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The Long-Lived Queen

Mother nudged me gently out of a sound sleep. “Wake up,” she whispered, “it’s almost time.”  The time was about 4.a.m. in South Texas, still quiet and dark, save for the blue-gray flicker of light from our brand new television set in the next room. I grabbed my pillow and made my groggy way to the living room sofa. My Mother was already situated in her favorite chair with a cup of coffee. “Look, look,” she said as she pointed to the gravelly screen. “That’s England and there she is!”

     I was five years old and only vaguely aware of what all the excitement was about, though certain this must be a big event since our TV set was actually showing something other than a big black circle during the night.  Mother had explained to me the day before that we were going to be able to watch the coronation of a queen of a great country as it was happening, and she had even shown me just where England was on our big world globe. “This is historic,” she said, “something you will remember for the rest of your life.” It was June 2, 1953, and I have, indeed, remembered it many times over to this very day.

     As young and sleepy as I was that early morning, I can still see that small figure with a long train walking down the aisle in that cavernous nave among all those people (images not very clear to me then, but since reinforced by recordings in living color). With the rich music and elaborate pageantry under the grand spires of Westminster Abbey, I learned what “pomp and circumstance” meant from a nation of experts. And then, after almost three hours, I was proud of myself for having stayed awake, seen it all, and witnessed the crowing of the young Queen Elizabeth II. Who knew then that she was destined to become the longest reigning monarch in British history.

     I got a Queen Elizabeth II Madam Alexander doll for Christmas that year. She was dressed in full coronation splendor with a gown of sparkling golden white, a blue silk sash across her bodice, a purple train edged in faux ermine flowing behind her, and a tiny replica of the State Diadem crown of diamonds on her head. I never really played with her, but she was a prized possession and became the first member of my future doll collection. (That Queen Elizabeth doll sold at auction in 2019 for $3,800, by the way, virtually guaranteed to be more valuable if you have one now.) 

     Queen Elizabeth’s coronation became the foundation of more than a doll collection in my life; rather it marked the beginning of my awareness of geography, international events, and political leaders. Being of the first television generation, I was able to witness and learn about many, many historic events while growing up — not all of them celebratory, of course, but all of them important. And yes, some of them required staying up late at night or getting up early in the morning before school to see. 

     My attention was drawn to people on the public stage, people of stature  and importance. I found heroes in the “reality” of TV news coverage, especially female heroes:  Golda Meir, the Foreign Minister of Israel, in her address to the United Nations’ General Assembly in 1957. This plain little lady, a grandmother in sensible shoes, spoke with such passion and intelligence, and resolve. I was captivated even at the age of ten. She later became the Prime Minister of Israel (1969 -74) and a life-long hero of mine whom I watched and followed eagerly, and eventually even wrote a non-fiction YA biography about her. 

     In the 1970s during the Watergate Hearings, it was Rep. Barbara Jordan (D) from Houston (1973-79). Her controlled, erudite address on the Constitution in 1974 made me proud to be a Texan, even though I wasn’t living in Texas at the time. Still later, there was Hillary Clinton. First Lady of the United States (1993-2001), U.S. Senator (2002-2009), and U.S. Secretary of State (2009-2013). Love her or hate her, she still challenged conventional roles with courage and conviction and managed to become the first female presidential nominee of a major political party. (Liz Cheney appears to be a woman of similar courage and conviction, and controversy, on a similar trajectory in national politics.)

     Of course there have been towering male figures whom I admired as I witnessed their history-making moments, people like Martin Luther King and his “I Have a Dream” speech (1963), and Nelson Mandela, who became the President of South Africa after serving 27 years in prison (1994), but men seem to have historic “public moments” much more often than women do. I think my early awareness of that really began with Elizabeth. She was such an unassuming young woman in the beginning, one who was never supposed to become a head of state, but who found herself thrust into a position of leadership and power while surrounded by a cadre of old men who doubted her ability to rise to the occasion. Yet, she bore it all — the doubts, the drudgery, the family duties, the demands of a changing world, and the unrelenting responsibility of her role—with dignity, grace and humility for 70 years. Regardless of our station in life, there are lessons to be learned there for all of us.

     Let us hope that Charles III has learned his lessons well. He has certainly had long enough to prepare for this moment, but he is assuming the throne amid already cautious assessments of his potential during very troubling times and serious challenges for both his country and the world. Moreover, in Liz Truss, he has an inexperienced Prime Minister who has only been in office for a few days. Perhaps both being new in their roles will more readily cement their relationship and help the Crown to rise to the occasion.

     God save the King.

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The Art of Craft

 One of the major art experiences of my life happened on a February day in 2005 when my husband and I went into New York City to see “The Gates” installation in Central Park. It was done by the environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, whom you might recall were known for their controversial “wrapping” of buildings and landscapes with specially-engineered fabric. Christo’s projects generally required years of planning, permitting, negotiating, and environmental approval, and “The Gates” was no exception. It took 25 years before finally being completed and opened to the public, and then the installation lasted only fifteen days, as was their practice. Christo often said that he was  “…the only recognized artist whose work does not exist.” (See my post “Artistic Impressions,” 6/12/2020.)

     But the experience of the work itself long outlasts its existence.  As we walked Central Park on that cold February day with the wind whipping and snapping the “gates” over our heads, all we could feel was the joy and the beauty of the saffron in the sunlight. Even usually reserved, often brusk, New Yorkers laughed and chatted with strangers, all but skipping along the paths with delight at seeing the familiar in a new way. And no one, not one person within my earshot anyway, asked, “But is it art?”

     I’ve been thinking about that question a lot lately amid a flurry of unexpected activity in my own “artistic” endeavors. It began in early June with the opening here in San Antonio of “A Sense of Place: Texas Landscapes,” a SAQA sponsored regional exhibit of art quilts that has been touring the State for almost two years. This was an unusually large exhibit (31 works) and I was honored to have had one of my own favorite pieces, “A Texas Oasis,” juried into the show. (Quilt photo above and see my post “A Texas Oasis,” 5/20/2020) The Kelso Art Center at the University of Incarnate Word was the last stop and I was thrilled that I could attend the opening at this venue and see the fine “company of work” that surrounded my own. 

     All in all, it was a great evening, and I returned home happy and proud.  And then, later that same night, the call came from the local SAQA director of the San Antonio exhibit: my “Texas Oasis” had sold! What’s more, it had been purchased by the art curator for the permanent collection of the University of Incarnate Word!! This was not only my first major sale, but an “institutional sale” to a university art collection. One could hardly ask for more artistic validation than that. 

      You might say I’ve been on a roll lately and, oddly enough, I think the Covid pandemic put me there. Being at home, sequestered for so many months without the busyness of appointments and obligations, gave me uninterrupted peace and quiet in which to think and create. I have been remarkably productive in my art quilting, pushing myself to tackle new challenges and develop new techniques. I had four different pieces out in various exhibitions around the Country this summer (all but one now returned home), and have embarked on a new work for submission to an international competition in October that is proving to be my most ambitious, most challenging project yet. If intention counts and my skills match my vision, this could indeed be approaching art.  

     Those of us who work in fabric, art quilters in particular, are challenged to have their work recognized as art. Historically, any kind of needlework— quilting, crocheting, weaving, embroidery — has been perceived as “women’s work” and therefore considered a domestic art or, at best, a decorative art, because the object had predominantly a utilitarian purpose. The word “quilt” still means a bed covering to most people. For quilt artists like me, then, the more appropriate question is, “Is it art or is it craft?” 

     Historically, fine art meant art for art’s sake, as in paintings and sculpture, products of skill being used to express the artist’s creativity and appealing to aesthetic sensibilities. If an artist’s skill is used to create an object with a practical use, then classifications such as applied arts, fine crafts or commercial or industrial design are more common. But in the modern era, as we see more and more once useful, still beautiful artifacts of historic and cultural significance in museums around the world — funeral masks, cooking utensils, jewelry, classic cars, designer gowns —the line between art and craft grows thin. Perhaps, as one curator claims, “Craft becomes art when it becomes a precious item.” (www.quora.com/At-what-stage-does-craft-become-art )

      Art or craft: the debate goes on among artists, critics, curators, and every attendee at any exhibit. SAQA (The Studio Art Quilt Associates) to which I belong is an international association  whose mission is to promote the art quilt form through education, exhibition, and professional development. SAQA’s standards are high: in order to be considered for a juried show, work must be entirely original, not derivative, not made from a commercially produced patterns or created under tutelage in a workshop. Art quilts are made in all shapes and sizes in various styles using many materials, even found objects; they are quilts only in that they are traditionally a “sandwich” composed of three layers of fiber, but you would be hard-pressed to use an art quilt as a bedcover.

     Every artist, every creative person, has to answer the art vs.craft question for him/herself.   To me, as both an art quilter and a writer, building the skills and working on craftsmanship comes first. Yes, innate talent provides a good foundation, but lots and lots of people are talented and never do anything to develop it. Only with practice, experience and perseverance, might one actually produce a work of art now and then. 

     A couple weeks after my art quilt sold to the University, I was invited to place some of my work in a small art gallery down in Corpus Christi for a contract period of three months later this year. It was a totally unexpected surprise, especially since artists usually have to initiate the  audition/application process themselves to be represented. I am familiar with this gallery, having purchased a couple works there myself over the years, and have always come away inspired by their eclectic mix of artwork in many mediums. One of the partners explained when she contacted me that they had never had a fabric artist represented in the gallery before and were anxious to do so. While I doubt this invitation was in any way related to my recent art quilt sale here in San Antonio, it was quite a coincidence and something of a mystery as to how she knew of my work. 

     Nevertheless, this is all a happy situation, one that adds to my flurry of activity and excitement, but also one that demands I begin to evaluate my work from a whole new perspective. Which art quilts should I choose to place in the gallery?  What is most likely to sell in this gallery in this city by the bay over the holiday season and into the New Year? What kinds of ancillary items need to accompany my work (artist statements, proof of authenticity, hanging apparatus, photo notecards, smaller novelties, etc.)? What am I going to provide as back-up pieces to fill the space in case my works sell promptly? And the biggest question of all, how do I price my work?

     Obviously, I don’t pursue art quilting for the money, nor am I trying to build a business or write a book or teach a seminar. I simply do it because I find the work satisfying and absorbing. But gallery representation does mean wrestling with that art vs. craft conundrum and assessing true value on the basis of quality. I know what my best work is, and isn’t.

     My mother-in-law was an antiques dealer. She did appraisals, ran an antiques’ center on Long Island, and did major antique shows in big cities. I helped her set up her booth at a show in the Javitz Center in New York City one year and was teasing her about the artistic value of various objects she was putting on display. 

     “So what is the difference between a vase and a vaaaz,” I asked facetiously. With a mischievous smile, she promptly replied, “Why the price, of course.”

     Hmmm… But is it art?

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“Book-Wrapt”

 A recent Sunday New York Times featured full-page photo spreads of people reading all around the City: old people, young people, children; walking, sitting, lying down; on the subway, in a park, on a front stoop… What is it about the summer, exactly, that prompts such interest in books even when you’re not at leisure or on vacation? Why so much attention to “summer reading lists” and “new releases,” (especially of romance novels set in exotic locations)? Don’t people read all year round? I do.

     But perhaps readers’ habits change in the summer, as I’ve come to notice that mine have, this year especially. Maybe it’s the heat. With over 60 days of temperatures in the triple digits so far in San Antonio, nobody wants to go out of the house unless they absolutely must. Baking on the beach or blistering by the pool hold no allure, even with a great book. Better to ensconce yourself in the air-conditioned comfort of  home with a glass of iced tea while being whisked away to another place, another time, another galaxy without the need to break a sweat.

     I am a non-fiction writer, so following the old adage that “you shouldn’t try to write what you don’t read,” I read predominantly non-fiction books. I am also a former journalist so, of course I’m a news junkie, but one who prefers to get news and analysis from prize-winning print sources and experienced reporters rather than from social media and so-called “citizen journalists.” In addition to books, then, I also read a large number of newspapers and magazines. You might say that I’m a serious reader, a critical reader, someone who looks not so much to be entertained as to be enlightened, inspired, or instructed by what I read. 

     But in the summer, this summer in particular, I have become almost frivolous in my reading habits, leaving piles of those “serious” books on my nightstand (and on the floor) in favor of popular fiction!! Not to demean fiction as a genre (after all, writers, readers, and publishers everywhere remain perennially in pursuit of “the Great American Novel”), but I admit that for me, most contemporary fiction is light reading even though their authors are hardly lightweights. Authors such as Elizabeth Strout (Oh William!), Charles Finch (An Extravagant Death), Taylor Jenkins Reid (The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo), Shana Abe’ (The Second Mrs. Astor), or Colleen Hoover (Verity) are in command of more than just a good story that propels them onto the best-seller list.

     Back when Amazon started to dominate the book industry, effectively shutting down competitive national and regional chains (Borders, Waldenbooks, B. Dalton’s, Brentano’s) and adversely affecting even independent community bookstores, dedicated readers everywhere mourned the loss of lazy afternoon browsing bookstores and events bringing their favorite authors to town on book tours. And once e-readers became ubiquitous, well, that was viewed as the death knoll of  the printed anything.

     But as it turns out, it wasn’t. To paraphrase a common (mis)quote attributed to Mark Twain, the story of the book’s demise was greatly exaggerated. In one of those irony of ironies, along came a pandemic that killed over a million Americans even as it breathed new life into the book business. Suddenly, more people were reading, and reading more, and small bookstores were managing not only to survive, but beginning to thrive. (See a wonderful docudrama about the survival, and revival, of one small independent bookstore and its owner Matt Tannenbaum in Lenox, MA,  in “Hello, Bookstore” available on Amazon or Apple TV.)

     After the devastating Covid closures and revenue losses in 2020, something really unexpected happened in 2021: according to the American Booksellers Association, more than 300 new independent bookstores opened, many in ethnic neighborhoods that were previously underserved both by booksellers and by titles that reflected cultural diversity. Many were opened with the help of community grants, GoFundMe drives, stimulus checks, and generous, loving patrons. Another 200 independent bookstores are on target to open this year. 

     It seems people, whether previously avid readers or not, had a chance to re-evaluate their lives and their values during the Covid shut down. Many discovered that they missed printed books, which allow them to write in the margins and dog-ear the pages, and relevant children’s books, which explore characters and stories that relate to their own children’s lives. A survey of booksellers earlier this year found that 80 percent of industry respondents reported their sales were higher in 2021 than in 2020, and 70 percent said their sales were higher than in pre-pandemic 2019. How about that?!

     With more people staying at home, working from home, or buying a home, there is now even a growing trend toward the home library and a term for the pleasure (and convenience) of being surrounded by books: ”book-wrapt.” A new book published last year, The Private Library: The History of  the Architecture and Furnishing of the Domestic Bookroom,  by Reid Byers (Oak Knoll Press) explores the conventions of the home library and explains why physical books displayed en masse nourish the senses, enliven the intellect, and soothe the soul.  A room full of books is never empty, even when not being used as a den, a media room, a living room, or a home office, which it often is. 

     The Strand, that venerable independent bookstore that has been in business in New York City for 95 years, touts “18 miles of books” on its logo. Certainly, every mile counts when fulfilling orders for custom book collections in their “Books by the Foot” program. No doubt originally  intended for interior decorators, set designers, and real estate stagers as backdrops, today specialists at The Strand will also create a personal library for individual homeowners (for a price well beyond the books, of course). And how many volumes constitute a respectable home library? Most experts agree on between 1,000 and 1,500 books, perhaps a few hundred more if scattered among several rooms. (I shudder to think of the Strand’s cost of that per running foot!)

     We readers and writers who are lucky enough to enjoy being “book-wrapt” at home have accumulated our 1,000+ volumes ourselves over time, not all at once. My own library (pictured above) is the result of an ever-expanding collection of carefully arranged and catalogued books that I’ve chosen to keep over the last 50 years or so. It even has a rolling library ladder that was once used in a Borders Bookstore where I spent many, many happy hours browsing, reading, sipping coffee and meeting friends a long time ago. This room, these books, those memories all bring me joy and make me smile. 

     I can’t honestly say that I have completely read every single word of every single page of every single book I own, but I have consulted all of them at one time or another, sometimes repeatedly (references), I have selectively read many (poetry and essays), and I have re-read many of my favorites (classics). I have a “reading in waiting” shelf, a holdover habit from my days as a book reviewer when new books arrived faster than I could read them, and a “read-and-released” section of books to be passed along or donated to the local library, also a habit from my book-reviewer days. 

     As I wrote in my last post (“Bookish”), books have shaped my life and largely made me who I am.  No wonder I feel so comfortable “wrapt” between the covers of a good book.

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Bookish

People who don’t know me well would immediately describe me as outgoing, gregarious, animated, even loud. In other words, I appear to exhibit traits that are in direct contrast to the quiet, serious, studious demeanor that we generally ascribe to people we consider “bookish.”  But in truth, I am bookish, and have been my whole life, ever since I learned to read under my Mother’s tutelage well before I ever started school. (She was “bookish” too, you see, but she was the quiet type.)

     Books are, and have been, the basic source material for my life: they introduced me to the people and places of the world, and taught me how to navigate them, long before I ever traveled; they revealed human nature in all its complicated relationships and helped me recognize the good, the bad, and the evil among us; they led me through the lessons of history and prompted me to form my own values and aspirations for the future.; and, of course, they gave me the educational tools of language, science, mathematics, and philosophy that are needed to lead a knowledgeable, independent life. In short, books have shaped my view of the world by providing foundational templates against which to evaluate personal experience. “Book learning,” as my grandmother used to call it, has made me who I am and I am all the richer for it. If that makes me “bookish” or elitist, then so be it; I make no apologies.

     One of my most vivid memories from early childhood (as a really little girl) when my Father was still alive was going with him to the Plaza Bookstore down on Main Street. It was the only bookstore in our town, though back then it was known as Plaza Book and Hobby because, well … how many books could you possibly sell to stay in business in a small town.  Anyway, the proprietor was named Billy (Uncle Billy to me). He was an erudite, somewhat eccentric bachelor who had grown up and gone to school with my Mother and had “known her forever” as they say. Once she met and married my Father, who had been in the Air Force, and they returned to Victoria to live, Billy quickly became a good friend of his, as well. (My Father was “bookish” too, but he was an outgoing joker type.)

     Behind its Tudor-inspired, Old Curiosity Shop facade, Plaza Book and Hobby was a very masculine place. Inside, the store was dark and cool, with high ceilings, long counters along the side walls, and endless bookcases arranged in between in rows. A bell rang whenever a customer walked in, probably because Billy was usually the only one working there. In addition to rows and rows of books, there was a tobacco/cigar shop toward the back with bar stools and glass cases. Along another wall was the “hobby” section, which consisted of a very high counter with an array of modeling kits clearly intended for adults, mostly of classic cars and airplanes. My Father had been a pilot during the War and then became a commercial airline pilot. Flying was his absolute passion and, when he wasn’t reading, he built models of historic aircraft.

     Between the books and the models, Daddy and I would spend hours in that store when he was home. I don’t remember a children’s reading section there — I don’t remember ever seeing any children, for that matter, or many women either  — but Uncle Billy always had little Golden story books or crafty make-it books on hand for me. It didn’t matter; I was just happy to be  in that quiet, “bookish” place where I was free to roam around and investigate without supervision. I felt safe and trusted in a grown-up environment, a feeling I have carried with me into every library and bookstore I have ever entered since.

     After my Father had died and Plaza Book and Hobby had become the Plaza Bookstore selling only books, I continued to spend time in that quiet, “bookish” place as a youngster and then teenager, then as a college student, and then as a married woman visiting back home. Billy was still a close family friend and now I, too, had “known him forever.” I enjoyed reminiscing with him about those early days with Daddy, and then I would browse the shelves, straighten the titles, and talk about new releases and the book business. As time went on, I became a working, publishing writer and book author myself, and that made Uncle Billy very happy. He proudly displayed my first book in that Tudor-style front window. 

     As you get older, you come to see the patterns in your life and begin to acknowledge the origins of various personal talents and attitudes. Yes, some traits are inherited from parents and ancestors, but then so many more are developed and refined through experience, both direct and indirect. To quote an often-used title for school programs, “Reading is fundamental.” There is no safer, greater way to grow and learn than through the vicarious experience offered between the covers of a book. 

     “If you can read, you can do anything,” I used to tell my students when I taught, “and you can find out almost anything about anything if you know where to look.” Woe is the society that bans books under the guise of protecting the young and restricts the freedom of anyone at any age to roam among library shelves. It won’t be a free society for long, and it certainly won’t be a civilized one.

     Note: The photo above is of the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953 and still in business today. It is known as the home of the Beat poets and has been the site of many protests, literary and otherwise, by loud “bookish” people.

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Red, White and Blue

 When I was a kid growing up in Victoria, the best, biggest, and often the only fireworks display on the 4th of July was at the drive-in movie theatre. Then, as now, towns, organizations, and individuals didn’t risk shooting off their own fireworks because it was always hot and dry in July in South Texas. Then, as now, fire was a persistent threat. (People did, however, go outside and shoot off their guns into the air, an old-country ranch tradition, to celebrate holidays and other special occasions that even my own grandmother was part of.)

     My very first fireworks experience was at that drive-in movie. I was very little.  My parents had packed me up in the back seat of our Pontiac and out we headed to the movie before sunset. The routine was always the same:  get there early enough to capture a choice parking spot in the center of the viewing area, situate the car up on the mounded row at just the right viewing angle and make sure the cord to the audio speaker box reached the driver’s window (and test it for sound, since speakers were often broken), and then get over to the giant concession stand in the rear of the lot to stock up on food and drinks before the show started. 

     Back in the 1950s, movies at drive-ins were always “family friendly” since it was assumed that families with kids in tow (even if they were asleep in the back seat) were the primary customers. In those days, admission was by the carload, not by the person, so first-run, big block-buster movies were reserved for indoor theatres. Interestingly, as I write this now, I realize that first-run movies still weren’t being shown at drive-ins and admissions were still being charged by the carload when we were teenagers in the 1960s, probably because teenagers went to the drive-in to eat, talk, visit with friends in other cars, and sometimes, to make out, but NOT to watch the movie.

     At any rate, on July 4th, about 9:30 after the feature film had been shown, the fireworks display with accompanying music on the audio speaker began. Although you could sit outside at picnic tables back in the concession stand area, most people sat on top of the hoods of their cars, or on lawn chairs in the beds of their pick-ups. (What can I say … this was Texas.) Daddy got Mother and me situated on the hood of that Pontiac Chieftain, the loud music came on, and the sky exploded. And then I screamed and scrambled and ran for my life, reaching for the car door to get inside. I just knew those falling flames of color were going to land on us and burn us alive. 

     That introduction to fireworks stayed with me for a very long time and, to this day, I still don’t like loud noises or firecrackers, or even hand-held sparklers. My father was killed in an accident the year after that, and Mother and I didn’t celebrate much or even go to drive-in movies for a while. Eventually, though, we returned on the 4th of July, mainly because that concession stand at that Lone Tree Theatre had the best, biggest, most outrageously delicious hamburgers you could possibly dream of (and I still do). We went to eat, not to watch the fireworks.

     But my most memorable 4th of July came years later, sitting at the expansive windows of a lower Manhattan office building overlooking the Hudson River with a perfect viewing position of Operation Sail, the 1976 Tall Ships Parade in honor of the Nation’s 200th birthday. Operation Sail celebrates a maritime tradition and commemorates significant moments in our history. Operation Sail, Inc., a non-profit organization founded in 1961 and endorsed by President Kennedy in 1963, coordinates these international events featuring sailing vessels from around the world. There have been six OpSail Parades of ships so far: to honor the 1964 World’s Fair, the 1976 U S Bicentennial, the 1986 Statue of Liberty Centennial, the 1992 Columbus Quincentennial, the 2000 New Millennium, and the 2012 War of 1812 Bicentennial.

     The 1976 Operation Sail event drew 17 “tall ships” (square-rig training ships) from fourteen countries, plus 146 smaller sailing ships in the accompanying fleet. Altogether, this fabulous, historic event took place over five hours and 19 miles from the Verrazano Bridge up the Hudson, past the George Washington Bridge, and back down to tie up, for public visits, at piers in Manhattan, Brooklyn and New Jersey. The ships sailed for review past 60 modern naval vessels from 46 countries and drew 6 million spectators (not counting those of us up in buildings) and 20,000 private boats along the edges of the Hudson. And then the whole day ended with the fabulous Grucci Brothers fireworks of Macy’s fame. And those fireworks didn’t scare me at all; they made me proud.

     Still, few of my 4th of July memories include fireworks, although I do remember a year in a friend’s boat on Long Island Sound off the coast of Stamford, CT, when the famous Grucci Brothers again made their magic with dancing display of pyrotechnics in the sky to the music of Dirty Dancing. It was a beautiful night and a beautiful evening with friends whom we have not now seen in years. But I remember them and that 4th fondly.

     For me, holiday memories are most often about the people with whom I celebrate them. I am not a joiner or a big “civic person,” have never been keen on parades or flag waving, and most certainly not likely to have been pictured in one of Norman Rockwell’s nostalgic American tableaus. This year, as always, I will bake and cook and grill (still trying to replicate those delicious hamburgers with their distinctive hot sauce dressing), and then I will settle down in front of the TV to watch the Macy’s fireworks from a safe distance. And I look forward to the day when drone shows, programmed and computer activated to produce brilliant pictures in the sky without risk of fire, will become more economical and more environmentally safe in drought-stricken in areas like mine. 

     This year, as always, I honor America and am grateful for the life I have here, but I realize more than ever that this life is not simply a matter of waving flags, spouting platitudes and proclaiming patriotism. This year, more than ever, we need to not only think about celebrating the America of our past 246 years, but to consider how we are going to preserve our America going forward. It seems to me we need a plan.

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June Is Bustin’ Out All Over

The school year is over, the sun is shining,  people are out and about (inflation and gas prices be damned) and, in spite of bad news about almost everything every single day, there is a celebratory spirit in the air. I can’t seem to get the lyrics from Rodger’s and Hammerstein’s 1945 musical Carousel out of my head. Now even I wasn’t around to see the original Broadway production, but I have seen, many times, the 1956 film version of the show. As the chorus sings in a delightful music and dance routine,  “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over… You can see it in the trees, You can smell it in the breeze… Look Around! Look Around! Look Around!” (Clips available on You Tube).

     Here in South Texas, you can certainly see June in the trees, along with the mountain cedar that makes you sneeze, and feel it in the air, as steam rises from the asphalt during these long weeks of triple-digit temperatures we’ve been having. (And it isn’t even July or August yet!) But, never mind those inconveniences. This year, especially, we need June — for the wedding pictures in the parks, the fishing trips to the Bay, the food trucks in the parking lots, the Juneteenth celebrations and the Pride parades.

    In many parts of the Country, June is known as “the strawberry month.” June’s full moon, typically the last full moon of spring or the first of summer, is nicknamed “the strawberry moon” by The Old Farmer’s Almanac. Rooted in the moon-naming traditions of Native Americans, Colonial Americans, and old European folktales, the strawberry moon moniker acknowledges this time of year as the ripening of June-bearing strawberries. If the luscious, red, ripe strawberries in my local supermarket right now is any indication, that designation certainly rings true. Moreover, this year’s strawberry moon on June 14 (tonight) will be a supermoon shining big and bright in the dark sky, the second supermoon in 2022, which is unusual.

     June is also the month for stone fruits, among them peaches, plums, apricots, cherries, dates, nectarines, and even olives. Pop-up farmers’ markets and roadside stands all along the highways in South Texas offer these delicious mainstays of homemade pies and summer desserts well into August. Even this year, when a winter freeze occurred in March and a drought has persisted ever since, fresh peaches are plentiful. They are a bit smaller than usual, which growers claim is actually better for baking because of their higher sugar content. (I can vouch that this is true.)

     And then, as everyone knows, June means the official beginning of summer. The Summer Solstice, falling on June 21 (at 5:14 a.m. EDT), is the longest day of the year, which means the longest period of daylight. The sun reaches its highest point in the sky in the northern hemisphere, thus marking the beginning of summer. (The June solstice in the southern hemisphere happens when the sun is at the lowest level, thus marking the beginning of their winter—good to keep in mind if you’re planning a trip to South America anytime soon.)

     Midsummer Day falls on June 24, which is considered the midpoint of the summer growing season between planting and harvest. Since ancient times, it has been known as one of the four “quarter days,” with many cultures celebrating by dancing, feasting, singing, and joyfully anticipating the warm and happy summer activities ahead. I’ve always thought that there was something of a metaphor for courtship and marriage inherent in the history this little holiday, and that perhaps the metaphor of growing a love accounts for the popularity of weddings in June. Even Shakespeare’s famous comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595) is all about love and marriage and rehearsing a play to be performed at a wedding.

     All in all, whether you’re planning a wedding, taking a trip to the beach, or making strawberry shortcake, this is a good month for it. After a hard couple years behind us and a constant barrage of news that goes from bad to worse, we can all use a little “bustin’ out” this year. The reason is the season, as the chorus from the song proclaims: “Just because it’s June, June, June!”

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Uvalde, Texas

We just returned from a week in San Francisco, our first vacation in over two years. It was the ideal post-Covid travel choice for us because we were able to fly non-stop from home, we returned to a familiar destination, and most importantly, we spent time with dear friends whom we had not seen in ages. No trekking, no schlepping, no hassles — just luxurious and uncomplicated. This was definitely my kind of trip.

     It wasn’t always so. Back when I was in high school in South Texas, the biggest, most anticipated summer vacation plan wasn’t a leisurely stay in a five-star hotel in Florida or Cancun, but a trip to go camping along the Frio River in Garner State Park. Now let’s remember that the world was overwhelmed by teenagers in the 1960s, kids whose entire lives revolved around social activities with their cohorts, in person. Winter may have meant school events and sports with hometown friends, but summer presented a whole new range of social possibilities, especially on a vacation destination that drew new faces from all over.

     Parents, already wearied by the time their exuberant baby-boomers had reached puberty, struggled to find a vacation spot that was both affordable and attractive for the whole family, as well as reasonably safe and controlled for the teens. And so someone, somewhere, long before the popularity of RVs, came up with the idea of camping out, literally, as in outside under the stars. (After all, who in their right mind, whether parents or kids, would want to be pent up all together in a big box day after day rolling from one place to another?) 

     So this is how “We’re going to Garner” became an enviable phrase.

     My single mother was always working, but my BFF came from a traditional family in whose household I was more or less a permanent fixture. Her mother, whom I’ll call Frankie (because that was her name), was a stay-at-home mom who cooked and sewed and laughed and gossiped. Her father, whom I’ll call Gene (because that was his name), was the breadwinner who worked long, hard hours for days at a time on the railroad. Frankie and Gene had been high-school sweethearts — a fact pursuant to nothing in particular except as a possible explanation for their  youthful tolerance for the antics of their two daughters and their daughters’ friends. 

     Daddy Gene usually took his vacation sometime in late June, but the domestic preparations for our big Garner excursion started much earlier, well before school was out. First off was the list of girls being invited to go along: always my friend, her younger sister and I, and a couple others. About five of us. The big thing was the wardrobe planning, designed and mostly sewn by Frankie (she is the person who actually taught me how to sew through these preparations). She/we made cute, cool little crop-top and short sets, simple sundresses, and those all-important terry towel robes (remember those?) to usher us to the showers and back in the campground. Once our outfits were in order, we girls considered ourselves ready to go.

     Frankie readied everything else: food, bedding, cooking utensils, cots, TV trays and folding chairs, all to be loaded into the huge, 1958 4-door Mercury Monterrey the night before departure. Bedding, linens and soft goods were stacked from the floorboards up in the back seat until they were level at the windows. We girls sat on top, legs stretched straight out in front of us, for the whole trip. The gargantuan car trunk contained “furnishings” (including a rug, because Frankie wanted a clean campsite), provisions such as dried foods and canned goods, and all the other necessary campsite accoutrements: the Coleman Camp stove, kerosene lamps, a huge cooler, mirrors (to be nailed to trees so we girls could do make-up), one tent (for Frankie), tarpaulins (to be stretched from the trees for covering the rest of us), and the tools needed to put it all together. And there was the luggage, of course, with all our cute little outfits. Those great 19th century British expeditions into the African bush had nothing on us except maybe the polished silver and the manservants!

     We always left early in the morning in the hopes of securing a favorable camping site along the main road that circled through the park (the better to see and be seen, you know). Garner is only a little less than four hours west out highway 90 from Victoria where we started, but somehow, the trip always took longer. (Might five teenage girls in the back seat have had anything to do with that?)  On the way, we would stop in Uvalde, about 30 miles from the Park and the nearest town of any size where we could get perishables. When we finally arrived, we’d eagerly help to get the camp all set up in time to get ourselves ready for the nightly dance held down at the Pavilion, where new dance steps and summer romance were sure to follow. (A South Texas version of a summer in the Catskills.)

     Mr. Gene tried to relax, bless him, by swimming and fishing and napping under the trees, while Frankie was always busy cooking, tidying up, and riding herd on her charges. There was really only one rule in camp: we were not allowed to leave the Park without an adult, not even to grab some snacks or do a laundry in nearby Uvalde. We did, of course, violate that rule a couple times, including once to go see a local concert by B.J. Thomas (a Texas singer later famous for hits such as “Raindrops Keep Fallin’” and “Hooked on a Feeling”) where he sang his newest song, “Garner State Park.” Lucky for us, we never got caught, though some of us (me) got one of Frankie’s “talking tos” in her tent for other, less serious infractions.

     When we weren’t getting ready for the dances or eating (Frankie did all the cooking, often inviting others from nearby campsites to join us), we spent our days walking among the Cypress trees, making friends and flirting with boys, and sitting down by the Frio River talking and talking, as girls will do, while listening to music on our transistor radio. Once, we even found a six-pack of beer someone had left nestled in the rocks of the clear, cold water. Usually, our stay only lasted about a week, but it was always a memorable week, and we returned home with lots of stories to tell and the names and addresses of new friends (or new heartthrobs) with whom we promised to stay in touch until we saw them again next year.  

     The 1960s were a tumultuous time of social unrest and the Vietnam War. We kids were not unaware of the conflicts around us (indeed, some of us would soon begin to protest one cause or another ourselves), but we were afforded safe spaces and lovely places in which to grow and learn and have fun without worrying about tomorrow, even if only for a while. Generations of Texans share similar memories of those simple, carefree summer camping trips and have forever associated Uvalde, Texas, with Garner State Park.

     Sadly, not anymore.

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A California State of Mind

 I’ve always loved that Billy Joel song about a New York state of mind, and frequently find myself humming the tune, especially since I no longer live up East and sorely miss The City.  Lately, however, I’ve found myself ushered into a “California state of mind.” 

     California often gets a bad rap, I think, especially in these days of such divisive politics. Red state politicians like those in Texas are always threatening voters that if we don’t vote for x-y-z, we’ll turn into California. Hmmm…is that a threat or a promise? Such comments immediately make me think of Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem (1968), her famous collection of essays about the California lifestyle and the connection between identity and place. Could she have been a progenitor of identity politics?

     Didion, who was a major influence on my own early non-fiction writing career and whose work commands a whole shelf in my home library, is sort of how my current California state of mind began. You see, I was reading her latest published collection of essays, Let Me Tell You What I Mean (2021) when she died last December. In my sadness, my thoughts went back to those early essays of hers about her home state (she was born in Sacramento), and so I retrieved my copy of Slouching to enjoy once again the inimitable style and unique observations that had made her famous and become her hallmark. 

     I have always had a fondness for California, probably because Los Angeles was the very first big vacation my Mother and I took after my father’s death when I was a kid. (I have written about this before in this blog, particularly in posts of May, 2017.) North or South, San Diego or San Clemente, whenever and wherever I go there, being in California always makes me smile. Which is how my husband and I started to think about possibly visiting San Francisco sometime this year to see dear friends, a trip that we had to postpone from 2020 because … well, you know.

     In the throes of yet another Covid wave this January, however, I was looking for inspiration for a new art quilt project when I discovered, or should say re-discovered, the work of California artist Wayne Thiebaud and his “confections” series. In a delightful coincidence, our own McNay Art Museum here in San Antonio was hosting an exhibition of his paintings and prints organized by the Crocker Museum in Sacramento, where he lived and worked,  to celebrate the artist’s 100th birthday. The exhibit was fabulous and inspired me to create my own small art piece of Dairy Queen delights in homage to Thiebaud. (See post of Jan. 11, 2022.) Two California artists, both with Sacramento ties, had given me hope and inspiration for the new year and made me smile.

     The next thing that happened was that I came across a call for submissions to a special exhibit titled “Hooray for Hollywood,” at the International Quilt Festival opening in Long Beach in August. Having finished my “Thiebaud in Texas” piece, I was ready for a more challenging  project, but one that would keep me smiling. Being in that California state of mind, I immediately recalled a favorite photograph of mine pf the Paramount Pictures Studio taken on our last visit to Hollywood. I had considered replicating this photo in fabric before, but could never quite find an appropriate showcase. Now, here it was! A show made to order for an appliquéd art quilt representing the only remaining, working major picture studio in Hollywood today. It took me three months of dedicated, daily effort to complete it in time for submission, but I got it done. I call it “Lights, Camera, Action!” (pictured above, 36” x 40”), and I JUST got notified that it has been juried into the show! I am packing it for shipment now and smiling all the way to the UPS store.

     While working on these quilt projects and waiting, hoping, for Covid to subside, I also got news that a dear old college friend of mine was relocating to the San Francisco area from the UK, where she had been living for the last 20 years or so. Needless to say, that was happy news, and all the more reason to make plans for that trip we had been considering. Once I found out that we could fly non-stop to San Francisco from here, that sealed the deal, in spite of my misgivings about air travel sans mask mandates.

     As you might have inferred from my last post about our recent stay in Galveston, we—I—remain crowd averse and travel wary after over two years spent almost entirely at home. However much I may miss my friends and our near-constant traveling lifestyle, I do not believe Covid is over, nor do I believe that merely wishing it were will make it so. But I also don’t think that any of us can live the rest of our lives in total seclusion. So, we get our vaccines, wear our masks, assess our risks and try to navigate this new world with some good sense and reasonable safety. 

     And we go to California expecting to smile.

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Sea Winds

Galveston, oh Galveston                                                                                                                                    

I still hear your sea winds blowing                                                                                                                

I still see her dark eyes glowing                                                                                                                      

She was 21                                                                                                                                                      

When I left Galveston

     “Galveston,” a song written by Jimmy Webb, was made hugely popular when released by country music star Glen Campbell in 1969. It was the CMA song of the year, and has gone on to be recorded by more than 27 different artists since. Originally, people thought it was a Vietnam protest song, but Webb insisted that it was “…just about a guy who who’s caught up in something he doesn’t understand and would rather be somewhere else.” Aren’t we all…

     My husband had a landmark birthday last weekend, and so we decided to mark the occasion on a “family field trip” with our son to Galveston for a few days. None of us had been there in quite some time, and things have changed since the last major hurricane, which was Ike in 2008. There is something comforting and refreshing about returning to a place you know. Because Galveston was familiar, we felt no compulsion to kill ourselves sightseeing, and had no big plans except to relax and be together. I rented a condo on the water with the hope of reducing my own anxieties about venturing out among all the “post-pandemic” travelers/revelers, and besides, how crowded could it be in a coastal town the week after Easter and before the onslaught of summer vacation?

     Galveston is a fairly small city, with a population of only about 53,000 people on the island. It is on the Gulf and near Houston, within easy driving distance for many Texans, even for day trips. But it is not a sleepy little little “bay town” like many others farther south along the Gulf Coast. Besides fishing and beach-bumming, there are unusual activities and points of interest derived from the City’s long and interesting history. Having been founded in 1785 and named “Galvez Town” after a Spanish military leader, the City became home to French pirates such as Jean Lafitte, rebelled against Spain and was annexed into Mexico, then was part of the Republic of Texas (and even its capitol for a short time), all before joining the United States and then being subsumed into the Confederacy. All of these groups and all of these historic events left indelible influences that can still be seen and experienced today. 

     By the mid 1800s, Anglo-Americans had begun migrating to the City bringing (or purchasing) their enslaved African-Americans with them.  Soon, Galveston also became a bustling port of entry for foreigners, especially German and Jewish immigrants who, together with Mexican residents, were conservative, religious, and anti-slavery.  (My own ancestors from Alsace came to South Texas through Indianola in the 1840s.)  On June 19, 1865, almost three years after the Emancipation Proclamation, a general of the Union Army informed the enslaved people of Texas in Galveston that they were free. Thus, a federal holiday now commemorates Juneteenth, which was being celebrated when I was growing up long before it was officially given a national designation by President Joe Biden last year.

     Galveston was a real success story during Reconstruction. The Freedmen’s Bureau was headquartered there, the business community promoted progress and integration, and unions, including one of black dock workers, were formed. There were many firsts during this period: an opera house (1870), an orphanage (1876), telephone lines (1878), and electric lights (1883). By the end of the 19th century, Galveston had a population of about 37,000 people. It was the largest cotton port outside of New Orleans and new immigrants from all over poured in. It was known as the “Queen City of the Gulf” — that is, until the hurricane hit.

    The infamous Galveston Hurricane of 1900 (Category 4) still holds the record as the deadliest natural disaster in the United States. Some 8-10,000 people were killed on the island (roughly 20 percent of the population), damage was estimated at more than $700 million (in today’s dollars), and a massive storm surge almost wiped out the town altogether. Just about everything Galveston had built over one hundred years was destroyed, including her allure and reputation.

I still see her standing by the water                                                                                                  

Standing there looking out to sea                                                                                                         

And is she waiting there for me?                                                                                                              

On the beach where we used to run

     It took time, but the City did ultimately revive and rebuild to emerge, once again, as a major Gulf port and tourist destination. Port-related industries today contribute to over $3 billion annually to the Texas economy. Galveston handles dry and liquid bulk cargoes, hosts a robust shipyard to service the offshore oil industry, and has the only cruise ship departure terminals in Texas. Which then, of course, means that the City really is a major tourist destination. Did I actually think that a coastal town couldn’t be crowded the week after Easter and before summer vacations? 

     Drive down the Seawall on any sunny day, even mid-week, and try to forget that this isn’t spring break somewhere in Florida. Go to any of the fabulous restaurants (and there are many) for seafood any evening and tell yourself that the pandemic never really existed. Tour the Ocean Star Offshore Drilling Rig and Museum off Pier 21 (my personal favorite, pictured above) during the week and learn something along with throngs of school children, or visit the Pleasure Pier and relive your younger days in Santa Monica. If you’d really rather not deal with routine tourists, how about coming for Mardi Gras in February (dating from 1867), which attracts as many as 250,000 visitors, or the more literary, less rowdy “Dickens on the Strand” street festival  (since 1974) in December, which only draws about 35,000 Victorian/Steam Punk enthusiasts, including one or two descendants of Dickens himself. To be sure, it’s all great fun, but pack your patience.

     I don’t mean to be glib. Galveston is an interesting city with a unique blend of history and cultures that defy many of the usual coastal stereotypes. We enjoyed our visit there, as we have in the past, and we will no doubt return again. But it was not exactly the cautious, low-risk re-entry into impolite society that I was hoping for this time. Four days after we got home, the Birthday Boy suddenly started coughing violently and decided to take a Covid test.

Galveston, oh Galveston                                                                                                                              

I am so afraid of dying                                                                                                                               

Before I dry the tears she’s crying                                                                                                                    

Before I watch your sea birds flying in the sun                                                                                        

At Galveston, at Galveston                                                                                                                         

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Moving In Circles

 Unless you’re especially interested in social psychology, the name Robin Dunbar probably doesn’t mean much to you. Actually, I am into social psych and theories of relationships, but the name didn’t register with me either until I made the association with a cognitive theory of friendship/relationships called “Dunbar’s Number.” First presented in a book of his back in 2010, the theory soon became a popular concept in business training, no doubt seen as especially relevant to professional networking and building relationships with customers and clients — once the U.S. Supreme Court effectively recognized corporations as people (Citizens United v. Federal Election Communication, 2010). 

     Dunbar, a British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist at Oxford University, has recently published a new book,  Friends: Understanding the Power of Our Most Important Relationships (Little Brown, 2021), in which he explores deeper aspects of human relationships and explains his theory more completely. (Too completely, according to some reviewers, in that the 346 page tome is dense with studies and data.) Simply stated, “Dunbar’s Number” is 150, roughly the maximum number of people with whom most of us can maintain a steady relationship at any one time. That’s about the average number of guests invited to a pre-pandemic wedding or special celebration, or the number of recipients on a Christmas card list. These are people who are part of our greater social network, people we value and with whom we want to maintain some level of personal connection. But, according to Dunbar, those choices boil down to cognitive capacity: how many specific interests can you identify and share, how many important dates and events can you acknowledge, how many names can you even remember???

     Think of those 150 people as your “emotional contacts list,” even though they don’t all demand the same level of interaction and attention. Rather, we move in an ever-widening series of concentric circles, with a very few (3 to 5) being our most intimate friends on whom we rely for personal support and affection; another 15-20 close friends whom we engage regularly and enjoy sharing social activities and interests with; and a third level of perhaps another 25-50 casual friends who are professional colleagues or organizational cohorts. The rest of our larger social circle is composed of people with whom we have, or have had at one time, a special connection worth honoring and maintaining. We stay in touch with these people on a somewhat  regular basis, as they are certainly more than mere acquaintances, but are not intimately involved in our day-to-day lives. (This explains why those long, single-spaced Christmas letters full of illness and catastrophe or minute details about people we don’t even know make our eyes roll after the first paragraph — if there areany paragraphs.)

     Dunbar’s Number actually explains various social interactions and responses. For example, he includes relatives in his 150 number, which explains why people with large families often have fewer friends outside that family (no time, no energy). When they do develop outside friends, they often describe them with the ultimate compliment of being “just like family.”  Certainly, family members, even distant relatives, can prove to be close and abiding friends, but they can also fall well outside those concentric circles until they are regarded as little more than mere acquaintances encountered at family reunions (where no, we can’t remember their names). 

     Friendships change as people and circumstances change; people move away, fall seriously ill,  adopt some extreme political or religious position, become miffed at a perceived slight, get married or divorced or widowed — any of these things can change the dynamics of a relationship, causing some friends to move up in our social circle and others to fade in importance. Inevitably, we lose some friends and we gain some new ones, but unfortunately, as we age, the former is more frequent and the latter is less so. A great sadness of old, old age is that one steadily outlives one’s friends just as physical and mental infirmities impose limitations and reduce opportunities to forge new relationships. I have not yet arrived at old, old age, but yet have already outlived six of my closest friends whom I miss and think about almost every day.

     We all need friends, people who understand and accept us as we are, who know our history so well that we don’t have to constantly explain ourselves or excuse how we’re feeling. Gaining that kind of understanding and acceptance takes time, however — years to build the kind of relationship that lasts beyond the temporary accidents of lifestyle, career, or location. I am proud to say that my oldest friend of over 70 years shared a playpen with me when we were barely toddlers. She was the maid of honor in my wedding and is still a close friend and confidant after all these years. I have a couple friends from elementary school, a couple from college, and several from my early married years. Except for a short time, I have rarely ever lived near any of my closest friends, and I still don’t. But I work at holding on to people, because I know that sustaining friendship does not depend on the proximity of time or distance. 

    Among other lessons, the isolation of the Covid pandemic underscored the value of friendship and taught us ways that we can nurture our relationships without regular physical contact. In a world where humor, common courtesy, and consideration for others is sorely lacking and where we have resorted to teaching social and emotional skills in schools, the adaptations we discovered to counter Covid isolation are worth remembering going forward. Phone calls, greeting cards, personal notes and letters, e-mails, funny messages, Zoom visits — any and all abate loneliness and keep us connected regardless of the climate of the times. They sustain friendship. 

     And we all need friends, though not necessarily 150 of them. Human beings are social animals, after all.  Even the misanthropes among us yearn for interaction with others, if  only to commiserate with someone else about how awful people really are!