Win Win

920x920Houston has been looking like a winner of late, which is quite grand given what happened a little more than three months ago. We’re still celebrating our World Series championship and to top everything off we got a lovely dusting of white flakes last week that literally made everyone smile. The landscape that had been covered in a different kind of precipitation back in August look like a picture postcard with every rooftop and tree glistening with just enough snow to create a winter wonderland.

We’ve really needed those little bits of joy because there is till so much recovery work needed. It breaks our hearts to know that there are still people not yet back in their houses. For some the journey home has been long and hard. Many were turned down for relief funds and others are being told that they will have to raise their foundations before getting permits for repairs. Families have wiped out their savings and in some cases spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for which they have had to get loans. While the rest of us have been getting ready for the holiday season, they’ve been consumed with worry. Still, we are all Houston Strong and the viral photo of a Houstonian cheering on a plastic lawn chair during the final game of the World Series inside his stripped down home seems to represent who we are.

You can imagine how wonderful we felt when we learned that not one, but two of our hometown heroes had won the Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Award. Both J.J. Watt and Jose Altuve are beloved figures here in H Town and their twin win was glorious, because there are times when we wonder if anyone even knows where Houston is or that it is the fourth largest city in the nation. It sometimes seems that Cleveland is more identifiable to the world than Houston, but much of what is best about our city has put us on the map this year. Watt and Altuve are among our finest treasures and we are swelled with pride in knowing that they have been duly honored.

J.J. Watt is the kind of man that everyone mom wants her son to become. Aside from his tremendous talent on the gridiron he is a truly fine and generous human being. We’ve all come to realize that he is a gift to our city both on and off of the field. He’s perhaps our most reliable player when he’s not injured and so he is undoubtedly the fan favorite. When he immediately stepped up to help raise funds for those affected by the floods we were not surprised, but we were definitely grateful and humbled by his efforts which paid off beyond all of our wildest expectations. This was one of J.J’s most public moments of largesse, but those of us who live here know that he has been constantly and often very quietly doing wonderful things for the people of Houston.

J.J. Watt has been known to show up at hospitals and nursing homes. He even takes the time to attend high school sporting events to encourage local athletes. He is a superstar who has somehow managed to maintain his sense of humility. We are in awe of his towering presence, but we also view him as the guy next door because that is the way he wants to be. He’s our neighbor, one of us. His pain is ours, and so when his leg was shattered fairly early in the season we were heartbroken for him. It was as though one of our own sons had been sidelined. Now that he is enjoying the honor that is so well deserved we find ourselves celebrating with him as well.

Jose Altuve has played his heart out all season long on the Houston Astros. When our city was so devastated he became a man with a mission. He was determined to work harder and better to bring a win to our town. He made it known that he and the team were unwilling to let us down. In perhaps the darkest hour that Houston has ever experienced he was a beacon of hope, a bookend for J.J. Watt.

Altuve too is a young man who works hard to be his very best both on and off of the baseball diamond. He is a team player who understands what he must do each time he walks up to the plate. Somehow he appears to be less concerned with personal acclaim and more focused on sharing his athletic brilliance with his fellow players and his fans. He understood all too well how much we needed the championship that had eluded us for decades, and on an evening when many were watching in rooms with concrete floors and only studs for walls he and his teammates took us to the Promised Land. We were as united as we had been back in August when we were working to help those affected by the storms, only this time we were deliriously happy. He gave us an unexpected gift and demonstrated that his heart was bigger than his entire body. In stature he is the exact twin of J.J. Watt.

Sometimes the universe appears to align in such a manner that the most deserving receive the awards. In a year punctuated by a great deal of suffering and ugliness it is refreshing to be reminded that there are still exceptionally talented and noble individuals in our midst. J.J. Watt and Jose Altuve are the role models that we need for our young. They are the heroes who rank with the legends. All of us in Houston are proud to embrace them as our own.

The Christmas lights in H Town are burning a bit brighter and with a bit more hopefulness. The world has been set aright for once. In their great wisdom the editors of Sports Illustrated have chosen two individuals who represent the very best of the human spirit. Our congratulations will never be enough to thank J.J. Watt and Jose Altuve for all that they have given us. They are heroes whose stories will be enshrined in the crazy history of this incredible town. The mere mention of their names will bring smiles to our faces as we will always remember how much they meant to us when things seemed so bleak. All of Houston will be forever grateful and strong.

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The Best Gift Ever

24910097_1677760535622078_6615890065848693126_nI’ve always had my own ideas about religion and politics. I’m an independent renegade when it comes to both, but I still believe in those institutions even though I am quick to critique them whenever I see problems. Thus it was a great surprise to me when I was asked to head the religious education program for pre-schoolers and elementary students at my church many years ago. It was to be the first time that lay people would fill such positions because the sweet nuns who were beloved by the parish were moving away and there were no religious replacements.

Since I am loathe to shy away from challenges I accepted the job and learned that my partner in the endeavor was as feisty as I was. Ours was a collaboration made in heaven if you will. A staff of assistants already existed and the two of them agreed to stay to help us after the good sisters had left. Judy Maskel would be our secretary and all around font of knowledge. Much as it is with outstanding office personnel she had been essentially running the place for several years, and she would prove to be a strong foundation on which we would build a new way of doing things. It didn’t take us long to realize that without Judy we would have been running for cover within weeks. Instead she was an unflinching ally to our cause who somehow managed to very quietly gloss over our mistakes and help us to feel competent even when we were struggling with the task. Over time Judy became far more than someone who kept us from appearing to be fools. She became a good friend, a person whom we loved for her unending patience and sincerely sweet demeanor.

Judy was a beautiful woman with a shock of ginger colored hair and the fair complexion of someone of Scandinavian decent. Nothing was quite as important to her as her faith in God and her beautiful family. She was devoted to her husband and her lovely children and they returned her love. It seemed as though Judy had discovered the secret to balancing life’s demands so seamlessly that she maintained a kind of calmness and perfection in everything that she did. Being around her was an exercise in relaxation. She had a way of soothing even the most tempestuous situation and I grew to truly adore her.

Eventually our parishioners accepted the reality that we would never again have nuns to educate the children in the tenets of our faith. The transition was successful in no small part due to the support of wonderful people like Judy Maskel. She was so admired by those who knew her that folks began to feel that if she liked us, then perhaps they should as well. We pioneered a change that would not have gone so well without Judy.

In the meantime I had finally finished my degree and earned my certification as a teacher. Although I had loved my work at the church I wanted to move into the next phase of my career as an educator, and so I left for a position teaching mathematics. Nonetheless, I had grown so attached to Judy and the others who had been my daily companions in our endeavors that I was determined to continue our relationship.

As so often happens life took hold of all of us. We were busy with our jobs and our families and getting together proved to be more difficult than we had expected, so I began the tradition of gathering with the group at Christmas time each year. In the beginning there were five of us who met on an evening in December to sample goodies and talk for hours about our children and the events that had occupied us since our last rendezvous. It was always a glorious time and I began to laughingly refer to our little group as “the church ladies.” At some point we decided to bring little gifts for one another and it was always fun to exchange the goodies that we had either created or purchased. One of our members made homemade jams and breads that were always the hit of the season. Judy liked to bake little cookies and such now and again depending on how crazy her own schedule had been. Always she came with her smile and a laugh that looked at life from a vantage point of unadulterated happiness and optimism.

The years seemed to go by so quickly. Our children grew into adults and we rejoiced in becoming grandmothers. One by one we began to retire from jobs that had occupied us for decades. Judy had faithfully continued working at the church, watching over the children and the teachers and the directors with the same compassion that she gave so generously and effortlessly. Somehow she always felt like an anchor to everything that is most important in this world, so the annual celebrations with her had a very uplifting effect on me. Whenever December rolled around I simply could not wait for the day when I would get to see the ladies who had meant so much to me, and to enjoy that twinkle of mischievousness in Judy’s bright blue eyes that always brought a smile to my own face.

As we grew older our conversations began to be punctuated with stories of health problems that we were experiencing. One of our members developed cancer and ultimately lost her battle with that disease. Somehow her spirit always seemed to continue to be with us whenever we met, even as the years began to mount along with our own troubles.

Judy had been diagnosed with a rare disease that runs in the DNA of Scandinavians. At first her symptoms came in small doses and she was able to come to our gatherings with her old hopefulness and sense of humor. Over time the illness progressed, and even though she complained very little we were able to see her decline. She became quite thin and there were signs of worry in her blue eyes that twinkled less and less. She seemed preoccupied with her thoughts and her pain, but she was determined to hang in with us and to show us a brave front.

Last year she spent time in a rehabilitation facility. When two of us went to visit her she was struggling with her fate. It was apparent that the disease was overtaking her in spite of her courage and determination. She wanted to reassure us, but she no longer had the energy to protect us from the truth of what was happening. When she recuperated and returned home we were overjoyed and hopeful that she would somehow overcome what had seemed to be her ultimate demise. Even when she was unable to be with us at our luncheon we all managed to laugh and rejoice in what appeared to be her recovery.

As we began to plan for this year’s reunion we learned that Judy was in a nursing home in League City. A kind of pall came over those of us left in the group when we realized that she had become so sick. We were planning to visit her when we learned that she had died. Somehow it was shocking even though she had often explained the ultimate effects of the disease that had overtaken her. In a strange twist I found myself experiencing the same calmness that she had always provided me even as I felt the pangs of sadness. I smiled at the thought that she had truly become an angel in heaven.

That same night our city filled with a lovely dusting of snow. Our first sight upon awakening the next morning was heavenly and peaceful, and I immediately thought of Judy Maskel. It would have been so like her to find a way to ease our sadness. I wondered if perhaps she had been somehow responsible for requesting that God send us a little gift to make us smile. It’s certainly something that she might have done. She was always so thoughtful and giving like that.

There are only three of us left from our original group. We have plans to meet later this month. We will miss Judy because she represented the very best of us. Hers was a beautiful soul that always lit up the room with her unconditional love and patience. She quietly impacted everyone who ever knew her. She was a helpmate and a font of wisdom. The most remarkable gift that she gave us was herself, and that was the best gift ever.

What Would Jesus Do?

15245699_GHer name is Rosa Maria. She is ten years old and has cerebral palsy. She’s just had gallbladder surgery and is being released from the hospital with her aunt by her side. She wears a pair of pink fuzzy slippers and a balloon waves over the hospital bed on which she is being transported. She is confused and frightened because an armed man walks behind her. He is a member of ICE and is taking the little girl to a detention center because she is an undocumented immigrant who came to the United States when she was only three months old. Her mother brought her across the border so that she might get the medical care that she will need for all of her life. Her grandfather and her aunt are legal and they take her to her appointments just as she was brought to San Antonio for her recent surgery. She will go to the detention center without her aunt or her mom. She will be kept there, alone and wondering what is happening. It can’t be easy for her. She is young and innocent but she is being treated like a criminal.

Maritza lives in northeast Houston. She attends Furr High School and is one of the top students. Her modest home flooded when hurricane Harvey dumped fifty one inches of rain on Houston. The rooms are now empty and life is difficult for her family, but Maritza’s mom urges her to make the most of each day in spite of the family’s problems. Maritza is also an undocumented immigrant. She was planning to enroll with the government to extend her grace period for being here. Because of the rains Maritza was unable to meet the deadline for submitting the paperwork. She had been waiting for information from her school, but it was so damaged that it did not open in time for her request to be honored. Now Maritza worries that she will be deported and all of her hopes and dreams will evaporate. She had been on track to attend a Texas university and earn a degree, the first in her family to do so. She is a good girl who had nothing to do with her illegal entry into the country. She has studied hard and worked to be a model citizen even though that distinction is not offered to her. She had hoped that Congress would offer an extension to the young undocumented students of Houston, but they have refused.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said that it is not compassionate to offer amnesty to those who have broken the immigration laws. He and the President and many members of Congress concur that those who flaunted the rules must pay for their crimes. So Rosa Maria and Maritza and others who have known no other home than the United States presently live in fear of being sent to countries of which they have little or no familiarity. Their lives have been upended and they continually live in fear of the moment when someone will knock on their doors and take them to a detention center just as was done with Rosa Maria. Their ultimate fates are uncertain, dependent on a Congress that has shown little inclination to work together to accomplish anything, much less pass a permanent law that will protect them. They worry that they will become victims of the current anti-immigrant ardor that has taken hold of so many citizens, most of whom care little about the personal stories of those affected.

There is a kind of coldness of heart, a meanness that is sweeping the land in a so-called effort to make America great again. Many citizens view the immigrant situation through a narrow lens that does not allow for exceptions. Surprisingly a fair number of those who are so adamant that the undocumented should be sent to their original homes have never even met any so called illegals. They have little idea of the human cost of decisions that do not consider the unexpected consequences of their thinking. They suggest that they might be willing to offer a DACA like law for the young people, but only if it includes the building of a wall between the United States and Mexico and if there are strict penalties for those who came here without documentation as adults. Sadly it appears that none of those things will garner enough votes to pass, and so the fates of Maritza and Rosa Maria and others like them hang in the political balance.

I live in the Houston, Texas metropolitan area. It is estimated that that ten percent of the students in the Houston Independent School District are undocumented and were brought here by their parents at a time when they wee too young to have any idea of what was happening. They have lived here for the entirety of their lives and know no other ways. They speak English and have adopted many of our customs in addition to those of their parents. They cheer for the Astros, the Texans, the Rockets and the Dynamos. They wear western gear when the rodeo comes to town. They enjoy going to movies and shopping at the mall. They have friends at school and teachers who care deeply about them. They like to eat Whataburgers and buy groceries at HEB. They feel as American as any of their peers and yet they hide the secrets of their situations. For a time after President Obama signed DACA through an executive order they felt safe. They began to dream. Many of them went to college and earned degrees. They have been working and living decent and productive lives. Now a shadow hovers over them. They have no idea what they will become of them. President Trump gave Congress six months to pass legislation to fix the problem. The clock is ticking and no solution appears to be on the horizon. Nobody seems willing to budge from their ideologies to help them. They can only wait and hope but their fears grow with each passing day.

Rosa Maria still sits alone in a detention center without her mother or the love and protection of her family. It is heartbreaking to attempt to imagine what a nightmare this all must be for her. It is difficult to understand how uncaring the adults who have done this to her appear to be. Sometimes we need to remember that forgiveness is not a sign of weakness. One of the last acts of Jesus before He died on the cross was to forgive the thief who expressed his sorrow. I have always believed that this was a very purposeful act designed to show us that how we also should behave and to help us understand that nobody should be forever doomed for actions done in the past, particularly when they had no control over what happened. If we ask ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” I have little doubt that the answer is couched in mercy.

It’s past time for all of us to demonstrate enough compassion and trust in our fellow man to grant people like Rosa Maria and Maritza the peace of mind that they so need. We must urge our Congresspersons to think beyond their own prejudices and find it in their hearts to model kindness for all of us. I have grown weary of the fighting and ugliness that so permeates our world. It’s time for a change and this is a good place to start.

The Hero We Need

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What the world needs now is love, sweet love

It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of

What the world needs now is love, sweet love,

No not just for some but for everyone.

We live in a confusing world these days. We dream of seeing stories and images of great love in our midst. We know it’s there. We’ve witnessed it in our families and with our friends, but we long to see a public figure who demonstrates a level of generosity and concern for mankind that seems to typify the kind of self sacrificing for which we are desperately searching. We witnessed acts of great love and heroism when my city of Houston was inundated with water. Images of strangers helping strangers inspired and uplifted us, sustaining our hope that mankind is still at the end of the day a force for great good in this world. We innately believe that underneath the rhetoric and divisiveness that has been tearing away at society there is a common yearning for decency and compassion. We just need that one person who has the capacity to represent each of us as a beacon of light in a world that has gone dark far too often of late. I believe that I have found him right here in the place where I live, and he is no doubt in my mind the real deal.

Who would have thought that a furniture salesman who jumped up and down on a mattress frenetically waving wads of cash would one day become one of the most beloved individuals in the city. Mattress Mack as all of us in Houston know him set up a furniture store in North Houston and garnered our attention with television commercials that appeared to have been filmed by amateurs. He made bold claims about his wares and the savings that he offered, but mostly he caught our attention with his cheesy spots that tickled our funny bones and our curiosity. “Who was this character?” we wondered even as we smiled at his antics. Over time his modest business thrived, becoming a local empire. When other furniture stores closed, Mack’s Gallery Furniture continued to thrive with retailing innovations like same day delivery. Soon enough we all understood that Jim Mcingvale was no joke, but rather a business genius whose sales acumen had made him a wealthy man. Even better was the realization that Mack was more than just an entrepreneur. He was also a humanitarian with a heart even bigger than his massive store.

Mattress Mack as we lovingly and respectfully call him slowly but surely began to show up all over town doing good works. He provided scholarships to students and hauled truckloads of free furniture to people who were devastated by personal tragedies. He remodeled teachers’ lounges and honored first responders and veterans. He seemed to be everywhere donating his time, talent and goodwill to the people of Houston. No request was too large, no task too difficult to handle. Mack was a fireball of energy and good intentions. We all cheered his success as his philanthropy became more and more legendary in our town. We began to collectively love this man whose heart appeared to be limitlessly huge. Before long he had opened multiple stores and his television spots took on a professional patina but the essence of Mack remained as down home and unpretentious as ever.

Mack let us into his most private world, sharing the personal journey of his family in caring for a daughter who is afflicted with a mental illness. He wanted us to understand how to see the signs of trouble and to know that there is help for those who are affected with various disorders of the mind as well as their families. He was not afraid to show his emotions and let us see his very human side. We learned about the courage that it took for him to take the risks that eventually lead to victories over his own struggles with confidence. He visited schools and spoke to students about taking charge of their lives. He encouraged them to go after their dreams and told them how to create plans that would make things happen.

We saw Mack everywhere spreading joy and hope in Houston and we really did love him, but we had no idea that we had not yet even tapped the surface of his remarkable character. It was not until the rains of hurricane Harvey began falling unrelentingly on our city that we began to truly understand that the inspiration for which we had been searching had been with us all along and his name was Jim Mcingvale, our Mattress Mack.

There was so much desperation when the homes in Houston began to flood. The waters were in the yard one minute and then gushing through walls the next, filling the rooms so quickly that there was little time for thoughts other than baling out to find safety. People understood that they had to flee with little more than the clothes on their backs or they might be hopelessly trapped in very dangerous situations. Many of those whose homes had been so rapidly rendered unsafe lived near the original Gallery Furniture store, and remembering Mack’s history of generosity they turned to him for help because they had no other place to go. Like the Good Samaritan, Mack invited them into his store. He gave them shelter from the storm and turned his place of business into a safe haven where they would have beds on which to find the comfort of sleep. He allowed them to relax in the recliners that he so often featured in his adds. He requested their presence at the solid wood tables for which he was famous where he sated their hunger with food and love. Before long the word was out that Mack had opened his stores for shelter from the storm, all because he understood that it was his duty as a fellow human to render aid in a time of great distress.

Now that the waters have receded and people are attempting to return to normal Mack is making another in his long line of incredible offers of good works. For the next twenty weeks he will provide an entire house of furniture and mattresses to individuals who lost everything in the floods. He is requesting that members of the community nominate worthy candidates for his largesse. What he hasn’t boasted about is the fact that he has already very quietly been donating items from his store. There is no telling what the true extent of his charitable nature has been.

Jim Mcingvale is the good soul for whom we have been waiting. He is the man who has been a bright light in a world that might otherwise have seemed so dark. He demonstrates the goodness of the human heart day in and day out and we love him. Mack himself will tell you that he is not a hero or a perfect man, but what he is to all of us is a representation of the most positive values that we all seek and cherish. He embodies the qualities of the kind of person that we want to be. We are so glad that he is among us, showing us how to be compassionate and what it means to live a life of purpose. Jim Mcingvale, aka Mattress Mack, is our hero.

Resilience

21766401_1868966163120008_6720605651907966418_nI’ve written a great deal about the massive floods that inundated the city of Houston a month ago. The national media has featured multiple stories from varying points of view about the tragedy that befell my town. We will be working to rebuild for years and debating how best to prevent such destruction in the future for an even longer time. To say that all of us who live in Houston and surrounding areas have been deeply affected by what happened is an understatement. What has struck me most is the courage and resilience of the people with whom I share my part of the world as well as the outpouring of support and love that has been showered on us. I thought that I had written about most of the main themes regarding this event and its impact on human nature until I saw a photo from one of my Facebook friends that moved me so strongly that I have not been able to erase that image from my mind.

I still think of the woman who posted the picture as the little girl who lived across the street from me many years ago. She spent so many hours inside my house playing with my two daughters. She was always a very sweet child and I never minded having her around. She seemed to be smiling even in her sleep and she possessed a pleasant optimism about life that just felt so good. Her name is Priscilla and I never really forgot how much I liked her as the years marched by and we lost touch.

Eventually through the power of social media we found each other on Facebook and became friends again. I learned that she was happily married and had a handsome son of whom she was understandably proud. She lives in the same part of town that I do, and so one Christmas season I met up with her and my two daughters at a local restaurant. We celebrated our reunion with hours of conversation and recollections of happy memories. Now and again I encounter Priscilla at stores and eateries, but mostly I keep track of her via the Internet, and I enjoy hearing of her adventures with her family.

Not too long ago Priscilla made a move to her dream home in Pearland, a suburb of Houston. She excitedly kept her friends apprised of the decorating and landscaping that she and her husband undertook to make their house special. I was excited for her and enjoyed seeing all of the updates. So it was with a very heavy heart that I learned that Priscilla’s home was among those flooded by hurricane Harvey. In fact, the place took on water on the first day of the massive rains. It broke my heart to think of the sadness and fear that she must have been feeling.

I had forgotten that Priscilla is one of those people who is a survivor by nature. In almost no time she had managed to find a safe hotel in which to ride out the rest of the storm. She did her best to remain upbeat even in the face of so much uncertainty. It was as though she was more concerned about easing the fears of the rest of us than concentrating on her own fate. She kept us posted so that we would know that she and her family were secure and she exuded a confident belief that ultimately all would end well for them.

Almost as soon as the storms had moved from our area she was back at her house doing the work of cleaning out all of the muck that had found its way inside. She continued to send communications showing the progress that she and her family were making, somehow finding ways to joke about the pile of debris that grew and grew on their lawn. She always managed to allay our anxieties with photos of the cleaned out rooms now devoid of half of the sheetrock and all of the flooring. In essence she and her family had taken the place down to the studs, at least on the bottom half of the rooms.

I laughed at images of Priscilla’s garage which now housed a big screen television, a few lawn chairs, a barbecue smoker and a toilet. Priscilla had noted with a hint of sarcasm that the scene was about as redneck as one might ever get. She remained upbeat, at least publicly, and it was among the few times that I smiled rather than cried over what I witnessed after the storm.

Last week Priscilla posted an image that seemed to capture her spirit and that of my hometown. She and her family had moved back into their house even though there was still much work to be done. With a great deal of imagination she and her husband had created a makeshift kitchen that was a true sight to behold. The bottom cabinets were gone as was the flooring and even the sink. Only the sheetrock had been replaced. Instead of the normal amenities there were long folding tables serving as countertops, clear plastic bins providing cabinet storage, a camping sink acting as a station for washing dishes, and a new stainless steel stove gleaming like a beacon of hope. That photo spoke of Priscilla’s fighting spirit and resilience and at the moment that I saw it, she became for me the symbol of all that is good in our town. Hers was the story that I knew I needed to tell.

There is no doubt that Priscilla and so many others have suffered in ways that should not have happened. We all understand that we must address concerns about climate change, shoring up of levees around neighborhoods, improvements to dams, aggressive building in flood plains, increased attention to drainage systems and so forth. In our quest to reflect on what happened we cannot forget to applaud the human spirit that Priscilla so embodies. Rather than complaining or waiting for someone else to help, she and her family did indeed pull themselves up by their bootstraps. They tackled the hard work and found ways to make do until their world is rebuilt once again. They are models of how to react with positivity and inspiration in hard times.

I wish that Priscilla’s story and photos would be shared until they become viral because hers is a lesson that we all should strive to follow. Life is a series of events both wonderful and sometimes even horrific. We have little ability to control many things, but we always are in charge of how we react. Priscilla has chosen faith and joy and hope. We are all the better for seeing her example, and we somehow know that she will find a way to be just fine. We’d all do well to emulate her spirit. I’m thankful that she has been willing to share her journey. I know that I am humbled by what I have seen and I vow to attempt to be as resilient as she most assuredly is.