A Road Trip In Isolation

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We have been locked away for a many weeks now. The last day that we did something fun was February 28, when we had lunch with my brothers and sisters-in-law and then attended the Houston Rodeo Barbecue Cook-off with friends that evening. My husband had surgery on March 8, and I had an injection of  Prolia on March 13. After that we have stayed at home. We don’t even go inside grocery stores or sit outside with our neighbors when they regularly gather on the driveway across the street. We don’t trust the frivolity because they don’t wear masks nor do they distance themselves from one another. They are mostly young and healthy so I suppose that they will ultimately be just fine, but I can’t take such risky behavior lightly and so I remain responsible for myself just as our governor and president have suggested we all need to be.

This past weekend Mike and I came up with an idea for a way to have a little outing. We decided to haul our trailer to San Antonio with the proviso that we would keep our contact with other people and crowds to practically zero. We made reservations with an RV park that we often use and packed up all of the food that we would need for the adventure. We had hoped to go to a state park so that we might enjoy a bit of nature but they were all booked up, so we decided that we would make do with any place that had a spot for us to park the trailer.

We would normally stop at Buccee’s in Luling, Texas for a bathroom break, some lunch and to gas up the truck but we had promised ourselves that we were not going to eat out or go where there were lots of people, so instead we found a service station that was all but empty, filled our tank and used the facilities in our trailer for relieving ourselves and preparing lunch.

The experience at the RV park was exceptional. The manager was masked and gloved and insisted that Mike use hand sanitizer after opening the door and passing the credit card. We got a wonderful spot in between two very quiet trailers that did not even appear to be inhabited by anyone. We enjoyed a great dinner and were finally able to try out the new mattress that we had purchased from Costco back in early February. We learned that it was the best investment we have made all year because we slept like babies and I did not wake up with the usual aches and pains that the old mattress always produced.

On Saturday morning we had a leisurely breakfast, did some reading and then had lunch before setting out on a drive to Inks Lake. Riding through the Texas hill country is always delightful and it felt even more so since we have only seen the view from inside our house for so long. We passed through little towns like Boerne where the streets were filled with people dining and shopping. Sadly I realized that we would not want to stop there because only one person was wearing a mask and the people were literally on top of one another as they walked along the sidewalks.

When we got to Kingsland we knew we were quite close to Inks Lake and our favorite winery, Perissos. We decided to stop there to buy some of the wines that cannot be found in stores, so we donned our masks and made our way inside for a quick purchase. We were the only two people wearing masks and those who were there looked at us as though we were curiosities from another planet. Seeing that nobody was being precautious we made our selections and left as quickly as possible, stunned that the place was filled with people drinking and listening to the live band as though nothing like a pandemic was still happening in the world.

That evening we went to see our daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren all of whom have been very guarded in their behavior since schools let out in March. My son-in-law is still working from home and his company, USAA, has urged any employees who can to continue working remotely. My daughter only goes out to pick up groceries and she has been happy to see most of the customers at her HEB wearing masks and keeping their distance. The children have stayed home mostly finishing the school year, gaming and texting friends.

We met on the driveway and sat on chairs that my daughter had carefully placed well over six feet apart. Mike and I sat on one side and everyone else sat on the other. We talked about what we had been doing since we last saw each other and discussed the happenings in the world. Then we played a game of Scattagories at the suggestion of one of my grandsons because the rules allowed us to maintain our distance without physical interaction with one another or the necessity of using game pieces. Of course we had a blast laughing at the answers and just being together

The next day we decided to take a drive through the heart of the hill country. We traveled to Bandera where we once again noted no people wearing masks as they walked along the sidewalks and went in and out of little shops. A bit farther on we saw crowds tubing in the Medina River. Tents were set up side by side and the water was so congested that it appeared to be difficult to even move.

Our route eventually took us to Kerrville where we encountered a very small group of young girls standing along the roadside holding Black Lives Matter posters and waving at passersby. Every one of them was wearing a mask and attempting  to stay safely apart. They were as peaceful and earnest as can be and they made me smile.

Before long we were in Fredericksburg where we found some shade in Lady Bird Johnson Municipal Park and ate the lunch I had packed for our long ride. As we later drove down the main thoroughfare  I observed about twenty five percent of the people wearing masks, but it appeared to be nearly impossible to keep a safe distance from others because the sidewalks were jammed with people.

We head back to the RV park using side roads that took us through the loveliest of vistas, including a brief stretch of Luckenbach, Texas.  We listened to Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings on our radio and felt contentment in just being in such a beautiful place. We even got to pass through Kendalia, the town where my grandson William was able to find a home for his pig Daisy so that he might rescue her from slaughter.

We returned for another visit with my daughter after dinner in our trailer. We played a contrived version of “Hedbanz” which my grandson put together to provide us with hands free, contact free fun. Once again laughter filled the air especially when the next door neighbor drove up and looked a bit askance at the post-it notes on our foreheads.

We gauged our little trip as a success and think we might be able to venture out even further once I have concluded my sessions with the children that I teach. We have learned that with our self contained cocoon we do just fine. We don’t need to eat at restaurants or visit stores or museums or other amusements to have a glorious time.

We still plan to be careful because we know that the dangers of the virus are still with us. Only this past week someone we know attended a family funeral, spent some time with extended family in Galveston and then learned that one of the people in the group had only days later tested positive with Covid-19. So far only one of them has tested positive for the virus but all of them are going into quarantine. They will no doubt have to do some contact tracing to inform anyone with whom they interacted before they knew that the virus had entered their family circle. The extent of people that they have seen is unbelievably large and will affect the lives of countless individuals. That’s why I am still being very precautious. We may be tempted to just wish this virus away but it seems determined to stay. For now I’ll stick to my road trips in isolation. 

My Forever Home

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I’ve never really wanted to live anywhere other than where I was born in Houston, Texas, United States of America. It’s not that I lack an adventurous spirit but that I see no reason to go somewhere else when I’ve got everything that I want and need right here. I decided long ago that my hometown is a place that allows me to have a good standard of living and to stay in close touch with my family and friends. If I get the wanderlust I have the ability to travel, so why leave?

My father and his parents were like rolling stones. They were so often on the move that they never actually owned a home. I suppose that there is a certain level of excitement in such a lifestyle but I prefer the security that I have as a result of being more settled. I also know what it is like to go from one place to another and I have to admit that I didn’t care much for the idea.

When I was seven years old my father uprooted our family and took us on an adventure to San Jose, California. I was not at all impressed by the journey. I missed the Friday evening get togethers at my maternal grandmother’s home where I met up with all of my cousins. I was saddened in losing my friendships with neighbors and classmates around our home on Northdale in Houston. My new school in California was so crowded that we only had half day sessions which precluded recess, barring any way for me to make new acquaintances. It was all business from start to finish and I could tell that my teacher was annoyed with me for increasing her burden in the middle of a semester. There seemed to be no children on the street where we rented a house so my days were lonely and dreary.

When we later moved to Los Angeles there was little or no improvement and the same was true with our final journey to Corpus Christi. It was only when we returned to Houston that my world felt normal once again. Our neighbors were welcoming and friendly and there were other children everywhere with whom to play. Best of all I had my grandparents and cousins back.

I’ve heard people say that living in different places makes one more interesting and mature but I think that the same things can be accomplished in other ways without pulling up stakes. Travel is great but there really is no place like home. I wouldn’t mind being gone for months but in the end I want to be back among the people that I know and love.

If there were some unexpected reason why I might be forced to move I suppose that San Antonio, Texas would be my first choice. I like the people and the vibe there and it’s a pretty place with lots to do within easy driving distance. I have friends and relatives there and I would be within a few hours from Houston if I felt the urge to return.

I can’t imagine ever leaving Texas. It’s not at all like the stereotyping that pokes fun at it. It is a great state filled with good people, great opportunities, and some of the best food in the world. On top of that it’s a place where it doesn’t cost that much to live and since I’m retired that’s something important to consider. I like Colorado but I don’t think I would be able to afford to live there. I’d have to downgrade my lifestyle considerably if I were to go there and I would be essentially alone at a time in my life when I need to be around people who care about me more than ever.

I’ve never really thought of being in another country. In spite of all of its flaws I think that I am quite lucky to live in the United States. I have many friends from other countries who have told me that they know full well how wonderful this country actually is. They have seen firsthand what it is like elsewhere and they praise the USA with every breath. Nonetheless if there were some unforeseen cataclysm I suppose that my first choice might be Canada or perhaps London. I like both of those places and feel more comfortable there mostly because of language. I’m far too old to learn a new way of communicating at this stage of life. Still it would be quite an adjustment and something I would never want to do alone. I’d have to have a community of family and friends to be daring enough to do such a thing.

I am and have always been quite content with where I live. For me family and friend connections are more important than anything else. As long as the people that I most love live close by I will be more than satisfied with my life.

Young people enjoy the idea of taking risks and learning about new places. They most likely have plenty of time to explore and make new acquaintances. At my age that doesn’t sound enticing at all, besides my father-in-law and mother-in-law live here in Houston and they need to have me here more than ever. I would not worry them by suddenly moving away. I want them to always know that I am only minutes away when they need help with anything. I was always available for my mother and I intend to be the same for them.

So travel it is for me. As for where I live, for now at least Houston will always be my home.
  

  

What’s In A Name?

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The challenge was to give my city/town a new name, but what is the place that I call home? I was born and raised in Houston, Texas where I spent all of my years until I moved to the suburbs in a town called Pearland. To this very day when asked where I live I instantly respond with Houston. Even though I can’t vote there I think of the Houston mayor as my own. Most of my doctors have their offices in Houston including my dentist. I get my hair styled and cut in Houston and I still do at least fifty percent of my shopping in Houston. I don’t really think of myself as a Pearlander even though by strict definition I am. So should I rename the bedroom community where I awake each morning or the city where I was born and grew old? Perhaps I can do a bit of both.

I’ve struggled with the idea of rebranding Houston. Just as with my own name the habit of being called a certain thing somehow seems to become almost a definition of a city or a person. Houston is Houston and calling it anything else feels as absurd as changing my own name this late in the game. I have become Sharron whether I like it or not and so it is also with Houston, a city named after Texas hero, Sam Houston and more or less forged by a couple of brothers with a bent for selling real estate,

There was always something a bit audacious and confusing about Sam Houston and the same is true with Houston. Sam had once been heralded as a rising star in Congress and a potential future candidate for President of the United States but he had a wild streak, a bent for adventure and the exotic, and a bit too much enjoyment of drinking to follow a straight path. Instead he ended up leading a rag tag group of rebels against a powerful Mexican army in an effort to gain independence for an area in the far northern reaches of Mexico. After a stunning win at San Jacinto in which his army captured General Santa Ana, he indeed became president of the new republic of Texas but eventually settled down to a quieter life in Huntsville, Texas.

Sam Houston was a conundrum. He lived among native Americans and seemed to prefer them and their lifestyle over his own kind. He was an advocate for the dispossessed but owned slaves whom he eventually freed and even helped o start businesses. He was brilliant but suffered from bouts of severe depression. He had so much potential that never really came to complete fruition, and so it seems to be with the city that was named in his honor.

Houston, Texas has always been a bit rough around the edges in spite of efforts by city leaders to make it more refined. It has wonderful centers of art, music, theater and learning but it is also plagued by a tough and tumble underbelly that sometimes threatens to become its face and definition. Just when Houston seems on the verge of becoming respected by the rest of the country something always seems to happen to make those who do not understand it shake their heads in derision. Lots of assumptions are made about Houston by those outside its city limits but few of them are true. It’s a southern city with a liberal democratic government and more diversity than any other place in the entire United States.

So how would I go about renaming Houston? Is there a moniker that is more appropriate than the one that links it to a man who lead a confusing and often misjudged life? The place has had a number of nicknames over time. It was once known as “Bayou City” which is a reminder of the ribbons of waterways that trace throughout the area and sometimes cause disturbing floods. Back in the heydays of NASA it became “Space City, USA.” Somehow that seems too much like a passing reference to become a new name. These days its mostly called “H town” which has a friendly vibe but is a bit too informal to become an official designation.

I thought of famous individuals who had contributed greatly to the progress of Houston but none of their names sounded right. William Marsh Rice was a visionary who gave the city a great university and the land for one of the best medical centers in the country as well as the property that would one day become NASA but Riceville, Riceland, or Rice City doesn’t seem to describe the city at all.

The same is true when considering other prominent Houstonians like Jesse Jones or George H.W. Bush. Such considerations are far too ordinary for a place like Houston which is home to areas more quirky than anything that weird Austin has. In fact Houston has a little bit of San Antonio (with considerably more Hispanics), a little bit of Dallas with its multiple thriving business areas, and little bit of Austin with an arts and culinary scene worthy of any great city. In fact there seems to be no way to adequately describe the dynamic and friendly place that is Houston other than keeping the name of it had at its founding.

As for my present town of Pearland I would not be audacious enough to suggest a change given that I have not lived here long enough to earn that right, so I suppose that I will forgo the challenge of changing the name of either place. In fact, it seems to me that human efforts to do so in other parts of the world have rarely turned out well. Perhaps its time that we simply stick with whatever we have become. I am Sharron and suddenly calling me Sarah Elizabeth would be absurd. So it is with Houston and Pearland. We are all three what we already are. Our dreams and personalities have become synonymous with the names that we were given to us long agoe for better or worse and somehow that seems okay.   

Overworked

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Houston, Texas finds itself in contention for “bests” quite often, and the titles are not always laudatory. We are definitely a foodie town with award winning restaurants that rival New Orleans and New York City. In fact, recently our chefs were honored as the best in the country. Along with that award comes the very negative note that we are also one of the “fattest” places in America. The truth is that we Houstonians seem to do a everything with just a bit more effort. in fact we might well be called the city that tries harder.

Recently Houston was highlighted as the second most overworked city, one upped only by Washington D.C. The designation was based on number of hours worked each week, daily commute time, work/life balance, and support systems from local government and employers. Most Houstonians spend around 43 hours on the job and drive one way to on average about thirty minutes. Benefits in terms of vacation time, cost of medical insurance and such perks falls well below most cities. With this kind of news one might wonder why anyone would ever want to live here, and that is a valid question indeed.

The reality is that Houston has been known from its earliest history as a place to find employment. My Slovakian grandparents arrived here just before World War I because of opportunities to work and my born in the USA grandparents found their way to Houston in the forties for the same reason. Houston has never been a city known for its beauty because it is as flat as a pancake and as wildly tossed together as a city without zoning might be. It’s a patchwork of businesses and neighborhoods that sprang up willy nilly through the wild ideas of entrepreneurs who weren’t above creating travel brochures for Houston that featured mountain scenes. Houston has always had audacious ideas like building a world class medical center in the middle of a prairie and cutting an enormous ditch from the Gulf of Mexico to the landlocked east end of town to create a major port of commerce. Our town has a university known as the Harvard of the south and landed the center for space travel. Movers and shakers with incredible ideas find a welcome home here and then create jobs for the masses.

Those of us who have always lived in Houston do our best to travel to more scenic areas where we often dream of luxuriating in rolling hills or mountains or seasides, but work always pulls us back. Houston is a place where almost anyone with a willingness to labor can find a job, and so it has grown and grown and grown. it also attracts the kind of people who don’t mind putting in a few extra hours each week, and because of the snarls of traffic many, like myself, prefer arriving early and leaving late to miss the height of the commuting congestion. I suppose that when averages of time spent at work are calculated such outliers make a difference. In my years traveling to my various job locations I always marveled at the number of drivers on the freeways as early as six or six thirty each morning.

Traffic is a fact of life in Houston. Our freeways get bigger and ever more crowded as more and more people like my grandparents arrive in search of work. Ours is a vast city spread out over many square miles. We are linked together by a network of concrete that is perennially under construction. We have a little Metro train that is only a spit in the bucket in terms of moving our citizens from one place to another. It has few routes and has yet to catch on as a viable way to move about. Thus each morning and afternoon those who work are subjected to a slow moving caravan of wall to wall cars.

Perhaps our work benefits are not up to par either, but then it really does cost less to live here than even many other cities in the state of Texas so economically things manage to balance out. We may pay more for health insurance but our homes and groceries and other needs are more of a bargain. In Houston even those with low incomes often have houses with big yards. It’s a trade off that works rather well in the long run.

Houstonians like to take trips. We travel through the state, across the nation and around the world. Such jaunts help us to deal with the lack of scenery in our own town. Nonetheless there are other diversions and perks in town that make up for our somewhat homely appearance. Ours is a very friendly and diverse place to live. We welcome people from all over the world and we tend to work together in relative harmony. Sure we have some tortured souls who never quite get with the program of inclusion, but they really are more aberrations than the norm. Somehow we generally understand that we are in this great big crazy working town together, and so we celebrate our rodeos and sports teams and families with as much abandon as we give to our jobs. We promote the arts and sciences and search for ways to have fun. On any given day there are so many things to do and see if only we take the time to seek them out.

The statistics may point to some problems in Houston, but they rarely tell the whole story. The very things viewed as negatives are often the reasons that our city has grown. This is a place filled with opportunity that makes it possible for ordinary souls to take an idea and run with it. Houston is a place where crazy dreams have come true and jobs have been available even in times of hardship. It’s where the where often find a place to rest and be accepted as well as work.

We have our problems and even know what they are. We have more crime than we would wish and we’ve been experiencing floods almost since the city’s inception. Water tends to accumulate in a place dominated by ribbons of bayous that are barely above sea level. We’ve been overrun by mosquitoes decade after decade and the summer heat would be unbearable without air conditioners that vie in size with the furnaces of the north. In spite of all of its flaws Houston is a wonderful place, a working place, and if we put in a few more hours of labor each week that is alright. We have Simone Biles, and J.J. Watt, and the Houston Astros and we have jobs. As both of my grandfathers always boasted, it is preferable to have a job than none at all. The rewards for our hard work are many, and so we stay.

It’s Nice to Remember

El PatioLike many big cities much has changed in Houston since I left my childhood home fifty years ago. My family moved a time or two until my father died and then we stayed in one place until my brothers and I were grown and finally gone.

The first place I remember was on Kingsbury Street just a few houses from South Park Blvd. which is now known as Martin Luther King Boulevard. Ours was a quiet and modern neighborhood that echoed the growth of Houston and other American cities after World War II. Our neighbors were young like my parents save for a couple of older folks here and there. There were a slew of kids with whom I played, and we were free to roam around all by ourselves even though some of us were not yet old enough to attend school.

The area began with little more than our subdivision and a U Totem convenience store where a man named Shorty regaled all of us with his humor and friendliness. Eventually one of the first ever shopping centers, Palm Center, was built just within walking distance of our house. It was like a wonder of the world to us and we spent many an hour wandering through the stores or just walking around gazing into the shop windows.

My father was doing well with his engineering career and he grew weary of driving a rather long distance to his job near the refineries along the Houston Ship Channel. His coworkers told him about a brand new area just a bit farther into the suburbs that was booming with progress and attracting great schools and a quieter form of life. Best of all it was only about ten minutes away from the plant where he worked.

Before long we were moving into Overbrook and an all brick home that my father and a builder had custom designed. Our place on Northdale sat close to a wooded area along Sims Bayou clustered among homes so new that they still smelled of fresh paint and just sawed wood. I was sad to leave behind my friends on Kingsbury Street but in no time I was riding my bicycle through the streets and playing with other children who would literally become friends for life. Ours was a kind of kid heaven that seemingly had no restrictions as we explored the Bayou and trudged through the woods.

The neighborhood was filled with young families just like mine and every house was teeming with life and possibilities. A bridge linked Overbrook with Garden Villas, an older area with huge lots and pecan trees around homes many of which had been built in the 1930s. Together the children from each subdivision filled the schools and sent up the joyful sounds of playtime that echoed happily into the open windows of homes not yet fitted with air conditioning.

My father was as changing as the city of Houston itself and before long we were following him to California and even bigger dreams. For reasons that I will never know things didn’t work out for him and within months we were back in Houston again looking at even newer and bigger properties. His untimely death changed all of our family plans, and my mother decided to move us back to Overbrook for the sake of continuity. There we would be able to reunite with friends and make new ones on Belmark Street.

Ours was a very happy place to be back in the nineteen fifties and sixties. We had little need to venture far from the confines of our neighborhood. All of the conveniences we needed were close. Eating out was still a kind of luxury, and even when we splurged now and again we had local favorites that we visited. Our mother took us to the Piccadilly Cafeteria at the city’s newest shopping mall, Gulfgate, where we were admonished to only order one meat and two vegetables or one meat, one vegetable and dessert. We usually chose the later.

I suppose our favorite place was El Patio Mexican Restaurant on Telephone Road. As kids we thought that their dishes were gourmet delights, especially the cheesy enchiladas. Since our mom was devoted to cooking healthy food for us, getting to deviate from vegetables was a treat.

I suppose that if I had to pick one food that I would be willing to eat over and over again it would be a hamburger, and back then I thought that the very best came from Chuc Wagun. There was no indoor dining there. Instead a clerk and a cook worked inside a tiny building designed to look like a covered wagon. The beefy guy who made the delightful sandwiches was gruff and married to his work. He grilled beef patties by the hundreds and chopped his onions and tomatoes like a Ninja warrior. The resulting burgers were pure heaven.

We bought all of our cakes at the Kolache Shoppe on Telephone Road. My mom loved the lemon ones and even years after we had all moved I would sometimes return to that spot to get her one for her birthday. The kolaches were rather good as well.

My brothers and I spent many a Saturday morning at the Fun Club inside the Santa Rosa movie theater. Our mom would drop us off with a quarter each which was enough to purchase a ticket and a candy sucker that lasted for the duration of the double features. The event included games with great prizes and films suitable for kids. It was a wonderland for us and a great break for our parents.

Most of the places that were so delightful back then are either gone or very different from what they once were. The neighborhood itself has a worn look and nobody would dare allow their children to roam freely anymore. It would be considered too dangerous. The Disney like atmosphere that defined my youth is now just another memory from my past. When I take my grandchildren to see the places where I played and grew, they have little understanding of the lifestyle that I describe. Theirs has been a more structured way of doing things, a routine of play dates and adult monitored activities. I suppose that my stories of southeast Houston don’t ring true to them as they see fifty years of change that have transformed the places where I lived.

My friends and I all agree that ours was a glorious time to be young. We were innocent and unafraid as we roamed together finding adventure. By the time we were young adults we learned about hardships and injustices that were unfamiliar to us. We revolted as a group against the signs of racism and unfairness that we finally saw. Our city grew i and grew and grew in the name of progress consuming much of what we had experienced in our youth. Now and again we like to look back to a time when we didn’t have a care in the world. Its nice to remember.