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Vive l’amour!

It hit 108.7° (42.6C) in Paris at the end of July, breaking a previous record of 104.7° set in 1947. The chief architect working on the Notre-Dame cathedral said he feared the vaulted ceilings damaged in April’s fire could collapse because of the rapidly drying support walls. “Il fait chaud, très chaud!” people moaned, as they fanned themselves. Tourists plunged feet first into the fountains of the Trocadero by the Eiffel Tower; Parisian women pulled their scarves from around their necks and soaked them in the waters of the Fountaine de la Concorde to cool their fevered brows.  Even the French find it hard to be stylish and sophisticated under such extreme conditions.

    My husband and I landed in Paris on our 50th anniversary. Somehow, the heat seemed welcoming and appropriate, since it had been 104° in South Texas on that July day when we got married half a century ago. The church where our wedding took place is one of the oldest in Texas dating back to 1824. Adjacent to it is the convent of the Sisters of the Incarnate Word,  coincidentally an order founded in 1625 in Lyon, France, from which five nuns ultimately came to establish a school for girls in my hometown. It is still in operation, albeit with more lay teachers than nuns; my Grandmother went there, my Mother went there, and so did I for 12 years. 

     Needless to say, the women in my family and the women in the convent share a long history, which in part explains why they were so excited to have me and my bridal party get dressed there on my wedding day.  They did the best they could to accommodate us in their antique-filled front parlor by moving furniture and bringing in full-length mirrors and huge standing fans. Of course there was no air-conditioning in this ornate Spanish Mission style motherhouse built in 1904.  In a scene reminiscent of Maria’s wedding day among the Sisters of Nonnberg Abbey in The Sound of Music, here were my six bridesmaids and I donning formal dresses and trying to perfect hair and make-up while extreme heat melted lipsticks and giant fans blew headpieces across the room with the hot force of a jet engine. 

     Memories of my wedding day kept coming back to me on our entire anniversary trip to France, prompted by the similarities of extreme temperatures, the lack of air-conditioning in old buildings, and the dominant influence of the Church and its cathedrals and convents in French history, art and culture. Moreover, since Paris was the home base of an international company for which my husband was working when we married, and through which he continued to build his career, that City has been a major presence in our lives over the years. He/we traveled there often, made friends there, and came to understand and appreciate all things French — especially the food and wines! 

     Paris is inarguably one of the most beautiful, most romantic cities in the world, so what better place could there possibly be to celebrate a marital milestone. Since we know the City well, we could just BE there, just walk and wander at leisure and enjoy each other’s company without the typical tourist burden of having to visit every iconic landmark and every major museum. As a plus, there were the summer “Les Soldes” (clearance sales) in July, just before French residents head off for their own vacations in August, which actually makes shopping in Paris almost affordable.

    I did my share of shopping, as always, for the exquisite papers and stationeries and beautiful tabletop linens. We stayed in a hotel right across from the Tuileries, on the Rue de Rivoli,  a perfect location from which to walk to the Place Vendôme, the Palais Royale, the Avenue de la Opera, and the Place de la Concorde, where the obelisk from Luxor is placed precisely on the site of the infamous guillotine of the French Revolution. Even with such a macabre history, this location is still inspiring and beautiful.  And of course we walked down the Champs-Élysées and over the Ponte de la Concorde to the Left Bank and and into Saint-Germain.

     On the night of our arrival, we celebrated our anniversary with an elegant dinner at a restaurant in Saint-Germain,  Brasserie Vagenende, a Belle Epoque establishment from 1904. It was exquisite. (And here’s that date of the motherhouse in my hometown again — another remarkable the coincidence.) The food and service were so wonderful and the ambiance soooo French and sooo elegant. Over the course of the weekend, we revisited other favorites, including the historic (and yes, touristy) hangout of 20th century writers and artists on the Left Bank, Les Deux Magots, and Harry’s New York Bar down from Le Opera on the Right Bank, the  infamous Hemingway watering hole and proclaimed home of the French 75 (which is one of my favorite drinks.) 

     And then, after our idyllic Paris weekend, we took the train to Lyon to board a river cruise  down the Seine through Burgundy and Provence. Our adventure continued. More about that later.

Vive La France!    

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We’re Golden

     Next week marks the 50th anniversary of a major event in American history: the Apollo 11 moon landing.  On July 20, 1969, at precisely 4:18 p.m. EDT, Neil Armstrong fulfilled the promise of a new generation by becoming the first man to set foot on a dusty surface some 238,855 miles away. Roughly one-fifth of the world’s population (500-600 million people) watched the moon landing on TV or listened live on the radio. My new husband and I were among them.

     I remember it all, all the excitement and anticipation as we raced to our hotel to get there in time to see Armstrong take “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” The poor cab driver. “We’re in a hurry,” we said by way of introduction,  as we loaded my nine pieces of overweight-over-limit, drag-it-all-along-with-you luggage into the car at the New Orleans airport.  “Hurry, hurry,” we urged as he made his way through afternoon traffic to the Monteleon. “We have to see the astronauts land on the moon!”  It was all so important, so fitting because, you see, we had each just taken significant steps of our own and made one giant leap together into the future. We had just gotten married!

     The celebration of wedding anniversaries goes back almost as far as the social institution of marriage itself, which historians commonly trace to the Holy Roman Empire. Traditionally, husbands crowned their wives with a silver wreath on their 25th anniversary, and a gold wreath on their 50th — if they lived so long. (Average lifespans in the ancient world are estimated to have been only 35-40 years.)  Legends of Methuselah aside, today’s improved health and longevity have made it possible for more and more couples to celebrate their golden wedding anniversaries. 

     Demographics show that roughly 7 percent of currently married couples have been married 50 years or more. I’m assuming those statistics refer to those married to the same partner and not to those with 50 cumulative years of serial monogamyalthough given the rapidly rising number of centenarians in America, it might be possible to be in a second marriage for 50 years. But I digress …  The point is that those of us hitting this landmark have defied the odds of both death and divorce and have weathered together all the other unexpected obstacles in life to get here. We deserve to celebrate!

     Our son, old enough now to be celebrating anniversaries of his own were he married, has been anxious about what he might do for us to mark this special occasion. When we lived in Connecticut, we had a big party with a renewal of vows for our 25th, so he asks, “Can I throw you an anniversary party?” We laugh and demur; we don’t have enough friends where we live now to fill our dinning room, much less a hall. “How about a bigger TV or a new mattress?” he suggests — both of which he thinks we really should have. Bless him, he keeps trying.  Finally, we agree to a new barbecue smoker and a plan for a long weekend for the three of us together on the Gulf Coast later this summer. At this point in our lives, my husband and I really don’t need any more “stuff.” As friends and family members fade away, all we really want more of is time, time spent with each other and with those we love.

     In the early days of my career as a writer, I specialized in weddings and marriage and was a contributing editor to Modern Bride Magazine for several years. I interviewed numerous couples at various stages of their unions, consulted many counselors and family therapists, did “on site” research at catering venues, wedding expos, and in bridal shops (including spending the day as an “undercover consultant” in the famous Kleinfeld’s bridal salon in New York). It was what I always called “happy writing,” in that people were delighted to talk about their romance and relationships and yes, with hindsight humor, even their wedding-day disasters. Through writing three books and hundreds of articles on almost every aspect of planning a wedding and creating a new couple-family, I not only learned about the whole bridal industry, but I also gained deeper insights into the hopes and values couples brought to their married lives. Inevitably, every story, every interview, every anecdote gave me yet another perspective on my own.

      Couples celebrating landmarks are often asked what makes for a successful marriage. Dear, dear parents of a childhood friend of mine who were married 75 years before one of them died were asked on a celebratory cruise to cite their secret of marital success. “Be kind,” she said. “Do whatever she tells you to do,” he replied. People laughed and nodded assent at such sage advice.

     If anyone asks me that question, my answer would be simple: the freedom of choice. You see, my husband and I were both raised by young, prematurely widowed mothers, which explains a lot about our natural compatibility. We both eschew traditional gender roles, for example, because we watched our mothers do it all; we both share a keen awareness of the vicissitudes of life, so we never fail to be grateful and to enjoy what we have while we have it; and we both believe in planning for self-sufficient adulthood with a good education, a strong work ethic and practical life skills. Thus, we came together as independent people with goals and dreams of our own, but with the same expectation that any  meaningful partnership has to be built on strength and equality. Marriage is but one lifestyle choice among many, after all, not simply the default mode.

    We chose to get married because we wanted to, not because we needed someone else to complete us, and we have continued to choose to be married because we wanted to, not because we had to, or were in a rut, or ever felt we had no other choice. There is always a choice. Every time either of us comes up the driveway, we are reiterating that choice, reaffirming our commitment, and recognizing that home is wherever the other one is. We choose, and we are chosen; we love and we are loved. Could there be any better formula for marital success than that?

     Sometimes, like when  I come home to a power-washed message writ large on the driveway as I did just the other day, I have to marvel at our 50 years. I would have no more foreseen this back in the day as “a man in the moon,” as they used to say.  But then, there was one. Happy Anniversary.

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In the Cloud: Part 2

      Bexar BiblioTech is the first and only all-digital public library in the United States. It is here in San Antonio, in the 7th largest city in the Country with the largest Hispanice majority population (64 percent) and the second highest poverty rate (after Detroit) among America’s 25 largest cities (U.S. Census Bureau 2017).  San Antonio also ranks 60th in overall literacy, so it’s probably safe to assume that we suffer a digital divide here, as well as a language/cultural divide. 

     You must be a resident of Bexar (pronounce with a silent x) County in order to obtain a library card. The first location opened on the City’s south side in 2013, the second on the west side in 2015, and the third on the east side 2018. I mention locations because poverty, under-performing  schools, and immigrant populations are clustered in certain areas. Bexar BibioTech  (the name itself an appropriate adaptation of biblioteca, the Spanish word for library) had over 400,000 visitors in the first four years. Obviously, this is an urban idea whose time had not only come, but was long overdue.

     Digital access has been available at large public libraries for years and many colleges have had all-digital libraries, but Bexar BiblioTech is the first totally bookless public library. Patrons can check out           e-readers, access books, data bases and other resources for use on their own devices from the cloudLibrary app, and even obtain personal hot-spots to use at home where there is no available internet. All of this serves both an underserved and a mainstream population, and it comes at a fraction of the cost of a physical library. The reader-writer-teacher in me is proud of San Antonio for this innovation to encourage literacy and make information and technology more broadly accessible.

     But yet …  There are human trade-offs to life in the cloud and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that since my last post.  Browsing among bookshelves can provide serendipitous discoveries, especially in libraries that still use the Dewey Decimal System of classification that arranges volumes according to disciplines and fields of study. You might say the Dewey was sort of a precursor to internet surfing, in that once you located your desired book, the ones next to it and then on down the shelf would both relate to and then expand on the topic. Those time-suspended hours of diversion and delight going “down the rabbit hole” in library stacks are among my most magical, and most valuable childhood memories. 

     Yes, I love my Kindle, and it sure beats paying overweight baggage fees for all those books we readers drag on vacation, but somehow curling up and snuggling with a Kindle is not the same, even in a coach seat. It’s about the “feel of a book,” the actual picking up and looking through and browsing when you don’t know exactly what you’re after.  Yes, Amazon allows you to take a “look inside” before you buy,  but you can’t examine the book jacket, feel the heft, or peruse pages of your own choosing.

     I’ve always maintained that, outside of the special people in my life, books have been my closest companions so I am, admittedly, persnickety about them. But it occurs to me that the sensual — the touching, tasting, smelling, seeing and hearing — is really what’s missing from living in the cloud. For example, unless you’re ordering something you already have, how can you shop for perfume without smelling it, fabrics without feeling the weave and texture, or shoes and clothes, particularly intimate apparel, without trying them on? There are no samples to taste from food emporiums on-line, no testers to verify the color and consistency of beauty products, no actual displays of sheets and towels and dinner plates to help you gauge the quality and finish of home goods. 

     People keep predicting that brick-and-mortar stores are going the way of the dodo bird, but how many of us continue to go to a retail store to look for an item before we come home and buy it on line? (This rather duplicitous activity probably explains why there are so many shoppers in malls without any shopping bags.)  Our physical senses inform our choices and the opinions of others, salespeople and shopping companions, validate our decisions. Since the beginnings of commerce in souks and stalls and storefronts the world over, the human interaction, the give and take and bargaining and arguing, has been part of the fun of shopping and the satisfaction with the purchase. 

     The human voice —its tone, rhythm, inflection, mood, emotion — needs to be heard. My mother always said that she knew exactly how I was and what had been happening from the moment I said “hello” on the telephone.  I used to tell my students that the best writing allows you to “hear” the author’s voice on the page, but even with all CAPS and exclamation marks, you can hardly establish much of a voice in a routine e-mail or a limited character twitter feed. At least I-Tunes lets you hear a few bars of music before you download the song!

     And so we come back to the telephone, which is where I began a couple weeks ago. An update: the U.S. House of Representatives is about to consider a a new anti-robocall bill called “The Stopping Bad Robocalls Act” (original, huh?). Supposedly, it will slow down and penalize some of the nearly 5 billion robocalls that targeted Americans’ mobile devices last month alone. Not only are the unrelenting calls annoying, but now they have become downright dangerous as they compromise personal information and overwhelm critical communication lines to hospitals, doctors, and other important responders. The FCC will be charged with enforcing the new law and with trying to deter any new robocall technology. 

     So, will politicians support the effort by limiting their own soon-to-begin campaign robocalls? I doubt it. Maybe I’ll just get rid of my landline.

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Living in the Cloud

     There was a time when my phone rang almost constantly while I was at home, and my answering machine filled up with call-backs when I wasn’t — and I KNEW all these people and wanted to talk to most of them.  I liked talking to them. That was then. Now my phone hardly rings at all, and when it does, I generally don’t even answer it. So, what happened between then and now?

     Automated technology happened, which better enabled those annoying telemarketers to fill up your phone machine with messages during the day, and to interrupt your restful evenings with unsolicited pitches at home, especially during dinner-time.  In order to facilitate compliance with the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, the Do-Not-Call Implementation Act of 2003 was signed into law by George W. Bush. The FTC’s Do-Not-Call registry list began that June. We all started signing up, but it wasn’t always easy to do. Success of the effort was sporadic at best, and temporary, since mechanisms for automated dialers and access to number directories expanded faster than the registry’s ability to keep up. 

     So then what happened? Mobile devices happened. First there were pagers and beepers — important tools of communication not only for emergency responders and those in vital need-to-reach positions, but soon enough for the self-styled-self-important everywhere, including drug dealers. High schools made “no pagers” part of student dress codes. (I know, I was teaching.) BlackBerry introduced its e-mail pager in 1999, then its phone in 2002, and CEOs everywhere rejoiced. President Obama loved his BlackBerry so much that, in spite of security concerns, he insisted before his inauguration that staff would have to “…pry it out of my hands.” (They didn’t and he kept it until 2016.)

     Cloud computing happened next in 2006, the I-Phone was introduced in 2007, and the rest, as they say, is history. Not surprisingly, congress passed the Do-Not-Call Improvement Act of 2007, designed to extend the reach of registry regulations from landlines to fax machines to cell phones. It took effect in February, 2008, but it was too little too late. By then we were all “living in the cloud.”  Social media and digital communication have defied regulation and dissolved personal restraint ever since. We now find ourselves constantly assaulted by telemarketers, text messages, and twitter tantrums on our cell phones, and incessant robo calls and messages on our landlines (if we still have them). 

     And that’s what happened between then and now.

     Now don’t get me wrong: I love my I-Phone, my I-Pad, my I-Mac, even my outdated I-Pod. These products have offered I-Me safety, convenience, accessibility, and happiness. For us baby-boomers, the first generation to be generally proficient in technology and digital communications, electronic devices will prove to be even more of a godsend as we grow older. Loss of physical mobility will no longer mean a complete loss of independence and isolation in our own homes. We can (and do) stay connected to the world and with friends and family far away; we can (and do) manage routine chores such as shopping, banking and paying bills; we can (and do) entertain ourselves through movies, music, videos and books; and we can (and do) continue to learn and grow through on-line classes and tutorials. Why, we can even run a home-based business! 

     All this electronic convenience comes at a cost, however, for young and old alike.  Ironically, while our computers and smart phones were supposed to enhance communication, the loss of the human touch in the quest for efficiency seems to have eroded it. I watch young people, ostensibly out on a dinner date, sitting with their faces to their cell phones instead of to each other; I see people in church spending much of the service texting on their smartphones; I find that business agreements are routinely done through e-mail, which in turn serves as the contract itself, sans signature. No one actually talks on the phone anymore, they don’t even leave voice mail, preferring to text instead. We’ve all lost our voices, literally and figuratively, in the abrupt, time-sensitive demands of simply “messaging.”

     Psychologists and sociologists have long warned of the lack of development of mature language and interpersonal skills among those who confine themselves in a digital world, but that’s just the least of it. The explosion of social media has obliterated behavioral norms, invaded personal privacy, promulgated false information, encouraged bullies and voyeurs, and rendered the nuances of artful conversation and the civility of public discourse totally irrelevant. After all, it’s so much easier to be threatening, intrusive and obnoxious, even downright offensive, when you’re not face-to-face.

     These days, rather than enhancing communication, it seems that living in the cloud has brought us into the fog — the fog of war between multiple factions: classes and cultures, men and women, liberals and conservatives, religious and secular, and on and on and on. We’re not only not communicating, many of us are hardly speaking to members of our own family! 

    Now as we enter  the ridiculously premature campaign for the 2020 elections, we will be back to where we began, back to the intrusiveness of still more robo calls and messages from political organizations promoting candidates, fund-raising, and polling  ALL of which are exempt from the Do-Not-Call rules. 

     Oh well, the registry never really worked anyway…

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Memorial Day

      Most Americans know that Memorial Day honors the men and women who died while serving in the U.S. military. What people might not realize, however, is that Memorial Day had its beginnings right after the Civil War. By 1866,  many towns and cities had already begun paying tribute to some of the 620,000 soldiers who had fallen (roughly two percent of the population at the time, and more lives lost than in any other war since) by decorating their graves with flowers in the springtime and remembering them with prayers and ceremonies. In 1868, General John Logan, the leader of an organization of Northern Civil War veterans, called for a national day of remembrance; it was named Decoration Day and set on the 30th of May. 

     Decoration Day continued to honor the Civl War dead into the 20th century, but as America became embroiled in more wars, WWI and WWII especially, the holiday evolved to commemorate all American military who died in all wars. In 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees. The last Monday in May was designated. That law went into effect in 1971 and Memorial Day officially became the federal holiday that it is today.

     UN-officially, Memorial Day is also considered the start of summer for millions of American school children and their families.  In many states, schools are out by the end of May, the weather is warm enough to open swimming pools, and traffic begins to build on roads headed to the beach — even in New England where it is still most likely too cold to swim. Monarch butterflies and migratory birds — songbirds and shorebirds, including Florida’s “snowbirds”— are all headed home.  Patios and decks get cleaned off, gas grills get fired up, and automobiles get checked out and tuned up for those weekend trips. 

     When I was a kid growing up in South Texas, Memorial Day ushered in a full three-months of summer vacation, days to spend as I pleased. And I was pleased to spend many of those days in and around water, down in Port Aransas or Rockport, where my friends’ families had bay houses, or at swimming pools, where friends had club memberships or pools at home. I was hardly an Olympic swimmer, mind you, but I loved swimming and diving and playing water volleyball. Everybody did. Even when my Mother and I took little summer vacations, we spent them at a hotel with a pool, on the Gulf in Corpus or Galveston or down at South Padre. In an era before universal air conditioning, being in or near the water was the only sure way to combat the oppressive Texas heat.

     By the time I was in high school, I had learned to water ski and had even taken up surfboarding (if you can believe it) on those “pint-sized pipelines” out on Mustang Island. It was the 60’s, after all, and we did live right along a Coast, even if it wasn’t in California.  “Good Vibrations” was the soundtrack of our lives. We watched all those beach party films, saw ourselves as Annette Funicello or Frankie Avalon, and promptly divided everyone we knew into two camps: the bikers and the surfers. Any doubt about which group was the cooler? 

     Of course, as I got older and moved on to college, I still wore my hair long, still grooved to the music of the Beach Boys and The Mamas and the Papas, and still made sure that I had at least two swim suit/cover-up sets at the ready for the summer, but I also began to realize that life was not always a beach and that lazy days lolling around the pool or “laying out” on the sand were harder to come by. I got summer jobs or took summer classes and, as the back-to-school days of August approached, I often lamented over how few days that year I had actually spent in a pool or on a beach. Gradually, Memorial Day came to signify a gateway day to bigger events, to college graduations, June weddings, and emerging adulthood into “the real world.”         

     I can’t say that I didn’t appreciate the youthful summer fun I had while I was having it, but as with most things, I probably also took much for granted — certainly the physical prowess that enabled me to do back flips off the diving board or to slalom on one ski. But memories die hard. When we retired back to South Texas ten years ago, the one thing I was adamant about was that we would have our own swimming pool in the back yard. And so we do, and it is lovely. My husband swims almost every afternoon from early April to late October. 

     Don’t ask me how often I swim these days, but the sounds of the waterfall are peaceful and soothing as I sit on the patio and read.

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Every book has an Acknowledgements page intended to make special mention of those who have helped the author complete the written project in some significant way. Acknowledgements may cite editorial or professional support, research or interview cooperation, informational or inspirational sources, or simply emotional and moral encouragement. I have had such pages in the front of my own books; the list of acknowledgements may be long or short, detailed or general, depending on the breadth of the work. A major book of non-fiction or an important academic treatise might have involved numerous interviews and multiple media sources, for example, while a slim volume of poetry might only need to identify those who have helped sustain the poet’s creative efforts.

     If you think of a life as a book being written while lived, then obviously the list of acknowledgements the “author” needs to make grows steadily over time.  Often those acknowledgements are made at pivotal points in the “author’s” life, on important occasions such as graduations, weddings, awards, or retirements — but only if the person is wise enough, and humble enough, to recognize that he/she couldn’t even survive all alone, much less achieve anything.  

     Sadly, sometimes acknowledgements are only made by others on behalf of the author in the form of eulogies or obituaries when the story is done. Frankly, that’s too little too late.  I have tried along the way to thank those people who have profoundly influenced my life and work, those mentors, colleagues, family and friends who have encouraged me and helped me to do my best and be my best self.  It isn’t always easy to see how significant the contributions of others are to your life at the time, but with age comes the clarity of hindsight and the opportunity to address any oversights. 

     Now stay with me here, because I’m about to make a segue that might not seem to make sense.  Since I’ve been in the throes of “spring cleaning” (see April 5 post), I’ve realized that  acknowledgement is a necessary part of clearing out and trying to simplify. Those things — most especially books, but also other objects— that have contributed to who I am, what I know, and what I am able to do also deserve some recognition, even as their continued presence on my library shelves must be reevaluated. As I sort through my 1,500+ volumes and prepare my donation for the local library, I have nothing but gratitude for what these very real authors and their very real books have taught me. Next to the people in my life, books have been, and are, my closest companions. 

     I have, for instance, built a collection of gorgeous books on floral arranging, home decorating, tabletop and entertaining, not to mention cooking, clothing, tailoring, quilting, art and design. From David Tutera to Bunny Williams to Martha Stewart to Jacques Pepín, I have them all and I have learned from them. But I have to admit that the need for many of them has passed; at this stage, I have either mastered the skills they contain or no longer need to. 

     Inevitably, part of acknowledging these authors’ contributions to my life is to also acknowledge that certain periods in my life are over. I am no longer hosting elaborate dinner parties, no longer entering flower shows, no longer upholstering couches or making draperies. And so it is also with the corresponding accouterments of those times: the silver coffee service or the multiple sets of china and glassware; the numerous vases and containers for floral displays; the closet full of linens and serving dishes, the bins full of Waverly™ home fabrics. Of course, I appreciate the memories these things evoke, memories of decorating a brand new house or of fancy dinner parties with delightful friends, but these are not events that will likely be repeated. 

     Cleaning out a clothes closet brings about similar realizations. Besides the fact that some of my favorite garments no longer fit, I am now retired in Southwest Texas, not working in the Northeast. I don’t need heavy sweaters or tailored suits, and I certainly don’t need formal attire!. Except when I travel, my  everyday wardrobe consists mostly of yoga pants and t-shirts, albeit in those New York shades of grey and black. I will forever credit the great 5th Avenue department stores, Lord & Taylor, B. Altman & Co., and Saks Fifth Avenue, for teaching me how to “invest” in good clothes and achieve a timeless style, and I still associate particular garments with certain events, much as one does when hearing an “oldie but goodie” song on the radio. But once again, the needs and occasions for which those clothes were acquired are no longer part of my life.

     I could continue through a whole inventory of housewares and keepsakes and tchotchkes that must be reevaluated in my current cleaning frenzy, but you see where I’m going by now. Aging is a fact of life, and aging well is about acknowledging the past with gratitude, accepting the future with hope, and adjusting present expectations accordingly, whether those expectations involve physical limitations, emotional baggage, or lifestyle choices. 

     Actress-turned-philosopher Brooke Shields has been quoted as saying, “I persevere, and not just blindly. I take the best, get rid of the rest, and move on …”  True enough, but the less encumbered you are with “stuff” of any kind, the easier it is to move on.     

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Strolling Savannah

Said to be America’s first planned city, Savannah was initially laid out in a series of grids marked by wide streets and lush public squares, 24 of them to be exact, 22 of which still exist and still invite leisurely strollers and sitting people-watchers today.  General James Oglethorpe, who landed on a bluff along the Savannah River in 1733, founded Georgia, named it after King George II, and thus established the 13th and last of the original colonies in the New World. Savannah was Georgia’s first city and is still, arguably, its most beloved. 

     Savannah was thrust, rather abruptly, into the public spotlight in 1994 with the publication of John Berendt’s best-selling non-fiction narrative, Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil, later made into a movie starring Kevin Spacey and Jude Law. The murder of young ne’er-do-well Danny Hansford by wealthy art/antiques dealer Jim Williams in 1981 is the central event of the of the story, but the scandalous intrigues, eccentric characters, and romantic settings tell a parallel, equally-compelling story of Savannah herself.

     Berendt, a columnist for Esquire, spent eight years living between New York and Savannah, so he knew the city about as well as any outsider could. Ultimately, Midnight is a commentary on class and wealth, history and tradition, gentility and decay in a proudly Southern city. It is recounted with a talented writer’s realistic eye and a part-time resident’s understanding heart.  As a non-fiction novel, Midnight would do Truman Capote proud; it is a book I greatly admire and one I wish I had written. 

     But, I didn’t, so I did the next best thing: recently, I finally visited Savannah for the first time to inspect the exquisitely restored 18th and 19th century homes in the historic district (a restoration project in which Jim Williams was a leading force), to see the Mercer House on Monterrey Square where Williams lived and the murder took place, to gaze upon the serene statue of the “Bird Girl” that stood in Bonaventure Cemetery depicted on the cover of the book (she is now housed in the Telfair Museum due to hoards of tourists trampling the cemetery), and to sense the “ghostly presences” darting among moss-hung oaks in the morning mist. It’s all there just as described by Berendt and still attracting throngs of visitors every year, along with carriage tours and riverboat rides, art museums and historic landmarks, shrimp and grits and fried green tomatoes — and yes, Paula Deen’s The Lady and Sons Restaurant. 

     Rosemary Daniell, a Savannah writer, has pointed out that despite the city’s beauty, it has a dark side and that “…the present runs concurrently with the past” (quoted in After Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by Marilyn J. Bardsley). Having lived in Memphis myself for five years, I’d say that description easily applies to other cities in the deep South, cities such as New Orleans or Charleston, Richmond or Montgomery.  They display Southern charm and warm hospitality on the surface, even as their societies remain insular and immutable. Attitudes and prejudices have long, deep roots in old family trees and create a general distrust of outsiders that impedes fundamental social change even today. 

     Some variation of closed communities exist almost everywhere, of course, whether it’s in clubs and organizations, or schools and neighborhoods, but living in Memphis made me realize that Texans are not really Southerners in the generally understood way. First of all, Texas was late, last, and reluctant to join the Southern cause in 1861; its pro-Union Governor Sam Houston refused to pledge allegiance to the Confederacy. Much of the state was still a frontier during the Civil War years, and so only East Texas, where cotton and sugar cane were cultivated, was commonly considered part of the deep South, and a far westernmost  boundary of it at that.  Secondly, people in the rest of the State, including my own German immigrant ancestors, were busy establishing local law, developing land and cattle, and trying to acquire the renowned ranching skills of Mexican and Spanish caballeros. Thus, those Texans, along with the Native Americans who still inhabited the area, identified more with the culture and traditions of the West/Southwest than with those of the deep South. Most Texans still do. 

     And then, finally, came the discovery of oil in 1901 — and with it came all the roustabouts and wildcatters and fortune hunters that forever dispelled any pretensions of Southern charm and gentility.  Ironically, Spindletop, that first gusher, was in East Texas near Beaumont.  For a vivd picture of how oil and cattle came to dominate the Texas culture, read Edna Ferber’s Giant (or see the 1956 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson filmed near Marfa in West Texas). 

     Lest all this history and literature begin to bore, let me explain that for me part of the pleasure of travel is the anticipation of the trip, including the reading and “studying up” in preparation. Granted, books and films and travelogs can easily rely on clichés and promote stereotypes, and someone else’s view/review of a place can never serve as a de facto endorsement or dismissal, any more than a movie review or a restaurant critique can guarantee the appropriateness of that choice for a particular patron. Nevertheless, I try to learn as much as I can about a place in advance because, in spite of the delights of serendipity, I simply cannot imagine arriving cold without any historical or cultural context to enhance my understanding of where I am and what it means. I guess that’s the teacher in me, or the writer, or the skeptic…

     So, did I enjoy the trip to Savannah? Did I have memorable meals, get inspired by great art and architecture, and feel calmed by the gracious romance of those shady squares? Did the sight of riverboats down at the wharf make me smile, and did I even experience a bit of “serendipity” on an unexpected visit to Tybee Island?  Yes, emphatically, I did, and I enjoyed it all for several days while staying at the Planters Inn (where John Wesley’s parsonage stood in 1736). My review: Savannah is a great place to visit.

     But I wouldn’t want to live there.