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In Residence

     Writer in residence. Artist in residence. Indicating someone with a specific expertise confined, for at least a time, in a specific place, usually with a specific mission to create, to inspire, to share and to learn. It is essentially an academic concept, a sort of high-brow extension of the old 19th century workman’s apprenticeship, now not only common in medicine and the arts, but also in technology, science and teaching   In the past, I have been a “writer in residence,” and I have undertaken a “summer residency” for creative development.  And now, it seems that the COVID shelter-in-place recommendation has become an unintentional — and not entirely unwelcome — at-home art residency for a lot of people, including me.

     Oddly enough, I find that if I turn off my cell phone and don’t watch too much news, I am enjoying a sustained spate of creative energy, focused attention, and new ideas much like the experience of an arts residency with some of the same results.  First of all, I am delighted to report that my art quilt, “A Texas Oasis,” has been accepted into the juried exhibition called “Sense of Place: Texas Landscape Art Quilts,” sponsored by the Studio Art Quilt Associates. (see Journal post, May 20, 2020). It will tour all across the state for three years at venues including art museums and cultural centers, college libraries and even city airports. I am very pleased.

     Secondly, I finally finished that art quilt based on Christo’s Gates in Central Park which has been floating around in my studio for more than ten years now. (See Journal Post, June 12, 2020).  Suddenly, after writing about Christo’s death and digging out the quilt and studying it again, I was inspired to finish it and confident that at last I had the skills to do so. (See above called “Golden Gates.”)  I am especially proud of having figured out how to adapt one of Christo’s Park path plans as a side panel to this larger Central Park scene. I finished this piece  just for myself, since I have no exhibition “call for entry” into which it would fit, but that’s okay. Now it is hanging in my studio, and it makes me happy to recall that wonderful snowy day in February, 2005, when I walked that exhibit in Central Park.

     This week I participated in a fascinating webinar with a group of professional writers who are also quilters. The panelists were writers of fiction, non-fiction, journalism and poetry, as well as academics, historians, and working freelancers. Sponsored by Quilters’ S.O.S. (Save Our Stories), an oral history project created by the nonprofit Quilt Alliance, interviews and discussions such as these help to preserve and celebrate the lives of quilters and quilt making. Regardless of whether a fabric artist’s style is traditional, abstract, or representational, quilting is just another way to tell a story. Frances O’Roarke Dowell, a panelist and well-known novelist, offered a succinct summary:  “We walk into our sewing spaces dragging our lives behind us.”  

     While “in residence” at home, I have found some new connections on line and they have been exhilarating.  I’ve taken some classes, learned some new techniques, and started being a regular Zoom participant in my regional art quilting and writing associations. Ironically, I am actually becoming more connected to these communities than before when I needed to drive a long distance to attend the meetings. It’s exciting to see and hear what others are doing and to share my work and my ideas. One art informs another, always: small pieces of language build into a sentence and then into a larger whole; small pieces of fabric combine into a picture to create an overall image. Revision is common to both and texture (context) and composition are key. These corona days have given me the time and the freedom to examine these connections more closely and to explore new possibilities. And I have finally given myself permission to identify as a fabric “artist,” as well as a writer. 

     So, this week I have spent fashioning a box, making a muslin bag for “The Texas Oasis” and preparing to ship it out for the exhibition next week. (The shipping specifications are almost as demanding as the requirements for the quilt itself!) I am now cleaning up my sewing studio, reorganizing all my fabrics, and preparing to start another new project, a little piece for a SAQA convention in Florida next year (if it is held). I have learned about a new technique, fabric collage, that I am anxious to try, and I am writing a lot, not only for this blog and in my daily personal journal, but also keeping a notebook of sketches, ideas, and reflections for future projects. I may not have any big travel adventures or social events to look forward to right now, but I do have creative endeavors ahead, and that’s enough to sustain me for quite a while, if need be.

     And the need may very well be. Coronavirus conditions are serious here in Texas; our case numbers keep rising dramatically and our public health directions going forward are inconsistent and vague. Masks are, finally, mandated across the state, some reopening steps have been scaled back, and the big debate over school openings next month is only just beginning. While there has been no explicit renewal of stay-at-home orders,  there is no doubt that people, at least reasonable people, have once again begun to do so, certainly in the major cities where outbreaks are becoming critical.  

     For months now, my sign-off with friends and family has been, “Stay safe and stay sane.” I continue to be grateful that all I have to do is stay safe and healthy and that I don’t have to grapple with the tough day-to-day decisions facing so many others under these dire circumstances.  But I am also dismayed, and perhaps a little guilty, that not only am I managing to stay sane during this pandemic, but that I am actually experiencing creative rejuvenation in such a troubled climate. I suspect I am not alone.

     The luxury of time, the serenity of silence, the benefits of an artistic residency at home… how odd. 

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Covid Cuisine

Okay, “cuisine” might be a bit of a stretch, but the fact is that cooking at home while being at home during the coronavirus has flourished. People who always loved to cook but never had the time, have happily found the time, and people who loved to eat but never cooked have decided to give it a try once they tired of ramen noodles and peanut butter. Of course, experienced cook or not, planning, shopping and preparing three meals a day week after week is enough to wear anybody out. The good news though, as so many have discovered, is that families are actually sitting down to meals with each other, and even cooking together!

     According to a survey done by SSA & Company, a management consulting firm, 40 percent of consumers began eating at home regularly for the very first time during the COVID outbreak. While retail sales in general plummeted, figures show that sales of small kitchen appliances (bread makers, electric skillets, juicers, rice cookers, coffee makers and such) have risen significantly, as have sales of cookware and kitchen utensils.  Bloomberg rightfully reported that sales of those instant ramen noodles had jumped 578% between February and March, but by April, USA Today was reporting that bakeware and yeast were selling out on line! (I can personally attest to the yeast shortage.)

     I have been a big, and frankly rather accomplished cook, for most of my adult life, though when I first got married, I “couldn’t boil water,” as my Mother put it. After the honeymoon, however, it soon became clear that my love of good food beautifully presented was going to demand some studying up if I wasn’t going to eat out in restaurants every night. And so, lo and behold, there she was: Julia Child herself on PBS television with her cookbooks available at the nearest Waldenbooks! (Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. I, 1961; The French Chef Cookbook, 1968 (which was the accompaniment to her television show and which I still have and sill use); and Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. II, 1970. 

     Now I don’t want to bore you with the litany of Julia Child’s cookbooks, but having just cleaned out my entire kitchen cabinet of books and recipe files, I still have, and still use regularly From Julia Child’s Kitchen (1971), Julia Child and Company (1978) [the ham pithiviers in this book has become a Christmas Eve tradition in our house], Julia Child and More Company (1979), and Julia’s Kitchen with the Master Chefs (1995), which I just referred to the other day. Hey, author Julie Powell has nothing on me! (Julie and Julia,  2009) 

     Over the years, I continued to learn from other television chefs, Jacques Pepín, Martha Stewart, Emerill Lagasse, and my beloved (to this day) Ina Garten, and to collect their cookbooks. I also took local courses, starting with the Wilton cake decorating classes (even though I have never been much of a baker, but it was great for decorating all my son’s birthday cakes), and then moving on to special courses in specialty markets covering such skills as risotto, pasta making, and bread baking. Here in San Antonio, I have attended the CIA (Culinary Institute of America)  for enthusiasts courses on French bistro cooking and soufflés. And last summer in Lyon, France, we were fortunate to take a class at the famous Institut Paul Bocuse and to have lunch there. Now that was culinary event that made the whole trip worthwhile!

     During the COVID quarantine, the CIA has graciously given those of us who have attended classes there a complimentary on-line connection to their instructional kitchen videos and their library of recipes, all of which have inspired me to expand my culinary repertoire while at home. I also recently finished reading the hefty, but wonderful, newly-released memoir by Bill Buford called Dirt, in which he recounts the five crazy years he spent with his family in Lyon immersing himself in French cooking. And yes, his big goal was to study at Institut Paul Bocuse. Our trip to the south of France last year was our last abroad before the coronavirus hit, so this book has been both informative and nostalgic for me. (I love France and wonder if I will ever get there again.)

     Anyway,  I have spent these COVID weeks devoted, in large part, to cooking, canning, preserving, baking, freezing, studying and reorganizing my cookbooks and recipes. My husband has been harvesting summer vegetables and now is preparing for the fall crop. Needless to say, we have had some fabulous meals during this time — and we haven’t gained any weight!! Lots of things are in season right now — peaches especially, but also jalapeños, tomatoes, string beans, onions, and squash all of which are in our garden along with fresh herbs and fresh flowers. 

    Call it what you will, cuisine or just plain cooking, is a creative act of  love and joy, particularly for others  — one of those perhaps unexpected, but comforting discoveries from the coronavirus. Hopefully,  there will be other happy discoveries and they will outlast these troublesome days.    

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Artistic Impressions

     The artist Christo died on May 31. He was 84. His artistic career was spent wrapping, draping, constructing and hanging materials over bridges, landmarks, building, and even on water. His wife, Jeanne-Claude, collaborated with him on his astonishing, monumental projects until she died in 2009. That fact that he is no longer here makes me sad. His latest project, a wrapped L’Arc de Triomphe in Paris, which has been in the planning since 1962, was due to be realized in 2021. I was hoping to be there to see it.

     As an artist, Christo defied classification, really. Some called his work “installations,” which they certainly were, but they were hardly permanently installed. They took months, even years of planning and negotiation, but their exhibition was short-lived, usually only on display for a couple weeks. Some called him a “conceptual artist,” because the initial concept along with all those years of planning and decision-making, shaped the very nature of the art itself, making the ultimate execution of it a somewhat perfunctory affair. Some considered him an “environmental artist,” because his installations not only involved painstaking study and research of the proposed location, but also fastidious attention to the integrity of the environment and the preplanned repurposing of all construction materials once the exhibit was dismantled.

     And some didn’t even really consider Christo an artist at all, but rather a showman, or at the very least, an eccentric visionary who descended upon a community with a childlike enthusiasm for his great idea and who thorough perseverance and charm, brought everyone around to sharing his fanciful dream. His projects, often decades in the making, required the cooperation of hundreds of people: landowners and residents, government officials and zoning boards, environmental and specie-interest groups, not to mention all the engineers and workers who were needed to produced his marvels. Art critics and fellow artists had mixed reactions, and most would never place him in the great pantheon of serious artists, but Christo didn’t care. The public loved him, and his work was a fight of experience that was always free to that public. Never relying on municipal funds or taxes, Christo and Jeanne-Claude funded all their projects through the sale of their own work: renderings, plans, lithographs, watercolors, photographs, books and prints. (Still available through sources found at

     It is an unfortunate truth that people who live in the immediate environs of major cities, like New York, always bemoan the fact that they “don’t get into the City as much as we used to.” It’s as if the better you know a place, the more you love it, the more you take it all for granted and assume it will always be there. On a bright, snowy day in February, 2005, my husband and I drove into Manhattan to see “The Gates,” Christo’s much-publicized installation in Central Park. It had been open for almost two weeks by then and was scheduled to close the next day; we keep “meaning to get there earlier” when the weather might have been nicer, but … well, nothing waiting till the last minute. This exhibit would not go on forever.

     Not surprisingly, “The Gates” had been in the planning/discussion stages since 1979. This was New York City, after all, so you can imagine the layers and levels of  permissions and petitions and glad-handing and propositioning and patience and cooperation it took to finally reach agreement on an art installation constructed over 23 miles of walkways in Central Park, with 7,503 panels of saffron fabric, each 16 feet tall and of varying widths, hanging 7 feet  above the ground at 12 foot intervals. Negotiations started when Ed Koch was mayor, continued through David Dinkins and Rudy Giuliani, and didn’t come to fruition until Michael Bloomberg was in office — over 25 years in the making!

     Certainly, New York has had more than its share of truly spectacular events and exhibitions, even in Central Park, but “The Gates” was truly an explosion of joy and wonder, a vision of a golden river running right through the trees of midtown Manhattan. Over 4 million visitors came to walk underneath those fluttering saffron “gates” in just two weeks’ time. I will be forever thankful that I picked myself up at the last minute and became one of them.

     I have been a devotee of the arts my whole life; as an academic, I have spent much time and energy studying the arts, not just literature, but also fine arts, applied arts, and theatre. I hardly claim to be an art critic, nor can I boast of more than just a generally well-educated person’s level of knowledge, but I have been fortunate enough to have visited most of the major museums and architectural sites in the world, and to have encountered, often unexpectedly, works that struck me profoundly, both intellectually and emotionally, as to make a deep and lasting impression on my very should. Art or not, “The Gates” in Central Park did that.

     In an interview included in a brochure accompanying “The Gates,” Christo was asked why his work was temporary. He answered: “Our works are temporary in order to endow the works of art with a feeling of urgency to be seen, and the love and tenderness brought by the fact that they will not last. Those feelings are usually reserved for other temporary things such as childhood and our own life. These are valued because we know that they will not last.” (website: Gates project brochure) That explanation speaks to me; it explains, I think, why “The Gates” was so pivotal and was so quintessentially a New York experience for so many.

     I started an art quilt based on one of my photographs of “The Gates” a couple years after that day in Central Park. Good design, good ideas, good intentions. But, I got to a place where I couldn’t go further — lacking the skills, the confidence, the direction, I don’t know … My “Gates” piece is the only quilt that has become a UFO (unfinished object) for me. It has floated around my studio for over 12 years. I have often looked at it longingly, and lovingly, remembering that day in Central Park and feeling a sadness that I couldn’t quite do it just in fabric. 

     Funny thing, though: the coronavirus has me at home in a sort of unintentional “art residency” wherein I have been devoting more and more of my time to my art quilts, to thinking, designing, and creating. On the news of Christo’s death, I resurrected my “Gates” piece and realized that I had improved skills and new ideas for finishing it. It is now coming along nicely, much in the way I had originally envisioned. It doesn’t meet any of the usual size specifications or particular requirements for entry into competitions, but that doesn’t matter. It is being completed from my heart, the way Christo ultimately completed his long-planned work. It is a tribute, and a thank you, to him.

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The Sound of Silence

       Silence makes people uncomfortable. I say that as a very social, very talkative person, a lecturer, a writer, a lover of words who used to have to deliberately restrain herself in the classroom from asking students follow-up questions too soon without giving them ample time to think and to answer. Silence is uncomfortable in most situations.

     One of the revealing discoveries about the stay-at-home orders of the coronavirus is an awareness of how much noise has infiltrated our daily lives and how blessed silence really is as a quiet time in which to sit and be still and hear the whispers of our inner voice — of the truth, of our vision, of god. Without the beeps and burps of cell phones, the eternal babble of the television, the constant assault of ads and e-mails and internet nonsense, without the endless robocalls and intrusive solicitations, even without the constant social calls from friends, relatives and associates, the silence has been both deafening and blessed.  I realize in these last few weeks that I can, once again, hear myself think, and I realize that I can get used to this as a permanent “new normal.” I am so much better without all the noise. Aren’t we all?

     I’m not the only one who has noticed the benefits of silence. People, especially in cities, are suddenly hearing the coos, chirps and warbles of birds again, and newspaper features all over are heralding the sudden interest in bird watching as a hobby. Sales of binoculars are up, along with photographs of birds on Facebook and how-tos for building birdhouses on YouTube. With the arrival of spring, residents who are eager to get outside have discovered an activity that is interesting, safe, and “socially distanced.”

     Here in Texas, a new analysis released by researchers at Southern Methodist University found that noise levels created by humans —car and truck traffic, airplanes, sirens, music, etc. — have dropped roughly 30 percent since late March when the Governor closed schools and limited activity in the state. “Seismologists are listening for the sounds of silence,” read a recent headline from the Dallas Morning News. (May, 27, 2020)  Seismometers used to detect earthquakes can also detect everything else that makes the ground vibrate. With noice levels significantly down, especially in cities, the hope is that researchers will discover even more creative ways to use seismic stations to monitor and predict other kinds of events.  

     I have written before here about the quiet comfort of snow days in the Northeast, about how they gave me “permission” to suspend all schedules and obligations and thus resulted in “found time.” I now feel as though I am on a perpetual snow day because all schedules have been upended. I have cancelled my hair appointments, my nail appointments, my routine doctor and dental appointments, even the routine visits for my dog at the vet. I don’t have to make any meetings, attend any social engagements — heck, I don’t even have to go to church.  In short, I suddenly seem to have all the time in the world to do what I want and to decide what that is.

     Some of my recent discoveries in this era of silence have been more in the nature of re-discovering old loves and old habits.  For example, I have easily read more than a dozen books in the last twelve weeks while at home. That’s a good thing. Voracious reading used to be part of my regular routine, but in the last few years, even in retirement, other things always got in the way and I was always too tired late at night to grab one of the books on my nightstand. Now, however, without adhering to schedules that often depend on others, I am back to my own biological rhythms: I get up later (8:30 am or so) and then stay up reading till after midnight.

     I find that I am also “studying” my creative projects more carefully, just sitting and sketching and writing and planning what it is that I’m going to do next. This is a habit not constrained by time, but shaped by what it is that I want to accomplish. Sometimes, with the days moving more slowly and the hours lingering in silence, I just sit and wait for the moment, the movement, the inspiration. All that comes from the quiet. 

     These days, I am more “mindful” (if you’ll excuse the cliché) than I’ve been in a long time. Yes, I am canning and preserving, baking bread, cooking and freezing, sewing and creating, reading, writing and corresponding and, of course, cleaning and disinfecting my house as so many others are doing. That may sound as though I’ve become a whirling dervish, but it doesn’t feel like I’m whirling because I concentrate on one thing at a time. “Monkey minds” that are full of distractions find it impossible to focus on even the most mundane activities, much less to do them well, or safely. In our current political, twitter climate, that presence of mind is exactly what we’ve been missing. Nobody makes good decisions when they are frazzled and fractured.

         Perhaps the sequestering of this pandemic will help people rediscover the sound of silence, the solace and wisdom that might be found inside themselves. Maybe if we all slow down and listen carefully, we might once again recognize the truths that matter, about our families, our nation, our moral centers, our inner selves. To rediscover ourselves would be a redemptive outcome from this whole dark disaster:

      Hello darkness my old friend

       I’ve come to talk with you again

       Because the vision softly creeping

       Left its seeds while I was sleeping

       And the vision that was planted in my brain 

       Still remains

       Within the sound of silence.

                                                    Lyrics by Paul Simon, 1964

     Postscript:  Over these last three days or so, the sounds of silence have been broken by the sounds of sirens and shattered glass all across America. The anguish and outrage over the  senseless death of  George Floyd in Minneapolis serves as an urgent message from the future still resounding from the past: we do, indeed, need to return to a “new normal” after the coronavirus epidemic, one that requires a great deal more than just a vaccine and an economic reboot.

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A Texas Oasis

     For a person who doesn’t really like to drive, I’ve spent most of my life doing it. I’ve had a  driver’s license since I was 14. Back in the 1960s in Texas, a teenager could take driver’s ed in school at 13, get a learner’s permit, and then apply for a regular operator’s license after her 14th birthday.  Because my Mother was a single parent who worked long and irregular hours and we lived with my elderly grandmother who did not drive at all, it might have been a “hardship” provision that enabled me to do this (now available to teenagers in Texas at 15). I don’t remember. All I know is that I was in the 9th grade and I was the only one among my friends who drove for most of our high-school years.

     According to the Federal Highway Administration, there are 303,176 miles of public roads in Texas, more than in any other state. Honestly, I think I’ve driven most of them. From the spaghetti-bowl freeways in the major cities, to the bay area causeways along the Gulf, to the desert routes in West Texas where there are no speed-limits (because there are no cars), Texans have always been deservedly proud of their highways. The roads are generally well-planned and well-maintained and they move people and products across a vast territory where there is little other alternative transport. And of course, let’s not forget all those fabulous wildflowers along the roads in the spring — thank you, LadyBird!

     Almost as cheerful and certainly as welcome as wildflowers along Texas highways are some 600 Dairy Queens®, again, more than in any other state. Contrary to popular perception, Dairy Queens did not originate in Texas, nor are they based here, even though they are ubiquitous throughout the State, even in one-stop-sign towns; in fact, the DQ® sign is often referred to as “the Texas stop sign.” Dairy Queen® was actually founded in Joliet, Illinois, in 1940, and has since used a franchise system to expand all across the United States and into over 30 countries. The company has been a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway in Minneapolis since 1998.

     The Dairy Queens in Texas are unique because they are organized under the Texas Dairy Queen Operators Council, a consortium of independent franchise owners. That enables Texas DQs to offer their own unique “Texas country foods” menu (including tacos and a chick’n fried steak sandwiches), to do their own local promotions, and to advertise with their own slogans such as “That’s what I love about Texas…”  The first Dairy Queen in Texas was opened by a Missouri businessman near the UT campus in Austin in 1946, but the title of “the first” usually attaches to the one established in Henderson in 1950, because it is still there and still continuously operating. Regardless, over the last 70 years, Dairy Queen has become a bonafide “Texas thing.” 

     My long driving history is also a long DQ history. When I was a child (before I could actually drive), a Dairy Queen was much anticipated on those interminable Texas road trips. In the blistering heat, with the boredom of riding and the nagging angst of “are we there yet,” a stop at a Dairy Queen provided both respite and delight with its cheerful red sign and its promise of curly-Q-topped soft ice cream cones and thick, tummy-filling milkshakes. The DQ sign has been a symbol of comfort and relief for as long as I can remember.

     We used to joke that a town couldn’t get a name in Texas until it had a Dairy Queen, but it was absolutely true that it couldn’t get a sense of community without one. Before there was McDonald’s, or even before Whataburger showed up (Whataburger was founded in Texas and is headquartered in San Antonio), Dairy Queen was not just the first, but often the only fast-food place in rural Texas towns — not that anybody there necessarily needed the food to be fast. As Texas writer Larry McMurtry wrote in his 1999 memoir, “Before the Dairy Queens appeared the people of the small towns had no place to meet and talk; and so they didn’t meet or talk…” (Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections on Sixty and Beyond)  Pretty soon, “down at the DQ” identified the place to meet and greet, to celebrate and commiserate, or to just come on in out of the rain. These days, the hospitality of a Dairy Queen extends even to those of us just passing through. 

     During the many years when I lived up East and would come home to Victoria, I spent lots of time on highways driving to and from major airports, driving to take my Mother on little excursions, or driving to see family and friends who lived elsewhere. These drives nearly always included a stop at a Dairy Queen, sometimes because it was a favorite location I remembered, sometimes because it was an equidistant meeting place for me and a friend, and sometimes because it was hot or stormy or I just needed a break. 

     The month we retired and relocated to San Antonio was the very month my Mother turned 85 and was unable to renew her driver’s license. The good news was that I was back in Texas and only 120 miles away, but the bad news was that those 120 miles were on US 87 South, a difficult and dangerous drive on a two-lane highway through the heart of fracking country. Before Eagle Ford, a one-way trip had taken about two hours and, except for occasionally having to pass some slow poke lumbering along with farm equipment, it was not an altogether unpleasant drive.  Once the boom hit, however, the trip stretched into about three hours each way and became a harrowing, white-knuckled drive on deteriorating roads in the middle of convoys of tanker trucks and 18 wheelers. As the drive got worse and my Mother got older, I found myself making more and more frequent trips that turned into longer and longer days. 

     There are lots of DQs along US 87 and they were a godsend, particularly in the last couple years of my Mother’s life when I was making two or three roundtrips a week.  Through her catastrophic illnesses, the ravages of Hurricane Harvey, and my own beleaguered spirit, the DQ provided an oasis of relief. The quilt above, named “A Texas Oasis,” has been created from my own photograph of a favorite DQ just off the highway less than an hour away from San Antonio. At the end of a long and stressful day, I would pull in to this Texas oasis, thankful to have survived another trip and determined to reward myself with a burger or a shake.

      “A Texas Oasis,” will be submitted for a regional exhibition called “ Sense of Place: Texas Landscape Art Quilts” sponsored by the Studio Art Quilt Associates. If juried in, my work will appear in the show’s opening at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Abilene in September. From there, the exhibit will travel to six other venues throughout the State before closing in a public display at the San Antonio Airport. “A Texas Oasis” recalls a most difficult time in my life and the many hard miles I logged, both literally and figuratively, to get through it. It is also a tribute to the people and places that provide an “oasis” of comfort to others anywhere on life’s journey. 

      Postscript:  I started working on this art quilt last fall, so it has been in progress, often in fits and starts, for a long time. Interestingly, the bulk of it came to completion in these last three months while under stay-at-home orders. I haven’t made any road trips recently and haven’t even visited a local DQ, but once again, this DQ provided an emotional oasis of creative comfort and calm, now through the stress of this coronavirus journey.   

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The Upside of Down Under

Isolation. It has a long and honored history for promoting profound insight, spriritual renewal and moral courage. For centuries, philosophers, poets, mystics, scientists and holy men and women in every culture have discovered that only by withdrawal from the world can one see more clearly into it. Even Jesus withdrew into the desert for 40 days before beginning his public life.

     Yet, the rigors of isolation can be hard to endure; solitary confinement, for example, is usually considered a punishment. We are social animals and it is in our nature to seek the company of others, to be part of a community The brilliant 17th century French mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal identified the inability to sit alone in a room as the source of all of humanity’s problems, and concluded that the resulting existential anxiety from being all alone is a defining trait of the human condition. (The Pensées, 1670)

       So now here we are, most of us, sitting in various configurations of  being “alone in a room” due to the coronavirus stay-at-home orders. For an industrious people with a strong Protestant work ethic, being sequestered at home, separated from “our team,” and decidedly unbusy, even if not actually unemployed, presents a tremendous psychological challenge.  Of course we’re anxious because we do, in fact, face a very real, but invisible existential threat, one that cannot be bombed, bullied, or bought.  Most Americans alive today have never faced such a world-wide catastrophe before, so being asked “to fight” for the greater good by simply staying home and staying safe seems counterintuitive at best, and heretical at worst. 

     My husband and I have been “fighting” at home for six weeks now. I am in regular touch with a lot of people, friends and family, but we don’t actually see anyone, not even our son who lives nearby. As retirees, we are among the lucky ones who can afford to stay at home without conflicting responsibilities. With the exception of the occasional hassles of grocery shopping, I have to admit that I have rather begun to enjoy this isolation. The stay-at-home mandate offers the perfect excuse to abandon usual routines, suspend all obligations,  and manage my days for myself.  I’ve even had the uninterrupted time to finish that art quilt I’ve been working on for months.

     Most of all, however, I’ve found the opportunity to just sit and think, to digest all the news (the good, the bad, and the ugly), to observe people’s behaviors (the good, the bad, and the ugly), and to consider the long-term effects of this pandemic on future generations of Americans and the world. And believe it or not, I have found an upside, some reasons to hope — in the good of course, but even in the bad and the ugly. There are possibilities for change.

     COVID-19 has provided nothing if not enlightenment, at least for anyone who is paying attention. It has exposed in glaring daylight all the fault lines in American society, from the gross incompetence of national leadership, to the systemic problems in our healthcare system, to the rampant inequities in labor policies.  And through it all, our persistent social, economic, racial, digital, and political divides not only remain, but grow wider, quietly but decisively dispelling any romantic notion that “we’re all in this together.” No, we are not, and it’s time we admit that we haven’t been together for a very long time.

     So just how does this “enlightened” conclusion represent an upside?  Yes, well,  I too have been angry, disgusted, and depressed about all this at some point, but simply turning off the news and not hearing about all of it is tantamount to being a little kid who, in a tantrum of defiance, puts his hands over his ears and refuses to listen. (One big kid in the room who won’t listen is enough!)  I have decided that the more mature and productive way to use this national time-out is to look at the entire COVID experience with a cold-eyed realism, to examine some of the effects of all this on both the country and on individuals, and to accept some personal responsibility for my own past attitudes and for change going forward.

     Historically, pandemics and other world-wide calamities have always been catalysts for change, mostly because they defy borders and ultimately affect everyone in one way or another. Extreme situations push people to accept extreme solutions, thus normalizing policies and behaviors that might have once been unacceptable, even unthinkable. From the Great Depression, for example, we adopted socialist programs such as social security and the WPA; WWII reversed our nationalist/isolationist policies and brought us into global partnerships through NATO and the UN; the HIV/AIDS epidemic completely changed sexual behavior among young people, normalizing the use of condoms and testing for STDs; post 9-11prompted us to surrender some personal privacy for public safety. 

     So, what will Americans normalize from this pandemic? Might we finally accept that working, or studying, in a brick-and-mortar building is not essential for everyone, but that everyone everywhere in the country must have universal internet access. While we’re at it, let’s reconsider just whose work is essential in the first place and give more respect, and renumeration, to those who keep society up and moving: nurses, doctors, teachers, and first-responders of course, but also all those other essential, often unnoticed people doing everyday ordinary jobs in fields and factories and stores and warehouses and retirement homes. Let’s look at the crisp, clear skylines in our cities, the less congested roads, the improved air quality, and the clearer water in canals and waterways and ask ourselves, once again, how we might make these sudden improvements in our climate last. Finally, let’s recognize that being prepared is not just about adequate testing and PPE, but also about a stable health-care system, sufficient funding for public-health agencies, and support for industry specialists and government career professionals across the board in all departments who know where things are and how to get things done.  

     This whole “America first” attitude has not helped us in confronting this pandemic abroad and now it has trickled down to a “me first” selfishness that threatens to impede our recovery here at home. We have grown impatient; we want to declare defeat, hit the beach, and get on with it, even as our national death rate continues to climb.  A number of states (including Texas) are starting to reopen before meeting even the most basic opening guidelines. Protestors, some carrying guns, have grown louder, resisting not only any shut-down orders, but even simple preventative measures of wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing when in public. Never mind the greater good of protecting others from illness or death, it’s me and my rights first!

     Postscript: Okay, I’ll admit it: I’m having a hard time finding an upside to this latest development of premature openings. Guess I’ll just have to stay at home and think about it a while longer — quite a while longer…

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Via Dolorosa

 Today is Palm Sunday. For millions and millions of Christians all over the world, it marks the beginning of a week-long spiritual reflection on Christ’s passion and resurrection, culminating in the celebration of Easter Sunday. Those who are not Christian, nor even especially religious at all, still acknowledge and respect the various observances associated with the season, including the Pope’s annual Easter blessing from his balcony. This year, however, there will be no processions, no packed basilicas, and no big crowds gathered — not even in St. Peter’s Square.

     I was raised Roman Catholic, so all the traditions of Holy Week, indeed all the rituals and services of prayer and sacrifice for the full six weeks of Lent from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, are deeply ingrained. My responses are automatic: going to confession, not eating meat on Fridays, making the Stations of the Cross, giving up a favorite treat (candy, ice cream, TV), and giving away to charity (time, money, food). I hardly think twice about the what or the why of  these Lenten practices. I just perform them. But the downside to such automatic practice is that rituals once intended to renew and inspire lose their mystery and power over time.

     Our guide in Jerusalem was named Asher. He was a well-spoken and knowledgeable young man who had traveled widely, who exhibited an impressive command of history and culture, and who genuinely respected the three great religions that make his City sacred: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. We had begun our tour that day with a typical tourist photo-op from high on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Garden of Gethsemane toward the Old City and the domed Temple Mount.  (There’s a reason this view is on every postcard.) We were a small group, so Asher introduced himself, asked us where we were from, and inquired if there were any historic or religious sites were were especially anxious to see. 

     Now let me make it plain: I am not a pilgrim.  Certainly, in my travels over the years, I have found myself in places that others consider sacred, and I have even had some odd experiences here and there that I couldn’t logically explain, but I do not travel seeking cures or expecting miracles or anticipating a “spiritual awakening” of any kind. Even in the great churches of Europe, while I may be moved by the art and the architecture, it is not because of any particular religious significance. That includes St. Peter’s in Rome. 

     We entered Jerusalem amid a throng of people through the Dung Gate up to the Temple Mount, a compound that has been the scene of momentous historic events for thousands of years and which is sacred to Jewish, Muslim and Christian believers. From there we walked around to the Western Wall, which is the last remaining segment of the second Temple of Jerusalem (built in 515 BC after the first Temple built by Solomon in 957 BC was destroyed). The Western Wall is also called the “Wailing Wall” because pious Jewish pilgrims come to pray and “to wail” over the destruction of their history and heritage. Today, visitors from all faiths come to touch the Wall and to insert prayers of petition on small pieces of paper in between the cracks. They, too, are often moved to tears for purely personal reasons; I was one of them.      

     Up the street, the Via Dolorosa (Way of Sorrow) is a half-mile walk that supposedly follows Christ’s passion through 14 Stations of the Cross marked along the way with plaques and Roman numerals. The first station begins at the Franciscan Monastery of the Flagellation, where Christ was scourged and condemned to death. (Evidence indicates that this probably happened at Herod’s Palace, which no longer remains, but which was about five miles to the southwest.) The stations continue through the alleys and hills of the Old City on uneven pathways and through busy markets, ending with stations 10-14 at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This Church, with its side altars and crypts, encloses the various sites of Christ’s crucifixion, death and burial. It was so designated in 326 A.D. by St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine (first Christian Roman Emperor), who claimed that she had found relics of the true cross here. (A short walking pictorial of the Via Dolorosa is available at by searching for “Walking the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem.”) 

     As we proceeded along, Asher was careful to explain, especially when pressed by someone in the group to clarify apparent factual discrepancies about a particular location, that while the route had been recognized and had been drawing pilgrims since the 8th century, the Way of the Cross was established more by oral tradition than by archeological fact. That qualifier seemed to bother some people, at which point he simply shrugged. “As your guide, I can only relate the stories and traditions, but faith is a matter of personal belief,” he said. “Everyone has to find his own truth.”  

          All I can say is that this tour, this visit to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall and the walk on the Via Dolorosa, profoundly moved me; it refreshed my spirit and brought new appreciation for all those Bible stories, both Old Testament and New, that I’ve heard and read so often. Now, when I make the Stations of the Cross or engage in other Lenten practices, I have visuals. I can draw on first-hand memories of dust and donkeys and a demanding day in Jerusalem. And even though archeologists, historians and religious scholars don’t always agree on factual details, it is the meaning of the larger story, not the details that matter. 

     So this year, while we are all unable to attend religious services or to otherwise engage in our usual Easter celebrations because of COVID 19 restrictions, I am recalling my experiences in  the Holy Land and reflecting on the universal insight I gained there, which seems especially relevant right now. After all, the truth is always greater than the facts. 

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J-E-L-L-O (or Doubling, Part 3)

 There is a town between San Antonio and my childhood hometown on U.S. 87 that demands notice, either because it thinks so well of itself that drivers passing through should stop and spend some time and money there, or because it long ago recognized the lucrative revenue source that heavy highway traffic coming through the Eagle Ford Shale country offered. Either way, the result is an unusually long, but very effective speed trap of sorts, one that runs from one end of town out to the other. (And yes, I’ve been stopped there more than once.)

     The drive works like this: you come barreling south, radio blaring, at 70-75 mph (if not a bit faster) up to the river bridge over the Guadalupe and then, suddenly, you realize out of the corner of your eye that you have just passed a reduced speed sign reading, you think, 60 mph; while you are still processing and pumping your brakes, there is another sign, now at 55; a few feet later, the speed is down to 50, then to 45, then to 35, and then as you finally crawl into downtown, stop at the traffic light, and make the right turn where the highway continues southward, the speed is down to 30 — unless the lights are blinking in the school zone you’re entering, and then the limit is 20. No matter how often I make this trip, the experience is always one of  being in slow-motion suspension, something I can only describe as “driving through Jell-O ™.”

     These days, life under the increasingly tightening conditions of  COVID-19 has begun to feel just like that, not driving but living in Jello. Sheltered as we are in the home, not the car, we have entered a span of suspended- animation that we think will never end — because this stretch of the pandemic highway is totally unfamiliar. A nurse on TV recently compared the pending hospital crisis to watching a slow rollover of a mass highway accident while being helpless to stop it.  The metaphor is incredibly apt. Unfortunately, over my many trips on U.S. 87 South, I have witnessed right in front of me, and called in to report from the road, more than one fatal rollover or serious accident. The memories of those many Jello-town trips and the anxiety of witnessing those disasters still roll over in my dreams at night; no doubt they now contribute, in a sort of muscle-memory way, to my slowly growing anxieties over the yet uncertain COVID disasters to come.

     San Antonio officially shut down at midnight on March 24, but unofficially we have been “sheltering in place” and “social distancing” (under the advice of an especially astute Mayor) for a while now, especially since community contact with the coronavirus was made very real by the relocation of exposed and infected cruise ship evacuees to a local Air Force Base in early March. While many places across the country, even some communities in Texas, continue to insist that preventative measures are an over-reaction to “this flu,” residents of Texas’s largest cities (Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio) have already seen their “normal” lives upended by closed schools, bare supermarket shelves, and new work-from-home imperatives. Of course, you don’t need to be ordered to work from home and practice social distancing when you live on a ranch in the middle of nowhere. 

     To date, stay-at-home orders are in place in only 18 states; Texas is not one of them. Gov.  Abbott rightfully claims that there are over 250 counties in Texas, mostly rural, and that only about 50 of them (more densely populated) have reported cases of  COVID 19. Thus, he is reluctant to shut down the entire state in all those Jello-towns across a land mass that is 600 miles wide from east to west and 800 miles deep from north to south. I understand, really, I do. But of course, the gritty little detail in this otherwise logical reasoning is that Texas is woefully under-tested, so that who really knows who is infected and who isn’t, even in the cities, much less in more remote areas. The numbers are hardly finite and the future is far from certain.

     So, here we all are, Texans and Americans everywhere, living in a gelatinous existence of uncertainty, inconsistency and confusion. Time is fluid, one hour, one day, one week spilling into the next without clear demarkations. Situations change so rapidly that it’s hard to keep track, and reliable information is hard to come by when you don’t know whom to trust.

But I feel fortunate.  As retirees without jobs, children, or other obligations, it’s easy for my husband and me to simply stay at home and take care of ourselves. While we’re at it, we can tackle all of those spring chores that were on the to-do list (for when we returned from Australia), read all those books we’ve been meaning to read, write those Eastertime cards and notes, plant all those herbs and vegetables, prepare those flower beds, ready the pool, work on this website, continue the genealogy research, and — let’s not forget — work on that art quilt to be entered in May for a juried exhibition later this year! 

     We are both people who are comfortable with our own company, never at a loss for things to do, and never bored by being alone; nevertheless, when your days are endless and seamless, it’s hard to focus. I find myself floating around, flitting from one thing to another, and not getting much of anything done — unless you count as an accomplishment watching a Carolina Wren for an hour take care of her newly-hatched babies nested in a flower pot on the patio. There may be an urgency on the national front, but it’s hard to muster an urgency in daily life when you are moving through Jello. Which, of course, is exactly the problem.

     Once headed out of Jello-town past the Walmart on U.S. 87, the pace picks up gradually to 45, then to 55, then to —wham! —right on to a 75 mph divided highway all the way to the Gulf Coast. I hope that’s how we progress out the other side of this pandemic crisis. “The virus cannot  infect you if it cannot find you,” said Dr. Craig Spencer of New York Presbyterian Hospital. Maybe, if we all drive fast enough, we can outrun it.   

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Doubling Down, Part 2

 Early last week, I went to our local supersized supermarket to pick up a prescription. To my complete surprise, I could barely get into the parking lot, much less find a parking space once I got there. “What’s going on here?” I thought. “Spring break isn’t until next week.”

     To avoid the hassle of circling around and around, I decided to pick up my medications in the drive-thru pharmacy.  As I sat with engine idling, I watched a growing parade of shoppers rolling by, their carts stacked with 12-roll economy bundles of toilet paper, huge 6-roll packs of paper towels, shrink-wrapped cartons of 24 bottled waters, and of course, multiple cases of beer — this is Texas, after all. The whole frenzied scene reminded me of the hysteria that erupts when a hurricane is coming, except that this time it was the Coronavirus. 

     No doubt this sudden preparation anxiety was due to to some local news the day before. An evacuee from the Diamond Princess who had been quarantined at Lackland AFB here in San Antonio was mistakenly released to return home. Though the woman had had two previous Coronavirus tests which were negative, she had not yet gotten the results of a third test, which later turned out to be positive. Meanwhile, she had spent about 12 hours downtown at a hotel near the airport, had taken a hotel shuttle to nearby North Star Mall where she had done some shopping and eaten dinner in the food court, before being retrieved by officials at 2 a.m. and taken for treatment to the Texas Center for Infectious Disease. Subsequently, the entire Mall had to be closed down and disinfected and any mall employees who had dealt with the woman had to be notified. Understandably, the Mayor and local citizens were upset.

     Lackland AFB has housed and released over 200 Coronavirus evacuees from the Diamond Princess since February; this week, another 150 or so (exact numbers keep shifting) evacuees from the Grand Princess arrived here from California. Assurances have been given that new arrivals have not tested positive, though whether they have been tested at all is questionable. The speed at which events and conditions change, along with modifications of “the facts,” is just stunning. Who knows what’s what? Even the President had to tweak his address in a tweet just minutes after delivering it Wednesday night.

     In my last post (“Doubling Down Under,” 2/29) about our upcoming trip to Australia/New Zealand, I mentioned that our traveling companions were already nervous about going. Well, they did cancel as I expected they would, but my husband and I remained determined to stay calm and await further information on the situation. That information first came in the form of an announcement from our cruise line that some of our shore excursions in New Zealand were being cancelled; the next day, the president of the company announced that we could cancel the cruise itself without penalty for a full refund (which we read as a a subtle encouragement to do so). Still we hung on. Then came an advisory from the  US State Department discouraging ALL Americans from cruising, not just the “elderly” or those with pre-existing conditions, and not only because the virus more easily spreads on ships, but because the US government could not guarantee repatriation of citizens should we get quarantined or stranded overseas.  At least the State Department was honest and straight-forward.        

     While we were mulling all this over, I went on a cleaning rampage, which I often do in times of stress. Not only did I clean, but I disinfected every surface: doorknobs, phones, TV remotes, light switches  — everything. The house smells like Clorox, but it is clean! I figured if we were going to be secluded here for a few weeks, we might as well start off sanitized. Plus, allergy season is upon us, so it was time for a household anti-allergen treatment anyway.  After this flurry of effort, I felt better, calmer, more in control for being as prepared to stay home as I was to go abroad.

    And so, as of a couple days ago, we are now doubling down, but not ”Down Under.” We will be staying home, and staying close to home, for the next few weeks. The World Health Organization officially declared the COVID-19 a pandemic, and Dr. Fauci, whom I believe, declared that things will get worse before they get better. Events around the country are being cancelled, travel is being curtailed, schools and colleges are closing, and everyone is being advised to take precautions, avoid crowds, and hit the pause button — at least for a while. All this may very well slow the spread of the virus and protect our collective health, but it will also reshape the way we live and play everyday, which could have some longer-term social and economic consequences. 

     While I am now busy, and aggravated, with trying to recoup all our expenses for the trip and cancel all the arrangements we had made for our absence here at home, I am fully aware that many Americans have threats to their livelihoods and wellbeing infinitely more serious than simply worrying about the cancellation of a luxury vacation. And I am grateful that we have the freedom from work and care obligations and the resources to simply stay home and stay safe for however long might be necessary. Of course I am disappointed, since we have been planning and preparing for this big trip since last August. 

     More than that, however, I am angry and alarmed by the blatant incompetence of the federal government laid bear in the face of this disaster. The shameful attempts to “control the optics” and manage the numbers (both economic and pandemic) show just where the priorities of our so-called leaders lie. Members of this administration have resembled a bunch of clowns tumbling out of a circus car, with none of them willing to occupy the driver’s hot seat. Regardless of your political party or policy beliefs, this is disgraceful and dangerous, and it exposes a greater and more fundamental threat to the health of our nation than the coronavirus. That fear keeps me awake at night.

     Meanwhile, hysteria at the grocery store here seems to have subsided, at least for now; maybe everyone has just been away for spring break. I go early in the morning to pick up a few things — mostly wine and beer and fresh vegetables. At the rate I am cooking and that we have been eating and drinking just this week, we will be “doubled” ourselves before we can get Down Under. Something else to worry about …

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Doubling Down Under

  I have written here before about my love of travel, about how it rejuvenates my soul, restores my equilibrium, and adjusts my perspective. A bit trip, a somewhat exotic trip long-planned, is especially satisfying because of the extensive preparations involved. I love to read about the destinations, learn about the history, cultures and cuisines, and anticipate exciting photo opportunities.  For me, the advanced planning is integral to the joy of travel and key to the ultimate satisfaction of the trip itself. The more I know before I go, the more I can appreciate when I get there, and the more knowledge and memories I can bring back home.

     We are about to embark on a long-planned trip to Australia and New Zealand, destinations that we have anticipate for ages and the sixth continent on our bucket list. But “bucket list” is a trivial goal just of its own sake; we have wanted to do “Down Under” forever, ever since we had friends who went there regularly on business, friends who relocated there, and British friends who lived in New Zealand and owned a B&B. That part of the world has always had the romantic allure of the old “American West” in terms of ancient indigenous people later “descended upon” by intrepid European settlers. I envision Australia especially to be similar to Texas, not only in climate and landscape, but in the rugged individualism of the Aussie style.

     So, we have arranged quite a lengthy trip, a cruise actually, starting in Auckland and ending in Sydney. And we have invited friends, my college roommate and her traveling companion, to join us. Although we have differing interests among us, we a re a congenial group and a cruise offers the perfect balance of “separate and together” activities to make everyone happy. No, after months of anticipation, it’s about time to start packing. “When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your  money,” the old saying goes. “Then take half your clothes and twice the money!” Sounds like good advice to me.

     Except that now there is the Coronavirus, for which neither clothes nor money can provide an acceptable antidote. At this stage, the virus has been detected in over 50 countries worldwide, inducing in the US; the outbreak is minimal in Australia and was, until this very morning, virtually nonexistent in New Zealand. Of course, the problem with epidemics is that patterns can change at any minute. People everywhere are concerned and travel plans, both international and domestic, are being reevaluated. Because we are facing a long flight (16 hours non-stop from Houston to Auckland), and because we are embarking on a three-week cruise out of Auckland, others are questioning whether we should revise or even cancel our plans altogether. My roommate and her friend are now considering doing just that.

     Here’s the first thing: trip insurance doesn’t usually cover fear as a legitimate cause for cancellation. Unless the airline or the cruise line cancels the trip, you are likely to be out of luck and out of money. (We just went through a similar situation last year when our dedicated cruise to Cuba was cancelled by the Trump administration two weeks before departure.) The second thing is: if you cancel a trip every time there is a current crisis to warrant reluctance, you will likely never go anywhere. My first experience of this was right after 9-11 in New York when I was due to fly down here to Texas only a couple weeks later after regular domestic flights had resumed. Everyone, including my Mother whom I was coming to visit, said I shouldn’t fly. Was I anxious, yes; did I ultimately go anyway? Yes. Had I not, I knew I would have been totally fearful and risk-averse evermore. That is no way to live.

     I have since faced many other similar decision dilemmas. Our trip to Egypt was due to commence only a couple weeks after the 2009 terrorist bombing in the el Khallil Souq in Cairo. Everyone warned against making that trip, but we went anyway, It was fine. We heard similar warnings regarding our previously-scheduled trips after terrorists incidents and uprisings occurred in Europe, Israel, Africa and South America. We went on those trips anyway. We were vigilant, but we were fine. Honestly, given the magnitude of gun violence in the United States in churches, schools, and WalMarts, risks of bodily harm don’t seem any  more dire abroad than here at home. (Actually, I was in a suburban strip mall shoot-out in the 1980s in a dress shop in my own little hometown of Victoria, Texas, so the threat of unanticipated violence is hardly new to me.)

     The Coronavirus is just another threat of a different kind, no more predictable, at least right now, than any other intrusion of fate. It is a risk to be reasonably evaluated, as is flying, sailing, driving, or even leaving your house and walking across the street. I don’t mean to sound cavalier and I certainly don’t consider myself a pillar of courage, but I am also not stupid; I believe in reasonable risk assessment. I would not, for example, visit China right now, and certainly would not enter the Coronavirus epicenter of Wuhan.

     We have, in fact, been to Wuhan and I was dumbfounded by the density of the population of this unknown (at least to me) city on the Yangtze River (about 9 million), Actually, I was dumbfounded by the sheer number of people all over China. Yes, I expected millions in Beijing (20 million) and Shanghai (27 million), but who knew that over 50 cities have a population of 2 million or more, and that 20 have a population of over 5 million? Having experienced first-hand this incredible, uncomfortable crush of bodies pushing and moving me along in the swell of the crowd, it is not hard to understand how a viral epidemic can so quickly spread in the world’s most populous country (1.4 billion) and why it is almost impossible to control and contain.

     Once again, I am faced with the dilemma of whether to go or not to go — to double down on my trip “Down Under” or to retreat to the also uncertain circumstances of home. No doubt things will get worse before they get better, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will be worse for me.

     So, I’m going to continue to pack, to eliminate half my clothes and double my money and hope for the best, In the words of our Great Leader, “We’ll see what happens.”