It’s Ten O’Clock

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It’s ten o’clock. Do you know where your children are?” If you grew up or were a parent in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s you heard this question every night before the late newscast came on. It was a public service announcement that made sense then, but may be a bit confusing in today’s world. Back in those decades most children were what we now call “free range kids.” They played outside for hours at a time, often with little or no supervision other than a quick glance outside a window from a parent. They wandered away from home to visit with neighborhood friends, not always bothering to check in with parents before doing so. It wasn’t unusual at all for children to return outdoors after dinner to play in the dark under a street light or on someone’s front porch. It was a time of innocence when parents and kids both rarely worried about being harmed. Everyone knew everyone else and watched over one another. Perhaps the freedom that little ones enjoyed back then was fueled by naivety, but it was highly unusual for someone to be lost or harmed, there was little reason to worry.

The closest thing to a dangerous experience that I recall came when my youngest brother was playing a game of football in his bare feet in an overgrown field of grass. Hidden in the tall weeds was a broken bottle with its ragged edge pointing upward. When he stepped back to catch a pass he placed his unprotected foot on the shard of glass which immediately severed his achilles tendon. He bled profusely, but my mom and I miraculously got him to the doctor’s office in time to get it stitched back in place. I remember my mother instructing me in how to apply pressure to the wound to keep the bleeding to a minimum while she drove the car. I was quite frightened but didn’t let my mom see my fears. Of course at that time none of us were wearing a seatbelt and my mother did not carry health insurance either. The former was not yet invented and the latter was too expensive. The doctor did all of the surgery in his office proclaiming again and again that it was a miracle that my sibling didn’t bleed to death on the way over. I suspect that our final bill was little more than around twenty dollars and that even included pain medication that the doc threw in for good measure.

Needless to say times have changed so very much. Parents who allow their children to roam freely today run the risk of being reported to CPS. Few doctors would meet a patient at the office and take care of such a serious situation, especially if the family was uninsured. The world often feels far more dangerous than it ever did back then. Most of the time there are very few children playing outside for hours, and never all alone. They are busy with more carefully planned activities. Play dates have become the norm rather than random knocks at the door from friends seeking adventure. Children spend hours involved with computer games and surfing online. The real dangers lie in encounters with child predators masquerading in anonymity. Bullying either online or with texts has become epidemic. It’s no longer a matter of wondering where your kids are, but of whom they may be encountering on the worldwide web. The simplicity and innocence that marked my childhood and that of my own children seems to be a relic of the past. Parents have to be more careful than ever, even as they hover nervously.

I’m  not certain when everything began to change. Perhaps my experiences come from living in a city that had fewer than a million people when I was young and then somehow became a behemoth of over four million in a short period of time. Being in a place that large certainly makes a huge difference in how willing parents are to allow their children the freedom to interact without their watchful eyes. The dangers seem to grow exponentially in a major urban area. Still it just seems that over the years we have become more worried as a whole society. Maybe our twenty four hour news cycle has made us more aware of what might happen if we ride a bicycle without a helmet or drink from a water hose. I still wonder nonetheless why we no longer see children roller skating down the sidewalk or climbing the tree in the front yard even when their parents are around to guard them. Where are the street basketball games? When did our kids stop playing hop scotch on the driveway? Are they missing something wonderful, or is their world actually just an improved version of ours?

Children today certainly appear to be happy enough. I’ve always known youngsters to be quite adaptable. They tend to accept whatever reality is theirs. They don’t feel that they are missing something that they have never experienced. The child who lives in a high rise building in New York City learns to play in different ways from a counterpart growing up on a farm in Iowa. Both of them will tend to be perfectly happy as long as they are nurtured and loved. Perhaps the nostalgia that old folks like me have is thought to be quaint or even strange by the children of today. They would think it unwise, perhaps even crazy to ride down a highway in the bed of a pickup truck. They might easily bore of lying on their backs staring up at clouds searching for shapes of animals.

Sometimes it’s difficult to tell if things are getting better or if we have lost something special that we once had. I suppose that the reality is that we will always move ever forward, and while it may feel pleasant to lose ourselves in memories we are better served by joining in the forward progress. We have surely learned a great deal about how to be healthier and safer than ever before. We understand what smoking will do to our overall health. We realize that wearing seat belts and engineering safer cars has truly saved lives. We have used our common sense and our inventiveness to prevent harm and injuries to our most vulnerable. I suppose that it is a very good thing that we no longer have to ask where are children are when the clock strikes ten. 

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Satisfaction

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Last year my high school Class of 1966 had its fiftieth reunion. It was fun seeing people who had dropped out of my life for so long. Since then I’ve tried to stay in touch with many of them via Facebook and the occasional lunches and such that our class leaders schedule. I’ve attended a few funerals as well where I have encountered the most faithful among us. Mostly those sad occasions have been for the parents of my school pals, but now and again we gather for one of our own. I have written blogs about many of those people in an effort to honor their memories and to thank them for the impact they had on my life. It’s particularly sad to see peers losing battles with disease. It is a reminder that all of us are headed in one direction, so we need to be certain that we are getting the most out of life while we have the opportunity.

Last week we received notification that yet another among us is now gone. Harry Butler did not attend our reunion which was rather in keeping with his general personality, but I often thought of him even though I never saw him again after our graduation day. Harry was in the same honors class in which I was. Since the school chose to send us from class to class as a group we were rather constant companions for four years, but I still didn’t know him as well as some of the others. Nonetheless I was fascinated with Harry because he was one of those individuals who insisted on marching to his own drumbeat. There was always something quite interesting about him. I always believed that he would have an exciting life.

It did not take long for all of us to realize that Harry was a gifted writer with an imagination and wit that was intriguing. As someone who longed to be a journalist or a story teller I watched Harry with great interest because I believed that I would learn much from him. It became sadly apparent to me that I would never be able to equal his talent. He had a way with words that set him apart from those of us who labored away at composing. He was an artist who painted stunning pictures with his sentences and paragraphs. He was able to make us all howl with uncontrollable laughter with his essays and newspaper articles. When he created much of the script for our annual Junior/Senior banquet one year the whole class saw how remarkable he truly was.

Harry went to St. Thomas University in Houston, Texas after graduation form high school and majored in English. I lost track of him except through friends who would encounter him from time to time. I learned that he eventually went to Los Angeles to try his hand at screenwriting. I heard rumors that he had actually done well out there and I often found myself scanning film and television credits to see if his name popped up. I really did expect to see him at an awards ceremony one day because I felt that he was that good at his craft. Of course I never saw such a thing but I never really forgot about him. When I traveled to that part of the country I found myself wondering where he lived and how he was doing. I tried to imagine whether or not he had worked with famous people and what scripts he may have created.

I learned from his obituary that he had been sick since January of this year. He had developed an infection of unknown origin that caused an embolism in his brain. This is how he died and it made me so very sad because he possessed a truly remarkable brain. I hoped and prayed that his final days and weeks had not been too painful and that he had been able to read the books that he always enjoyed and listen to the music that enchanted him.

Harry’s father had been a record distributor when we were in high school. Because of that Harry always seemed to have advance knowledge of what new music would be coming our way. He enjoyed regaling us with his insider information and I delighted in being privy to it.. Harry was a character in every sense of the word and his musical insights only added to an air of mystery that always seemed to surround him.

Harry was an exceptional debater, another talent of which I was a tiny bit jealous because Lord knows that I tried so very hard to master that skill. No matter how hard I worked at it I was unable to come close to being as exceptional as he was. Harry was quite simply one of those people who thought on his feet and was able to come up with just the right retorts at just the right moments. He and his debate partner and friend had quite a run as superstars. I often thought that he might become a lawyer but I suspect that such a career was just a bit too tame for him. Harry was out of the ordinary and we all seemed to sense that.

I learned that Harry spent his work life in Los Angeles but returned to Texas after he retired. He chose to settle in Galveston where he loved reading and listening to music. He brought a former ballerina with them and the two of them enjoyed a quiet life near the sea. Even in his final days Harry managed to seem a bit exotic and to have done things on his own terms.

It’s amazing how we never quite forget the people with whom we spend our teenage years. I regret that I never really got to know Harry just a bit better or to tell him how much I admired him. I suspect that I was too much in awe of his remarkable talent in areas in which I so wanted to succeed in my own right. It was as though I saw myself as little more than a hack whenever I compared my abilities with his. Eventually I found the confidence that I had lacked back then and realized that Harry and I had very different styles. I became content to have watched him from afar and to know that maybe just maybe he had found some magic out in Hollywood. At least I certainly hope that is true. I’d like to believe that he lived the kind of life of which he had dreamed so long ago.

Harry’s death signals the passing of another extraordinary member of our class. I feel confident that he is now resting in peace with the angels and cracking them up with his razor sharp sense of humor just as he shared his gift with us so long ago. I remember a time when he proclaimed that the Rolling Stones were the best rock group ever. I argued with him at the time and lost of course, but I always thought of him over the years as that group became my favorite as well. Upon hearing of his death I heard the strains of Satisfaction in my brain and thought of his grin and sarcastic humor that always made us laugh. Thank you, Harry, for some really good times.

Fact or Opinion?

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I usually listen to the radio whenever I’m driving. Rather than being a distraction, it is a habit that keeps me more alert. I tend to prefer talk radio but I’ve grown weary of political tirades, so my go to station of late is NPR. I enjoy the informative programming through which I learn lots of interesting facts. A few evenings ago I was returning home when I happened upon a newscast from BBC that lasted for most of the forty five minutes that it took me to reach my destination. I found myself feeling enchanted by the way in which the reporting was done. Refreshingly it was simply a recitation of factual events with no hint of editorializing. The news stories moved along so quickly that the narrator was able to provide information on literally dozens of world events of which I had little or no prior knowledge. By the time I drove into my garage I felt rather knowledgeable about situations from Turkey to Kenya to Myanmar. I found myself wondering why our own national news programs spend so much time on far less important situations, and why the reporters feel the need to discuss and analyze what is happening rather than just telling us about the events of the day without commentary. There is a certain irony that British broadcasting was so succinct and fact filled while ours now seems intent on creating controversy and inciting emotional responses. Perhaps we have brought this trend on ourselves because at the end of the day news stations are businesses and businesses must make money which means that they need high ratings. In other words we are pandering to the state of broadcast journalism by tuning in and accepting the politicization.

It used to be that news stories were based on “Ws and an H,”  such as who, what, where, when and how. Opinions were the domain of editorial pages and programs. We expected to hear differing points of view on Meet the Press, but the nightly news was more often than not an exercise in providing only information. We thought of remarks intended to change our minds as being propaganda. Now we endure personal attitudes in virtually every version of the news perhaps with the exception of local programming which still tends to follow a fact driven format. It’s enough to drive us all mad and it tends to encourage the airing of controversial stories over those that simply provide needed information, and then allow each individual to add their own personal spin to what they have heard.

I really believe that we need to more carefully delineate fact from opinion. We teach children this important concept from the time that they are very young, but then as adults we fall into the trap of accepting someone else’s thinking as factual. As a society far too many of us are blurring the line between actual news and editorializing. This has created culture wars and idealogical divisions that are unnecessary and has led to a tendency to defend points of view with false narratives and soundbites. In other words we appear to be living in an epoch that actually trivializes the news and our politicians are taking full advantage of the situation.

I have listened to old school radio programming in which Edward R. Murrow used words to describe world situations. His elegant use of the English language was almost poetic, but it also provided vivid mental pictures of what was actually happening, not how he felt about what he was seeing or whether or not such things should have been happening. That was the right way to present the news. In fact it should always be up to the listener or viewer to fill in the blanks of feelings and emotions, not the person who is on the scene giving us an update.

I actually enjoy the kinds of programs that provide an editorial analysis of current events, especially those that strive to provide alternate points of view. They give us an opportunity to think critically as long as they are transparent and willing to give each side of an argument an uninterrupted platform. I don’t mind at all when the guests debate one another, but I prefer for the host to be a moderator, not someone who joins in the fray. All too often these venues devolve into efforts to change minds and to advocate for one side over the other. That’s when I tend to sigh and then tune out. I suppose that I’d prefer just watching something like a Lincoln Douglas debate to feeling as though my intelligence is being insulted by biased reporting.

It’s funny how we teach students how to spot propaganda and then we unwittingly fall for it time and time again. We expect politicians to engage in such shenanigans because it is the nature of the beast, but when those charged with providing us with the news twist information to fit personal agendas I cringe. I believe that most people have enough common sense to decide for themselves how to react to the events that take place each day. None of us need interpretations. When those things happen there should always be full disclosure that what is being reported is a personal opinion rather than a fact.

I doubt that things will change anytime soon, so I will have to find alternative methods of seeking the truth. I would love for our American newscasters to learn a bit from the BBC. I think we would all be the better for getting more information about not only local and national events, but also the goings on around the world. We really do need to know about the problems in Myanmar and the elections in Liberia. We don’t live on an island and what happens in lands far away will indeed have an effect on things here. Ours is a global economy and we share a political symbiosis with everyone. We really are better served when we are informed. While we may be all abuzz about athletes kneeling for the national anthem, we also need to understand what the effects of famine in another part of the world will be on all of us. The truth is that we are spending far too much time being manipulated into arguments with one another when far more pressing issues are facing us. While we are being mesmerized by indignation over an individual’s sexual sins, there are citizens among us who are struggling with real problems that the infighting is preventing us from solving. While the media and the politicians are stirring up our anger and emotions they get away with making us believe that there is always somebody else to blame for the inaction that leaves so many in a state of distress.

We’ve got real work to do and it will only be done when we learn the facts and then decide how to address them. We can no longer afford to be taken in by propaganda masquerading as truth. Perhaps its time to quit rewarding the news programming that has so lost its way by providing them with the ratings they so need. If we were to turn them off and then boost the viewership of those who follow the old school rules of reporting without all of the chattering and blathering, then the spin might end. Until we do this we will be subject to the fighting that is slowly but surely tearing us apart and preventing us from accomplishing anything.  I don’t know about you, but I for one have grown weary of being manipulated.

Never Let Go

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So much has been said about the examples of heroism and unconditional love that were exhibited in Houston, Texas both during and in the aftermath of hurricane Harvey. Suddenly the entire world is beginning to understand what it is that we love about this place that is as flat as a pancake, a perfect breeding ground for mosquitos, and has very little in the way of scenic views other than a downtown skyline that is quite beautiful on an autumn day. For years I have tried to explain our town to those who have never been here, and I suppose that I never truly made my point that this city is all about people. The view of who we are has suddenly changed as Houston has become the symbol of what is right with the human spirit.

Sure we have some basic problems with flood control and such, but what the attraction to Houston comes down to, is to be found in the generosity and determination of its citizens. As I travel from place to place I see so many wondrous sights and I find that the people that I encounter are generally welcoming, but nowhere do I feel as accepted for who I am than right here where I live. I always find myself feeling a sense of relief whenever I reenter the city limits. The outpouring of courage and unity and pure love that we have witnessed in the past few weeks has proven my lifetime contention that there are many great places to visit, but Houston is one of the best places to live.

I’d like to think that if any real good comes from this disaster that has so horrifically impacted so many in Houston, it will be the reminder that when all is said and done we are all brothers and sisters aiming for the same comfort and security in life. In the middle of the night during a storm when floodwaters forced a family onto the roof of their house the background of the savior who drove up in a boat to retrieve them from danger mattered not a wit. The reactions that we have when we don’t have time to think are often the purest and most perfect. The reality is that nobody who endured the terrifying days when fifty one inches of rain filled our streets even thought to consider differences. We were all just human beings lashed together in an horrific situation. Our only goal was to survive and to help others to make it to safety with us.

I suppose that politics raged on as usual during those days, but we weren’t even aware of the day or the time much less who was arguing with whom. My neighborhood received a bit more than forty three inches of rain. My only worry was whether or not the drainage system for my street would continue to operate. I silently prayed that my husband would not have another stroke because I suspected that we would not be able to reach the hospital that is only five minutes away if he did. I constantly checked to be certain that my neighbors, family members and friends were okay. When I heard of people who had flood waters entering their homes I was not able to rest until I knew that they had reached a safe and secure refuge. Mine was a scene that was taking place a million times over throughout the area, and we were all hoping for the best for one another. 

I’m not known as a fan of Donald Trump, but I was happy when he came to survey the damage and worked to speed the funding for the recovery of our city. He seemed sincere in his concern, and somehow my animosity toward him didn’t feel appropriate given the situation in which we found ourselves. I am thankful that he seems to understand our plight and that he is willing to do something about it. I have no criticism of his willingness to help.

I have been moved to tears by the outpouring of love from all parts of the country and the world. Our brothers and sisters in Louisiana were some of the first to render aide. The people of New York City understood our pain. Again and again I have heard of volunteers from Israel, Saudi Arabia and countries that may not have heretofore even thought of Houston, Texas. It has been simply amazing to me how wonderful we humans truly are and my faith in mankind has been bolstered.

I watched the Hand in Hand telethon earlier this week and when I saw the genuine concern of the arts community hoping to help us in some way I found myself shedding tears once again. There was Oprah Winfrey manning a telephone line. Tom Hanks and George Clooney and Leo DiCaprio  were there to help the people of my city. Usher and Blake Shelton sang so beautifully. Matthew McConaughey spoke eloquently of the road forward for the citizens of our city. Dennis Quaid wore his Bellaire High School shirt. George Strait led some of the best country artists in a beautiful rendition of Texas. I don’t think that I will ever again see any of the many people who gathered together for this cause without wanting to hug them in thanksgiving. They became as one with my city and they earned the key to my heart.

Beyonce, a native Houstonian, said it best when she noted that we have seen far too much violence and hatred of late. Houston has shown the world that love still exists. Houston has demonstrated that race and politics and social standing don’t matter as much as a willingness to stand toe to toe with one another in an hour of need. In our darkest and most frightening days it was the best of humanity that rose to the occasion. Let us pray that we will not let go of that ideal now that it has come to the fore. We need to join hands all across the world and never again let go.

  

Truly Madly Deeply

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One of the most fascinating books that I have ever read is Isaac’s Storm by Eric Larson, a story that details the horrific events of the 1900 hurricane that virtually decimated Galveston, Texas. I have always found the randomness of the destruction that took place in that epic event to be rather profound. With no rhyme or reason some structures were totally destroyed while others that stood right next to them exist even to this very day. Thus it seems to be when nature’s fury strikes. The fact that I still have my home in the midst of all of the misery caused by Hurricane Harvey is little more than the luck of the draw because not more than a mile away there are homes that filled with water.

In the aftermath of a storm that will surely go down in history as one for the ages, I am pensive as I listen to the sounds of life slowly coming back into the world that has been my home since my birth. This time of year the school buses should be stopping at my corner to take children to and fro. I enjoy the  laughter and the excitement of the voices that filter through my window each morning and afternoon. For now there is only the wind blowing through my trees and the hum of a generator in the distance. It’s good to hear the rumble of cars moving down the road, and now again there is a siren breaking the silence with a scream. I worry what might be happening to someone, but I also smile that it is once again possible for aid to reach whomever is in need without moving precariously through a wall of water. Even as the natural routine of things has been set askew, there is the tiniest whisper of hope assuring me that in spite of the enormity of the challenges that lie ahead, we will eventually heal and recover.

I rejoice at the messages of good news coming from friends and family about whom I had worried during the deluges that fell over my city. So many, like me, seem to have weathered the storm relatively unscathed. Given the extent of the damage to Houston it is almost impossible to believe that we indeed have a foundation of intact homes from which we might reach out to the others who were not as fortunate. As I number the dozens who will soon be assessing the damage to their houses and possessions I am truly humbled. But for chance it might just as easily been among them.

I have expressed my love for my city so many times. She is a tough girl with a heart of pure gold. She is hurting now and I know we must all show her our love by being very good to one another. She would expect nothing less from us. In the past few days we have demonstrated just how good we are at doing that. There have been so many favors performed both large and small, all designed to ease the fear and the pain that our neighbors are experiencing. We are not strangers in Houston. We are family. We understand that now more than ever.

The heat here can be brutal and the landscape is as flat as a pancake, but the real beauty of this place has always been in its people. It has historically been a town where souls come to find new opportunities just as my grandfather did when he traveled from Austria Hungary more than a hundred years ago or like my husband’s great grandfather who arrived from Georgia penniless. Houston has always been filled with promises from which individuals with little more than the clothes on their backs might find the kind of lives that would not be possible anywhere else. It is a warm hearted and forgiving place as was so dramatically demonstrated in countless ways during the last few days.

We have watched our hometown newscasters dissolve into tears as they reported the human stories that have been so difficult to hear. We have seen ordinary people brave the waters with boats and trucks so that people they have never met might be saved from the raging waters. Our mayor has stood toe to toe with all of us to keep us safe and to calm our fears. Our neighbors have walked hand in hand never even noticing any of the diverse demographics that seem to be so dividing the rest of our country. We have jumped into the task of saving ourselves and saving our city without worrying about what anyone else might eventually do for us. We understand that there is no time to wait for outside help. We are Houstonians. We take care of our own. Still we are gracious and thankful for the help that is offered because we understand that this task will surely be more than we might handle alone.

I feel a sense of pride when my grandchildren and former students check on my welfare and weather the storm to bring me items that I needed to be comfortable during the long wait for the rains to end. I smile as I see them taking charge in the aftermath by immediately volunteering at shelters and gathering truckloads of donations and supplies. How wonderful they have turned out to be. I hear that little whisper that tells me we will survive when I see how considerate and generous they are. They are the face of the future of Houston. They assure me that tomorrow will be sunny and bright.

I can’t wait to hear the incessant singing of the cicadas at night. I don’t think I will mind at all when the sun is so bright that sweat rolls down my neck. i want to see the Friday night lights of high school football and watch my grandson march with his band. I long to cheer for the Texans, and Astros and Rockets and Houston Cougars once again. I want to laugh at the antics of the Rice MOB. I long for the time when I might drive on water free roads to the Farmer’s Market on Airline or to the shops in Highland Village on Westheimer. I want to have dinner at Gringo’s or Niko Niko’s and stand in line for barbecue at Killen’s. I dream of walking the aisles of HEB and munching on a burger from Whatburger or a donut from Shipley’s. I look forward to the Nutcracker Market and Thanksgiving at my brother’s house. I can’t wait to see the Christmas lights in December and the azaleas in March. I pray with all of my heart that together we Houstonians will have the means to keep our traditions alive, because they will be more important than ever as we work our way out of the pain and the loss that is all around us. 

We are not completely out of danger just yet. As the rivers rise there may be more flooding in places that have done fairly well up to now. More heartache may ensue. More need will arise. We will be tested as a city again and again. Our marathon will be long and difficult, but I know that we have the grit that we need to see the process through.

I have cried and cried for my beautiful often misunderstood city and its people. The tragedy of it all has sometimes been almost too much to bear, but I know in my heart that we live in one of the most special places on earth. I have understood this for all of my life. I am truly, madly, deeply in love with Houston, Texas and I promise not to let her down in her hour of need