Archive for November, 2008

Giving thanks for family togetherness…

Friday, November 28th, 2008

My friend Emy is from New Orleans. Back in 2005, her childhood home took 8 or more feet of water from Katrina. After Ike hit Galveston, she had this advice for me:

I would like to tell you that recovery was painless, but I can’t lie. It was incredibly difficult. The good news…I think my family is closer than we have ever been. My one small piece of advice…try to enjoy the fact that your parents are living with you. Even though it gets old after a while, you WILL look back on these days as fond memories.

Jean and Chuck shared our little bungalow for three weeks because of the storm. When they were finally able to get into a FEMA hotel on Galveston, they were eager to stop making 100-mile round trips, and we were ready to reclaim the dining room.

adaptive dining room reuse

But now, two months later, we were eager to welcome family for Thanksgiving dinner. It felt like a small victory to pull off a normal, traditional event despite everything that’s happened. And Emy was right: I feel closer with my family than I have in years. Here are some photos from our Thanksgiving festivities:

Jean and Bob at the sink
Jean made brandied cranberries while I made the veggie medley

Jean and Chris photoing
In the afternoon, we went outside to photograph…

Izzy and Sierra in holiday dresses
… Izzy and Sierra in their holiday dresses (click for larger)

Just before dinner, folks humored my desire for a family portrait:

Gathered family
Four generations of family (click for larger)

After dinner, the girls played while most of us sat and talked:

Sierra and Sean
Sierra and Sean tussled, but it looked like dancing…

Izzy spinning
… while Izzy danced and spun.

Bill teaches Sierra solitaire
Then Bill taught Sierra to play solitaire.

During the evening, I turned our family portrait into a scrapbook page, and I asked everyone to write something they are thankful for. While Izzy scrawled only an “I”, the other contributions ranged from the silly to the serious. I am thankful for…

  • the turkey and the food and to git to gathr
  • the word Thank. It comes in handy
  • good food with good people
  • our mutual ongoing survival
  • being at the top of the food chain
  • being closer with my family than we’ve been in years
  • a new boss who has human qualities
  • such a wonderful nuclear and extended family
  • the people, the rest is just stuff. Or at least I keep telling myself…
  • to still be around

So, what are you thankful for? I’d love to hear from you in the comments. Love, Bob

Serving up some thought leadership…

Thursday, November 27th, 2008

When we’re not dealing with natural disasters, I enjoy spending much of my time working on transportation policy issues. But most weeks since the storm, I’ve been lucky to spend 3 or 4 hours on my work. A few weeks ago, I made those hours count!

Former Houston City Council Member Carroll Robinson invited me and two colleagues to Kam’s for lunch. He calls us his “brain trust” and said he wanted to do some “instigating.”

Over steamed brown rice and General Tso’s chicken, the conversation ranged widely. We talked about the recent national election, whether METRO will have the funds it needs to build the next five rail lines, and who will run for Mayor in 2009. Eventually, we talked about the proposed lame duck session of Congress and the likelihood of another economic stimulus bill.

All of us agreed that investing in infrastructure is an infinitely-superior form of “stimulus” over cash handouts to either corporations or tax payers. Carroll observed that rather than waiting to see what sort of projects our Congressional critters come up with, we should come up with our own list. I proposed that we write it up as an OpEd and get it in the paper ahead of the session. We spent the rest of lunch hammering out which projects should be on the list. Christof agreed to prepare a draft, which I helped edit.

The result was Put Houston on the Right Track, which ran on the front of the Chronicle’s Outlook section on Sunday, November 16, 2008 (Because Christof and I represent the same organization, we omitted my name from the submission, which will allow us to author another OpEd sooner than the 90-day limit):

Build these projects to prepare the city for the future

By Tory Gattis, Carroll G. Robinson, and Christof Spieler
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Nov. 15, 2008, 9:09AM

The Great Depression was a tough time for America, but it left us with an enduring legacy of good infrastructure. Bridges built in the 1930s bring commuters into San Francisco. Dams erected in the 1930s power the Northwest. An electric railroad from the 1930s carries high-speed trains from New York to Washington, D.C. A 1930s national park in the Great Smoky Mountains has twice as many visitors as any other national park. And in the 1930s, power lines brought rural Texas into the 20th century.

Today, as our economy continues to stall, congressional leaders are discussing a second stimulus plan. In the Nov. 2 editions of the Chronicle, New York Times’ columnist David Brooks suggested building infrastructure. That makes sense: Unlike cars or flat-screen TVs, highways, railroads, and parks are made from local materials by local labor, so stimulus dollars circulate longer in the local community and in the country.

If there is going to be a stimulus bill, we need to make sure that Houston gets its fair share. That should mean funding the projects that are already in the funding pipeline, like light rail expansion. But it also means an opportunity for new projects.

So what projects can the Houston region build now that our grandchildren will look back on in 70 years and say, “That was a great idea”? Here are six… [snip]

They dressed it up with a gorgeous rail photo and gave it most of the page. We were pleased with our handiwork!

But it didn’t end there. What we didn’t expect was that the Chronicle’s editorial staff would like our ideas so much, they would endorse them with the lead editorial the following Thursday:

If public works projects are to be part of the stimulus package, let Houston and Texas have their share.

Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Nov. 19, 2008, 6:22PM

Public works spending seems certain to be a significant part of the stimulus package the Obama administration will propose to help move the American economy out of its doldrums.

On the heels of a presidential campaign in which congressional earmarks and pork-barrel spending were rightly criticized on all sides, any such package must be assembled with care. It should be carefully thought through to avoid bridges to nowhere and heavy concentrations of pork in the districts of powerful congressional committee chairs. That said, it should include its share of worthy projects across Texas and in the Houston area.

A sign of the times: The mayor of Atlanta has already come forward with a list of projects in her area. No doubt, others across the country are thinking along these lines. This state’s congressional delegation, working with local leadership in the private and public sectors, needs to be on the case.

Which Texas projects deserve pushing in Washington?

Chronicle readers were offered a thought-provoking list of possibilities for this area in Sunday’s Outlook. (Please see “Infrastructure / Put Houston on the right track.”)

Three local contributors with experience in transportation and public policy came up with the following recommendations… [snip]

If you’re curious about the projects, feel free to read one or both pieces. But mostly I’m impressed how the combination of some interesting ideas, compelling prose, and credible reputations can make it easy to get your ideas in front of more than 600,000 potential readers. Pretty cool!

OpEd planning buddies
Christof, Carroll, Tory, and Bob (mediocre camera-phone image!)

More Ike consequences: UTMB layoffs

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

The University of Texas Medical Branch is the largest employer in Galveston County, and also where my dad has worked since 1985.

John Sealy hospital

But the hospital was devastated by Hurricane Ike. Essential facilities — including imaging, phlebotomy, pharmacy, clinical laboratories, and kitchens — were all on first floors and went under water. The storm caused more than $700 million of damage to the hospital, and only a fraction is covered by insurance.

Texas Legislators initially promised locals they would find funds to help get the 600-bed teaching hospital up and running again. But last week, the University of Texas System Regents announced that UTMB would lay off up to 3,800 employees, or nearly a third of the institution’s staff.

In a scathing editorial, the owner of the Galveston Daily News described the decision as a “terrible blow” not only to UTMB employees, but also to “a community staggered by Hurricane Ike.” He observed that the Regents’ decision to simply jettison much of the state’s $2 billion physical plant investment is “fiscally irresponsible and morally reprehensible.” Worse, the Regents ostensibly made the decision behind closed doors — violating the state’s Open Meetings Act — which may yet trigger a lawsuit.

In the week since the announcement, the big question for our family has been whether Chuck would be among those laid off. Early Monday morning, he got the call to come to the Chairman’s office. As a tenured faculty professor, they can’t let him go right away. But come September 1st, he will no longer work for the state.

Chuck on his way to the Chairman's office

The good news is that most of my dad’s work has been from outside consulting contracts for many years. So this is a good opportunity to shift into that full-time. And come May, he’ll be old enough to collect Social Security. But even with these silver linings, losing his job is an unwelcome addition to what’s already been a difficult year.

Adventias: Moving week!

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

It’s been almost two weeks since I blogged, and with good reason. Our family made the tough decision that it was time to tackle moving my Gran’mom into an assisted living facility.

Before the hurricane, Sarah lived alone in an ordinary* condo. I say “ordinary” because, while the rooms were elegant and the gulf view was marvelous, the condo did not include any supportive services. For about a year, we brought in agency caregivers for four hours each morning to ensure Sarah got a hearty breakfast and proper meds, which her memory impairment sometimes impeded. But despite these daily visits, Sarah routinely described herself as lonely.

After the hurricane hit Galveston, it wasn’t possible for Sarah to move home right away. Though her 9th-floor unit was blessedly undamaged, the building lacked power, water, sewer, and phones. While we knew recovery of basic services would take weeks, we expected Sarah would move home again once it was safe.

But the bird bite incident, two weeks after the storm, forced us to reconsider. Sarah went without aspirin for a few days, to help her hand begin to heal. But it was a calculated risk, and unfortunately, we lost. Aspirin is the anti-coagulant Sarah takes to prevent clots that can be caused by her atrial fibrilation. The fourth morning without aspirin, Sarah woke up disoriented, and her caregiver observed that she was struggling to concentrate or follow directions. Sarah had experienced another small stroke, bringing another step-down decline in her cognitive functioning (the hallmark of vascular dementia), and markedly increasing her care requirements.

The one upside to Sarah’s stay in Houston has been how much she enjoys getting to interact with family everyday. When we coupled Sarah’s obvious desire to be more social with the knowledge that her care requirements will increase over time, it made sense to seek a high-quality assisted living option. I spent the last six weeks exploring options and reviewing Sarah’s resources. Last Friday, I signed her lease at a place here in Houston with good social programs for people with dementia called Belmont Village.

While Sarah is understandably anxious over moving into a new situation, she is eager to stop being “underfoot” at Sharon and Sean’s, and start getting the benefit of social programming geared to her needs. She spent the last week working with the floor plan — her spatial skills remain strong! — and identifying which treasures she most wants in the new unit. The challenge is how to emulate 900 square feet of this:

Sarah's condo

… in about 250 square feet of this:

empty Belmont apartment

I spent all day Saturday packing and the movers came Monday morning. With Jean’s help, we got the last boxes together and the truck loaded in just over four hours. Then I led the truck to Houston to unload. I still have to unpack, place personal touches like photos and treasures from her travels, and buy her a new, smaller bed. But by Monday afternoon, the new apartment was starting to look like a home for Sarah.

Belmont partially moved in
Sarah’s furniture in her new apartment

The newest Village idiot

Sunday, November 16th, 2008

I first started going to New York in June of 2005, and after many months, quickly began to resent all of the tourists that surrounded me in Times Square. Several years later, and with hotel rates continuing to rise on Manhattan, it finally made sense for me to grab an apartment in New York, rather than continuing to pay astronomical per-night fees to hotels.

Bill's NYC address

New York geography largely seems to be driven by equal parts history and realtor marketing. As a result, while historically I would live in the Lower East Side, the realtors long-ago rebranded my area as the East Village area. The important news for me is that my subway stop is two short blocks up Broadway, I have a Whole Foods market at the entrance/exit to the subway, and I have a refrigerator to store the food I bring home. All this should be unsurprising since the “walk score” for my neighborhood is a “perfect” 100.

The only downside, aside from the absurdly tiny studio apartment I get for the money my company is spending on the place (albeit larger and cheaper than a hotel room)? Traffic on Broadway is pretty loud, so I definitely have to sleep with ear plugs.

Ike cleanup: No more boards…

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

A month ago, my cousin Al noted from this photo that we still had several boards up on our windows. For the first week or two, the boards remained surprisingly functional. They helped keep the temperature down while the power was out, and they made sleeping with open windows in a dense urban environment significantly less unsettling.

With the power back on, lots of sunshine, and cool October weather, we were tired of the boards. But wielding boards on a ladder is more than I can manage by myself anymore. And with all of the competing demands on our time, we just couldn’t find both weekend hours and energy to deal with them.

Bill and I finally got it together this weekend. All of the boards are off the house and restowed in their proper home in the rafters of the garage. And by the time we came back inside, someone was already appreciating our handiwork.

Tibbs unfettered by boards

Ike cleanup: Last of the looming tree…

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

You have seen in our Ike photo gallery that the storm blew down LOTS of trees in our neighborhood. Our trees fared pretty well, and we cleaned ’em up the first week, with one exception.

One of our neighbor’s hackberry trees was apparently afflicted with the ubiquitous hackberry root-eating fungus. So when the winds picked up, the tree basically snapped off at ground level. But because this same tree was completely entangled in pernicious vines, it didn’t fall all the way to the ground. Instead, it stopped halfway down, looming menacingly over our fence and garage. I’m glad for the vines because our deflector shield failed when the power went out.

Last Wednesday, the neighbor’s tree guy showed up to disassemble the tree. You know from my post two months ago that I’m no fan of silly ladder tricks. I’m also pretty leery of chainsaws. So you can imagine my enthusiasm when Jeremy propped his A-frame ladder on top of our metal garage roof, then mounted it wielding a chainsaw…

looming hackberry tree

Jeremy wielding the chainsaw from the ladder

In Jeremy’s defense, he did have the sense to lash the target limbs to other trees with rope, so they would come down in a semi-controlled fashion. And it all worked out: at the end of the day, Jeremy, the fence, and the garage were all still in one piece!

Better yet, now there’s one less reminder of the stupid storm.

all gone

Election day oops!

Tuesday, November 4th, 2008

voting at GraceOrdinarily, I’m pretty prepared by the time Election Day rolls around. I often meet and get to know at least a handful of the candidates. Beyond them, I consider endorsements by local advocacy organizations, and I’m a big fan of the League of Women Voters and their voting guide. I also generally try to review a sample ballot ahead of time.

But today was different. I headed to the polls with just a dozen or so names rattling around in my head. Which is how I got up to the voting station before realizing that two of the candidates I planned to vote for — in a down-ballot district judge race — are running against each other. Oops!

On the one hand, I had little basis to choose between them on the fly, and I would have liked for each of them to serve in different courts. But on the other hand, I can rest assured that someone good will serve in that court. Now if only I felt that way about the up-ballot races…

p.s. I borrowed this photo of my polling location from Eric Kayne of the Houston Chronicle. By the time I went at 1:30 pm, there was no line. :-)

Ike: Signs of some recovery in Galveston…

Saturday, November 1st, 2008

On Wednesday — day 49 of our Ike experience, but who’s counting? — I drove again to Galveston to help my parents continue documenting and purging storm-damaged possessions. While there is still LOTS of work to do, there are starting to be signs of recovery around town:

new offramp with boatscaping
A TxDOT crew was busily paving an offramp from the new, nearly-complete southbound Causeway bridge, apparently unconcerned by the lingering “boatscaping” on either side.

football resumes at Weis MS
Students have returned to the middle school at the end of my parents’ block, and were enjoying fall team sports.

There are also signs of progress at home. We carried the last items out of the house on Tues Oct 21, and a week later, contractors have finished gutting it down to the studs.

Chuck and Jean in gutted house
Chuck and Jean in the sunken family room”

gutted kitchen and laundry
Kitchen and laundry room

gutted study, foyer, and dining room
Chuck’s study, the entry foyer, and formal dining room, as seen from Chris’ former bedroom

gutted master bath and closet
Master bathroom and closet

I have to admit: I kinda like the house this way. It seems light, airy, and full of possibilities. ;-)

But it’s not ready for rebuilding yet, because it’s still very damp and very moldy. The dehumidification contractor spot-checked several locations. Most of the studs still have impressive relative humidity around 50% (eww!) and the back wall was closer to 100%.

industrial dehumidification
Four dehumidifiers and 13 “air movers” are online now

So the plan is to dehumidify the house for 72 hours, and then bring an anti-mold company in to treat it. After that, the contractors can start rebuilding things like walls, cabinets, HVAC, etc.

grizzly Chuck
Chuck has gone grizzly, possibly for the duration

Jean reviewing contract
Jean reviewing one of many contractor documents

In the meantime, my parents are plugging along. We’re all grateful for the help or encouragement that each of you have provided in so many ways to get them this far.