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.

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A Woman of Character

Barbara Bush

She had a beautiful heart that was big, generous, loyal, loving. On Wednesday it stopped, and ours broke as we considered the loss of Barbara Bush and the hole that she has left in her family, our city, our country and the world. She was not just an extraordinary First Lady, but one of the truly great human beings, now dead at the age of ninety two. She had seemed almost immortal, immune to the illnesses that never seemed capable of stealing her spirit, so her passing was doubly difficult to comprehend. Somehow we had come to depend on her smile, her wit and her forth rightness to carry us through whatever happened with a kind of dignity that was inspiring. We had grown accustomed to seeing her at her husband’s side, a place that she cherished for well over seventy years. She and George were matching bookends, two people so perfectly compatible that their love brightened every room that they entered. Now her husband, her children, her grandchildren and all of us who felt as though she was the beloved neighbor next door will have to carry on without her, and it is so hard.

There are three women who served as First Ladies who are among my heroes. Abigail Adams might have been one of the founders of our country had women been accorded more respect in that time. As it was, she reminded her husband John to remember the ladies when drafting the design for a radically new kind of government, and she worked shoulder to shoulder with him in the family unit as more of a co-equal than a servant wife. Eleanor Roosevelt was Franklin’s conscience, often arguing in favor of justice over political appearances. She was the one who insisted that he invite black Americans to the White House. She was the angel who never forgot the common men and women of the country. Hers was a brilliant and thoughtful mind that influenced many of the decisions that Franklin ultimately made. Then there was Barbara Bush.

Barbara was born a Pierce, a descendant of President Franklin Pierce. When she was only sixteen she met George H. W. Bush at a dance. She thought that he was the most beautiful person that she had ever seen and he was smitten with her as well. Their love would only grow from there and never falter in a story for the ages. George would join the effort during World War II as the youngest pilot in the American fleet, all the while thinking of his beautiful Barbara and proclaiming his unending love for her. After he returned from the fighting they would marry and begin an adventurous life noted for its togetherness and emphasis on family. Barbara would travel wherever George’s dreams lead them and their love and their family would grow.

They ended up in Texas, a place where George would start his business and launch his political career. Somehow it seems quite fitting that Barbara would end up in the Lone Star state because her personality was the epitome of the big hearted, honest talking nature of the people in her new adopted home. She was a down to earth good neighbor and friend so she got along well with the people that she met. She approached life with purpose and a sense of service which carried her through times both joyous and tragic, exciting and disappointing. She became the glue that kept her family together even as her husband’s goals expanded. Like Abigail and Eleanor she became George’s rock and the source of some of the best advice that he ever received. She understood and loved people and they in turn responded to her sincerity in kind. She was the perfect partner in what would be an incredible life.

Barbara Bush was ever at her husband’s side even as she forged her own identity. She was unafraid to speak her mind and she always managed to do so in a way that was enlightening rather than hurtful. She reminded me so much of my own mother and my mother-in-law, two women who were her contemporaries in a time of history that spanned decades of challenge, change and promises of a better future. They were strong women who carried themselves with dignity and manners, steel magnolias who proved to have powerful influence in shaping the people and ideas in their corners of the world. All three were known for their elegance, but even more so for their wisdom and loyalty. They were feisty and accomplished all without whining or complaining. They were the towers of strength within their families, and just as I have sorely missed my mom and my mother-in-law so too will I miss Barbara Bush.

It always brought a smile to my face to see Mrs. Bush out and about in my city long after her husband had left the White House. She was known to walk her dogs with her neighbors and was always open and friendly with anyone who came across her path. One of her favorite restaurants was a pizza parlor that was as unpretentious as she was. She loved our Houston Astros baseball team and one of my favorite images of her shows her wearing Astros gear complete with a baseball cap and those pearls that she never seemed to leave home without. She was a friend to our favorite Texans player J.J. Watt and cheered for the team as enthusiastically as any of our hometown fans. She joked with the Rockets and asked them to help with a campaign to bring attention to her literacy foundation, a cause which was dear to her heart. She was ferociously determined to bring reading into every child’s life and believed that a better future lay in the ability to decipher and comprehend the written word. To that end she was devoted to visiting schools and reaching out to young people, many of whom were inspired by her genuine interest in their lives.

Barbara Bush died as she had lived, with dignity and humility. Her husband held her hand all afternoon as her body slowly succumbed to the illnesses that had plagued her. She will lie in state on Friday and the public will be able to say their last goodbyes to her. On Saturday friends and family will remember her at a funeral ceremony and later that day she will be laid to rest at the George H. W. Bush Library on the campus of Texas A&M University next to her beloved daughter Robin.

Barbara Bush was an incredible woman in her own right, not just the wife and mother of presidents. She loved deeply and laughed much. She was forthright and gentle, a person of the highest character who left a positive impression on those who knew her. She was devoted to her husband, her family and her country. She was an icon whose life was well lived. Women the world over would do well to emulate her morality, her sense of fairness, her courage, and most of all her selflessness. While she was so much the product of a remarkable era, her qualities made her timeless. May she rest in eternal peace for she has surely earned a special place in her heavenly home. May her family know how much we all loved and cherished her as they struggle to lift up their hearts after such a terrible loss. Our thoughts and prayers will be with them because we appreciate that they shared this beautiful woman with us. We are all the better for having known her.

It’s Time To Do What Is Right

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He’s a sweet child, innocent and earnest with a bit of Tom Sawyer mixed in. He works hard and is able to manipulate numbers with the best of them, but when in comes to the questions on the STAAR test he sometimes gets befuddled. He wants to be like his dad whom he adores, a smart engineer. Somehow he loses confidence whenever he compares himself because, after all, the STAAR test often challenges his abilities and makes him feel less than. He worries a great deal about how he will do on the mathematics test because he has to work slowly to be certain that he is correct in his analysis of the questions. He gets most of the answers correct, but often has to hurry to finish in time and that’s when he just has to make a best guess. He wants to be thought of as smart and competent, which he is, but that test threatens to make him look bad, so he becomes anxious. His teacher confided that she doesn’t think he will pass. He goes to his mother in a state of panic and cries. He wonders what he will do if he fails. Suddenly his head is so filled with fear that he can’t think. All of the concepts that he understands so well become jumbled and he has difficulty remembering things that he has mastered. The high stakes of the test have him discombobulated and he is only ten years old, already a worried old man having to deal with the trajectory of his future when he should be outside enjoying the lovely spring weather with his friends.

He took the STAAR test on Tuesday. It will be a while before any of us know how he did. I prayed all day Monday that he would remain calm and be able to reach into his memory bank to work the problems. He is able to tackle operations with fractions better than many high school students that I have taught. He understands how to perform operations with expressions as well and how to turn a linear graph or a table into an equation. He is able to discuss financial terms like gross and net income, property and payroll taxes. He is very bright in every way, but that test seems evil to him. The questions purposely have hidden meanings that he sometimes doesn’t catch. The problems may take as many as four steps to complete. When he’s nervous he might miss the catch, and he was very nervous on Tuesday.

I tried to show him how to tackle each question. I reminded him not to tarry too long on a single problem. I urged him to draw pictures of the given ideas. Together we underlined important information and crossed out whatever didn’t matter. He caught on quickly and his daily grades in school improved. He was named the student of the month because his teachers saw how hard he was working, and because he is so wonderfully kind. Still he was so concerned that he might not do well on the test, so I attempted to calm him. His parents also did their best to raise his confidence level. We all quietly worried that he was working himself into a state of mind that would interfere with his ability to do as well as he is capable.

Each school year I find myself railing at the STAAR test and other instruments supposedly used to measure the abilities and achievement levels of students. They are cold and supposedly objective ways of determining how well students and schools are doing, and yet we all know that they favor certain types of children over others. As a teacher I often witnessed kids who did little or nothing in class hit home runs on standardized tests while others who were almost religious in the way they applied themselves crashed and burned. According to the exam they had not learned all that they should have, but I knew better because I was so familiar with who they were. Some of those same youngsters who flopped on the state exams went on to graduate with honors from college and to be highly successful in their chosen careers. It angered me that so many decisions were being made about them along the way based solely on a one day test created by a company that makes millions of dollars spewing out questions that many adults would be unable to answer correctly.

I recall a time when one of my principals complained that the teachers in the mathematics department were not raising student scores enough. He demanded that they work harder. Since I was the department head I took his criticisms personally and felt a bit defensive. I wanted him to know what the teachers and the students were dealing with so I gave him a seventh grade mathematics test and told him to complete it in the allotted time frame. Just as I would have with the kids I monitored him while he worked the problems. From time to time he looked at me in frustration and I read his body language to mean that he was beginning to see how difficult the tests can be. When he was finished I graded his work immediately. He made a sixty seven. He was crushed and asked me to never reveal his score to anyone. He then met with the mathematics teachers and praised them for their dedication. He told them that he understood just how difficult it was to prepare the students for the tests. His encouragement brought results. Every single teacher had better overall scores than in the past. Perhaps the tests had been easier, but I prefer to think that when the teachers felt more support they transferred their own feelings to the students.

I seriously question why we put students and teachers and even principals through the misery of yearly standardized testing. I worry about the well being of our children and question putting them through such stressful situations when the overall results of such measures don’t actually correlate to ultimate success in life. We are deluding ourselves in thinking that the exams are fair because every study has shown that they are not. Mostly they turn off the natural curiosity of children and their willingness to take risks. So many psyches are being crushed making the “I hate math” crowd grow larger and larger when we might instead encourage our children to explore the world of numbers without worrying that they will be harmed. Math can actually be fun, but not so much when it is used to label an individual.

I suppose that I will continue my yearly rant with no effect, but I feel compelled to defend all of the boys and girls who live in fear of the humiliation that sometimes comes from them. I refuse to be quiet until somebody finally listens and considers the true worth of such measures. Instead of making testing companies rich, perhaps it is time that we enrich the lives of our young by pulling the plug on such high stakes testing. It’s well past time to use our heads and finally do what is right.

  

The Time Of My Life

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It is amazing how we have certain memories that are so pleasant that the mere thought of them brings smiles to our faces. They are not always of the most remarkable events like a wedding or the birth of a child. Sometimes they are actually quite simple, like the smell of newly mown grass in the summer or the twinkle of lights on a Christmas tree. As I approach my seventieth year I have more than my share of satisfying remembrances, but few turn up the corners of my mouth into an unabashed grin more readily than the time that I shared a ride in a limousine with a group of young boys.

Schools never seem to have enough funds to do the things that they want to do, so they invariably enlist the students to raise some extra money. Such was true when I was teaching seventh grade mathematics at South Houston Intermediate. Each year the kids received brochures filled with enticing photos of candy, wrapping paper, and trinkets that they were encouraged to sell to family and friends. Those who sold the most received opportunities to enter a money machine to nab dollar bills as they floated through the air, but the grand prize was an afternoon riding around town in a limo. It was a highly coveted prize and the winner would be allowed to invite a few friends to go along. Not only would there be transportation, but also funds for food and entrainment. It provided strong motivation for the students to sell, sell, sell.

At the end of one campaign a student of mine was declared the winner. He was a sweet, bright and exceedingly well behaved young man so I was delighted that he would be treated to so much fun. It was soon apparent, however, that he had a very real problem. He had to have a parent chaperone the event and both his mother and father were not able to leave their jobs to do so. It looked as though the poor lad was going to lose his prize until he learned that if one of his teachers agreed to accompany the group all would be fine. That’s when he came to me requesting that I join him and his guests. His invitation was polite and almost impossible to refuse, and so I found myself piling into a gorgeous stretch limo one afternoon without knowing what the itinerary would be.

I drew a sigh of relief when I saw the others who would accompany us on the adventure. They were all rather delightful young men whom I knew well. I doubted that I would have any kind of trouble with them and that proved to be true. I then learned that our first stop would be a small game and go kart center located near the school. It was a very good choice of venue because the boys were occupied with rides for hours. I sat and enjoyed the solitude and people watching while they had a ball.

Next on the agenda was dinner at Sonic. The boys were laughing hysterically at the thought of driving up in a limousine to order burgers and hot dogs. They pre-arranged a storyline with me and the chauffeur that we were to recite, namely that one of the young men was a child star who was filming in Houston and wanted to take a break with his costars for a bit to eat. I was the nanny in charge of the group’s safety, care and education during the shooting of the movie. We were not at liberty to provide any more information than that lest the kids be endangered. Hilariously the waitress fell for the fib hook line and sinker while the boys roared with unmitigated joy as they watched people pointing at the big black car as though a real celebrity was on the premises.

The impishness didn’t end there. The final touch came when the chauffeur rolled down his window and spoke into the speaker with his most refined voice, “Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?” By then the car was literally swaying from the rolling around caused by the youngsters’ laughter. Even the driver and I were chuckling with unrestrained glee.

Once we had eaten we had just enough time left to visit a comic book store. I stood guard as the students browsed through the bins and selected a few items to purchase with money they had brought in case such an occasion arose. As they shopped the owner of the establishment quietly inquired about the identity of his customers. By then I was all in for my designated role and was exceedingly coy at first. Eventually I explained that one of the young men was an actor and I was his nanny. I revealed that we were out on the town after a long day of filming so that the kids might unwind just a bit. I whispered that I was not at liberty to provide any more information than that and the shopkeeper nodded with respect.

As the kids were paying for their purchases the boy who had won the prize looked at me and said, “Nanny, here’s some money to buy yourself a lottery ticket. It appears that there is a drawing tonight. Maybe you will win and be able to enjoy life more. Go ahead. Buy a ticket.”

Then he looked at the man behind the counter and smiled, “She is such a good woman. It would be nice for her to learn what it is like to be rich like me.”  With a straight face I gathered the boys together and we piled back into the limousine barely able to contain ourselves from laughing before we were once again out of sight. 

We chattered all the way back to the school as though we had just experienced something rather remarkable, and in a way I suppose we had. I truly can’t recall too many times when I had more fun. I would often think about those boys and their leader who had brought us all together and wonder how their lives had been. Then one day I found the young man who had made it all happen on Facebook and learned that he had become a teacher in an intermediate school. It was good to know that things had turned out well for him because he had given me the time of my life on that long ago day. 

Not Yet Down and Out

shutterstock_441927634-1024x683.jpgIt was a sunny day in Houston, Texas on a January afternoon. The streets and highways were filled with people enjoying the break in the cold weather. It somehow seemed impossible that only five or six months ago those same roads were filled with flood water from hurricane Harvey, creating unbelievable images of devastation. Everything appeared to be so normal, and it felt as though the recovery and healing of our scarred city had gone smoothly and far more quickly than anyone might have ever imagined. We had even begun to believe that we might have a good chance of winning the big Amazon prize that would bring thousands of jobs to our area along with millions of dollars to boost our economy. Perhaps it is in our Houston DNA to be upbeat and unwilling to be counted out. We’d done the impossible so many times before that those of us native to this flat featureless plain see our city with different eyes than those of outsiders.

This is a town built on land encircled by bayous that is otherwise landlocked, and yet we have one of the busiest ports in the country, dug from the Gulf of Mexico to a site in the shadow of the place where Texas gained its independence. Somehow our town took a field that had once been home to grazing cattle and transformed it into the center of the worldwide space race. A wealthy academic from the east coast imagined a Harvard of the south and founded the prestigious and renowned Rice University. A doctor imagined a home for cutting edge medicine and convinced benefactors to build a medical center that would one day be a leader in research and talent. We have done the impossible time and again with the help of visionaries who saw beyond the limitations of our geography, and on any give day it feels as though we have miraculously moved beyond the horrors that beset our beloved Houston on those three days in August when the sky rained its fury on all of us.

We all know that things are not always what they seem to be. Those whose homes were filled with brackish water that rushed in through the weep holes inundating their rooms and their peace of mind are mostly still working to get back to normal. The piles of debris that represented the destruction are generally gone misleading observers to believe that all is well. Inside the repair work continues at various stages. The mucking out of water and dirt is done. The walls of water soaked sheetrock have been removed leaving frameworks of studs marking load bearing structures and outlines of rooms. In some cases fresh new sheetrock and paint now brighten the areas. In others the skeletal frames await the resolution of claims that may one day bring the funds for repairs. Carpet and flooring is difficult to find even when there is money to purchase it. Cold concrete has become a way of life for many Houstonians who celebrated Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and the new year with their homes torn apart, and still wait for normalcy to return. They sit on lawn furniture and sleep on air mattresses attempting to stay calm and carry on when in truth they are exhausted and broken hearted.

On that sunny day when all seemed so normal, of course it was not. I drove through a neighborhood that had been heavily impacted by the storms and at least a third of the homes still had huge dumpsters parked in the driveways. Trailers and RVs dotted the landscape and told a tale of homeowners still camping out while their homes recovered very slowly. Daily life has become a marathon for them as they cope with realities and fears that sometimes feel overwhelming. They walk through their days attempting to be as positive as possible even as they worry about the impact this all has had on their psyches and savings.

It has been estimated that eighty percent of those affected by hurricane Harvey did not carry flood insurance. They have had to rely on FEMA for funds to repair their houses and many of them still wait for that money to be forthcoming. Generally the most that they might receive is only slightly more than $30,000, and in the majority of cases it will be far less than that. FEMA does not replace their household goods, so many people are creating massive debts just to begin again. Those who did have flood insurance are all too often waiting even longer for the relief that they need to put their homes back into working order. Supplies are scarce, and the great deals that merchants offered in the early days after the disaster are mostly long gone. Nobody thought that there would still be people in need this long after the catastrophic event.

Our city is wounded and our spirit is being sorely tested. Naysayers warn us that we will never again be the same. Our luster feels somehow diminished as investors and dreamers grow wary of locating here. Amazon passed us over, choosing Austin and Dallas as more worthy possibilities for their center. People from outside our area view our town as an ugly humid place more suited for mosquitoes than humans. They underestimate our determination to overcome the odds that have often appeared to be stacked against us. Houston has always been a city that should never have been, and yet here we are winners of the World Series even as we limp through the worst days of our history. It seems that Amazon missed the essence of who we are as people and may have ignored the very qualities that would have made their venture truly great. They did not understand that the images of courage and community that they witnessed when nature had battered us mercilessly were not aberrations, but rather an unvarnished revelation of who we really are. The secret of Houston is that we are willing to take on any challenge and rise from the muck and the mud to triumph over adversity. This is a hard working city with dirt under its finger nails and visions of a better future in its soul. 

Think of us now and again. We are still here even though we have not yet totally healed. There remains much to do, but you will rarely hear us complain. We don’t want to be pitied or thought to be beyond hope for we still believe that our city has a great future. Don’t pass over us or assume that we are out of the game. This city called Houston is a miracle built on unstoppable dreams. Plan to keep hearing from us. We’re not yet ready to be down and out.