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Digital Detox

                                        Above: “Vision Catcher,” by Leslie Dill (1995)

Siri is making me nervous. Ever since the latest updates on my I-phone, she has begun to speak without being summoned, without being spoken to. I will be in a real conversation with an actual person in the room while my phone is locked and lying on a table and, suddenly, Siri perks up and says, “Sorry, I didn’t get that.”  The logical explanation for this phenomenon is that she “thinks” she “hears” her name being called in my speech, but it is unnerving. 

    It’s not surprising that a creeping paranoia about Big Brother, with agents listening, webcams watching, tracking devices following, and drones surveilling has been on the rise in a society that  has begun to resemble a dystopian novel. Little wonder that more and more Americans have begun to distrust not only our leaders and institutions, but also the advanced technology that has allowed Big Brother into our lives. In the beginning, we willingly, if unwittingly, exchanged our privacy for security and convenience, but now we’re finding that the exchange has hardly brought peace of mind. Just the opposite, in fact. 

     So far, I have been realistic about the risks of my own deal with the information devil while still keeping my personal paranoia at bay, but I have to admit that this sudden Siri intrusion has given  me pause, not so much because of yet another invasion of privacy it might indicate, but because I think I have reached the absolute “last straw” of digital demands on my time and attention. There are only just so many beeps, burps, rings, alarms, bulletins, news flashes, ads, reminders, texts, and tweets one can be possibly process in a day without losing all track of time and developing a permanent case of ADD! 

     Now don’t get me wrong: I love my I-phone — and my I-pad, and my I-Mac, and my e-reader, and even Alexa. As a writer, I was doing research and submitting copy to newspapers and magazines on-line back in the early 1980s; as a teacher/professor, I have been creating lesson plans, working on spreadsheets, posting grades — and yes, uncovering student plagiarism — for most of my professional life.  And I am grateful that my work in journalism and education enabled me, indeed forced me, to develop my computer skills and to achieve a level of comfort in cyberspace that most members of my generation have not. Now, as I get older and begin to envision a time when my physical activity in “the real world” might be limited, I grow even more grateful for the information, services, connections and conveniences available to me through the internet and digital communications. 

       The smart phone, of course, is the epitome of that access to the world. Having been through both natural and man-made disasters myself, and having been solely responsible for the welfare of others in times of distress, I especially appreciate what a lifeline a cell phone can be. During recent years while I was caring for my Mother through multiple strokes, navigating her evacuation during a hurricane, handling the repair and sale of her home afterward, and eventually getting her relocated nearby, I had to have my cell phone on and with me 24 hours a day out of necessity. Oddly, though, now that that intense period is over, I find that I have continued to have my phone on, with me during the day and by my bed at night. Is this simply force of habit, or is it that such a prolonged period of stress and isolation brought on by total subjugation to someone else’s life and needs relegated what was left of my own to the 4.7” screen on my I-phone?  I think I may have to turn my phone off so I can finally get my old real life back.  

     Though it is not yet listed in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) as an official psychiatric illness, there is now a common term for extreme reliance on one’s cell phone: nomophobia. That’s short for “no mobile phone phobia,” meaning a fear of being without one’s phone or without network coverage. More and more is being discovered about the very real dangers of an unhealthy dependence on electronic devices, about the re-wiring of our brains, the shortened attention spans, the disruption of sleep patterns, and the demise of personal relationships that result from constant digital devotion. In short, it appears that cell phones may actually be addictive.

     We know they can be toxic, especially in today’s angry, violent, politically-divided world. Social media, once a source of entertainment, humor, and collective bonding, has been corrupted by malevolent hackers and purveyors of misinformation, to the detriment and dumbing down of a gullible public. Almost everything that instantly goes viral is soon debunked as some sort of a hoax. Twitter, once a network for activist voices and alternative points of view, is now a vehicle for insults, taunts, and egotistical bullies; facebook, once a platform where grannie got to see her grandchildren and friends shared photos of their vacations, is now a place where others are ridiculed, shamed, or cruelly “unfriended.”  There are no rules promoting honest, civil discourse nor any real penalties for flouting the limits of decent — dare I even say “legal” — behavior. And every time we, whether through righteous indignation or our own snarky impulses, respond or repeat without careful consideration, we further infect ourselves, our society, and our country with a dangerous toxicity. 

     So, before you get hit by a bus because your face is buried in your cell phone, or you drive off the road or fall off a cliff while taking a selfie, or before all the people who really matter in your life have been alienated by your rude inattention and your thoughtless retorts, maybe it’s time to start the new year with a digital detox. 

     Besides, Siri could use a vacation.

        

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Greetings!

     Because we were away for Thanksgiving and then had company a few days after we returned home, I got a late start on my Christmas cards this year. I usually start writing them (yes, write, as in hand-writing a a personalized greeting, composing and printing a half-page newsletter to enclose, and hand-addressing the envelopes) the day after Thanksgiving so they can be in the mail in early December. 

     I put myself on a schedule of writing 10-15 a day, with the overseas cards going out first and all the rest in the mail by the 10th. We’ve pared the list down over the years as, unfortunately, people die or their whereabouts become unknown, but we still send out about 120. All the recipients are friends far away, not business associates, though they might have been colleagues at some point long ago. They are people we care about and who tell us, when we see them or talk to them at other times, how happy it makes them to hear from us and to feel  “still connected.” So no, we don’t automatically drop people from the list just because they don’t send us cards in return. 

     Now if all this Yuletide communication sounds like a lot of trouble and expense, well, let me not be modest: it is! But it’s worth it. To co-opt a popular motto, friendship is truly “the gift that keeps on giving,” and sending cards is one way for me to sustain and support that gift over time and distance. Besides, I’m a writer, it’s what I do. I like the challenge of crafting a short holiday letter with photographs, I enjoy signing the cards and adding brief  comments that are of interest to particular people, and I find satisfaction in updating addresses and family names and having all my contacts in order. Call me crazy, but to me the ritual of holiday cards is a correspondence bonanza!

     Not only do I enjoy sending cards, but I delight in receiving them, as well. I read every note and every letter — even those long, boring ones full of news about people I don’t know. I love hearing all about happy events, exciting travels, and humorous experiences because they’ve happened to people I care about; I am also honored to be included in their less-than-happy news precisely because I do care and friends share support and understanding. Life is not always an image from a Hallmark card — not even at Christmas.  

     We all  know that thank-you notes and written responses to formal invitations have long since disappeared (along with cursive handwriting), but these days written correspondence of any kind is often perceived as anachronistic. Yet, a 2018 survey found that 81 percent of respondents considered a hand-written note more meaningful and personal than digital correspondence, and 87 percent of surveyed millennials agreed! (“Greeting Cards Have Superpowers,” The New York Times, 12/15/19)  You can’t make much meaning in a 280 character tweet, which is only about 33-35 words in English, and an e-mail or text message that is too long will likely get deleted before it is even completely read.  A carefully-chosen card or a penned personal note, on the other hand, can not only be read and reread, but perhaps kept as a keepsake for years to come. 

     So, yesterday I went to Barnes and Noble and bought six boxes of potential “keepsakes” for next year. I’ve done this for as long as I can remember. I used to have to wait until the day after Christmas and then fight the crazy day-after crowds to get my greeting cards on sale, but in recent years, many stationers and bookstores, even Hallmark stores, have begun their mark-downs a week or so earlier.  This means a much broader selection of styles and messages from which to choose, and a greater possibility of finding several boxes of the same design. My card list is extremely diverse, so I have to consider appropriate messages for various cultural and religious traditions among our friends. And of course, I want the cards to reflect us and to be big enough in size to accommodate an enclosure and messages in my large handwriting. 

     Taken altogether, greeting cards and the missives they contain ultimately say more than just what is literally expressed. The kind of card someone sends — religious, humorous, cutsie, elegant — is a message in itself, as is the complimentary closure above the signature — “love,” “best wishes” — or the absence of any closure at all. But even Christmas cards trend. Years ago when we were first married, the fashion was to have cards printed with your name, maybe even personally designed and printed, and then you might add your own hand-written message. My mother-in-law called me on that and said it was “too corporate.” Interestingly, today, businesses large and small still have company cards printed, but often include the written signatures of employees, or at least of the employees within a group or division.  The newest trend in personal cards seems to be the Shutterfly-type postcards that showcase photos of children, grandchildren and pets, but usually don’t contain a personal message. 

     The bottom line is that I’m not the only one who values holiday cards. There are some 3,000 greeting card publishers in the United States (Hallmark being by far the largest), and Americans buy, send, and give roughly 2 billion holiday cards each year. Yes, we send about 500 million e-cards too, but snail mail wins in this category. The U.S. Postal Service issued the first Christmas postage stamp in 1962; first-class was 4 cents then, compared to 55 cents today.    

    For the final word on this whole subject, I quote the hand-written message in a recently-received card about the “wonder of the season” from a college friend of ours:  “I find it amazing that we are all still here and still writing Christmas cards to each other!” A wonder indeed…

     Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and Season’s Greetings.

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Christmas Joy

 For as long as I can recall, my favorite Christmas story has been Charles Dicken’s The Christmas Carol.  I don’t remember exactly when I first heard the tale, but I think it was through print when my Mother read it to me as a child. The whole story captivated me, set as it was in the dark days of winter with the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge who, after being visited by three spirits on Christmas Eve, is totally transformed from a stingy curmudgeon into a kinder, gentler man. (Would that such overnight transformations could affect more men today!)

     Dickens wrote The Christmas Carol in 1843, and his public readings of it up until his death in 1870 proved very successful.  The earliest film version, a silent movie, was produced in 1901. After silent movies, the one that many still consider to be the best even today is the oft -repeated 1951 film with Alistair Sim as Scrooge. In 1954, Frederic March starred in the first musical version, and an updated musical with Albert Finney was released in 1970. George C. Scott starred as a truly irascible Scrooge in the 1984 version (my personal favorite), but Patrick Stewart gave a respectable rendition in the 1999 film. I have seen almost all of these and have, of course, read Dicken’s novella, even aloud, numerous times. In all these years, it has never been out of print, and while there have been over 20 different film renditions in the modern age, including musicals, animations, and even a spoof, its resonance with contemporary audiences does not diminish. Timelessness is the very definition of a classic and I simply HAVE to watch some version of  The Christmas Carol every holiday season. 

     For the first time in ten years, our little family returned to Cape Cod for Thanksgiving this year. One of our favorite spots for shopping on Black Friday was a shop on Route 28 called Christmas Joy. It was there in 1987 that I bought my very first Byer’s Choice Christmas Carol figure, Jacob Marle (copyright 1987, made in Chalfort, PA). In subsequent years and visits to the Cape, I collected the whole cast of characters that Byer’s Choice produced. I now have Scrooge and the three spirits, plus the Fezziwigs and the Cratchits, including Tiny Tim, in all eleven of them including a town crier announcing a Dickens reading of the story. They march proudly down my long library shelf. These Byer’s characters are among my most favorite Christmas decorations, not only because they depict the story that I love, but because they remind me of our many Thanksgivings spent on Cape Cod.

     After a ten year absence, I am happy to say that the venerable Christmas Joy shop is still in business (since 1976) on Route 28 and still selling Byer’s Choice figures. (See above.) And I am pleased to report that many of our other pre-holiday Cape Cod favorites over Thanksgiving are still intact and in operation. For example, we had lunch at the  historic Dan’l Webster Inn in Sandwich, MA, renowned for their chicken pot pies (which we had); we stayed at the gracious Chatham Bars Inn in Chatham, where we had stayed in 1987 in the very first year they began to be open year-round to include Thanksgiving; and we visited the Chatham Light (1877), one of the few lighthouses still in operation,  today as a US Coast Guard auxiliary. So much history, and so many memories.

     Thanksgiving on the Cape heralded the holidays for us for many years, not only because of the quaint shops and holiday decorations, but because it was always late November when the Atlantic is misty and moody and cold — sort of like Dicken’s London in the late fall of the 1840s.  We had friends with a house on the Cape, and often had Thanksgiving dinner with them, but we also had our own favorite haunts and our own little traditions. One of them, while sitting in traffic on I-95 on the return trip home to Connecticut, was stopping in at a giant Toys Are Us store just outside of New Haven to shop for presents for our son who was with us, of course. (He had long since given up belief in Santa and delighted in picking out his own toys; he is still a persnickety shopper.) We always returned home on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, as we did this year, and on Sunday, I always made a turkey dinner so we would have leftovers.  And so I did that this year too.

     In many respects, these days of  pre-Christmas are the best days of the season. We haul out our decorations and review all the events associated with them; we see old friends and renew old acquaintances; we write holiday cards and hear from those far away. As we get older and grow into adulthood, the thrill of Christmas morning and the anticipation of presents under the tree pales in comparison to the cherished memories of Christmases past. We remember the loved ones we no longer have with us and the loved ones we are grateful to still enjoy. Before the frenzy and beyond the shopping-day countdown, these early days of Advent offer us exactly what they are intended to offer: a time to contemplate what really matters at Christmas.

     Here’s wishing you Christmas Joy.

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Beacons of Light

     The lighthouse: a symbol of hope, a sign of safety, an icon of our seafaring past. By most estimates, there are approximately 700 lighthouses in America of which roughly 75 percent are still operational.  Except for the very first lighthouse, the Boston Light on Brewster Island (built in 1716; damaged in the Revolution and renovated in 1783), all are now automated. Today, the Boston Light is the only official lighthouse with a human keeper.

     Of the ten oldest lighthouses in the U.S., six are in Massachusetts. Not surprisingly, with its rugged Atlantic Coast and its long, dangerous seafaring history, the East Coast has about four times as many lighthouses as the West Coast. Interestingly, however,  Michigan has more than any other state  — all that Great Lakes trade and exploration, you know.

     I grew up on the Texas Gulf Coast, where the mood was calm, the waters were warm, and the beach was full of shells and sea glass. When we went to Padre Island we would drive until there were no more people in sight before we planted our umbrellas, even in the summer. There were some lighthouses down at the bay, the Matagorda Island Light in Port Lavaca (1873), the Port Aransas Light (1857) in Aransas Pass, and the Point Isabel in Port Isabel (1852), but I never gave them much notice.

     My first introduction to the North Atlantic coast was  going “down the shore” (as my New Jersey relatives and Bruce Springsteen put it) to Atlantic City when I was in college. My laid-back Gulf Coast experience and those care packages of salt-water taffy that my aunts had lovingly sent me over the years hardly prepared me for this bustling Miss America Boardwalk, the hoards of people, and the giant amusement park out on the Steel Pier. I was told that the beach was wide and white and beautiful, but who could see it blanketed solid as it was with bodies? It was wild and, besides, the water was cold.

     Once married and living in New York, my first trip to Jones Beach on Long Island offered a similar experience.  My mother-in-law insisted we go to the beach for breakfast, so we got up at daybreak and fought heavy traffic on the Southern State in order to secure parking in a lot close enough to the beach to lug all the food and supplies and to garner a place on the sand by a grill. Whew!  It too was wild, the water was 55°, and we were done by 8 a.m.. 

     Beach experiences were similar all along the Northeastern Coast, in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and even in Connecticut where we eventually settled along Long Island Sound in Fairfield County. The beaches, lovely though they were, were always crowded, the water was always cold, and the traffic was always horrendous. It sort of took the fun out of beach blanket bingo.

     So, while I never came to understand the attraction of the beach in summer for Northerners, all that time sitting in traffic and all that time walking around in coastal communities did lead me to finally notice lighthouses and to begin to appreciate their unique place in our history. I first “got hooked” in New Jersey by the Sandy Hook Light* with its 95 steps; it is the oldest working lighthouse in the U.S. (1764). Then I fell in love with the Montauk Point Lighthouse* (dating from 1796), a National Historic Landmark situated on the easternmost point of Long Island Sound in the town of Montauk. Over the years in Connecticut, almost all the lighthouses (20) along the Coast became familiar to me. Some are typical New England style, but many are unusual and distinctive, sitting as they do out on shoals in the water or clinging to a rocky ledge. One of my favorites all the way out at the end of the State is the Stonington Harbor Light* (1840), which is no longer a working lighthouse, but now a lighthouse museum.

     And then there is Massachusetts, with its 192 miles of coastline and 60 lighthouses, 14 of which are on Cape Cod. And it was here at Thanksgiving 22 years ago where I finally, finally discovered the secret to loving the beach in the Northeast. For me, that love is not found in the summer, but in the late fall when the crowds are gone, the fading light reflected off the water is hypnotic, and the fine mist of the Atlantic floats over the seashore like a dream. This is New England at its moody best, evoking whaling history and 19th century novels, its lighthouses illuminating thought and inspiring hope. 

     I have written before about how my family and I came to make Thanksgiving on Cape Cod an annual tradition, one that stopped abruptly once we relocated to Texas. (“Turkey Trotting,” 11/20/16)  This year, we are reviving that tradition and returning for the holiday to the Chatham Bars Inn “at the elbow” in Chatham. Along with visitors and locals alike, we will no doubt stop at one of the most-beloved and oft-photographed active lighthouses on the Cape, the Chatham Light. Originally built with wood in 1841, it was later replaced with two new cast iron towers in 1877, one of which was later brought to Eastham where it became the Nauset Light*. The former keeper’s house of the Chatham Light is today a U.S. Coast Guard station where on-duty personnel operate search-and-rescue missions, enforce maritime law, and monitor Homeland Security.

     Having fallen in love with Cape Cod and become so enamored with lighthouses, I eventually made a “block-of-the-month” quilt called “Beacons of Light” (above) depicting twelve well-known lighthouses around the country, four of which are highlighted in this text (noted by *).  I signed on to this ambitious year-long project, which took me two years to do— where else? — at Heartbeat Quilts in Hyannis. (Sadly, the shop is no longer open.) When not displayed in my studio, the quilt finds use in our guest room, aptly called “the Cape Cod room” because it is decorated in white and blue and features works by Cape Cod artists.

     It’s been ten years since we spent Thanksgiving on the Cape, and I am eagerly looking forward to returning, even without sufficient winter clothes should there be snow. The Cape means peace to me; it has always offered a gentle reminder to remember the past, give thanks for the present, and sustain hope for the future. We all need those beacons of light to keep us on course, especially in troubled waters. 

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Enough Already!

     Enough. We use the word all the time, but what does “enough” really mean? Is it synonymous with the end, as when we scold a whiny child saying “Enough!”  How about “That’s enough” when we push back from the dinner table, or “Enough of this” as an expression of frustration with a tedious task? 

     Sometimes enough is already too much.

     In a response to a letter from a parent about the limits of support for an adult child, syndicated advice columnist Carolyn Hax identified  “the personal search for enough “ as one of the major challenges of adulthood. That one simple observation —stated as it was within a much larger discussion of what constitutes good enough, hard enough, happy enough, reliable enough, honest enough—struck me as so succinct and so profound that I couldn’t help but wonder why it had never occurred to me before. Certainly, in a more-more, faster-faster, bigger-bigger consumer culture like America’s, we have become a nation of grown-up children who obviously never conquered that particular developmental challenge!  The dire consequence of that failure, of having too much or not enough and lacking the maturity to acknowledge which is which, now finds its collective expression in the political, social, and economic divisions of an angry, suspicious population.  

     Incongruities abound in such a culture and constantly thwart the efforts of those of us who do try to define enough for ourselves. BOGO! screams the sign. “But I only want one,” I say to the cashier, who insists that I take the extra one as well. Retailers must have a storage problem too. Where is Costco going to put all those huge pallets of toilet paper and paper towels and diapers if they don’t sell them, and where are we supposed to put them when we get them home?  Once the garage is full, then we’re forced to live like hoarders inside our houses, with boxes under the beds, dishes stacked on counters, and everything else from extra clothes to Christmas wrap to tchotchkes headed to Goodwill piled in the guest room. Never mind where to put the car (or the guests); most families where I live seem to have more cars than they do licensed drivers, so the garage wouldn’t be adequate anyway, even if both (or three or four) of them were empty. Who can recognize enough when it’s buried under all the clutter!

     Prioritize,  downsize, simplify: these have become the mantras of our age, but they, too, beg the question of enough because they all require that choices be made — and one choice inevitably precludes another. If you’ve spent any time around small children you know that they have a hard time accepting limits and understanding that they can’t have it all.  Sometimes, so do adults. The classic conundrum of the early women’s movement, the working woman vs. the stay-at-home mom, compelled many of us, myself included, to challenge out-dated gender roles in an effort to prove that women could do it all, be it all, and have it all — even without a wife to pick up the slack!  What we learned during those long years of career-building, child-rearing, family-managing and house-keeping is that yes, one can perhaps have it all, but only sequentially, not all at once all the time every single day. Ironically though, having learned that lesson and knowing it to be true, many of us, both women and men, continue to live our lives juggling wants, needs and expectations in a perpetual quest to find the right balance.

     Having enough is not always about the possessions or the money per se, but more often about what those assets come to represent. In an essay about the “post-economic” super-rich (those who have no financial need to work), writer Alex Williams describes the pursuit of wealth as a competition with others that turns into a personal addiction. (“Why Don’t Rich People Just Stop Working?” The New York Times, Oct. 17, 2019) Studies of the super-rich over the years have often shown that those at the top tend to work longer hours and spend less time at leisure even when longer and harder cannot possibly enhance the bottom line. Evidently, they just don’t know how to stop; their entire raison d’être comes from capitalism and their relentless pursuit of success becomes a lifestyle drug. Without more projects, more goals, or more money, these individuals face a loss of personal identity and an existential void. There is never enough to allay those fears.

     But more than enough does register with some.  Witness Bill Gates’ and Warren Buffett’s Giving Pledge, in which a growing number of billionaires in American and around the world have pledged to give away at least half their wealth during their lifetimes or in their wills. While philanthropy will not solve the problems of income disparity, the moral obligation to share the outsized wealth of a few can address some of the social and cultural needs that government cannot. Philanthropy is truly the gift that keeps on giving; foundations such as those created by 19th century families of great wealth such as the Carnegies and the Mellons are still operating and contributing today.

       Wealth and well-being are relative concepts in every age and at every socio-economic level. What sociologists call the “relative income hypothesis” is a normal human tendency to compare ourselves with others around us. Such comparisons activate some of our best impulses — a generosity of spirit and a willingness to share our own good fortune — and some of our worst — jealousy and resentment at the good fortune of others. Either way our attitude depends on how we define enough. To paraphrase an oft quoted maxim, “Gratitude is the attitude that what we have is enough.”  

     With the season of Thanksgiving upon us, this is a good time to take stock, to look at the life we have and to evaluate how well we are living it. Perhaps a few “attitude adjustments” are in order to make those prayers at the Thanksgiving table more meaningful and sincere this year.  Whatever you do, though, keep the prayers short and simple, lest someone blurt out “Enough already!” 

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Close To Home

  Halloween is commonly considered a time when the barrier between the physical and the supernatural worlds is especially fluid.  The late fall holiday has its origins in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, when the dead were thought to freely roam the earth. People would lite bonfires to ward off evil spirits and wear costumes to deceive ghostly relatives who might kidnap them and whisk them away to the underworld. In 835, as an attempt to diminish the influence of  “pagan” celebrations, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 an official Catholic holyday to honor saints and martyrs. It is called All Saints’ Day and is still observed by Catholics and some Protestants today, but it never really supplanted the traditions of Samhain. 

       Over time, October 31 became known as All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, and adapted many of the practices of the ancient Celts. The secular holiday was largely popularized in 19th century America through Irish immigrants who brought their customs and beliefs, both Celtic and Catholic, across the Ocean. But of course, here they encountered a New World, a land of genuine optimism that had long since set aside old superstitions in favor of practical progress toward a modern age.  Thus, the American incarnation of Halloween had to mock old-world fears and lampoon evil spirits with its costume parties and frightful fun. Today, the scariest thing remaining about Halloween in the U.S is the amount of money spent on it  — about $9 billion last year. 

     So this is how we got to the itchy latex masks, the tacky polyester costumes, the ghoulish props of blood and bones, the bats, the cats, the rats and all the other common accoutrements that make Halloween not scary at all. Even the haunted houses and midnight horror movies promoted around the country are so full of character clichés, gratuitous gore, and elements of ridiculous melodrama that you end up more likely to die laughing than to die of fright.

     Such silly nonsense. When I was a girl, I handed out candy to little goblins and occasionally attended parties with some friends, but mostly I avoided all the craziness and stayed close to home on Halloween. We lived with my grandmother, who had been born in the 19th century, and thus was already quite old; she was not exactly a fun-loving person. Like so many children of European immigrants (German, in her case), she was extremely superstitious, she read cards, believed in charms and curses, and had her own first-hand tales of mysterious characters and local legends to tell. She did not take Halloween lightly and certainly did not think the day was suitable for frivolous merry-making. Call it schadenfreude if you wish, but I loved sitting at the kitchen table after dinner listening to her stories of dastardly deeds and fitting endings dealt by the hand of fate, and I carefully weighed her warnings about the evils lurking all around us.   

     My Mother, on the other hand, was a fun-loving person. She decorated the house, baked cookies or cakes, and improvised fun craft projects for every holiday. I’ve written here before about the elaborate birthday parties she/we planned, often employing a Halloween theme for my early October celebration. An accomplished miniaturist, she made and furnished the haunted house pictured above for my 46th birthday, and shipped it to me in Connecticut!  It stands as a model not only of her sense of fun and her love for me, but also as a vivid reminder of all those Halloweens she and I shared.

     My Mother was not a superstitious person, but she was a reader and enjoyed murder mysteries and Gothic tales. One of her favorite authors was Edgar Allen Poe. While my grandmother shared “true” stories of  local mayhem and misfortune, my Mother shared literary classics such as “The Black Cat” and  “The Tell Tale Heart.” Needless to say, I took to these tales and to others like them, perhaps because I am naturally inclined to contemplation in the dark days of fall and winter.  Even now as a fifth-generation American, all those early authors, Hawthorne and Wharton and Bierce, speak to my ancient Irish, German, and English roots in their depictions of the physical, spiritual and psychological underpinnings of ancient fears. These depictions are not usually overt; they are subtle, implied, suspenseful, and all the more frightening because your own imagination fills in the blanks. It is in literature, especially in American literature, that the true terrors of Halloween —  the existential fear of the unknown and the recognition of our own mortality — find meaningful expression. 

     My favorite Halloween story was, and still is, Washington Irving’s tale of the headless horseman in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The headless Hessian was supposedly decapitated by an American cannonball during the Battle of White Plains, which took place around Halloween in the Revolutionary War of 1776. This harrowing but humorous tale presents Ichabod Crane, a hapless Connecticut schoolteacher, in arduous pursuit of the comely Katrina Van Tassel, daughter of a wealthy Dutch aristocrat. Returning at night from a party at the Van Tassel estate, where the men had reveled in shocking ghost stories and boasted of encounters with the horseman, Ichabod soon finds himself being pursued through Sleepy Hollow by the Hessian himself. At least we think he is actually pursued. In any event, Ichabod disappears and is never heard from again.  Imagine my delight when, years later while living in Connecticut,  I realized that the setting of this famous tale (and the author’s home) was merely a short drive away over the Tappan Zee Bridge to Tarrytown, NY. 

     There are other headless horseman stories, of course (including one based on a South Texas folk tale about an Irish adventurer in the War with Mexico), and many more Gothic tales of  horror and suspense, but the point is that classics endure because they are authentic and meaningful no matter how many times we revisit them. They force us to confront the fundamental truth of our existence whether we want to or not, and dare us to persevere in spite of our nighttime fears. Now if that isn’t a real trick-or-treat proposition, I don’t know what is!

      So, if you want to be safely spooked and spiritually enlightened this Halloween, stay in your house, eat some candy, and read — unless, of course, your house is haunted.

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Friday Night Sounds

 

For most people, the sounds of fall are rustling leaves, a whispering wind, or maybe the mournful whistle of a distant train. For me as a girl growing up, the unmistakable sounds of fall were the cheering crowds, the drumming bands, and the exuberant exclamations of Friday night football announcers at the stadium not too far from my house. When the air was clear and the wind was just right, I could hear it all, envision it all as I sat out in our swing on the front porch. I would smile and listen and dream about being in high school myself one day and becoming part of it, maybe even becoming a cheerleader. 

     Now you might think that all the drama of Friday Night Lights, in the book (1990), the movie (2004), and the television series (2006-10), was somehow a gross exaggeration of the intrigue and importance of the high-school football scene, but you would be wrong. For countless small communities — and even some not-so-small communities, like San Antonio — high-school sports, especially football, embodies the essence of school pride and serves as the centerpiece of social life in the community (pep rallies, parades, fund raisers, overnight trips, athletic scholarships, school championships, and awards dinners). Moreover, football figures prominently in the social hierarchy of the school: the quarterback, the team captains, the MVPs,  the cheerleaders, the pep squad, the Homecoming court, even the coaches and the adults in the booster clubs. These are always popular members of “the in crowd”  in town because football, especially in Texas, is not only a BIG thing, but likely the ONLY thing going on.

     Of course, times are changing and so is awareness. While football remains far and away the number one most popular sport in America, safety issues, especially Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), have become major risks even for professional players (note this weekend’s concussion of Pittsburgh Steelers’ Mason Rudolph), much less for younger boys whose growing bodies and defensive skills have not yet fully developed. The result is that youth participation in the sport continues to drop. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, 20 schools nationwide have eliminated football altogether,  including junior varsity and freshman programs; fewer than 1.04 million high school students played in 2017. (Bogage, The Washington Post, 8/28/18)  Add increasing district costs, demographic shifts, political controversy, collegiate athletic scandals, and growing interests among youngsters in other international Olympic sports to the parental concerns about gridiron injury and it’s easy to see why football at all levels is undergoing something of a “market correction” these days.

     Even so, fall is still synonymous with football for most Americans, and not just in Texas. I’ll admit that my fondness for the game today is rooted more in my high-school experiences than in any present devotion to the Texas Aggies or the Dallas Cowboys. You see, those long-ago dreams conjured by the Friday night sounds on my front porch did actually come true: I was elected cheerleader in 9th grade. My friends Judy and Nancy were elected too, proving at least in part that practice really does make perfect, or perfect enough. Our hours and hours of incessant jumping and tumbling and dancing, outdoors like popping corn in the heat, and indoors until window panes rattled, were “not for nothing.”   

     In our school, there were six cheerleaders, all female, elected by the entire student body. Popularity was part of it, of course, but performance and commitment counted for a lot. I can still remember that day as a freshman walking out into the middle of the huge gym to face the entire student body to give my speech about why I wanted to be a cheerleader (as though any girl in the audience needed to be told and any boy really cared) and to do my audition yell. I also recall swearing to myself that I would never pray for anything else in high school if I won that day; I considered it a small miracle when I actually did — and a bigger miracle still when I continued to win every year thereafter until graduation (and so did my friends).

       I was fortunate to be elected to other things and to receive other honors in high school, but nothing ever even came close to giving me the pride and the confidence and the teamwork that being a cheerleader did. I knew everyone, and everyone knew me. I extended my friendships far beyond the small cliques typical of most teenage girls and I built relationships not just within the school, but in the community at large. I grew into a leader, refining the skills of organization, communication, and motivation that would prove to be my strengths as an adult. Cheerleading even got me my first teaching job as a camp instructor for the National Cheerleading Association the summer before college! 

     You can say what you want about the cliché of being a blond Texas cheerleader, but I can tell you that there are worse ways to be identified. Years later, as a high-school English teacher in Connecticut, my students often referred to me as “a cheerleader” because I would never give up, not on a project, or a problem, or any of them. Even my Mother, bless her, in her later years after multiple strokes, used to joke that I was the proverbial cheerleader in her camp.

     The memories of all those long-ago Friday nights, the lasting friendships and positive lessons they generated, still comfort me and make me proud even now, especially as the South Texas weather begins to turn to echoes of fall and I celebrate another septuagenarian birthday tomorrow. Friday night sounds still echo in my head, and they’re good.