A Victim of Circumstance

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I’m one of those people who believes that whether the government had prevented 9/11 or it had happened as it actually did there would have been those who complained. Every since that fateful day there has been much criticism of TSA  and its methods designed to prevent another such tragedy. I suspect that those folks who watch over as at airports are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Like teachers and police officers they have a sometimes thankless job.

I’ve had a full body pat down in Paris and had to hand over a snow globe that I was carrying onto a plane in New York City. I’ve received glares from TSA agents when I attempted to nervously joke a bit. I find the passage way through the TSA gauntlet to be the most nerve wracking aspect of flying. Still I applaud those fine folks for doing work that few of us would care to endure. I suspect that we’ve mostly been safe as we jet from one place to another since they have been screening passengers. In spite of a few mistakes here and there they have done an admirable job.

It seems that The New York Times recently featured an investigative report revealing that TSA agents watch for certain suspicious behaviors from travelers. Among them are profuse sweating and multiple trips to the bathroom. Folks who do such things are sometimes judged to be unnaturally nervous and up to no good. Often they end up on a no fly list.

I had to laugh out loud when I heard this because on that basis I should most certainly be someone to watch carefully. My long years as a teacher have weakened my bladder to the point of ridiculousness. So many times over the years I had to ignore nature’s call in spite of warning from doctors that doing so would one day cause me grave problems, but what was I to do? I always had to wait for break time or the lunch half hour to take care of my needs. The resulting bladder problem is a common ailment among educators that leads us to the ladies’ room more often than most.

I suppose that visits to the bathroom might be forgiven by the TSA, but I have an additional affliction that might give them pause. I’m one of those lucky women who suffered from hot flashes during menopause. Unfortunately those bursts of profuse perspiration have never gone away. I am liable to grow beet red and without warning end up with droplets of sweat running down my face for no reason at all. It happens so often that I have actually frightened people who worry that I am having some type of medical emergency. It can occur even in freezing weather, and sadly I have been told by my doctor that it will in all probability never go away.

I imagine a TSA agent observing me and wondering if I am some radical old woman ready to do harm as I sweat in my seat and wander back and forth from the bathroom. Little wonder that the agents in France worried enough to pull me aside and feel around for who knows what on my person. Add to that the fact that I was carrying rock specimens for my grandchildren and their reasoning becomes crystal clear.

The Times article appears to have been intended to bring sighs of indignation from those concerned with violations of our civil rights. Nonetheless I find myself sympathizing with TSA rather than being irritated. I know that our human natures will crucify any agent who unwittingly allows a terrorist to get through the airport gaunlet. We won’t be so concerned about fairness if another tragedy occurs. For that reason I actually applaud those folks who are hyper vigilant. I wonder how many times they have prevented disasters that we don’t even know about.

I have a love/hate relationship with flying ever since 9/11. I always breathe a sigh of relief once I have passed inspection. Everything changed on that fateful day when the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center came tumbling down. We became more suspicious and fearful of one another. We began to pull apart as a nation. It didn’t take sweat or trips to the bathroom for us to begin to question our way of life. Ours has been a sad decline into extreme political orthodoxies and divisions. In many ways much of our nation has become as surly as those agents who check us out before we get access to a plane. It is a sad state of affairs that bothers me more than I care to admit, but I don’t mind the TSA agents at all and I urge them to  keep up the good work.

I try to laugh at our problems and keep an even disposition. It’s the only way that we will come out of this anxious state of mind that so plagues us. So if you see me sweating as I wait in a long line at the airport just know that I am simply a victim of Mother Nature and lousy circumstance. If I worry you because I make so many trips to the bathroom have pity and maybe even a bit of appreciation for one of the sacrifices I made as a teacher. I mean no harm to anyone in how I act, and I love our TSA.

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Flip or Fly Away

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I’m addicted to HGTV. I love watching the transformation of homes from rundown and ugly to bright and beautiful. Chip and Joanna and the Property Brothers make the whole process seem so quick and easy, not to mention affordable. It’s like watching a sweet fairytale unfold in under an hour. Of course I get inspired and think of small changes here and there that I might make inside my own home. That’s when reality rears its ugly head and I realize that what I have viewed on television is little more than fantasy for most of us.

The first thought that I generally have once I’m pulled back down to earth is that the people who seek the home improvements and upgrades are certainly well heeled financially. They reel off budget figures that make my head spin like someone in need of an exorcism. I mean who walks around with an eight hundred thousand dollar home purchase budget with one hundred thousand dollars set aside for renovations? What do these young thirty somethings actually do for a living that allows them to throw around money like that? How realistic is it for the rest of us to watch their homes being created with seemingly limitless income flows when we might be lucky to have a few thousand to devote to a project.

As I’ve reported in past blogs we recently had a bit of damage from a faulty hot water heater in our house. The estimate of the damage was in the range of about eight thousand dollars. Of course we have a high deductible so we did not receive that amount but the figure actually did represent the reality of the situation. What we got for almost ten thousand dollars was the replacement of most of the walls in an upstairs bathroom and a great deal of ceiling work in the kitchen. In addition those areas were freshly painted and we replaced an outdated light fixture. Since much of our carpet was ruined we decided to replace all of it and luckily got a sweet deal since manufacturers had reduced prices to help the victims of hurricane Harvey. Our nephew provided us with the electrical work that we needed and we did a great deal of the painting ourselves. Still the cost ate up what to me was an enormous amount of money, so I found myself wondering if those of us devotedly following the dream house episodes on HGTV are deluding ourselves into believing that with a few dollars and a hammer we too might transform our homes into nirvanas worthy of a photo shoot.

I laugh at those programs on another level as well. The designers react in horror to the wear and tear that they often discover in homes. They cringe at the crayon marks on walls and the scuffs on wooden floors caused by the children who occupy the spaces. They hint that the parents should take the little ones away and teach them how to be more orderly and respectful of property. They sneer at the everyday items that crowd closets and lurk in corners of rooms. They seem to want the occupants to tread lightly, not really using the house as a real home.

Let’s face it. Most of us actually sleep in our beds, eat food on the sofa, and purchase big televisions to watch our favorite programs. In other words we live in the buildings that protect us. They are not just showplaces staged to appeal to the masses. They are our very own and sometimes that means that there will be a puzzle on the dining room table, books piled next to the bed, dirty dishes in the sink, clothes tossed on a chair or even the floor, signs of life everywhere. We, the viewers of these programs, know in our hearts that nothing that we are watching seems real.

I used to truly enjoy following the guy who flipped houses in San Antonio. He’d find a bargain for well under two hundred thousand dollars and fix it up for maybe thirty or forty thousand more. The places weren’t perfect but they were definitely nice and clean and affordable for the common man. I suspect that this fellow was instrumental in starting a trend of regular folks buying an ugly house, doing a few repairs and then attempting to sell it at a profit of maybe ten or twenty thousand dollars. Along the way they no doubt found that the process was fraught with way more problems than they might ever have imagined. It took longer, cost more and brought in less gain than they had hoped.

I suppose that I will continue watching these shows if for no other reason than to get a few decorating ideas, but after having spent my traveling budget on my home this year I realize as I’m stuck in my four walls that seeing new places is a much better investment. Decorating trends come and go. The house continually needs repairs here and there. The joy of spending money on paint and flooring is soon gone, but those fabulous trips to exciting places pay back dividends again and again. The memories never fade or become thread bare. Even years later they bring smiles.

I suspect that what we really need is more Rick Steves or Anthony Bourdain. A great trip is a bargain and its profit is priceless. The average Joe doesn’t need a million bucks to live like one as long as he/she leaves home now and again to see the rest of the world. Instead of flipping a house, maybe we should just fly away.

Shades of Gray

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Years ago a friend of mine decided to enlist a professional decorator to help her enhance the appearance of her home. The artist walked through the house quietly looking around, picking up items now and again, jotting down observations. When she had completed her tour she sat down with my friend and bluntly asked, “How much of this junk are you willing to remove?”

There was a stunned silence as my friend attempted to understand exactly what the designer had just asked her. “All of it has to stay,” was her halting reply. “These are my family’s things. We use everything that you see. They have special meanings to us. I just need you to add some color, move a few things around, arrange our belongings in a more inviting way. The books, music, mementoes and such are part of who we are. They have to be incorporated into your plan.”

With a look of unadulterated disgust the interior artist suddenly stood up while putting away her notebook and pen. She announced with an arrogant emphasis, “I can’t help you. I can’t do a thing for you if you are unwilling to completely change the way things look around here. This is too much. You need to find someone else or do it yourself.”

My friend likes to tell everyone that she was stunned into a state of silence as the decorator promptly left. Later she did all of the rearranging and painting by herself and the results were quite lovely. She realized in that moment that she had chosen all of the things that seemed like clutter to the designer, and they were more than just junk. They were pieces of her family’s history.

I was reminded of this story when I recently read one of those click bait articles that often appear on Facebook. The topic was how to know when your home decorating is no longer trendy. The author consulted with respected interior designers to determine how to know when things go out of style. The entire essay came across as being snooty and out of touch with the realities of ordinary people. It insisted that kitchens with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances are already passé. It further suggested that homes done in shades of gray and white are hopelessly behind the times. The author knocked the country look, anything resembling a Chip and Joana home, items purchased at Target, Edison light bulbs and so on. The words reeked of the same kind of arrogance that my friend had endured in her one encounter with a professional. The comments from Facebook users tore the suggestions apart, with readers hurling their fury at the unrealistic haughtiness of the writer.

I had to laugh because according to the article my home should be in the “what not to do” hall of fame. Nonetheless I really like the way things look around here. Every inch of my space tells a story about people I have known and places that I have been. The walls are filled with art that either reminds me of trips that I have taken or friends and relatives who created the work for me. I have books in every room that touched my soul as I read them. The furniture is an eclectic mix of inherited antiques and comfortable modern pieces that I like. There are colors that make me happy, not those that happen to be in style. I have plants scattered about that bring in the outdoors and magazines waiting to be read. There is a lovely memory everywhere that I glance, right down to the heart shaped rock that my grandchildren discovered on a back backing hike that I shared with them in the mountains of Colorado. I am more than content with what I see because my environment is personal and meaningful. I never feel as though I am in a hotel or someone else’s space.

I certainly have no trouble with the idea of incorporating suggestions from someone who has studied color, fabric, furniture, proportion and such. I regularly read Southern Living and watch HGTV now and again. I have items from Target and Home Goods but I also sometimes splurge on something special from Pottery Barn or Restoration Hardware. I consider my purchases carefully most of the time, but it can be fun to bring something whimsical into the picture, and I almost always find a lasting memento to add to my collection when I take a trip. I have a giant pine cone from California and a lovely print of a sailing ship from Cape Cod. A cobalt blue pitcher that was handblown in Estes Park, Colorado adorns my dining room, and prints of Savannah, Georgia hang in the living room. When I see these things I recall the fun that I shared with my family. They allow me to relive such grand moments again and again.

Decorating is a very personal thing, and I suspect that a truly gifted designer understands that. Years ago when my mother in law was redoing a grand old home she enlisted the help of a professional who wisely surveyed the items that would be used as well as the color palette that my mother in law preferred. Mostly the work of creating a pleasing environment involved incorporating my mother in law’s taste into the final product. The result was picture perfect and best of all it reflected the personality of the owners of the home, not the person who would never live there.

Decorating is fun, but it needn’t be expensive or impersonal. The best homes are the ones that instantly capture the essence of the people who reside inside. A great house is warm and inviting. If done right it doesn’t matter if it is gray or filled with a rainbow of colors, clean and sleek or crowded with interesting accessories. The most important goal of decorating should be to make the people who live there feel warm and comfortable and happy. Once that is accomplished nothing else really matters.

By the way…I really do like the style of Chip and Joanna, my appliances are stainless steel, I often shop at Target, and I still have some Edison lightbulbs. So there…!

God Willing And The Creek Don’t Rise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Banquet Table of Anthony Bourdain

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(It’s taken me a bit to consider what I wanted to say about Anthony Bourdain. I suppose that is okay, because all too often we mourn the loss of someone and then seem to move on to other things. I think that he is someone worth remembering, and we would do well to model his approaches to learning about and loving people. His suicide will never define the incredible person that he was. Mental illness all too often steals some of the best among us away.)

When I think of good times with family and friends it almost always involves food. My grandmother Little was a country woman through and through whose dishes focused on things like fried chicken, fresh fish that she caught herself, pot roast and oodles of vegetables from her garden. Eating Sunday dinner with her was more than just a consumption of cuisine worthy of the Pioneer Woman. It was a communion of love that was special from the Happy Village dishes on which she served her recipes to the strawberries and cream that she spread on thin slices of cake. We understood that those gatherings were a gift from our grandma that we have never forgotten. Our senses somehow manage to recall the bounty that she spread on her mahogany dining table with clear detail. Even decades later we are able to recover the tastes, aromas, and sights from the memory banks of our brains. They serve as a the trademark of the wonderful moments that we shared with her. Those memories keep her alive in our minds decades after she was gone.

We so often associate food with our relationships. My mouth waters just a bit when I think of Ed’s “fancy” that included oysters Rockefeller, red beans and rice and conversation that I will never forget. I smile at the thought of Linda’s perennially delicious dishes over which we sat for hours raising our families together and building  lifelong relationships. Bieu’s pig roasts and crawfish boils always bring a diverse group of people together even when we sometimes have no idea what everyone is saying. Monica gives us a taste of Europe and a feeling of welcoming warmth. Michael grills his burgers as the children play and we reminisce about times past and celebrate those yet to come. Granny’s tea time was a backdrop for serious discussions. Uncle Paul’s  green eggs and ham were the stuff of our jokes that in truth were somehow strangely delicious. The tangerines and nuts that filled bowls at Christmas time reunions represented the bounty that our crazy immigrant family had achieved. Grandma Ulrich with her weak, milky, sugary cups of coffee taught us how to bring elegance and joy to the most simple fare. Food is most certainly intimately intertwined with family, friends, relationships.

Anthony Bourdain was one of those people who understood the power and symbolism of sharing food. He traveled the world, breaking bread in places where many of us would not dare tread. He introduced us to the loveliness of our humanity and also taught us the importance of being respectful to all cultures. He truly loved people not for how he wanted them to be, but exactly the way they really were. His enthusiasm for the unusual was always apparent in his stories and interviews. He understood that there is not one right or wrong way of doing things or being. He was a beautiful man in that regard. There was a complexity of his intellect and ability to use words, but there was also a simplicity in his delight over very small joys.

We need more people like Anthony Bourdain, a man who appeared to be judgement free. One of my favorite stories of him was about his defense of an older woman who wrote a restaurant review column for a newspaper in North Dakota. She became the butt of snarky commentary and jokes after she published an earnest piece about the opening of an Olive Garden in her town. She was polite and complimentary of everything from the decor to the professionalism of the server. For her efforts she was virally ridiculed. It was Anthony Bourdain who came to her rescue by noting quite gallantly that she was providing us with a portrait of a part of our society that we sometimes don’t see, and doing it very well. He eventually invited her the New York City and encouraged her to publish her best work. He took the time to get to know her better over coffee in a moment that so special for her. Ultimately her book became a hit with his help, but what was most telling about this incident was his compassion and understanding that each of us has something to offer, something new that will enrich lives. This I believe was the key Anthony Bourdain’s success.

The best people, like Anthony Bourdain, not only regale us with good food and exciting stories. They also show us how to treat one another. My grandmothers and my mother both modeled the same kind of behavior for me, demonstrating how to find the beauty in every single person. They encouraged me to open my heart free of preconceived notions. I have been all of the better because of that and I have attempted to pass down that way of embracing the world to my children and grandsons.

I often recall a time when I took my eldest grandson to a small neighborhood grocery store that often attracted an odd assortment of characters. As we pushed our cart through the narrow aisles we heard a gaggle of languages and witnessed some rather odd forms of dress. All the while music sung in a multitude of foreign languages blared over the loud speakers. After we had been there for a few minutes my grandson beamed his most glorious smile at me and exclaimed, “I like dis place. It’s happy!” His comment swelled my heart with pride.

Anthony Bourdain continually challenged us to move out of our comfort zones so that we might find the enriching experiences that truly make life so much more interesting and enjoyable. He showed us that the way to do that is to sit down and enjoy a meal with strangers who in the exchange might even become friends. There’s a whole world of people out there who very likely would love to spend a few hours sharing their stories while supping on the stuff of life. Anthony Bourdain showed us how to do that and how to really live. May he now rest in peace with a special seat at the great heavenly banquet table.