Three Days in August

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Some things are so traumatic that they leave a permanent scar on the heart. We vividly remember how such events felt even years later. For me those moments have been the morning when I learned of my father’s death, the day that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the moment when I heard that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had also been killed, 9/11, and the three days of rain that flooded my city last August as a result of hurricane Harvey.

It has now been a year since fifty one inches of rain fell in virtually every part of Houston over that three day period. I remember all of the dire warnings that were being bandied about even before a drop of precipitation made its way to earth. I made a few preparations, but truly believed that the weather forecasters were overreacting. As a matter of fact, I joked with both of my daughters in a group text noting that the news reporters were all going to have egg on their faces when the whole incident became a bust. We all three worried that such wolf crying would one day lead to disaster when none of us bothered to listen to them anymore.

Most of the people in my neighborhood stayed home all day long getting ready for we knew not what, but before long we were bored and more than ready to get out and about. Precaution kept us home nonetheless and we reverted to binging on Netflix just to get away from the dire predictions on the local television stations. My next door neighbors baked cookies to fill the hours of waiting for a disaster that seemed in grave doubt of ever materializing. It finally began to rain in the evening, but nothing about the downpour seemed to be especially alarming. My husband, Mike, and I retired feeling content that the morning would find everyone doing well.

Of course that was not the case. By the time I awakened and turned on the television to see what had transpired during the night there were already areas of town that were severely flooded. Almost one third of Friendswood which is only about fifteen minutes away from my home had been hit hard. People were being evacuated in boats after their homes filled with water. All along Interstate 45 there were reports of grave problems. The images on television were frightening, and even more so were the messages from friends on Facebook who had been forced from their houses in the middle of the night.

The rain kept coming down, with no sign of letting up. I became more and more concerned mostly because Mike had been struck down by a stroke only a few weeks before. We had been told that he was in a critical time period when the chances of his having another attack were the most likely. I began to worry that he might need emergency medical care that would not be forthcoming, but I said nothing to him because I wanted to keep him calm.

Mike was sleeping quite a bit at that time, so I took advantage of the moments when he was dozing to slowly move items upstairs just in case our house began to take on water. I put many things on countertops and high shelves in closets. All the while I monitored the nonstop coverage of the event. The news was not good. The rains kept coming and the photos got worse and worse. I prayed for even a few minutes of respite from the inundation, but none came. My neighbors and I sometimes met outside to determine how well our street was draining. Somehow it seemed as though there was no way that we would ultimately be spared from flooding inside our homes. We promised to watch over one another to the end, whenever that might be. Day two ended with even more horrific stories than the first, but we were somehow safe.

Mike and I went to bed upstairs but I slept very little. The constant droning of the rain made me anxious. I checked over and over again to see if my home was taking on water. I’d also quietly turn on the television to see if there were any signs that the rains were finally going to end. Somehow all hope seemed to be gone. I cried over the images that I saw. I sobbed each time another of my friends or relatives reported that they had been forced to evacuate their homes. I thought surely that my beloved city was so hopelessly wounded that it would die an excruciating death. Not even the stories of courage and compassion that were so numerous were able to convince me that we would somehow survive the ordeal. Mostly I continued to worry about Mike and all of the unfortunate souls who had already lost so much. One of my students provided me with a small slice of optimism when he texted me to assure me that if Mike needed to get to a hospital he come immediately with his big truck to save the day.

There were fears of levees bursting in neighborhoods where dear friends and relatives resided. It seemed as though the news grew worse and worse and worse. Still the rain kept coming and I finally reached a point of sheer terror. I had done all that I might to prepare for the worst. I was exhausted but unwilling and unable to sleep. I kept watch all night on the third day, certain that my street and my home would soon have no place to drain. Many people that I love had already had to flee. It seemed that no area of town was untouched.

It was early in the morning, about five, when I realized that the rain had stopped. I held my breath expecting the inundation to return at any moment, but we had finally reached the end. Four and one quarter feet of rain had come done without even a short pause. There were people whose houses flooded only thirty minutes before the end came. Some who had survived the deluge went under water when the county had to open two reservoirs to prevent the downtown area from going under water. As a city we were wet and tired and overwhelmed by what had happened. I truly believe that we may have suffered the largest case of mass PTSD ever recorded. Little did we realize that the work of repairing our city had only just begun, and it would continue for months, and in some cases, more than a year.

I used to love rainy days. I reveled in the sound of thunder and the raindrops falling on my roof. I have yet to find storms as relaxing as I once did. I watch the weather reports religiously. I have been on high alert all during the current hurricane season. I sometimes suffer from guilt that I was spared while so many had to endure sheer terror as the water rushed in through the weep holes of their walls. I am thankful for my good fortune, but not able to celebrate because I know all too well how horrible the past year has been for so many others.

Even with flood insurance or assistance from FEMA most people had to dip far into their savings to return their homes to a livable state. Those without such funds still walk on concrete floors and lack the privacy of walls. For many it will still be a very long time before life returns to normal. It’s difficult to know who they are because from the outside it appears that Houston is as normal as it ever was. Still we know that the suffering lingers.

We are proud of how we behaved and the ways in which we helped one another. We will be eternally grateful for the kindnesses extended to our city from people all over the world. We will move forward as we always seem to do, but we will forever be haunted by far too vivid memories of those three days when biblical tales came to life. I suppose that if we make through a few years without a repeat performance from Mother Nature we will eventually calm down, but for now we just want to reach the end of hurricane season without any excitement. We remember what happened on those three days in August all too well.

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A Mission From God

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Not long ago Attorney General Jeff Sessions came to Houston, Texas. Somehow he ended up at one of the El Tiempo Cantina restaurants owned by the Laurenzo family. It was a surprise to the management that someone from the presidential cabinet was there, and one of the employees had a photo taken of himself and the AG. The social media staff then posted the image on Facebook. It was seemingly innocent enough, but a firestorm soon ensued. Protestors gathered outside of the eatery, calls for boycotts of the businesses were made, insults were hurled against the owners, and sadly there were even threats of violence made toward the members of their family. The unfortunate situation led to a regular brouhaha with insinuations that the owners of the establishment were white racists who had somehow gravely insulted their loyal customers.

Unfortunately all of the accusations were based almost solely on highly charged emotions rather than the facts of the situation. Roland and Dominic Laurenzo are the co-owners of several El Tiempo restaurants in the Houston area. They are not at all like the image that is being painted of them. I know this because my husband attended high school with Roland, and my mother-in-law was friends with Roland’s mother, Ninfa.

The Laurenzo story is a great one of success built on imagination and hard work. Ninfa Laurenzo was born in Harlingen, Texas to a Mexican farming family. She met her husband Dominic when she was visiting a cousin. The two fell in love, married and decided to cast their lots with Houston which they had heard was a rapidly growing city. They moved to a tiny wooden house just east of downtown Houston and opened the Rio Grand Tortilla company, selling pizza dough and tortillas. They had four children including Roland. Life took a downturn when Dominic died and the tortilla company began to fail. Ninfa supplemented the family income by opening a tiny restaurant with only ten tables located  in front of the tortilla factory. She also began to prepare a dish for her customers that was still relatively unknown in the United States, fajitas.

Roland was a hard working and talented young man, and after he had graduated from college he helped his mother to expand the little restaurant in the shadow of downtown. Ninfa’s featured Mama’s beef and chicken fajitas, and thrived with Roland’s business acumen added to the mix. Soon people were coming from all around town to taste the food and meet Mama Ninfa, a woman with a broad grin and a big heart. She was known to sing for her customers and listen intently to anyone who needed to tell her of their troubles. Before long there were Ninfa’s restaurants all over town and Mama Ninfa was a local celebrity. Along the way she and her sons never forgot to pay forward their good fortune. Some of their charitable causes were well known, and others were done quietly and without fanfare.  It was in their natures to always volunteer to help the community whenever there was a need.

Eventually the family sold all of the restaurants bearing the Ninfa name and began other ventures, among them the El Teimpo Cantinas. They created a classic Tex Mex environment at their new eateries complete with lots of traditional recipes and some new takes on cooking. Old family photographs in black and white silently and proudly tell the family’s story. The wait staff is mature and appears to have been part of the Laurenzo journey for many years. Everyone is friendly and helpful and desirous of making the dining experience exceptional and unforgettable.

I have been saddened by the turn of events since the Attorney General’s visit to one of the El Tiempo establishments because this is a family that represents all that is good about the story of diversity in America. If ever there were people who should be celebrated rather than abhorred, they are the ones. Mama Ninfa was a founding board member of the Association for the Advancement of Mexican Americans. The family has supported Houston Community College, the Houston Food Bank, and the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center among many other causes. It is little wonder that they hosted Jeff Sessions so well because it would not have been in their natures to deny him the same level of hospitality that they provide to every single person who walks through their doors. The fact that someone associated with their business got a bit excited about having a famous person eating in one of their establishments says nothing about their ideologies or who they are as individuals. It is a very silly thing to become so angry about this incident that it would lead one to insult and threaten them without ever really taking the time to know their essence.

Luckily this is Houston, Texas and the people here realize how wonderful the Laurenzo family has been to our city. They also mostly have a very strong sense of fairness, and so there has been an outpouring of support for the business. My husband and I joined in that effort by having lunch at El Tiempo after all of the hubbub. Like the Blues Brothers my Mike saw it as a kind of mission from God to support his classmate, Roland, whom he knew to be a kind a generous man.

The thing that struck us were the number of older Hispanic people employed by the restaurant, and we wondered if the protesters had taken into account what would happen to these individuals if the businesses failed. Where would they go to work? How would they get by? Why would they get caught up in such a ridiculous disagreement? It would not just be Roland and Dominic who would suffer, but hundreds of people who depend on them to provide jobs. We always need to remember that no action operates in a vacuum. It’s effect almost always impacts many more people than we might imagine.

The Laurenzos are big boosters of a program that raises funds for the Houston Food Bank. They are always ready to provide food at little or no cost for dozens of causes. One photograph can’t possibly negate all of the good that they have done for decades. Besides, why should that one moment in time even matter? By today’s definitions Roland is a person of color himself, one who has never used his identity to harm anyone.

I was relieved to see the packed house when I visited El Tiempo, and I believe that all the restaurants will thrive. Still, I shudder at the idea that such a small thing as a photo with a disliked politician has lead to the besmirching of people with such good reputations. That is wrong on every level, and like my husband, I see it as a kind of mission from God to do my part to set the record straight.

God Willing And The Creek Don’t Rise

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Ladybird Johnson was a Texan through and through. Growing up in east Texas she adopted mannerisms and a style of speaking that is unique to our state. One of her best quotes always reminds me of my own mother, “God willing and the creek don’t rise.” My mama rarely gave a definitive RSVP to an invitation. Her assents were invariably prefaced with a “God willing” admonition. She often cautioned us to consider that events beyond our control might suddenly change even the best of plans. The sudden and very unexpected death of my father only served to demonstrate the wisdom of her thinking. I often find my self tentatively setting dates on my calendar that I hope will come to pass, knowing that the good Lord may have other ideas in mind. On this July 3, I am reminded all too well of the whimsy and challenges of life.

A year ago I was enjoying one of many events that would entertain me in the summer of 2017. I had already travelled to Cancun for a beautiful wedding and was luxuriating in the promise of more joy to come. My husband and I were spending the Fourth of July holiday with all of our children and grandchildren in San Antonio. Later in the month we were scheduled to camp with friends in east Texas near where Ladybird grew up. In August we planned to drive to a mountain cabin in Colorado to meet up with one of my brothers and his family to relax and hike, and then go to Wyoming to watch the total eclipse in one of the best vantage points in the country.

God willing it was going to be a fun filled summer, but things began to unravel without warning. On July 3, after enjoying breakfast and lunch with our family we were in the process of deciding what to do for the remainder of the day when we heard banging and a faint voice from the guest bathroom. Our inspection of the source of the noises lead us to the discovery of my husband Mike lying on the floor unable to rise on his own. It was immediately apparent from the crooked line of his mouth and the slurring of his words that he was having a stroke. From there life changed in ways for which I had no plans.

Of course we cancelled the camping with friends, the travel to the mountain cabin and the journey to view the eclipse. Our attention was focused entirely on making Mike healthy again. After his release from the hospital we returned home to Houston to begin a year long regimen of visits to doctors, healthier diets, exercise and enjoying life quietly from day to day. We had been warned that there is a statistical danger of another stroke that is most likely to occur within the first three to six months after the initial one. Needless to say I hovered over Mike like a hawk, noting his every breath, listening for signs of trouble. We were instructed not to go to isolated areas or places without cell phone reception and good hospitals, so we mostly stayed at home.

We watched the eclipse here in Houston along with others who had crowded into the Museum of Natural History in Hermann Park. The was not as dramatic as it might have been because it was not directly over our city, but we felt grateful that Mike was still here to enjoy whatever slice of life he was afforded. Only days after we heard on the news that the proverbial creek might rise here in Houston from the predicted rains of hurricane Harvey. We did not leave to find a safer place because we wanted to be near the Houston Medical Center if anything happened to Mike, and besides we could never have imagined how bad the historic weather event might actually be. We hunkered down as instructed by a county commissioner and waited for the storm to pass, only it took its precious time in doing so. In the process of constant rain for three day our little neighborhood became an island in a sea of flooding that was overtaking Houston and surrounding areas like Noah’s epic torrent. How could I have ever known just how much our creeks were going to rise? Who had ever even heard of 51 inches of rain in a single event?

It’s been a year since our trials began on July 3. Mike has not had another stroke, and God willing he never will. Houston has mostly healed but we still shudder when storms come our way. I suspect that we have an entire population suffering from a form of PTSD. I still worry from time to time and have not yet been able to plan the kind of adventures that I have always loved. I find myself tempering my enthusiasm for coming events with the realization that they may or may not come to pass. Our biggest journey in the last twelve months was a five hour trip to east Texas to visit with a former neighbor who is now in her eighties. Being with her was a healing experience for us because we have learned all too well the importance of embracing those that we love as often and as tightly as we can.

Some great friends were not as lucky as we were last year. I attended far too many funerals and still think about the wonderful people that I will no longer see. My home was spared from the damages of the floods, but people that I know had to deal with the horrors of  water rushing inside their houses. It took months for their lives to return to normal. In an ironic turn of events I experienced a small slice of their trauma when my own domicile was damaged from a rush of water coming from the hot water heater. Eight weeks of frustration later we returned to normal, but not without a taste of just how terrible the suffering of the flood victims had actually been.

We’re wiser and far more grateful for even the tiniest joys than I was a year ago. We’ll spend July 4, in San Antonio hoping for a better outcome than last year.  We’re also looking forward to finally completing the plans to camp with good friends in October, and it looks as though we may get another chance to view a total eclipse of the sun when it comes right over Texas a few years from now. There is much for which to be happy and new adventures ahead, “God willing and the creek don’t rise.”

People In Boats

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I recently experienced a bout of insomnia that not even a dose of Tylenol PM was able to combat. As I lay tossing and turning I had one of those Roseanne Barr moments in which I began to think about several news items that I had seen and had an overwhelming compulsion to comment on them. Luckily I was a bit too lazy to rise from my bed to do anything destructive with my thoughts other than to use them as a form of sheep counting that eventually led to the slumber I had been seeking. I’d highly recommend the method to Ms. Barr if she ever again has the urge to sleep tweet in the middle of the night. Of course most of the damage has already been done in her case.

There had been several issues on my mind, but the one that I have not been able to simply forget, even in the light of day, is probably of little consequence to most people, but a very big deal to me. It seems that our president was praising the Coast Guard and the wonderful work that they do when he went a bit off topic as he is so often wont to do. His remarks were just fine until he made one of the most ridiculous statements that I have ever heard. “I don’t think the Coast Guard gets enough credit.  And I’ve said it, and I even say it to the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines. I said, I think this year the Coast Guard, maybe in terms of increased branding — the brand of the Coast Guard has been something incredible what’s happened. Saved 16,000 people, many of them in Texas, for whatever reason that is. People went out in their boats to watch the hurricane. That didn’t work out too well.  That didn’t work out too well.”

My eyes almost started to bleed when I read this commentary. I even checked it to be certain that it was true, and it was! I had to laugh at the sheer ignorance of the assertion. Sure there are gawkers in almost all situations but to imply that Houstonians were pulling out their boats for a little ride to watch the hurricane is too bizarre for words. First of all, those of us in Texas know that one doesn’t go out to watch a hurricane. We hunker down as our county commissioner likes to say. We await the conclusion of the event in the safety of our homes, hopefully with the electricity running and the television guiding us with the most current status of the storm. Nobody here has any idea where the president got such the idea that we were boating around for our own amusement during a very dangerous situation.

I have to admit that I was quite anxious during those many days of unending rain. I felt a bit like Noah and wondered if it would have been a good idea to have built an arc in preparation for the storm. I even wished that I still had the old flat bottom boat that we once used to navigate up and down Caney Creek behind some property that we often visited near Brazoria. I would have felt a great deal safer knowing that I had a way out if my home filled with water as was happening to so many of my friends. Their descriptions of the terror of attempting to flee the rising water were breathtaking and for many of them those people in boats were not sightseers, but heroes who took them to safety.

As far as anyone around here knows the private citizens who spent days and nights rescuing people were as wonderful as the members of the Coast Guard who were also invaluable to our cause. In fact things had become so dire so quickly that many of our elected officials encouraged anyone with boats to come to the aid of the thousands of stranded people in our town. There were simply not enough resources from the usual governmental sources to deal with the unfolding tragedy, and so ordinary people did extraordinary things. I have never been so proud of my city and its residents in all of my days. To insinuate that they were only watching the hurricane is not just ludicrous, it is insulting, and we need to loudly and proudly set the record straight.

President Trump has a rather inventive mind. Perhaps he is so busy that he lacks the time to check his ideas before he utters them, but in the case of his remarks about people watching the hurricane in boats he is dead wrong. His words demonstrate a total lack of understanding of what actually happened here. Perhaps he has been so isolated by the cloak of wealth and privilege throughout his life that he does not actually know what it is like to deal with the realities of daily living. He is simply not in touch with the day to day truth of not just my city’s situation but also those of ordinary citizens around the country. He lacks enough empathy and understanding to see problems through others’ eyes. Everything seems to revolve around his own needs, and so he comes across as an uncaring kind of clown.

Like much of the country and the world President Trump has no idea what Texans and Houstonians in particular are really like, We’ve learned to laugh at the insults and stereotypes that are hurled our way. We know how wonderful it is here and not even the heat or the mosquitoes will drive us away. We understand that being a Texan and a Houstonian is one of God’s greatest blessings. We are part of a great big family of people who will not let us down even in times of great need. They will come with their boats and their big hearts to rescue us and it matters not to them who we are or how we look. People in boats came out last August to save strangers. It actually worked out really well, Mr. President, contrary to whatever you may believe. We will never forget those people and their boats, and we thank God every single day that they were willing to place themselves in danger just out of the goodness of their hearts. You might want to learn from them, President Trump. 

It’s My Hobby and I’m Sticking To It

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I was reminded by a Facebook memory that I have been posting blogs five days a week for six years now. If my math is correct that means that I have somehow managed to write somewhere around one thousand five hundred sixty essays, a number that is almost overwhelming when I think about it. I suppose that in many ways an undertaking that was supposed to be an avenue for advertising the book that I have written has become an obsession, while the book itself languishes in a state of unfinished editing which leads me to believe that I have some sort of psychological hangup regarding my opus magnum. Surely there is a reason for prioritizing my daily chatter over the work that took so much of my time. Anyway, this is an anniversary of sorts which brings me back to one of my earliest and most memorable posts.

Husband Mike and I had gone camping with friends at Ink’s Lake State Park located in the hill country of Texas. Things went awry from the start, beginning with the failure of one of our tent poles that resulted in a fix that left the structure leaning to one side. We should have taken this as an omen and either left immediately or made a visit to a camping store to purchase new outdoor living quarters. Instead we soldiered on, and for a time everything went remarkable well until the next bad sign came with the arrival of a group of young people late one evening. They literally came into the campground like storm troopers intent on stealing our sense of security

The members of the group appeared to have no sense of the lateness of the hour as they set up their tents using the bright headlights of their trucks to throw light on the project as well as all of the nearby sites including ours. They bantered so loudly that we heard every sound that they uttered which included both arguments laced with profanity and laughter laced with profanity. One of the members of the group had a chortle that most surely had been designed to drive people insane. Unfortunately he seemed to think that everything was funny. Even after the new folks finally went into their tents they chattered on and on and on, with the sound of that horrific laugh punctuating every single comment.

Needless to say it was a very long and unrestful night, but I was encouraged when I awoke to find the irritating people packing up to leave. In truth I almost asked if I might help them in order to hurry the process along. Instead I simply observed them while I ate my breakfast. I noticed that they were flying a large flag that was unfamiliar to me so I Googled a description and learned that it was something known as the new Nazi banner. Somehow I wasn’t surprised at all because the group was accompanied by a black Labrador Retriever whose name was a pejorative starting with the letter N. I held my temper as best I might, and soon enough they were gone leaving behind so much garbage that vultures came around to clean up the mess. As creepy as those birds were, they were preferable to the people whose place they had taken.

I was able to laugh at the adventure and enjoyed a lovely day at a winery with our friends.  Later that evening we enjoyed dinner together and played a rousing round of Scrabble while sipping on wine, so I truly thought that I would enjoy a night of deep sleep until thunder, lightning and a torrent of rain began falling mercilessly on our tent. The “sturm und drang” only got worse as the wind picked up and took advantage of the broken tent pole that now threatened to collapse under the intensity of the weather. I was far too terrified to sleep and so I lay on my cot hoping and praying that the little stream right behind our site would not decide to flood the floor of our home away from home, or that the wind might become too much for our structure. All kinds of warnings were making frightening noises on my cell phone, so when there was a small break in the downpour I raced to our car with a pillow and a blanket and found the refuge that I needed. It wasn’t long before Mike had given up his post and joined me. It wasn’t the most comfortable situation, but at least it felt safe.

By morning we assessed the damage and decided that it was time to bail and head back home. As we were leaving the park rangers mentioned that we had been the only tenters left in the park during the storm. They said that they were glad to see that we were okay because they had worried about us and even considered coming to check on our safety,\. Sadly they felt that it had been just too dangerous outside for them to brave it. Somehow I did not feel better for their kind thoughts.

Ultimately Mike and I gave up on being boys scouts and invested in a nice trailer that has kept us safe from other storms that we have endured. We were eventually able to laugh about our adventure in the tent, and I felt some sense of gratitude that it had given me a topic for launching my blog.

I’m not quite sure why I still get so much out of writing so prolifically. I sometimes wonder if anyone other than my good friends Linda and Adriana or my cousin Terri are reading my work. I know that I am addicted to putting my thoughts on a page. It is my drug of choice and since it does me no harm I suppose that it is as good as any habit gets. The ironic thing is that six years later I find myself in a new state of chaos much like the storm of long ago, and it is just as humorous. Who knew the power of water? Just a brief sprinkle from a hot water heater has upended my household for six weeks now. By tomorrow I should have all of the repairs completed including getting new carpet, but the process has been akin to moving out of the house, tearing it apart, rebuilding it again and then moving back in. For someone as obsessive compulsive as I am it has taken a great deal of laughter to keep me from losing my perspective. I’ve even thought of those God awful campers of late and chuckled at the thought of them just to stay sane.

Right now every item from our walls, closets, drawers, etc. is stored in boxes stacked high in the garage. We attempted to remember to leave out things that we would need for the duration but have found ourselves returning again and again to those boxes because we neglected to keep something at hand. Mike realized that he was going to need his checkbook after we had boxed it up,  and after a bit of a hunt retrieved it and carried it around in his back pocket. One morning he came to me and announced that he had somehow lost it. We searched everywhere and were on the verge of calling the bank to have the account changed when I used my most excellent sleuthing skills to retrace his steps. I eventually found the missing item on the floor of the guest bathroom where it had apparently fallen from Mike’s pants when nature called.

I’m doing rather well given my perfectionist tendencies. I’ve made my journey a study in empathy as I think of friends and family who suffered far greater devastation in the floods of last summer. I also have a new appreciation for anyone who is remodeling in any way. I remember Adriana telling me once that she and her husband had been forced to stored their belongings sky high in their garage while new floors were being laid in their home. I honestly had no feeling or understanding for her situation. Now I just want to give her a long overdue hug for what she must have endured.

In the meantime I suppose that I will keep writing, even if it is only for myself. I’m part of a vast group of people crying out in a kind of wilderness, unknown authors who write out of compulsion. Perhaps I am a bit crazy for doing it, but it’s my hobby and I’m sticking to it. Oh, and I really do want to get that book out for the public. I really believe that it has some merit. I hope it won’t be another six years before I get it done.