What It Takes to Leave

“No man can wander without a base.” – Bruce Chatwin

This year I quit my job, changed careers, and moved thousands of miles, seemingly dependent on little more than unfounded idealism and the structural integrity of my Honda Accord.  At first glance, this journey required an adventuresome spirit.  Upon closer examination, this may be less than true.

As a child in San Antonio, there was a creek running behind our house.  We spent hours chasing frogs, birds, and our dog Lucy.  I loved that place.  I remember bringing balloons home from the zoo and setting them free, watching them slowly float into the clear, blue sky for what seemed an eternity.

This was the first time I began to claw at the vast world.  Up to that point, my world consisted of our mountainous driveway, the healthy creek, and our looping cul-de-sac.

A few years later, we moved to Kingwood, where I spent most of my childhood.  I remember miserable weeding sessions amidst the sweltering Gulf Coast heat.  I remember sharing a room with my older brother and listening to Green Day and Bush into the wee hours of the night.  I remember late night walks with the dog, the humidity rising off the pavement as we stared at darkened house after darkened house.  We lamented that our town had nothing.  We had something, but didn’t realize it.  We had a loving, stable home.

Home is where all memories must travel.  It’s the place you journey back to with no worry of airfare or miles on the odometer.  The town may change, you may change, but that place’s magnetic hold on your imagination stands firm.  Indeed, if you hold still long enough, you can see the shadow of that mountainous drive that was really just a steady incline and you can hear the roar of the rushing river that was really just a dried-up creek bed.

“It didn’t matter where I traveled, what I saw, how desperate and lonely I might become out there passing through strange places, strange lands, because I could always return to the safety and sanctuary of home.” Kurt Caswell, In the Sun’s House

Thanks to supportive parents and a stable base, I have traveled freely.  Psychologists refer to this as secure attachment.

The first secure attachment an infant makes is to his or her mother.  Numerous studies have shown that the more secure a child’s attachment to its mother is, the more willing the child is to venture out and take risks.  A famous psychological experiment conducted by Alan Sroufe and Byron Egeland in Minnesota, found that infants “who received the extra dose of early care were, later on, more curious, more self-reliant, calmer, and better able to deal with obstacles.” (Tough,37) In other words, the more secure an environment you grow up in, the more equipped you are to leave it.

Not only does a secure home base make you more likely to venture out, it also gives you a continuing source of relief when times get tough.

At 9 pm on a cold March night, I was awoken by a phone call.  My little brother played “Green, green rocky road” for me, a song he had recently learned on the guitar.  For several months, I had been listening to the same soundtrack and suffering through the disillusionment of winter some 1,000 miles north.  That call, that song saved me.

Growing up, I never imagined feeling this way.  There was my older brother and I trading turns hurling each other against the iron support that held up our basketball hoop.  There was my little brother and I getting into a torrid fist fight.

But something incredible happens when you leave your family.  You realize how much you need and appreciate them, despite any maddening idiosyncrasies you identified along the way.  Within this realization, my brash, naive assumption that I could travel anywhere and build a fortress of self-reliance came crumbling down.  Reliance on family is what gave me the strength to make this journey.

Nowadays, it’s common to hear glorified tales of young adults giving up career and possessions to travel on the cheap.  The costs, in some cases, are low enough for nearly anyone to partake.  Why then does this movement seem overwhelmingly upper middle class?

“Any form of new organization or integration within the mind has to be preceded by some degree of disorganization.  No one can tell, until he has experienced it, whether or not this necessary disruption of former patterns will be succeeded by something better.” – Anthony Storr, Solitude, A Return to Self

This is not to say that all those that lie outside the upper middle class had difficult childhoods or that all upper middle class children had idyllic childhoods.  However, those belonging to lower socioeconomic brackets are more likely to have suffered through childhood adversity.  For these individuals, the answer may lay in childhood and crucial early attachments.  Perhaps those that have been scarred and bruised by turbulent childhoods have to make a larger leap of faith in order to trust a new culture.

The obvious counter argument is that these people have nothing to lose.  They haven’t found prosperity in their current situation, so why not make a change?  As discussed earlier, human instinct does not work this way.

Infants that are able to attach themselves to stuffed animals or other “transitional objects” are said to benefit from secure attachment to their mother.  They are comfortable connecting with other objects due to the confidence they have that their mother will not neglect them.  In the same way, those that lead blissful, peripatetic lives often do so as a result of secure attachments.  They are confident that their support system will be intact and waiting for them upon their triumphant return.

Less fortunate people have little reason to believe that their loved ones and their community will even be recognizable upon their return.

So next time you’re congratulating yourself for being an adventurous, atavistic wanderer just know that this ability likely exists due to the confidence gained from secure attachment to your family.

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With this in mind, instead of touting the perks of traveling and cultural immersion to poverty-stricken youth, perhaps we should first take time to assist them in the building of solid community bases.  Only then will they be free to wander and graze the meadows of varied cultural experience.

¹Tough, Paul. How Children Succeed.  Paul Tough, 2012. Print.

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The Costumes We Wear

I always had the best costume, an expert at disguise.

” I’ve walked these streets
In a spectacle of wealth & poverty
In the diamond market
The scarlet welcome carpet
That they just rolled out for me”

Uh oh, Natalie Merchant pandora. Brings me back to Lubbock, Texas where my Aunt Brenda and I would listen to everything from Tom Petty to yes, Natalie Merchant. “Carnival” transfixed me. Natalie’s tragic walk through the sad carnival resonated with my 8 year old soul. Ashamed that my first spiritual experience occurred at the hands of such a feminine artist, I stuffed the feeling into my back pocket.

That feeling would outgrow every back pocket, every pair of pants. Basketball, accounting, money. Eventually, and sometimes quite rapidly, these things lost the requisite meaning to obscure my true self.

As a child, my favorite animal was the wolf. Grey fur, the trademark howl, and those bright, white fangs were all nice throw-ins. However, I loved the wolf because I empathized with the slander exacted upon its character. Wolves were tortured souls in desperate need of a second chance.

Years later, I remember gazing out the window as our family zoomed south on US 59 to a baseball game or perhaps a museum. My forehead, my eyes, were pulled in by the 15 mile stretch of slums hugging the interstate. The interstate stood rigid, never acquiescing to the ghetto’s call for affection, attention of any kind. Like a distant, busy father the highway had places to go. No time for stopping, embracing.

I wondered what happened in those neighborhoods, what the hungry child thought as he lay awake.

Did he, like me, long for that girl in home room he had been crushing on since elementary? Or did his mind process the poverty and uncertainty surrounding him?

Did he dream about the NBA just as I did? Or was it closer to a burning desire?

Did his stomach growling clinch both the stomach and the heart or did the physical ailment of hunger stomp over any emotions?

His family left starving, forgotten, how did his Father feel? Was his Father so starving and forgotten that he forgot there was an alternative?

Did children, gazing through dirty clothes lines out to the indifferent highway, see the callous, carnival procession?

I believed that, for the wolf and the starving children of Houston, my feelings of sympathy and concern would better the condition of the suffering.

Years passed. I still read grisly newspaper accounts of murders, robberies, with well-hidden remorse. I searched for Wheatley, Sam Houston, Jones High School, all the tough schools, as I scanned the high school box scores each morning. I secretly rooted for them, holding the misinformed idea that my concern, unaccompanied by action, made a difference.

College came and went. Had fun. Did nothing.

I started an accounting career. Still, these feelings, concerns, lay dormant in my back pocket.

It wasn’t until I volunteered with Junior Achievement that I started to shed the costume. These kids, the same kids I worried about, didn’t need my concern. They just needed someone to witness their genius. The creativity, ambition, boldness I witnessed told me exactly what I needed to know.  I needed to rip my feelings, concerns out of my back pocket, shred them into a million pieces.

Just like many adults and, in my case, children, I was once an expert of disguise.

Life lessons from Bear Mountain, CT

“So you’re sort of going through a mid-life crisis too, huh?”  I paused for a second, peering out over the picturesque Connecticut Valley from my perch atop Bear Mountain, and casually responded, “Yep, ahead of schedule too.”  Sarah had gotten divorced four years earlier, spurring a “mid-life crisis” that took her to the summit of 5, count em 5, 14 thousand foot peaks in Colorado and the entire Connecticut section of the Appalachian Trail (53 miles) in a day.  Quite literally, a monumental life-shift had taken her to heights she’d never seen before.

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A weighty chance encounter at the peak of Bear Mountain, CT

This epic chance encounter, happening so metaphorically on a rock overlooking the whole state, had me thinking the entire way down.  The term “mid-life crisis” had been thrown my way more than a few times.  Typically, I would dismiss it or lay out the painstaking logic that led me from accountant in Houston to teacher in Hartford.  Similar to a modern-day scarlet letter, admitting to such a thing would be tantamount to agreeing that my recent life decisions were a result of immaturity or,even worse, insecurity.  The sight of this fit, ambitious 30-something helped me realize that mid-life crisis is an overly broad term.  How could a balding, disgruntled businessman buying red sports cars he can’t afford be equivalent to this woman fiercely dedicated to a mission of personal growth and exploration?

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Not all highs are created equal

Mid-life crisis, used in the traditional sense, implies a rapid, unsustainable euphoric high followed by a slow and steady descent down to the lowlands from which you came.  But what do we call a successful reassessment of what matters in life?  A period of sustainable personal growth?  The present use of the term, through the use of the undeniably negative word “crisis”, implies a lack of control and a negative outcome.  “Mid-life opportunity” more positively and accurately frames the situation.  It assumes neither success nor failure while still acknowledging an important juncture in an adult’s life.  Shiny red sports cars and marital infidelity or an empowering burst of personal growth, the choice is ours.

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Back to the lowlands or to previously unseen heights?

From Swingersville to the Gulfton Ghetto, A Brief History

An introduction to Gulfton

Nestled between the Galleria, Bellaire and Sharpstown, lies the immigrant community of Gulfton.  Gulfton is a living, breathing experiment of one of Houston’s true eccentricities–its lack of zoning laws.  How else could a place known as “Swingersville” in the 1970s transform into the “Gulfton Ghetto” in a matter of a decade?

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Taco trucks on every corner

Let the Good Times Roll- The Swinging 70s

At the height of the Houston oil boom, Gulfton was a mecca for opportunistic energy industry workers.  Immigrants from foreign countries and transplants from the Rust Belt of the United States came in pursuit of high-paying energy jobs.  To accommodate the onslaught of young professionals, giddy real estate developers hastily constructed sprawling “luxury” apartment complexes with haughty names like Napoloeon Square, Villa Royale, and Chateaux Carmel.  These mega-complexes had all the amenities of a fraternity boy’s dream.  Pools, lots of pools (one complex famously had 17 private swimming pools, 17 laundry rooms, and 17 hot tubs1)  A few complexes even had on-site disco clubs.  Astoundingly corny advertisements aired all over town with the promise of everything outside of dancing mermaids.  Seriously, check out this old tv plug from the infamous real estate mogul Michael Pollack (not to spoil it but he spends time “pressing” on a Nautilus machine and a bikini clad bombshell emerges with the promise of a free VCR).    With all the hubbub, “Swingersville” had no time or use for constructing proper infrastructure such as sidewalks, parks, and libraries.

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The infamous Michael Pollack

 Reality Sets In

The mundane forces of supply and demand would slowly have their way on the Houston economy.  The oil industry cratered in the 1980s and the dreamy singles with the Kennedy cuts went back to their homes along the Rust Belt.  Blocks and blocks of apartment complexes rapidly hollowed out.  Landlords collectively crapped their pants and resorted to dramatic slashes in rental rates and the elimination of those silly background checks.  A new migration of lower-income immigrants from primarily Central America moved their large families in droves to now affordably priced apartments.  The population in Gulfton nearly doubled between 1980 and 2000 without construction of a single additional apartment complex.1  As a result, Gulfton currently has a population density nearly 8 times the average of Harris Country and 3 times the average of Houston’s inner loop.2

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The community’s park isn’t exactly pristine

Current Social Issues

This period of rapid economic growth followed by tremendous decline left a tightly packed cluster of aging apartment complexes with limited public resources.  The social consequences of this “build and bail” development philosophy were dramatic.  An unemployment rate that hovered around the 1999 rate of 12% and the earlier mentioned dearth of public resources (exactly zero YMCAs or public libraries) resulted in high crime and limited social mobility.  As feared gangs like MS-13 and the Southwest Cholos entrenched themselves within the community, Houston residents began to derisively refer to the area as the “Gulfton Ghetto”.  Additional community issues ran the gamut from a lack of public healthcare facilities to school overcrowding.

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A neighborhood gang, the Southwest Cholos

http://redcountyrp.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=271&t=33350

There’s Still Hope

Now here comes the positive part…there’s hope.  Lots of it.   The Baker-Ripley Neighborhood Center was constructed in 2010 and represents the brand of sustainable development this community has sorely needed for decades.  The center boasts a community garden, a gymnasium, a tax center along with a credit union, and an on-site elementary school.  Neighborhood Centers Inc. CEO Angela Blanchard’s guiding principles are refreshing and inspirational:

“One:  The people are not the problem- they are the source of potential solutions.  And two:  Leaders are already there in neighborhoods, to be tapped.” 3

Staying true to this philosophy, the organization conducted a grass-roots interview effort to identify the community’s strengths and aspirations for the future.  The members of the community are correctly treated as majority shareholders in the vision and direction of the center.  Baker-Ripley now provides financial literacy classes, citizenship application services, tax preparation, and have even engaged in a bit of banking through partnerships with local credit unions.  These services mirror Blanchard’s second guiding principle of providing the skills to empower local residents to lead their own communities.

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Baker-Ripley Community Center

In addition to this impressive community development center, the area has undergone a number of educational improvements.  YES Prep and KIPP, two successful charter school programs, have firmly established themselves within the community.  Area children apply and are randomly selected for admission through a lottery process.  If you’ve ever watched the education documentary Waiting for Superman, you are well aware of the heartbreaking scenes of families not hearing their name called.  Whether you agree with the system or not, the tremendous weight families place on admission into these schools speaks volumes to the positive influence they have on students.

 Even Lee High School, the public school serving the area, has become the focus of national reformation efforts.  Efforts spurred by startling demographic trends.  School enrollment peaked in the early 1990s at around 2,500 and has since plummeted to 1,416 as of late 2012.4  Additionally, in the early 1990s only 1 in 4 students were considered low-income compared to approximately 80% in 2012.4  

A cold, hard look at the challenging demographics combined with students’ sub-standard performance on state aptitude exams prompted Houston ISD to implement its Apollo program, a partnership with Harvard University’s Education Innovation Laboratory, in 2010.    Apollo schools implement similar practices and strategies employed at successful public and charter schools across the nation.  The program focuses on re-evaluating struggling school’s principles and teachers (i e out with the old, in with the new), increasing instruction time and effectively using data to facilitate instruction.

This almost entirely immigrant community’s audacity to creatively attack seemingly insurmountable infrastructural, social, and educational challenges is truly inspiring.

1. Rogers, Susan. “Superneighborhood 27: A Brief History of Change.” Places: Vol. 17: No. 2. Posted on the California Digital Library. 2005. 37. Retrieved on June 6, 2013.

2.  Neighborhood Centers, Inc. “Houston’s Untapped Potential.” http://www.neighborhood-centers.org/en-us/content/Gulfton+Marketplace.aspx.  Retrieved on June 6, 2013.

3.  Houston Chronicle “How to build strong neighborhoods” http://www.chron.com/default/article/How-to-build-strong-neighborhoods-3979168.php.  Retrieved on June 6, 2013.

4.  Radcliffe, Jennifer.  “Education Secretary stops at Lee High en-route to All-Star game activities.”  Posted on the Houston Chronicle.  February 15, 2013.  Retrieved on June 6, 2013.

Let’s Explore Houston

” The only problem with Microsoft is they just have no taste, they have absolutely no taste.  I don’t mean that in a small way. I mean that in a big way, in the sense that they don’t think of original ideas and they don’t bring much culture into their product.”  – Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs took a well-documented spiritual journey to India.  Through these travels, he stumbled upon a philosophy that would dictate Apple’s strategy for decades.  Steve Jobs was determined to bring culture into his products, the best of culture.  In his mind (and apparently the mind of the consumer), technology did not exist in a vacuum.  Instead, Jobs saw his seemingly technical line of work as interconnected with all aspects of humanity.  This holistic vision set his products apart from the rest of the market.

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This story of exploration and, ultimately, product application has inspired me to begin a small journey of my own.  No, I won’t be going to India.  I will be starting the journey in my hometown, Houston, TX.  The idea is to pick a few long-standing communities in the area and devote one to two weeks to becoming familiar with the area through light research and a few “field trips”.  Ultimately, the goal will be to document my experiences enough to provoke thought, meaningful discourse and a greater appreciation for Houston’s greatest resource, its nearly unparalleled diversity.

New Zealand Trip Continued

6/17/2012 4:30 AM (NZ Time)

I successfully boarded the flight to New Zealand after a tumultuous connecting flight.  The flight from Houston to LA touched down at 8:45 PM and I needed to board the 10:30 PM flight to Auckland.  Seemed like a realistic task…After the typical jostling and waiting characterizing the de-boarding process, I finally escaped the congested, claustrophobic aircraft around 9 pm.  I exited the security area and made the poor choice of hopping on an inefficient bus shuttle headed for the international terminal.  After crawling at a speed close to a slow walk and a few panicked phone calls/texts with my older brother/travel partner, I made it to the security checkpoint at 10 pm.  Yes, you read that right, 10 pm.  The bus ride, over which we traveled a little more than half a mile, took an hour!  Luckily, I was able to quickly slide through security and barely make the flight.  Houston Bush Intercontinental>LAX.

The plane flight was long, but not uncomfortable.  It’s rare to be free to think about, watch, read, or listen to anything you want.  Thousands of feet above the vast Pacific Ocean is about as close to untouchable as one can get.  This is solely in the metaphorical sense, as you’re never less than a few inches away from the next passenger.  The near cuddling with a complete stranger juxtaposed by the complete mental separation is a unique experience.  Thoughts are completely one’s own and other passengers’ thoughts are inaccessible.  Comforting.  Makes you wonder if people move to large cities in order to replicate this crowded solitude…Flight attendant says it’s time for our final descent into Auckland—excited.

Day 1 New Zealand Travel Journal

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The journey begins

Friday June 15th 6:17 PM Houston Time

Travel has officially begun with the endless maze of security checkpoints, boarding passes, and mediocre food.  Friday is a popular travel day, I notice painfully long lines.  This has been the norm for over a decade now  The airport has transformed from an exciting and mildly stressful place (pre 9-11) to a regimented, un-enjoyable ritual.  I can remember being excited to travel by plane as a child.  I do not think my children will share the same passion for air travel.

The first leg of our travels is from Houston to LAX.  I’m interested to observe what kind of people travel through LAX.  Without a doubt, the most interesting airport populace belongs to Portland, Oregon.  Passengers range from eccentric, intellectual types (usually wearing tighter fitting jeans, black rimmed glasses, and the women usually sporting a colorful, non-traditionally patterned bag—completing the look with a book dealing with abstract yet socially relevant themes) to fiercely independent, rebellious beings covered in tattoos, piercings, and dyed hair.  It’s interesting that such an ethnically homogeneous place contains such a wide tapestry of people.  A stark contrast with Houston Bush Intercontinental Airport.  The airport terminals teem with ethnicities of every type.  Despite this undeniable ethnic diversity, most people dress in the pragmatic, casual fashion that characterizes Houston as a city.  Time to board.