A Piece of My Heart Stays In San Francisco

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It’s easy to understand why Tony Bennet left his heart in San Francisco. It is one of those cities that never grows old for me. I return again and again to find that I am still enchanted with its beauty. I can’t imagine getting tired of looking into the bay or crossing over the Golden Gate Bridge. I am delighted by the undulating hills of the streets that are adorned with the most delightful houses. It is a city comparable to London, Paris or Rome in my mind, and it is only a short plane ride away from my home town of Houston. Periodically I get the itch to return, and luckily I enjoyed the opportunity to be there a week or so ago.

The nice thing about my actual destination of Sacramento is that it is really close to lots of great places most of which I was able to visit in between my grandson’s races. I was actually a bit disappointed to learn that next year’s Junior Olympics will be held in a different locale because Sacramento was just perfect in every possible way.

Our brief sojourn in San Francisco was made even shorter by a massive traffic jam that we encountered on the way to the city. Our two hour drive time was almost doubled by some kind of difficulty that we never actually saw. As far as we knew it occurred just because so many people were traveling to the city by the bay on a beautiful Friday afternoon. Whatever the reason we ultimately reached the outskirts and were directed by Siri to travel in an unusual direction that gave us the opportunity to see the bay from the viewpoint of an industrial port. It was a great reminder of how and why San Francisco developed over time and it also happened to be quite interesting.

Eventually we circled around to a high end area on the Sausalito side of the Golden Gate Bridge. There were lovely homes nestled in the hills and exclusive shops that spoke of a clientele with excellent incomes. The traffic on the bridge was moving freely but fog covered the structure even though it was an almost cloudless day. The usual gorgeous view was obstructed, but there was nonetheless something quite appropriate about seeing it in this different way. I had always heard about San Francisco fog but never seen it in any of my former visits.

We were specifically searching for the Rothy’s shoe store in downtown so that we might purchase a particular pair of pumps for our daughter who has become a big fan of the trendy flats made from recycled plastic water bottles. The style she wanted is only available in the store, so we knew that she would be quite excited to receive them. We got a cook’s tour of the city as we turned here and then there to reach the tiny shop that was jam packed with excited women trying on their favorite colors and styles. I was able to bypass all of the commotion because I knew exactly what I wanted and luckily they had what I needed in stock. The very accommodating sales lady gave me a wonderful canvas bag to carry my purchase and I was soon waving Mike down as he circled the street again and again.

I had heard vicious rumors about San Francisco streets littered with homeless people and human feces. I saw nothing like that as we drove from one end of town to the other. In fact everything was impeccably clean and all of the residents and tourists seemed to be having a great time. There were smiles all around.

Of course a brief look at real estate prices showed me that few people can actually afford to live in San Francisco. The only home that I found that would cost the same as my house was a six hundred fifty square foot studio. It’s difficult to imagine how much someone must make to afford the luxury of living in that grand city.

We continued our drive down memory lane by traveling over the bridge into Oakland and finally into Berkeley. I saw something there that was both dismaying and at the same time rather nice. A kind of homeless tent city had been set up near a park. There was a sign indicating that a concerned group was managing the care of the people who lived inside the cloth structures that were neatly lighted up in rows. Someone had installed solar panels to create electricity and there was a Porta-potty for the use of the homeless souls.

A few of the people were sitting at a table playing dominoes and all in all it appeared to be a safer and cleaner alternative to the homeless encampments that I have seen across America. Since few of those who are homeless like the idea of being confined in shelters with lots of rules this solution was a rather ingenious one, something that we might immolate everywhere. Because so many of the people in these conditions are either suffering from some kind of addiction or a severe mental illness they need to be actively monitored while at the same time granting them the dignity of freedom. I mentally applauded the group that had taken the initiative to help in small but powerful ways.

We ended our excursion with a visit to Rudy’s Can’t Fail Cafe in Emmeryville where we enjoyed burgers and onion rings. We were happy to see Pixar flourishing across the street and marveled at all of the improvements in the once downtrodden area. What had at one time been an almost abandoned industrial disaster is now looking modern and upbeat.

I was quite happy to be able to visit San Francisco before returning to Houston. I hope that I will be able to see it again and again. There is something magical about it that soothes my soul. A piece of my heart always stays there even if I will never call it home.

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The Old West

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I grew up watching westerns with my Uncle Jack. I loved all of those shows about the old west but perhaps my favorite was Bonanza with its stories about the Cartwright family. Hoss and Adam and Little Joe were heroes to me and I loved the tales of their adventures. On many an episode they wandered into Virginia City to take care of business or meet up with friends. I was fascinated by the lifestyle of those long ago towns where folks endured hardship in search of gold or silver or some better way of life. Imagine my delight when our recent travels took us to the real historic Virginia City in Nevada just outside of that state’s capitol, Carson City.

This was once the site of a booming gold rush town. The decaying remnants of the old mines still litter the hillsides in a haunting way. They serve as a reminder of the ebb and flow of booms and busts in the story of mankind. Once they were alive with frantic activity designed to pull riches out of the earth. Now there is little more left than worthless mine trailings and rusty tin walls.

The road into Virginia City climbs through the hills along a paved highway that was no doubt a muddy dirt trail that people from across the globe traveled in the latter half of the nineteenth century in search of opportunity. Most of the buildings in the town date back to the glory days after the 1849 discovery of gold. An old school house tells of the families that came and a saloon is evidence of a different way to create wealth through a more insidious form of entertainment. The buildings are alive with history and seem to be whispering that if one only tarry for a time the secrets that are buried there might be revealed.

As we drove along the main street of Virginia City I found myself feeling the spirit of its settlers of old, people hoping against all hope of finding the mother lode or earning enough to survive by providing services of one kind or another. “Who were the folks who traveled here?” I wondered. What motivated them to leave everything they had ever known to travel to this desert like place where there were no guarantees that their efforts might be rewarded? What dangers lurked? How many if them left broke or forever changed?

We like to romanticize the old west but it was truly a harsh existence. There were many dangers not the least of which was being broken by the challenges. Somehow the folks who came here never thought that perhaps the land they were invading might already belong to Native Americans whose roots were hundreds of years old. They somehow assumed that they had a right to make claims of ownership without compensating those that they displaced. I truly wonder how they could not have known that there was something a bit wrong with their thinking, but then I wasn’t there. Humankind’s journey has been fraught with battles between opposing groups claiming ownership of land since the beginning of time.

Virginia City is a place where time seems to have stopped. It is a tangible piece of history that tells us a story of folks desperate to make something more of their lives. Fortunes were made and lost there. Lives were treated to elation and great disappointment. We have romanticized those tales and made them part of the tradition of the hero’s journey when perhaps they were little more than ordinary efforts to survive. Maybe back then it took great courage just to eke out a living from one day to the next, but there was probably very little glamor in any corner of places like Virginia City.

My paternal ancestors never ventured very far from the land east of the Mississippi River. It was my maternal grandparents eventually found their way to Houston, Texas from Austria Hungary. They had heard stories of a new kind of black gold, oil. While they never engaged in the search for the goo that gushed from the earth they understood that other kinds of services might be needed and they were willing to work long hours cleaning other people’s messes to provide a decent living for themselves. I suspect that their story is mirrored in the lives of those who set out to tackle the old west. Many never became rich but they found ways to work and enjoy a better lifestyle than they might otherwise have had. I suppose this is what people everywhere have always done.

We now debate whether or not this decision or that choice of our ancestors was right and just without ever knowing what peoples’ real motivations were. It is in reality a kind of self righteous judgement on our parts for we will never be able to truly understand what life was like or how the thinking of the past influenced people. Until we are able to walk in a person’s shoes we are only conjecturing as to their thinking and there is something rather presumptuous about that.

I am fascinated by the old west and all of history. Our human imperfections are in full view in the chronicles of the human story. The people who came before us made mistakes just as each of us does even now no matter how well intentioned we might be. We can never judge the actions of others without demonstrating some of our own imperfections. Perhaps it is best just to learn from them and to change our own ways rather than judging whether are not they were worthy of our respect. What happened happened in a world far different from our own. For now it’s just fun to visit the places where people once did their best to make life just a bit better for themselves and their families. It’s really cool to see vestiges of how they lived and to realize the scope of human efforts through the evolution of time.

God’s Artistry

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I have heard about Lake Tahoe for most of my life, but honestly knew little about the place. I’d heard that it was the location of some of the filming of the old Bonanza television program and one of my old neighbors visits her brother there regularly. My own brother frequently took trips there as well and often took my mother along on his family vacations. My mom enthusiastically related that it was one of the most beautiful places that she had ever seen. Beyond that I was only able to imagine what Lake Tahoe is really like. Recently I found an opportunity to see the place for myself.

My husband and I traveled to Sacramento to watch our grandson, Eli, run in the USA Track and Field Junior Olympics. Since he was only competing in a couple of events there were whole days when we had time to do some exploring. A quick Google search alerted me to the fact that we were only a couple of hours away from Lake Tahoe, so I quickly planned a day trip to visit the wonder that I had never before seen. I had little idea what I might find at the end of my journey but so many had spoken of the splendor of the area that I actually worried that I might be a bit disappointed. Expectations often exceed reality and I braced myself for the possibility of being underwhelmed.

Our drive began through farm country where we saw a variety of crops being grown in a landscape that was so dry that it seemed incongruous that fields were green. The towns through which we passed appeared to be struggling to remain meaningful with obvious closures of businesses that no doubt once brought great hope to the citizens. It was a pleasant journey nonetheless that became even more enchanting once we took the cutoff for the highway to Lake Tahoe. Our car climbed to higher elevations through forests of pine that sweetened the aroma of the air. It was so pleasant that I would have been satisfied with little more, but to my great pleasure I soon saw the outline of a vast lake looming on the far horizon.

Once we were in view of Lake Tahoe I understood why so many had expressed their awe of the place. The waters of the deep lake were brilliant hues of blue, green, aqua and emerald. Boats dotted the surface like images on a picture post card. It was a lovely sight indeed and I must have used the phrase, “This is so beautiful!” hundreds of times as we drove along the circumference of the water stopping occasionally to snap a picture for posterity. 

The sky was a brilliant blue on that day as though it was competing with the lake for notice. Tall pines encircled the shoreline caressing the water with its deep green branches and filling the air with a fresh and invigorating scent.

Our journey led us through hamlets where fortunate souls owned homes overlooking the glorious scene. Given that Lake Tahoe is known as much for its winter sports as the summertime activities that were in full force I understood why it would be a rather grand place to either live or visit whenever the urge arose. I was utterly delighted with all that I saw.

By the afternoon we were quite hungry so we stopped for lunch and a restaurant called Jakes and enjoyed dining with a spectacular view. The food was as delicious as the scenery and I found myself just wanting to linger at our table on the deck for the remainder of the day. Sadly we had to continue forward so that we might get Eli back to Sacramento in time to rest up for his 1500 meter race the following day.

Our course sent us into the Nevada section of Lake Tahoe and even more spectacular views. There were long walking trails filled with people enjoying the serenity of the scenery along with us. Eventually we found the casinos and amusements of the main area where visitors play and stay. It was like a more inviting mini-Las Vegas and we might have taken a spin or two around one of the clubs but for our underage companion.

Before long we had completed the circuit of our drive much more enchanted than before. I found myself thinking that I needed to one day return to this glorious place so that I might spend more time exploring and enjoying its beauty. I would love to see it in the winter when the snow covers the ground and coats the branches of the trees. Sitting by a warm fire just gazing at the blue waters is an inviting picture in my mind.

Once again I realized the extent of the natural wonders that California encompasses. From the shores of San Diego to the mountain retreats and magnificent lakes it is indeed one of the most beautiful places in our country. Little wonder that people endure droughts, earthquakes, fires and a high cost of living just to be near all of the beauty that it has to offer. God’s artistry is apparent in every direction.

I feel fortunate to be able to travel to places like Lake Tahoe. It was even more awesome because it really was a surprise to learn that people’s estimates of the place were not exaggerated at all. Perhaps I will return again one day to linger longer. In the distance were mountains where the hardy enjoy winter sports when the snows come. 

Our journey led us through hamlets where fortunate souls owned homes overlooking the glorious scene. Given that Lake Tahoe is known as much for its skiing as the summertime activities that were in full force I understood why it would be a rather grand place to either live or visit whenever the urge arose. I was utterly delighted with all that I saw.

By the afternoon we were quite hungry so we stopped for lunch at a restaurant called Jakes and enjoyed dining with a spectacular view. The food was as delicious as the scenery and I found myself just wanting to linger at our table on the deck for the remainder of the day. Sadly we had to continue forward so that we might get Eli back to Sacramento in time to rest up for his 1500 meter race the following day.

Our course sent us into the Nevada section of Lake Tahoe and even more spectacular views. There were long walking trails filled with people enjoying the serenity of the scenery along with us. Eventually we found the casinos and amusements of the main area where visitors play and stay. It was like a more inviting mini-Las Vegas and we might have taken a spin or two around one of the hotels to play the slot machines but for our underage companion.

Before long we had completed the circuit of our drive much more enchanted than before. I found myself thinking that I needed to one day return to this glorious place so that I might spend more time exploring and enjoying its beauty. I would love to see it in the winter when the snow covers the ground and coats the branches of the trees. Sitting by a warm fire just gazing at the blue waters is an inviting picture in my mind.

Once again I realized the extent of the natural wonders that California encompasses. From the shores of San Diego to the mountain retreats and magnificent lakes it is indeed one of the most beautiful places in our country. Little wonder that people endure droughts, earthquakes, fires and a high cost of living just to be near all of the beauty that it has to offer. God’s artistry is apparent in every direction.

I feel fortunate to be able to travel to places like Lake Tahoe. It was even more awesome because it really was a surprise to learn that people’s estimates of the place were not exaggerated at all. Perhaps I will return again one day to stay longer.

When Our Days Were Magic

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It sometimes seems to me that we spend far too much time planning ahead, and far too little time just enjoying the moment. I see evidence of that tendency in all of my daily travels. For example, it’s barely the beginning of July and already the stores are filling with school supplies, uniforms, and fall clothing. It’s bad enough that we push our children back into the classroom before Labor Day, but now we begin eagerly preparing for that moment six weeks in advance. Why can’t we just give our children a break and allow them to enjoy unadulterated fun for a time rather than loading them down with mathematics packets, required summer reading, long essays to complete? We hardly ever give our youngsters time to think for themselves, to decide how to spend their hours. We seem determined to fill every waking hour with activities that we think will help them to achieve more in the future.

Many young folk don’t know the joys of waking up on a warm July day with no plans and no place to go. They have not had the wonderful experience of using their own creativity to make life more adventurous. I rarely see the children in my neighborhood gathering by themselves to play. There are no sounds of games or fort building or any of the many activities that filled my vacations as a child.

I can still feel the exhileration of waking up on those summer morns with the knowledge that we kids had total freedom to face down the day. I can’t recall ever feeling bored, but rather torn between so many ideas for having fun. We often spent the earliest hours of the day in outdoor pursuits because it was still a bit cooler then. We’d ride our bicycles pretending to perform stunts by standing up on the seats or letting go of the handlebars for a few seconds. We travelled to the woods down by the bayou and explored the area with the determination of Lewis and Clark. We’d listen for the calls of the birds and watch for specimens of nature that we’d claim for the cigar box collections that we prized.

Once the sun had climbed high into the sky, and the temperature soared we’d shift gears and begin playing board and card games. There was always at least one mom like mine who gladly offered the kitchen table for a gathering place. We’d have tournaments that lasted for days and pitted us good-naturedly against each other. There was nothing grander than using our skills and a bit of luck to become champions.

We dabbled in the creative as well. We produced plays, performed musicals, and wrote neighborhood newspapers. I remember reading a biography of Truman Capote that told of how he and his neighborhood friend, Harper Lee, used an old typewriter to compose stories about the people that they knew. We did that as well where I lived. None of us ever became famous, but I am certain that my love of writing began way back then.

Sometimes we’d ask our mom to take us to the library, or instead we would ride our bikes to the mobile library that stood by Garden Villas Park. We’d load up with as many titles as allowed, and lie in front of the open windows with the fan blowing on us, enraptured by the stories inside those pages. I was into mysteries back then. I could not seem to get enough of them, and it always thrilled me to unravel the twists and turns of the plots before the big reveal at the end.

Of course there was swimming at one of the city parks. Back then we had an hour to bask in the cool water and then we had to leave for the next group of kids waiting in along line for their turn to enjoy the pool. We’d walk through showers before we were allowed to get into the water and then we’d play Marco Polo and stand on our hands so that our bodies were under the cooling blue waves. It’s remarkable how quickly the time went by, so we celebrated if the life guard decided that the crowd was small enough to allow us an extra hour.

I don’t ever recall our television being on during the day either in the summer or when school was in session. We simply didn’t waste our time on such activities. We had way too many other ideas for amusement. It seemed that there was never enough time to fit our bounty of ideas into those lovely three months when we were our own masters.

It saddens me a bit that so few children today are able to enjoy the kind of childhood that was so commonplace in my youth. I realize that times are a bit more dangerous than those years when we slept with our windows open and rarely locked our doors during the daytime hours. Parents have to be more watchful than our moms and dads were back then. I also understand that taking classes or participating in sports can be meaningful life lessons, but sometimes it’s just as important to provide children with time to figure out things on their own. I suppose that I learned how to think critically, problem solve, and work in cooperative groups during those days of hanging with the kids from the neighborhood without parents organizing us. My free time prepared me for the future in immeasurable ways.

I wish that our children today might know the joy that we did. It was in the summer that I learned to cook or how to earn a little money by doing odd jobs or selling lemonade. I honed my negotiation skills toe to toe with my peers. It was a glorious time, when being a kid meant learning how to navigate and explore. Nothing was rushed. It was summer and each day was magic.

Wanderlust

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I spent a whole lot of years keeping my nose the the grindstone of life. I had two children by the time I was twenty five years old and I devoted most of my days and nights to them. I did teaching jobs of one sort or another for over forty years. Over time I taught every age group from pre-school to high school and subjects ranging from religion to Algebra II. I was as devoted to my students as I was to my two daughters and I sometimes worry that they may have felt in competition with them. My mom struggled with mental illness whose symptoms began to display themselves fifty years ago about the time that mankind first landed on the moon. All in all I never felt comfortable taking too much time away from my duties. There always seemed to be someone who needed me to be around.

My husband was as devoted to taking care of the family and other people as I was. I can count on one hand the number of days that he took off from work, and he often let vacation time lapse because he felt so responsible for happenings at his places of business. Even during the  days when we were newly weds he labored in double shifts at NASA pulling electrical cable under the floor of the Mission Control building to insure that the historic moon landing went off without a hitch. Later he would become a banker and the type of person who spent long days attempting to be of service to his bosses and his customers.

Over the years we found that we had very little time to take trips, and often not enough money to make them extravagant. We eventually purchased a canvas tent and tossed it in the back of our various vehicles to travel across the United States in two week increments. We tended to enjoy vacations in cooler climates since we were depending on Mother Nature to keep us comfortable as we slept at night. We have fond memories of laughing and telling stories inside our humble traveling abode. We always felt safe and happy and blessed to be together enjoying the wonders of our country which we discovered are indeed many.

We created a number of rather corny traditions that still make us smile. We generally began each journey by playing Willie Nelson’s On the Road Again. We’d eat sandwiches for lunch and cook on our propane gas stove for dinner. Somehow the food always tasted better on those adventures than it did at home. We learned how to “rough it” in great style and on those long drives we read a ton of books that we often shared with one another when they turned out to be especially good.

Once our daughters were grown and gone we had a bit more time and money to expend on our explorations even as we spent years paying off the students loans that we had contracted for their college educations. We became a bit more willing to be extravagant on our vacations, flying instead of driving and staying in hotels rather than a tent. Our new found freedom and income spoiled us just enough that we one day found ourselves complaining about sleeping in a tent. It felt as though no matter where we chose to travel it was either too hot or too cold. Besides it became increasingly less comfortable to sleep on the floor and then arise in the morning ready to overcome multiple aches and pains.

We set aside our old camping gear and opted for a trailer instead. It’s not huge, but rather just right for our needs. We’ve taken it all around Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas and even all the way out to San Diego with two of our grandchildren. It’s nice to have an actual bed for sleeping and a real bathroom for taking care of all of our hygiene needs. We’ve had just as much fun in our Sonic as we ever did inside our tent without all of the nuisances that we endured when we were young and hardy.

Now that I am retired I get a case of Wanderlust quite often. I feel compelled to travel as much as I can while I can. While there are exotic places I like to see I find that short and simple trips have their own magic. I’ve discovered the beauty of east Texas and its people. It is a kind of hidden jewel that I had never before thought of as a great destination. I have learned that it is filled with green forests, rolling hills and breathtaking vistas that appear from out of nowhere. The little towns out there hold treasures like the Buttercup Cafe in Gladewater where a young woman and her family make the best hamburgers and coconut cream pie that I have ever tasted. I’ve visited a boutique winery in Mineola filled with amazingly interesting characters and elegantly tasting wines. I’ve wandered around an old home in Tyler that was filled with stories and objects from the past and I’ve sat of an evening in Tyler State Park marveling at the splendor.

I still long to travel across the Atlantic to see Paris and Rome and Vienna. I’d like to visit the towns where my Slovakian grandparents were born. I love New York City and think it would be grand to return there regularly. I’m longing to spend more time in Canada which I consider to be a kind of cousin to my own country. I have yet to visit Alaska or Hawaii and I’ve heard such wonderful things about both of those places.

The clock is ticking. I am going to be seventy one on my birthday this year. Many of my peers have already left this earth and some have been slowed down by illnesses. I want to keep going as long as I can. I have fewer responsibilities now than ever before. I have the time and the wherewithal for traveling, so I plan to take advantage of every opportunity to explore the world around me.

If my travels have taught me anything it is that we humans are even more amazing than the environments in which we live and the things that we have created. People are good everywhere. I’m looking forward to meeting ever more of them.