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Narratives of Negativity: When they obscure the positive

It was the new millennium and my mother's fight with cancer channeled itself to its predictable, unfortunate ending. My child was not yet walking, but he sometimes pulled himself up on a plastic storage tub, yelling and screaming, beating his little fists on the lid for attention while I walked my mother back to the bathroom and then returned her to her comfortable place on the battered, sunroom couch. The routines of care-taking became meaningful, transcendental and comfortable. I had begun to imagine something spiritual beyond those precious days as they counted down to a death that would end a chapter in my hectic and frightening life. I sat in the entry hall in one of the cat-clawed wicker chairs and stared ahead thinking apprehensively about what would happen once my role as caretaker closed and the heavy front door opened into a new life without my mother.

My sister had cleaned out the safety deposit box, hoarding Mother's jewelry, and then hocking it off to some hick town jeweler so that she could pay my nephew's law school bills. Meanwhile, I was busy in my short jaunts away from the house visiting resale shops so I could buy back the family heirlooms that my drug-addicted brother had sold off to make his own ends meet. The "things" of my family's shared life meant much less than the stories that bound us together, the intriguing family legends about half-brothers in foreign countries and Dad's mysterious volunteer work with a bulldozer in some Amazonian rain forest. But some of our family stories were paired with painful realities and outrageous falsehoods, the narratives of selfishness and jealousy. 

One of the most damaging falsehoods concerned my brother, a man that returned from Vietnam with classic symptoms of PTSD. Post traumatic stress syndrome passes easily from one person to the next, and I, as a preteen, found an escape from my brother's rages and paranoia by walking to the library and spending the day under its modern air conditioning and quietly structured rows of books and magazines. The busy librarians ignored me, and I had the run of the place every summer day, poking in shelves, checking out books, thumbing through difficult academic journals, and listening to audiotapes. I was a late comer to the love of reading because I had been placed in the Follow-Through Program, a federal experiment on children from poverty. Once my mother realized I wasn't in a "regular" first grade class, she had me pulled from Follow-Through, and I was an entire semester behind my classmates.

My fascination with learning screeched to a stop when it came to math, but I struggled on with reading, even getting a black eye when my mother, overwhelmed from long hours at work and mental frustration, hit me in the face with a book. That night she came home with a wind up toy, a small furry dog that chased a ball on a string, around and around. Not long after, she came home with a real dog stuffed in the cavern of her huge purse, and I was besotted with love. Several years later, a speeding car struck my little dog because it had squeezed out under the fence to join me with my friends across the street. It died on the curb, and my mother held me as I sobbed.

Much has been said about my mother, and some of it is not that positive. But the narratives of negativity have no real basis in fact, and they are constructed from malice and a desire to control the family narrative. Without my mother's multiplication tables game, I would never have passed fourth grade math. Had she not taken down all of my childish wall hangings and put metal bookshelves in my room, if she hadn't signed me up for the book club, had she not filled those spaces with books and MAD magazines, word search puzzles, and Highlight Magazine, I wouldn't have a college degree of any kind. I remember complaining to my brother about one of my teachers, and his response was not what I expected. He typically took my side on things, and he tended to love me through his haze of anger and addiction. When he told me that my problem with my teacher was a problem with myself, I was shocked. He was right. It didn't really matter whether I "liked" my teacher or not--it only mattered that I learn everything I could from my teacher. His tough stance with me enabled me to open my mind to the ideas of other people. 

They both passed away within months of each other, but they left me with enough wisdom to move on and live a fascinating and fun-filled life. I feel sorry for the people that avoided my mother and my brother because of the negative narratives they had been subjected to. I also pity the source of these narratives because they are an example of how hate and narrow-mindedness constructs an alternate reality that is untrue and negative. 

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Why Visiting Craigslist Can Lead to a New Relationship

    

    For the first, and only time in my life, I clicked around on Craigslist and ended up in a new love affair. The object of my affection is a two-year old parrot-like little bird with glossy green, red, and blue feathers, a Conure. I adopted him from a sweet little lady in Willis that lives in a bona-fide ‘tiny’ home. Her daughter and two grand-children were about to occupy the empty space in her front yard in a trailer, and this meant that she felt uncomfortable keeping the little bird with so much going on. I agree with PETA, birds are meant to fly and not climb around in cages, so I am happy that I adopted my feathered friend and didn’t buy. He should be able to live in good health for at least 18 more years, so that means he might actually outlive me if he doesn’t have an accident or illness.

    His previous pet-parent explained that my bird takes a bath every day, and I felt skeptical about her claim until I saw his enthusiastic scrubbing in his cereal-bowl-sized, stainless bath tub. He started out by dipping his little neck and face, scrubbing and plucking, and then he jumped in and did a full body wash—he looked so serious and sweet splish-splashing around. I think he felt a little chill after bathing, sitting on his perch with his feathers all poofed out. He looked like a big feathery and glowing, dignified, green ball with a sense of pride and vanity. But then after drying a bit, he started jumping around and squawking like he always does. I carried his cage out to a sunny place on the porch, and he stood on his perch with his eyes closed just soaking in the sun like he was dreaming of some faraway beach or tropical paradise.

   
    He has a name, but I haven’t been able to determine whether or not he is actually answering to it, but I do know that I’ve already spoiled him. He likes fruit and leafy greens, fresh. And if he doesn’t get his treats early in the morning he squawks and fusses at the top of his lungs. Sometimes at night he feels grumpy. His bedtime is early, by nine. Last night I tried to lure him out of his habitat and onto my hand, but he bit down on my finger as hard as he could, wiggling his jaw to make sure it hurt. I realized he was just tired and wanted me to leave him alone. He is adorable and sweet, and I couldn't have found a better relationship clicking around on Craigslist. But I'm not doing it again!

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Somewhere in the Middle East, Late 50's

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If you recognize this scene, leave a comment and tell me what you know 😊

        It is so much like me to post something and then write about a completely different topic, but this time I’m doing it because I really don’t know much about this picture. I know that my father took this shot somewhere in the Middle East during the late 50’s. He worked and lived there, and all that I know about this part of his life is that he enjoyed the experience. I can’t remember much about my father, but I can remember some of the most important things that he told me. I asked him why he traveled so much, and he told me that he was a gypsy. He said that most gypsies travel by road, but he liked flying. I remember thinking about him flying on his planes as I rode down the highway in my grandmother’s big Buick with my hands out the window, watching our shadow race along beside us.

        Whenever someone would ask me “what” I was, I would proudly tell them, “I am a gypsy.” I started to dress a bit Bohemian as a kid, but then I took the thing to the next level when I dropped college for long distance trucking. I lived out of my truck just like a gypsy for decades, and I finished school in between because I knew I didn’t want to live on the road forever. I wanted to be able to experience people from all over the world without having to continuously travel. I wanted to stay home in Texas. Now that I live in the most diverse place in the United States, I am able to work with people from every corner of the world, and I think my father would be happy with my decisions.

            When I look at this picture, I am struck by how the little boy is marching behind the line of soldiers. We know that our actions and our traditions impact our children, and this picture is a representation of that. Just as my father influenced me with his open mind and love of travel, the little boy in the picture is following what he knows. I hope his life is a happy one.

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John Eckert Sr. (somewhere in the Middle East)

 


The 45th Moonlight Ramble: Having Fun in Houston

Last night's Moonlight Ramble was a blast because it's just one of the many ways we are proving that our city is getting some of its groove back after Harvey. All kinds of people were out with neon lights on their bikes (I couldn't find my new lights), some people were in costume, and kids and pets were everywhere. I wore my day-of-the-dead bicycle helmet, and I headed out with the first group of 60 riders. I maintained for the entire 10 mile ride without falling off in a pothole, and only stopping once for a water break. I paused briefly at the Houston Bicycle Museum, and then I made it back to Discovery Green with the first wave of riders. We all lined up for a free beer, and I took a comfy seat in the VIP area to drink mine (even though I'm not really a VIP, I find ways to get in those areas). 

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Riding around downtown Houston is fun anytime, but we had people at nearly every corner stopping traffic and making sure we didn't get lost in the dark. 

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I wish I had taken more pictures. Several riders had brought their kids and dogs in carts, and one person rode the whole ten miles on one of those elliptical things. I don't know what you call that thing, but he had some serious leg muscles. It was also kind of eerie because he was dressed like a phantom (with short shorts) and that elliptical thing makes you look like you're floating rather than riding, giving him this ghostly aura. 

I went back to my parking place and reloaded my bike, and drove home to watch the latest episode of my favorite series thinking about how much my neighbors and friends have accomplished since the storm. It is these happy moments that make it worthwhile to live in a city like Houston.


My Brother and Vietnam

The Blade

 

My brother’s life had a very tragic ending. He was fifty-three when he died in the veteran’s hospital. I watched him suffer in a life that offered him no relief from the paranoia. He came home from Vietnam with glassy, angry eyes, and a hard bitter mouth. He was too quiet, too observant, and even though we didn’t know at the time, he was suffering from shock. The military sent him back for a second tour. He walked point again with his pistol and a knife. He hid in canals with leeches sucking the blood out of his veins; he cut throats and shot the enemy. When he got home after that tour he rarely put his knife down. He snapped the blade in and out constantly; he threw it long distances hitting targets with amazing accuracy. He could move around the house like a ghost, and hinted he could slip in and out of any building he wanted. I was just a little girl trying to start school and he terrified me. My heart would pound, and I could barely breathe when he came into the room. He never hurt me, but I was afraid he would accidently do something terrible. I loved him desperately, and my heart was broken. The brother I knew was completely gone, and I would have given my life to see him get well. Gradually, we adjusted to the problems he caused us. Slowly, we became a little bit like him so we could comprehend what he was putting us through. Several years later we were forced to remove him from our lives. We drove him out to highway 81, and my mother opened the door for him. An empty feeling crept into my heart that night; it was almost as if she had abandoned me on the side of the road. It was many years before we ever saw him again. The lessons my brother taught me: his view of the government, and the American cover up of the Vietnam catastrophe are components that predetermined my outlook and explain my unwillingness to trust authority, or accept the surface motives of any individual, or organization.

 

He is another dimension of me; the side of me that weeps hysterically. He lived in complete dependence on drugs, alcohol, and street wise wisdom. The tragedy we were learning to accept was that we were losing a man who should have become a great writer or teacher. His IQ was extremely high and he used to love to show off his knowledge and skill. But when he came back from Vietnam his vanity and personal style had disappeared. He taught me to be wary of people who were concerned about the way they looked in the mirror. He hated materialism, advertising, capitalism, and superficiality. He preached his ideas to me, his small captive audience. Too afraid to run from him, I started to listen. He was passionate in his beliefs. He could tell you the names of the arms makers and who the corrupt politicians were. He believed The United States of America was becoming a mutant fascist state. Our president was nothing but a puppet, and the authentic power rested in the hands of an elite secret group. He hated the middle class most of all. Not what we now label as middle class; he meant the nouveau-riche, the greedy, the white trash. I find myself influenced by his ideas even now when I occasionally read about a business person, or politician, that has risen to power barely competent enough to string two words together. I see the person as he does: snot-faced, dirty, greedy, ignorant and toothless with grimy fingers clutching a buck.

 

He also warned me about drugs, forgetting that small children learn by example. I knew all about substance abuse by the time I was ten. It was the early 70’s and we listened to “The Doors,” and “Deep Purple.” His friends carried guns, syringes, and wads of cash rolled up neat in their front pockets. The hopelessness of needle addiction broke my heart. I knew who the junkie was; what they were; and why they were. I witnessed the terrible lie the needle told my brother and his friends. My soul ached with terror and pity; I just knew I would come home from school and find my brother dead in the house. We took a trip to Houston to the methadone clinic. We picked one junkie up, hoping to drop off another. My brother would not get out of the car.

 

 

And now I walk quietly past the corporate world and watch it from the corners of my eyes. Unlike my brother, I really have no aversion to money or material wealth; I just don’t want to acquire anything the way that they do. They are so cold, heartless, and numerical. Their tall buildings jut into the sky like shafts of ice, filled with people involved in mechanical paper sorting activity, looking for ways to compete, profit, and cheat. If he was wrong about anything, it was not about them. I dipped my toe into their glassy, incandescent pool just to see for myself; but the water was too toxic, too chilled, and I walked softly on hoping they never really noticed me. But for a long time after that experience I could hear my brother’s blade snapping, click click, behind me. I ran harder, and harder, until it stopped.

 

 

There were many reasons to respect my brother and his blade was only one of them. People he chose to share his views with had a sense he was possibly correct. His vision was not blurred; he was very intellectual and literate. It seemed as if he was really in on some terrible truth and we all needed to know what it was. My innocence about my country, certain individuals, and authority suffered a shattering blow; but it wasn’t an altering of reality that I regretted. Instead, I felt fortunate, as if I had eaten from the tree of knowledge and hence was safe. I became determined to never sell myself out, or support anyone or anything I perceived to be false. I had my guard up early, and I am thankful to this very day.

 

 

While he served in Vietnam, my brother received a Purple Heart, and it earned him a small article in the local paper. Private Jessica Lynch, of the Iraqi conflict, got captured riding on the lost lunch truck. Special Forces made a rescue at great risk. Yet, Jessica and her comrades were labeled heroes by the national press. She got a movie deal; my brother and his fellow soldiers were villified by the 1960’s public, or they were completely ignored. These attitudes, and injustices, convince me his vision was both accurate and prophetic.

 

 

I deal with the tragedy of my brother in the only ways I can. I remember and honor his military service, and I take pride in his wisdom. He was a daring foot soldier in the Vietnam War. He deserves a movie, a parade, and a chance to relive his life with his family; a chance he will never get. I emulate him when times are harsh, and I persevere as courageously as possible. But most importantly, I keep one precious fact tucked tightly in my heart: we were brother and sister at a terrible time in our nation’s history. It was not that he lacked love for me, or intended to take away my childhood. These problems connected to his experiences in Vietnam made it impossible for my brother to buy me ice cream and walk me to school. Instead he made me tough enough to walk by myself, and made it unlikely I will ever believe their story.


The Poet and the Sister :-)

So long to the format, a bitter fill-in-the-blank document, something void of character, lacking in quality, and unusable. How dare you criticize me when you have denied me something tangible, you incomprehensible phony, you inexperienced quack. And on the day you beat us all, the sun will slip behind the western sky, and it will fail to rise, an eclipse as brilliant as an atomic blast will puncture the heavens, and life will eternally cease to exist, my father awaits me.

We have nothing to hide from you, and we have nothing to fear.

Once, long ago, we took a measure of the stars, and my brother laughed with me, and against the tide we were.

"It doesn't matter if they like you or not, for you belong to something better, something unexplainable."

Of them all, he loved me the most, and his words were true, not hollow, or masked with sympathy. I continued to listen, for he was a poet, and his wisdom arched across the plains, and the mountains of our home so far away.

"Your life, the road you travel, is unique, and your vision is clear."

And this is why they would throw me away.


Moving Day...OMGosh!!!

Dear Friends,

Today I have to start moving in earnest. I don't know what to do, and I am completely overwhelmed! If only you could see how much junk I have accumulated in the short 6 years I have been living down here. All of my furniture is BIG. All of my furniture is super HEAVY! I live up, not down, and even though I have been going through drawers and closets throwing stuff out and giving it away, everything is still completely full. Not only that, I have a computer network. At least it looks like a network, tangled wires are everywhere, and once I unplug this mess, what then? 

I am lonely. The Direct television crowd turned my service off a whole day early...I have no background noise. That means I can only get music as long as I leave my computer wired in.

I can't get the keys for my new apartment until tomorrow!

My child is still sleeping in his bed...he is clueless. He has no idea how much work he is in for today!

But we have so much to look forward to. My new place has two balconies, a marble kitchen, and a garden tub. The swimming pool is beautiful, and the fitness center is open 24 hours a day, completely sanitized and clean. Up the road, a fabulous junior high for Vince, a school with awards, a place where all of the drama is between the kids, and not the adults.

In Katy, people are friendly, they mind their own business, and life is too busy for wild speculations and chronic gossip. I will have Target, Starbucks, fabulous restaurants, the YMCA, a skating rink, my son's karate class, and my Jazzercise.

So, I am happy, just overwhelmed :-(


How I Explained the Movie Theater Massacre to My Own Child

As we learn the identities of the dead in the horrific movie theater massacre, and begin to realize the epic nature of this event, and the long term consequences of how our lives are changed, children begin asking questions. Mine wants to know "Why" someone would pull such a horrific stunt.

As we rode along together yesterday on our way to our favorite theater, we listened to CNN via satellite. Like most teens, my kid loves mythic urban heroes. He is a Spiderman fan, he loves all of the Marvel characters, he idolizes the comic humility of the Batman character, and he follows the antics of Cat Woman. He knew, for example, that Bane was an older evil character. He looked it up on my iphone, and said, on no uncertain terms, "See Mom, I told you he was created in the 80's!" He was proud of the movie, and he said, "I told you it was stupid to connect Batman to politics." Of course he is right, as usual. It is stupid, and it's doubtful this has anything to do with the terrible movie shootings. Even if the suspect claims his intentions were political, or motivated by some statement on our culture, it isn't true.

He is simply mean. One recent evening my neighbor phoned and wanted to tell me about the prowler that had tried to enter her apartment early in the morning while she was home. She was, understandably, quite distraught over this event. Her questions were along the same vein as my son's...why...why would someone try to come into her apartment knowing she was home in her bed? I told her the only explanation possible, the prowler is mean.

We all want to explain the impossible. We all want a logical answer to why mean people attack us. Simply put, some people are just filled with hate, and there is no magic word, and no way to change them. They will always lack the grace to deal with problems.

I know lots of mean people. Are any of them capable of killing me? Maybe, but they usually limit their activities to gossip, meddling, and other cheap mind tricks. Why do they do that stuff? It isn't about me, it's just that they are mean.

If it's true our brain is nothing more than an organic super computer, and I believe that's basically what it is, then we should all be careful about how we program our most valuable piece of hardware. I have made it a point to teach this philosophy about the brain to my own child. I tell him to deny access to certain kinds of trash: slasher movies, violent video games, petty people, and crappy literature. He is responsible for his choices. However, a couple of years ago one of his more ignorant relatives smuggled a non kosher video game to my child via first class mail. He played with it a bit, and later turned it over to me. He said, "Mom, I want you to know I got this in the mail. I don't like it, and I don't want it."

Like most educated parents with skills and miles behind me, I don't have any interest in raising a gun toting, war mongering, mean individual with, or without, a college degree.

We have to teach our children kindness, and tolerance. In the meantime, I want my child to watch what goes on around him, to keep security first, and be able to fight for his life at any moment; the world is full of these "mean" people.


Studying Bullies at the Texas Behavior Support Conference, and Beyond

Many of my breakout sessions this week focused on bullying. And while we have used this term for many years, I find it an insufficient description of what we are trying to control. Because, as we all know, bullying is multi-generational, and it is passed from parents to children. People, who have successfully "ganged up" on targets, are able to commandeer certain desired outcomes. You rarely find a bully acting alone, and they are usually proud of their ability to manipulate and mentally, or physically, harm someone.

In order to control this negative aspect of any social construct, then you must first investigate the source and determine the event. What I mean is that not all negative behaviors are true bullying. One excellent example was a case where the students in a certain clique used a hand signal to stop their cohort from slapping them on the chest. A teacher observing this behavior misconstrued the event, not understanding it was simply a childish game.

But sometimes problems persist, especially among cliques of people. And while I have spent this week focusing on this destructive adolescent behavior, I have been able to contemplate its effects on myself as an adult. All of us are ashamed of certain events from our years of growing up, and I have more than my share of immature regrets. Somehow, I have found forgiveness within myself, and have made every effort in my adult life to treat people with kindness, patience, and respect, always going the extra mile in order to balance out the pain I might have caused in the long ago past. But this doesn't mean I have forgotten the consequences; this doesn't mean I am going to cast away my rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness; and, last, but not least, this doesn't mean I won't get some really smart help when I need it the most.

Living alone in a small backwoods kind of place has given me a chance to analyze the bully issue from the generational standpoint. You find these adult perpetrators in places of authority: on the board, or in the city hall. Sometimes you discover these people at the local paper, or maybe in a radio station. They will call you names (liar, cheat, demon) and they will use every effort to "get rid of you." You will be made the villain, while all along you simply want to stick up for yourself and be allowed your privacy, and a chance to improve your life. And this is the same dilemma facing the target at school; the student feels alone, and awkward, like the whole place is against her/him. Usually help is unattainable because no one seems to witness the activity, but only perceive the negative results. Children who are bullied undergo severe personality changes. They become depressed, fearful, and angry; sometimes they act out in retaliation because no one has defended them from the ongoing abuse. People, as we all know, will commit suicide. I will never forget the tearful father I met via video who demonstrated how his only son had committed suicide by hanging himself in a closet.

Once this happens, then the bullies have really won. They have obtained their goal: getting "rid of" the target person.

It is my belief, that until the adults stop demonstrating and condoning this behavior publicly, then it will never stop. Most adults don't even realize what they are doing, but I can point out people my age, and even older, who engage in this activity as a group every single day. Bullies focus on the benign, and pick mercilessly away at a person's character, belongings, hairstyle, or way of life. They perform as a unit, and the goal is to "get rid of" the offensive target. Anyone, adult or child, that is different, or perceived in some odd way, is a potential object of scorn for the bully.

Honestly though, the bully has cheated him/herself. They have denied themselves an opportunity to learn from a unique, and sometimes fragile, human being. They forego a chance to experience peaceful contentment, the reward of tolerance, and acceptance. Instead of communicating from a positive perspective, they have chosen to vilify an innocent soul. And if they are adults, then they are passing this vexatious legacy onto their children. It is my hope that we are all moving on to a more mature society. I will let you know what I learn at the next behavior support conference. This one was fascinating.


Please, Help Me Raise Money for My High School English Class!

Dear Friends,

This week I am in Chickasha at my old house to celebrate Father's Day and have a yard sale. We are getting rid of everything Vince has outgrown, and all of the stuff we no longer need (like a huge collection of traveling gear dating back to 1983).

As you know, I have to spend some of my own money to create a classroom environment fit for my students. Last year I was in training, and all of this year I taught as a substitute. That means I haven't had time to shop for all of the neat teacher things I will need: books, binders, file storage, classroom literature sets, games for my students, software, bookshelves, and a variety of reading materials.

We haven't completely decided what days to have our yard sale...maybe Thursday and Friday. I have to be back in Houston for a "Positive Behaviors" conference that begins early next week, so I want to go back Saturday night or Sunday morning.

Anyway, I will let all of you know more as I work it out.

At any rate, I am extremely excited and pleased with my new position, and my students deserve the best of everything. I know none of you thought you would ever hear me say this, "But I can't wait for school to start!"

Last, but not least, I want to thank at least three outstanding men who have really helped me along this year...you know who you are, and all three of you are excellent fathers. Without your guidance, help, and thoughtful words, I could never have made this drastic career change. Because of your kind support I have more to offer to my students and my family. Angels ARE everywhere :-)

So, as we celebrate Father's Day, I am going to thank my late dad for giving me the strength to survive the ridiculous...no wonder he chose to live his life out on a small Pacific island...no wonder! :-)