The Game that Filled Her Head With Dreams

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When my father was still alive football was king in our household. Of course it was not just any brand of football. It was always about Texas A&M football. After my dad died my mother kept his love of the Texas Aggies alive. Anytime a game was aired on television she faithfully tuned in and sang all of the school songs with gusto. Thanksgiving dinners were always timed to work around the annual game against the University of Texas. She’d get almost reverential when chanting the Aggie cheers and songs on those occasions and she fill our heads with stories of the times that she spent with my father on campus when they were young newlyweds and he was earning his degree in engineering.

She had a way of making Texas A&M seem like a magical place with her tales that she spun like the fairytales of old. The Aggies were heroes in my mind and my father was a knight in shining armor who captivated my beautiful mother with his Aggie manners and brilliance. I listened to her memories of happy times with a kind of reverence and awe.

My mother remained faithful to the Texas Aggies and their football team throughout her life with a fervor that belied the fact that she had not had the opportunity to be a student there because it was an all male institution back when she was young. Sometimes she even hinted that she thought it should have remained that way, but once my youngest daughter was a student there she changed her tune. She was quite proud of finally having another Texas A&M graduate in the family and felt doubly blessed that she also gained an Aggie grandson-in-law in the bargain.

If possible, my mother was an even bigger fan of baseball. She made sure that both of my brothers took part in Little League and was rather proud of their prowess on the field of dreams. She recounted the times that she attended baseball games for a minor league team in Houston back when she was young. Baseball was her game and she knew it well. As soon as the city of Houston landed a major league team she became an instant fan. The guys started as the Colt 45s and she would take us to watch them play in an outdoor park filled with hot nights and mosquitoes. Those were amazingly fun times when my mother became as raucous as the most enthusiastic fans. 

Eventually the Houston team got the first ever indoor playing field and a new name, the Astros. Mama was giddy with excitement each spring when the season began and she never once lost her childlike spirit when it came to the hundreds of games that the Astros played. If she wasn’t at the stadium or if the team was out of town she tuned in on her radio listening to every play and punctuating the air with her cheers and groans. I’ve never known anyone to be as faithful to a team particularly during some years when the Astros were not doing well at all. She weathered many disappointments with optimism and spoke of the players as though they were her good friends.

Mama had grown up listening to the radio so just hearing a game was as vivid to her as being there in person. She was able to feel the excitement and see each play in the vividness of her mind. She often spoke of the stats of each player and described their incredible feats as though they were living heroes. She knew the opponents just as well and talked of what to expect from them. She critiqued the manager’s decisions and made predictions that often came to pass. She was not to be disturbed whenever there was a game. During those times she did not answer her phone and only came grudgingly to her front door if there was knock.

She had a collection of baseball cards that she purchased over the years. Most of them were Astros but she also had those of other players that she admired for their prowess. She thought of Nolan Ryan as a kind of baseball god and she boasted that she had actually seen a couple of the famed “Killer Bs” in a restaurant on one occasion. Getting her started on a discussion of baseball was unwise unless there was a great deal of time to hear a long history of what she saw as the greatest game in America.

When I was a teen my mother befriended a woman named Emily whose brother worked with the New York Mets. The lady was as much of a fan as my mom and the two of them often went to games together at the Astrodome. Mama would come home as giddy as a child at Christmas with blow by blow accounts of every inning and every play. Sometimes she even got extra special seating when the Mets came to town compliments of her Emily’s brother. You would have thought that she had won the lottery.

We took our mother to an Astros game at Minute Maid Park one Mother’s Day. She was having trouble walking by then and she became easily exhausted from the hike to the seats. She enjoyed being there in person but somehow knew that she would have to be content with “seeing” them on the radio in the future. When she spent her last spring in my home I often heard the sound of the play by play announcements coming from her room. She would lie on her bed and visualize the ballpark, the guys in shades of orange and blue and white, the hotdogs and peanuts and beer.

My mother never got to see her Astros go all the way to the big championship. She died six years before they won the World Series, but somehow I knew she was watching. She never missed a game, not even on the day that she died. From her bed in the ICU she watched her beloved Astros one last time before she fell peacefully asleep and later breathed her last breaths.

I think of her each spring when the Astros take to the mound. She would have been so happy and proud of their accomplishments, even when they struggled. I suspect that her spirit is always with them each time they take to the field. There was a never a more devoted fan. Spring and summer were her favorite times of the year when her boys took to the field and played the game that filled her head with dreams. 

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.

Learning by Doing

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The warm weather has been a bit long in coming this year which is just fine with me. I don’t want to live in northern climes where winter lingers until May. Nor do I wish to deal with snow and blizzards, but I do prefer cooler weather that allows me to dress in layers and wear cute boots. My figure is long past the showy stage. The less skin I expose, the better for multiple reasons not the least of which is my tendency to get skin cancers. Too much sun leaves freckles and brown splotches on my face, and my waistline is hardly bikini worthy. Fall and winter fashion serves me best. I can fool the world into thinking that I’m still slender. It’s amazing how many sins a nice long sweater can hide.

Nonetheless  I remember my childhood when I longed for the warmth of the sun, even though my family did not own an air conditioner. How we managed to survive the hot Houston summers with only  open windows and an attic fan is beyond me, but I don’t recall feeling unduly uncomfortable. I suppose that we humans adapt to whatever is customary, and back then summers meant wearing very little clothing and eschewing footwear in favor of bare feet. We’d found comfort under the shade of trees or through strategically created ventilation from open windows. Of course an invitation here and there from a friend whose home was mechanically cooled never went unanswered. Now I don’t think that I would make it through a summer without my thermostatically controlled coolness, and I certainly am no longer willing to reveal the true nature of my physical shape by wearing skimpy outfits.

I wonder what we would do if we were somehow forced to return to those days of ninety degree temperatures inside our homes. To hear some scientists’ claims it could very well happen again. We might once more have to learn how to deal with whatever Mother Nature sends our way. It will take a great deal of cleverness like we used back in the day. For now I’ll just be glad that the continuous state of sweat is but a distant memory, made pleasant by the selective nature of my mind.

I laugh when I think of how my generation grew up. In today’s world our mothers would be reported to CPS for doing things that were just natural back then. We rode in cars without any kind of seatbelts, sometimes even standing on the seats, riding in the front, and hitching rides in the back of pickup trucks like cargo. We had no kneepads or helmets for skating or riding bicycles which we often mounted in our bare feet. We stepped on nails and glass and as long as our tetanus shots were up to date our moms cleaned our wounds, splashed some mercurochrome on them and finished with a bandaid that fell off within minutes of our returning to the streets without benefit of shoes.

We played games in the middle of the road, and Red Rover was one of our favorite neighborhood competitions. We almost always sported scabs on our knees and cuts on our fingers. We’d cool down with water from the hose which also served as our drinking fountain. We roamed the area in little hoards finding adventure down by the bayou or in walks along the railroad tracks. We all knew the sting of hot asphalt on the soles of our feet or sticker burrs between our toes. We’d have make believe battles with the little berries on tallow trees, tossing those makeshift weapons like grenades. I don’t remember anyone losing an eye, but I  suspect that somewhere some poor kid may have been injured in that way.

We were as free as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and just as inclined to mischief. We’d scale mountains of sand meant to be spread on some neighbor’s yard. We’d climb roofs and stand on the peaks like intrepid adventurers who had successfully scaled some high peak. Nothing was out of the bounds of our imaginations and in the process we got tough and learned how to work as teams. We thought out of the box, inventing ways to have fun without many store bought tools.

Summers were great times when we were free as the birds in the sky, little noticing the stifling heat that hung over our childhood games. Now I get weak in the knees and short of wind if I attempt to be too energetic in the hottest times of the year. I’ve grown far too accustomed to the luxury of central air conditioning to submit myself to the tortures of the sun. In some ways it makes me sad to admit that I have lost my toughness. I was once like a young warrior ready for any challenge regardless of the weather. Now I am more like a hot house flower, as I suspect most of us, including many children, have become. So yes, the cooler times of year are now my favorite. That’s when I don’t mind taking a many miles long walk or working all day in my garden. To my utter delight of late there have been more days suited to my taste than usual.

I’m still admittedly proud of the way I grew up. I sometimes think that the “greatest generation” that raised me understood how to treat children far better than we do today. My friends and I have glorious memories of fun that don’t appear to be duplicated by many young folk today. Children have their play dates and formal classes which I suppose are fun, but I worry that they don’t have enough experience in which they make all of the decisions without adult supervision. There’s something quite wonderful about working things out by trial and error. It is a glorious way to gain all sorts of knowledge. The warm weather always reminds me of my outdoor classroom and all of the things that I learned by doing.

A Rainbow Day

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I had a friend who used to celebrate what she called “rainbow days.” Those were the ones in which extraordinary things happened, rare moments when everything came together just as it was seemingly meant to be. I always think of my friend whenever I experience a truly satisfying day, but I have learned that the best of my days are not always manufactured by my good planning, but are often serendipitous. From out of nowhere comes a gloriously fulfilling series of unexpected moments.

Last Wednesday turned out to be a wonderful surprise in spite of the odd way in which it began. I had invited my niece to my home for one of our afternoon tea parties only to realize that there was a scheduled dental appointment shouting out a reminder on my Google calendar. I was more than a bit annoyed at the realization that I was going to have to cancel the meeting with my niece. I mean who really considers time spent in a dentist’s office to be more fun than enjoying good times with a delightful child?

I dutifully resigned myself to being a responsible person even though I possess an overwhelming aversion to dentistry, and found another date on which to enjoy time with my niece. Then I received an urgent text from a young man requesting some tutoring before a big Algebra II exam. He wisely included screen shots of his review for me to consider. I was unable to turn down his earnest plea, and so I found myself hovering over those review pages for most of my morning attempting to recall how to do synthetic division and how to find the zeroes of polynomials. All thoughts of fun seemed to have ended up in a dustbin of duty.

I soldiered on with my newly recalibrated day and soon enough found that I was feeling a sense of joy in working the mathematics problems with such ease. It seemed that all I needed was a thirty second review of some concepts and then I was dusting off all of the rust that had accumulated in my brain. As I sped through the problems I realized how blessed I am to have a mind that is still working so well, and I found myself smiling. The actual tutoring session with the young man went smoothly as well and provided me with great optimism for the future. I realized that he was already well versed in the various procedures and only wanted some reassurance that he was on the right track. I was smiling again just in knowing that he cared so much. I thought of all of the young people working so hard to prepare themselves for their lives as adults and I felt quite happy in contemplating the outcome that seems certain to transpire in our world.

I also ran a few errands during the day, minor things that were of little import. They were eased by gloriously beautiful spring weather. The temperature was perfect and the sky was an azure blue with sunlight promising that the world is following its annual routine just as it should. The trees were flaunting their first growth of the season and everyone that I encountered appeared to be as enchanted with the loveliness as I was. It was as though we were all celebrating the return of the sun after it had been hidden behind clouds and rain for so long.

I chatted with store clerks who were as inclined as I was to take their time. I learned about a woman who never took a single mathematics class in her small town Alabama school. She related how she only went to school half a day and then worked in the fields on her family’s farm. Eventually she went to college, took a couple of math courses, and earned a degree in management. Now she runs a store and teaches classes at a local community college. We laughed and talked as though we were long lost friends. There was no sense of hurry as she rang up my purchases and lovingly wrapped them in tissue. We both knew that we were enjoying a moment that might never come again.

Then I found myself craving some iced tea. I drove through the nearby MacDonald’s and ordered a large unsweet variety. The line was short and the service was quick. I handed over a dollar bill and some change and then it happened. A young man rushed over holding my tea in his hands, He gave me my drink and was about to go back to his work when I simply expressed my thanks for his service. He turned and flashed one of the most beautiful smiles that I have ever seen. I think that my heart almost melted in that moment because his emotion was so sincere, so real. I returned his gift with a big grin of my own and then kept the traffic moving by driving away. That smile stayed firmly planted in my mind, and somehow it filled me with indescribable joy. I see it even at this very moment and it makes me soar with happiness.

The day ended with a super moon lighting up the sky, a gift that made a perfect day even better. I realized that my very ordinary day had become one of those rare rainbow days that I never expected. It wasn’t grand in any way, and yet it was so comforting and satisfying. It reminded me that real joy isn’t always wrapped in a shiny package. It is mostly a feeling that comes from having sincerely meaningful encounters with the people who wander into our world. When all of the forces just seem to be right it doesn’t take much to feel in sync with the universe. That’s when the rainbows of our minds light up the sky, and bring smiles to our faces.

A Month of Madness

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As I took my plants back outside after a couple of days of freezing weather I thought of how cyclical life is. I’ve been through seventy one winters now and watched the seasons change in quirky ways, but always somewhat predictably. Life is a series of repetitions during which we grow just a bit older and hopefully a bit wiser. We learn about the way of things and understand that while it’s unusual, it is possible to have a freeze in March in the south. We go with the flow and the routine even as big changes may occur to make things so very different. We understand that we can count on the calendar moving at its”petty pace” but surprises both good and bad may come our way at any moment. The traditions to which we often cling are ways of keeping us anchored even as storms roar around us.

March brings us the Houston Rodeo and Mardi Gras and Lent and the madness of basketball. In this month we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day even if we don’t have an Irish bone in our bodies. We decorate our homes with colorful beads and then replace them with shamrocks and finally bunnies. We take a break from work and school with an eye toward warmer days and fun in the sun, hoping that our plans to visit a beach aren’t spoiled with rain and cold temperatures. We seek a sense of control and continuity with our rituals. They create cohesion and memories that sustain us, but they can also be a source of sorrow when things spiral out of our control as often happens.

I remember a year when my friend Pat secured a beach house for all of us to use during spring break. Our children were teenagers who were not yet driving and doing things on their own although they may have been dying to do so. We happily packed enough food and clothing for what should have been a fun adventure, but things began to fall apart almost immediately beginning with the fact that we had to wear coats because it was so chilly. Nonetheless, by the time we had reached the rented house we had outlined a Plan B that did not include swimming in the still frigid ocean, but would still be filled with tons of fun. We were bound and determined to make the best of our situation.

As soon as we opened the door of the vacation home we somehow knew that even our alternate ideas were doomed. The place reeked of deceased rodents and there was no way that we were going to be able to stay inside. At that point our anger and disappointment reached its limit. We had no choice but to complain to the owner of the place and then return home. After shedding a few tears of frustration we were on our way back to where we had started with only a few lame ideas about how to have a fun time in spite of the frustrating developments.

I don’t remember what we actually did after that. I do know that we eventually found ourselves laughing in a kind of hysteria about how awry things had gone. At the time our misadventure had seemed so significant and horrific but as the seasons came and went and our children grew into independent adults the story of that spring break became more of a treasured memory of our continuing friendship than a terrible experience. Today my friend Pat is gone and I know in my heart that I would even stay in a stinky rat invested house if it meant that we might have a bit more time together. Such is life.

After someone dear to us dies the first few cycles of the the year are exceedingly difficult to endure. Each occasion reminds us of how much we miss them. Over time our wounds heal, toughen up, and turn into scars. We once again find joy in our traditions and the memories of those who once shared them with us. We realize how lucky we were to have them and the pain becomes bearable. Just as the dormant trees bud forth each spring, so too do we find ways to carry on even after we have felt as though we too have died inside.

I love this time of year. It is one of those grandly transitional months when we humans find ways to muddle through the last gasps of winter with the promise of spring just over the horizon. We gather together to celebrate all that has gone before and all that is yet to come. Our hats, parades, ashes, decorations, foods, and gatherings are inventions of the human spirit, attempts to maintain our optimism even when everything around us feels so wrong. How wonderful it is!

March is a hopeful month even as we witness destruction from the last gasps of wintery weather. It’s a month when we never quite know how things will turn out, but we plan them anyway. We may go to the Houston Rodeo in heavy coats with rain falling on our heads, but once we are inside the arena all of our worries seem to evaporate. March is ever a new beginning, a time to set the problems of the past aside and hope that better days are ahead. It’s also a time to prepare ourselves for whatever challenges may come our way by thinking outside of our own worries and needs. I’m now old enough and experienced enough to know that it’s often a month of madness that always seems to end with a feeling of peace.