Monday, May 11, 2020

Memories of an Aunt Who Lit Up the World with Her Trademark Joie de vivre

If we were given the chance to choose the day on which we departed planet Earth, and only the day, and nothing else, one wonders what day we would choose. As I pondered the phone call I’d received from my cousin, Craig, letting me know that my Aunt Beatrice had transitioned into her “next place” of afterlife, Heaven, I had to stop and think about how amazing it was that she was going to get to spend her first Mother’s Day in 56 years with her own mother, and rejoin the company of her older sister, my Mother, who helped raise her as a young child. Not thinking back on those left behind who would miss her terribly, I focused instead on what life had to offer her, at long, long last.

[Left: Aunt Bea and Mom, 1988, in Houston]

When you reach the point in life where medical issues overtake your world and pain and suffering are a regular expectation of each new day, to quote Aunt Bea, “It stinks.” She admonished all of us from time to time: “Never get old. It’s a bore.” I used to laugh when she said it because she herself was laughing. Her trademark laughter was good enough to yank you out of whatever crummy mood you were in and jerk you back into a better frame of mind.

All of 86 years ago, when Bea was born in 1933, in St. Louis, Missouri, she was born at home, the way most babies of the day were. Hospital deliveries were still coming into being. The world as we knew it then was in the midst of the worst year of the depression. There was 25% unemployment and Hitler had just come into power. There was a drought in the Midwest, times were tough everywhere. My Mother was only 10 years old when her baby sister was born, the sixth child of her family to arrive, but one who’d been many years following the first group of five children. Her brothers had brown, blond and red hair, and she took after her brother, Douglas, whose trademark red hair and green eyes set them apart from their sibings, but only slightly since they all resembled one another in many other ways.

A truly sensitive creature, Bea grew up empathetic towards any living creature God created, as well as giving friendship, love and time to all the people in her world. She was a delight and especially did her older brother Douglas use some of the money he made from delivering prescriptions on his bicycle for Walgreen’s Pharmacy, a chain founded in neighboring Chicago in 1901, to buy his baby sister lots and lots of penny candy, and she’d squeal with delight when he came riding up, a little sack in his basket just for her. Going through school, she was a beautiful girl, with long red tresses and Mom spent hours helping her style her hair just so, and delighted in shopping with and for her as she dressed for school. In fact, Bea was Mom’s “practice run” on raising me, I do believe. We’d compare notes from time to time and I must say that Mom was consistent, if nothing else, ha.

When Bea married and eventually became a mother to Craig and his sister Cynthia there were two children who were adored, loved, and who formed the world around which she orbited. She loved being a mother and she had a “day job” to boot while they were in school. During the years when the entire family got together at our grandparents’ home, there was always a lot of laughter, good food, and many happy memories were created.

Fast forward to when my grandmother became a widow at an age far younger than she’d expected. I’m blurry on the details of exactly when, but Bea and her family moved in with Grandmother to make sure she wouldn’t be alone and to help take care of her. Both Bea and her husband Roland were devoted to her and she stayed young by having Craig and Cynthia around the house with daily updates from school to report. She was a good babysitter until the parents got off work and she felt needed, the most important factor of all.

Grandmother died in1974, and Bea and Roland bought the house as their homestead so Bea had only lived outside of the home she was born in for a very short time, relatively speaking. This home was the smaller of the homes my Mom and her siblings had grown up in. They’d had a much larger house before the depression but my Grandfather found his salary cut in half one day so the family had to move.

It was a typical midwestern house with two stories plus a basement, and it backed up to where a giant hospital complex was slowly overtaking the neighborhood. For the past 30 or 40 years, the family could have sold the house but Bea refused. She was determined to stay in the home she was born in, even though living primarily on the second floor of the home where the plumbing necessitated such was to the consternation of each family member who knew how hard it was for her to navigate stairs. There were some points on which she would not budge. Her rules. Her way.

As time went on and her children became adults she was blessed with two grandsons, Andrew and Aaron, and her world propelled back into massive joy once again because she loved little children and loved being a Grandmother. She loved the name too, and didn’t need another moniker, happily accepted Grandma or Grandmother as he own mother had been called.

As is typical in our family, not every family member is in sync with the lives of the others. Geographical distance often makes it an impossibility to stay connected and then time does some more separating and people get busy with their own lives. In 1988, I decided that what my Mom needed was to see her sister in person, and since she was not a fan of airplanes if she didn’t have to travel, Aunt Bea was willing to come to Texas. I decided to make it a surprise for Mom’s birthday.

I will always remember the day that I told Mom I was taking her to lunch but to get dressed up for a nice treat. Both those gals always dressed to the nines in those days, whether or not it was casual Friday in some office. They were raised to dress for the airplane; heck, so was I. Today you see kids traveling in glorified pajamas but…I digress. At any rate, I don’t think I’d been able to come up with any other present before or since that brought Mom as much joy as seeing her baby sister once again. It had been 14 years since my grandmother’s funeral…but it might as well have been 41. It was just too long between.

There were tears, squeals of joy, and I couldn’t stop smiling…as an only child, I’d never known or experienced what it was like to have a sibling, but from my POV, it was awesome to see. We drove across town to meet up with Virginia, another sister, and then we were joined by youngest sister, Sharon. There were enough photos taken that day to fill scrapbooks for years. Bea stayed with us for two weeks and I delighted in having her with us in College Station as it intersected with a program that one of my graduate classes in educational administration was having.

The class was Educational Futures and the instructor was an inspirational critical thinker who had each of us planning what our futures would be like, as we saw them, 20 years hence. We could invite guests for our presentation, and I had two of my buddies coming to participate in my segment (my script called for guest stars)….so I invited Mom and Aunt Bea to see what I’d cooked up. It had been a good 30 years since any kind of elementary school program, ha, and it was a hoot to have them there.

Following the presentation, Aunt Bea rushed up and told me how proud she was of me, that she loved my presentation and that I was “simply wonderful!” I said, “Thank you so much but do you know why I can do what I do?” She said, “No, darling, but you’re just grand at it!” I laughed and said, “Don’t you remember when I finished my undergraduate degree that you told me you’d have been proud of me even if I flunked kindergarten?” She paused and said…”yessss.” I said, “Well, with that kind of unconditional love and support, I don’t fear failure!” She seemed moved by the revelation but I was perfectly serious. Mom, of course, was proud but she stood back and let her baby sister have center stage with my time, as she would.

That would be the last in-person visit between the sisters for the next 16 years, but not the last communication. In the weeks, months and years that followed, the girls exchanged notes, cards, gifts, cassette tapes with recorded messages that brought delight between the sisters upon each hearing. Many tapes were recorded over as the messages went back and forth. I wish they could have had Facetime back then but they were happy for whatever technology offered them at the time.

In 2005, for the first time, I could no longer take care of Mom in my home. Her health required more intensive care and I couldn’t lift her by myself when she needed assistance. It was the toughest decision that we made but we made it together, to make the move to a local nursing community. And Aunt Bea roared into the next gear and made sure Mom felt vital, active and not like a burden that needed managing, the way she’d felt.

Instead, she helped Mom understand that I loved her enough to find her the very best place for care and reassured her that whenever I could I’d be there. She convinced her to help me help her. Aunt Bea did all of that, and I never expected to need it, but when it was needed, she was right there and knew exactly what to say when I didn’t. Of course, I was present at the senior community three times a day and on every shift. It was only 3 months that passed before Mom passed away, but every day was made pleasant because of Bea’s help. Bea called her at least three times a day as well.

Bea and her daughter, my cousin, Cynthia, came to see Mom there in March for a week, and that made Mom so happy. In April, Bea came back on her own, rode the bus all the way from St. Louis, and was with Mom during what would be the close-to-final days of Mom’s life. Bea had a hard time, too, seeing her first hero beginning the transition, so the price she paid was bigger than she’d imagined. But that’s what love is, and that is what—sometimes—families do for one another. It all depends on so many variables as to what is or is not the relationship between siblings. Suffice it to say that “your mileage may vary,” but in this case, the sisters were faithful presences to other all of their lives as best they could be given time and circumstances; they did their very best.

Many of the cousins have their own memories of Bea…she was an advocate and hero to my cousin Diana, she adored the next-gen grandchildren, too, but especially to her grandchildren and great grandchildren. Her children were always, in her retelling, doing fabulous things, she was always so proud of them, and they brought her great joy as they took care of her during her lifetime. Her husband Roland and she cared for her widowed mother-in-law in their home practically all of Bea’s adult life. Her mother-in-law lived to the age of 106, so there was really not much of a time that Bea and Roland had their very own home together, no empty nest, per se. Bea wouldn’t have known what to do with an empty nest; such a foreign concept would have confounded her.

In our lifetimes we find people in our path who are our advocates, with unconditional enthusiasm, love and support for our success, true kindred spirits of the creative soul, and sometimes they are not even related to us directly. For all the lives she touched in her career work, whom we didn’t know about but existed anyway, for the childhood faithful friend she kept all of her life, Janet, and whom she got to see usually once a year, for her sister-in-law Maxine, who was like another sister to her, and for all she loved who were fortunate enough to see her in action—we all learned how to give and receive love. No phone call is complete without exchanging “I love you’s,” and no family gathering takes places without hugs and kisses. It’s just the way we all are and again, your mileage may vary. James Taylor described Bea best with the lyrics, “Shower the people you love with love, show them the way that you feel. Things are going to work out fine, if you only do as I say to you. Shower the people you love with love.”

As I write this tonight, the tail end of Mother’s Day, I have to smile to think about the first Mother’s Day in heaven for Bea. There had to have been massive rejoicing as family members gathered round to welcome their baby sister into the world they now live in. No matter what it looks like or how inept I am at imagining it…one thing I know for sure….there is great joy for Bea tonight as she is no longer in pain. I choose not to feel a loss as much as I choose to be grateful for her release from the bonds of earth.

Ha…she’d have been proud of me if I’d have flunked kindergarten….now that, my friends, is unconditional love in a beautiful box with a bow all over it. Happy Mother’s Day, Aunt Bea, and tell everyone I said, “Hello” and give them my love. We’re all doing fine down here, and we’ll keep going on as we’re supposed to. I know you will.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Album Covers, Mothers, and Remembering Days Gone By

Last week, longtime family friend, Jeffrey, nominated me for the 10-day album cover challenge—you know the one where you post only the album cover without a word of explanation—just the album cover. For someone who always feels motivated to explain (to perhaps prevent ridicule, anticipating it in advance), I knew it would be a challenge but I accepted. For so many years of my early life, I can remember being made fun of. My mother told me to ignore it if people made fun of me. I said, "okay" and never worried about it again. In fact, I got good at ignoring it.

I was 18 months younger than most of the kids in my class. Please understand, I was far from a prodigy, nowhere near one. It’s just that to repeat kindergarten to get to the acceptable age of entering first grade would have been a waste. I’d started learning phonics and loved reading. And so began my time in a school whose motto was “for those who can meet the challenge.” Custom made for this one…I was a challenge all right. My mother had told her family for years that she wanted five children. After all, she was one of eight children and she loved the entire concept of a large family, and she even mother-henned the youngsters who came after her. She had two older brothers who adored her but inevitably she was the one worrying about the rest of her brood.

And so I found it amusing one day when I was about age 13, I quizzed her about wanting five children. I said, “Are you disappointed you just had the one child? Would you rather have had all five?” Without hesitation she answered, “Honey, you were my five.” And she smiled sweetly. Oh dear. I guess I was. Sorry, Mama. But no matter what my question du jour was, she had an answer….she must have developed that practice after some initial field training because my go-to question was always: “What are we going to do next, Mom?” And, she always had an answer. It might, “go to the grocery store” or “we’re going to get Aunt Emma and Charlotte and bring them to the house,” or it might even be, “we’re going home so you can get a nap.”

As long as I had an answer and knew what to expect, I was fine. It was the unknown that used to bother me. I liked to plan. I was an organized little kid and nothing made me happier than a new binder, a package of loose-leaf filler paper (narrow-ruled please), a new package of Bic pens (oh, I had much to learn about pens, but…that would come), and a pencil protector. In my first seven years on earth, I’d undergo many changes in my routine, if you could call it that. Expecting the traditional two-parent household was something I never expected because my parents divorced when I was five. It was far from acrimonious, fortunately, and it didn’t leave me scarred. It simply prepared me to always have a Plan B, and the option to fall back on it if Plan A went south.

Then in the two years that followed, I lost my godfather and my grandfather, all by the age of 7. Expecting to have the advocacy of the elder statesmen in my world went flying out the window, too. So, I started to search for others in whose continuity and consistency I could place my trust. They were there, in family and extended family, so I cannot claim there was a void. And, it was in how my mom prepared me to say goodbye when those we love on Earth transition into the next place, which she called Heaven. I learned about how to attend a funeral, and from my mother I learned to be brave at all times, and to have faith, and remember the ones we loved always.

Over the years, I’d be attending the funerals of mentors, teachers, and even classmates all too soon, but I was never afraid to go in a funeral home. Another place I was comfortable was in hospitals, both in waiting rooms and in the patients’ rooms. One of the two men who started the school I attended from grades 1-12 vowed to be a parental influence on me from the day I walked into the admissions office with my Mom. Timing was right for both of us, as it turns out he’d been caregiving for his mom, and she would come to pass away shortly after my arrival there. My parents’ divorce had occurred a few months before I’d entered school. Void filled.

And yet, there were several instances I observed (without my mom seeing me observing them) that showed me that not all was right with the world. It was the 1960s, and women were second-class citizens back then. Women could not apply for credit in their own name, usually, and even if they wanted to sign a document for which they were fully qualified, a husband’s name was always required as co-signator. Today’s newest adults still appear shocked that such was a reality for the generation that came in their grandparents’ generation, but it was a different world back then, too.

The local pharmacist wanted to shut down the monthly “tab” that we’d had for 5 years simply because my parents divorced. I do recall hearing him say, “But who will be responsible for this bill each month?” and my mother saying, “I will, because I was the one who was working to pay for it every month before it.” He had no snappy comeback answer and her determination convinced him he needn’t worry that it would be paid. He was paid and he never had to worry. I do believe that she told him that I would be asking him to buy a small ‘ad’ in the school yearbook in a few weeks and she’d appreciate his careful attention to my request. Mama was something else again. Did I mention she was Irish? Well, there’s that and several other genetic heritage combos in the mix but…just the Irish part explains everything.

Mama taught me never to fear hearing the word, “no.” There were many things we could not afford when I was a child but I was always to tell her what my wishes were and the item would go on her list. Then, if and when we could afford it, she would get it if I still wanted it. My grandmother chastised her for being so brutally honest about finances with me as a “child,” but Mom overrode her mother’s protests, explaining that I would adapt better if I heard “why” the answer came back “no,” rather than feeling negated. She was right. I needed to know “why” and “what was next” as my earliest precepts. Mama could do pretty much anything she put her mind to. She could reupholster a chair, put down a new tile floor in the kitchen (although at age 10, I got pretty good at it myself and sat her in a corner while I finished up under her watchful supervision), she painted the entire outside of our one-story house and for a woman who hated heights to be up on a ladder, you just had to know Mama. No one else there to do it, she just accepted it and got it done, with not one complaint.

She even, to the shock and awe of our next door neighbor, changed the spark plugs in our old Ford Falcon one day, without the proper tools, and the car started and ran fine. I thought my neighbor was going to faint as he said, “But you have to have a kit and a timing light to know where they go in” and Mom’s answer was, “Well, I looked at how they were set, lined it up in my sight, and put them in the way I thought they were before. He gave me this smile like “Your Mom is extraordinary” and he went home telling his wife, with whom I’d been visiting, how he’d never seen anything like it before.

I loved talking with grownups, neighbors and parents of my classmates….in fact anyone who was a good 20-25 years older than I would qualify as fascinating. It was a good thing to keep me from getting bored, I think, so Mom encouraged me to learn from everyone around me. And I did. Now, back to the album covers. In posting the album cover for day 3 this week, and the approaching date of Mother’s Day, I dropped into Memory Lane, forgetting for a time as the breeze blew past me, sitting on the wall of my flower boxes outside my home. The sun was out, the wind blew gently, and the locusts or some other creatures were making gentle noises in the trees outside.

How had I come to pick Skeeter Davis’s album, “I’ve Forgotten More Than You’ll Ever Know (About Him)” for my day 3? It started like this. Recorded in June 1962 at the RCA studios in Nashville, produced by Chet Atkins, with Floyd Cramer on piano was a two-minute song called “The End of the World.” The artist who sang it was Skeeter Davis.

Part of it was the sorrow-filled strains of the steel guitar and the countenance of the lovely young woman singing, “I can’t understand, no I can’t understand, how life goes on the way it does.” I was five years old and I got it. The spoken part of the song “Why does my heart go on beating, why do these eyes of mine cry?” That part just ripped my heart out as I was the most literal little child you’d ever met. I felt her pain as she sang and the words seared through me as I felt so badly for her pain. Every time I heard that song on the radio, I’d just break down and cry.

Usually, I was a happy child and laughter was my normal response to life, just as my Mom’s was. But not when this song came on. Mom was usually good with using logic with me, as I had to work my way through things. Things I did not understand then, as still today, make me cranky when they don’t make sense. If it defied logic, it disturbed me. Mom tried more than one time to explain that Skeeter really was not unhappy, she was not crying and that it was “just a song.”

I wasn’t having any of it. I countered with, “She would not be saying those words if she didn’t mean them. She is in pain!” And so it went for a while. That song would be around for a total of nine months as it eventually reached the #2 spot on Billboard’s chart by March, 1963. But somewhere in the middle of that, Mama found the solution to my woes.

Turns out the Grand Ol’ Opry was coming to San Antonio’s Municipal Auditorium and the entire big league “A” team was on board. I believe the bill included Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Hank Locklin, Little Jimmy Dickins, Miss Minnie Pearl, and Skeeter Davis herself would be appearing. The tickets were $3.00 each and friends, back then, a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese was $.25 and a loaf of bread was $.22. The average wage was $4,400/year or $84/week. The tickets at $6.00 was substantial.

The first thing Mom did was buy the tickets. Next, she began her quest to locate where Skeeter was staying in San Antonio. Mama should have been a private investigator (but she trained me well, haha) as I heard her dialing all the hotel switchboards and asking for her, and explaining why she was trying to reach her. As fate would have it, Mama eventually found the right hotel and was put directly through to Skeeter when the operator heard the “why” behind the call.

It only took about three minutes before I heard Mama saying, “That is wonderful. I appreciate this so much.” What “this” turned out to be was our arriving early, long before the show started at the Municipal Auditorium. This event is marked in time as amazing as Mama was early, something she wasn’t very good at sometimes. If it was important to me, she was early or on time, but the rest of the time, not as much.

I was wearing a little white sailor dress, my little white hat, matching Mary Jane shoes and gloves, if I can recall. I had my little autograph book in my hand, and we entered a side door where my mother gave her name to the security guard and we were ushered backstage and for the first time, the other side of the stage was revealed to me. I loved it. I loved the lights, the ropes and pulleys and curtains and massive ceilings. It seemed very, very big to a little girl. That, I thought, was where all the magic happened.

We were shown to Skeeter’s dressing room and I rushed up to her and she had open arms waiting for me. I turned around and looked at Mom, and said, “She’s okay! She’s not crying!” And it only took Skeeter a few minutes to explain how these people came to write this song about a sad experience, but it wasn’t hers personally. She liked the melody and how the band played it and whenever I heard it in the future, she wanted me to remember how much she liked how the band played it for her. I promised I would.

Before I left, her manager came by to bring her an 8x10 b/w photo for her to give me. She signed it right in front of me, dedicated it to me, and she signed my little autograph book, which I still proudly have today. Music fans don’t always get the chance that I did. I realize that. An entirely new world opened up to me that day in 1962. I saw the lights, the glamour, the glitter, of the behind-the-scenes things you do before the magic happens.

As I sat with mom in fabulous general admission seats (they’d saved us two really great ones), and the band began to play “The End of the World,” as she sang my mother witnessed a miracle. It was the first time I’d ever listened to the song and all I did was smile. Before she sang she introduced the song and how there was a special little girl in the audience who thought that she was sad when she sang it, but she reassured me that she wasn’t and she wanted all the little girls to know that, too. And that was the very first time I’d ever had a song dedicated to me from the stage. It would not be the last. I think I was on Cloud 9 for days, but the reality is that I’ve been on that same cloud for about 58 years now, as the real hero of the story, Mama, showed me many things that week. She showed me how important it was to be receptive and attuned to the people in the world around you, to try and anticipate their needs, and do what you could, if you could, to help them.

I also learned not to take “no” for an answer if it was something I really, really wanted, and to be sure, I never have as I was fortunate to learn that early. And, from Mama that day, I learned how to love someone and then watch with pride as their world turned on its axis and everything wrong was made right again. Not once did she ever tell anyone of her contemporaries or colleagues what she had done for her daughter. That was just what being a Mama is all about in her book. Mama being Mama, she won my respect and love every single day, no matter what she did, or didn’t do. Fearless, faithful, faith-filled, and full of love and a sense of humor that would not quit, I grew up learning from the best teacher I could hope to have. I still learn from her today as I process the how and why of various life lessons and reasons she had for doing things her own way and walking her own unique path. Turns out, I’m a lot like she was.

My experience is not unique, though. Not by a long shot. Every one of us has a mother or mother surrogate or advocate in our lives who would walk through fire for us. We have unconditional love and understanding from doing absolutely nothing to earn it other than being ourselves. It’s easier to see, when you’re an only child, and you have one parent who is your world, but you can look to your left and to your right and see how a woman with 12 children worked on campus for 30 years and all of her children went to college and graduated, because they wanted to do right by what their moms had done to give them goals and let them dream.

Every parent who brings a child into this world is blessed with a chance to make right what may or may not have been right in their worlds growing up. For those of us who did not have children of our own, I’ve been abundantly blessed with the love of others who share theirs with me. Plus I have a fur baby that I’m part-time supervisor and Mommy #2 for. I love being Aunt Dawn and Miss Dawn Lee and whatever else they will want to call me in the coming year. The definition of a mother is one thing. It is simply “one who loves.”

For all of you who still have your mothers’ necks to hug, run and hug them, or call them, hold up a sign outside their windows, and cherish every moment you have with them. And for many of my friends, and as it turns out just tonight, for my family, for whom this is the first Mother’s Day without your Mom, don’t cry. Don’t be sad. You take all of the love that she showed to you, and you find someone to gift it to. Doesn’t have to be a mother. It can be anyone. Show love, be love, live in love. Those who know me well know I will quote my beloved academic, the late Professor Leo Buscaglia, who proclaims it, and I believe it to be true. “Love never dies.”

Happy Mother’s Day 2020, with love.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Seeking Inspiration, My 7-Yr-Old Pal Reminds: You Get What You Give

—Dateline Bryan, TX, 2 April 2020

My 7-Yr-Old Pal and I reconnected this evening via Facebook Messenger for Kids. For those of you who haven’t heard of this yet, it’s a great means of parents being able to set up a specific portal for children to be able to see and hear their friends on Facebook Instant Messaging, but they don’t have to have their own Facebook accounts. It also gives parents direct and total control over who their children have access to speak with, and his wonderful Mom included me on the approved list.

It’s been 8 weeks since we last saw each other at his younger brother’s birthday party. How much he’s grown! I don’t know how parents manage as well as they do to keep children clothed and fed as my pal has added at least two inches. Some more of his big boy teeth have appeared and his smile is even broader now. But all children grow so quickly! You blink and…one day he’ll be my attorney (maybe), or perhaps I’ll be traveling to his NBA games. Either way, it’s all good.

His hair was not styled in the way I’ve been used to seeing and as if sensing my thoughts, he volunteered, “You know all the haircut places are closed right now.” I smile at his intelligence in constructing clearly factual statements so young. But I’m used to that from him, so no surprise.

Thanks to Kids Messenger, he was broadcasting from up in the children’s playroom. He asked if I’d like to watch him play basketball and my answer was “Absolutely!” He was trying to get me to say “Sure,” but I didn’t fall for his ploy. It costs me $.10 every time I say that word, based on a prior challenge we’d cooked up.

I was watching his dunking technique and seeing when he was successful and when he was not, and I made one small suggestion “to see if it might work” and he was delighted when he did. He was sort of celebrating the dunk before assuring it dropped through…not uncommon when your faves on TV do that. He made his adjustment like a pro and we still celebrated.

Next, to underscore my point I pulled up YouTube of Alex Caruso (former Aggie player now with the Los Angeles Lakers (whoop!) and showed his dunking technique. Now how I did this was to turn my camera the other direction so he could watch the big screen and he paid attention. We watched the entire thing together.

He said, “I remember Alex Caruso. When I was little, I got to see him play!” Yes. He. Did. His recall is phenomenal and it’s always a joy to explore memories with him. Like a sponge, he absorbs every nuance, correctly.

And he said, “Would you like to see my new basketball shoes?” and the answer was “I would love to!” and then he said, “Okay, pull them up on your computer, I’ll tell you the style they are.”

I did a search and found a pair and it said they were available for $1,145.00 and he said, “Oh, that’s not right, go look at Foot Locker and in the kids section." "What size?" "2y." Awwww my 7-yr-old pal is already into the single digit threshold of growing boys feet…too precious. But his discerning skills were equally precious. He knew that the pair I’d pulled up was a collector’s item or something priced incorrectly.

I went over to the Foot Locker site and as he said, I saw the Jordan’s, or specifically the Jordan AJ 1 Mid.

We then began a discussion of shoes. The thing that surprised me was that his favorite player is Steph Curry and he does have the exact blue Warriors type shoes that Steph endorses but he’s actually outgrown those. He also loves the Jordans and the KD Trey 5s…that’s code for Kevin Durant.

I remembered that Kevin had joined the Oklahoma City Thunder out of college and my pal added, “That’s right and then he was a Golden State Warrior for a while but now he’s with Brooklyn.” I didn’t know KD was with Brooklyn. My new ESPN source knew, though.

We spent a good twelve minutes on my looking up different shoes, searching for some customizable ones with potential, his announcing that they were the “best ever” but if they were not available in his size, he said, “There are other brands and models that I like. Let's look for some with blue and red on them.” "Okay," I said, and it went like that.

He’s flexible and I like that. Bodes well for his future. He is also price-conscious and prefers the ones on sale. You have to love him. He’s aware of the word “budget” and respects that.

We discussed a lot more about basketball, and then our connection stopped and we got disconnected. I waited and he called me back on FaceTime on his iPad. He said, “I guess I’d exceeded my allowed time on Kids Messenger and it knocked our call off.” Hmm, I know and love dear adults who couldn’t have come up with that assessment so quickly. He continued, “I believe that happened to me once before and Mom said that might have been how it happened.” He’s a sponge, I tell you. But he found a workaround on his FaceTime. Love his ingenuity when he’s on a mission.

I told him that I’d kept his giant box that he made when he was here last year (until February it stayed in my back room and then I’d moved it to the office I’d outgrown in the back and finally it went to the garage).

He said, “I’d like to see it” so I went to the garage, phone in hand, and showed him. He didn’t doubt my word because he trusts me to always tell him the truth but he really just wanted to remember what it looked like.

I showed him the two parts I had to separate it into because it would not have fit in limited available space. He was fine with that.

He said, “Did you keep the mailbox, too?” I said, “Yes, but it’s in the back office.” “Okay, let’s see that, too.” “Okay,” I said and marched back to the back office. I said, “I have your mail waiting right here for you,” and he said, “How about my money from the fines?” I laughed and pointed the camera at the bottom of the little mailbox sprinkled with dimes and nickels and quarters I’d been assessed for saying “Sure.” He laughed sweetly and asked me a question, but I was on guard…I said, “You’re trying to get me to say that word that costs me, aren’t you?” "Yes," he giggled and I said, “Good try.” We continued in conversation and I swear I was not focused when I replied “Sure” to another question he asked. “Ten cents please” would be the charge and I just smiled to myself and put my hands on a dime to add.

I liked that it was important to him to see as best he could what he’d built on his last visit. The project we were going to do went out the window when he spotted the boxes. His creative process is so intuitive; and my job is to answer his questions about “Can we” and “Do you have?” for supplies and tools. We did a real number on a pair of office scissors against the cardboard last time but they were the safest thing for him to wield…no Exacto knives or box cutters at this age. Not yet.

We then discussed a book series that he is still following and he had me go through Amazon to see what he already had read and what was new. He knew which ones I’d given him by title and the ones from his Uncle and then one he’d purchased on his own. This child. That mind. Brilliant. It’s because his mind is not bogged down with worry and fear and long-range concerns. He can live in the moment and give it his all.

In about 25 minutes’ time he turned my mood from pensive and serious into relaxed and creative. I worked to complete a project that took much of the day but I was in a far better mood when I dove back into it. His wisdom brings me joy. The perception he has at this young age, plus his empathy and compassion for others and patience is like no other. Even when his little brother wanted to interrupt what he was doing, he didn’t raise his voice and yell at him. Simply, he said, “Now, don’t do that. I’m doing something here so you find something else to do.” See why I’m over the moon about him? He thinks before he speaks. He answers with love, not accusation. Certainly there are times when he can likely lose patience and be like a regular boy, without wings, but those times seem few and far between.

Before I call it a night this Monday, I just have to share some of the great things I learned today. Much work was done, beginning very early this morning after a somewhat late night on the Book of Faces last night, having what I call “too much fun” connecting with people. It may seem to you that many people from your “past” are popping up with IM’s, checking in, saying hello, and in general, remembering you with their time and interest.

For some it’s a cursory check-in to see how you are, and with others, it’s the memories of time that have urged them to stand in your queue and wait for you to see they’re present. It’s been a nice time. It’s also a time of purging people who, for one reason or another, contribute nothing positive to their own lives or anyone else’s. The saying “ain’t got time for that” applies there. I’ve owned my own business since 1993, and I’m used to working from home, so every day is just like every other day, except I can’t enjoy meals with friends at restaurants. Yet, drive-thrus are open and creative options abound. Several of us are in #triviateamwithdrawal I have to admit.

Over the weekend I had one computer monitor fizzle on me, and I was shocked that Office Depot didn’t have a single monitor in stock that I needed. Neither did Huntsville, Conroe, or even Montgomery, TX. Ridiculous. Add computer monitors to toilet paper on the list of items people went nutty over in shopping. Makes sense when they live on their laptops for short work spans but now they’re working from home, that’s too much time to spend staring at a little screen. I know. Hence the run on monitors. Fortunately, I found a good deal at smile.amazon.com and it was in stock, so I’m back in business with three screens, these days the minimum I can function with.

Why three screens? It’s because I have at least 20 browser tabs open at all times as I truly NEED them open. Many browsers are holding a single fact, citation, reference or other critical piece of information that I don’t want to waste time writing down. So, the tab stays open until I can add the fact in to whatever I’m writing and once it’s cited and the link embedded, boom, tab closed. As of 1 am, I still have 26 tabs open. Quite the challenge to “Mission Control,” the system that seemingly takes longer to react than the split-second timing I’m used to. It’s overtasked, I realize. I can’t change my browsing ways, though.

Browsing leads to creativity, the “what-if” factor that people always seek in creating new things, whether articles, blog posts, songs, or anything else new, all boils down to asking, “What if?” And the inspiration of happy children is a perfect means to be lifted, up and out, of the morass of moronic activities that people undertake in the absence of intelligent thought.

Hence the benefit in the uplifting perspective of a child to erase the memories of adults who don’t make sense or who act out of unkind intent. And here it is Friday night, a day later with today’s news bringing even more developments that make me shake my head. At least I have Kids Messenger to look forward to in days ahead, and to all whose children infuse the world with brilliant young minds and happy faces, you know what I mean. More of following their lead. And now if you’ll excuse me, I need to put all of my pal’s nickels and dimes into a Ziplock so I can mail them to him. I’m really cheered now. In fact, thanks to my 7-yr-old pal, I was reminded: We get what we give. He always gives his best to all the people in the world whom he loves, not just me. He always shares love so generously. And then I remembered that song by the New Radicals…

“But when the night is falling And you cannot find the light If you feel your dream is dying Hold tight You’ve got the music in you Don’t let go You’ve got the music in you One dance left This world is gonna pull through”
Indeed it will. Thank you Hunter, I love you.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

When COVID-19 Becomes Real in Your World, How Do You React?

For the past three weeks I’ve stayed atop all the developments of the pandemic that is fueled by the coronavirus called COVID-19 by faithfully viewing TV news channels that report true facts calmly without hysteria, frankly rather than with duplicity, and with practicality rather than delusion. I’ve been proud of Bryan and College Station and Brazos County civic leaders, who acted early and wisely to contain activities that put our community at risk. And I’ve been blessed by friends as angels calling to check on me, bringing me thoughtful things they know I would be out of, and Skyping, Facebooking, IMing and texting daily to share their love. It’s been painless and has only reinforced love for me so far. But that all changed early this morning when the impact of the coronavirus landed safely in my Mayberry backyard, in the death of TAMU Mathematics professor Jack Bryant.

I became aware of the passing of our county’s first victim of COVID-19 only by the name when it was announced. When I saw it, I immediately flashed back to my days as an engineering undergraduate student, and he had been my instructor in what had to have been the most challenging of all the math courses they required, Math 308, Differential Equations, known to most as “Diff EQ,” and named by me as “Difficult Equations.” Derivatives made sense; integration was evil. I made a D and I was so proud of that D. It meant I hadn’t flunked! But I never once forgot that I had a tremendous instructor, Dr. Jack Bryant. Even when I was living in “D-land,” I didn’t blame him or his teaching. In fact, he was a great teacher.

Despite his seemingly unique appearance, this man had the most logical mind, strong voice and gracious manner. As in my lifetime, I’ve been (perhaps unfairly) characterized before as a “Typical Chemist” (code for “nerd”). Similarly, Physicists and Mathematicians are often described as having hair that might not always be combed, a proclivity for t-shirts, sweat shirts and hoodies. In fairness, that’s true of many, but not all, Math folks. Let's face it, science is creative and that means thinking outside the box and intelligence has nothing to do with hair, wild or perfectly coiffed.

After graduation and an engineering career, when I returned to Aggieland to work in academe, I had the responsibility for fundraising for the College of Science. It was part of my job to introduce prospective donors to key faculty members and to help them find common ground and interests in funding and then get out of their way as they forged their own friendships and funding ensued. At the time, the Mathematics department head (long ago deceased) was a truly off-the-charts personality.

That Department Head’s attitude veered from Wally Cox as Mr. Peepers to wild-eyed mad scientist in five seconds flat if you happened to trigger his temper. Simply saying hello could do the trick. Then you had his number two deputy, Assistant Department Head, as the calm, easy-going type who had a joke for you, a smile, and he would out-talk the dean out of funds destined for another department without his even knowing it. He was the good cop to the department head’s bad cop. And all the faculty members were supposed to function normally under the rather rocky steering of bright but unpredictable "leaders."

And yet in the Math department were these wonderful professors who taught and did research and had wonderful, normal, happy lives, though they lived quietly and far under the spotlights usually cast on others in the college. Their headquarters was, at the time, Milner Hall that was freezing in the winter and stultifying in the summer, and that was on a good day. Today they’re in the newer Blocker building. No matter where they were, you could almost count on seeing Jack Bryant any day on campus and he’d be walking to his next destination no matter how far.

He walked everywhere and he was easily recognizable, most comfortable with his early silvered hair below his ears, that hip 1970s look up north and out west for sure, and he had a devotion to Converse basketball shoes and a Polo shirt in the warm weather and a sweatshirt over it when it was cold. And he was one of the kindest people you’d ever want to meet. A brilliant man who didn’t have any trouble discussing any topic with anyone. He was a tad shy though, so if he looked slightly to the right or left of your eyes, he was just thinking on both sides of his brain, and you still had his full attention.

His career began in Wichita Falls where he graduated from high school in 1953. He earned his undergraduate degree from the A&M College of Texas (as we were called then) in 1958; a B.A. in Math and in 1962, he earned his M.S. degree, also in Math. He then enrolled at Rice University in advanced mathematics studies in 1961-1965. He received his doctoral degree from Rice on June 5, 1965. Jack’s dissertation topic was “Theorems Relating Convolution and Fourier Series.” As are all dissertations, new and groundbreaking work was expected and achieved; his graduate advisor was Richard O’Neil, another renowned mathematician.

In September 1964, Dr. Bryant was hired to teach Mathematics at Texas A&M, and in 1990 was named Professor Emeritus. During his career at A&M his research was supported by NASA and others know far more about his areas of expertise than I. He addressed students by their last names, preceded by Ms. or Mr., the way you’d expect in a northeastern school, and it was nice that he actually knew our names as there were close to 40 of us in the class at the time.

Like any Aggie who remembers a professor who stood out in their minds as memorable, the memories become associated with the way we were progressing in our goals and dreams on our own ways to graduation, careers and life beyond Aggieland. He loved A&M and this community enough to not only want to come back but to make this his permanent home. And although Prof. Bryant’s granddaughter was quoted (in the KBTX story online tonight) as saying that her grandfather would not have wanted to be “that kind of statistic,” the fact is he is the first person whose name I knew and whose passing hit home in a personal way. Today’s kids would say, “This just got real.”

COVID-19 today is a real thing in our community. We have tremendous city leaders and county officials who are proactive and in these times of sorrow, loss, lockdown, shut-in, we are finding reasons to reach out together via virtual means via Facebook, FaceTime, IMs, Skype and Zoom.

We are not to fear, we are not to panic, we are to stand ready and stand together, reaching out (at a socially safe distance) for our friends, neighbors, and loved ones, to let them know we know they’re here with us and we are here for them, too. Everyone can do something, even if it is “Just to pray” for the safety and security of all first responders, emergency personnel, health care workers, and teachers who face online challenges, self-employed people and those whose financial stability has been upended with no warning. There is no “Just” in prayers—every prayer helps.

Our childhood passes away from us every day. We lose family members, mentors, neighbors and friends of a lifetime, in our lifetime. Prof. Jack Douglas Bryant will not be remembered as a statistic, the “first” to die in our county from COVID-19. Instead, he will be remembered as a fellow Texas Aggie, a bright Math prof, and a kind and gentle soul.

May his family be comforted at this time of sorrow and loss. As we all prepare to transition from this life into another eventually--now, or down the road--it’s about the amount of love we can share while we’re here that can make an impact. The number of “I love you’s,” and “I appreciate you’s,” and the “Thank you’s” can always be increased, exponentially in fact. The way kindness begets other kindness…it’s exponential; it has to be. And someone can likely find a way to put that in an equation. I won’t integrate it, but I will find its derivative….it’s called love.

Rest in Peace Dr. Bryant. Amen.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Fifty Years After His Passing, Gen. James Earl Rudder’s Words Ring True and Powerful

The words of Gen. James Earl Rudder '32 are shared today, marking fifty years since this true American and Texas hero passed away in 1970 at the age of 59. Thanks to the generosity of his son, James Earl (Bud) Rudder, Jr. ’62, we can review Gen. Rudder's keynote speech for Aggie Muster, April 21, 1956, on the Texas A&M campus. At the time, Gen. Rudder was serving as Texas Land Commissioner, where he’d been in charge of whirlwind-level changes, revising the Veterans Land Program, which had been previously, “under scrutiny for mismanagement and corruption.” [Photo courtesy of James Earl Rudder, Jr., used with permission.]

Bud noted, “With no formal Aggie Muster events (this year), it was a good time to recall Dad’s words at the 1956 Muster at A&M. They are indeed especially relevant as our country responds" to COVID-19. Continuing, “To sit idly by in these challenging times would dishonor his memory. We must find ways to be part of the solution locally, statewide, and nationally. Every effort large or small matters.”

The four pages of Gen. Rudder’s Muster speech follow; click each page once to enlarge the image for easy reading. The experience of being able to “hear” today from one of Texas A&M’s Aggie son is a gift unto itself. Even more powerful is the sense of how prescient Gen. Rudder was then, and how his words ring true still today. [Click each image once to enlarge and read page.]

"The spirit of those dedicated to a cause can be a most powerful influence in any endeavor."
"If there is no unselfish, conscientious, honest American who is willing to serve, there is always someone with purely selfish motives to fill the vacancy. Political hacks, special interest groups, power-mad bosses and others who would use our government for selfish motives are constantly looking for opportunities to move in and take over. Their chances of success are directly proportionate to the number of Americans who take no interest in the affairs of government."
"For years, Aggies have been building a fine reputation for leadership in almost every walk of life. In civilian pursuits, as well as on the field of battle, they have given our country a large share of the leadership which has paved the path of progress."
"We must seek ways to improve our State and our Nation. Many problems lie before us--important problems such as the water shortage, the need for bringing more industry to Texas, the need for keeping our government the servant of all the people, the need for solving as many problems as possible on the lowest practical level of government. Standing out above all these is the need for men of honesty, integrity and common sense in the halls of government."

By virtual unanimous consent, in the hearts and minds of Texas A&M University former students, faculty, and staff, perhaps no individual exemplifies the values and integrity of all things that are good and true and right about Texas A&M than its most influential alumnus and leader—Gen. James Earl Rudder ’32.

This brilliant, stately young man from Eden, Texas, was born May 6, 1910, and accomplished more good in his 59 years on Earth, than anyone could have ever dreamed. For as long as men have come together to form a government to preserve the freedom of its citizens, a Constitution and Bill of Rights have created the stated ideals of citizen behavior. The state of Texas created the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Texas in the Texas state legislature on April 17, 1871.

Under the Morrill Act (approved by Congress in 1862) “admission was limited to White males, and all students were required to participate in military training. Texas A&M history notes the influence of Gen. James Earl Rudder as president of Texas A&M in the 1960s as having “diversified the college, opening its doors to African-Americans and formally admitting women. Participation in the Corps of Cadets was also made voluntary.” Those three changes made it possible for Texas A&M to soar to dynamic new heights and set a leadership pace for Texas and beyond.

Rudder’s impact on A&M, and A&M’s impact on Rudder began in his student days, when he transferred from almost two years at Tarleton State University and entered A&M College in the “fall of 1930, enrolling in industrial education, with plans to be a football coach.” He graduated in 21 months, in June 1932.

A quick trip on his path of accomplishment found him commissioned as a second lieutenant of infantry in the U.S. Organized Reserve Corps. When called into service (he'd taken several additional courses in anticipation of his being activated, as has been written), his leadership of troops in the Battle of the Bulge, the Battle of Hurtgenwald and his superior victory (despite being wounded twice) against the most astounding odds in the D-Day Ranger Assault at Pointe du Hoc Normandy in April 1944 secured victory for the Allied forces over the Germans as they established a beachhead there.

Honored with multiple awards, including the Distinguished Service Cross, the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, the Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster, the French Legion of Honor, the Silver Star, and the rank of colonel by the end of the war, he would achieve the ranks of Brigadier General and Major General in the U.S. Army Reserve by 1957. President Lyndon B. Johnson presented him with the Army Distinguished Service Medal in 1967.

Earl Rudder’s greatest accomplishments in life, though, would far surpass those found in history books, in the archives of our state and nation, and in the living history that continues to be taught to students enrolled in the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets today. Truly, those are part of history, facts, details, and focus only on his military career.

There are many publications, books, and archives that hold the facts and details of his life of service to country and the state of Texas, and even more that contain details on all he did for Texas A&M. Better yet, when they are again open to the public (tentatively planned to open no sooner than May 8), the Texas A&M Archives in the Cushing Library have Gen. Rudder’s papers that are worth review.

Yet, what's most important to know about Gen. Rudder remains in the hearts of Aggies everywhere—he was a selfless leader, committed to public service, fierce defender of truth, a man respected for giving and keeping his word, and a man who loved his wife and family and the extended family of Aggies fortunate enough to meet and know him as “their president.”

Outside military life, Gen. Rudder achieved legendary status for his mental acumen, his integrity and commitment to honor, dignity, and truth in all that he said and did. He respected and listened to differing opinions and made decisions based on hearing all ideas and collecting data until he was ready to decide, based on all the facts.

His service to the state of Texas included roles as Mayor of Brady, Texas, Texas Land Commissioner, Vice President of Texas A&M University and ultimately its President and then “President of the entire A&M System” (today known as Chancellor) from 1965–1970. President Rudder was one of the most popular presidents to live on the A&M campus (the home was bulldozed on March 10, 2020, after 55 years), and was visited often by young Corps students, who sought conversation and advice from time to time.

Although he died 50 years ago today, the influence of Earl Rudder continues to be shared, learned and understood by all students who enter what is now among the top five largest college enrollments nationally. The Rudder’s Rangers group of the Corps of Cadets is an elite student group of students preparing to enter Army Ranger School.

Walking into Rudder Tower on campus you'll find various administrative offices; enter Rudder Auditorium to enjoy national caliber entertainment; enjoy classical concerts in Rudder Theatre; and catch promising theatrical productions in the Rudder Forum. The City of Bryan hosts J. Earl Rudder High School and you get there, leaving the university campus by driving down Earl Rudder Freeway. Those are not the only things named for Gen. Rudder. Statues and monuments are dedicated across Texas in his honor.

It’s not the name on the outside of the building, but the heart, soul, and mind of the man behind the name to which we pay tribute today. Long may his words be heard, and far may his wisdom reach to continue to inspire generations to come.

In memorium, James Earl Rudder, Sr., May 6, 1910 — March 23, 1970

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Kindness Is Contagious — Random Acts Kick the COVID-19 Blues

With so many media announcements sharing rules of what we cannot do and where we cannot go during the wise behavior of our communities to prevent unnecessary spreading of the COVID-19 virus, it’s easy to get a feeling of being trapped, even when we have the freedom to walk up and down the neighborhood and while we can still drive up to our favorite local restaurant for our take-out. There’s much to be grateful for in the world of the team “glass half-full” types, where I claim membership.

However, today’s gray skies invited a case of the blahs, hastened by the rainstorms that flowed without letup. The only cure I had at hand was to think back to childhood, when my mom would assign me the task of making a list of things that made me happy whenever I presented with a sullen mood.

I had plenty of work this week, and every freelancer is grateful for that, but the consideration of what else was on my checklist wasn’t going to be the game-changer for an attitude shift. The rain kept going.

Time for the wayback machine. Make a list. What had made me happy this week? About three weeks ago a 70 mph wind and rainstorm had taken out a good chunk of my back yard fence and I’d done zero about it since that time except lament to a dear neighbor (part-time pup, Barney’s, other mom) that it had happened. She told me that her oldest son was coming into town and he could help out. I’d forgotten about that until Saturday evening, when he greeted me with a big smile. He’d just completed a car repair on his car and he wanted to start on my fence.

It was already dark but he brought his brother, his brother-in-law and his father! One had a helmet light, and there were two iPhones with better flashlights than the ones I discovered in my house had leaked battery acid from non-use. (Memo: Get new flashlights after stores restock).

In 30 minutes, the four men, led by “my oldest boy” (I claim them as part mine as I do Barney), had taken care of Ms. Dawn Lee and all I could do was smile. The next day, my oldest boy returned with a hammer, to make sure all the nails were securely in place. And, as a sign of his mature perfection, he pulled 10 different nails out of “iffy” posts to find a more secure place to fix them. I couldn’t stop smiling or feeling more special as this incredible young man had thought to remember me. I’ve had the joy of watching him grow up the past two decades and I’m so proud of the adult he’s become.

Wednesday morning, my next-door neighbor and I had both forgotten to put the trash cans out, and given our night owl schedules sometimes, the unspoken pattern is whomever is first to get there puts both cans out and the other brings the cans back in. Except that this Wednesday, the horses had never left the barn. I'd like to brag on the City of Bryan waste truck driver who understood my series of laughable motions that resembled charades for "Can you help us? We forgot!" and he smiled, nodded, and motioned "I'll be back to get y'all when I'm going the other direction. No worries." As he did that, my neighbor and I talked about how grateful we were to be living here, where we have the best city services team and we're more than another account number.

Yesterday morning, a friend texted our “text message group” to remind all of us that the weekend approaching was Hallmark holiday movie marathon weekend. Yes, we’re all Hallmark junkies from time-to-time or all the time.

This morning a dear neighbor called to check on me to see if I needed anything from the outside world. How thoughtful! I said I’d be interested in any toilet paper if she found any. I was running low (haven’t been to try my luck at any grocery stores as I’d just run to the deli for some basics a few days ago). She said she’d look when she was out.

An hour later dear neighbor pulls up with two large shopping bags she deposited at a social distance in front of my door. She said she’d thought of a few things I might like and it would keep me from having to hit the grocery store (She knows how much I cannot abide grocery shopping since Albertson’s closed.)

To my delight, she’d stocked the bags with the most thoughtful items. One especially brought the biggest smile: a 10-pack of Ivory soap!! Plus two megarolls of TP and a roll of paper towels (my pattern: paper!). Ivory soap was my mom’s favorite choice and a childhood memory of the scent of those wonderful bar soaps I’d somehow forgotten in lieu of the fancier liquid soaps. What a grand memory!

The kindness behind every single item was so special. Plus, there was no way she could have known this, but my favorite brand of toothpaste was in that bag! We’ve known each other for thirty years, but she doesn’t have a clue of my favorite toothpaste…and yet, there it was.

Inspired by dear friend made me want to surprise someone and make them smile. So, I thought of who I might surprise…and did. That brought even more smiles, from them and from me. An hour later, I received an e-mail from a neighbor who shared some grand and poignant news. More smiles. Sky was improving and the rain was clearing.

An e-mail (reading while waiting in a drive-thru line) from a senior writer friend made me smile. Just for me, she’d sent me one of her blog posts from her archives that recalled our mutually favorite senior, now in Heaven. She had no way of knowing that just 10 minutes earlier, I’d driven past the former resident’s home, looked at the newly painted building, and I smiled. I shook my head at the coincidental timing.

Her blog post had a title that reminded me of my Mom—again. It was “Love Letters in the Sand,” a Pat Boone song that was noted as “the second song I ever heard” the day my parents brought me home from the hospital. Those were in the days where they kept you for a few days even if you had only had a standard delivery. And June Cleaver wore pearls when she washed the dishes, back then. My first three “songs” were inscribed in my baby book that my Mom faithfully kept of my entry into the world, accompanied by Dad’s pictures. Coincidence? Hmm, Don’t think so.

Back at the computer at home, a pal called me on Skype and we had a grand visit, laughing about some good memories. Text message arrived from a friend in the midst of a happy occasion, just to say ‘hi’ and ‘have a great day.’ IM’s popped up on Facebook from three different friends at once, all of which carried the equivalent of smiles. By then, the rain had stopped for good. I prepared a meal from the goodies dear friend had delivered and it was delicious. I must try cooking again soon. Next week, I will try again. Baby steps.

At the end of the day, I’d had multiple signs from above and from across the street and around the block that I was neither alone nor were things going to be bleak in the future. Just the opposite in fact. Out of each seeming disaster, there is always something to be grateful for.

At the top of the list, the researchers who are fervently trying to formulate antidotes and cures, for the health care workers who are front line taking care of those with COVID-19 and for all the city and state officials across the country who are prioritizing safety first practices for our safekeeping. We have reporters who keep the news going for us so we can stay current. And we have young people working in drive-thru windows trying to keep their bills paid. And our city services workers keep daily life flowing seamlessly, and though they're deserving of more shout-outs, sometimes they get lost in the shuffle.

Yes, times ahead are going to be rocky for a while. But if we have faith, rely on a sense of our surroundings as community, work together, look in on each other, and most of all, give those we know and care about a call to let them know they’re in our thoughts and prayers, we can get through this. Communicate however you like; text message, cell phones, landlines, FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, e-mail or even mail a greeting card. Every smile you create is a random act of kindness and it just tends to domino if you jump on board and share your joy with those you care about (at a socially safe distance).

As the sign says, “Kindness is contagious.” May we all catch our fill of that in the weeks to come.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Coincidences, COVID-19, and St. Patrick's Day

How do you feel about coincidences? In this current week of our lives, I’d guess that most people we know are either in a total zone of Zenlike calm, which is a good thing; or, they’re jumpy as heck, on the verge of panicked desperation because our world has been turned upside down without our permission. It’s a case of: “we shoulda seen this coming but didn’t.” Right after being wary of the Ides of March, one day before St. Patrick is remembered across this country (in gatherings of less than 50, or 10, people depending on who you listen to), yesterday I received a Facebook message from a friend. It had four image panels and looked like this:
Paragraphs of text were circled in red on two separate pages and there was a photo of a well-worn paperback cover and a panel of “Published 1981” on it. This is likely one many of you have received today to focus on the “coincidence” of a virus with ties to Wuhan, China, where the first case of COVID-19 was noted. Since this hardcover was released April 1, 1989, I’m not sure where the “Published 1981” came from. Statistical outlier no doubt. Here’s the synopsis of the Koontz book:

"A year had passed since little Danny's death - A year since his mother began the painful process of acceptance. But Tina Evans could have sworn she just saw her Danny in a stranger's car...Then she dreamed that Danny was alive. And when she awoke, she found a message waiting for her in Danny's bedroom - Two disturbing words scrawled on his chalkboard: NOT DEAD. Was this someone's grim joke? Her mind playing tricks on her? Or something ...more? For Tina Evans, it was a mystery she couldn't escape. An obsession that would lead her from the bright lights of Las Vegas to the cold shadows of the High Sierras. A terrible secret seen only by...The Eyes of Darkness." Aside from being amusing since I have a friend named Tina Evans, I stared again at the four panels…the other printed page had a page number on it at the bottom middle (p. 312) and looked to be printed in a font close to Century Schoolbook.

From the get-go, receiving anything in a mass-chain type of communication is 99% of the time going to be a hoax. But, I was between the Ides of March and the faithful Saint Paddy and I fell down the rabbit hole for a while. The sentence most intriguing of Koontz’ novel was “They call the stuff ‘Wuhan-400’ because it was developed at their RDNA labs outside of the city of Wuhan, and it was the four-hundredth viable strain of man-made microorganisms created at that research center.” The text continues to describe viability and how it dies, but that was not the point.

The other printed page had a header with the book title and page number in the upper right-hand corner, and a sort of Georgia kind of font (my font expert friends can correct me), I knew that meant two different books were being cited.

How a city that has one of the single worst public restroom systems hasn’t fostered something outside of a laboratory long before this is a mystery. They’re not big on communication in general as news reports have traced the identification of the first case there to November 17, 2019. From The Guardian on March 13:

“…report in the South China Morning Post said Chinese authorities had identified at least 266 people who contracted the virus last year and who came under medical surveillance, and the earliest case was…weeks before authorities announced the emergence of the new virus. The Chinese government was widely criticized over attempts to cover up the outbreak in the early weeks, including crackdowns on doctors who tried to warn colleagues about a new…virus which was emerging of Wuhan…”
If that’s not enough, there’s a new headline in an Australian publication: "Social media star missing after calling Chinese president a ‘clown.’" Uh oh. Shades of Jamal Khashoggi, or just a coincidence? I don't want to ask that question. Moving on...

Now, Dean Koontz had no way of knowing and none of his other books have any psychic forecasts that have struck a chord, so let’s just call that one a coincidence and be done with it. But the other page was definitely from a second book. Back to Snopes.

The post of February 18, 2020, goes to show you that this is an “old” rumor if it’s already been snoped for a month. However the post by Dan Evon merely dismisses Koontz as a prognosticator for Coronavirus and yet subtly reveals a very interesting fact. When the book was first published in 1981, the virus was originally called “Gorki-400” and the city of creation was Gorki, Russia. By 2008 another printing of the book had the virus renamed “Wuhan-400” and the city of manufacture as China. Hmm. Coincidence? Maybe.

Then on Snopes, I discovered a related story by Bethania Palma (March 4) with the “other” printed page as the image. Aha! That page was from psychic medium Sylvia Browne’s 2008 book “End of Days,” and her text indicated that “It will suddenly vanish as quickly as it arrived, attack again ten years later, and then disappear completely.” Well, good guesser or not, Browne’s prognostication arrived 12 years early. Coincidence? Sylvia Browne’s predictions occasionally found home plate until she died in 2013, so who knows?

On Amazon, there’s only one copy of Browne’s “End of Days” and it’s an audio CD; you’ll have to have deep pockets to afford the $500.02 for the one used copy now available. Oh, by the way, shipping is $3.99 as it’s not a Prime purchase. Heck, if you can afford $500 for the used CD, the extra $4 won’t sink you. There is one new paperback for a bargain price of $327.27. Hey, if they’d just throw in a few 12-packs of toilet paper, I might think about it but…well, never mind. Darned hoarders.

If you want a hardcopy book of Dean Koontz’s “The Eyes of Darkness,” there are five collectibles from $599 up. We can get a bargain on the mass market paperback from $295.28, but the audiobook is free if you just want to listen and are willing to join Amazon Audible for a trial run. What have you got to lose? Other than $599. We’re living in strange times right now. I’m not here to make fun of a serious disease. Coronavirus. It threatens the very lives of our senior communities and those with impaired immune systems. State and federal responses to this pandemic remain, with few welcome exceptions, political. Our city and municipal responses of first responders and emergency personnel as well as all our health care providers across the Brazos Valley are the most dedicated, reliable, and caring groups of individuals we are lucky enough to have. I pay close attention to what they say.

In days and times of serious consequences, it’s easy to get caught up in panic, fear, and what-if’s that drive you to distraction. It’s unnecessary when you use common sense, pay attention in your hometown, and keep the faith that together we can all get through this. The state of faith and hope and confidence is the best state you can live in. Even if you don’t believe in coincidences, you can still take a chance on the luck of the Irish and try to enjoy the day, even if there’s no bar you can go to for green beer unless it's one with less than 50 people. This celebration day will be around again next year at this time and, with all of God’s grace and good fortune, we will all be here, too. Stay safe out there, save your money by avoiding scam prices on goods that will be back in stock in a week or two, and have faith in things unseen to combat things unseen. Don't pass on or forward on Facebook any viral messages that even look fake, because they generally are. In the end, we have an abundance of hope and faith in great people doing their best to keep us safe here in Bryan-College Station, and for that reason we can smile. We're all in this together. My the luck of the Irish be with ya!

Monday, March 16, 2020

In Memory of Sir Derek H.R. Barton, 22 Years Later

Sir Derek Harold Richard Barton— September 8, 1918 - March 16, 1998

As the calendar turned to this day, I was reminded that it had now been 22 years since the passing of one of the most important friends and mentors in my life and career, Sir Derek Harold Richard Barton.

As I reflected on the memorial service that Lady Judith Barton asked me to create working with our friend, Ron Carter, of the TAMU Chemistry Department, I went down the proverbial rabbit hole of "remember when." Special guests from all over the world came to honor Sir Derek, many of the day's leading scientists and scientific leaders, who were at the top of their fields, universities, and colleges as they took what they learned from Prof. Barton and achieved stellar heights of their own. At the time, I had no idea that one day I would be organizing memorial events on a daily basis as one of my primary professional endeavors. What a way to begin that path. But of course.

Join me for a stroll down memory lane. The first two pages here are the elements of Sir Derek's memorial program, held April 13, 1998 at Rudder Theatre at Texas A&M's campus.

What follows after is my tribute to his life and career, focused primarily on his time at Texas A&M, which was as prolific as it was impressive. When you do what you love every day, it is never just "going to work." He was often the first to arrive and set the example for his group. It is unfathomable that time has flown by--22 years feels like the blink of an eye. It was by his example as I watched a man of great faith holding onto it through times that were beyond painful, in the loss of his beloved wife, Christiane, to cancer. He remained humble, no matter how many accolades he received. His natural curiosity about life was a delight to see. He had a fabulous sense of humor that he reserved for appropriate times.

It was thanks to Sir Derek's friendship with dear friends Dr. Ian and Betty Scott, that he came here. It was Professor Scott who was a Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at TAMU faculty as Dr. Barton and his wife Christiane Cognet considered where to go when Sir Derek had reached age 65 in France, meaning mandatory retirement. He'd have to either give up the research he loved or find a new place to work. He chose the latter. If it were not for Ian Scott, we'd have had no Derek Barton here.

He was a brilliant conversationalist who could speak on any subject at all, and when he did, his answers were kind. He never spoke ill of anyone. The only way in which you might know he didn't respect someone was in what he didn't say. A small smile would appear on his face and a slight tilt of his head....having thought the better of using mere words to describe his disdain. His group at Texas A&M and his wonderful assistant Karen Farnsworth meant so much to Sir Derek, especially following Christiane's passing. He worked through his grief by working and staying at the top of his field. Ultimately, he was fortunate to marry his third wife, Judith Cobb Barton, who encouraged him to continue his work, supplying the joy of shared time and interests. His final years were as inspired and prolific as his first, to be sure.

His tribute follows. Just click each photo once to read the full text clearly.