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Seasonal Affective Disorder

Spring begins today, or so they say, but you couldn’t prove that by me. Supposedly, the vernal or spring equinox is one of two days in the year on which the sun is directly above the equator. That means the hours of day and night are equal. I haven’t yet witnessed anything close to that, since the start of Daylight Savings Time pushed sunrise up to almost 8 o’clock in the morning. Of course, I haven’t really seen a sunrise either, given that recent days in South Texas have been consistently cold, windy, cloudy, and even rainy (surprise). It was 39 degrees here last night, barely 40 when I hauled myself out of bed to do my daily walk. This is definitely not spring weather. 

     I’m not depressed by any of this (SAD), mind you, just affected and confused, which I have been ever since our return from Australia at the end of February. The 19 hour time difference from where I was, plus crossing two different time zones while I was there, didn’t help my situation. Sleep patterns were in turmoil for almost two full weeks after I returned, and I wasn’t quite back to normal when the Daylight Savings change occurred last week. Honestly, I’m still not entirely sure what time, or even what day, it is.

     Much less what season. Three days after our return from overseas, I had to go down to Corpus Christi to retrieve my work from the art gallery there (my contract was up). Imagine my surprise when, through my bleary eyes, I beheld carpets of  brilliantly-colored Texas bluebonnets, Indian pinks and buttercups all along the highway. Now wildflowers have always bloomed earlier in the southern regions of the State, but in February!!?? Even that doesn’t usually happen until later in March, a sure sign of spring just in time to celebrate Easter. I always count on having a small bowl of bluebonnets for my Easter table, but not this year. Unfortunately, wildflowers never became plentiful in the San Antonio area this month, and the few small patches of bluebonnets near my house have already faded away. 

     Continued drought and bedraggling 90 degree heat in late February/early March threatened to fade more than just the wildflowers. Even in Texas where the old joke “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes” still holds true, such extreme spikes in temperatures that early in the year were unusual, as is this sudden wet, wintery cold spell we are experiencing now. Winds, rains, tornadoes, hurricanes, fires, floods, landslides, earthquakes, drought, glacial melt — it’s all so unusual, so un-settling, so unprecedented — just like our politics. As Mark Twain famously said,” Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Hmmm… could he have been talking about climate change?

     Remember when the weather used to be a safe topic of conversation under the old polite dinner-table dictum of avoiding controversial subjects such as politics or religion? Well, seems there is no safe topic of discussion anywhere with anyone anymore. Of course, people don’t really give dinner parties anymore either, and rules of basic etiquette and polite behavior were abandoned long ago. 

     But talking about the weather is still boring, even when the real topic is that the seasons are disordered. So I’ll stop.

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The Story of a Journey

Anyone who writes or crafts speeches or otherwise wrestles with words knows that all synonyms are not created equal. Dip into almost any thesaurus and you will find numerous entries for words that mean the same, or nearly the same, as the one you are researching, plus the etymology of the word and every part-of-speech variation of it —noun, verb, adjective, adverb— along with tips for usage and modifiers. For language lovers, a thesaurus presents one of those down-the-rabbit-hole opportunities guaranteed to cause you to miss your article deadline or to make your term paper late!

     As any native speaker and reader knows, however, vocabulary words in every language have nuances of meaning all their own. Take, for instance, the word journey. A decent thesaurus on line lists the following as synonyms: trip, tour, passage, expedition, trek, cruise, voyage, flight, roam, wander, meander, odyssey, pilgrimage, excursion, and here’s a good one — peregrination. With further research and contemplation, you find that journey implies a process of travel over distance and time, generally 2,000 miles or more and weeks, months or even years in duration. A journey is not a quick trip, nor is it generally without setbacks along the way. Hence, the common use of “journey” as a metaphor, such as in a life journey, a spiritual journey, a creative journey, or as one TV commercial puts it, even a “hair journey.” Puleeze!

     We finally made our long-planned journey to New Zealand and Australia last month. As you might recall from earlier posts, this was the trip that was cancelled three days away from our departure in 2020 when Covid hit. It was a big trip then. We were going with friends and were full of excitement and anticipation; Australia was the last continent on our “bucket list.” Needless to say, the cancellation of all our plans at the last minute and the six months of haggling it took to get all our refunds back, not to mention the three solid years of Covid isolation that followed at home without any travel whatsoever, all sort of diminished our enthusiasm — mine anyway.

     2020 — 2021 — 2022  Every year that Covid lingered and international travel seemed unwise, my Dear Husband moaned that by the time we were able to go abroad again, we’d be too old to go. And every year that I settled into a quieter, slower lifestyle and concentrated on my creative pursuits, the more the mere thought of all the planning and preparation and energy a really “big trip” demanded just exhausted me. Heck, I was still getting worn out by a trek to the local grocery store!

     But the conversation about the when and where of our next “big trip” continued as travel brochures began appearing in the mail again, and thoughts of Australia lingered (even though both New Zealand and Australia were completely shut down for a very long time).  In a moment of weakness and under the spell of a “by invitation only” video of a brand new cruise ship being launched in 2023, we put a deposit on an 8 day maiden voyage in the North Atlantic for this fall.  It promised to be fabulous, if expensive.

     As we got closer to various deposit deadlines late last year, the mounting costs became clear. About that time we also got notice of availability and discounts from another line for a 15 day cruise to New Zealand and Australia with lots of inclusions, exceptional cabin accommodations, and air fare upgrades all at about the same total cost as the 8 day excursion in the North Atlantic. And this trip would be sooner — in February.  Dear Husband was happy and I was wary, though I did see the choice of the longer, “bigger trip” as more reasonable. So we booked it, paid for it, and were on our way in early February with a 14+ hour flight from Dallas to Auckland, from whence the cruise would embark.

     It was at that point, I think, that this became not a trip, but a journey — long (about 7500 miles each way over a period of 20-30 hours), arduous, and full of setbacks large and small. The flight, on a domestic US airline (I should know better than to EVER take a domestic US airline for a long-haul flight) was awful. I commented before the flight even took off, while everyone around us was talking, laughing, coughing and not wearing any masks at all, that if we didn’t get Covid from this, we never would. Prescient. 

     We arrived in Auckland in early morning to find, as we hauled our luggage over sandbags in the elegant entrance to our hotel, that it was closed due to damage from the recent floods in Auckland, but no one had notified us. After some hassles, they relocated us; okay, only one night. We boarded the ship the next day and did enjoy a couple days in Auckland before sailing on to the next port. At least we got to a Maori community and cultural center before my husband started coughing and complaining of not feeling well. He thought he might have Covid. Sure enough, we tested (on tests I had brought along), and he was positive. Though I had not yet shown any symptoms, I knew I would test positive as well. And I did.

     We went to the doctor on board, tested again, and yes, we had Covid. I feared we might be put ashore, but no, it seemed there was a whole Covid protocol in place on. (Obviously this wasn’t their first rodeo, as they say.) We were quarantined in our elegant, comfortable (thank goodness) stateroom for five days, meals served through room service, laundry done, bar/refrigerator fully stocked, doctor checking in every day, guest services calling, and men in hazmat suits totally cleaning and disinfecting the room while we sat out on our balcony watching the world go by and sipping our wine. The staff was great, the accommodations were beyond great, and if you have to have Covid anywhere, this was the place to be. But it did eat up roughly ⅓ of the total cruise and my husband, who had wanted so badly to make this trip, was disappointed that he didn’t get to photograph those botanical gardens and historic homes in the five New Zealand ports we missed.

     We were released from quarantine just in time for a couple days at sea, during which we encountered extremely rough waters in the Tasmanian Sea, due perhaps to the cyclone that hit Auckland the day after we left, and the 6.2 earthquake that hit off shore two days after that. Everyone the the ship was seasick, but not us. We were up and ready to go when we hit Tasmania and enjoyed the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary, where we could freely roam among the animals, pet kangaroos and see little Tasmania devils up close. (They are not as mean as their reputations.) Then it was another day at sea before docking in Melbourne, truly a beautiful city, and then another day at sea before Sydney. Altogether, out of a 15 day cruise, five days were at sea and five were in quarantine. Bottom line, a cruise is probably not the best way to see Australia and New Zealand, even without a quarantine, unless you just want to say that you’ve been there. So now that’s what we can say.

     Though we probably wouldn’t do this again, we have no regrets. We both needed the rest and relaxation that the cruise and the quarantine afforded and, ironically, we have both felt considerably better physically ever since recovery. The curative powers of Covid? There’s a topic for research. Certainly we have rediscovered the curative powers of travel, in that when you choose to venture far from the familiar, you have to let go and be ready for anything. Finding that we could still do that and laugh about all the mishaps was invigorating.  

     So yes, this Australia voyage became not just a trip, but a journey, a reawakening of a broader perspective and a confirmation of our own resilience. And, in the odd way that random events in life often form “cosmic bookends,” you could even say this entire episode became our Covid journey: the cancellation of Australia in February, 2020, marked the beginning of our experience, and actually having Covid almost three years later to the day on a cruise to Australia marked the ending.

     What a story!

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Baby Boomers in the Bush

We are getting ready to go away — away, away — really away, overseas and into another hemisphere. Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while might remember that in 2020 we were about to embark on a trip to Australia and New Zealand when, three days before departure, Covid intervened. And that was that. (“Doubling Down Under,” Feb. 29, 2020, and “Doubling Down, Part II, Mar. 13, 2020)

     As I wrote back then, Australia and New Zealand were the last big entries on our “bucket list” of international travel. Now, three years later almost to the day, it is still a BIG trip, perhaps even more so because we are three years older and inevitably changed by three years of Covid isolation. Having been almost nowhere since 2019, at this point I hardly remember how to plan and pack, much less prepare for the new realities of traveling anywhere today.

     We started planning this trip a few months ago, though it seems like we’ve been planning it since the beginning of time; we’ve talked about it, thought about it, read about it and researched it so much that I almost feel as though I’ve already been! During this time, Covid regulations were constantly changing and up until just recently, I have refused to go anywhere by plane that wasn’t a non-stop. (As though Covid germs only frequent airports and fly on multi-leg journeys — a conspiracy theory of my own making.)  

     All this planning has proven to be anxiety inducing in itself, however, even as our departure date nears. Every change in protocol, every modification to the itinerary, and every State Department directive precipitates text alerts and e-mails requiring some action on our part. There are, of course, still various Covid requirements and proofs, plus visas for both New Zealand and Australia, and multiple cross-referencing identifications, documents, registrations and app downloads. Pity the international traveler who is not computer literate and does not own a smart phone.

      We are flying non-stop from Dallas (16+ hours) to Auckland, then boarding a cruise going round that country and on to major ports in Southeastern Australia. It’s a long trip, but then we are talking about a whole continent here. Yes, I will get to see my long-desired Tasmanian devils, along with kangaroos, koala bears, wombats, Kiwi and Emu. And yes, we will have our treks into the outback, or bush as it is sometimes called. (I’m “bushed” already, and we haven’t even gotten there yet!)

    Bush: A forest or scrubland on the edges of civilization; from the Dutch word “boslbosch” meaning forest. It was a term used by the early Dutch settlers in South Africa, which we experienced first-hand on photo-safaris out into the bush in Kruger National Park years ago. In South Africa, bush traditionally indicates green as in the veldt; in Australia, the term has been adapted to mean the edges of the continent away from larger cities, colloquially called the outback, which is usually red or brown given the climate. Sounds like South Texas.

     One of the best trips we’ve ever taken was to South Africa and the bush. The other bests were  into the Sahara, Egypt and Jordan and the Middle East. I loved these vast landscapes and the flora and fauna (or absence thereof) of such remote and beautiful places. So I am looking forward to the trip “down under,” to the beauty of the earth as well as the beauty of the people and their cultures. Travel has been our life and inspiration for so many years, and for all the aggravations and anxieties, it is still absolutely worth the trouble. There is no other way to more immediately broaden one’s horizons and gain a better perspective on life than getting out of one’s comfort zone (or in Americans’ case right now, our “discomfort” zone). 

     Beyond that, I am simply looking forward to getting away to a place where I don’t have to do anything, literally. I don’t have to shop, or plan dinners, or cook three meals a day; I don’t have to clean or tidy up, or do the laundry. I can go on shore excursions, or not. I can read all day or go to the spa. I can simply, maybe, hopefully, relax. And I can do all that with my Honey.

     My husband and I said all through the pandemic isolations that, by the time we were able to travel again due to Covid, we would be too old to do so. Given the rigors of this trip, we may be on the cusp of that prediction. Nevertheless, we persevere,  knowing that there is no better way to feel alive and experience the beauty of other worlds than to do it with someone you love. 

     Happy Valentine’s Day.

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It’s the Little Things …

Now that all the hullabaloo of the holidays is over and the cold grey days of winter are upon most of us, I realize, once again, that it’s the little things that matter most every day: a quiet, calm place to sit and read; a doggie nose nuzzling mine to wake me in the morning; a stunning red and gold sunset to inspire gratitude at day’s end. 

     Many of the things that matter to the quality of our lives are free, or of nominal cost at most: a letter or a phone call from a far-way friend, a compliment from a complete stranger, or a spontaneous hug from someone you love. Besides emotional satisfactions, some material things are oddly satisfying, as well. For example, I got several nice gifts for Christmas, including a lovely bracelet and a new phone, but the one simple little gift that has just delighted me and keeps me smiling is a silicon six-cube ice tray that makes those 2 inch square cubes that you see professional bartenders using for bourbon drinks. I first saw these cubes at a bar in the Omni Hotel in Corpus Christi a couple months ago. Not being a bourbon drinker myself, I was nevertheless captivated by the advantages of their perfect size and slower melt. You see, I routinely put ice in my white wine, and now I have a 2 inch ice cube maker of my own! Still cold, less dilution. Little things ….

     To a long-lasting thing… Decades ago when we were living in Connecticut and had three large show dogs, we used to buy Purina dog food in 50 lb. bags. The company had a promotion wherein you could send in the weight circle proofs of purchase for redemption for various items offered in a Purina catalog. Having moved to Connecticut from the South, I was always cold, and one of the items in that catalog was a long-sleeve, waffle-weave henley which my husband ordered for me. Along with proofs of purchase, the pullover cost all of 19 cents and it is STILL in use today. It is worn and warm and comforting, with a slightly raveling Purina “Chosen by Champions” label on the upper left. I have worn this shirt over tees and pajamas, in sickness and in health, and it appears over and over in years of family photographs. Though it is now quite threadbare and I don’t wear it out of the house anymore, it is still my favorite “schmata.” Most people would have cut it up into rags by now (which is what that Yiddish word means), but not me. Nineteen cents — you can’t beat that! Little things …

     But there are some material things that are totally free. As you may recall, I am a writer, and a writer is a person who writes, a lot, all the time, and not just for publication and renumeration. I hand write cards and letters, keep all sorts of specialized notebooks, and maintain several different types of journals (travels, holidays, events, etc.) Of course, I also keep a  daily personal journal (not to be confused with a diary or a calendar), which I have written in religiously every evening of my life for about as long as I can remember.   

     What with all this hand writing and scribbling, it goes without saying that papers and pens are of paramount importance in my daily life. While I  have quite a selection of tablets, stationery, and journals, I am especially particular about my writing instruments. A pen must sit well in the hand, being neither too fat nor too thin nor too top-heavy, sort of like the perfect balance of a fine dinner fork. Except for the occasional necessity of a felt-tip, I routinely write with ballpoints, always in black and alway in medium point. And I always have a favorite pen, which goes with me from place to place every day (and which causes me to spend far too much time searching for where I left it). My favorite pen for the last several years has been one that was absolutely free!

     It is a beautiful, perfectly weighted, ballpoint pen in Cape Cod blue from the Chatham Bars Inn. When we were last there, they simply gave them to guests, gratis. Of course, the pen did run out of ink after I got it home, but I found that Cross refills fit it perfectly. (Okay, so they aren’t free, but still …) I have some other preferred pens in a pinch, but this one remains my absolute favorite, not only because it was free, but because it reminds me of all those loving, lovely Thanksgiving holidays at the Chatham Bars Inn in Chatham, MA. “Big” little things …

     In a world obsessed with acquisitions and measured by net worth, it has become a quaint cliché to say that the best things in life are free. Certainly, some of the best things are decidedly NOT free, things like a week in Paris in a five-star hotel.  For that matter, even things most of us might consider necessities, such as comprehensive healthcare or a good education, aren’t exactly free either. We probably pay for everything one way or another, but price and value don’t always equate. Nor do you always get what you pay for. 

     But in our quieter moments when we take the time to really consider what shapes and enhances our lives day-to-day, it is often the little things that count the most. Think about it.

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The Epiphany

In the Christian tradition, both Eastern Orthodox and Western, January 6 is celebrated as the Epiphany, or Feast of the Three Kings. The word “epiphany” comes from the Greek word “epipháneia” meaning the appearance or manifestation of the real — in the Biblical sense,  the recognition by the three kings of the Christ Child as the promised Messiah. In secular usage, the word epiphany has come to mean a moment of awareness or revelation, the a-ha moment when all becomes clear and the truth that was there all along finally emerges. 

     We often talk about moments of epiphany in literature, when a character discovers the key to the crime, or in life, when someone experiences a pivotal event and thus reaches a personal moment of truth. Epiphany is a powerful concept, at once both liberating but also elusive, especially when the truth is in short supply as it is these days. We live in a time of fake news, rampant misinformation, and willful refusal to accept the truth even when it stares us in the face.

     I, like many of you at this time of year, have been reading all the essays and advice columns on New Year’s resolutions, about what we should and should not commit ourselves to in the coming months. Having lived through a number of new years myself, and having made and abandoned my own share of resolutions, I now find most of the advice to be vaguely amusing, but totally beside the point. Certainly, self-improvement requires assessment and discipline to lead to growth, but that presupposes that you know where you are to begin with. So many people are so clueless about not only where they are, but who they are. They are simply driving along in an EV on a lonely road somewhere without a map and without any idea of the range of their vehicle.

     I, like everyone else, have also been reading about the scandals surrounding the newly-elected New York Congressman George Santos who seems to have what might be charitably described as a loose relationship with the truth, much less any clue about where all his life’s “embellishments” have led him. I guess he’s just happy not to be in jail while trying out a new identity as a politician. (Sound familiar?) Let’s face it: Santos is a pathological liar who doesn’t know who he is, or like it, and that’s sad, very sad. It is also indicative of our times.

     Most of us are not downright pathological in embellishing our truth, but we do kid ourselves about who we are and what we want. We often rationalize some of our worst impulses and delude ourselves into thinking that our way is the only way, that our values and goals must be shared and supported by everyone around us — our friends, our families, our co-workers. We veil weakness and vulnerability in order to project a profile of strength and happiness. The cruel reality of trying to be someone you are not, however, is that you end up being no one at all. Eventually, you become irrelevant and invisible.

     One of the “epiphanies” of growing older is realizing that we all have a “best used by” date. Whether we’re celebrities or just ordinary people, we all reach a time of peak performance. Then, by virtue of age and health if nothing else, we begin to decline in both physical prowess and personal influence. Women find that they no longer turn heads when walking into a room; men find that they are no longer alpha males at the conference table; athletes lose their edge and public figures fade into history. Ultimately, everyone dies. This is the hard truth. The only bulwark we have against premature invisibility is to know who we are and to listen to that voice inside that tells us when, where and how best to be seen at whatever age and stage of life we find ourselves. This isn’t easy in a media-obsessed culture like ours where being seen and heard is all important.

     Even when we know who we are and what we value most, it still takes courage to face the reality of change and to adapt accordingly. So, rather than making New Year’s resolutions grounded in our past lives and roles, we might be better advised to do a metaphysical reality check of who we are in order to determine how best to continue a life of purpose. Americans, particularly those who have been successful, tend to adopt a “beat-a-horse-to-death” approach to work and self-image, but you can’t be an effective CEO, or a glamorous movie star, or a busy soccer mom, forever. Our talents and strengths can be adapted to new situations, but that demands knowing who we are and what we’re about. Epiphany.

     I have decided to take the next few weeks, maybe even a month or two, to just step back and contemplate, to find my truth once again. I have been surprisingly busy and often stressed during these last Covid years and yes, while I have produced some good creative work, I have also gotten somewhat away from myself. A time out is not a time wasted.  A time out can create a private space for a personal epiphany, and that has a lot more staying power than a mundane list of New Year’s resolutions. 

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Shut the Door

Okay, so Christmas is over, some of us are already starting to put away decorations, and the New Year is at hand. Thank goodness. I don’t know about you, but this third year of our national nightmare has about done me in: 2020 was a show-stopper, 2021 was a lesson in reduced expectations, and 2022 … well… let’s just say that this was year of high hopes, lowered expectations, and continued anxieties.

     The year began with a new fad, Wordle, introduced in The New York Times in January. How apropos, since the word puzzle is only five letters long and the key is simply eliminating vowels (if you know what a vowel is), which is a perfect place to start for any politician who doesn’t know what a pronoun is. It’s also the perfect diversion for those of us who continue to stay, and play, at home. 

     February saw the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, and the subsequent destruction, world instability, and crimes against humanity that have dragged on all year long. Shifting national alliances, economic upheaval, supply-chain interruptions, and looming arguments over “blank check” arms support raises the question of whether this is now the 21st Century’s “Churchill vs. Hitler” moment for the West.

     Early spring saw the groundswell of Covid fatigue that forced the end of masking, distancing, and almost all other Covid restrictions, including mandated vaccines. People cheered on airplanes and became bold enough to venture out to stores and restaurants again, some returning to an actual workplace. Travel resumed; even the most cautious among us took a plane trip (non-stop, of course) for the first time in almost three years. The ever-optimistic Joe Biden proclaimed that the pandemic was over on 60 Minutes in September — while the new Omicron variants were gaining momentum  and cases of the tripledemic, Covid, the flu and RSV, began to overwhelm hospitals and emergency rooms. All this just in time for our upcoming, long-awaited  holiday get-togethers

     We had another landmark school shooting at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, TX, in May, in advance of the tenth anniversary of the Sandy Hook tragedy in December. Firearms now rate as the number one cause of death for children in the United States, but still there is no reasonable attempt at gun legislation to protect them. The Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade  in June, however, and so now many State legislatures have gone to great legislative lengths to protect children before they’re born.

     Politics continue to be loud and ugly, devoted almost entirely this year to the mid-term elections and its “quality candidates,” spending millions of dollars on mudslinging and misinformation that might have been more worthily spent elsewhere —like maybe on the migrant crisis. (Could certainly use some bi-partisan legislation there!) And we end the year with the January 6 Committee Report, which recommends criminal indictments not only of Donald Trump, but of other intimates complicit in the whole Save the Steal debacle. What a sad legacy for a president, and what an embarrassment for the nation.

     As long as I’m counting down 2022’s greatest hits, let us not forget the natural and man-made disasters that occurred regularly all year long: floods, wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, contaminated water, diminishing rivers and lakes, melting glaciers, and record heat and drought that caused famine and food insecurity around the world. Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano erupted in November for the first time since 1984, a perfect antithesis to the blizzard and freezing temperatures that have plagued our holiday season this year across most of the mainland United States (and made that much touted return to pre-pandemic flight levels a nightmare). Climate change? What climate change? Ho, ho, ho…

     Forgive me for not delivering an upbeat, “health and happiness “New Year’s message for my last blog post of 2022, but this litany of disasters and disappointments is offered in support of my ultimate point: I, we, are exhausted. As a nation, we have been bullied, beleaguered, and held hostage to false promises and ridiculous conspiracies.  As a people, we are all suffering from acute PTSD, and that accounts for our collective anger, ugliness, rage, impatience, selfishness, and outbursts of violence. Events outside of our control — disease, war, economics, weather, politics — make us fearful and uncertain, and fear produces trauma. Americans are traumatized. We have been at war with the elements, and alas, we now find ourselves at war with ourselves. 

     During times of great hardship,  I often recall a quote on human suffering and sadness by the great American poet Robert Frost: “…there is no way out but through.” Let us shut the door on 2022 then, and let us just get through.

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The 12 Days till Christmas

 On the twelfth day till Christmas, my true love said to me: “When are we doing the tree?”

     We finally got the tree up last night. Gave up our usual 10 foot Nordman Pine and bought a 9 foot Balsam Hill “authentic looking” artificial one. It was time. As we’ve gotten older, we’ve had a harder and harder time lifting a real tree; got our last one stuck in the patio door and had to get a neighbor to come help us get it dislodged. That wasn’t our first clue that it was time, but it was our last. (Note to those who are considering the purchase of an “authentic” artificial tree: the Balsam Hill spring-up tree in three sections isn’t exactly a one-person job either, unless you choose a  tabletop model.)

     On the eleventh day till Christmas, my true love said to me: “We have to get the outside wreath up. What’s the weather supposed to be?”

     We have a huge, lighted 6 foot wreath that we put up under the gable over the garage. This, too, is a two-person job, considering that you have to have a very long extension ladder to get up high to hang the wreath, and that you need a pulley of sorts to hoist it up. Our son has helped us do this for years, but it never fails: no matter how warm and sunny the weather has been for days, invariably, on the weekend we decide to get the big wreath up, temperatures drop, the wind picks up, and rain and/or sleet appear. It has become a standing holiday joke. This year, we were  going to get the wreath up a couple weeks ago, but our son said, “Oh no, it’s way too nice out. We have to wait till the rain and winds come.” Sure enough, we waited another week, the wind picked up and it started to rain just as he was climbing the ladder.  

     On the tenth day till Christmas, my true love said to me: “When are we making Christmas cookies? They would be good with tea.”

     Over the years, we have had a fixed set of “traditional” Christmas dishes during the holidays: chocolate fudge, apple cake, cherry trifle, Texas Trash (also known as Chex mix, but with a spicy twist), tamales (homemade), and of course, about six dozen cut-out and decorated sugar cookies. My Mother used to be the the chief chef for all these delectables, since she loved sweets and loved to bake. She also loved hosting a “tamalada” during the holidays with her friends in Victoria to make those delicious tamales required on Christmas Eve. For years, she cooked and baked and then hauled all this up on the plane to our house in Connecticut (and made everyone on board hungry with the odors). But, as she got older, she couldn’t do all this anymore, and so I took over most of the recipes —except for making tamales. Hey! I live in San Antonio, Texas. I don’t need to make my own tamales!    

     On the ninth day till Christmas, my true love said to me: “Please, we have to get the cards out, especially those overseas.”

     Yes, folks, we still send out snail-mail holiday cars, about 110 of them, all hand-written, many with lengthy messages. At this point, none are “business” cards; almost all recipients are people who have been friends of ours for 50 years or more, and writing each card conjures happy memories of our shared pasts. Hearing back from them, even if only once a year, is an eagerly anticipated delight. But at the rate of addressing 10-15 cards a day, getting them written takes a good week to ten days while allowing time for them to arrive before Christmas/Hanukkah.

     On the eighth day till Christmas, my true love said to me: “I just did all the outside lights. Go out front and see.”

     Sorry, but no cheesy blow-ups from Walmart in our front yard, or anything else “cutsie.” Everything is done with double strings of tiny white lights, all along the fences on either side of the house, threaded through a garland all around the front door frame, and strung on small artificial trees on either side of the front walk. We don’t wrap our tree trunks in lights, by the way (which always seems to me to indicate the height of the residents); if lights can’t go all the way up and thread through all the branches like those on the trees at the Tavern on the Green in New York City, then I don’t want them. 

     On the seventh day till Christmas, my true love said to me: “Why are we still doing all this,  just for us three?”

     It’s a valid question, I suppose, but traditions die hard. And without them —without the tree, the cookies, the wreaths, the lights, the carols and all those other little symbols that represent what Christmas really means, then December 25 becomes just another day. “An occasion is only special if you make it so,” my Mother used to say. 

     The bigger question to me is how did we do all this, and even more, years ago when we were both working full-time, when our son was young, when we were active in church, school, and community, and when we all had very busy social lives with numerous family and friends living nearby and visiting from afar? Maybe everyone asks themselves that as they get older and have to adjust their standards and activities to match their limitations, but I still find the gap between the length of my to-do list and the amount of time it takes to do it to be extremely frustrating. After all, I’m a retired person (at least sort of). I shouldn’t be late for Christmas!!!

     Forget this riff on The 12 Days of Christmas. You get the point, and I don’t have the time to continue anyway. I’ve got to get back on schedule with this holiday, lest my true love find this ruffle-feathered partridge in a heap in that pear tree. 

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Thanks for the Memories …

 Many of you will recognize the above phrase as being the opening of Bob Hope’s special theme song sung at the end of every performance, no matter where it was, on stage, on television, or on a USO tour in Viet Nam in the ‘60s. A comedian, actor, singer, dancer and famous emcee of the Academy Awards, Hope died at the age of 100 in 2003. Having led a truly rich and full life, he no doubt had plenty of memories to be thankful for.

     As we get older, memories seem to dominate our gratitude list at Thanksgiving. I know they do mine. Sure, we’re thankful for our health and our families and our friends, even our bank accounts and personal successes, but with decades of experience behind us we begin to see more than just particular blessings. Age brings with it the ability to take “the long view,” to see how the patterns of our lives have brought us to who and where we are and, yes, even to appreciate the enlightening gifts of tragedy and loss along the way. 

     When I was a kid growing up in South Texas, Thanksgiving wasn’t an especially big deal. First of all, my family was just the three of us in our house, my Mother, my Grandmother and I, and so we hardly mirrored a Norman Rockwell painting. We had no other relatives nearby, so we never traveled to see them or had a groaning-board of food surrounded by hoards of diners. Also, my Mother worked in retail (at J.C. Penney, so you know what that meant!); back then when department stores were open later hours during the holidays but before they were open on the holiday itself, she felt lucky just to have Thanksgiving Day off. No matter how late she had gotten home the night before, she would still get up at daybreak to put the turkey in the oven, (why did our mothers all do that???). We would spend the morning not watching the turkey, but watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on TV. By noon, the turkey was beyond done, but the pies, usually chocolate and lemon meringue, were destined to be the stars of the show anyway. My Mother, bless her, was not much of a cook, but she was an avid baker.

     A few years later after I married and moved to New York, I was suddenly faced with more relatives, and more command appearances, than I knew what to do with. My Father, who was originally from New Jersey, had been one of six siblings, and my husband’s Mother, originally from Brooklyn, was also one of six. You can just imagine how many aunts, uncles, cousins, children, and significant others made up these families and traditions.

     As newlyweds, we lived in New York City. Since all my husband’s relatives were on Long Island, Thanksgiving meant schlepping out to Nassau County for Thanksgiving dinner, in what is even today crippling, gridlock-inching traffic on the Long Island Expressway. No matter how well we planned or how early we left, we usually arrived just before dessert, to my mother-in-law’s eternal chagrin. Of course, we never got to watch the Macy’s parade on television, much less actually go into Manhattan to see it. The brutal introduction to traffic congestion in the Northeast is perhaps my most vivid memory of those early Thanksgiving holidays.

     That, and the food. On the rare occasion that we actually arrived in time for dinner, I also faced a totally unexpected, and often un-recognizable, menu: pickled herring, creamed onions, sausage dressing that could have been mortar for a stonemason, mashed potatoes with turnips, and yes, another over-cooked turkey. The star desert was mincemeat pie!  Lots of people, loud kids, tables extended into other rooms to accommodate everyone — it all seemed to me to be as crowded and chaotic as the traffic on the Expressway. 

     We moved to another state for five years and, when we returned East with our small son, it somehow became our turn to host family get-togethers. We had lost some of the older patriarchs and matriarchs by that time, and since we lived in a house in Connecticut and had the room, we took on holidays. Naturally, everyone brought something for Thanksgiving — even the creamed onions and the pickled herring. However, I had become something of a cook myself by then, and so I integrated my cornbread dressing and Gulf shrimp platters and mashed potatoes without the turnips into the traditional menu. Our gatherings were still as loud and chaotic as ever, but by then I loved these people and enjoyed them all. Even with all the clutter of dishes, complaints about the traffic, and bouts of bad weather, we made our own version of a Rockwell poster.

     But Thanksgiving dinner was work — a lot of work. I was teaching, our son was in school, and our holiday break only began at noon on Wednesday. Time passed, family members relocated elsewhere or moved to Florida, and the three of us began regularly celebrating holidays with friends. Of course, we still fought the traffic. For several years, we went up to a shared condominium in Sugar Bush, VT. where everyone brought dishes for the dinner. But the drive, about 8 hours often in snow and ice, became arduous — and we weren’t even skiers.

     Next we began to join friends who owned a house on Cape Cod. I-95 could still be a beast if you didn’t time it right, but our friends were also teachers and they knew the driving tips and shortcuts. The first year we did that, we stayed at The Chatham Bars Inn in Chatham. Cape Cod at Thanksgiving became our “family tradition” for years, enduring long after our friends no longer had a home there. We three even spent the last Thanksgiving in 2019 at The Chatham Bars before the Covid pandemic. Maybe it wasn’t exactly our own Rockwell portrait, but we certainly inserted ourselves into one. There is simply nothing like New England at Thanksgiving.

     Now, three years later, it’s back to just the three of us around the dining table here in Texas, my husband, our son, and I. My Mother passed away in 2018, actually over the Thanksgiving weekend, which has left me with a lingering memory of a different sort, but I try to remember the joy and the laughter and the love, and even the grumpiness, I experienced through all those Thanksgivings over all the years. I try to say “thanks for the memories.”

     And I don’t cook. I purchase the entire dinner from a specialty market because whether you’re cooking for three or thirty, a holiday dinner is still a lot of work. 

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Too Many Hats, Too Many Hands

Today is mid-term election day, finally. Thank god. It seems as though we have been campaigning, fund-raising, polling, robo-calling, predicting, debating, and of course, mud-slinging for a full two years now. Too many hats in the ring, too many hands out for money. It is all quite simply too much.

     I hardly ever write about politics, it being a subject that has never been of particular interest to me and, in these polarized times, one that now only invites discord and disdain from those who don’t share your views. Historically, I have often split my vote among different parties, even independents, and supported candidates not on their party affiliations, but on their positions on the issues. I have been a registered-party voter for years, but never a straight-party voter. And I am one of those people who never responds to polls (even though I am a former journalist myself) preferring, if you will, to remain under the radar of prevailing winds when it comes to election forecasting. Today, however, on Election Day, I am emboldened to offer a commentary on our increasingly distressful political situation. Please indulge me. 

     In a New York Times essay posted on-line yesterday (“The Morning” newsletter, 11/7), writer German Lopez calls the US a “global outlier,” in that Americans have more elections and are asked to vote more often than citizens in any other democracy, and he attempts to explain how and why that has come about.  He points out that we have federal elections here every two years, with various primaries leading up to those, along with state and local elections, many of which also involve primaries. (And let’s not forget the interim elections held to fill sudden vacancies, resignations, deaths, and the like.) All in all, Americans elect over a half million officials each cycle, from President to county coroner. Heck, even my Homeowners’ Association holds yearly elections for officers and candidates campaign around the neighborhood.

     Now some might say that frequent elections are a good thing, designed to hold officials accountable lest they be booted out for malfeasance. But have you noticed that there doesn’t seem to be much concern about “malfeasance” anymore, much less any real demand for either political or personal accountability. In my own state of Texas, for instance, our Attorney General Ken Paxton is running for his third term in office, in spite of being under indictment for securities fraud for the last seven years, not to mention the abuse of the power of his office with well-publicized shenanigans (often court-contested) even involving other states. 

     Americans’ fondness for voting dates back to the early 20th century when activists believed that more frequent elections would give citizens a greater voice and keep them politically engaged. Over time, state and local governments expanded the number of offices and put more and more propositions directly before the voters. Now back in 1900, when the total US population was roughly 76 million mostly rural citizens, that might have been an admirable intention. But now that the population has more than tripled to the 330 million diverse, mostly urban/suburban voters we have today, this voting mania has fostered some less than desirable consequences. We have created a massive political machine that has overwhelmed the general electorate, disenfranchised far too many groups through gerrymandering and outright voter suppression, and caused many tired and busy potential voters to simply tune out and stay home. Even in our national elections, voter turnout is much lower than the rate of participation in other Western democracies, and the turnout in state and local elections is so low as to be downright abysmal. (Pew Research rates voter turnout in the US as 31st among 49 democratic nations.)

     Obviously, voters aren’t as involved and engaged as all the newscasters, pollsters, and pundits would have us believe. Many of us, even those who might have once been active supporters of issues and causes, just can’t deal with all the chaos and commotion anymore.  We’ve had enough of the vitriol and the name-calling; enough of the politics of threats and fear; enough of the political double-speak of those who seek to serve only themselves and preserve their own power; and enough of all the conspiracy theories and court battles over voter fraud. 

     We’ve all had enough of nothing getting done in Congress because no one takes the long view — on climate change, on on healthcare, on education, on immigration, or on anything else that might take time to negotiate compromise and come to consensus. When you have to run for office again every two years, it is much easier and more expedient to demonize the other side, to challenge the validity of any election you lose, and to call into question the integrity of our entire democratic voting system. (Already tonight as I write this, the GOP has sued to extend voting hours over malfunctions of tabulating machines in Maricopa County, Arizona. Steve Bannon loves it.) Some 300 Republican candidates in today’s election are 2020 election deniers; some, such as Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michaels in Wisconsin, have even been so bold as to speak his intentions out loud: “Republicans will never lose another election in Wisconsin after I’m elected governor.” 

     According to Open Secrets, a non-partisan watchdog group, the financial costs of our 2022 mid-term elections are expected to top $16.7 billion, the most expensive elections in history. Biggest spenders are both the Republican and Democratic Congressional Super PACS, but let’s not forget about all the dark money, the corporate money, the donations of billionaires and special interests, and even the nickels and dimes extracted from small individual donors through repeated, and incessant solicitations?  And let’s not overlook the unreported taxpayer money involved in all the lawsuits and investigations and recounts in the name of “voter fraud.” When you think about the humanitarian causes that could be served, especially here in our very own country, the amount of dollars invested in the election circus is appalling. And most distressing of all is that the cost to all of us, ultimately, is even greater than money.

     It just makes you want to go to bed and forget the whole thing. But I didn’t. I voted, and for the first time in my life, I voted a straight party ticket.

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Our Birthday Month

October is birthday month around here. My own birthday is early in the month, on or around Columbus Day, and our son’s birthday is at the end of the month, close to Halloween.  Since fall is also my favorite season and Halloween is my favorite holiday, it’s no surprise that October is also my favorite month of the year. But I’ve written about all of this before.

     What I have not written about is the third big birthday of the month, that of our beloved four-legged family member, Mac. He will turn nine this week, which is an occasion for both joy and sadness, since nine is something of a landmark age for large canine breeds, but one that inevitably raises the question of how many more birthdays there will be to celebrate. Perhaps I am particularly sensitive to this mixed mood of birthday joy and sadness, since I reached a landmark birthday myself this year. Luckily for Mac, dogs don’t lie awake at night contemplating their own mortality; rather, they live entirely in the moment, wanting nothing more than to play, to love, and to share joy and devotion with their human family. Ah, a dog’s life indeed. But I digress…

     Our Mac is a Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, the largest of the four Sennenhund breeds that include the better-known Bernese Mountain Dog, the medium-sized Appenzeller, and the small Entlebucher. Legend has it that the Greater Swiss is descended from a large, Mastiff-type canine that led the Roman legions through the Alps 2000 years ago. Early ancestors of the Swissy (as they are familiarly called) in Central Europe were used by farmers and merchants for herding and drafting. Large and muscular, they are eager and able workers, steady in temperament, natural guard dogs, and devoted companions. They were often called “butchers’ dogs” or “the poor man’s horse” because of their utility. While still considered a rare breed, today’s Swissy is a fully recognized AKC Working Group dog who competes not only in the conformation ring, but also successfully claims titles in drafting and obedience. (See the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog Club of America, for more information.)

     My husband and I have been “doggie people,” showing and training and for almost 50 years. In 1974, we encountered our first Swissy at Grant’s Farm, the historic Busch family farm (as in Budweiser) that houses the Clydesdales outside of St. Louis. Though we had Rottweilers at the time, we fell in instantly in love with that great big black, white, and tan good-will ambassador named Casar von Neuhof owned by August Busch III. It took us six years of research and waiting before we finally got a Swissy of our own. 

     He was Baron of High Ridge and he was a star right out of puppy class, named Best in Show at a Club Specialty (because the breed wasn’t yet recognized by the AKC) in both 1994 and 1995. Baron was “discovered” by an ad exec at one of those Specialties and became the mascot called “Network” for Sun Microsystems. We used to take him into New York City for photo shoots, where he was so incredibly well behaved that no one could believe, after their initial apprehension about his size, that he not only didn’t need a leash in the studio, but didn’t even nibble at the food and refreshments set out for the staff. Baron, aka Network, appeared in magazines and newspapers all over the Country and even accompanied the CEO of Sun on stage in Manhattan at an annual meeting. Baron was regal and impressive; his name was a perfect fit.

     Our next Swissy was Derby’s Eisenhower, Ike for short. While Baron was dignified and composed, Ike was all over the place: anxious to do, eager to please, hard to ignore. As a little puppy, he gave Baron no rest, scrambling over and under him, nipping at his heels, stealing his toys, and occasionally eliciting a disgruntled growl. He had boundless energy which made him quick to learn and easy to train. He was a beautiful dog, easily becoming an AKC conformation champion (the breed was officially recognized in 1992); he was smart, attaining a CD obedience degree in short order; and he was a real worker, becoming the first Swissy to earn a NDD in drafting (cart pulling). Always alert, he slept with one eye open, the little brown dots above his eyes that I call eyebrows shifting and raising with every noise or movement around him in guarded vigilance. In addition, he was fun and had a definite sense of humor, once stealing a houseguest’s underwear and taunting her until she chased him down the hallway for it. “Mom, you finally have a dog that is you,” my son had said when we got him. He died of bloat in a veterinary emergency room late one night because a young, inexperienced vet didn’t know how to treat him. I have never gotten over it.  

     Once we moved to Texas, we gradually quit showing our dogs. There wasn’t enough competition in the ring within easy driving distance to earn points, and the challenges of extreme heat and the mess of dirt floors in a cattle ring on a black-coated dog were too much. We have had three more Swissys since Ike, all descended from Baron, all alike in conformation, all good-natured and loving, but each also different in his own way. As we have gotten older, our dogs’ lives have also necessarily gotten quieter, though we still train them to be well-mannered. 

     Mac is short for Mt. McKinley, the mountain litter from Taylor Made kennels in Tennessee. We drove to pick him up in an ice storm right around New Year’s in 2014 and he rode in my arms and on my shoulder all the way home, just like a baby, which is why I call him “Baby Mac.” Swissy puppies are so adorable, perfectly proportioned little black, white, and tan bodies with big fat paws that indicate the size to come. Poor Mac was so frightened at being scooped up and taken away from his littermates that he couldn’t stop shaking, so I held him. As I looked into the deep, dark brown pools of his eyes, I thought how old and wise those eyes seemed. They still do.

     Mac has proven to be the perfect Swissy for us at this age and stage of life, especially during these years of pandemic isolation.  He is calm and loving, all but climbs into your lap for a big, hearty hug around his neck, which feels soooo good for the both of us. He notices everything, every detail in a room, every small change, every new addition. He is an abiding companion, staying by your bedside if you are ill, sitting by you quietly if you are sad, lying out in the yard “working on his tan” while you are gardening, standing by your feet (sometimes on your feet) while you are cooking, and yes, lying on the couch next to you when you watch TV in the evenings. He is hardly ever sick, still has his youthful good looks with little graying, and will still run and play in the backyard if someone can keep up with him.

     I’ve read that the average Swissy can learn about 165-70 human words for a vocabulary that is similar to that of a 2 ½ year old child. I don’t know about the exact number of words, but I would agree that Mac has the understanding of language and direction and the general disposition of a small child without any of the tantrums. He is easy to be around, friendly and affectionate with guests, and never aggressive with strangers. (Given his size and his deep-throated  bark, why would he need to be?) And he loves presents and treats and special occasions like Christmas and holidays, sharing in the spirit with great curiosity to see what all the excitement is about. 

     This birthday will be all about him. I have made Mac a new Halloween kerchief, and we have gotten him a giant, stuffed candy corn toy, which we will give him in his own gift bag filled with colorful tissue paper that he is free to “open” by sniffing, pawing, pulling, and dragging around. And he will get some special additions to his doggie dinner that day. We’ll even sing “Happy Birthday” as we hope for many more.

     The sad truth is that Mac will probably be our last Swissy. As easy and darling as he has been to live with, he is still very big (about 125 lbs.) and impossibly large (28” at the withers) for us to handle if he is physically incapacitated. These are the realities of growing older for all of us, canines and humans alike. Coincidentally, St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, has his feast day in October, so today as I say a prayer for Mac, I will also ask for some of Mac’s “in the moment” enviable attitude of gratitude and joy as we celebrate his longevity.