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.

I Am the Median

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From a statistical point of view my life has hovered around the median. I represent continuity and moderation and a mix of conservative and progressive points of view. While my life was tragically made a bit unusual for the times in which I lived by my father’s early death, that anomaly was mediated by the environment in which I grew into an adult. I am a product of a small and insular neighborhood in a time when my native city of Houston was still more of a town than a city. My life was guided by routines and traditions that rarely varied. There was an entire village of people both familial and unrelated by blood who watched over me. I grew strong and happy and so loved that I was ready to tackle any challenges that came my way. As an adult I was so busy attempting to reconstruct my own sweet world for my children that I barely noticed how much the times were actually changing.

When I was seven years old I was uprooted from everything and everyone that I had ever known to accompany my family on a journey west where a quiet revolution of opportunity and change was overtaking people like a fever. My days there were painful because I had lost the anchor of extended family and friends that always made me feel so secure. I was among people who were so busy building dreams that they had little time to welcome us. I went to school each day feeling nameless and misunderstood. Ironically my father felt the same way at his work. None of us ever fit in to the race for something unknown that so dominated life in the part of California that would one day be the epicenter of Silicon Valley. Before long we all just wanted to be back home in Texas.

With little more than a wing and a prayer we slowly made our way back to what we had known. Along the way my father searched for a job. His efforts to find work lead us all the way back to Houston, and for the very first time in a long time I recall feeling quite relieved even though we had not yet settled into a permanent home. My father’s deadly car accident left my mother bereft and scrambling to create a sense of continuity for all of us. Luckily we had returned to the people for whom we had longed when we were far away and they gathered in unison to help us every step of the way. Oh, how I loved them and still do!

My mother wisely returned us to the very neighborhood from whence we had moved only months before. We were welcomed like the Prodigal Son. Our life began its constant revolution around church, school, family and friendships. There was a lovely sense of calm about the way we lived. We stayed in the same house until all of us were grown and on our own. We had the same neighbors for years. It was rare for anyone to move away back then. When we went to church each Sunday we saw the familiar faces of people who smiled and greeted us by name. We attended the same school with the same kids who are friends with us even fifty years later. Each Friday evening we visited my maternal grandmother in a gathering that included all of my aunts and uncles and cousins. In the summer we traveled to visit with my paternal grandparents on their farm.

We constantly heard stories from our elders about the history of who we were that carried little nuggets of expectation without being overbearing. At church we learned about the comfort that is always available from God and the ways of compassion and love that Jesus taught the world. Our teachers and our parents spoke openly to us about both the greatness and the imperfections of our country, urging us to always remember our responsibility to maintain a healthy democracy.

We were always a bit behind the fads and movements along the two coasts of the country. We were more inclined to study how things went there before jumping into the idea of adopting radical change without much thought. Our lives were slow and steady like the tortoise. We knew that we would eventually get to our desired destinations, but we did not want to lose sight of more important things like family and friends along the way.

Suddenly it seemed as though both the innovations and the cautions that were brewing along the two poles of our nation roared up around us, forcing us to see the world through different eyes. The titans of media and advertisement from the east coast were burrowing into our brains with television. The movie moguls influenced us with films. Finally the masters of Silicon Valley invaded our lives with computers and smart phones and a burgeoning social media. People began moving around and moving up. Extended families had less and less time for each other and friends were often on the go. We woke up one morning and the city of Houston had become the fourth largest metropolitan area in the country.

Some of what happened while we were sleeping was very good. There were breakthroughs in civil rights that were imperfect, but steps in the direction of equality. Women were provided more opportunities than ever and their voices began to be heard. We acknowledged that love is love regardless of whether the people who express it for one another are man and woman or man and man, woman and woman. Medicine and science made our lives easier and our affluence grew.

At the same time we have lost many things as well. Our neighborhoods flux and flow to the point that the relationships that we form there are constantly changing as people move from one place to another. Our extended families are in far flung places and gathering our relations together becomes more and more complex. Our churches and our beliefs are continually challenged. We fear for our children to play outside alone. We argue and rankle with one another and wonder if how far we change is enough or too much. We feel as though we are being ruled by extremes, either far too cautious or far too willing to upend all that we have known. We have lost our sense of history and our willingness to accept that none of us, not even ourselves, are free from the taint of bad decisions or hurtful behaviors. We judge and decry those who do not share our own philosophies. We honor those who boast and demean while turning our backs on the people who live with quiet dignity and respect. It feels as though we are somehow being manipulated by some unseen hand as though we are merely robots. None of it feels good, and some of us long for the good old days not because we are unaware of the problems that some people faced while we were comfortable, but because we need to bring the village of diverse people who loved us back together once more. We need to feel that sense of chest bursting pride in our families and friendships and churches and cities and states and our country that might have once brought us to a sense of belonging to something special.

We have many folks attempting to understand our thinking and our motivations and I suspect that they are getting us all wrong. They tend to make assumptions about us based on their own backgrounds rather than ours. Suddenly I find myself feeling untethered much as I did when I was seven years old in an environment so different from what I had always known. I understand how it must have been to be my father daring to dream, but realizing that he did not quite fit into a way of life so unlike his own. I am the median, an average person with a big heart and a dream of embracing the people to both the right and the left of me in a hug that says,  “You might want to know how folks like me really feel rather than foisting your ideas on everyone. Your constituency reaches from sea to shining sea and there is a great deal in the middle that you are yet to understand. Maybe it’s time for you to learn.”

Fifty Shades of Grey

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It was one of those days when the skies were grey, the streets were slick and the air was heavy with fog. It might have been a great day to stay home with a good book, but we had appointments to keep and errands to run. The traffic was stacked up and moving slower than normal so I had ample opportunity to see things that might otherwise have passed by without notice. Some of what I viewed made me sad, others made me laugh.

There was a billboard advertising a Brazilian butt lift with prices starting as low as $35,000. I chuckled at the very idea, but mostly I wondered why anyone would be willing to pay that much money for something so silly. Surely everyone has better ways of investing or spending such a large amount. Even a very wealthy person would be better served by giving it to charity or providing a valued worker with a bonus. Somehow making one’s fanny more appealing seems as wasteful as one gets, so I began thinking of literally hundreds of alternative ways to use the cash more wisely, not the least of which was to save it or provide some worthy college student with a scholarship. Even tossing it into the bucket of one of the many homeless people begging on street corners has more merit, but who am I to judge?

Next we went to an office filled with the nauseating bouquet of room fresheners. It seems that a rodent had died somewhere on the premises and the foul odor was sickening the employees. An exterminating company had come out to set traps but refused to go hunting for the creature’s carcass. I suppose it will be some time before the blended aroma of rotting flesh and artificial scents will be gone from the premises. I truly feel for the workers because my own reaction was to get away as quickly as possible.

Speaking of rats I suppose that they are only behaving normally in light of all of the rain that we have had this winter. It’s predicted that wildflowers will be better than ever, but our lawns are as soggy as sponges and mud seems to be coating everything and everyone. Little wonder that the rats are attempting to find refuge. I’ve heard more than one story of those pests invading homes and businesses. You really know that there has been too much rain when the animals run for cover. I suspect that mosquitoes will be as abundant as the bluebonnets because of the wet season that has marked most of our January and February days this year. Now that’s something to think about that gives me the shudders!

Eventually I found myself sitting in a waiting room at an imaging center feeling increasingly uncomfortable as others around me reacted to the appearance of President Trumps former attorney Michael Cohen speaking before Congress. The level of anger being expressed by the people around me without even a small attempt to filter  what they were saying made me worry about the state of our country. I found myself sinking quietly into my little corner of the room burying my thoughts in a crossword game on my phone lest I too become involved in an outburst of emotions. I silently worried about the future in ways that I never before have.

As we were leaving the medical facility a Code Blue was announced on the PA system. I was both amazed and quite impressed by the rapid response of the nurses and doctors. They quickly found the woman who had fainted and brought her back to an alert state. I realized how professional and dedicated they are and felt that if anything like that ever happens to me I will be in very good hands. It ended up that the woman had come for a blood transfusion and had become dizzy while in transit to her doctor. All ended well but it was like a scene out of one of the many hospital series that I watch on television. It made for a bit of unexpected excitement to go along with the crazy tone of the day.

As if the my journey needed to become a bit stranger we were getting close to home when a woman turned in front of our truck going the wrong way on a one way street. The look on her face when she realized what she had done said it all. Her features were marked with sheer terror. Luckily we were the only other auto on the street at the time so she was able to make a quick u-turn and drive away. A few minutes later and a fleet of fast moving vehicles would have made her escape almost impossible and who knows what kind of accident might have ensued.

I’m normally a person who enjoys rain and prefers colder weather, but I have to say that the weeks and weeks of damp dreary days have grown old. I think we all need a few sunny days to dry things out and lighten our moods. We’ve been stuck indoors for too long and the ugliness that hangs over us like a shroud is causing us to act a bit strangely. Old man sun needs to come back to bring smiles to our faces again.

I really don’t know how folks survive in places known for more rainy days than not. I suppose that they somehow adapt, but it’s not something that I would like to have to do. I say bring on the warmth and let us play outside. I’m done with the fifty shades of grey that have been the norm for way too long, and I suspect that everyone else is as well.

A Great Destination

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It’s January and I have roses and azaleas blooming in my yard. Houston is a funny place. Some years the weather is like Florida or southern California. The temperature stays in the sixties and seventies for most of the winter and the plants are fooled into thinking that it is already spring. Now and again we actually get some ice and snow, but generally our winters are mild. It’s one of those lovely things that makes up for the heat of the summer, and it’s still just cool enough to allow women to wear their boots.

Houston was named a top place to visit by Forbes magazine. Lots of folks wondered why in the world anyone would choose our city as a destination. After all our roads are perennially under construction and the traffic can often be brutal. Most of us who live here take it for granted that nobody would come for the scenery with our flat as a pancake landscape. What we don’t seem to think about are some quite wonderful attractions that we have that might actually be quite appealing for visitors.

For some time now Houston has been ranked as one of the best foodie towns in the country. It competes nicely with New Orleans, New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles. There are some who believe that the food here may even be the best in the country. We have some amazing chefs and they don’t just provide a meat and potatoes kind of fare. The diversity in our city brings cuisine from all over the world and innovations in cooking that make it worthy of a visit for anyone who enjoys fine dining at its best.

Of course it may seem ridiculous to think that anyone would want to visit H-Town just to eat, and that’s a good point, but there are still lots of things to do here. We have sporting events at the professional level year round and our universities provide additional athletic venues that are lots of fun. Our museums are wonderful and boast variety from science to medicine to space to modern art. It would take a week to visit each of them and the effort would be well worth it.

Speaking of the arts, our Alley Theater is world renowned and it’s not the only cast of players in town. There’s also the Houston Symphony, the Houston Ballet, and Theater Under the Stars. At any given moment there are great musicians and comedians playing in town at Jones Hall, the Reliant Center, the Toyota Center, the Smart Financial Center, Jones Hall, the Woodlands, the Wortham Center or the Hobby Center. Our universities also host plays and musical festivals which are of exceptional quality.

Shopping is world class as well with the Galleria attracting folks from all over the world and smaller places like Memorial City, Highland Village, or the Woodlands offering a wonderful experience in their own right. There are even outlet malls and quaint shops dotted all over the city and its suburbs. Houston has a number of Farmer’s Markets as well that offer everything from spices to pottery along with fresh fruits and vegetables.

A short trip of about an hour will take visitors to Galveston with its beaches, historical homes, and quirky shops. There’s fun to be had swimming, boating or just relaxing in the sun and sand. The seafood there has its own unique taste and ranks with some of the best to be found anywhere.

I think that those who are quick to make fun of Houston’s designation as a great place to visit forget about how fun a trip here might be. With the right planning a traveler can catch the Houston Rodeo or spend a day at the Nutcracker Market. We host quilt shows that feature exhibitions from all over the world. The Houston Garden Club Bulb Mart is a fall favorite along with some of the most glorious weather that the city has to offer.

Those of us who live here are always so busy that we don’t stop to think of how much there is to do at any given moment. For a newcomer the possibilities for fun and entertainment are almost endless. We don’t boast any mountains or grand natural wonders but our springtime Azalea Trail is breathtaking. A trip along Buffalo Bayou is a wonder. A day spent at Brazos Bend State Park is both educational and inspiring with its up close encounters with wildlife and its observatory aimed at the heavens. A drive through River Oaks is a fun as visiting the lovely homes in New Orleans.

I suspect that an out of towner would easily be able to fill a calendar with activities for weeks just with things I have mentioned and I haven’t even skimmed the surface of the many sights that we have here in Houston. I totally understand why my city was chosen as a great destination for anyone hoping to have a great vacation. In fact, I’d like to challenge Houstonians to try a “staycation” someday to enjoy what our great city has to offer.

I am the first to admit that Houston has its flaws but I have yet to travel to any place that is perfect. In the grand scheme of things Houston can be lots of fun and even provide a few nature activities for those who prefer the outdoors. It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to find more than enough to do.