hair each June so that breezes might caress my neck. I’d live in shorts and sleeveless tops with bare feet grown brown from the sun and the dirt. I’d run and play and ride my bike with hardly a notice of the heat. I’d enjoy the peaches, plums and watermelon of the season, and the freedom of lessons and homework. I had few worries other than how to fit all of the fun with my friends into each day. I’d read books next to an open window in the high heat of the afternoon or join in a competitive card game with my playmates. I never thought of the weather or its consequences. Worries about tragedy were not on my radar, at least not until my father died.

I sometimes long for the innocence of my youth when “summer is coming” meant swimming at a city pool and Sundays at Clear Lake with my cousins. Summer meant total freedom with adventures that would have rivaled Tom Sawyer. My skin would freckle and brown and I never once worried that I might be damaging my health or in danger of developing skin cancer. I was a free range kid of the highest order, running without shoes in the woods, romping in the muck of the ditch behind my cousin’s house, and playing almost arm breaking games of Red Rover with the multitude of kids who lived up and down my long street. I quenched my thirst from the garden hose and played from the first light of dawn until the street lights came on in the dark. I don’t recall feeling uncomfortable when I went to bed in our unconditioned house where the temperatures had to be in the high eighties. Nor did I ever worry that some evil might come into our home by way of the open windows that never closed during that season, even when we were away running errands.

Perhaps I have become too old to fully appreciate the summer. I get hot and cranky if I am outdoors for too long. I dislike the feel of the sunscreen that I am compelled to slather all over my body to protect me. I don’t like the way I appear in shorts and skimpy tops. I’ve become grumpy about the very time of year that once enchanted me, and that actually makes me sad. I so want to feel the unbridled pleasure of my youth when I lived in the joy of the moment rather than considering what might go wrong. Returning to that kind of exuberance is something that I intend to seek. Summer is coming and I want to make the most of it and be unafraid.

In the Heat of the Day

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It was an unseasonably hot day for April, but then every day has been unseasonable this year with cold weather returning in spring and violent storms blowing in for an hour to tear things apart and then leaving as fast as they came. There was a track meet that afternoon and somehow it seemed far too warm for the long distance runners, but their heat was scheduled for late in the day when the temperatures ease down a bit, so all seemed well. Then we received the last minute news that the schedule had been turned topsy turvy like the Mad Hatter’s tea party. First was last and last was first. Everything was in reverse which meant that there would be young women and men running the 3200 meter race in the hottest part of the day with the sun bearing down on them at near ninety degrees.

We rushed to the track to view the contest and had barely found our seats when the young women took their positions for the 3200 meter race and were off at the sound of the gun. At first they did not appear to  be affected by the heat that was burning the back of my neck and causing my blouse to stick to my skin. I presumed that they were in such good shape that they would hardly notice that it was not a time conducive to attempting to run at top speed for around two miles. After about four laps around the track the toll that the temperature was taking on their bodies became more and more obvious. Their faces were turning beet red and the strain registered on their faces. By the time they had finished the course many were vomiting and others were crumbling in exhaustion or even fainting. They had made it apparent that have such a long race in far too hot and humid conditions had been overly stressful to their bodies.

When running the body responds to the outside temperature in multiple ways. The longer the time spent pushing for speed, the more negative forces are placed on the mechanisms of the body. If it is sixty degrees the runner feels as though it is eighty degrees, so running for a prolonged period at eighty nine degrees means that the runner is experiencing a feeling inside his/her body as though it is actually one hundred nine degrees. If the humidity is also high it becomes difficult to sweat, which is a necessary way of keeping the internal body temperature within safe limits. The body begins to react to what it sees as an assault which is why some of those girls eventually puked and fainted. They had unwittingly sent their internal systems into a state of emergency.

The 3200 meter race for that day had originally been scheduled for around seven in the evening. Had that tradition been followed the sun would have been lower on the horizon and the temperature would have been more amenable to a prolonged physical effort. The short sprints should have been first just as they usually are. Those runners would not have been as affected by the heat because their attempts last under a minute. Putting the most grueling race first was a questionable decision for adult coaches who should have known better. They were lucky that nobody was hurt even more seriously.

My grandson was one of the runners in the boy’s 3200. He is usually a beast on the track with a final kick that sends him in front of his competitors on a regular basis. He is highly respected for his prowess and his ability to garner some inner force to get the job done. On this day with the heat raising the temperature to what felt like over one hundred degrees his body told him to be cautious. He was a contender for a mile, but then he felt everything inside him shutting down. He became seriously dehydrated and his muscles felt uncharacteristically weak. He sensed that pushing himself unnecessarily would be hazardous to his well being, and so he slowed his pace to a trot that allowed him to breathe and brought him a measure of control. Sadly this was the district meet that determined whether or not he would represent his school at the state contest, and he was considered to have a better than good shot at being one of the top four runners. On that day it was not to be. He finished in the middle of the pack with his face red from the exertion and his skin feeling as hot as if he were in the throes of a serious illness. It was a disappointing moment, and one wrought with a sense of anger that the adults who should have understood why having the longest race of the meet in such conditions was a bad, unfair and dangerous call.

As an educator I was taught to consider all of the possible unintended consequences of my decisions before enacting them. I understood that I was ultimately responsible for the well being of my students as long as they were in my care, and so I had to be conscious of everything from the structure of my classroom to the words that I uttered. My job was almost akin to policing or being on a battlefield in that I had to observe, and think, and be ready to change course in an instant in response to each of my kids. There were no excuses for letting down my guard. I was the bulwark against any harm that threatened to come to my kids, and if I was careful and on my toes things generally went well. It was only when I didn’t think things through that problems occurred. Luckily few of my faulty decisions involved the physical well being of my charges.

I would warn those who deal with sports or band practices or any sort of activity that is affected by extremes of temperature that they consider the possible problems with their schedules and the order in which they do things. The runners on that hot day that I witnessed had only exited their buses thirty minutes before the events began. That was hardly enough time to warm up for a very quick sprit halfway around the track much less an eight lap endurance test. That should have been obvious to the adults in charge by the end of the girls’ race. Sadly, to add insult to injury some of the coaches chided the long distance runners for being unable to prove their mettle regardless of what the heat was doing to their bodies. Of all people they should have been the most aware of the error of their decision, but they staunchly denied any problems when confronted by parents who were concerned by what had happened.

There will be other races for most of the kids, and they will learn and move on from the disappointment, but if the coaches don’t also learn a tragedy is waiting to happen. There is a reason that the 3200 race is usually the second to last event and it has a great deal to do with providing the athletes with time to warm up their bodies, and a consideration of the humid heat that reaches it peak in the shank of the afternoon. This travesty in timing should never happen again, and the coaches should be willing to admit the error of their ways.

A Lost Tradition

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At my stage in life change is inevitable. Very little that we experience stays exactly the same, and in most cases that is a good thing. Sometimes, however, we become accustomed to certain aspects of doing things that they become a kind of tradition, something that we take for granted. In my case going to Canino’s Farmers’ Market on Airline Drive was one of those things. For sixty years the Canino Family offered fresh local produce at incredibly good prices in an open air market that literally hummed with life. It’s mounds of tomatoes, greens of every variety, oranges and apples were alluring enough to me that I traveled there from the other side of town, braving the traffic on Interstate 45 in the knowledge that my long drive would be rewarded with a glorious shopping experience.

I depended on Canino’s for items that I might otherwise have never found in my local stores. One area of the market featured bulk bags of beans of every possible variety, including the yellow split peas that I cook into a golden soup each New Year’s Day according to the family recipe that my mother-in-law shared with me. Most stores sell the green variety, but not the yellow ones. I never worried because I was always able to find a fresh bag of yellow split peas at Canino’s.

I have associated tangerines with fall and my birthday for all of my life. My grandmother Ulrich used to bring out big enamel bowls of them and they always seemed to be available at the local grocery stores. Suddenly a few years back they became almost a gourmet item that had been replaced by those little mandarin oranges known as Cuties. I insisted on having my traditional tangerines and luckily I never failed to find them at Canino’s.

There was a time when Canino’s even sold fresh eggs. They had every size and color imaginable along with great prices. At Easter time I would purchase dozens and dozens for the Easter Bunny egg coloring and to use in preparing the feast for my extended family on Easter Sunday. The jumbo eggs at Canino’s were larger than any that I found elsewhere and looked so beautiful after I applied brilliant colors to their shells.

For a time we owned a piece of property that had a grove of native pecan trees. In the fall we traveled there with bags and boxes which we filled with the precious nuts. Shelling them was a tedious job because they tended to be very small. My fingers would become raw from the process and sometimes even bleed. I did not worry, however, because Canino’s had a row of nut crackers that broke off just enough of the shell to make the process incredibly easy. For just a few cents per pound the machines would whir away and do a job that would have otherwise taken hours of hand numbing labor. Even after we sold the land and no longer had need of the nut cracking machines the sound of them at work always enchanted us when we went to visit the market on cool fall days. They were a constant like the rising of the sun and the changing of the seasons.

What I loved most about Canino’s is that it did not resemble the typical produce department of a grocery store. Everything was offered in bins mounded with a particular kind of fruit or vegetable. The items were as fresh as if they had been picked on minutes before. Most of the fun was in selecting just the right pieces that I wanted. I would leave with actual brown paper bags filled with wondrous and healthy produce. Going there was a joyful event, a happy adventure.

Sadly the Canino family vendors closed their business at the end of December when the brothers decided to retire. Thirty long time employees lost their jobs and the market itself changed names. An effort to enhance and modernize the concept has left it resembling an ordinary grocery store produce department save for the stalls in the back. The nut crackers are gone. The huge bins mounded with a particular kind of fruit or vegetable are no more. There are bulk bags of beans but the yellow split peas are not to be found. The new employees seem not to understand how much regular customers like me liked the old ways. At least for now most of the magic is gone.

There are plans by developers to turn the area into a destination for Houstonians and travelers to the city much like the markets in New Orleans and Seattle. Sadly their first efforts are leaving me wanting. The charm of Canino’s is gone and with a nearby Sprouts and a huge HEB market within less than five minutes of my house I now have little incentive to drive thirty to forty minutes to the newly styled market. If I’m going to travel that far I would prefer Central Market with its admittedly higher prices, but much better variety.

The new market on Airline is in transition. Perhaps they will yet find their way to my heart. I want to give them a chance to make me as happy and excited as Canino’s always did. I’d like to think that one day in the future I’ll again feel that warm sense of being at a very special place that the old market always gave me. I suggest that the new vendors consider setting up some nut cracking machines, adding yellow split peas to their bulk bean section, and making sure that when fall comes around there will be plenty of tangerines. Some things should never change.