An Irish Lady, an Egyptian Man and me

Me, in Mexico, last week


I am sure I am not alone in loving the discount corner of my local supermarket – actually Teddy loves it even more than me. We call it Compost Corner after the first discount area that we found in a furniture store. About 30 years ago, I said “we are going out to buy a dining table for £10”. Teddy was incredulous but we came back with a beautiful ‘teak’ table that £10. We loved it and my mum claimed it when we moved on to another table.

I digress… Today, I was lurking around my supermarket’s discount area and starting chatting to a lady with a northern accent who looked completely Jewish. We discussed our various finds, from $1 Italian wine and myriad other exotica. She and her husband called it the WooHoo section. We were joined by a man who looked Middle-Eastern. He joined in the conversation and we agreed with him that it provokes you to try something new when it is discounted. He was handsome and the ‘Jewish’ lady heard his accent (swooned a little) while asking him where he was from.

Then it turned into a competition. I knew he was Arabic so I guessed Lebanese and greeted him in North African Arabic. No to Lebanon but my next guess was right – Egyptian. I should have known; he was in the discount area although he was probably a doctor and both charming and chatty. Then the Jewish lady revealed that she was Irish American. She absolutely did not look Irish. So, then they had to guess where I was born (San Francisco, Hispanic/Irish hybrid). Nobody got that right.

So, we had a Hispanic (me) who looks Irish and sounds Scottish; an Egyptian man with an ‘olive chin’ that hints at his ancestry and a ‘Jewish’ lady who was really Irish. We all started laughing about how typical this was in both our area and the Houston area. The Egyptian man commented that this was makes America great – (if only everyone agreed with him). I told him about the barista who longs to speak Arabic so I imagine he will visit there next. As I left, I bumped into the barista and told him about speaking Arabic to an Egyptian man – his face lit up at the idea of a potential new friendship.

The Slave Market

The Slave Market Museum in Charleston, SC

The Slave Market Museum in Charleston, SC

I considered writing about the beautiful aspects of Charleston, South Carolina but thought I would reveal its darker side first. This innocuous building might lead you to think that they sold anything other than humans. Charleston was somewhat of a hub for slave auctions which used to be on street corners. Despite owning slaves the residents didn’t want to see children and elderly people in shackles, so the auctions went indoors. This was one of 40 slave marts in historic Charleston at the height of slavery. When I paid for my ticket, I asked one of the docents if Native Americans were also enslaved. Apparently they were, but they were too good at running away. When they discovered the soil was great for growing rice, they really wanted slaves who were farmers.

It was a very moving exhibit, as you can imagine, and appalling to read about humans traded like cattle. I was not surprised but some visitors were deeply moved and the whole museum had a reverential feel, as well it should. Charleston was and still is a very wealthy city, reflected in the buildings and residents but I think it is important to remember why that is. No-one is without blame – some northern states had a horrible history of indentured workers including children and they may as well have been slaves. My own husband was born to an indentured servant at a farm in Scotland in 1958. It was well known that some farmers felt it was their right to have sex with the women. Teddy was the third sibling born to this 33 year old woman and given up for adoption. Glasgow, the city where I grew up, became rich on the back of shipping and tobacco from the Americas. It is no coincidence that many African American people have Scottish names.

Before I left, I spoke to the docents at the desk. I admired their museum and said we have not learned from our mistakes since the port of Houston is the hub of human smuggling into North America. They both looked at me blankly and I sensed that they felt I was taking something away from their story, which I was not. The ethnicity of today’s slaves may have changed and it is illegal but some of their stories are even more horrific than those in the museum. One of my friends, living a couple of miles from me, couldn’t get into her own street one day because of police vehicles. Her south-east Asian neighbor was trafficking young girls into prostitution but was living a regular middle-class life in an affluent area.

The next post will reveal a sunny and optimistic modern Charleston.

A typical cobbled alleyway in historic Charleston

A typical cobbled alleyway in historic Charleston

Deathly Purple Rain

Prince - "Purple Rain"

Prince – “Purple Rain” courtesy of zwall.pix.com

It has been a sad week for the Houston area and now for the world with the early death of Prince, which ironically was his real name.

We were all taken by surprise by the sudden flash flooding in Houston that killed only 8 people, remarkably, but many thousands have had their lives ripped apart by houses that flooded. We seem to have only just recovered from the 10 year drought, which devastated land with forest fires, when the weather Gods has wreaked their wrath and havoc. The truth is that we just live in a time of unstable weather that will continue to affect us globally for an indefinite period. The higher the population, the more inclined we are to build on land that has flooded from time immemorial and in places where forest fires are a natural part of the ecosystem.

Houston flooding 2016 courtesy of Mark Mulligan, Houston Chronicle

Houston flooding 2016
courtesy of Mark Mulligan, Houston Chronicle

On the first day of flooding I had to go to the doctor’s office which is about a 15 minute drive away but past the overflowing containment pond for our neighborhood and then a massive reservoir for our city. It was truly a magnificent site with gallons of water flooding the forest across the road. On the way back I was concerned when I saw about 4 cars parked on the side of the road (which is narrow). I was concerned that there had been an accident and then realized these thoughtless people were taking photographs and making the road more difficult to negotiate. Every year in downtown Houston we get a drowning death in an underpass which has suddenly flooded but it looks like they are going to finally put automatic barriers at the worst sections. The city is at sea level, riddled with bayous (a fjord of sort) and endless rivers and creeks.

As usual, Houstonians responded to the challenge with their bass boats, canoes and rafts and were able to start rescuing people who were not in desperate need – the first responders were doing that. After the chaos of Katrina and the refugees from Louisiana, each evacuation facility had police to make it safe for everyone. I am so grateful that our house did not flood but it was scary watching the water rising in the ‘dry’ creek which borders our property.

I am a huge music fan but I don’t usually talk about it much on my blog but I was so shocked by Prince’s death that I wanted to write a short eulogy. Purple Rain has to be one of my favorite songs of all time but it was Prince’s persona that affected me the most. At first, I wondered if he was gay because he was happy to wear heels, make-up and unusual clothing. Nonetheless I was very attracted to him and sensed he was straight which since was confirmed. Another line in the song Kiss is “You don’t have to be beautiful to turn me on” and it really resonated with me. It was during a time of sexual discovery for me and he encouraged me to look beyond what normal was. See my post about sexual fluidity. There was a period when he changed his name to a symbol and I guess this marked a period of self-discovery. It seemed a bit odd to me and I think he struggled with his sexual identity and spiritual beliefs. He gave huge anonymous donations to a variety of charities and causes and lived a private life despite the craziness of the music world. RIP.

Magenta and Yellow color palette

yellow and magenta

This is a continuation of my last post about Mercer Arboretum in Houston. Each season they choose a color palette and Spring 2016 is yellow and magenta, as you can see above. It never ceases to amaze me that they can imagine this color combination in so many varieties of plant. Truly a work of art in a garden.

pink magnolia

I was particularly struck by the beauty of this deep pink magnolia blossom. Disappointingly, it didn’t have as strong a scent as the natural cream ones but aesthetically pleasing, nonetheless.

magenta and yellow 2

A beautiful border with shades of yellow, magenta and purple. If you knew the colors in advance you could wear the perfect outfit but perhaps a neutral tone would work best with these vivid colors.

Spring in Houston

Miss Mercer

This wonderful lady, Thelma Mercer, and her husband gifted this 14 acre arboretum to the people of Houston. There is some staff but mostly volunteers who work in intolerable conditions to create an oasis in this helter-skelter city. Originally, the land would have been in the countryside and the main road, like many others around here, is called FM (Farm to Market) 1960. Since then, the international airport has been built just a few miles away and the miracle is that you are completely oblivious. The arboretum includes indigenous forest and a major waterway, Spring Creek, which eventually flows into Lake Houston.

conifers and tulips

Doesn’t the white of the tulips pop against the dark conifers? It would make a lovely wedding backdrop.

Every season they chose a different color palette throughout the garden which changes dramatically. This spring it was predominantly maroon and yellow – a feast for our senses. In the decade we have been visiting I have noticed changes in who walks through the park. There are always wedding, pregnancy, Quinceañera and other professional photography shoots. Then there are the poorer immigrant families from Central America, Africa and the Far East who can visit a beautiful location for free. Many of them may have been farmers and perhaps this brings back a feeling of home.

The smell of these magnolias permeated the whole garden.

The smell of these magnolias permeated the whole garden.

It just soothes my troubled soul to be among such natural beauty.

Naked lady on top of big rig

naked lady on big rig1

Courtesy of chron.com

We went to our lawyer downtown to change our wills on Monday. The lawyer’s assistant asked us if we had heard about the naked lady dancing on top of a big rig on the 290 highway. We burst out laughing and said, “What next?” Houston’s freeways are notorious for odd things happening. Accidents happen every day, not always fatal, and weird things fall off trucks all the time. I don’t know how many times I have had to veer to avoid a sofa or a ladder. As Texans we are also kinda nosy and rubber necking at accidents sites is a real problem. You will be in a one hour delay with nose to tail traffic and then you discover that the accident was on the OTHER SIDE OF THE FREEWAY! It is a very hard-working city with tired, underpaid, under-qualified drivers from all over the world. When I greet tourists, I ask them if they have ever driven in Mexico City or Egypt – just to forewarn them.

As I started to think about this naked lady incident, I thought she must have just flipped. Briefly, she had been involved in a pile-up then took off all her clothes and clambered on top of the big rig that had been involved in the accident. She danced and twerked according to reports and this a link to a thoughtfully written article by our local paper The Houston Chronicle Naked Lady story

After my last post, it made me so sad that yet again this whole debacle was caused by a psychiatric problem and thank goodness the first responders were empathic to her issue. Can you imagine if she had thrown herself off the truck or ran into 5 lanes of traffic? Life is so frenetic here that she may not have realized that her mental health was breaking – who knows but at least she is in a hospital now. On a funnier note – can you imagine what the truck driver was thinking as a naked lady clambered on top of his rig?

I mentioned to our lawyer that I had a bad car accident a few years back when I was rear-ended by a truck carrying a heavy load. She asked why I didn’t approach her and now I wish I had. As someone with a mental illness, I was entirely traumatized by the incident, the ambulance, the predatory surgeon, the endless bills and bureaucracy. I did approach one reputable lawyer who was very keen to take on my case, particularly because both my physical health (spine) and mental health were impacted. Finally, I realized that I would only recover mentally if I moved on and settled for a paltry sum that didn’t even cover medical costs. I also didn’t want to ruin the life of the contractor who accidentally ran into me.

I have had more accidents since – it is such a common occurrence here. Often I wonder why there aren’t more fatal accidents? On one occasion a Latin American man stopped to give me his card as a witness and I now will always do that if it is safe for me to stop. Pay it forward.

Community Mental Health

risperidone prescription
My previous field of work was community mental health care and when we were downtown I spotted this prescription sticker stuck onto a bench in the park near the ‘before I die’ chalkboard. I instantly recognized the drug which is an anti-psychotic medication commonly used to treat illnesses like schizophrenia. When I was working it was a new wonder drug and very expensive. I expect it is generic now but still a useful medication.

Then I noticed the David’s surname which was Spanish and that the prescription was printed in Spanish. Mental illness affects people irrespective of income, ethnicity and circumstances but I suspect from his mother’s address they were first or second generation immigrants on a low wage. The script was issued from a hospital near the downtown area so it suggested that perhaps they could only afford to go to ER or it was an emergency situation.

David is not even 20 and my experience tells me that it is more likely the onset of schizophrenia rather than bipolar. It commonly presents in young men between the ages of 17 and 25. It can be sooner or later and slightly different for women. So why did he put the sticker on the bench? In retrospect I should have ripped it off because all his personal details were on it and made him a potential victim.

Was it a cry for help or a passive aggressive statement? More importantly, did he take the drugs? I wondered if his mother was sobbing, wondering what happened to her beautiful son and what to do next. The homeless people in Houston are often mentally ill and many self medicate with alcohol and drugs. I get angry and frustrated that there is so little community mental health care for parents or their adult children. When I volunteered at a local psychiatric hospital I was shocked by how many patients were brought in by policemen, sometimes at gunpoint. There has to be a middle ground.

Osyth commented in my last post that she was touched by the comment, ‘be happy’ (on the before I die chalkboard). Maybe David wrote that, in the hope that his illness would stabilize and he would be happy. I hope that he was still able to stay in his family home and not have to sleep in the parks, no matter how pretty they are.
art sculpture