Monday, September 12, 2016

Our American stories.

"Where were you?"

Each year when the anniversary rolls around, I try to incorporate some kind of 9/11 discussion into my lesson plan. And every year, I ask my students what they remember from that day. When that topic comes up this week, my students won't likely be able answer because they are too young to remember those events first-hand. Sure, they've heard about it, but they don't have that "I remember where I was" recollection of Sept. 11 and the days that followed. For many of us, 2001 seems so recent, but for current students, that was literally a lifetime ago.

That's why it's crucial for those of us who do remember to tell the stories. We have to talk about the eerie plane-less sky, the somber music the non-news channels played in lieu of frivolous reruns, the tears that flowed every time we saw another face, another name. 

We have to let our children know about those dark September days because that's when we showed the world--and ourselves--who we are. We mourned the dead and comforted the grieving families, yes. But we also went back to work. We boarded those planes. We returned to the crowded football stadiums and state fairs. We refused to cower. We were strong. We were determined. And amid the turmoil, we found ways to be kind to one another.

In our current red vs. blue world, American values are segregated into left and right. Tragedies send us to our corners instead of toward each other. Now more than ever, we have to tell our 9/11 stories. We have to show our kids--and remind ourselves--how powerful we can be when we're the UNITED States of America.

Monday, August 01, 2016

The Tower.

Here's a not-too-surprising confession: I have probably taken more photos of the UT Tower than most people take of their own homes.
Instagram post from a few weeks ago
But really, that's not all that crazy considering the Tower represents my home away from home. Whether it's orange in the afterglow of a Longhorn victory or ringing out its Westminster reminders of the time, it stands in the center of the campus I love, the university that has given me so much. On our frequent trips to Austin, I don't feel like I've arrived until I can see the Tower on the horizon.
I have never been able to reconcile my love for the Tower with the terrible events of Aug. 1, 1966. I wasn't alive when Charles Whitman took an arsenal to the observation deck and killed 14 people, but reminders of the tragedy were still there when I arrived on the Forty Acres 20 years later. As a student crossing the wide-open south mall, seeing the chipped balustrade, sizing up the flagpole base that provided cover for one terrified young woman, I often thought of that day. In my college years and beyond, I have watched the grainy news footage, seen the photos, read the accounts. I am certain my imagined terror does not compare to the actual horror experienced by the victims and eyewitnesses who were there, but I have tried to wrap my mind around the awful day that changed the community I love.
The observation deck was closed from 1975-1999 (because of suicides, not the shooting as many suspect), so the top of the Tower was off-limits during my college years. It wasn't until 2011 that I finally got to ride that elevator to the 27th floor. I won't lie: It was creepy to see this place that I had heard so much about, and I could not help but imagine the terror of the Gabour family as they walked in on Whitman in that reception area. As we saw the rain spouts, I recalled hearing how Whitman used them as gun turrets and how the thick walls made the Tower his fortress.
Seeing the breathtaking view, I could visualize the sickening distance Whitman was able to cover, killing his victims as far as 1,500 feet away. When we rounded the blind corners of the deck walkway, my heart beat faster, struggling to comprehend the bravery of McCoy, Martinez, Day and Crum who stepped out on that narrow ledge, knowing full well that Whitman's gun could be the next—and last—thing they would see.
But it was also therapeutic to be there. I was grateful to finally see the campus below me with downtown Austin to the south and the rolling hills to the west.
Downtown, the "Six Pack" and the South Mall
West Campus
I got goosebumps to peer up at those four gold-leafed clock faces, the ones that had reminded me to get a move on to make it to class on time.
But mostly, visiting that space allowed me to reclaim the Tower, OUR Tower, as the University's. I needed that visit to take the Tower back from the man who used it for evil.
2011 visit to the observation deck
Today's memorial service was a long time coming. It took far too long for the University to honor the lives lost and acknowledge the shooting that affected so many. In fact, there was no acknowledgment on campus at all until 1999 when the Tower Garden (turtle pond) area was dedicated to the shooting victims. It wasn't until 2007 that a plaque was installed to commemorate that dedication.
Of course, in 1966 people had no real concept of a "mass shooting." Our culture didn't have the language or the rituals for communal grieving. There were no presidential visits, no vigils, no extended counseling for survivors. Regent Frank Erwin even urged campus officials to "clean this mess up" ASAP. It's as if the powers that be thought removing any reminders of the tragedy would erase it from memory.
The marker dedicated today FINALLY includes the names of those killed. My prayer is that this more appropriate memorial will bring comfort to the victims' loved ones while reminding future UT students about that terrible day in 1966. photo
As survivor Claire Wilson said at today's rededication ceremony, "Let this memorial remain here on this campus and in our minds as a reminder of the power that we have in each moment to become a community of love and reverence for life." (from the Texas Exes Alcalde website)
My next visit to Austin will likely be centered around the football stadium, but I hope I get the chance to wander into the heart of campus just to see the Tower Garden and pay my respects. I have no doubt that I will continue to take photos of our Tower in all its glory, but I want my next picture of it to include this remembrance, this acknowledgment of UT's darkest day.

The Austin American-Statesman has put together a wealth of materials in commemoration of today's 50th anniversary. The intro page to the special project is here. I was especially interested in the 3D interactive feature that points out where key figures were on the observation deck that day. The then and now photos of the Tower and surrounding areas are fascinating, too. You can also see the 1966 newspaper coverage and listen to archived recordings of police and news radio on the Statesman website.
Texas Monthly has also assembled a ton of materials to mark the day. Included at that link is the impressive "96 MInutes" oral history compiled 10 years ago for the 40th anniversary of the tragedy. It's not linked on TM's archive page, but "The Madman on the Tower," published in 1986, is another good account.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

2015: Upon further review, part 2.

This is the second installment of our 2015 retrospective. Check out part 1 here.

March 4-5: Mac and freeze

We figured we'd made it through the worst of winter weather when March arrived. But no.

This sign at a local gas station summed it up. As soon as a meteorologist so much as mentioned snow, citizens flocked to supermarkets to stock up on milk and bread.

Typically I'd be thrilled at the prospect of another cozy snow day, but on this particular Wednesday, the forecast bummed me out. Why? We had Fleetwood Mac tickets for that night! Brett and I had decided just a week before that we shouldn't miss out on this opportunity to see one of our favorite bands (and one that we both really like, as opposed to other musicians that one of us prefers more than the other). When we saw the forecast, however, we tried to dump our tickets on Stubhub. Of course, all the other Fleetwood Mac fans knew about the impending snowpocalypse, so no one bought the tickets. We then decided we'd give it a shot and go to the concert instead of eating those tickets. If necessary, we could always just stay in Dallas until the roads cleared.

We joined the other hardy fools at American Airlines Center and were happy to have our seats upgraded. Instead of being in the upper level, we were moved into the lower bowl, to the right of the stage.

It was a fantastic show, filled with all their hits plus some extended instrumentals from Lindsay Buckingham. Really impressive. But as our phones kept reminding us, road conditions were worsening by the minute.

When we left the arena, we found ourselves in a winter wonderland. Our plan had been to find a downtown hotel, but everything nearby was booked. Plan B was to drive to the next closest available hotel room. Once we got started, though, we realized we'd be better off to just drive home.

Turns out it was a harrowing drive. There were no lanes, just tracks left by the few cars ahead of us. After slipping a bit on some treacherous overpasses, my (not so) brilliant idea was to get off the freeway once we made it to the Mid-Cities. But doing that only put us on untraveled roads. By this point, our windshield wipers were pretty much useless thanks to all the ice frozen on them. Even finding a place to pull over and clean the wipers was tough because the snow was obscuring curbs and driveways! Fortunately, we were able to pull over into a Cici's Pizza parking lot. Getting traction to leave that lot was rough, but we finally got back on the road and ever so slowly made it home.

We didn't get there until after 1 a.m., but boy, were we happy to make it safe and sound!

The next morning, we checked our accumulation: more than 4 inches in our front yard! Now that's a good snow—at least, once we didn't have to drive in it.

After recovering from our nightmarish drive, we took a walk to a neighborhood donut store.

Made it to our destination! 

After we'd been safely home for a while, I asked Brett if the concert was worth it. It was tough to answer because the drive home had been so scary, but we ARE glad we got to see such a great show and still made it home safely.

March 6: Ryan and the great nieces

We always love a visit with these cuties!

March 8-10: Katie's band trip to Walt Disney World

The highlight of Katie's band year came with this trip to central Florida. The icy weather made their departure iffy, but the roads cleared enough for the buses to leave on schedule.

At WDW band members had a clinic with Disney musicians, but then the rest of their time was devoted to fun in the parks.

We didn't get to accompany Katie, so we clung to the photos she sent us!

Of course, she had a blast! Ryan had his own big band trip back in 2010 for the Tournament of Roses parade, so we were so glad Katie could enjoy this one. A true Disneyphile, she loved getting to ride Tower of Terror and Haunted Mansion, and she was even able to talk her friends into eating lunch at Biergarten, our favorite restaurant in Epcot.

Later she told us that even the long ride home was great because everyone took time to recount all the fun they'd had. 

March 10-13: Spring break retreat

Katie was in Florida and wasn't able to attend the church youth group's spring break retreat in the Hill Country, but since our youth minister had to miss because of his new baby, I pitched in to help the other adult chaperones.

Along the way, we had not one but two tire episodes. When this trailer tire blew, we weren't far from our destination, so our quick-working chaperones put on a spare and we made it the rest of the way to our campsite.

Returning to the HEB Foundation Camp is like coming home. Our campus ministry came here for retreats back in the 1980s, and I just love that our youth group kids can enjoy it, too.

Yes, you drive in the river! The main road to the individual camp areas is a river road.

On our way home, we had ANOTHER blowout. This time, we had to call a professional to change the tire, but we were thankful to be close enough to a little town to get help.

While I hate that Katie wasn't part of this retreat, I'm thankful that so many of our HCC teenagers got to go. What a gift to spend a few days in the Hill Country with other believers!

While Katie and I were out and about, Ryan and Brett made a quick trip to ATX to see these rugrats.

March 21: Hometown tourists

Brett and I talk about all the artsy stuff we used to do before marriage and kids. Every now and then, we actually get to do some of it! On this fine spring Saturday, we played tourists and visited the Kimbell, the Will Rogers complex, and the Water Gardens.

While we were out and about, we made a stop at the Fort Worth Stockyards where we saw the daily longhorn cattle drive. It was a great day!

March 25: Survivor brush with greatness (second in a series)

Since discovering our connection to Survivor contestant Mike Holloway (see part 1 here), we'd been following his adventures as the season progressed. When Ryan learned that Mike was hosting a viewing party at a local restaurant, we were all over it.

It was wild to watch this show with someone who was actually in it! In this particular episode, he had helped his opponent/ally, Kelly, during an immunity challenge because he was afraid she would be the next from her tribe to be voted off. It was interesting to hear his reasoning for such an unusual move.

It seemed like everyone else there was either a close friend or relative of Mike. We really felt like intruders, even though the viewing party had been publicized on the restaurant's Facebook page. We were relieved when Mike made the rounds and stopped by our table. I had the chance to introduce myself as his sophomore English teacher, which led to his mom giving me a big hug and thanking me for having patience to deal with a 15-year-old Mike! Our superfan, Ryan, was later able to "talk shop" with Mike, which led to continued conversations with him throughout the season. 

When it was time to go home, we just couldn't believe our good fortune. To have a connection, albeit a loose one, to a Survivor contestant was pretty cool, but to watch an episode with him a couple dozen of his closest friends was off the charts!

March 28: Chinese Bridge speech contest

Katie took her Chinese language studies up a notch to compete in the Chinese Bridge competition at UT Dallas. She and one other student were the only representative from her school district, and it's no wonder: For this contest, students had to write and memorize a speech in Chinese and present it to judges. Then they had to answer a question about Chinese and show off a talent. This would've been stressful in English, much more so in Chinese!

Katie was disappointed in her honorable mention, but her teacher and I were so proud of how well she did against students who have been studying Chinese for much longer.

March 29: Daisy's 2!

Happy birthday, Daisy Jean!

April 1: Easter prep

You know Easter's coming when...
...giant machinery shows up in the family center! Our worship minister brings out the big guns when it's time to change bulbs and reset lights. 

On the Wednesday night before Easter, our AV guys got to take a ride in the lift. It made me a nervous wreck to see them up there in that thing, but...

...what a cool pic John was able to get!

April 4: Egg dyeing

 We didn't have any kids with us to dye eggs this year, but that didn't stop us from taking part in this tradition!

Good thing Frisco still counts as a kid!

April 5: Easter

Oh, how I love to worship with my church family at Easter! As stressful as it can be in the booth, with all the special music and extra effects, the Spirit still fills our hearts and unites us in worship. Love it and love our Savior!

April 9, 11: Brett's thumb


I knew something was up when Katie met me on the stairs. She led me to the game room where I found Brett, sheepishly nursing his hurt hand.

He had taken a spill on his bike earlier in the day and dislocated his thumb. He iced it, but hours later, it was still hurting. After a quick web search to see who takes his insurance, we were off to the ER.

At the hospital, Brett had just about convinced himself that nothing was seriously wrong when the ER doc popped in to say, "Yep, it's broken."

Thus began Brett's frustrating recovery. Writing (typing) with one hand was sloooooow going. His afternoon bike rides had to be put on hold. Even walking the dogs was tough with one hand out of commission.

But he didn't have to have surgery, and the kids, dogs, and I did all we could to comfort our new lefty until he got use of his thumb back.

April 18-19: Journalism convention and spring game

Darn the luck! The UT spring game just happened to be the same weekend as our state high school journalism convention! Of course, I decided to try out the photography skills I was learning that weekend to snap a couple of pix before returning to the conference.

Can't even count how many times I've taken the ol' "Tower view from a window" pic.

Hook 'em!

April 21: The Time Machine

Brett is a natural entrepreneur, and with his constant stock of comics and other pop culture items, he opened an antique mall booth last year. It's a great set-up: He has a place to sell items he picks up, and since he doesn't have to man his booth, he can leave some of his convention wares for sale year-round. Win-win! 

April 25: ChaCha's 9!

It's hard to believe our "little ball of fur" has been with us for nine wonderful years. Happy birthday, ChaCha!

April 29: Survivor brush with greatness (third in a series)

After meeting Mike Holloway at his viewing party, I realized he'd probably be open to my newspaper students interviewing him for a story. We came up with a list of questions for him about Survivor and also about his days as a Bell student. I sent them via Facebook message and then tweeted him to make sure he got the questions. Then he asked what we were doing in class the next day.

You can't even imagine my excitement. I just KNEW that his visit would somehow fall through, but sure enough, during my conference period, I saw him pull into the front parking lot at school. And then I noticed he had someone with him: Shirin!

Shirin had been the subject of some controversy in the previous weeks because of the way other contestants had bullied her. Twitter had been abuzz with comments supporting her. And here she was, walking around our campus.

Because it was my conference time, I was able to show Mike around the ol' campus. He enjoyed walking the halls of his alma mater (although technically, he graduated from another high school).
He spotted the approximate location of his old locker.

He and Shirin tried out the desks.

Once my students arrived, we had a great press conference. My newspaper staffers were not Survivor fans in the least, and their interest paled in comparison to mine, but Mike and Shirin were extremely gracious. They answered questions candidly and explained some of the intricacies of Survivor to them in layman's terms.

After the press conference, we posed for photos.

My thank-you gift for Mike was a Snickers bar since he had made a big deal about eating some Snickers while for a reward on the show.

When Mike and Shirin left, I was shaking with excitement, but I was SO sad that Ryan had not been there. He had class at UT Arlington and work after that, but when he realized what he'd missed, he was kicking himself for not taking the day off. I HATED that he had missed spending this time with Mike and Shirin. He has met many Survivor contestants, so he was really bummed he didn't get to meet her.

So you can understand why the following text from Ryan the next day made me squeal:
Ryan had messaged Mike and was able to meet up with him and Shirin while they were playing disc golf.
Again, I can't say enough about how kind and generous these two were with their time. Unforgettable!

May 1: World's tallest Elvis

Everybody's neighborhood should come with a Tex-Mex restaurant that's within walking distance, strong margaritas (see why the walking distance is important?), and the world's tallest Elvis impersonator. 

May 2: First Monday Trade Days in Canton

We'd talked about it forever, but in May we finally pulled off the mini-family reunion at Canton First Monday!

My find for my UT collection

Brett's haul

May 6: Survivor brush with greatness (fourth in a series)

Unlike our first viewing party with Mike Holloway, this one was PACKED! Mike had made the merge and was looking to be in good shape, and many of his friends and family wanted to help him celebrate.

At this event, Ryan got to meet S29 contestant, Missy Payne.

And I got another selfie with my former student!

May 8: Katie's last band concert

When the spring concert rolled around, Katie had already decided she would not be in band for her senior year.

After being in band for eight years and watching Ryan and Katie play for another eight, it was hard to say goodbye to the whole band world.

When the Honors Band played "Stars and Stripes Forever," I cried, remembering that special march that my high school touring group played across Europe.

Thanks for the memories! From band camps to region tryouts, from the Tournament of Roses Parade to Disney World, Ryan and Katie's band days provided quite a ride.

May 10: Mother's Day

May 16: Texas Flute Festival

One more time for the Texas Flute Festival! Katie did a great job with her solo, and then we enjoyed a little excursion to the Denton square.

May 17: Walk on the trails

May 20: Survivor brush with greatness (fifth in a series)

We could not have DREAMED that Ryan's last season of Survivor to watch at home would feature someone we knew. We would never have imagined we'd ever get to watch one episode, much less TWO, with a current contestant. And to spend an afternoon with a Survivor? Unthinkable!

To top it all off, MIKE WAS THE SOLE SURVIVOR! Thanks to an impressive string of immunity wins late in the game, he outplayed, outwitted, and outlasted to take the $1 million prize home.

May 23: Athens wedding

We traveled to East Texas to see sweet Maddie get married. We've watched Maddie grow into a lovely young lady, so it was a joy to see her make this commitment and march down the aisle.

May 25: Walk with Daisy

The girl loves her walks!

May 29: End of school year

End of the school year always has us
hanging on for dear life!

May 30: Dallas Comic Con

While I was at Bell's graduation, Brett and the kids were checking out Dallas Comic Con.