Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at at time.

Educating the world about Texas one Yankee at a time.

Friday, August 30, 2013

In the wake...

I was at Fort Hood on November 5, 2009. I worked in the Public Affairs Office, producing television for Fort Hood On Track and writing my column, Tex Messages, for the Fort Hood Sentinel. I did that for four years, from 2007 to 2011.

November 5, 2009 was a beautiful day until about 1300 (1:00 p.m.) that afternoon.

By now, you know the story well and I don't have to repeat it for you. So I won't. I don't want to.

Though I was not at the SRP where the shooting happened that day, I saw my share of what happened in the video and photos our own staff brought back. We were affected by what happened. We saw bodies loaded onto helicopters. In our office, we were praying for our staff members who there that day, covering a graduation ceremony at Howze Theater. We couldn't reach them initially. It was terrifying. We endured the hours-long lockdown of the post, and the subsequent traffic jam caused by everyone trying to get home. We were subject to the swath cut through our office in the weeks that followed by both FBI and CID to interview us, grab up our photos and our video, and scare the hell out of us. We went through mandatory psychological screenings, guarded by armed soldiers at another SRP and interviewed by a uniformed Army psychiatrist on the Monday afterward, and then subjected the endless "follow-up" calls from the behavioral health unit at Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center. What hit me hardest was the look in my daughters' eyes when I came home later than usual because one man decided to commit an act of absolute terrorism at my place of work. I got to come home. Thirteen others never did.

That was enough.

After nearly four years of waiting for justice, Nidal Hasan has been found guilty of murder and attempted murder, stripped of his rank, his pay, and discharged from the Army. He has been sentenced to death. And when he finally is executed, whenever that is, it will be officially over.

But a hole in our lives--all our lives--remains. The survivors who were there at the SRP and saw it all happen, the wounded who lived through it, and the families of the thirteen dead can never have "closure" or "solace" or any of that. Whether a life or death sentence for Hasan, it does not really matter; nothing brings back the life any of us had before.

All of us look at the world differently now. I look for emergency exits every where I go and I have an escape plan, just in case. I don't sit in public places the way I once did. I've changed my life, not because I am afraid, but because I am aware.

There is no closure for that.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Whooping cranes are the Texas-Canadian connection, symbol of enlightenment

The summer I was 15, my aunt, grandmother and cousin went to Rockport down on the Texas coast for a week. I saw advertisements for boat tours to see the whooping cranes. Until that trip, I’d never heard about the whooping cranes of the Texas Gulf Coast. We didn’t get to see the birds and I’ve never been on the boat tours. But I’ve been thinking about the cranes since that summer.

The whooping crane, North America’s tallest bird (five feet tall with a seven-foot wingspan), is endangered and has been since 1970. It flies south from Canada and hangs out in Texas in the winter, arriving in October and leaving in mid-April.

Named for their loud call, the snow-white whooping cranes are our wildlife “connection” to Canada. They breed up in Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada’s Northwest Territories, and then fly more than 2,400 miles to get here.

Folks, that’s some kind of dedication. I don’t even like to drive to Houston much less contemplate an annual round-trip flight of that distance anywhere.

Why am I making a big deal about a bunch of birds?

Less than 375 of them exist in the world. And four of those 375 whoopers are at the San Antonio Zoo right here in the Lone Star State. That’s pretty seriously endangered.

We Texans have been entrusted with a sacred duty to preserve the birds and that’s happening at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Austwell. Our Canadian partners are doing the same at Wood Buffalo National Park. In a way, the cranes are our connection to another country and they are a reminder that we need each other for survival.

So what are the birds like? According to the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, whooping cranes mate for life, but will accept a new mate if one dies. The cranes can live up to 24 years in the wild. A mated pair shares brooding duties; either the male or the female is always on the nest. Generally, one chick survives. It can leave the nest while quite young, but is still protected and fed by its parents. Chicks are rust-colored when they hatch; at about four months, chicks' feathers begin turning white. By the end of their first migration, they are brown and white, and as they enter their first spring, their plumage is white with black wing tips.

I’m intrigued by the fact that the birds mate for life. Makes you wonder if humans were given dominion over the animals, then why is it that the animals get the whole partnership thing right when so many of us don’t?

About 290 of the cranes arrived during the autumn of 2010 at ANWR. I read that that is a record and shows the cranes are making a comeback. After 36 years on the endangered species list, I hope so. But the birds have a long way to go and won’t be off that list for some time. And they need our help.

For the cranes to survive, water is critical. It’s where they live, eat and breed. Without water, there is no food. The birds eat blue crabs that must have fresh water to live. Texas has had some serious go-rounds with drought, but it looks like the cranes are managing in spite of the challenges.

I don’t really know what impact the cranes have on their ecosystems. Some argue that the loss of whooping cranes has absolutely no impact, but I have a feeling if we lost the whooping crane entirely, it would soon become apparent what we lost. That’s usually the way of things: you don’t know what you’ve lost until it’s gone. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that one out.

And the birds are important, not just ecologically, but spiritually.

In some cultures, the crane represents happiness, wisdom, longevity and immortality. It is believed that the wings of the crane carry souls to heaven or into spiritual enlightenment, bringing them out of the darkness and into the light. In ancient Egypt, the two-headed crane represented the beginning of an age of joy and prosperity. So I wonder if the increased numbers of whooping cranes that returned to us this year represent better times ahead. It certainly represents enlightenment in that we’re not just thinking about ourselves anymore, and that’s almost always a good thing.

Whatever the return of the cranes means for Texas and Canada, it also means something to me. The whooping cranes remind me of a trip I took with people I love and the chance to reach out to others in an entirely different place in a way that makes a real mark on the world. They remind me that survival is possible against crushing odds and that it is important to accept the help offered by others to make that survival possible.

If wild birds can do that, then we can too.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Texas public school history books under fire thanks to Texas beauty queen

Originally written in January 2010.

Social studies textbooks in Texas public schools are under scrutiny. Evidently, parents, teachers and some activists got all balled up about how our children are taught history and now everything’s being examined, re-examined and re-re-examined. When I first read the story in the news, I panicked. I thought they were going to take Texas history completely out of the curriculum. Not so, I’m happy to say. But there is a fly in the (beauty) ointment.

The hubbub is not about references to Christmas, Cesar Chavez or even the religious views of our nation’s founders as much as there’s a bit of a stink about Texas cosmetic queen being mentioned in school textbooks more often than Christopher Columbus. Now y’all…this is where I get a bit agitated.

I’m not knocking Columbus or his 15 minutes of fame when he set foot on The Bahamas some five hundred years ago. But y’all, he never came to Texas. Mary Kay Ash, however, changed the faces and fortunes of Texas women, and the world. So let’s get our priorities straight here.

Ash worked in the traditional workplace for half her life and after getting passed over for a promotion that was rightfully hers, she quit. She didn’t get mad, either, but she did get even. In 1963, Ash launched her own cosmetics business in Dallas. The difference in the way she did business and the business practices of her previous employers is that she used incentive programs rather than sales territories to motivate her employees. And she operated under the basic tenet of treating others well. In five years, Mary Kay Inc. went public.

Ash was a Dallas blonde, too. So that right there tells you the lady was motivated as well as successful.

Columbus, bless his heart, has been a controversial figure in history classes. Whether he was the first European to find the Americas or he trailed the Vikings in discovering what the indigenous people of the Americas found thousands of years earlier, his place in history is pretty solid if a bit questionable. He takes a lot of heat for what his arrival meant to those who were already here. One could say (and it has been said) that Columbus might have been a rather shady character, too.

Not so with Mary Kay Ash.

Ash wasn’t just the Texas cosmetics queen; she wrote several books about marketing. She was considered someone worth taking seriously in American business. And, pink Cadillacs aside, the lady made money in just about everything she did and she showed others how to do it too.

Now that’s making your mark in the world.

All kidding aside, I do realize the importance of European exploration and what it meant in the five centuries post-Renaissance. But I just have to chuckle that we’re all goony over how many times Mary Kay Ash appears in history books over Columbus. I mean, honestly; so what?

For the record, Ash is mentioned twice; Columbus only once in the books in question. If all our teachers relied on were schoolbooks, I’d worry. But the fact is, most Texas schoolteachers do an excellent job in using other teaching tools to educate. Our teachers have a greater impact on our children than textbooks. They educate, motivate and persevere in the toughest environments and against the greatest odds. The times that Texas teachers positively touch the lives of our children are worth counting more than the times an historical figure gets a mention in a textbook.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Dressing like a professional in the summertime in Texas is an adventure

Summertime presents a special set of challenges for Texans, not the least of which is what to wear to work.

When the majority of us worked on farms and ranches, the attire was easy: wear that which was conducive to working with dirt and livestock, which generally meant lots of denim and leather. Now, lots of Texans work in an office environment with air conditioning. Still, the outdoors is never far away and that means copious amounts of heat in the summer.

When I started working after graduate school, I dressed in a business suit, hosiery and heels, right along with all the accessories. I worked in hospital public relations, newspaper and broadcast news so I had to look the part of a professional. The only break from the suit I got was during the two years I worked for Texas A&M University at the Ocean Drilling Program.

Universities are a different environment and wearing blue jeans to work is generally acceptable, especially if you’re a research assistant handling core samples from the oceans’ floors and publishing scientific proceedings volumes.

But in news, the only people who have the luxury of casual attire were the photographers. Reporters have to look credible because they’re on camera and working with all levels of society. But there’s a problem.

Picture if you will, wearing a business suit and riding in a news station van or SUV in July with a photographer (also known as a videographer or photojournalist) all over your region. It’s hot. It’s humid. It’s nasty. And you are wearing a suit. Your partner is in a T-shirt or polo shirt and jeans or shorts. He or she is marginally more comfortable and much more casual.

It’s possible that the vehicle you are riding in lost its A/C last summer and the station hasn’t had it due to budget constraints.

Your schedule is such that it is impossible to sit down for a decent meal, so both of you know all the menus of area fast food joints by heart, and the wrappers of past meals are probably all over the front and back seat because stopping to clean up and clean out takes valuable time away from getting your stories shot and edited for broadcast, right?

Photographers can be a cavalier lot and they like their condiment comforts when eating burgers and fries, so you are likely to have a dozen half-opened ketchup and mustard packets hidden all over, especially in the seats. In fact, the entire van is probably a clutter magnet, what with reporter notebooks, tape cases, tape labels, camera batteries, gaff tape, event flyers and all sorts of media detritus flung all about the interior.

Most days in July have temperatures of up to and beyond 100 degrees. So all this junk is thrown together and cooking while you and your partner are in and out of it covering stories.

Got a real good mental image going now? Good.

Here’s your story line-up that you have to go cover, shoot, edit and have ready to air by 6 p.m.: a suspect walk at the police station, a congressman speaking at a luncheon (at which you will not get to eat), tire factory employees picketing outside the plant and an oath of citizenship ceremony at the court house. You have six hours to accomplish this and you will probably rack up 45-65 miles on the odometer.

Half-way through your day, your assignments editor calls to let you know that the sheriff’s office has discovered a body in a vacant lot. Can you go cover that too while you’re out?

The day’s high temperature is forecast for 102 degrees according to your weather anchor.

Oh, and you and your photographer have to go back to the station and get the satellite truck for a live shot at 6 p.m. at the scene where that body was discovered.

You do not get to go home and shower. You’re lucky you got to stop to use the restroom. You might have time to brush your hair.

And it’s 104 degrees by lunch time.

And you sat in ketchup. And you’re too far from home to go change.

And it’s hot.

It’s really hot.

A side note about the assignments editor: he never has to leave the newsroom, so he has no concept of time, space, distance or external temperature. He really does believe that you can get all those stories in the six-hour time frame you have. He’s in that newsroom and should know that it sometimes takes at least one hour of production time per finished minute of video, and that’s just the writing and editing part. He has an office and it’s air conditioned, too.

This is a good time to remember that he is your life-line to stories and events in the area. If you want to continue covering the good stories, you should be nice to him. He’s not trying to be malicious; he just really doesn’t know. And there is a good chance he’s not from Texas, either. So distances might be a little confounding to him.

There’s a reason we media folks tend to be a little cranky. Now you know why.

I learned a long time ago in the news business in Texas, it is wise not to invest too much in your wardrobe, to make sure it is machine washable and doesn’t require ironing, to ditch the hosiery altogether and to carry a change of clothes with you just in case. Deodorant and fabric fresheners are must-haves too. I knew a reporter who kept rubber boots, sneakers and blue jeans in the news van so that she’d be appropriately dressed no matter what the story.

Long after I was out of the news business, I learned this was a good practice in any field that required me to dress up for work. Just spending more than five minutes outdoors in the summertime is enough of a catalyst for breaking out in a sweat.

I’ve seen corporate dress codes relax over the years. Much of it, I’m sure, is in response to the fact that—in Texas—it’s just ridiculous to expect employees to dress year-round as if the weather is that of New England in the autumn when in fact it is mid-summer in the virtual frying pan of the American Southwest. And employee productivity and physical comfort do correlate. Don’t believe it? Just try delivering the news and looking cool, calm and professional while pouring a bucket of sweat from your armpits.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

This end up: Proper display of Texas flag, discussion of football coaches are complicated in spite of simple design

One of the most misunderstood things about Texas is our flag.

The Texas flag, for all its simplicity, somehow is complicated for some folks. I can’t tell you how many times I drive by a house that has our banner flying upside down.

The Texas flag is, like most state flags, rectangular and has a width to length ratio of two to three. It contains one blue vertical stripe that has a width equal to one-third the length of the flag; two equal horizontal stripes, the upper stripe white, the lower stripe red, each having a length equal to two-thirds the length of the flag. It has one white, regular five-pointed star located in the center of the blue stripe, oriented so that one point faces upward and sized so that the diameter of a circle passing through the five points of the star is equal to three-fourths the width of the blue stripe.

The red, white and blue of the Texas flag are the same shades and hues of the American flag. The colors represent bravery, purity and loyalty, respectively.

Now that’s a pretty detailed description of our flag and it is outlined thusly in Chapter 3100, Section 002 of the Texas Government Code.

Please note the part that says the white stripe is “upper” and the red stripe is “lower.” The star also has one point facing upward. Pretty clear instructions on which end is “up,” right?

Evidently, not.

One of the first things Texas school children learn well before their seventh grade Texas history classes is which end points heavenward with regard to our flag. And yet…oh my…

This is where I have to stop writing and take a deep breath so that I don’t scream.

For me, the whole flag display debacle ranks right down there with Jimmy Jones’ ownership of the Dallas Cowboys and that terrible and tacky way he treated Tom Landry, the last of the professional football “gentleman” coaches.

I can’t even speak Jones’ name without hissing and spitting. But that’s a topic for another column on another day, in which I’ll tell y’all about the very heated conversation I had with ESPN blogger, Jeff Pearlman, about his book on the Cowboys entitled Boys Will Be Boys: The Glory Days and Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys Dynasty, and our rather loud disagreement about how Coach Landry was handled.

Come to think of it, I cannot speak Pearlman’s name without spitting, either. And wanting to wash my mouth out with soap. I am not a follower of football, professional or otherwise, but I will not broker bad press about Saint Tom, and I told Pearlman exactly that before I told him where else he was welcome to go.

Y’all…I confess that I was, in that moment, not a lady…but Mr. Pearlman was not a gentleman.

Back to our flag…

Section 3100.059 of the code states that if the flag is displayed vertically, the blue stripe should be above the white and red stripes and the white stripe should be, from the perspective of an observer, to the left of the red stripe. For more information about the Texas flag and its proper display, go to www.tsl.state.tx.us/ref/abouttx/flagcode.html.

If y’all got nothing else out of this week’s column other than a tangent about my complete distaste for Jerry Jones--and those of his ilk--remember this: when it comes to flying the Texas flag, the white stripe tops the red stripe. Red stripe up means you are in distress and need assistance. So if you don’t want me standing on your front porch, beating on your door while dialing 9-1-1, display the Texas flag correctly, please…especially if you’re a Texan.

As for Tom Landry, not a single Cowboys coach after him has even come remotely close to touching his 270-178-6 record with the team, even if Jones would show some real leadership skills by backing off and letting them do what he hired them to do.

Landry was surpassed only by Don Shula who finished his career with the Miami Dolphins and George Halas of the Chicago Bears. In spite of the disgraceful way he was shown the door by Jones, Landry ended his career as the National Football League’s third “winningest” coach of all time.

Landry was a class act in everything he did, from the way he dressed to the way he handled people. With Landry as the head coach, the players were expected to exemplify a higher standard of personal conduct, both on and off the field. They didn’t always, but the expectation was there.

It is said that Landry refused to keep up with the times, but I disagree. I think the times—and the people in them—couldn’t measure up to him.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Corporate buzzwords redefined for Texas culture

I had been in the post-college Texas workforce about six years before I heard my first round of idiotic corporate buzzwords. In the places I worked, namely television newsrooms, university research departments and hospital public relations suites, I had never heard the hodge-podge of mindless business verbal effluvia until I went to work for a corporate educational television company in Dallas.

Buzzwords and phrases such as “leveraging” and “thinking outside the box” were not a part of the language with which I grew up. Even in college and graduate school, I never ran across this butchering of the English language until sitting in that corporate meeting room and listening to a vice-president of marketing drone on and on about stuff that meant absolutely nothing to me. Oh it sounded like standard American English, but it wasn’t.

“Team, we’ve got to leverage our assets to benchmark our products. We need to be concerned with branding and creating win-win situations for ourselves and our customer base,” he said.

I got up and walked out.

This is English? This is how people in a business setting talk to each other?

Really?

So I got to thinking about those mindless words and phrases. What do these things actually mean to a Texan?

Well, let’s look at some of the more overused words. I shall assume that you understand the corporate business buzzword meaning already. I, however, will provide the definition of what those buzzwords sound like to a Texan.

• Benchmarking: writing one’s name on one’s lawn furniture

• Best of breed: the quality of dogs, horses or cattle

• Beta-testing: my grandmother used to keep a tank full of beta fish in a No. 10 washtub in her backyard under a live oak tree. I assume that beta-testing means pitching something in that tank with the fish to see who lasts longest.

• Bizmeth: something you ought not to be cooking in your basement

• Branding: marking your stock with your ranch’s brand using fire and a really hot branding iron

• Thinking outside the box: contemplating an issue while not in the restroom

• Cloudability: it will rain soon

• Contingency planning: marking all the clean restrooms on your road trip route

• Disconnect: to unplug something

• Elevator pitch: what is likely to happen if you jump up and down in an elevator

• Empowerment: the electric company finally fixed that power outage after the storm

• Exit strategy: finding the fastest way out of a honky-tonk when the cocktail waitress’ boyfriend shows up

• Facetime: what I do every morning in the mirror

• Fuzzy logic: how furry animals think

• Leverage: using a fulcrum and lever to move something, such as poking a fencepost under a cow that’s stuck in the mud to get her out

• Long tail: a really nervous cat in a room full of rocking chairs

• Mashup: what one does with potatoes, particularly at Thanksgiving

• Monetize: painting in the style of a French impressionist painter

• Offshoring: hanging out on a party barge

• Organic growth: something the doc ought to take a look at before it gets much bigger

• Outsourcing: throwing something away

• Paradigm shift: paying back that twenty cents you owe your buddy

• Pork-barrel spending: buying a whole lot of bacon

• Proactive: Nolan Ryan before he retired

• Synergy: getting up the gumption to do something the deacons at your church might frown upon

• Vaporware: anti-gas medication

• Win-win: a champion who stutters

So now y’all know what I was thinking in the seven years I spent in corporate hell. Every time I sat in a meeting with a vice-president or corporate executive-something-or-other, my eyes would glaze over and my brain would tune out at the first crazy combination of nonsensical verbiage. I felt like a Martian listening to Slim Whitman sing “Indian Love Call” for the first time in the movie, “Mars Attacks!” Oh I wanted to throw the “fertilizer flag” on quite a lot of stuff, if I only knew what in the heck they were talking about. But then I realized that the corporate types didn’t know either; they just needed to sound like they did so their coworkers didn’t know that they didn’t know. After all, sounding like a clueless ivory tower specialist beats drooling on yourself in public.