Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Joys of Sisyphus

The Joys of Sisyphus

Facing West

The myth of Sisyphus has many interpretations. Most of the sources agree with my college professor: Sisyphus was the fabled son of King Aeolus of Thessaly and his lover, Enarete. He became the founder and first king of Ephyra (Corinth). Most myths agree that Sisyphus was not always a nice guy and as a punishment for his trickery, he was compelled to push a large stone up a steep mountain. As he reached the top, the stone would roll back down the mountain and he would have to begin pushing all over again. Some compare Sisyphus to the sun that rises every morning in the east and then sets every evening into the west. Others compare him to the turbulent waves at sea, rising and falling as the storm passes over. Still others would see him as a hopeful politician who aspires to be president who, even though constantly defeated, continues to run. (And if you old rockers thought Sisyphus was the name of a Pink Floyd instrumental, you’d be right as well)

I remember this story, not because of mythology, but because of a 1942 essay written by Albert Camus. Mr. Camus sees Sisyphus as a personification of the absurdity of human existence but goes on to conclude that Sisyphus was a happy man as he struggled to reach the top of the mountain day after day.

As I face the sunset of my life, the essay still rings true. Think of John McCain as he spoke to his supporters on the evening he lost his last bid for President of the United States. He had been pushing that stone up the mountain for a very long time. Instead of appearing angry and disappointed, he seemed calm and content. I think it’s the view you get as you push that stone that makes the difference. It’s in the “being” not in the “doing”. I don’t think I’ve ever learned too much or read too many books or loved too many people. I suppose some may think it would be easier to never push the stone at all.

The secret message behind the story of Sisyphus could be summed up by Rob Bell, a young, brilliant pastor of a church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In one lesson, Rob reminds us of what takes place in the Book of Exodus. God tells Moses to go to the top of the mountain. Rob says that the actual translation from Greek was: Moses was to “be” at the top of the mountain. God wanted Moses to experience all of the moment. After reaching the top, God didn’t want Moses to miss the chance to really absorb his surroundings and “be” in the moment. He wanted Moses to stop doing just for that moment. Moses needed to stop thinking and start feeling. I suppose that’s asking a lot. I’d have been trying to remember if I wore clean underwear but Exodus tells us that Moses stood in awe.

At Christmas one year, Santa brought my youngest son just exactly what he had asked for. All his presents were in a giant pile under the tree. I told him to “take a picture” in his mind so that he would remember it forever. I’d remembered that trick behind the bleachers at a football game when I was 17. I knew it would be the last home game of my senior year. I knew that even if I came back after I graduated, it wouldn’t be the same. That night, the air was crisp and it smelled like autumn. I stepped from behind the bleachers and watched the home team run onto the field. As everyone stood and cheered loud enough to be heard for miles, I realized my senior year would soon be over and I would have pushed the stone all the way to the top of that mountain. So, I did what my granddaddy taught me and took a picture that stays with me to this day.

The Joys of Sisyphus
Looking East

I knew it had to be serious when everyone gathered around my grandparent’s dining room table instead of in the kitchen. We ate Sunday dinners in the dining room and it was only Saturday.

At 10, I was accustomed to being the center of attention but no one invited me to the table. I had no choice but to eavesdrop from the kitchen.

“Things don’t look good.” I heard Granddaddy say.

“Maybe it’s time to just stop farming.” That was my Mother.

Granddaddy must have been ignoring her because he just went right on talking. “We have plenty of savings, so money’s not the problem but if it doesn’t rain soon, people are going to lose their crops and that could make for a long winter.”
“What do we need to do, Onnie?” That was my Daddy, the mayor.
They talked for a good while after that; I got bored and wandered outside to play. But later that night, at the kitchen table, I repeated my mother’s question.
“Granddaddy, why don’t you just stop farming, since you have plenty of money?”
He ignored me almost as well as he ignored my mom. “Do you want to get up early and go with me in the morning? I’ll let you help drive the tractor.”
I wasn’t a teenager yet so getting up early sounded great. I especially liked to drive that old red tractor. It was still dark when he woke me up and it didn’t seem like near as much fun. But the smell of bacon from the kitchen helped to open my eyes.
Even though it was late spring, the predawn morning air chilled my cheeks a bright red as we bumped along the dirt road that led to Granddaddy’s newly planted cotton. He stopped his old pickup and we climbed out and headed for his tractor. The sky had lightened just enough to see the outline of the big red machine. He climbed up and pulled me along with him. I waited for him to start the engine.
“Are you wide awake?” he asked me.
“Yes, sir.” It was too cold to sleep but I asked to come so I kept that part to myself.
“Did you know that your eyes work like a camera?” To someone else, that might’ve seemed like an odd question but he asked me stuff like that on a regular basis. I shook my head so he went on talking. “You have to be real still and look at something real hard. Then you blink your eyes and look even harder. Focus on what you’re seeing, and then snap, take a picture with you mind.”
Cool, I could do that.
“Focus there.” He pointed at the horizon. I remember a mixture of colors and the smell of Old Spice Aftershave. “Blink your eyes then look harder.” I squeezed my eyes shut and then opened them wide. The sun peeked across the rows of cotton buds. “Take a picture in your mind!”
Nine years later, I read the fable of Sisyphus. As my college class debated whether or not the king was doomed to a living hell or, as Albert Camus suggested, a happy fate, I remembered the sunrise over a farmer’s cotton patch. I knew the answer.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

I Met a Virgin Voter! One Person, One Vote, Indeed!

I Met a Virgin Voter!
One Person One Vote Indeed!

Facing West

It was darn cold for an early spring evening. I had the top down on my T-Bird and I was busy singing along with The Boss at the top of my lugs. Darkness had fallen and I wondered for the tenth time if I really needed to do this. I’m not sure I can explain why I felt the need to participate in such a complicated process, especially in Tarrant County. I guess curiosity really did kill the cat.

Texas Democrats have an antiquated primary system. They call it the Texas Two-Step (of course they also use that name for a Lottery scratch off game). You vote in the actual primary in the daytime, and then attend a caucus in the evening. The votes in the primary determine how many voting delegates attend the county conference later in the month. The caucus elects the delegates…and…well, it’s something like that. I’ve been involved in politics all my life and I still don’t quite understand what it all means.

I’ve attended primary caucus’ in my district for years. It usually goes something like this: fifteen or twenty women (school teachers and retired government employees) show up and figure out how to divide up the delegate votes and then let the overachievers in the group volunteer to represent our area at the local conference. We would all pat ourselves on the back and break quickly for the door. Not this year.

To really appreciate this story, you would have to start earlier that day. I pride myself with being one of the very first people in my precinct to vote every year. That’s usually not hard if you’re a Democrat in Crowley Texas. So you can imagine my shock when I pulled up at the high school and couldn’t find a place to park. My first thought was that way too many teenagers had their own cars. Then I saw the line. I thought it had to be the Republican precinct or an awfully long line to see the principal. Wrong on both counts. I waited for almost 30 minutes to vote for my candidate. It was what happened in that line that brought me back for the caucus.

I met a virgin voter. He was a student at UTA and more excited than I can ever remember being about anything. By the time we got to the front of the line, everyone knew Kenny’s name. His smile was infectious and his enthusiasm was electric. He talked about how he had researched each of the candidates from both parties and visited hundreds of blogs. He was confident that he was making the right decision. Before he left, he hugged my neck and told me he would see me at the caucus. I was committed.

That night was total chaos. I had to park in a vacant field across the street and hike in the dark (along with a dozen or so other folks). My brain just wouldn’t process what I saw. The line snaked around the gym and spilled onto the lawn. It got colder as we waited to get in the door. The volunteers were overwhelmed. But laugher filled the night sky and I have to believe God laughed too. In the middle of all that noise, I heard a familiar voice, it was Kenny. He got the line moving, alright! He organized the process with the ease of a pro. By the time we all got seated in the auditorium order had been restored. The rest of the evening is still kind of a blur. Kenny, a school librarian, a retired postal worker, and a farmer took the lead. Within an hour, we had gotten the right number of delegates and had it all recorded for posterity. The best part of the evening came out of personal sacrifice. I recognized several of the women who normally looked forward to being a delegate to the county conference. This time would be different. Kenny had an idea. What if we picked the youngest person and the oldest person? Someone else suggested we include a first time voter and yet another person suggested the newest citizen.

As we nominated each person, I watched their whole persona change. They stood a little taller, smiled a little bigger and spoke with a little more confidence. Even the old standbys seemed excited to watch someone else take their place.

Over the next few months, Kenny kept me informed via email. He wrote me and told me that he would be waiting until Election Day to cast his vote. He wanted to be very traditional when he lost his virginity. I thought of him as I drove by our election center early this morning. A line of people had already formed by 8:00 a.m. I knew he was there charming the crowd. His own name will probably be on the ballot in a few years and I’ll be standing in line to vote.

I Met a Virgin Voter!
One Person One Vote Indeed!

Looking East

I sat at the kitchen table with my head in my hands. I had waited until the last minute to write my campaign speech for the big election at school. All our signs lined the walls of the high school hallways. All the flyers had been stuffed in lockers and attached to windshield wipers. I had smiled until my face hurt. Tomorrow would be my last chance to capture votes for Student Body Treasurer. The boy I was running against had been born and raised in Mineral Wells; I was one of the “outsiders”. Well, me and the hundreds of kids whose dads were stationed at Fort Walters. I couldn’t imagine what I could say that would convince my fellow students that it would be safe to elect a newcomer like me.

My Dad must have noticed my posture. He sat down with me and patted my back. “Having trouble deciding what to say?”

That was all I needed to start the waterworks. “I’m going to be humiliated.” It was, as usual, all about me.

Then he said the most logical thing. “There are over 1,000 kids in your school and every one of them has a vote.”

He was right. All of them had a vote! Not just the insiders, every single one of them. All the military brats would have a vote. All the poor kids would have a vote. And all the really cute boys would have a vote too. This just might work!

The next day, I covered all my bases. Lime green mini-dress and my stars and stripes headband, I was ready for my close up.

That morning at the assembly I spoke from my heart. I talked about moving to this remarkable town and about all the wonderful people I’d met since I’d been there. I talked about better support for the kids in school whose dads were serving in Vietnam. Then I talked about the pain of not fitting in, of being an “outsider”. When I finished my speech, silence filled a full 5 seconds of time. Then, to my surprise, everyone started to clap, including my opponent. He gave me a hug as I sat down beside him. It would be the beginning of a life long friendship.

I found out that day that all of us feel like outsiders at some point in our lives. I also found out that my Dad was one smart fellow. When our principal announced the results of the election that afternoon I discovered every kid in that school had a vote. One person, one vote, indeed!

Friday, October 10, 2008

The All-American Audacity of Hope Bailout

The All-American Audacity of Hope Bailout

Facing West

For those of you that know me, this will be a shock! I was speechless for about 3 full minutes. I think I might’ve drooled. I had been sitting in my parents’ living room on Sunday after church. I try not to talk about politics when my mother is in the room. Her favorite pastime used to be arguing politics with my grandfather. Since his death, I usually took his place in those debates. I just didn’t feel like pulling punches today so I had decided not to bring up anything that might be considered political. My Dad didn’t play along.
“Looks like we’re heading into a depression.” That’s when I lost my voice. Daddy never used the word “depression”. He didn’t believe in using words for dramatic effect (that was Mother’s way of communicating) and he taught us to be succinct. I expected him to use words like “recession” or “downturn”, not the Big D. Now, my mouth was open wide enough to catch flies. My mother finally noticed.
“Yes.” She said. Nothing more; no sarcasm, no contradiction, just “yes”. She finally changed the subject. “You’re never going to believe who I saw at the Beauty Shop on Thursday!” Just that quickly, we changed the subject.
An hour later, as I was heading out of town, I stopped on Main Street and got out for a short walk. It seemed that every news story I watch these days talks about the effect of this economy on Main Street. So, here I was.

I had known for months that this was coming. I wasn’t sure how it would shake out but I knew. Employer lay-offs and Plant closures had dramatically increased the number of individual lay-offs in our county. We have long lines at places like the Food Pantry and the state’s welfare offices. I remembered the mess in 1976 and again in the mid-1980’s so it didn’t take rocket science for those of us in the business to know bad things were coming. I shouldn’t have been this rattled.
I stopped short when I looked in the window of the old building in front of me. Main Street was a historical landmark; many of the stores were the original buildings that had lined Main Street for decades. This building had held my paternal grandfather’s general store during the early years of the depression. It housed a thrift store now.
If I squinted my eyes real tight, I could imagine Pa at the back of the store. He would be doing his books at the desk back there, working after church. My Dad told me stories about how his family handled those scary times. Pa was also the principal of the high school and he had earnings from a farm west of town. He had the money so he carried a good numbers of his customers on credit. Credit. He died with all that credit still on the books.

No bail out was necessary.

The All American Audacity of Hope Bailout

Looking East

I sat on our living room floor with 15 of my “closest” friends, surrounded by banner paper, poster boards, and colored markers. Looking around at the mess, I wondered for the umpteenth time how I’d been talked into running for Treasurer of the Student Body.

Of course, in my heart I knew why. It hadn’t been about service (I wish I had been that humble), it had started the day my mother chocked on her iced tea. We were sitting down to dinner during the spring of my junior year in high school.

“Some of the guys in school are saying I should run for Treasurer of the student body, you know, like Student Council.”

My dad stumbled on the way to the table and my mother choked on her iced tea.

“We don’t have that kind of money!” That came from Daddy. He sure could hold a grudge. I had been elected the treasurer of our local chapter of Junior Achievement earlier that fall. We made these funky roadside 1st aid kits with the goal of making a big profit. That was the season I learned what embezzlement meant.

Each team turned their sales money into me weekly and I was supposed to deposit it in the bank. The first month went well. Mother helped me count the money, tallying the numbers in the books our advisors had developed. I added the sales totals, subtracted our expenses and, at the end, filled out the deposit slip. On the last day of the month, I drove to the bank and went up to the commercial window and made the full deposit. Complete success!

The second month was a little more difficult. I kept the money in the trunk of my 1953 Chevy. It might as well have been in the vault of the bank. Unfortunately, I had the key. I forgot my lunch money a couple of times and rather than go home and retrieve it, I borrowed money from the bank in my trunk. I always put the money back by the end of the day. At the end of the month, I went through the same process and balanced the books for the second time.

My downfall was Santa Claus. Every year Santa Claus gave me a good deal of cash. It came in handy for the after Christmas sales at J. C. Pennies. This year, though, I was feeling very grown up and decided I would actually buy some Christmas gifts for other people. More specifically, the four guys I was dating at the time. I tried saving but wasn’t very skilled in that activity. Work sounded even more unattractive. Thoughts of Santa Claus and his cash gift kept popping into my mind. I bet you know what happened next.

I knew banks gave loans. My bank was in the trunk of my car and I had the key, kind of like the teller at the commercial window. I quickly decided on a loan repayment plan that would be paid off by 12-31. This would provide nice gifts for four very handsome boys and provide me with a no interest loan.

The best laid plans. I forgot about Christmas break. The gifts were wrapped and under the Christmas tree and I was feeling pretty darn smug. I usually got about $100 and I had only spent $75. I’d still have a little money left over for myself. I can still remember exactly what happened next. It was the Monday before the break and Civics class had just ended. Our Civics teacher was our Junior Achievement sponsor.

“Miss Walker, I need you to make your deposit by the end of the week and post our end of the year profits.”

Fortunately, I was a pretty good actress and managed to stop the waterworks until I got to my car. Over the next couple of days I counted and recounted that money. At night I got down on my knees to pray and cried myself to sleep. But each morning, I was still $75 short. Thursday rolled around and I was without a miracle. After school I decided to visit Santa’s workshop – Daddy’s office downtown.

I sat in the chair under our family portrait, hoping it would remind him of better times. It didn’t work.

“You stole $75?”

“I borrowed it, it was a loan!”

“Who was your loan officer, who approved this shady deal?”

I had no quick answer to that question. He didn’t let me off the hook. We just sat there looking at each other. This was one reason he was the boss. He could hold a stare and out wait my mother’s silent treatments. “If I could get my Santa Claus money early…”

“I’m not Santa Claus.” He didn’t even smile when he said it. “Your grandmother is Santa.”

I felt a wave of nausea swim over me. “Please don’t make me tell, Grandmother.” My lips were trembling and tears burned my eyes. I didn’t want Grandmother to know what I had done.

“Santa isn’t giving you money this Christmas. Santa is giving you a new TV for your room.”

“A TV?” For just a minute I forgot my crime. “Can she take it back?”

Daddy got up and walked over to the door. He looked down at me with a certain sadness in his eyes. I never knew my heart could hurt so much. “You’ll have your money by Friday and no, we’re not telling your Grandmother. I won’t ruin her Christmas.”

For the next three months, I balanced that account to the penny. I was terrible at math so it took me hours to do every month. You would have thought I’d learned my lesson. But that night at the dinner table, I realized I wanted to run for office. I couldn’t exactly explain why.

My parents’ reaction to my announcement about running was an even bigger surprise. Daddy caught his balance and Mother cleared her throat. “What do you really think?” she asked him.

“I think it’s a damn good idea.” He smiled down at me. “It’s like hitting yourself in the head with a hammer. You usually only make that mistake once.”

It was, indeed, an All-American Audacity of Hope Bailout.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Numbers Game


I was one of only four girls in my debate circuit. There were 150 guys. In the early 70’s women had a hard time fitting into debate. Maybe that’s what I enjoyed the most. And I did so love the sport. It taught me more about life than just about anything else I ever tried. That’s where I learned the truth about the numbers game.
People give numbers an almost mystical place in our society. The average person thinks you can argue about anything from politics to religion but when it comes to numbers, people scratch their head, shrug their shoulders and walk away. You can’t argue a fact and most people believe a number is a fact.
But being a debater is kind of like being a magician’s assistant, you get to learn the trick behind the magic. Remember the shell game, if you watch one shell long enough, you just become positive you can spot that nut. Funniest damn thing, the nut is in the magician’s pocket all along. It’s the same thing with a number, or a statistic, as we like to call our numbers.
Let me give you an example. In our fair city, the unemployment rate is said to be below 6%. The people who work for the state of Texas and quote that figure believe it, no slight of hand there. The media who print the number believes it, nothing up their sleeve. But the magician’s assistant knows the truth. The number means absolutely nothing.
Didn’t you ever wonder where that mystical number came from? Just who decided about that 5.03%? Has anyone stopped you on the street lately and asked you if you were looking for a job? No one has asked me. No one has asked my son, who’s looking as we speak. I’m pretty sure no one has ventured into the homeless shelters and asked them either.
In Texas, you get counted if you’re receiving unemployment insurance. That means you have to have been laid off and can prove that lay-off had nothing to do with you personally. Then you have to hope the business that dumped you won’t take exception to your claim. You could get counted if you use the state of Texas' official on-line job search system, kind of like on-line dating, you could get lucky! You get the drift. They call the people who don’t get counted, “discouraged”. There really is no good way to capture that number; people are “discouraged” for a reason.
But there are numbers that are real; black and white, no shades of gray. Our state has a lay-off report that our community takes seriously. One unmovable object stands guard to accuracy and recognition for people who have been laid off in Tarrant County. When he speaks to elected officials, his voice resonates like James Earl Jones. Mr. Walker is the voice of the shell-shocked, recently unemployed citizens across the county. He’s often the first friendly face these employees see after they’ve been notified of their lay-off. He’s there to make sure each person understands the benefits they are entitled to receive and he’s there to smooth over the rough spots in this scary process. I hear that angels walk the earth. This earthly angel is no rosy cheeked cherub but instead stands like Michael the Archangel and can quiet a room in seconds. While others “spin” whatever numbers don’t appear to their liking, Mr. Walker draws attention to them and then goes on to explain exactly what they mean.
At one point in my career, my job was to assist in a “transition” from public employment to privatization. I agreed to do it because I believed we owed the staff who had been loyal state employees the courtesy of a dignified transition. I knew soon I would have to join their ranks as well. As I sat across from one person after another, that reality was never far from my mind. At the end of the transition, I would be a statistic. Maybe that’s the moral of our numbers story. No one really cares about a statistic until they become one. But God provides rainbows in thunderstorms and Archangels walk the streets.


I went to high school in a military town in the sixties. The guys who flew those Huey helicopters in Vietnam trained for action at that base. We moved there when my father got assigned the job of taking care of the phones at the missile base at Fort Walters. I didn’t pay too much attention to my surroundings in those days if boys weren’t involved. I had been most distressed about the move until my Daddy told me that there were 20 boys for every girl in the city limits. Those were my kind of numbers.
I got a job as a lifeguard at the base pool. Actually a guy I dated was the head lifeguard and you can get the picture from there. My primary job function was to get a tan and not mess up my long straight hair. I met a lot of cute guys while I worked on that tan. I got to know a bunch of them by name. I remember a certain sadness every time the bus pulled out carrying them to their destination. I don’t remember being really aware of where that destination might be for the longest time.
Coming home from a long day at the pool during my sixteenth year usually found my parents sitting at the dinner table doing what most families did during 1969, eating and watching the news. I still have no idea why.
My brother was in Vietnam at that time but I refused to think about it. In my mind, he was on R&R in Saigon drinking and partying year round. My parents, on the other hand, seemed to understand the connection between the pictures on the screen and their 20-year-old son.
I remember one particular dinnertime conversation. It would be my first lesson in the numbers game, even though I wouldn’t recall it until many years later. As I wolfed down a fat hamburger dripping with grease and mustard, we watched the latest pictures from that Conflict, boys dragging other boys across an open field, gunfire spitting all around them. It reminded me of a scene from one of the many war movies my Daddy dragged us to growing up. To me at the time, it was just that, a movie, not real kids, not real guns. Looking back, I’m sure it was all too real to my parents.
Then came the famous “body counts.” It was a part of the evening show. How many of our guys wounded, how many of our guys killed, how many of their guys wounded, how many of their guys killed. Kinda like keeping score. That night, I guess Daddy had had enough. He got up and walked across the room and turned off the television set. That was an act of treason in our house. Nobody turned off the TV until after the Texas News at 10:15 but now it wasn’t even dark outside.
I remember holding my breath, thinking he must have found out that I had sneaked out my bedroom window the night before or worse yet, about the six pack of beer I had consumed afterward. (Did I mention I was a tad self-centered)
You can imagine my relief when he came out with a joke. He said, “Those are damn good scores. Seven of our guys wounded, five of our guys killed. 150 of their guys wounded, 200 of their guys killed. At this rate, they’ll be having to import guys from other countries to fight that battle cause we’ll have killed ever damn kid over 12 in that whole damn country.”
Mother sat very still, not making a sound. That in itself was reason for terror. I didn’t know whether to laugh or follow her lead. I decided to excuse myself from the table.
Later that summer something happened that changed my life. Another one of those “ah-ha” moments. (Remember, I never claimed to be swift on the uptake.) Being a lifeguard at the pool got me many special base privileges, one of which was a free pass into the Officers Club. On rare occasions, I would dress up with one of my friends and go for dinner and flirt with the single Officers at the club. As we walked into the reception area I would scan the bulletin board for notices of upcoming parties I might have overlooked.
On one hot August evening, I strolled into the club dressed to the nines, hoping to turn a few heads. I noticed a list of names posted on that bulletin board. I figured there must’ve been some contest I’d missed or some social function to which I hadn’t been invited. So, I prissed myself over and scanned the names and noticed several that looked familiar, a couple of names I knew well. Now, I was royally pissed. Someone had done something and I had missed out on the fun.
I asked a young guy standing around looking at my legs what the heck that list was all about. The smile left his face and he cocked his head to one side, I guess trying to see if I was for real. I suppose he decided that sadly enough, I was. “That’s the list of guys who trained here that were reported missing or dead this week.”
I remember standing perfectly still, just knowing he was joking with me. I kept waiting for the punch line but it never came. “But I know some of these guys. I dated one of them.”
“You an army brat?” He asked me.
“Of course not.”
“Welcome to our world.” He said. Then he walked away.A list of twenty-five names. Then I remembered the numbers on the TV. The “body count.” Now, some of the numbers had a name and my life was turned upside down.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

High School, Preparing for the Future

My grandson just started second grade. Walking up the hall to his classroom brings back memories of chats with teachers, parent-teacher conferences and rising blood pressure. I honestly don’t miss one minute of it.
But because getting welfare in Texas requires at least one child, I’m afraid I can’t escape some involvement with the public school system. Now, don’t get me wrong, some of the most dedicated people I know are teachers and administrators for the children of this state. In fact, several almost saints from my church love teaching, just for the sake of making sure that no child is left behind. It’s the politicians and bureaucrats that tend to muck things up. The “No Child Left Behind Act” has actually left hundreds of thousands of kids not just left behind, but dropped out too. I’ve watched the statistics march upward every year. In some areas of my community, over 51% of the kids who enter 9th grade don’t make it to graduation.
Don’t think the big boys in private industry aren’t getting a bit worried about the labor market of the future. The smarter ones are scared as hell. With low-test scores and shameful drop out rates, they have every right to be frightened. So, they demand that the government do something about it. They pay a good deal of money in campaign contributions and they want some action.
The politicians know which side butters the bread, so they make noise about getting the schools more in line with the job demands of the 21st century. Again, sounds good in theory. If it ended there, with the teachers and parents making the decisions about how to make it happen, we’d probably make some progress. Unfortunately, many teachers have little time for such planning, as they are on the front lines of combat, and, like me, most parents are too busy to get involved to that degree. So, many school districts turn to the one group willing to invest the time, the very business world who needs the future workforce.
I had a CEO of a major construction firm debate me on the need to teach Shakespeare. How would that help a student be a better engineer? About five minutes into the discussion, I realized it didn’t matter. The man needs engineers. A manager of a semiconductor company needs skilled employees to work in his clean room. The Human Resources manager of the local hospital needs phlebotomists and nurse practitioners. None of these people care if that employee knows what led to McBeth’s downfall or if that same employee can lovingly recite the preamble of the Constitution. They just need someone to do the job.
Now, take those same people and ask them about their own kids. Ask them if they want their own children to study the Revolutionary War or how to play a musical instrument or be the lead in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. You know the answers as well as I do.


The end of my junior year was in plain sight. April had only 30 days and then it would be May. May would be only four short weeks away from summer. I figured I could coast my way through the rest of the year. I’d aced my grades (with a little help from my friends) and I knew I would be exempt from all my finals. Good times were within reach. Then the world spun off its axis and my life would be forever altered; all because of an incredibly handsome man. (Some things never change.)
Eddie Love had been hired at the last minute. The high school drama teacher went away, I never knew where or why. Mr. Love happened to be between jobs at the time. (He would later tell me that was an actor’s way of saying he was unemployed.) I had stayed away from the drama department because the old biddy who taught the class condemned me to hell more than once. My dresses were too short, my music was straight from the devil and I delighted in tempting young men. Hey, what can I say, she was right.
Eddie Love stood on the gym floor during our spring assembly. He was tall and thin and just looked like an artist, had that James Dean swagger too. He announced tryouts for the spring play. I never even considered refusing. I showed up at his door dressed in my leather mini-skirt, ready to knock his socks off. I got a fine supporting role even though I’d never even considered doing serious theatre, movies maybe, but not theatre. I figured I’d simply charmed him with my dazzling good looks.
It happened after rehearsal one evening just a few nights before the performance was to open. He asked me to stick around and I was flattered. I was completely wrong. He jumped my case something fierce. He railed at me for taking my talent so lightly. I remember thinking “what talent?” He asked me what I wanted to do with my life, what I really wanted to know. I told him the truth, I had no idea.
He smiled then and sat down, threw back his gorgeous head and howled with laughter. Then he said, “That’s the first time you’ve been truthful since I’ve met you. And that’s the best damn answer you could have given me. Of course you don’t know what you want to do, you just turned 17.”
I had no idea how to respond. So, I asked him the only question I could dream up. “So, what should I do?”
He stood up and began to pace the room. It seemed at the time that the office shrank as he breathed in all that oxygen. “You learn, Debby. You try a little of everything. You can lie like you believe it, so try some acting. You can argue until the other person runs screaming from the room, so try debate. You love to tell stories, so try to write.”
Then he stopped and looked right at me. I remember holding my breath, afraid to exhale. I didn’t know if these things were praise or reprimands. It’s the oddest thing, but I don’t remember what he looked like for the rest of that conversation, but I can remember what he said almost word for word. “If you really want to find contentment and fulfillment in life, you have to do what you love. If you only try a few things, how will you know what you’re missing? How can you know what you love, if you’ve never experienced it? How can you know if you like chocolate ice cream if you’ve only tasted vanilla?”
Ten years later, I had the same conversation with the captain of the football team at the school where I taught debate and drama. I wanted him to play Puck, King of the Fairies. You’d have thought I’d ask him to run naked through the girls’ dressing room. But I kept at him, used a little blackmail, something about this being his final grade in my class and graduating so he could accept that college football scholarship.
He was the showstopper on opening night. His delivery was flawless and he got three curtain calls. I’ll never forget that look on his face. What a smile!
That was 30 years ago. In a shoebox in my closet is a letter that has turned a little brown with age. It’s worn from being folded and unfolded so many times over the years. I won’t bore you with the whole letter, but I will share my favorite lines:
I always thought of myself as a jock. I told myself that was good enough. But now I figure if I can dress up in tights and still do a good job, there isn’t anything I can’t do.
That one is for you, Mr. Love.

Thursday, September 4, 2008


I traveled to our state capitol not long ago. I went to learn about new policy brewing and bubbling, vying to find a place on the upcoming legislative agenda. They don’t like me much in Austin. I can’t imagine why.
This trip was no different in most ways. Policy analysts tested the water and I tried to hold them under until they drowned. There was a new undercurrent though, just like the undercurrent at Lake Benbrook. Streams of warm water that flowed swiftly just below the surface of the peaceful lake had pulled many an unsuspecting swimmer to their death. The undercurrent in Austin flowed with meanness just below the charm of a slow Texas draw. I never swim at Lake Benbrook. I would remember that as I drove home from Austin the next afternoon.
The first sniff of something different came with a new phrase. “Those folks.” For two days, poor people were “those folks” and homeless people were “those folks” and drug addicts where “those folks” and, well, I guess you see where I’m going. The only people who weren’t referred to as “those folks” were us folks.
Then I looked around the room at the new group of policy analysts just hired for this new division. At first I thought it was old age setting in because not a one of them looked over thirty. But at lunch, I discovered it was more than just perception. Not a one of the new hires topped out at thirty, most were under 25, just out of the university. Now, sometimes youth can be a wonderful thing, bringing in new ideas and fresh thoughts but when I heard one pretty young blonde call “those folks” just lazy, my stomach took a turn south. It was time to hold her head under the water.
I ask her how many of “those folks” she had ever known. Ah-ha, now I had her, or so I thought. But her next sentence made me shudder. She went on to say none and to thank God for it and wrinkle her nose in disgust. Before I could throw her in a gunny sack and dump her in Lake Travis, her friends sitting around the table began to agree. None of them had ever worked with “those folks” and they considered it their job to see that no one else would ever have to. I heard bits and pieces of philosophy that I remembered from that morning. It had been spoken with that Texas accent, slow and sweet. These innocent kids were only repeating what they had been taught. A young man, still battling acne, spoke loudly, catching my attention. It seemed he was on a mission to get rid of “those folks” making it a better world for the rest of us. I must have said something because they all stopped talking and looked my way. I recognized the look in their eyes, I’d seen it in my own when I looked at some poor mentally ill street person. Pity. I was just some middle-aged hippie out of touch with the rest of the world. He smiled at me and spoke with such reassurance. “You don’t need to worry,” He said. “We’ll do what’s right.”
The next afternoon, as I drove out of town, I wondered if I could ever go swimming again.


My Daddy is a historian just for the fun of it. Growing up with him turned out to be one history lesson after another. At various stages of my growing years, I learned about the real Wild West, who Bonnie and Clyde actually were, and exactly why the South lost the War. Dinnertime and rides in the car could become a spontaneous history class.
One such lesson occurred shortly after my tenth birthday. I was the center of attention, bragging about being in “double digits.” For nine years, I’d been a single digit kid, now it would take two numbers to print out my age. I walked right into it. My Daddy seldom missed an opportunity to turn a topic into a lesson. He told me about turning ten in Germany in the 1930’s. That was a magic age. At ten a child was sworn in to the Jungvolk, the junior branch of the Hitler Youth Organization. He went on to tell me that not all kids got admitted into the Organization so it made it even more special. I have to tell you that got my attention, I did so love being special.
He told me that if a child looked different, they couldn’t get admitted. I must have asked what he meant by different because I remember learning about Jews and gypsies whose skin tanned easily in the sun. (I think he threw in the tanning part to make me a little nervous) He also told me that children with disabilities couldn’t go either. We would talk about Hitler and Nazi Germany a great deal over the next couple of months. I learned about the persecution and murder of thousands of people whose primary sin was simply being different. Later that year he bought me a book, The Diary of Anne Frank. The world looked a tad bit different to me after I was ten.
One afternoon I rode with my Daddy through downtown Mansfield. He didn’t know it, but I was a child on a mission. We turned a corner and there he was. Shorty.
“Shorty’s waving at you.” He hadn’t been but daddy hadn’t been looking and he fell for it hook, line and sinker. He pulled the car over to the curb and rolled the window down. Shorty struggled to get to his feet and walked over to our car. Shorty was a dwarf that Daddy had been friends with all his life. He was the only dwarf I’d ever seen. I liked him a lot because he was the only adult I could look straight in the eye standing up.
Daddy asked him what he wanted. Shorty’s funny little forehead crinkled. I think Daddy realized I’d been messing with him because he made up something about needing him to go around to my Grandmother’s house to do some yard work. Shorty seemed pleased with the prospect.
As Daddy pulled the car back onto the road, I figured I’d better come up with something quick. I decided to go with the truth because I hadn’t prepared myself a backup lie. “Is Shorty one of those folks?” I asked.
“Which folks would that be?” He liked to answer a question with a question.
“One of those different folks Hitler would have killed.” Well, I have to tell you, I think I almost took my Daddy’s breath away. Looking back on it now, I think I can understand why. It’s a mystical moment when your child proves he actually listens to something you’ve said.
I think I remember a whisper of a smile cross his lips. I sure remember his answer. He nodded real slow. “Yes.” He didn’t say much else for a while.
“I thought Scotty was suppose to mow Grandmother’s yard.” I hated to see my brother robbed of the opportunity of doing physical labor.
“He can another time. Shorty needs the money and it’s our job to help him earn it.” I remember him looking at me again. I guess he was trying to figure out just how much I could understand. Then he smiled real big, like he had made up his mind. “We all have a responsibility to help out those folks.”
I’m still trying, Daddy.

I have a habit of listening to political commentaries that I know will piss me off. I have no idea why I prefer that form of torture. This particular day was no exception. Actually, it happened over a two day period and made me seriously doubt my sanity (something I do on a regular basis anyway). On a bright and sunny Monday, I drove with the top down on my spiffy T-Bird convertible, listening to a very articulate child psychologist expound on the virtues of a mother’s bond with her newborn baby.
Now, I thought this would be a subject I could agree with. The doctor explained the results of the newest studies on the development of the brain during the first three years of a child’s life. He went on to lecture on the importance of the mother during those same three years. Being a mother myself, I heartily agreed with this as well. He implored new mothers to seriously consider staying at home with their new babies as long as possible. I frowned but continued to listen, after all, it would be nice to stay at home during those first couple of years. He ended his segment by warning new mothers of the danger they risked by letting someone else take care of their precious child during those first formative years. Hmmm…
But the sun shined brightly and “It’s in His Kiss (The Shoop Shoop Song)” began to play so I promptly forgot the words of the good doctor. I forgot, that is, until the next day. Gloomy skies and a chilly wind forced me to drive with the top up. My mood matched the weather as I drove along listening to a popular Republican radio talk show host. (I warned you that I was into serious masochism, right?)
The topic de jour was welfare reform so my ears perked up a bit. He gave the Texas workfare program rave reviews. He especially agreed with making all women work who wanted to receive a welfare check. Why should the government support them while they stayed at home and raised their kids? He angrily attacked those states who wanted to exempt mothers with small children from work requirements. After all, many women went back to work within six weeks of giving birth. Why couldn’t welfare mothers do the same?
I understood his argument, I’ve heard it many times. But this time it truly made my heart hurt. I pulled over to the side of the road and laid my head against the steering wheel. At that moment, I was so damn glad I had a husband who helped me raise my kids and parents who pitched in as well. I wondered what a woman on welfare would think if she had listened to those two days of commentary. If she stayed home with her new baby during those first three years, she would be branded a deadbeat looking for a free ride. If she went to work like the government insisted, she would be branded an uncaring mother who risked the future of her own children.
I put the car in gear and switched the radio channel, looking for “The Shoop Shoop Song.”


I’ve heard the story a hundred times. It is most definitely a story worth retelling. My father’s mother was a remarkable woman, my first feminist role model. She wasn’t a feminist by choice though. It was forced upon her.
She’d decided early on that a young woman needed an education, so she got her college degree in 1918. From what I hear, she was an excellent student. I never heard much about her college years because her romance with my grandfather made for a much better story. They met in a train station and it was love at first sight. A wedding soon followed, as did World War I. His experiences in that war also taught me about a thing called mustard gas. It seems a person could get gassed and not know the full effects for years to come.
He came home a hero and got a job teaching high school and opened up his own general store in town. He quickly became a local living legend because of his generosity and his compassion. My grandmother settled in to being a wife and gave him two sons he could be proud of. Then came the sad part of the story. He got very sick and after suffering for two long years, he died before his fortieth birthday. His illness had cost them everything and the depression threatened to destroy what was left of my grandmother’s life. She had an eleven-year-old and a nine-year-old who just wanted their daddy and she had no money left in the bank.
That college education turned out to be a damned good idea, it got her a job as a county tax assessor, the only woman working in the department. It was a good job, one she could grow in. But there were those two boys to worry about. Women didn’t work outside the home in the 1930’s. Her sons had no father and for much of the day, it appeared they would have no mother.
That’s when Miss Lillie came into the picture. She was a black woman who lived in “colored town.” She appeared on my grandmother’s doorstep to offer her services. It seems that my grandfather carried her family on credit, allowing her to keep food on the table when there was no money to be found. She figured it was time to pay back the favor. My great-grandmother and Miss Lillie did the child rearing and housework while my grandmother brought home the paycheck.
But my father never lets me forget the rest of the story. There was Mr. Blessing from next door, he took my dad and his brother fishing and taught him all those other important boy stuff. There were his teachers who took turns either busting his butt in the coatroom or praising his fine work in the classroom. He can talk all day about the people in that town who helped raise him.Now, my daddy is my hero but he and I sometimes disagree on politics. He has absolutely no use for Hillary Clinton and I can understand his feelings. But he’d be hard-pressed to disagree that it takes a village to raise a kid. My grandmother knew her place, all right, and so did the rest of the village.

Monday, September 1, 2008


I supervised six units of social workers and several support personnel. They all worked very hard. Or most of them did. They took women (or men) who received TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and helped them find ways to become self-sufficient. I learned in the 90’s that words were very important. People liked words like “self-sufficient” and “personal responsibility.”
Many white middle class Americans, many close to my own age, think these are magic words. If I tell one of the social workers to have a client sign a piece of paper that says she will not take drugs and she will be personally responsible for herself and her children, those people say “bravo.”
Of course, they don't realize that signing the statement was the only way she could get her check from that worker. Pay the rent, sign the paper. Need toilet paper, sign the statement. Does she mean it? Who knows. We don’t make her read it out loud so we don’t even know if she can read. Maybe she’d like to do all those things on that piece of paper, but chances are she’s only thinking about getting out of that damn office and getting home. After all, they don’t pay for baby-sitters so her five year old is looking after her two year old while she’s signing her personal responsibility statement.
They tell her that if she’s more than ten minutes late for her interview, they’ll have to deny her case. The letter telling her what extra information needed to complete her case also warns that if she’s late in gathering those things, her case will be denied.
But the worker is busy and has many clients to see. If she provides all the things needed right on time, it doesn’t mean she’ll get her benefits on time. When she calls the office, there is an automated voice that rambles off all the things she might be calling about. She’s calling from a pay phone and she only has one quarter. She pushes her worker’s extension. No one answers. It rings and rings but no one answers. She would call the supervisor but she has no more money.
After bumming her third quarter, she finally reaches her worker. He tells her he has ten more days to finish the case and he will when he gets time. She explains that they’re out of food. He says that so are a bunch of other people.
She remembers the personal responsibility statement she was forced to sign. She wonders if anyone made him sign one. But then, maybe that’s what personal responsibility means. After all, she’s never really seen it. Perhaps that word, personal, is what it’s all about.


My grandfather was a farmer. He loved the land. He would pick up a handful and let it run through his fingers. It made him smile. He said we never owned the land, we just borrowed it for a while. He treated it like a gift. Taking care of it himself. I would tag along some days. It was time to harvest the cotton.
It was in the 1950s and cotton was still picked by hand. I was just a kid. I sat under the big wagon that carried the cotton from the fields to the cotton gin. Next to the wagon was a big tub of water. It was hot that summer. I remember hearing the song Amazing Grace and then songs like Chicken Shack. I thought everyone knew about the blues.
The men and women who picked the cotton were all chocolate colored. Granddaddy called them all by name. I’m dark skinned and tan quickly so I never wondered much about the difference in our skin. Not then.
That was the year I learned what personal responsibility really meant. One hot day I sat under the wagon playing with my dolls and listening to the songs. One very tall, very dark lady came and sat down beside me. She took a checkered handkerchief and wiped her face. It was soaking wet. She poured some of the water on it and rubbed her face again. Then she smiled.
“Look out there at your grandfather.” She was talking to me so I did as she asked. There he was with his kackie shirt and overalls wearing his western styled straw hat. He wore thick gloves just like the lady sitting beside me.
“Are you looking?” She asked.
“Yes, ma’am.” I was always polite to older people. That was understood.
“Well, baby, what do you see?”
This was hard. I knew she wanted some special answer but I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out what I was supposed to see.
“Granddaddy, picking cotton and putting it in his gunny sack.”
She smiled and patted my shoulder. “That’s exactly right. That’s what you see. That’s what I see too. Look at his shirt. What do you think about his shirt?”
Another hard question. “Well, it looks all wet.”
“Right again. You’re a real smart little girl. That’s sweat. See this old rag?” She held out the wet handkerchief.
“Yes, ma’am.” Grown ups can ask the silliest questions.
“This old rag was wet with sweat, too. Just like your Granddaddy’s shirt. He was here when we all drove up this morning and he’ll be here when we all go home. That’s why we work for him.”
She looked at me again and nodded her head slowly. “You need to remember that. There are six farms around here where we could work. All pay the same thing. We have to drive a little farther to get here but we come anyway.” She pointed at Granddaddy again. “In that cotton field, we’re all the same. We all work and we all sweat. In that field, it don’t make no difference what color your skin is, we all work. I guess we work just a little harder when we work for Mr. Dollar. He sweats, we sweat.”
Grandaddy’s been gone a long time now, but he taught me about personal responsibility. He showed me every day of his life. I knew what it meant before I could pronounce the words. I try to remember that when I face west.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

In the beginning


Fifty-five. What a round number. It looks like a middle number, doesn’t it? Perhaps that’s what started this depression. A round number than was actually defined as an odd number by my third grade teacher.
That sums up a large part of my life. I see things one way, most other people see things another. That was fine as a teenager. It was 1969 in West Texas. I wore lime green mini dresses while my classmates still wore pleated skirts and knee socks.
It was fine at twenty-one. I was one of four women debaters out of 155 in the conference. The mini shirts helped, so we won a few rounds and had a great deal of fun.
It was even fine at 28. I left my job as a teacher and became a Social Worker with street people as my primary clients. After all, I was just taking action on my beliefs and there was plenty of time left to change things.
I even managed to enjoy forty. I thought I’d been liberated. So what if I wasn’t the prettiest woman in the room anymore, I was teaching social workers, something I believed would make a difference. I was passing on the torch to the next generation.

Then there was fifty-five. This wasn’t supposed to be one of those milestone years. There are no black balloons or coffin cards for fifty-five. If you don’t believe me, check out Hallmark. Sixty is the next big one. Fifty-five is just another year closer to sixty. I hate to give away a secret. I can only suppose it’s a secret because no one ever warned me.
There were signs, but I missed most of them. My husband quit his management job and asked for his tools back at forty-five. Now, at 61, he climbs poles and plays with other people’s dogs. I thought he just got tired of the bullshit management brings to the table. When I asked him about it, he only shook his head and muttered to himself. Of course, he does that a lot anyway.
I talked to my adopted sister, who will reach this age in a little less than two years. She worries about me. I can see it in her face and hear it in her voice. She should be worried about herself. Her turn will come, she remains blind to the fact and continues to look for ways to bring me out of this funk.
I talked to my twenty-eight year old son. (Yes, I started early) He tried to understand. He is, after all, my son and extremely intelligent. But in the end, he told me it made no sense. Of course, I would have thought the same thing at his age.
But, then I stumbled on to the truth after a couple of shots of Tequila not long ago. Fifty-five is really all about seeing the future in context of understanding the past. Imagine sitting in a bar in Key West. You can watch the sun rise over the Gulf then just move your chair as time passes and by the end of that same day, you can watch that same sun set over the Atlantic. You can stand and watch the sun rise in the east then turn, look over your shoulder, and watch that same sun set in the west.
So, I sit in a bar in the Key West of my life, facing the end with just enough time left to turn and look back on the beginning. Pull up a stool and join me, I could use the company.