My Motley Crew

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There are photos of me and my cousins lined up in our strollers. From the time I was born I had an instant extended family of aunts and uncles whose children became like extra brothers and sisters to me. Every Friday evening my mother took me and my brothers to visit with my grandmother and her siblings brought their kids as well. While our parents played cards or just chatted, we youngsters played together inventing games and adventures that none of us would ever forget. Friday nights were heavenly and filled with laughter and love. We were a motley crew devoid of any rivalry, a perfect pairing of different personalities.

On the day that my father died all of my cousins came with their parents to rally around my mother and me and my brothers. I was a sad and confused child at that moment, but somehow I felt that my family and I would make it because the support system that surfaced that day was built on so much love that it would never falter. My great big extended family would be there for us on Friday nights and at any other time that we needed bolstering. They were a presence on birthdays, holidays, graduations, ballgames and even when we were sick. 

I grew up with my cousins. I was so close to them that we might as well have come of age in the same house or on a huge commune. We went to the beach together every Sunday when the weather became warm. We played roles in each other’s weddings and served as godparents for each other’s babies. Our almost spiritual connection to each other never left us. I always knew that as long as any of my cousins were still around I would never be alone. 

We have lost a few of my sweet cousins along the way. The first was one of the girls, a beautiful soul who was born in the same year as my youngest brother. Her sudden death at the age of sixteen almost put me in my own grave. I don’t think I’ve ever really gotten over the loss. It was the first time that I realized that my beloved cousins were not immune to tragedy and death. Somehow I had always felt, or maybe wished, that we would all be immortal.

The next cousin to go was one of my closest and most favorite. He and I were only months apart in age and we had spent so much time together that we could almost read each other’s minds. We joked and teased like brothers and sisters might do. We took dance classes together and hurled berries from a tallow tree at each other while pretending to be soldiers at war. He grew to be a very good man who dedicated himself to family. On the day my mother died he drove over a hundred miles to bring his mother to the hospital to say her final goodbyes. He inspired all of us with his love and devotion and goodness and somehow our world still seems a bit incomplete without his impish grin and silly jokes. 

Another cousin died just last year around this time. He was a true intellect, a kind of renaissance man whose life had been incredible. We all admired his successes, but he was always humble all that he had achieved. He enjoyed talking about books he had read, quoting passages from a memory that remained sharp through all of his days. He was the cousin old enough to remember our grandfather who died before most of us ever met him. He made our patriarch come alive with his vivid descriptions. He also liked telling me about his interactions with my father. I revelled in just sitting with him like a student, soaking in all of his greatness. 

It has been difficult losing my brother and sister cousins. Now we are all growing older and some are dealing with life changing illnesses. One among us had developed dementia rather suddenly. He has always been the sweetest of our lot. He seemed to inherited great kindness and patience from his father. Even when we were little he was the one who nurtured us and gave us soothing advice. He was so calm and loving that just being around him was always good.

Now his mind is in a fog. When we visit he has long moments of confusion and his verbal responses to us are short and repetitive, but he still seems to have some idea of who we are. It is difficult to see him this way, bent and shuffling as he walks. I remember racing with him at my grandmother’s house and riding the waves with him at the beach on Sundays. I marveled at his tales of long walks in the park next to his home. I liked the way he told such wonderful stories and the glint of humor that lit up his eyes. Now it feels as though we are saying a long goodbye and that one day we will remember all of the glorious days that we shared and he will not. It breaks our hearts. In meaning ways we have already begun the grieving process for him.

My mother and all of my aunts and uncles are gone now. My grandmother died when I was a young adult. My cousins have been my lifeline, the people who have loved me unconditionally for every moment of of my life. These days we seem to be meeting more and more often at funerals or in hospital rooms. We call and text each other and come to life when we hear each other’s voices but somehow that is never enough. Losing them one by one is like losing a tiny bit of myself. The person that I am today is tied up intimately with that motley crew of cousins. I still have the memories to make me smile, but I am beginning to better understand the fragility of even the strongest relationships. Somehow it had never really dawned on me that I might begin to lose the very people who had always been my anchor. I hate to admit that I have often taken for granted that my cousins would always be with me.

I have a vivid picture in my mind of all of us running and laughing and loving. We are young and beautiful and ready to take on the world with nary a thought of ever losing each other. To our good fortune we have been as stuck together throughout our lives as if someone had joined us with super glue. How wonderful it has been to be able to count on my motley crew of cousins!

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The Jackpot

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I enjoy traveling more than anything else that I do, but for most of my life going on trips has been confined to the summer breaks that schools create for students and teachers. Because of my profession, free time for visiting places other than my own city has been confined to a short span of time between June and the end of August. Eventually my work responsibilities resulted in an annual vacation time that only occurred  during July. Such a limited scope of time changed the way I thought of travel. I had to plan vacations far in advance and make certain that I had chosen a worthy place to visit because I only got that one shot each year. 

I often drove past or through Las Vegas on my way to other destinations, but never had much desire to stop there. On a camping trip to the Grand Canyon with friends one summer the extent of our sojourn in Las Vegas was stopping for gasoline and a restroom break at a service station and convenience store that also housed a bank of slot machines. After filling the tanks of our cars and purchasing snacks for the road we all agreed to slip a few coins into the slots just for fun. We had already invested around seventy five cents in the dream of making it big when one of our companions hit the jackpot so to speak, ending up with a bucketful of quarters. We laughed and cheered his good fortune and then promptly drove out of town. 

I would not return to Las Vegas until years later when my principal chose me an another teacher to attend a national mathematics teachers’ conference. My fellow educator was quite familiar with the place because it had been a tradition in her family to spend a week at the Flamingo Hotel every summer just before school began in the fall. She was a seasoned traveler to the area who knew how to navigate around the airport and the strip like a professional guide. 

Together we toured the town between sessions of the conference. We watched the musical water show at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino and walked through the elegant lobby just to say we had been there. She took me to a place that supposedly offered the world’s largest steak dinner. We each ordered a meal and I was quietly unimpressed with meat so tough that I was barely able to swallow it. We went to what was supposed to be one of the best buffets in town, but I found the food to be incredibly ordinary. All in all the trip reinforced my feeling that I had missed nothing by avoiding Las Vegas over the years. 

During the last few years of my career I found myself back in Las Vegas for yet another conference. This time I was mainly on my own to view the town. I had not thought to purchase a ticket to one of the many shows that my fellow educators attended. Sadly because it was off season the really big stars were not there anyway. I spent much of my time, when not attending the conference sessions, reading in my room and wondering why people are so enamored with the place. I found myself laughing at the fact that we each have such differing preferences for how to spend our time.  

I suppose that Las Vegas with its bright lights and carnival like atmosphere is anathema to my introverted personality. The only thing that I actually enjoyed while I was there was dancing on the roof of the Rio Hotel one evening. Otherwise I had little interest in the place. It was hot and dry and filled with so many people and so much noise that made it impossible to relax. Since I don’t enjoy gambling away my money, I became quickly bored and wondered why I seemed to be the only one who would rather have been back at home. 

There is a glitter and glamor associated with Las Vegas that does not speak to me at all. I might not mind seeing a great entertainer perform, but what would I do with myself during the rest of the day? In Las Vegas I feel like a stick in the mud who brings down the joy of those who really like the place. I’d much rather walk under the shade of enormous trees in Yosemite National Park or spend a day viewing art at the MOMA in New York City. I found way more joy gazing into the North Sea in the tiny town Robin Hood’s Bay in England. I suppose that when it comes to travel I prefer historical places and the majesty of nature. 

I like a sure bet, one hundred percent return on my investment of time and money. I know that I don’t get that in Las Vegas. If I were to visit a single place over and over again in my lifetime it would have to be Rocky Mountain National Park, the French Quarter in New Orleans, New York City, Boston, Chicago, the Amish Country of Indiana, San Francisco, Savannah, Washington D.C., Zion National Park, Washington State, Monterey Bay, Yellowstone National Park, London, the Grand Canyon, Sedona, Santa Fe. 

I could go on and on about places that I love, but you probably get the idea. I’ll leave Las Vegas to those who enjoy such things. More power to them for finding what brings them joy. I’ll take my own way of exploring myself through the places that I visit. I’ll get lost in the silence of a long hike or the discovery of history. For those things I don’t need luck. My jackpot will be memories that never fade.

Quibbling and Quarreling

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I teach a very bright young lady who recently participated in her first debate competition. She was describing how difficult it was to argue both for and against her topic which happened to be capital punishment. She noted how interesting it was to be forced by the rules of debate to be compelled to develop persuasive arguments for opposing sides. It made her realize that there is generally no one definitive way of dealing with the problems we face. Such would be true of virtually any societal challenge that we humans face, and yet we have a tendency to divide ourselves into groups that cling to unbending allegiance to simplistic solutions for almost everything. 

Crime is a huge topic these days. Most of the time we don’t really analyze the landscape of criminal activity to honestly determine who is committing illegal activities, where those things are taking place and what issues in the environment might be leading to an uptick in criminal enterprises. In other words, we just react and then argue over whether we need to harden our stance on punishments or make better attempts to better understand what is creating the behaviors that lead to misdeeds. The art of debate tells us that maybe there is actually a hybrid of ideas that will work more effectively than siding with one philosophy over another. 

Such is true of virtually any problem that we might want to solve, but in our hardheadedness we all too often want a quick fix that aligns with our personal feelings rather than with the facts. It takes time, effort and often money to understand what is actually happening when things appear to be going awry. The best solutions to challenges come from diverse teams of people who are willing to genuinely work together rather than pushing their ideas without compromise. Any group that is unable to get past their differences will generally fail. 

In both work and social situations I have learned over and over again how powerful it can be to combine the best of diverse beliefs. Even something as seemingly simple as planning a trip with friends or family can become either a joy or a nightmare depending on how well the people involved consider alternative thinking. Often the amalgam of ideas creates the best final product, but such a process requires everyone to be able to be able to speak and discuss freely and with respect. 

My school was once faced with low student scores on standardized tests. We knew that we had to change something or expect the same disappointing outcomes over and over again. We spent many days, countless hours, analyzing and categorizing the testing data from every student as well as every teacher. We learned exactly where the problem areas were. Then we went back through data from previous years to determine when the difficulties seemed to begin. Our process was tedious, but incredibly rewarding. We adjusted our teaching to work on our exact needs. We shared best practices and supported each other. There was no competition. We were a team and our efforts yielded incredible results. Soon we were even coaching other schools in the methods for improving teacher and student learning. 

Unrelenting divisions between people kills systems. Anyone who has ever played in a group sport understands the power of teamwork. A squad of competing individuals does not win. Movies and real life demonstrate this important reality over and over again. Ted Lasso did not know much about soccer, but he had the heart of a great coach. He brought his team together in a kind of brotherhood first, then worked on winning games. When Ford Motor Company created a team spirit instead of isolating each process of building cars, they suddenly began producing better quality vehicles.

Our governmental systems would do well to set aside political differences and come together to work as a team intent on actually solving problems rather than constantly running for office and plotting to be powerful. Too much time is wasted on ideological arguments rather than honest attempts to consider the best processes for meeting our very real challenges. Right now our lawmakers at every level have made a game of competing for the limelight and pushing their views on everyone else. They are more about preventing solutions than finding them. To a very large extent most of our governing bodies are now broken because the elections and allegiances to limited bases of people are more important than actually doing something significant for all of the people. Even our courts are more likely to be staffed with like minded political judges than with fair, just, and impartial mediators. 

So often my young students appear to understand what must be done in the world more clearly than the adults. They have an eager willingness to consider new ideas. They enjoy learning about issues that have been unknown to them. They delight in the belief that every notion has both pros and cons. They are open minded and excited about working together. Somehow far too many of  the grownups have lost that capacity to appreciate diversity in thinking. They quibble and quarrel and get nothing done. It’s a sad state of affairs, and yet here we are.

A Perfect Night Under the Stars

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I must have been about fourteen years old when my physical science teacher announced that he would be setting up his telescope on the school football field one evening. He invited all of us who were in his class to drop by to take a look at the night sky. Since I literally lived just down the street from the school, I eagerly accepted his invitation along with my mother and brothers who were equally excited by the opportunity to view the heavens. 

It was a clear night with hundreds of stars sparkling in the sky. Back then Houston was still a relatively small city and out in the suburbs where we were there were not that many lights, so the stars shone more brightly than they now do. There was a bit of a chill in the air that somehow made the event even more exciting.

A small crowd had already assembled around the telescope that the teacher had adjusted for maximum viewing. We took turns looking at the craters in the moon and different stars, but it was when our host aimed the lens at Saturn that I experienced a breathless moment. I squinted into the eye piece and suddenly there was the most extraordinary sight I had ever seen. Saturn with its r rings was as clear as if it had landed on the field where we all stood. I screamed with delight at the wondrous vision. 

I’ve spent many a night camping under starry skies and each time I look toward the upward I remember that moment in my youth when I saw the planet that before had only been described with words or drawings. Until that moment Saturn was only a celestial concept in my mind. Seeing that it was real was life changing. 

I have a fascination with space that has only grown as we humans have traveled to the moon and sent expeditions to Mars. Thinking about my place in the universe humbles me. I am little more than a tiny speck, but I am important in the grand scheme of things just as every creature and living thing is. It is mind boggling how life bursts forth only in places with the a precise balance of elements. There is something quite spiritual about the idea of the evolution of the heavens and our own planet Earth over time . 

Our human curiosity and inventiveness has allowed us to learn more and more about where we live and faraway orbs of light. Perhaps our ancestors felt the pull of the sky just as I did on that night of long ago. Perhaps it is a natural human yearning to understand the place where we live, the tiny universe inside our bodies, the inner workings of our minds, and how the vast expanse beyond our atmosphere affects us. I often wonder what worlds are out there waiting for us to discover.

I am bound to the earth by gravity and age. It is unlikely that I will ever explore the heavens the way I fly from one place to another. It is only in my imagination and with the images from explorers that I know so much more than I did on that chilly night when Saturn became so real to me. I felt the kind of adventurous exhileration that has pushed humans to explore since the beginning of time. I became addicted to learning more and more. 

The skies where I live are filled with millions of artificial lights these days. There is a haze that hides the brilliance of the stars. It is as though they are purposely hiding from view, angry that we have blotted them out of sight. Sometimes I forget what it once looked like to gaze at the night time sky. Then I find myself camping in far west Texas where people are few and stars are many. I look upward and feel a rush of excitement. The stars crowd the sky with their light. It is a glorious and magnificent sight. I am reminded that those orbs are always there, but we humans have all too often hidden them with our artificial illumination, forgotten that they are a constant in a universe that we do not always treat well.

The balance of life depends on maintaining our delicate atmosphere and protecting the air and water that all living things need to survive. We have learned much about our planet and those beyond. We have an understanding of how things work. We know that we are but specks in the vastness of the heavens and yet we act as though we do not need to treasure the unique gifts that we have. In our pride we ignore those who have devoted their focus and their work to understanding the delicate equilibrium of life on the earth. We foolishly feud among ourselves pretending that only one place or one group of people really matter. We waste our resources and trash the earth piling up momentary riches that will become meaningless when we are gone. Perhaps it is time for us to better cherish this place that we call earth and all of the people who inhabit it. We will have to work together to keep it as magnificent as it was meant to be. 

I can still see Saturn so vividly in my mind. I remember the craters of the moon. I think of my science teacher who attempted to show me the importance of understanding how things work and the need for continuing to learn and seek answers. I know I must heed the warnings that modern day explorers of the heavens have sounded. They look down from space to see changes that place our planet in danger. We need to hear what they have to say and believe them. We are but small parts of a grand scheme. We must always be certain that our hubris does not destroy the heavenly balance that was meant to be. That perfect night under the stars taught me to honor my place in the universe.  

An Ordinarily Extraordinary Journey

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Now and again a perfect day comes along. It may not be out of the ordinary, and yet it is remarkable and leaves you smiling each time you remember it. I had such a day a few Saturdays ago. It was almost spiritual in both its simplicity and grandeur. 

I rode to Austin, Texas with my eldest daughter. Earlier there had been raging thunderstorms, but somehow the sky cleared and the roads dried just in time for our departure from Houston. We talked, really talked, the entire way. I realized that it had been a very long time since we had been alone together for such an extended period and it was great just to be free to babble on and on about this and that and nothing. The drive seemed to go by in a flash before we drove into my grandson’s apartment complex where we would stay the night. 

We stowed away our bags and headed to a Mexican restaurant that has been a legend in Austin for over seventy years. It’s said that there was a time when the beloved University of Texas football coach, Darrell Royal, was a regular customer. The parking lot was packed with cars and the line just to reserve a table snaked out of the door. There was a lively joyfulness in the air that made me smile as I engaged in my favorite hobby of people watching. Somehow nobody appeared to be annoyed at the long wait. Instead we joked and introduced ourselves to pass the time until our table was ready and we enjoyed a delightful meal as while soaking in the jovial atmosphere. 

The following morning came the main event, another grandson’s final cross country race of the year. It was a chilly day and there was a strong breeze that sent our hair flying and made our faces red. It bode well as the first hint of fall. I knew that my grandson preferred running in cooler temperatures, so I suspected that he would do well, which he did. In fact he made the trek over a hilly course over three minutes faster than his previously best time. He was overjoyed and so were we. 

At a picnic later we basked in the sun and enjoyed a visit with my grandson’s coach who applauded him for his improvement while checking to see how he felt about his efforts. I liked her style and saw that she was genuinely concerned about each of her athletes and their development. Their wellbeing seemed more important to her than the fact that they had all done quite well in the race. it was nice to witness her methodologies and to know that my grandson was in good hands but all too soon it was time to go. We hugged my grandson and wished him well in the rest of his semester as he promised to be home for Thanksgiving. 

On the way back to Houston we stopped along the banks of the Brazos River, among a grove of trees near a spot where a famous heart surgeon had once spent weekends away from the stresses of saving lives. The sky had become a bit overcast and it should have made me feel dreary, but instead I felt a kind of spiritual calm. I thought about all of the people who might have passed along the banks of this old river and it somehow reminded me of the mix of all of the emotions that they might have experienced on their own journeys. The quiet was healing to my heart that too often worries more than it should. Little wonder that the good doctor who saved so many lives enjoyed stopping here for respite whenever he was able. 

Suddenly my daughter suggested that we end our little trip with dinner at Cracker Barrel, my mother’s favorite place to eat. Somehow we both thought of her. She was after all represented in half of the name I had given my little girl so long before. As we sat munching on the country inspired food much like my grandmother used to make, We spoke of the Fridays when my mother would delight in the place like a child at an amusement park. 

In honor of my mama we shopped for Christmas gifts in the already brightly decorated front of the store. We found gifts for friends and neighbors and joked about how my mother always insisted that we choose some candy to take home whenever we came here. I thought of the retirement gift my mama had left for me when she died only the day after I had turned in my keys for my last full time job. She had left a package that contained trinkets from Cracker Barrel that sent lovely messages to me about how much she loved me. 

I still treasure the memories of time with my mother just as I felt the same kind of joy just being alone with my daughter, doing a little bit of nothing other than being together without having to busy ourselves with other concerns. It was therapy in a homespun kind of way, nothing to boast about, but more meaningful and memorable than a grand caravan to exotic places. Sometimes the best times are the ones that are the most ordinary. As I think on our little trip I realize how truly extraordinary it was.