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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A Kinder Gentler Man

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Barbara Bush often mentioned that she had been enthralled by George Bush from the moment that they met as teenagers. He was handsome, athletic, bright, and most of all kind. George was a gentle soul with an inner courage that demonstrated itself during World War II when he enlisted at the age of eighteen in the Navy and became the youngest pilot. The love between him and Barbara only grew during the years when he was gone. He named his plane after her and sent her letters that unabashedly expressed his feelings for her. They married in 1945 and became partners in a life that would bring them both tragedies and great joy.

Barbara was George’s helpmate, supporting him in following each of his dreams. Their journey together led them to places like Midland, Texas where George would make his fortune. Later they moved to Washington D.C. and points all around the world when George decided to serve his country once again in a number of positions that ultimately led him to the White House. Along the way the two of them created a beautiful family, but also suffered the grief of losing a child. Through it all their love and optimism only grew.

Barbara was always there for George. She waited for him to return home from the war. She was the first person he saw when he came home from work. She was the source of comfort when he was dealing with the problems of the entire world. They were a real team, and their’s was the kind of marriage that stands as a model of equal partnership and mutual sacrifice. They became icons of togetherness that we all loved to see. Their union represented the best of love and devotion.

George H. W. Bush was an energetic and driven man. He did well at anything that he attempted to accomplish. He appeared to have a Midas touch, but it was in fact hard work and the backing of his family that kept him going. Mostly it was also his profound love for the United States of America and his belief that it was his duty to serve the country in any way in which he was called upon to do. He had learned that from his father and he passed the lesson on to his children. He knew that our nation had to be tough at times, but he also felt that we should strive to be kind and gentle.

George H.W. Bush was humble. Angela Merkel has called him “the father of the unification of Germany” because he was indeed the person who orchestrated the diplomacy that resulted in the demolition of the Berlin Wall. When celebrations of that event took place he insisted that the spotlight be shone on the German people. He refused to take credit for his work, instead noting that the moment belonged to Germany alone, not a particular man.

George H. W. Bush was fair minded. He loved to compete and wanted to win as much as anybody ever did, but when he was defeated in his bid for a second term as President he conceded without rancor. He hid his disappointment and worked to make the transition for President Clinton as smooth as possible. He left a generous note of encouragement for his successor even as he buried his own disappointment in his heart. Eventually he and President Clinton would become great friends, partners in efforts to help the victims of natural disasters like Katrina. Bill Clinton would become known as “Bubba” in Bush’s family, and the two would become such good friends that they were almost like father and son.

George H. W. Bush taught us so much about dignity, family, dedication, optimism and openness. In his later years he and Barbara lived in Houston, Texas and enjoyed all of the same kinds of things that we all do in this often misunderstood city. He regularly ate pizza at a family restaurant in his neighborhood. He became good friends with the owner and with all of the people that he encountered on his walks with Barbara and his dogs. As he grew frail and wheelchair bound he still found ways to get out to support the Astros and to attend  football games at Texas A&M where his presidential library is located. There was nothing stand offish or patronizing about him. He was as genuine as they come, and we Houstonians loved him and treasured him. He was one of us.

George H.W. Bush impressed those that he met with his earnest attempts to make them feel comfortable. He liked to laugh and enjoy the small moments of his life, especially when Barbara was by his side. He became one of the most brilliant points of life in our city, our country and our world.

I suppose that to me the words “Make America Great Again” would mean to find leaders more like George H.W. Bush, a hero, a statesman, a dignified, humble and honorable man who loved his God, his family and his country with all of his heart. No doubt Barbara was waiting for him when he entered heaven just as she always did here on earth. He is at peace and enjoying his just reward, but we will surely miss him. 

A Season To Be Thankful

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It’s the time of year when we are reminded to be thankful. I suppose that we should not have to create a holiday to be aware of our blessings, and express gratefulness for having them. We all get rather busy with worldly pursuits and sometimes forget to stop long enough to take note of all the ways in which we have indeed enjoyed good fortune. So it’s good to somewhat force the issue now and again. When we stop to think we no doubt realize that our bounty is far more wondrous than we may ever have thought.

On a humorous note, I’m quite happy that there are fewer political ads filling my email. I still receive some that look ahead to the 2020 elections, but for the most part the onslaught has quieted. It’s good to be able to take a breath for now. I know that soon enough there will be primaries to contend with followed by the really big election. I’d be even more thankful I I were able to find a way to turn all of the noise off completely, but I suppose that we are long past the good old days when we did not have to hear much until just before voting.

I’m overjoyed by the cooler weather. I’m an unfortunate seventy year old who still has frequent hot flashes. According to my doctor I may either take hormones which may cause me to develop a serious disease, move to a place with a colder climate, or just put up with the heat that courses through my body several times each day. I have chosen the latter, so when it gets cold outside in my neck of the woods I enjoy the reprieve that the chilly weather affords me.

I am quite happy that I am a Texan. I may not like all of the political leanings of my state, but I still believe that it is one of the best places on earth to live. The people are always friendly even when we disagree with each other. The cost of living allows me to enjoy a lifestyle that is quite comfortable. The state is big and diverse in geography and people. All in all I can’t imagine ever moving from here. The positives far outweigh any negatives that I might consider. Besides,  most of my friends and family are here which makes Texas almost perfect in my mind.

I’m thankful that at least for now my health is relatively good. I can’t see worth beans to read, but those cheap grocery store readers work great. My knees make me feel about eighty years old on wet days, but I still manage to get around. I just can’t do quite as much as I once did, but I enjoy walks and exercising at the gym. I just won’t be climbing mountains any time soon. All in all I have to praise God for my good fortune or at the very least for giving me some good DNA.

My mother taught me and my brothers to say a prayer each night telling God how great He was for giving us a warm bed and a roof over our heads. I sometimes have to pinch myself when I think of how safe and secure I feel in my home. I know that so many of my brothers and sisters in the world are not so lucky. I often wonder how I won a lottery in life that has given me so many comforts.

There were so many times when I was working that I would be frustrated and exhausted. I often counted the years until retirement on those occasions. Mostly though I enjoyed my work and felt a sense of profound purpose in my life. I know that not everyone who works for a lifetime feels that way, so I remember and appreciate my career, or vocation if you will. My working days were good and meaningful.

My friends are many and each and every one of them is unique and extraordinary. It’s remarkable that a girl like me who was once so shy and awkward somehow found an abundance of kindred spirits with whom to share my life. If I were to tell each of their stories and the joy that they have brought me, I would be writing blogs about them for the rest of my life.

Then there is my family. We are a wild and crazy lot, and we fiercely love each other. I am so proud to be a member of the Ulrich, Little, Fisk, Nias, Burnett and Gonzalez clans either by dent of birth or marriage. I love how our little family has grown and grown over time with new members adding so much joy to our circle. Nothing pleases me more than being with a great big gathering of all of the wonderful people that I get to call cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Of course I won the jackpot when I met my husband, my best friend. Life with him has been fun, adventurous and most of all filled with mutual respect and love.

I have seen very hard times. I have lost people that I intensely loved. I have struggled financially, emotionally, and even physically. All the while I have known that the sum of the parts of my life have been greater than any of the problems that I had to face. For that I am thankful beyond all imagination.

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.

A Festival of Fall

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One of the grandest discoveries of my retirement has been finding the Houston Garden Club Annual Bulb Mart. When I was first adapting to the concept of having all of the daylight hours to myself I began looking for things to fill the time. I signed up for a class at Rice, found a tutoring gig, began writing daily, and treated myself to going to the movie theater in the middle of the day. Because I tend to be a high energy person I still needed more to keep my mind entertained. That’s when I decided to search on Google for special events around my town. Luckily I found an advertisement for the Bulb Mart, and I’ve been attending ever since.

The ladies of the garden club plan their gala fundraiser all year long, and quite wisely choose a date in mid October when the weather in Houston is generally Chamber of Commerce level glorious. Somehow they avoid the rains that so often are a precursor of fall. I’ve often wondered if they consult the Farmer’s Almanac because in the seven years that I have been attending, not once has there been even a cloud in the sky. In fact the weather has always been glorious to match the moods of all of us who walk around with big grins on our faces as we gaze at the lovely offerings.

The venue for the event has changed from time to time, but it has been held at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Westheimer for the last few years. The main focus of the occasion is on an incredible variety of bulbs including tulips, irises, day lilies, amaryllis, an more. Table after table offers a variety of genres and colors. There are also many plants native to the Houston area as well as those that thrive in our particular growing zone. The ladies who volunteer are always knowledgeable and helpful in providing good information about how to best grow a delightful garden. For those wishing to have more information there are lectures and little seminars happening throughout the two day event as well.

My backyard garden is filled with gorgeous amaryllis plants that burst forth in glory each spring. They are magnificent in variety and color and never fail to fill me with joy. It’s exciting to watch them display their unique features one by one after the winter freezes are gone. I add one or two bulbs each year to go with those that have faithfully bloomed since I first began this glorious tradition.

The plants from the Bulb Mart are made for the gumbo soil, high humidity and rain soaked environment that Houston gardens must endure. I have yet to have any of them fail to flourish. I have a particularly wet side of my house that is exacerbated by the runoff from my next door neighbor’s backyard. Their entire area is dominated by a large pool and concrete decking that makes for intense drainage problems for me. On most days the area that abuts on their property is water logged. I invested large amounts of money trying to find something that would grow in that condition all to no avail. The roots would rot and I would have to try something new. Last year I spoke with the experts at the Bulb Mart and invested in a plant that seemed to be suited for the habitat. To both my surprise and delight the plant has thrived and bloomed with delicate white flowers even as the watery problem has only worsened with the continual rains of September and early October.

I attended the Bulb Mart again this year just as I have for the last seven. It has become a “must do” for me. I get an email in the summer reminding me of the date and I literally plan my October activities around it. This year I pre-ordered a few items to insure that I would get certain varieties before they ran out. The day was as lovely as it always seems to be and I found myself falling in love with my city one more time. The smiling faces of the workers and the shoppers reminded me of what a friendly place Houston is. It’s a kind of small town with four million people. The first hint of fall made me forget the heat and humidity that has kept us indoors for weeks. It was a picture perfect day in every possible way, made better by the joyful plants that I bought to enhance the gardens that bring me peace and contentment all year long.

I’m not a person who can countenance change too quickly. I like a certain orderliness in my life. Too much shuffling around creates a kind of chaos in my heart and mind. I prefer quiet and routine. The Bulb Mart has become a constant for me, a mediating force for the variables of living. I depend on it to bring me peace and contentment. Thus far it has yet to fail me.

If you happen to be in Houston around the second week of October check the events calendar to see if the Bulb Mart is happening. The admission is free and everyone gets an informative little book describing the various kinds of bulbs and when and how to plant and care for them. There are even door prizes for a lucky few. Best of all there is a festive and friendly spirit that is so typical of Houston. It’s fun just to walk around and celebrate the glory of nature at her best.