I Am the Median

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From a statistical point of view my life has hovered around the median. I represent continuity and moderation and a mix of conservative and progressive points of view. While my life was tragically made a bit unusual for the times in which I lived by my father’s early death, that anomaly was mediated by the environment in which I grew into an adult. I am a product of a small and insular neighborhood in a time when my native city of Houston was still more of a town than a city. My life was guided by routines and traditions that rarely varied. There was an entire village of people both familial and unrelated by blood who watched over me. I grew strong and happy and so loved that I was ready to tackle any challenges that came my way. As an adult I was so busy attempting to reconstruct my own sweet world for my children that I barely noticed how much the times were actually changing.

When I was seven years old I was uprooted from everything and everyone that I had ever known to accompany my family on a journey west where a quiet revolution of opportunity and change was overtaking people like a fever. My days there were painful because I had lost the anchor of extended family and friends that always made me feel so secure. I was among people who were so busy building dreams that they had little time to welcome us. I went to school each day feeling nameless and misunderstood. Ironically my father felt the same way at his work. None of us ever fit in to the race for something unknown that so dominated life in the part of California that would one day be the epicenter of Silicon Valley. Before long we all just wanted to be back home in Texas.

With little more than a wing and a prayer we slowly made our way back to what we had known. Along the way my father searched for a job. His efforts to find work lead us all the way back to Houston, and for the very first time in a long time I recall feeling quite relieved even though we had not yet settled into a permanent home. My father’s deadly car accident left my mother bereft and scrambling to create a sense of continuity for all of us. Luckily we had returned to the people for whom we had longed when we were far away and they gathered in unison to help us every step of the way. Oh, how I loved them and still do!

My mother wisely returned us to the very neighborhood from whence we had moved only months before. We were welcomed like the Prodigal Son. Our life began its constant revolution around church, school, family and friendships. There was a lovely sense of calm about the way we lived. We stayed in the same house until all of us were grown and on our own. We had the same neighbors for years. It was rare for anyone to move away back then. When we went to church each Sunday we saw the familiar faces of people who smiled and greeted us by name. We attended the same school with the same kids who are friends with us even fifty years later. Each Friday evening we visited my maternal grandmother in a gathering that included all of my aunts and uncles and cousins. In the summer we traveled to visit with my paternal grandparents on their farm.

We constantly heard stories from our elders about the history of who we were that carried little nuggets of expectation without being overbearing. At church we learned about the comfort that is always available from God and the ways of compassion and love that Jesus taught the world. Our teachers and our parents spoke openly to us about both the greatness and the imperfections of our country, urging us to always remember our responsibility to maintain a healthy democracy.

We were always a bit behind the fads and movements along the two coasts of the country. We were more inclined to study how things went there before jumping into the idea of adopting radical change without much thought. Our lives were slow and steady like the tortoise. We knew that we would eventually get to our desired destinations, but we did not want to lose sight of more important things like family and friends along the way.

Suddenly it seemed as though both the innovations and the cautions that were brewing along the two poles of our nation roared up around us, forcing us to see the world through different eyes. The titans of media and advertisement from the east coast were burrowing into our brains with television. The movie moguls influenced us with films. Finally the masters of Silicon Valley invaded our lives with computers and smart phones and a burgeoning social media. People began moving around and moving up. Extended families had less and less time for each other and friends were often on the go. We woke up one morning and the city of Houston had become the fourth largest metropolitan area in the country.

Some of what happened while we were sleeping was very good. There were breakthroughs in civil rights that were imperfect, but steps in the direction of equality. Women were provided more opportunities than ever and their voices began to be heard. We acknowledged that love is love regardless of whether the people who express it for one another are man and woman or man and man, woman and woman. Medicine and science made our lives easier and our affluence grew.

At the same time we have lost many things as well. Our neighborhoods flux and flow to the point that the relationships that we form there are constantly changing as people move from one place to another. Our extended families are in far flung places and gathering our relations together becomes more and more complex. Our churches and our beliefs are continually challenged. We fear for our children to play outside alone. We argue and rankle with one another and wonder if how far we change is enough or too much. We feel as though we are being ruled by extremes, either far too cautious or far too willing to upend all that we have known. We have lost our sense of history and our willingness to accept that none of us, not even ourselves, are free from the taint of bad decisions or hurtful behaviors. We judge and decry those who do not share our own philosophies. We honor those who boast and demean while turning our backs on the people who live with quiet dignity and respect. It feels as though we are somehow being manipulated by some unseen hand as though we are merely robots. None of it feels good, and some of us long for the good old days not because we are unaware of the problems that some people faced while we were comfortable, but because we need to bring the village of diverse people who loved us back together once more. We need to feel that sense of chest bursting pride in our families and friendships and churches and cities and states and our country that might have once brought us to a sense of belonging to something special.

We have many folks attempting to understand our thinking and our motivations and I suspect that they are getting us all wrong. They tend to make assumptions about us based on their own backgrounds rather than ours. Suddenly I find myself feeling untethered much as I did when I was seven years old in an environment so different from what I had always known. I understand how it must have been to be my father daring to dream, but realizing that he did not quite fit into a way of life so unlike his own. I am the median, an average person with a big heart and a dream of embracing the people to both the right and the left of me in a hug that says,  “You might want to know how folks like me really feel rather than foisting your ideas on everyone. Your constituency reaches from sea to shining sea and there is a great deal in the middle that you are yet to understand. Maybe it’s time for you to learn.”

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Where Were the Chaperones?

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My head is filled with so many thoughts as I sit here on a chilly morning attempting to focus on one topic rather than the variety of ideas that are racing through my mind. It’s a holiday today so the sound of children chattering as they load onto the school bus that stops across from my house is missing from my usual routine. I’m often inspired by those little voices because more than anything my life has been devoted to preparing our young ones for the future. Hearing them is always music to my ears and I often long for the days when their journey in the big yellow bus might have brought them to me. Like the mothers that hover over them as they depart, I too became thoroughly engrossed in concern for their well being, so it is only natural that even in retirement I think of what they need to know and learn if they are to have the strength and determination that they will need to navigate through the challenges of life.

I had to learn how to be an observer in my work, someone who rarely missed a single thing that was happening or about to happen in my classroom. Mine and that of all teachers was an exhausting job. I had to wear “Granny Gump” shoes because I rarely sat down. My bladder stretched to an unhealthy volume because I did not have the luxury of attending to it right away. Every minute of every day I assumed the role of a guardian angel for each of my students. I believed that I had a responsibility to provide them with more than just a knowledge of mathematical concepts. I was indeed responsible for their very safety and I took that charge quite seriously.

I had a love/hate relationship with field trips. I enjoyed the times when my students had opportunities to learn more about the world in an up close and personal fashion, but I also became hyper vigilant in such circumstances. I was about as relaxed as a secret service agent whenever I was out and about with them. I counted heads and watched every movement, listened to every word. I learned from experience that bad things might happen in the blink of an eye. For that reason I enlisted the help of multiple chaperones and stressed the importance of each adult keeping track of their designated group. I despised occasions when the leaders of the trips allowed the students to run freely even inside a contained area. I felt the need to watch over them every second, not so much because I did not trust them, but because I did not trust what kind of bad situations they might find themselves in if no adult were guiding them.

I’m saddened by the stories of last weekend regarding the group of young boys from a Kentucky High School who found themselves in the center of controversy in an incident that occurred near the Lincoln Memorial. The full details of the what happened vary depending on whether or not the context of what occurred is taken into account. That being said I find myself thinking of how easily this entire situation with the students might have been avoided if only adult chaperones and a set of rules had been followed. I find myself wondering why nobody was in charge.

Rule number one would have been to break the large group of young men down into manageable groups of five or six students assigned to one reliable adult who was either a teacher, administrator or parent. That individual needed to be instructed to keep his/her group in sight at all times. After all, most of the kids were minors and even though they may have thought of themselves as being perfectly capable of navigating through Washington D.C. alone the school ultimately was responsible for them while so far away from home.

Another little trick for keeping the boys safe would have been to coordinate the clothing for each day of travel. This can usually be done with special trip shirts or uniforms. One day might be all blue shirts, another white and so forth. In such circumstances it becomes quite easy to spot the members of the school even in a crowd. Extraneous items like baseball caps and such might be purchased as souvenirs but not worn in the public excursions. With such rules there would be no worry that someone might be offended by the appearance of the students because they would all look the same.

Any teacher or adult who has ever been on a trip with a group of high school students knows that even with the best possible planning things can and do go awry. Nonetheless, with a good procedure and lots of instruction regarding what is and is not permissible things certainly go more smoothly than if the youngsters are left to their own resources.

What happened on the National Mall was unfortunate. A large group of boys was allowed to tour on their own and instructed to meet at the Lincoln Memorial at a certain time to wait for a bus. With protestors lurking around every corner and some of the boys wearing political caps leaving them without adults to supervise was negligent. As minors they were almost certain to find trouble in the highly charged atmosphere. They may have reacted badly but we have to remember that their adolescent brains still don’t work as well as we might wish. It was naive and dangerous to leave them to their own resources.

I suspect that everyone over the age of thirty can point to something that they did as a teenager that was foolish and perhaps even brutally wrong. In retrospect we may wonder what we were thinking, but the truth is that we probably were simply reacting rather than forming any rational ideas. Very few people can honestly say that they have been perfectly perfect particularly in sticky situations. I suspect that these boys got caught up in something that they did not know how to control and I blame a host of adults for both agitating them and not properly being there to help them.

The take away from this story should be the acknowledgement that the adults dropped the ball. They were not around to guide and protect school boys who might have learned some valuable lessons if things had been handled properly. There were many teachable moments during the confrontation. Sadly the people who might have guided them were nowhere to be found. As a former teacher and a parent I would be demanding answers from all of the adults who failed our young on so many levels regarding what seems to have happened. Where were the chaperones when they were needed?

Throw Out the Lettuce

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During the great romaine lettuce scare there were a number of hilarious memes hitting social media circles. I loved the one that boasted that finally lettuce was dangerous to eat, but pie was a healthy option. Another spoke of how everyone immediately fell in line with the CDC warnings by tossing their romaine, but many of the same folks thought that vaccines were the work of the Illuminati. I actually posted that one because it struck me as being funny. I was somewhat surprised when I got comments that vaccines are indeed evil.

I am a baby boomer and as such my generation was the trial run for all sorts of vaccines. I remember standing in long lines at school to get the first polio vaccines. I was quite young and not exactly enamored with the idea of enduring the pain of a shot in my arm, but I knew of at least three people who had been afflicted with polio and I really did not want to end up on crutches or in a wheelchair like they were. I girded my courage and gritted my teeth in a bid to never contract that then dreaded disease.

I wasn’t as lucky with things like chickenpox and measles and mumps. There were not vaccines back then and I became ill with all three. The chickenpox were irritating beyond description and I appeared to receive a super duper dose of the sores that come from that disease. My mom gave me a bottle of calamine lotion and some cotton balls to ease the itching sensation but such measures actually did little to help. She eventually made me wear socks on my hands lest I scratch permanent scars into my face.

I’m a bit fuzzy about the mumps, but I do recall feeling as though I was swallowing razor blades each time that I attempted to eat or drink. I mostly slept a great deal rather than trying to deal with the pain and feverish symptoms that I had. I remember that many of the children, especially the boys, in my neighborhood came to our house so that they would purposely catch the mumps as children rather than risking to become ill with that disease when they were adults.

The worst of all of them was the measles. I came down with those when I was in the fourth grade during a very cold winter. I can’t recall a single time in all of my life when I felt as sick as I did then. I mostly slept day and night in a kind of feverish stupor. My mom kept the room dark because she had read that bright lights might cause me to go blind. When it snowed during my illness she wouldn’t even allow me to peek through the blinds to see a wonder that only comes to Houston once in a blue moon. I heard the neighborhood kids shouting and laughing with glee while I lay on my sick bed certain that I was going to die. While my mother and brothers were outside frolicking in the snow I cheated and glanced outside. Then I spent the rest of my two week sickness fearing that I was going to lose my sight because of my transgression.

My grandfather often told of his family’s experience with smallpox. He described the event in such vivid detail that I was ecstatically happy that I lived in a time when that horrific disease had been generally eradicated by immunizations. The injection for smallpox was the creepiest of all that I ever received. My left arm soon scabbed over with an oozing sore that I protected with a plastic guard. When it finally healed I had a scar that eventually faded away, but in the beginning it made me fully understand what my grandfather meant when he noted that the people who survived smallpox often had marks all over their faces that told of their battle with the disease. He said that his own father had appeared to be in danger of losing his nose in the height of his sickness, and was even told that death was near for him. Somehow he miraculously survived, but the terror of the illness stuck with my grandfather for all of his life.

There is a growing trend among people to decline vaccinations in fear of secondary complications. While I suppose that such things are possible, I also worry that if enough people follow this way of thinking we may begin to witness outbreaks of some of the diseases from the past more often. In most cases the immunizations’ problems far outweigh the results.

My own daughters have been fortunate to never have to deal with the pain of mumps or measles. Now even chickenpox is covered. It is rare to see anyone with polio, but in my day we saw many children and adults whose lives were changed by that disease. I would never want to go back to a time when we just took our chances with the possibility of contracting terrible illnesses that sometimes indeed lead to a lifetime of suffering or even death.

I know that there are numerous arguments against having so many different immunizations, and I suspect that nature may even find a way to overcome the preventive measures that we have set in motion. Still, it is imperative that we be wary of risking a return to days when children in particular were less likely to survive childhood intact because of diseases that were almost certain to affect them. I’m just old enough to understand that our ability to control the spread of so many illnesses is a rather recent phenomenon.

We are living in a time during which predictions indicate that more and more of us may live past one hundred years. Medicine has done wondrous things to make our existences less uncertain. I’m already well past the median life expectancy of the year in which I was born. Miracles are indeed happening that were unheard of back then. So throw out the romaine lettuce and keep getting the immunizations that doctors recommend. It’s an easy decision.

Policing Our Information

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Long ago I was a daily subscriber to The Houston Post, a newspaper that ceased to exist after a time. It’s competitor, The Houston Chronicle, had never had great appeal to me, but in the aftermath of the Post’s failure I began to have the Chronicle delivered to my house each day. When I moved to a new home about thirteen years ago I was so busy with work and other responsibilities that I decided to only sign up for weekend delivery. Even then I hardly had the time to stop to read all of the Sunday sections. The paper often lined the bottom of my trash can without ever having been adequately digested. With the advent of online news sources I was more likely to sit with my laptop on my knees while I sipped on my morning tea and munched on my breakfast. I eventually decided to stop the delivery of a newspaper to my home and instead subscribe to national sources offering coverage on my computer.

A couple of Sundays ago when I visited with my in-laws I noticed a copy of the Sunday Houston Chronicle lying on their kitchen counter. I was horrified to see how much it had shrunk in size. It looked more like something that might be distributed on college campuses by the journalism students than the local news source of the fourth largest city in the United States. I suppose that it has come to this dire end because of people like me who abandoned the paper when it became more of a vehicle for want ads and inserts from merchants than a purveyor of good quality information. In fact, such appears to be the fate of many newspapers around the country.

It makes me sad to watch the demise of good old fashioned reporting in local papers because there was a time when I wanted nothing more than to be a journalist. I dreamed of gathering information on the happenings around my city and then writing stories about them. I imagined one day garnering the respect of a byline with my name on it. The thought of being a newspaper reporter sounded exciting and important to me. Never did I imagine that news outlets would find themselves struggling to stay afloat, even in places with large populations. I did not conceive of a revolution in electronic reporting that would displace almost all but the most notable newspapers with online information delivered to computers in nanoseconds.

Not even when I got my first home computer was I able to foresee the future as it unfolded. Things changed so quickly that I hardly noticed what was happening. In the nineteen nineties when I was earning an advanced degree my professors urged me to learn about email and the Internet. Both methods were still clunky and not so easy to use, but I proudly complied and thought of myself as being modern and adventurous. By the turn of the century things were progressing online at warp speed and inventive minds were finding more and more ways to simplify the process of garnering information so quickly and easily that even small children learned how to use the worldwide web. It was a brave new world that was exciting and intoxicating, and it was being used more and more often in ways that most of us never thought possible.

Suddenly we were instantly linked to people all around the world with only a few keystrokes. Those old fashioned news sources made of paper that invariably contained old information by the time they were delivered seemed outdated and inconvenient and even overpriced given that they were so late in providing us details about the world’s happenings. I suppose that only those who contrived ways to stay relevant have remained robust, and even they must worry that the day may come when the marvelous invention of the printing press will seem as insignificant as a horse drawn plow or a buggy, the kind of things relegated to museums.

When Facebook came along it was initially the domain of college students, a way to get to know and communicate with more people than ordinary means allowed. By sharing photos and messages it was supposed to bring people together, and for a time that’s mostly what it did. Eventually adults long past their younger years entered the fray, and users began to realize the power of the comments on those walls. Facebook became a vehicle for presenting points of view, and setting up discussions. It was almost inevitable that it would also be a way of sharing news stories and political opinions. Editorializing and propaganda and stories whose veracity was questionable found their way onto people’s feeds without even asking. With information flooding in from hundreds of unnamed sources it became more and more necessary to fact check virtually everything that appeared on the Facebook walls. It also lead to abuses by information gathering sources that then used their data to target certain users with political propaganda.

By now everyone has heard the accusations of attempts by the Russians to influence the 2016 presidential election by using Facebook and other outlets to spread false information. Mark Zuckerberg has defended his organization by noting that his original intent was to do good by bringing people together, and to that end he did not want to become a judge and jury for who and what should appear in the newsfeeds of his billions of users. Nonetheless he has been criticized for not being more vigilant in monitoring the information that subscribers send and see on their walls.

I’m rather libertarian when it comes to any form of censoring. I find the idea of having someone determining what I may see on my Facebook page to be far more frightening than knowing that some of what is there is false and misleading. I would prefer taking the time to fact check on my own than to be limited by some kind of algorithmic board that scans the offerings and comments. While I understand that there is some exceedingly contemptible and frightening information being passed along as truth, I stand by the idea that it is up to each of us individually to decide what we choose to accept as fact versus fiction. In fact, I think that even if Facebook were to totally change it’s standards tomorrow by only allowing greetings and photos of family and puppies there would still be places where shenanigans rule.

Teachers have told me for my entire lifetime to beware of propaganda which may be found even in old fashioned newspapers and on television and in the speeches of our politicians. We’ve had the rainmakers and traveling medicine peddlers forever. Those who bang on drums and attempt to fool us into believing fake ideas have been around since the beginning of time, and one way or another we humans have had to be careful not to fall for their snake oil routines. It’s in our own best interests to always and without exception be wary. If something sounds too incredible to be true, it’s possible that it actually is a tactic to mislead us. There are so many ways to unfold the veracity of ideas, and we have to learn how to use them before following our emotions rather than our reason. We must always be willing to determine fact rather than opinion, truth rather than lies. We shouldn’t require Facebook to be our police and more than we asked that of our old newspapers. That’s why we have the ability to think. Let’s put that talent to use rather than asking a stranger to do it for us.

Finding Refuge From the Storm

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I’ve had to take a deep breath of late,  and step back for a time. The furor over politics is ratcheting up as we draw nearer to the midterm elections, and the sheer lunacy of it all has been wearing me down, I found myself stewing over the craziness of each day’s episode of election tales deep into to the night. Then I found myself sleeping later and later in the morning to make up for my attacks of insomnia. In spite of the fact that all is going well in my life, I was getting sucked into the vortex of anger that was swirling all around me. It was not until I saw a single hummingbird perched on the branch of a tree near my bedroom window that I found the peace of mind that I had been seeking. Thanks to the feeder that my youngest daughter brought me from Colorado the tiny creature has been attracted to my yard, providing me with some unexpectedly comforting moments.

I suppose that I set myself up for the anxiety that has been stalking me. I was so taken by the calm and bipartisan sweetness of John McCain’s funeral that I had naively believed that the political landscape would be suddenly transformed into a kind of Kumbaya sanctuary. I had been forewarned by one of my wiser and more logical friends not to hold my breath, but being ever the cockeyed optimist I truly thought that we had reached one of those watershed moments in history. Boy, was I wrong, not just in left field but outside of the ballpark entirely.

For a time I was unable to escape the chaos that spoiled my mood. I don’t know about you, but my email account is filled with political adds from all sorts of folks who want to part me from my money for their causes. They have become rather annoying with their daily rants that I guess are supposed to rile me up enough to take out my credit card. Little do they know that they are having the opposite effect. I just want them to go away.

Watching the news on television or listening to it on the radio isn’t any better. I’ve sworn off of CNN, Fox, ABC, NBC, CBS and NPR. Instead I tune in to the local stations mostly to hear the weather report since this is prime hurricane season and my city is often the target of those kinds of storms. Otherwise, I just don’t want to hear the posturing or have to watch the embarrassing behavior of most of the folks in Washington D.C. or those who are hoping to get there. I truly wonder if they all believe that I am as much of an idiot as their commentaries seem to assume. Sorry folks, I’m not falling for any of the propaganda. I can spot the techniques from a mile away. You won’t see me jumping on any kind of bandwagon.

I love catching up with friends and family that I don’t always get to see by way of Facebook. I enjoy knowing how people are doing. Now that I am retired I might lose track of them were it not for all those comments and photos on my wall. Nonetheless, my space has been bombarded with the pros and cons of the newest Nike ad and dire warnings about Brett Kavanaugh. It’s all way too much over the top for me. I’ve had to mostly stay away from it lest I surrender to the temptation to make comments that might cause me to enrage friends and family whom I love. I’ve tried to just leave them to their beliefs, because in the end each of us is entitled to our individual opinions. I’m not going to change mine because someone else is ranting, and I suspect that even if I submit a carefully crafted persuasive piece it will make little difference in the grand scheme of things.

The one thing that I have seen that most infuriated me was an article in which the author submitted an argument that presumed to know what all white people think about the various issues of our time. He laid the blame for most of the world’s ills directly at the feet of anyone of western European ancestry, but most especially those who eventually became Americans. To be fair the author was also white and his intent was to write a kind of mea culpa for being born into such an horrific race. He apologized in the name of all of us.

I did not find his ideas to be as redeeming as many of my friends did. Instead I saw it as patronizing and highly insulting, not to mention presumptive. Only a handful of the world’s people actually know me or anyone else for that matter. It is impossible to make sweeping generalizations about individuals, and it is dangerous to place large groups of people into a single category. The complexities of humans are far too great to assume that we completely understand what makes each person tick.

As for myself, if truth be known I am a political misfit. I have rarely found anyone with whom I totally agree in matters of national concern. I would be maddening to anyone at the extremes of political life, and in turn I long for politicians of old like John Kennedy or Barbara Jordan. I liked George H.W. Bush’s kinder, gentler nation, and I loved bipartisan efforts like those of the Gang of Eight. I advocate for immigration reform and fiscal conservatism at one and the same time. I am against both the death penalty and abortion. I think that it is high time that we fully embrace the idea of gay marriage, but I don’t think that it is right to ignore the religious beliefs of those who disagree. I believe that minorities still suffer at the hands of racists, but I do not believe for a second that all white people are racists. I have seen bad teachers, bad business owners, bad lawmakers, so I assume that there are bad police officers hiding in the mix of the good guys who serve and protect us. I have a theory that there are evil doers who are having a great time watching us tear at each others’ throats. It’s an old political trick that has been around for centuries and to my chagrin it is working rather well.

So for now I will spend more time with my little hummingbird, and less keeping up with the news. Besides, my grandchildren need me to help them review for tests in Geometry and Algebra II, so I have some planning to do. I will ignore the chaos and devote myself to more worthy pursuits.