Remember the best in us…

It finally got to me.  The craziness of the last few days–the Boston bombing, the explosion in West, the building collapse in Bangladesh, another rape case in India–suddenly became a little too much to bear. I tried to distract myself by switching on the television, but every channel had the same scene, the same story…no escape!

I consider myself a strong person, but during the past few days, I found my heart heavy and my mind restless. I did not scream like I usually do when a Cougar team drops a close game. I did not go to my exercise class. I did not stop to notice heron nesting in trees when I walked my dog. I even bought a donut to eat.

I opened old photo albums and tried to watch old DVDs, something I often do when feeling a little down. And I came across some footage from Hurricane Ike and some photos from what transpired after it. I had been in Houston only for a few months.  Having lived in Florida for 25 years, I was not new to hurricanes, but then I had never seen a hurricane that left a city paralyzed to the extent Houston was in September of 2008.

Unlike most of the city, where there was no electricity and running water, our campus had both. So we decided to open our doors. Hundreds of volunteers–students, staff and faculty–rose to the occasion and manned the city’s largest POD (Point of Distribution) on campus.  They filled thousands of relief bags with basic necessities and handed them out to neighbors in need. I was amazed to see how our students redesigned the distribution process so twice as many people could be served within the same time frame.

All you could see was red everywhere. Someone had brought out hundreds of red UH t-shirts that they had ordered for another event.  People from the community came to charge their cellphones, get hot food, or simply to get some water. Our library and the University Center had turned into day-time shelters for those in need.

We lost 25% of the trees on campus.  While some of us were mourning this loss, others got their kids and families out to the campus to clear the debris. Yet others went in the surrounding neighborhoods to help homeowners clear their driveways. Many staff members spent twelve hours a day making sure that campus could serve its civic mission. Many cleaned their homes and then came to campus to supervise students. Many had lost their own roofs and came to campus to use a computer, but then stayed around to lend a helping hand.

Yes, we could have easily kept the campus closed.  Yes, we could have easily stayed home and watched television. Yes, we could have easily stayed home and read in candlelight. But that is not what Cougars chose to do in the aftermath of the hurricane. They stood tall in the time of crisis and became a part of the recovery. They served selflessly and taught others by example.  I received emails from students two, three and even four years after the hurricane telling me how transformative that experience had been for them.

Holding those photos and thinking of those days brought instant peace to my heart. It made me realize that the world is not just filled with horrific disasters, senseless sufferings, and heartless acts.  It is also endowed with kindness, selflessness, courage, and resilience. The worst of the crises bring out the best in us. We saw it in Boston and we saw it in West.

My heart felt light. The weight  had been lessened. I put on my running shoes, looked at that donut and threw it in the trash can.

People who make buildings come alive

Today, I want you to meet a very special person, a person who can make any building come alive, but in order to do so, you will have to come with me to one of my favorite places on campus.

Come with me to The Fresh Food Company, a new student dining facility (No, it is not a cafeteria that you and I remember from our college days).

As you reach the entrance, you are greeted by a bold splash of red. In fact the red is so bold that it forces you to check your clothes just to make sure you are wearing red today. The vibrancy of the place makes you feel like being a student again. After I treat you to a $7.50 for you (or $5 if it is Red Friday and you are wearing red), you arrive at a bright open space. As you glance from left to right, I tell you that there are nine stations–from international to vegetarian to a tempting salad bar–are staffed by chefs preparing food for you as you wait. No garlic? No problem! They will hold it for you. Vegan? Yes, indeed! What about dessert? Wait a minute and watch that timer on the oven get to zero. You will be rewarded with a melt-in-your-mouth chocolate chip cookie with no calories (at least you won’t care while you are eating it).

Now that the last bit of your cookie is gone, you focus on your surroundings and notice that hundreds of students are sitting around, studying, chatting and working on their laptops. They are in no rush to leave. It is the gathering place! “Impressive,” you say without effort.

And then you start to complain that you have eaten too much and that you would need a siesta. I smile because I know the feeling too well.

Now I take you to meet Ms. Dorothy.  She stands behind the salad station, refilling items as fast as possible.  In between she raises her head and smiles at everyone and talks to some when she gets a chance. She does the same when she sees us.  Her soft voice is hard to hear over the noise, but it reaches our heart. She does not expect you tMs. Dorothyo acknowledge her or return her greetings.  She is there to give unconditionally.

A few weeks ago, I asked the manager if Ms. Dorothy could spare a few minutes of her time for me. I wanted to know the person behind the counter.  She was hesitant but complied and came. When I pulled a chair next to me and asked her to sit down, she was really puzzled.

Once we got going, she told me that she has been working now for 51 years. She was proud to have raised five successful children. Her eyes lit up, especially when she spoke about students. “They are so special and I would do whatever I can for them,” she told me. “One time, a student came to give me $10 that I had loaned him 8  years back when he had no money for lunch. I didn’t take it ’cause he gave me the joy when he got his degree,” she said in such a casual way that I had to hold my heart. How can an institution not succeed when there are people like Ms. Dorothy making its success their daily business!

That day, we sat and chatted for 20 minutes and during that time, many people passed by, saying “Hi, Ms. Dorothy!” It was only as an after-thought that they would glance at me and say, “Hello to you, too.” While I was focused on learning about Ms. Dorothy, she was pulling her colleagues aside and introducing them to me and telling me how good they were.

Now back to today, I watch as Ms. Dorothy comes from behind the counter and says a polite “hello” to you. I step forward and steal a hug from her.  I can use it today.

Thank you, Ms. Dorothy!  No matter what anyone else says, I know that you and your colleagues are the reason why our dining facilities are inviting places. We build them, but you all make them come to life!

(PS: Ms. Dorothy is one of over 300 employees of Aramark at the University of Houston. The Fresh Food Company serves 4,800 meals per day, giving Ms. Dorothy a venue to reach out to so many.)

On being a grandma

Six months ago, when my daughter called me to say that she was going to have a baby, I screamed with joy. Then, I counted the months and screamed again, “Oh no, it’s going to be during the legislative session!”

My reaction was natural. The Texas Legislature meets once every two years for 140 days and during that time, my life gets put on hold. Every week, I am in Austin for testimonies, formal meetings or informal visits.

I wanted to be with my daughter in Florida on her big day, but was really worried. What if I get called in to testify during that time?

As the delivery date drew closer, I doubled up on my Austin duties. I wanted to finish up everything that I possibly could and had control over.

On the big day, I headed to the hospital with my daughter, equipped with every tool of necessity in my bag — laptop, iPad, iPhone, wi-fi card, and headphones. I could not imagine being cut off from my work. Imagine my shock when I learned that I could not carry anything but my cellphone in the delivery room. Whoever makes these rules?

A few hours passed by and then I was asked to surrender even my cell phone. No, it was not against the rules, but, as I was told, it was against the norm. What norm? Since when multi-tasking became against the norm?

Then came the magical moment and my granddaughter, Anya, arrived in this world.

Instantly I forgot everything…those emails, urgent calls, and unavoidable emergencies. I became irrelevant even to myself. Nothing mattered but what was in front of me. I held Anya in my arms and the entire world shrunk in that embrace.

Today, I am traveling back to Houston having spent several days in Florida. During those days, I became a different person. I cooked, cleaned, sang lullabies, and spoke baby language. It was then that I noticed how much of my mom is in me, how much of me is in my daughter, and how much of my daughter is in my granddaughter. I was using the same phrases in the same tone as did my mom. My daughter was asking for the same food as did I. And my granddaughter was sucking the same finger as did my daughter in her infancy!

In case you are wondering, no, I did not get a call from Austin to testify. Worse! I got a call asking my presence in Austin to meet with the Governor of Texas, Rick Perry. My only choice was to get on the phone. I was feeling terrible, but before I could apologize, the Governor said, “Renu, you are where you need to be…with your family.” Thank you, Governor!

Indeed, I was where I needed to be and felt blessed for it. Much too often we get caught up in life’s daily routine and forget to count our blessings. I have been counting mine for the past 10 days!

Hitting big with Hit-Lit

Take a cup of passion, a pound of energy, a tablespoon of condensed humor and a pinch of creativity. Mix it well and let it simmer on a college campus.  The result may surprise you, as it surprised me.

One day in March 2012, backstage at the University of Houston Wortham Theatre, I greeted a trio of speakers who were getting ready to dazzle a standing-room only audience with stories about their years as students.  The speakers were none other than Dennis Quaid, Robert Wuhl and Brett Cullen, former students of world-famous University of Houston drama coach, Cecil Pickett.  After a brief exchange of formalities, I sat in the audience, listened to them and admired their talent, humility, but most of all, their love for the professor who, as they said, built their character.

A few weeks later, I received an email from Steve Wallace, our Director of the School of Theatre and Dance announcing that Wuhl, two-time Emmy-award winner, had decided to create and produce a play on our campus. Steve agreed to co-direct it. What’s the problem? Well, Robert had never written a play before and the University of Houston had never produced a play for the New York stage before! I had certainly not experienced a creative journey of this nature ever before.

On January 29, 2013, the newly produced play called, Hit-Lit, made its debut in Houston.  It was the 20th version of the script and as I learned later, the script went through 7 more revisions before its debut in New York City. To my naive eyes, the play was simply perfect.  I noticed that it was able to make even the most sarcastic critics laugh out loud. “Wow” is all I could say at the end of the play.  Students were dancing with joy and directors were beaming with pride. The play received great reviews by almost every reviewer in Houston.

Then came March 7, 2013 and Hit-Lit made its New York debut as the season opener at Queens Theater. Several of our students performed, and many others were involved as technicians, computer artists, and stage managers. One of our alumnus who attended the play in Houston had been so inspired by the production and the work of the students that he made his private plane available to fly them all to New York. No, he did not major in theatre and dance!

A large group of the University of Houston alumni gathered to watch the premiere in New York…it was not a watch party for football, but it could very well have been.  Everyone was upbeat, commenting on what a great theatre program we have and what a great occasion it was.  Interestingly, the play had pulled together a group of alumni who had lived in the same city, had the same Cougar spirit, enjoyed each others company, but had  not found a medium to bond with one another.

Hit-Lit proved to be a big hit in New York. It was ranked as one of the top plays running in New York City that week. One critic even predicted that it might soon be on Broadway!  A simple idea with some risk-taking had transformed itself into a Tier One, nationally competitive production! The students came back from New York with the experience of a lifetime.  Some had job offers in hand! One production company contacted our School of Theater and Dance to produce another play.  Hmmmm!

What a joy it has been to watch the journey of Hit-Lit from Houston to New York!

Hit-Lit is one more reason why universities should support the arts and why people should support the arts in universities.