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Mapuche Machi

My Mother collects dolls, mostly small, unusual dolls, with which she gradually began to decorate her Christmas tree each year. Over time, as I have travelled to far-away places, I have added to her collection with dolls representing those cultures. So now, her tree has become pretty much an international display of figures from all over Europe and Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

My husband and I just returned from a long-planned trip to South America, to Chile and Argentina with a brief foray into Brazil to Igauzu Falls. The original idea when we booked the trip, besides the fact that we hadn’t been to South America before, was that I would get to do the tango in Buenos Aires for my big birthday this year. By happy coincidence, Canadian friends of ours whom we had met years ago on a trip to Egypt, were looking at the exact same tour, so we decided to join them. That, of course, was six months ago, well before all hell broke loose in South Texas, and in my life. We were still debating about actually making this trip up until a week or so before departure, but by then my Mother was settled in at her new residence and our son was available to handle things. “Go,” my Mother said.  So we did.

Usually I start preparing for a big trip to a place I haven’t been before months in advance. The anticipation and planning, after all, are part of the joy of travel. For this trip, I had ordered some guidebooks and histories of the regions we would be visiting, along with a couple volumes of Latin American literature, and even downloaded some review exercises to “brush up” on my Spanish. Since I knew there would be treks through Patagonian forests and national parks in the Lake region, I also intended to double down on my morning walks and exercise regimen and to shop for travel clothes with “layering” in mind to handle the varying temperatures in South America in the spring. Most of all, I hoped to be rested, as well as ready.

But of course I wasn’t, rested or ready.  Just as my books began to arrive and I started working on my Spanish lessons, Mother got sick, Hurricane Harvey hit, her house had to be repaired, cleared out and sold, and I basically ended up spending four months living in Victoria, running home only on weekends.  As the departure date grew nearer, my hopes of making the trip at all diminished accordingly, along with my energy.  My back, neck, knees, legs, feet — everything —hurt; thoughts of the tango made me tired.

I’ll admit it: the trip was a challenge. The travel was arduous, with long flights down to Santiago and back from Buenos Aires, and trains and planes and busses from one region to another in between. The schedule was rigorous, with lots of early starts, long days, packing and unpacking, and yes, those four and five mile nature treks. But the landscapes were spectacular, the people warm and gracious, and the small group of ten of us with a Chilean guide proved amiable traveling companions. I learned so much, which I suppose is one advantage of being so poorly-prepared to begin with.

We began in Chile and our first stop was to visit La Chascona, the Santiago home of Pablo Neruda, well-known poet and diplomat and Chile’s only Nobel Prize winner for literature (1971). It made sense to start there since this was the only famous person/site I knew anything about in Chile, other than Allende, with whom Neruda was closely aligned. The house, like the man and his work, is colorful and varied in style, showcasing Neruda’s many hobbies, his flair for entertaining, his love of literature, and his passion for Matilde Urrita, his secret lover and third wife with whom he built the house.

Santiago is a huge city of 7 million people with broad plazas and traffic to match. Yet, no one honks their horns, no one shouts or curses, no one takes out a gun and shoots you in road rage. (What a pleasant change from life in the States these days!)  The Chileans, I later learned, are called the “Gentlemen [women] of South America,” and I see why. Everything is so civilized; inside in the shops and cafes, people are calm and generous, relaxed and unhurried. We take a long walk to visit the Fine Arts Museum, then find ourselves in need of a taxi back to the hotel. We stop into a lovely restaurant, in which we have not dined, to ask them to call a cab, which they gladly do, and offer us a place to sit and a free drink while we wait!

We continue on in Santiago, visiting the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art, the Plaza de Armas, and the Metropolitan Cathedral, before going on to the wine country and to learn about Chilean cuisine and the organic, biodynamic wines produced here. Then it’s the Lakes District and beautiful Puerto Montt. We discover history along with geography: the history of the Mapuche, the ancient indigenous people who date back to 500-600 BCE, who still maintain their culture and traditions and who claim roughly 9 percent of today’s Chilean population.  Mapuche means “people of the earth,” and that is an apt description of Chileans in general. Their dignity, their respect for nature and the environment, and for each other reflects their ancient heritage.

In short, who knew? Certainly not ill-prepared I, who promptly fell in love with Chile in five days, who found it restorative and healing and restful. I brought back a doll for my Mother’s tree, a machi (see above), a good witch doctor who is a woman of central importance as a healer in the Mapuche culture. She knows herbal medicine, can interpret the winds of weather, is a spiritual advisor and a social mediator. I hope the spirit of the machi stays with me, and I hope she will help my Mother feel better and enjoy her Christmas tree.

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Twilight Time

Fall weather comes to South Texas all of a sudden and late in the season, with a cold front from the north that we Texans call a norther. A norther blew in this week, with temperatures dropping form the 90s into the 50s virtually overnight. The few deciduous trees that grow here won’t drop their leaves until much later, so the small dust devils that erupt from the winds swirl only dust and debris in tantrums of defiant protest against those who resent them, like me, for not swirling the brilliant colors of fallen leaves found in other ares of the country. With the change to Central Standard Time and the sun now sitting lower in the sky, these days of late autumn in South Texas take on a “twilighty” feel, a grayish cast that slows the mood and portends the dark days of winter to come.

In literature study, when the natural setting mirrors the mood of the characters and the events of the plot, it is called “sympathetic nature.” And so it is now, I think, in real life here for us. We have entered the twilight of this season, and maybe of my Mother’s life, and certainly the setting reflects my mood and hers. It’s okay; we have talked; we’re good with all this. But as is so often the case in literature and in life, things have proven to be not quite as expected, not quite as they seem.

As originally planned, I went down to get my Mother and move her up to the assisted living place I had arranged, and decorated, in late October. The day I arrived, however, she had another stroke, which precipitated another hospital stay, which precipitated yet another facility decision, or range of decisions, upon her release. She could no longer navigate the assisted living facility I had previously arranged, nor could she return to the nursing/rehab center from which she had come. Panic. I had closed on her house the morning of her release! Best-laid plans thwarted once again. In a forced decision, I had her discharged to a memory care home in Victoria, knowing that it wouldn’t be a permanent solution, but not having much choice at the moment. The first night there she fell. And so it went…

Ultimately, after frenzied phone calls and kind interventions from Hospice and residential health professionals with connections, I finally picked my Mother up, put her in my car, and drove her up here myself to a lovely, new memory care home in San Antonio. She is happy,  or so she says, to be in a permanent situation and happy to be close to her family. And so we are, at last, the both of us, out of Victoria for good. We have survived it all, including the hurricane, we have recovered (sort of), and we have relocated and begun a new chapter. My Mother is, understandably, a bit sad, but resigned; I am now in something of a “twilight sleep” myself, being terribly sleep deprived, but also relieved that the decisions have been made and that there is simply nothing else to be done.

I have managed to use some of the pretty things I had purchased a while back with which to decorate her assister-living suite — a coverlet and sham and matching window valences, a petite lady’s electric recliner, matching sheets and towels — but many things have had to be returned because her room is smaller and the hospital equipment, oxygen, wheelchair, bath bench, special bed and such, take up space. Even so, the room is comfortable and we have set out family photos and brought in some of her favorite keepsakes. “Is this place permanent?” she asks me when we arrive.

“Yes,” I say. “This is your new home.”

Twilight time is perhaps a melancholy time, but oddly, it has always been my favorite time of day. After a long, exhausting schedule of work, chores, errands and obligations, the early evening hours offer a late-day respite, a wine-time break, some moments to reflect on the accomplishments of the day and in which to contemplate what may lay ahead.  Yes, as the Platters sang so long ago, the “heavenly shades of night are falling” and the uncertainties of tomorrow await the dawn, but there is time now for rest and recuperation, however brief, in the interlude.

It’s “Twilight Time.”

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Part 3: Recovery and Relocation

My family has been in Victoria, Texas, since the 1840s. (The gazebo above in downtown DeLeon Plaza on La Calle de los Diez Amigos commemorates the founding of the town by Don Martin DeLeon in 1824.)  This is a history of which my Mother is understandably proud, and about which I could care less. I have never been a person who is about the past, much less someone who is impressed with the whole “decaying Southern gentry” notion of fine old family lineage. I know my family history, and I appreciate it for the understanding of the social and cultural influences it has contributed to shaping who I am, but as they used to say  years ago in New York City, “that and 25 cents [it is $2.75 today] gets you on the subway.”

I knew from the time I was in high school that I would not continue the tradition of  a lifetime residence in my hometown. I was a reader and a writer and had already figured  out that there was a whole new, big world out there for me to experience and understand. Big fish in little ponds, so typical in smaller cities and towns, never held any allure for me. I always wanted out, wanted more, wanted a bigger venue, wanted anonymity.

I went off to college  — not far , only to San Antonio —  but then I really went off from there. Interestingly, I migrated to the Northeastern United States, to the land of my father, whose lineage is actually even older (by about 100 years) than the South Texas heritage my Mother’s family always venerated. But still, “that and ____ gets you on the subway.” In the end, who cares? In America, at least up until recently, you are judged by what you do, not by where you come from.

It seems to me that most people stay, or get stuck, where they happen to be born. Repeated studies of population migration over the years tend to confirm that those who are raised in rural areas are less likely to leave, and those who have been in a place for generations are even less than likely. Leaving, changing, and moving takes courage, and most people don’t have the guts or the gumption. They stay where they have been planted and they claim that they “love it.” Well, of course, they like to think so, but how can you know that you “love it” if you have never known anything else?

My Mother did, in fact, live for a time as a newlywed in Trenton, New Jersey, where my father was from, but she didn’t love it — not even close. She was always drawn back  to her family and her roots in Victoria. So she and my father eventually moved back to Texas after the War. His untimely death just a few years later caused her understandably, then a young widow with a daughter to raise, to stay on and stay put forever more.

Until now.

It occurs to me, now that I’ve been in the throes of intensive crisis management for three months, that recovery from disaster, both natural and personal, often results in relocation. People lose their homes and have neither the resources nor the resolve to rebuild, so they move. (California wildfires.) Local economies collapse under the devastation, people can’t find work, and so they migrate elsewhere. (Katrina.) A sudden healthcare crisis, a stroke or cancer, renders a person unable to resume the life as lived before, and so forces an adaptation to a different lifestyle, maybe even relocation to a different life situation altogether. It happens everyday.

And so this is how my Mother finds herself, after 94 years in her beloved Victoria, Texas, relocating to San Antonio. Through the combination of Providence and luck and sheer determination, I’ve managed to sell her house, clear out her belongings, and secure her a place in a lovely assisted living facility right around the corner from me. It will be a fresh start for her and good for both of us, I think. Now I won’t have to make that horrendous drive back and forth through oil fracking country all the time; now we’ll be able to enjoy our time together without having to run errands, sit in doctors’ offices, do grocery shopping, and perform other routine chores. Now we will be able to really visit and enjoy each other and she will be able to see more of us and her grandson. We probably should have made this move a long time ago, but as is so often the case, only crisis forces change that is difficult.

So I, too, will be making my last trip out of Victoria this week when we move my Mother up here. I have one dear friend from my childhood left there, whom I will see up our way since she has bought a condo on Canyon Lake and is thinking about retiring there.  As I keep telling my Mother, “It was a good run,” for all of us. But it’s enough.

Savor the memories, be glad to survive, and move on.

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Abilene, Abilene

Most people have never been to Abilene, Texas. I, myself, had probably been there, or through there, in my childhood, but who remembers? It is familiar to most people because of the song,  Abilene, Abilene, recorded  over the years by country greats since the 1960s by everyone from Buck Owens to Bobby Bare to George Hamilton IV.  “Abilene, Abilene, prettiest town I’ve ever seen …” Chet Atkins did a wonderful instrumental version of it at one point, and Willie Nelson and Sheryl Crow recorded a duet of a song called Abilene written by Crow in 2002; she said it was meant to be interpreted “not only as a place, but as a person or a state of mind.”

I don’t know if Abilene is the “prettiest town I’ve ever seen,” but it certainly became a welcome state of mind to me a couple weeks ago when I attended the opening  reception of the art quilt show, “Today’s Quilts: Art in Stitch,” at the Center for Contemporary Arts downtown. My piece, “Art Glass Quilted,” was included in this show (see above). The exhibition proudly displayed 33 pieces by 23 artists; 13 of us were present at the opening reception, which is quite remarkable, considering that Abilene is somewhat “out-of the-way,” even for people who live in Texas. But this exhibit was a juried show, and other exhibitors like me were pleased to be a part of it, and willing to drive long distances for the privilege. It was nice to meet other artist members of the Studio Art Quilt Associates, and to feel honored and celebrated as individuals for our work. (In case you’re in the neighborhood, the show runs through November 11, and then it travels to Texas Tech University Museum in Lubbock through February 18, 2018.)

The Center for Contemporary Arts is a beautiful two-story museum space downtown on Cypress Street; it has been there now for 27 years and is one of the major cultural scenes in Abilene, along with the Grace Museum (of Texas art) and the landmark Paramount Theatre (1930), one of America’s grand, historic theatres hosting live performances, concerts, and classic films. The Cypress Street Station Restaurant down the street is something of a beacon in itself, at least for the foodies among us. A railroad divides Abilene right down the center of town, and that downtown area is typical old West Texas, with long, low brick buildings flanking streets with angled, front-end parking. No skyscrapers here, though this is a city of about 110,000 people.

Those who know Texas history know Abilene as an early stock shipping point, established by cattlemen on the Texas and Pacific Railway in 1881 and named after Abilene, Kansas, the endpoint of the Chisholm Trail. Today it has become the commercial, retail, medical and transportation hub of a 19 county area known as “The Big Country” or the “Texas Midwest.”  The people here have, in fact, something of that flat, mid-western nasal accent (think Matthew McConaughey — all rite …all rite)  and that calm, unassuming demeanor so characteristic of the hospitality and modesty of those in the central United States.

Regardless of how it is described,  to the people of West Texas, residents and visitors alike, “Abilene has it going on!” Certainly, my stay there, however brief, provided a much-needed respite from these long and difficult weeks I continue to endure here in South Texas post Harvey, and a gentle reminder that I, too, have to keep “it going on.”

Postscript: No, I have not been hired by the Chamber of Commerce for Abilene, Texas, to promote their city.

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Part 2: The Debris

The storm hits and the drama of it all dominates the media: wind-blown newscasters hold fast to the nearest pole as they report on nature’s fury; rescue workers wade through waist-high water as they search for those refusing to leave; ravaged evacuees huddle in make-shift shelters, too tired and too terrorized to even think about what they’ve left behind.

Then, after the storm hits, the reality of what has happened settles in: friends and relatives call to see “if you’re okay;” relief organizations and FEMA set up headquarters in parking lots; the National Guard rolls in and politicians land in helicopters. Promises are made, damages are estimated, and recovery gets underway.

Except that recovery is not immediate; it is long and hard and sad and dull, and soon there are other crises, other “storms” of one sort or another, that will deflect attention and divert resources. The drama is over, as is the media coverage, and once again, people are left on their own to help themselves, to pick up the pieces and clear the debris of their uprooted lives.

So I returned to Victoria after my Mother was returned there from evacuation, to a town with power lines down, trees uprooted, roofs ripped off and piles of debris in the streets. The scene was dire, like something out of a sci-fi novel. Schools, businesses and most restaurants were closed; motels, the ones that were open, were full of evacuees from the Coast and relief workers from all over. And yes, there were those long lines for gasoline and long lines using up that precious gasoline waiting for entry into the circus-tent collection of relief agencies dispensing food and water, diapers and baby formula. I went there myself one day, in my Cadillac, to Samaritan’s Purse, to get help in clearing the giant limbs from a downed tree in my Mother’s yard which prevented me from getting electrical lines restored; the ladies at the sign-up table thought I was there to volunteer.

They must have forgotten that Mother Nature is nothing if not an “equal opportunity destroyer.” My Mother’s house had no electricity and no clean water. I spent the week mostly in my car, where I had air conditioning and wi-fi, sleeping at a benevolent neighbor’s house at night. The temperatures were in the 90s and the mosquitoes were the size of dive bombers; I washed my face with Evian and didn’t take a shower for a week. A most humbling week, certainly; gives you a whole new appreciation for the basics in life, like water and electricity.

As it happened, this was also the week when the hospital discharged my Mother, so I had to hustle to get her into a local nursing/rehab facility; of the two the case worker had recommended, only one was still standing, so the choice was easy. The day of her transfer was the longest of my life. They allowed me to drive her, so I was able to take her by her house and to let her neighbors come out to greet her. I knew that she thought , we both thought, that she might not ever see her home again. I wanted to give her a chance to say good-bye. Later that evening, after she was settled across town, I found myself back at her house rummaging through the closets and drawers with a flashlight trying to assemble the long list of required necessities the facility had given me.

So this is how our recovery goes. My Mother’s house was without electricity for almost two weeks. Her damage, while considerable, is not catastrophic, and not enough to meet the large deductible on her homeowner’s insurance: a huge tree came down and took the fence and some cables and lines with it, some shingles are shorn, debris still litters (though the goodness of neighbors helped clean most of that up), and a huge stump with roots has to be removed (see photo above).  It could be worse, a lot worse. Except for the fact that we personally have experienced the “trifecta” of health, home and hurricane events all at once, I guess I shouldn’t complain. It’s just “deja vu all over again.”

We have now entered the calm after the storm, except it isn’t calm for me. I am going to be living between two places for a while, until all this gets taken care of and my Mother gets well enough to go … where? The physical debris of Hurricane Harvey will eventually get cleared, but the emotional debris of this whole episode, happening again as it did almost 20 years ago, may remain forever. And I am not as young as I used to be.

And neither is she.

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Come Hell or High Water

Photo: A home in the Harvey floodwaters; photo by Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg


The rains start gently, tentatively, as though they need to practice after months of prolonged drought. Over the next day or two, they build into steady showers — not unwelcome, mind you, since they bring the cooler temperatures of fall after a hot, dry summer.

We are sitting, my mother and I, out on the lovely Spanish-style patio in the courtyard of the famous Warm Springs Rehabilitation Center in Gonzales, Texas.  Founded on the banks of the San Marcos River in 1937 during the height of the polio epidemic, Warm Springs got its name from the artesian well of healing mineral waters nearby, which not surprisingly in Texas were discovered during drilling by Producers Oil Company of Houston in 1909. Over time, Warm Springs built a national reputation as one of the most comprehensive rehabilitation and treatment centers for victims of traumatic injury in the country.

I had flown into South Texas from Connecticut in an emergency a couple weeks earlier because my Mother, who still lived in my hometown of Victoria, had suffered a massive stroke. She was totally paralyzed on one side, couldn’t speak, and barely able to recognize me when I arrived at her bedside. It was devastating, and distressing, and overwhelming; I promptly had to exercise her power of attorney, take over her life, and take a leave of absence from my own.

Initially, I had been told that my mother would probably need custodial care for the rest of her life, but now here we were, barely three weeks later, sitting outside on a cloudy October afternoon. The road back was destined to be a long one, but “come hell or high water,” we were determined. Even though she couldn’t speak or read or write yet, she was getting the intensive therapies she needed at Warm Springs and would, hopefully, be able to go home at some point and resume her life. But now, with the clouds thickening and the rain beginning to fall again, she frowned and pointed upward as we moved inside. I knew she meant I needed to get on the road for the 70 mile drive back to Victoria before the skies opened up.

And open they did, into rain that lasted for days, though most of the 22-30 inches that fell did so in less than 24 hours. Ultimately, the floods in South Texas of the Guadalupe and San Antonio River basins between October 17-31, 1998, became a national disaster — this after the area had already been declared a national disaster due to drought earlier that summer. How could that be? There wasn’t even a hurricane!

But in fact, this “atmospheric event” of a low-pressure trough with high water vapor was caused by hurricanes far, far away, one near Baja and one near Acapulco. The rains fell, the rivers converged and over-flowed, and the earth was just too parched to absorb it all. The results were catastrophic: record flash flooding, which most forecasters missed, turned into $750 million in damage; the Guadalupe River in Victoria crested at 33.8 feet above flood stage, putting much of that city’s downtown totally under water, and completely flooding many neighboring small towns and surrounding farmlands.  Remember the famous photograph of the cow stranded on a rooftop above flood waters?

Of course Warm Springs on the banks of the San Marcos River flooded, as well, and I got a call in the middle of the night that my Mother had been airlifted by military helicopter from the roof and evacuated to … parts unknown. I located her eventually in Halletsville, TX, but it was several days before the water receded and the roads were clear enough for me to go get her.      Ultimately, we survived through “hell and high water,” but it took months before she, and I, could return to our lives.

That was nineteen years ago. Mother still lives in Victoria and I have now retired and live in San Antonio, which is a little over two hours away. Three weeks ago, one of her neighbors called to tell me that Mother had had “an event.” He suspected stroke, called EMS, and she was rushed to the hospital. I arrived as fast as I could; when I saw her in the ER, I thought that was it.

When we walked into her room the next morning, however, she was sitting up in bed. “Hi,” she said weakly. She had a major infection, along with some fluid on the lung, and probably several TIAs along the way, but she was going to make it, according to her doctor. “I feel good about this one,” he said. Three days later she was moved into the hospital’s Rehab unit; that old “come hell or high water” determination resurfaced.

With her settled in, I returned home for a weekend to grab what I needed to stay in her house in Victoria for however long I needed to. I would, once again, have to resume power of attorney and manage her care and affairs. She was doing well in rehab, getting physical, occupational, and speech therapy every day, though she tired easily and needed to build strength. Now the frantic search was on for a skilled nursing/rehab facility to which she could be transferred after Medicare’s allotted twelve-day stay was up.

A couple days into the week, I made a trip to the local HEB (a huge supermarket chain in Texas) to buy some things I preferred to cook and have at her house, rather than the Pringles and cheese sandwiches she favors. Wow! Welcome to madness! The parking lot was full, there were no shopping carts, and inside looked as though the place had been looted. The bread aisle was bare, the dairy was depleted, and people were searching area stores on their cell phones to find available water. “What on earth is going on here?” I asked a guy in front of me with a cart full of Budweiser in the very long, quick-checkout line for those with fewer items.

“A hurricane is coming,” he answered. “Haven’t you heard? Better stock up. They’re even running out of beer!”  He eyed the wine in my own basket and smiled.  Tsk, tsk, I thought. These people must not be real Texans, to let a little tropical storm in the Gulf get them all in a tizzy.

The very next day, on Thursday, August 24, I’m at the hospital for a team evaluation meeting that doesn’t take place. The hospital is going on half staff, and the rains and winds have begun. I try to talk to people to make some arrangements, but everyone is in “hurricane mode.” The doctor in charge assures me that he will not put my Mother out on the street with an umbrella, and says, “Go. Get back to San Antonio before the roads flood. Your mother is safe here, we have generators.”  Once again, South Texas is coming off a severe drought. This strikes me as  “deja vu all over again.”

The rains don’t start gently this time; they come in squalls. At her house, the neighbors help to move her patio furniture, board all the windows, and secure things that might blow. Now the rain is torrential, in sheets; I drive back to San Antonio late in the day.  Harvey hit the next day as a category 4 hurricane directly into Rockport, Texas, which is directly south of Victoria on the Gulf; the eye of Harvey lingered over Victoria for a couple days thereafter, before moving on up the coast to Houston.  (Ironically, we had just been down to Rockport with my Mother two weeks earlier to shop and have our usual summer seafood dinner there at Charlotte Plummer’s restaurant.)

And then, of course, I got that phone call again two days later, late at night, that Mother was being evacuated to … San Antonio … Austin …? It ended up being to Gonzales.  I had a meltdown, because Gonzales is exactly where she had been airlifted from 19 years ago. Sort of like muscle memory… or PSTD.  Or “deja vu all over again.”

But she landed in a lovely country hospital all last week. I wish she could have stayed; she seemed to thrive there. But then, late Thursday night, she was moved back to Victoria, where there is still city-wide contaminated water (though the hospital assures me that they are chlorinating), where there are still areas of no electricity (including her house), where there is considerable wind damage (including her house), and where there are shortages of food, water, gasoline, and other essentials. We went down on Saturday, after waiting three hours in line in San Antonio for a tank of gas to make the trip (while the price per gallon was being raised as even we sat in line). Victoria is in a shambles. So am I.

This saga will continue for a while, I fear, but I am headed back down to Victoria tomorrow. I have enough gas to make the trip, though I have nowhere to stay until the electricity gets turned on. But hey, I drive a Cadillac. I can get wi-fi and sleep in my car.

“Come hell or high water.” This time I have both, again. Cosmic symmetry?

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Fast and Slow

I stopped by a Whataburger the other day, something I don’t do too often, but I just HAD to have a milkshake. The drive-thru line was out to forever, so I ran inside to get it, which is often quicker. Even so, I still had to wait; seems the “fast” in fast food has become a relative term.

While waiting, I examined a wall-size photo mural of what was obviously the first Whataburger, a nostalgic picture of happy families and smiling children racing toward the familiar orange-and-white striped A-frame building. “That was our first Whataburger,” the lady behind the counter told me when she saw I was studying the scene. “It was in Odessa, Texas.” Actually, it wasn’t; the first Whataburger opened in Corpus Christi on August 8, 1950, a fact substantiated on their website.

I have always associated Whataburger with the summertime (maybe because it is always hot in South Texas), and I can vividly recall how excited I was when the first one opened, in the summer, in my hometown. It was probably sometime in the mid-to-late 1950s, and my mother drove me over there. I felt as though we had finally arrived, that my little town was now on the map because it had its very first fast-food chain restaurant (well … stand). I didn’t know at the time that it was only a regional chain, but never mind…The burgers were different from the ones I was used to from local sellers: they were much larger (5 inches) and had everything on them: pickles, onions, mustard,  mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato and even ketchup, I think. And then there were those milkshakes.

The next to arrive in town was Wienerschnitzel, which first opened in Los Angeles in 1961 and then operated mostly in California and Texas. “The Wiener,” as my friend Judy and I used to call it when we walked there from her house, sold — what else? — hot dogs smothered in chili and cheese and onions. Yum. You could buy two — somehow you always ate two — for about 25 cents; to this day, Wienerschnitzel promotes their hot dogs in meals of multiples. I just saw a sign outside one advertising six dogs and three large fries for a bargain price.

But the hands-down milkshake winner, then as now, was Dairy Queen, though they didn’t open in my town till after Wienerschnitzel did, which is curious since we have always joked that a town can’t make the roadmap in Texas until it has a DQ. Even though Dairy Queen began in Illinois in 1940, and today is owned by Berkshire Hathaway with franchises all over the US and Canada and in 18 other countries (we visited one in Shanghai, above), DQ is still thought of as a “Southern thing” for some reason. Again, must have something to do with the heat. DQ’s motto today is “Fan Food, Not Fast Food;” believe me, nothing will make you a fan faster than meeting the challenge of melting chocolate coating over a soft-serve cone on a hot summer’s day.

Of course, in the vast pantheon of fast food, nothing is more notable, more loved and reviled, than McDonald’s, whose golden arches have become not only ubiquitous in the American landscape, but recognizable symbols of American expansionism the world over. Founded in its franchise form by Ray Kroc in 1955, McDonald’s production-line approach to food preparation pioneered and truly delivered “fast” food for the very first time. In spite of its phenomenal growth, McDonald’s didn’t open in my hometown until after I had moved away (but I soon found them elsewhere).  Today The Golden Arches generate $27 billion a year serving 69 million customers a day, and I’ll admit that I’m one of them. I absolutely love the Big Mac — and I think I wear it well.

Ironically, it was the opening of a McDonald’s restaurant near the Spanish Steps in Rome in 1986 that sparked outrage by journalist and political activist Carlo Petrini, who inadvertently created the “slow food” movement with his much-publicized protest of  the fast life that fast food represented. Petrine identified the loss of conviviality and communal sharing, the abandonment of the joy of cooking, and the inability to savor a well-prepared meal as modern abominations. Now some might dismiss this as “typically Italian,” given that country’s love of food and wine and afternoon respites, but then think about it: Taking the kids to McDonald’s for dinner instead of cooking a family meal you eat together? Hitting the drive-thru and eating your own breakfast/lunch/dinner on the run all alone in your car?  Hastening the epidemics of obesity, high cholesterol and diabetes with all those oversized fries and sugary soft drinks? Fast life indeed…

Over time, the slow food movement promoted slow cooking methods, and then slow gardening morphed into the farm-to-table craze, and then slow goods (production) became defined as using artisan products, sustainable methods, being eco-friendly, green, ethical  — always with emphasis on quality over quantity. The ground-breaking book Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser (2001) moved the discussion beyond just food into all the related political/ethical  issues created by the fast food industry, such as marketing and globalization, agriculture and food processing, wages and working conditions, and yes, even the health of the American family.

The slow-but-sure result of all of this has been nothing short of a world-wide cultural shift to a Slow Movement, with the “slow” epithet being applied to everything from fashion— creating garments and accessories by hand or recycling vintage clothing; to media—particularly television, focused on ethical production and reduced media consumption; to parenting— less-scheduled children and the landing of “helicopter” parents; to technology —emphasis on research and reflection, rather than just speed and efficiency; to travel— immersion in a destination and staying in one place long enough to enjoy it! Whatever the subject or activity, the Slow Movement is about slowing the pace, taking the time, and paying attention.

Hey, I’ll drink to that — slowly — with a good cold glass of Rombauer chardonnay, which I promise to savor.