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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Visions of Sugar Plums

One of my annual pilgrimages is to the Nutcracker Market in Houston, Texas. It’s a yearly gala hosted by the Houston Ballet in a fundraising effort that has grown into an extravaganza that takes place just ahead of the Christmas season. It provides a gathering of unique merchants from all across the country inside the vast halls of the Reliant Center, offering everything from holiday decorations to furniture. It is also one of the most interesting places to people watch, or should I say mostly women watch. Thousands of ladies converge on the event starting early on a Thursday morning in November, with a rare male joining their ranks now and again. It is a carnival, a celebration, and at some moments a truly crazy experience.

I have to admit that I had never even heard of the Nutcracker Market until one of the school administrators with whom I worked told me about almost thirteen years ago. She was shocked to learn that I had never been and decided to show me the ropes by inviting me to join her in taking a “sick” day from work and playing a bit of adult hooky. I reluctantly agreed because it was not my style to be anything but dependable, but the lure of adventure ultimately caused me to agree to her plan.

I was mystified as to why she insisted that we travel in one car on the morning of our glorious day off until we reached the entrance to the parking lot and sat in a long line of traffic waiting expectantly to get inside. We had to leave the car so far away from the hall that we must surely have satisfied our daily exercise routines before even reaching the next huge line of women purchasing tickets. Even though we had begun our journey early in the morning it was almost ten before we finally walked into shopping Nirvana.

Since I have a tinge of Attention Deficit Disorder I was almost overcome when I saw the swarms of people, the array of colors, and the bazaar like atmosphere that lay before us. Thanks to my friend I was able to keep a semblance of focus under her tutelage. She took me to the best vendors first and even insisted that we buy mimosas to calm my anxiety of not knowing where to first turn. We walked from one stall to another in a determined hike that must have been miles. All along the way were women feverishly searching for items that they might never find in a big box or department store. My friend was a veteran of the Nutcracker wars so I felt confident that I would not make any mistakes. She knew where to find the less frequently visited restrooms, and how to secure a table for lunch which she insisted had to be catered by a tamale company that came every year. We talked and laughed and tried on clothes and filled our bags with gifts for friends and family and for ourselves as well. When our purchases became too heavy or bulky my friend demonstrated how to get tons of things inside one bag that we paid to be stored for us for a small price until we were finished shopping. When we finally felt the first tinges of exhaustion we realized that we had been inside the strange world for well over eight hours, and it was growing dark outside. We left as happy and chatty as when we had started earlier that day and vowed to return again.

My friend left the school where I had been working and I lost contact with her but I was hooked and had to go back to the Nutcracker Market each season. Over the years I have found different partners and groups willing to accompany me to the astoundingly celebratory event. During all that time I have watched the crowds swell to unimaginable sizes and the outrageousness of the shoppers become more and more interesting. I still go into a kind of ADD trance when I first enter the scene, and I doubt that I would be capable of navigating the rows and rows of merchants without someone to keep me focused. Those with whom I have gone come and go, either because they have moved away or they just can’t quite handle to zaniness. Nonetheless I remember my times with them with great fondness.

This year I attended the market with my sister-in-law, Allison, who is a great partner in any situation. She’s full of energy and laughter and has a knack for taking on any challenge with a relaxed and optimistic attitude. I was quite grateful that she was driving because the craziness began in the parking lot where there were already of groups of women sitting in lawn chairs enjoying breakfast and a few cocktails to gird their loins for the shopping battle ahead. We ended up parking so far away that walking from my home would not have been a much farther distance. As we searched for a spot to leave her car we saw ladies wearing matching shirts and exotic headdresses. There was a carnival atmosphere in the air and I became as excited as a child.

As usual my brain froze up once we got inside. I knew the drill but there were so many choices and my mind started jumping around like a pinball machine. Allison took charge much to my great joy, and after a time I calmed down enough to actually see what I was doing. We found great gifts from friends and family members and chatted like two sisters. Our bags became as full as Santa’s sleigh and still we walked and walked and walked viewing the great wonders and sampling soups and candies and muffins. As is always the case we lost track of time, and of the world in general. For those wonderful hours we were in our element, just having fun without a care, bonding the way women so often do.

About seven hours into our adventures our feet and our knees and our pocketbooks told us that we were done for this year. We took a trolley to the edge of the parking to retrieve Allison’s car and drove through the parcel pickup station to claim the treasures that we had found. We returned home a bit tired, but feeling so close to one another for what we had shared. It had been another wonderful day at the Nutcracker Market.

I’m already plotting and planning for next year. I hope that Allison will want to go again because she is a fabulous partner. Visions of sugarplums danced in my head as I dreamed last night. I suppose that if truth were to be told it was not the actual shopping that was so much fun, but rather the time spent with my sister-in-law and thousands of women letting their hair down and having a good time. We were a motley crew with smiles on our faces, and for a brief moment in time our cares and woes were set aside.

My Horn of Plenty

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I knew a man who had suffered greatly during the Great Depression. He and his family oftentimes went hungry and their mealtime staple was usually a pot of beans. When he finally made it into the middle class as an adult he refused to have beans at his table, not even red beans, although he was a bonafide Cajun.

My mother sometimes struggled to put food on the table, but she liked to brag that in spite of our meager budget we never once missed a meal. She was incredibly creative when it came to stretching the offerings in the pantry. She was such a good cook that we rarely noticed that we were sometimes nearing the end of our stores. Only once in a great while would the refrigerator be almost empty, and the cupboards be bare. Even then Mama used her ingenuity to whip up what felt like a feast. She told us that she had learned from her mother who fed a family of ten during the great depression. She told us the story of how our grandmother would cook a whole fish with head still attached. After everyone had taken their share Grandma would eat the head. Mama laughed and said the her mom was actually getting the part with the most vitamins.

I was a skinny girl who barely weighed eighty eight pounds on my wedding day. Food didn’t really matter that much to me. I rarely ate breakfast which was no doubt a bad thing, but I never really missed it. I took a sack lunch to school and it usually consisted of either a bologna sandwich on white bread or a fried egg sandwich. The egg was the more delicious of the two, but it embarrassed me to open the wax paper and let the aroma of cold egg waft across the cafeteria. Someone invariably made a comment, and I quietly did my best to disavow the idea that it was all that we had for that day.

It was supper time when my mother became like the Julia Childs of the low economic set. She was literally able to make hot dogs into a gourmet dish, often making up recipes to use the ingredients that she had on hand. After my Grandmother Little she was the best cook that I have ever known.

I suppose that I was much more affected by the scarcity of food in our home than I ever dreamed because I eventually developed a kind of fetish for fresh fruits and vegetables as well as lean cuts of meat. I like to have my larders well stocked at all times, and I get a bit nervous when they are not. I’m not much for purchasing junk food because that was never something that we kept around my childhood home. Instead I take great joy in visiting a farmer’s market or a really good produce department. I become like a kid in a candy store in such places. In fact, I actually enjoy going to such venues for fun. I suppose that if I am honest I must admit to carrying a hidden fear that the food will one day run out.

Nothing pulls at my heart strings more than seeing photos of starving children in distant lands. My mama used to caution us not to waste food, reminding us that children in some places would be more than happy to have the plenty that she put on our table. My brothers sometimes joked when she was not around that it wasn’t as though we could put our waste in a little box and send it somewhere that it would be appreciated. Of course, that was before we grew up and realized that even though we lived on the edge, we still had more than millions of souls whose misfortunes made ours seem like nothing.

I worked as a volunteer at the Houston Food Bank a number of times. Some of the students that I have taken with me ironically had used the services on a regular basis. It was humbling to realize that even within my own city there are families struggling to get the proper nourishment. I’ve often thought of my own mother and her incredible knowledge of ways to create a healthy diet on a very small income. We may have eaten beans and greens, but she understood the value that they gave to our diet, and cooked them so that they were also delicious. A problem that far too many people have, is a lack of understanding of how to feed themselves and their loved ones with only a small number of ingredients.

I have a good friend who is much like my mom. She uses every part of every kind of food that she purchases. She boils the tops of beets and the peelings from potatoes and all the rest of the seemingly unusable parts of vegetables to make broth that is filled with vitamins and flavor. She purchases big bags of overripe bananas that are practically being given away and freezes them for the smoothies that she makes her husband each morning. Whenever I’m looking for a good way to use food to its utmost she provides me with dozens of ideas. She even knows how to make her own chocolate and has devised a method for making ice cream that doesn’t even require a machine.

I used to shudder whenever I had cafeteria duty in the schools where I worked as I watched the garbage cans filling with perfectly good items that the children simply did not want to eat. I thought of those babies with bloated bellies and wondered if they would have been more than happy to munch on the food that would end up in a landfill. I found myself understanding what my mother had been thinking when she told me and my brothers not to take what we did not think we could eat. 

Food is one of our most basic needs. It is also a way to celebrate and gather with friends and family. We humans have turned eating into an art form. It is one of life’s great joys, and as I grow older it has also become a source of contentment for me to choose a juicy red tomato or find a display of perfectly formed apples. As I store away the meats, fruits, vegetables and grains I feel so thankful. Now when I make an egg sandwich for myself I see it as a great gift. The horn of plenty that is my refrigerator and pantry makes me feel quite thankful, particularly for having a mother who so quietly and courageously fed me an my brothers with no complaint and great joy. She taught me to have an appreciation for whatever I have and to never forget those who have so much less.

Oh SNAP!

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Try to imagine living on a net monthly income of about one thousand dollars a month. It would create a constant struggle to meet even the most basic needs of food and housing. In the Houston area we have a lower cost of living than most places, but even here it’s difficult to find housing for less than seven or eight hundred dollars a month. Just paying rent alone takes a huge chunk from such a meager monthly budget, and when utilities are added to the bottom line there is very little left to take care of other basic needs.

Sadly there are very good people who work but still don’t manage to move past the level of poverty. Then, of course, there are the elderly who are no longer physically able to hold down jobs whose monthly checks provide them with ever diminishing spending power. To offset the hopelessness of living in such situations the federal government instituted the Supplementary Nutritional Assistance Program, otherwise known as SNAP.

Recipients of SNAP benefits must certify that they meet the standards of one hundred percent of the designated poverty income levels. They may have a home but no more than a few thousand dollars in savings and other assets. Once they have been verified they receive an EBT card that has been preloaded with funds that they may spend at designated grocery stores for the purchase of food. Eligible recipients are free to choose the items that they prefer but may not make nonfood purchases with the card, nor may they include certain products like beer or wine. SNAP requires individuals and families to continually certify their financial status to insure that eligibility requirements are being met.

While it is generally known is that many Americans are lacking proper nutrition in their diets, the SNAP program does not restrict particular food choices, even if those include soda, candy and other questionable snacks. Studies have shown that enforcing nutritional standards would make the program far too costly, as well as creating paperwork nightmares. Efforts to improve the delivery of wholesome foods to those needing assistance have been mostly unsuccessful. Recently President Donald Trump recommended a major change to the program that would take the element of choice from those receiving the benefits. He proposes a system that would send boxes of nonperishable food items to individuals and families each month rather than reloading funds into an EBT card. The suggestion has created a firestorm of criticism and concern.

Obviously the cost and logistics of delivering the food would be enormous. There are a number of nagging questions about how to make such a system effective, and many concerns about whether or not it is even possible. Take for example the situation of someone who is not home when the box arrives. Does the delivery person just leave the food hoping that it actually ends up where it is supposed to be, or does he notify the recipient to reschedule? How efficient would such a system be when deliveries have to be made to far flung rural areas? Who will be in charge of the distribution process? Will this kind of system require whole new staffs of people?

Of course the most obvious question literally becomes one of taste. Each of us has certain dietary preferences. I can’t imagine not having the freedom to decide what kinds of foods I might purchase, and I find it insensitive to think that the poor should not be allowed the same liberties that I enjoy. I also prefer fresh fruits and vegetables and the idea of only having canned varieties is a very unpleasant one.

My mom was a widow who never made a great deal of money. There was only a brief period of time in her life after my father died when she enjoyed a high standard of living. Most of the time, especially in her later years, she was only barely above the one hundred percent poverty level. At the time of her death she missed that standard by one hundred dollars a month. Even though she owned her home by then, she barely scraped by. She reached a point at which she was stretched to the maximum and yet she was not spending money frivolously. She rarely purchased new clothing or shoes. She did not own a car. Her house needed major repairs that had to wait. Much of her income went toward utilities, medical expenses, insurance costs, and food. She pinched every single penny, especially when it came to purchasing food, and yet she always managed to have a very healthy diet. Her secret was in choosing very carefully. Rarely did she buy canned items. Instead she bought seasonal vegetables and cuts of meat that were on sale.

My mom used the skills of meal planning and her knowledge of nutrition to prepare healthy meals. A carton of eggs lasted for a week and gave her a good breakfast to eat in six of the seven days. She searched for the stores that had the best prices and always bought her food for a bargain. She regularly chose meats that would provide her with multiple meals and vegetables that would be sides as well as ingredients for soups. She loved dried beans and there was rarely a week when she did not prepare a large pot of some kind of legume that would serve as lunch or dinner for many days.

I took my mother grocery shopping on Friday evenings and she would spend hours determining how to get the most bang from her buck. Rarely did she spend more than twenty five dollars and yet she managed to get bags and bags of items. She made it a kind of challenge to walk out of the store with a wonderful variety that she had purchased at a very low cost. In fact, she often urged me to join the competition and would raise an eyebrow at any extravagant purchases that I made, pointing out that the sale apples were just as good as the more expensive ones that I had chosen.

It was difficult for my mom to make it on her low income, and yet she did. She was profoundly independent and she was proud to be able to be the mistress of her own budget. She sometimes grumbled that she was just shy of receiving some assistance from the government, but she would not have taken anything away from those who did because she understood their plight. I suspect that she would have allowed more treats in her diet had she been given a bit more purchasing power. Mostly though she enjoyed the ability to choose. I think she would have found it distasteful to have someone insinuating that she was somehow ignorant or less than able to be her own mistress simply because her income was so sparse.

I understand all of the arguments from people who worry that the taxpayers’ money is often wasted on frivolous items that don’t seem to be necessary components of a healthy diet. What I find hypocritical is that some of the very same people complained loudly when First Lady Michelle Obama helped create nutrition rules for school lunches. They voiced their objections to being told what their children might eat. Many of them often insist that their private decisions should be their own, and I agree with that concept. I just don’t think that it is right to exclude the poor from the right to determine what will be on their tables at dinner time. It’s not up to us to make decisions for them even when they slip in a bag of cookies for their children. It’s good for the soul to have a treat here and there. Why would we want to deny them?

I am open to the concern that some of the SNAP funds are not being spent properly, but I just don’t believe that we need to be nannies or create programs that will become more complex than they need to be. Let’s think of better ways to help people bring nutritious meals to the tables of our fellow citizens without insinuating our own preferences on them. Let’s put ourselves in their shoes and demonstrate a bit of understanding. But for circumstances we might one day find ourselves in their shoes.

Living A Good Life

Gym-equipment-pic.jpgI’m relatively healthy given my age. I’m more likely to need dental work than any type of medical procedure. I take vitamins and a medication for GERD which is produced in my case by a hiatal hernia and a very narrow esophagus. My grandmother once told me that everyone in her family lived to an old age, but eventually died of “gut” trouble. So far I seem to be proving her theory to be correct, but a few years back I decided that it might be a good idea to have a Primary Care Physician, someone who would coordinate all of my issues in one place. I had no idea where to start in choosing someone, so I asked my husband’s and mother’s cardiologist to suggest a few outstanding physicians that he knew. I decided on a fairly young doctor with high marks and a most interesting name. I mean who would not be intrigued by a name like “Septimus?” I figured that at the very least I would have no difficulty recalling such a moniker, and besides I had to meet this person with such a regal sounding handle.

I’ve been with Dr Septimus ever since, and it’s a good thing because he is exactly the kind of person that I was seeking. He is very serious, hardly cracking a smile or a joke, but he knows his stuff and he’s inclined to share it all with me. He is unwilling to overlook any little aspect of my health, including my exercise regimen. In that regard he has recently demanded that I join a gym and work out at least five times a week. Luckily my new Medicare Advantage Plan includes membership at a variety of places. Dr. Septimus felt that I would feel the most comfortable at the YMCA, where I might avoid the muscle bound devotees and be around folks more like myself. After reviewing several possibilities I found myself agreeing with him, and so I joined a couple of weeks ago. I have to say that it has been a grand experience. Even the personal trainers are not intimidating.

The local YMCA is a short drive from my home and everyone there is quite friendly. I received a personal training session and a fellow up as part of my membership. A very nice woman told me which machines to use in the beginning and how to set them to my personal specifications. At first I felt a bit odd because the truth is that I am a virtual blob of flab. My initial encounters with the weight machines proved how much I needed them. I had to keep reminding myself that nobody was watching me, and I thought of a business proposal that some of my former students once suggested which involved creating a special exercise space for very unfit individuals. I was thinking how nice it would have been to be surrounded by a bunch of blobs like me, but then where is the motivation in that?

Once I got over my self consciousness and nerves I realized that all of us are in the process of improving ourselves. There are young folks who are amazingly fit and people older than myself who are barely able to move. The point is that all of us are after the same essential goal. The trainer told me that I would see results more quickly than I thought, and she was quite right. The first thing I noticed was how much more energy I have. I am no longer experiencing that afternoon let down that made me want to take a quick nap each day. Instead I am moving so constantly that achieving ten thousand steps a day has become a piece of cake. I get more done in a few hours than I ever imagined would be possible. The only difficulty that I have experienced has been working the gym time around all of the other appointments that I have. I don’t like to go there when it is really crowded, but I suppose that I will learn how to balance all of my demands eventually.

So far I’ve managed about an hour and fifteen minutes of exercise five days each week. The chest press that seemed so difficult initially is already reaching a point of comfort that tells me that I may need to increase the weight. I’ve begun to overcome the elliptical machine which originally ate my lunch. I dream of wearing summer clothes with a bit more pride, and I suspect that I will be successful in that regard as long as I keep up the routine. I’m thankful for Dr. Septimus because he is not about to let me off of the hook. I can’t get anything past him. He monitors me like a hawk and gives me the kind of evil eye that a parent or teacher might invoke whenever he realizes that I am slacking.

I don’t know why we humans allow ourselves to become so unhealthy. I guess there are just too many temptations urging us to cheat. I’ll be the first to admit that given the choice between a big bowl of chips and cheese dip versus a big juicy apple I would tend toward the worst of the two. I have to work hard to stay within the most reasonable eating norms, but I have been quite diligent in that regard. The result has been that when I do fall off of the wagon I feel rather sick. My body just doesn’t like me when I feed it junk food anymore. It has adjusted to a routine of fruits and vegetables made with spices but no salt or added sugars. I’ve become such a regular at Sprouts, the Farmer’s Market and the produce section of HEB that Quicken notes my expansive use of finances for good food.

I find myself wondering how the very poor are able to fund healthy food, when I realize how much more it costs to invest in it. I think of their inability to join a gym, and feel a bit guilty that I have privileges that they don’t. I remember my mom putting back apples because she had estimated how much she had to spend and didn’t have enough. I feel so fortunate to have a doctor who cares enough about my welfare to push me to exercise and eat well. I am lucky to have a medical plan that pays for him and my gym membership. I have enough retirement income to bring fresh vegetables into my home. I have everything that I need to feel younger than I am because I am living a good life. I need to remind myself of the next time that I begin to falter.