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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!

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Fascinating Rhythm

 “Fascinating Rhythm” is an old, old George and Ira Gershwin song first introduced by Fred and Adele Astaire in the Broadway musical Lady Be Good in 1926. It has what Ira Gershwin described as “tricky polyrhythms,” which made it hard for him to write the lyrics, but easy for Fred Astaire’s frenetic singing and dancing: “Fascinating rhythm, You’ve got me on the go!” 

      It is also the kind of tune that is hard to get rid of once it gets into your head, and it has been stuck in mine lately. Perhaps that is more than just an odd coincidence, since I have been unusually preoccupied with the rhythms of my own life lately. Now that Covid has apparently abated (somewhat), I see that I’m expected to easily accommodate the “new normal.” Already I’m getting sideways glances for continuing to wear my face mask or surprised responses when I decline to attend a local meeting. So in addition to everything else I have to worry about, I now have a new, post-Covid adaptive anxiety! “Fascinating rhythm, You’ve got me on the go!”

     My “old normal” way back pre-Covid was every bit as frenetic as the Gershwin song. I was a whirling dervish of activity with organizations and functions and domestic projects and, of course, a steady schedule of international and domestic travel. Even though we are retired, my husband and I kept up the active lifestyle and social interactions that had characterized our pre-retirement professional lives, albeit in different ways. And then, almost two years ago to this day, all that stopped, completely. We were, in fact, packing to leave for Australia when Covid hit and suddenly the trip was cancelled and everything changed. Now I realize we weren’t alone in this abrupt to our lives, but for me, a real Type A hyperactive person, this was more than just a little interruption in the way that I lived my life, even my retirement life; this was cause to hit the reset button.

     It took me a while, as it did almost everyone, to recognize the fact that Covid was not just a temporary thing that was going to go away anytime soon, and it took me more than a little while to find a rhythm for this new reality. Once I had busied myself with cancelling travel plans, recouping costs, and commiserating with my friends, I settled into a reluctant acceptance of a long haul of restrictions and isolation. As did so many who found themselves at home 24/7, I threw myself into household projects and my creative life. Luckily, I write and I do art quilts, and those endeavors not only saved my sanity, but actually brought new satisfactions and improved my skills. I acclimated to the slower rhythm of my days, still setting modest goals and striving to accomplishing them, yes, but at a steadier and calmer pace. As year one of Covid turned into year two, I continued to create and communicate with my friends, albeit from afar, and I actually found this new way of life less hectic and more focused. I adjusted surprisingly well to a hermetic existence and, without outside pressures and expectations, I relaxed. Sometimes it takes a “time out,” even a forced time out, to recognize how fortunate we are and to be grateful for what we have.

     But now here I am coming into year three of a malingering pandemic. Having adapted comfortably to the sameness of endless days and having adjusted nicely to a slower pace, I am abruptly expected to get back in gear and get with the “new normal.” A part of me wants to, really  — I want to see my friends and go out to dinner and travel and have some fun and not be wary of everyone around me, but my rhythms have not yet recalibrated, nor am I entirely sure they ought to. 

     Oddly enough, today is the vernal equinox, a day when the hours of daylight and dark are equal. Centuries ago, it was considered the mark of a new astrological year, when people would perform rituals to clean out old energy both in themselves and in their homes. (Hence, the spring cleaning routines so many of us observe today.) On a deeper level, the equinox  is thought to represent a period of struggle between light and dark, of life and death, and so it highlights a need for finding balance. These spiritual interpretations of the equinox actually originated in ancient times, but seem especially relevant today when our world is so starkly divided between light and darkness and when balance and reason are in short supply. 

     Again, is it more than just a coincidence that the Senate just passed a law this week to make Daylight Savings Time the one official time of the Country beginning in 2023. With little discussion and even less fanfare, the law is nevertheless already controversial, because there are not not just two sides of argument on this issue, but three. It’s all about circadian rhythms, you see. Those against the law, including most scientists and sleep study experts, argue that this is the wrong time to adopt overall because Daylight time leaves the mornings darker and, thus, is more disruptive to sleep cycles and human circadian rhythms. A third group argues that we ought to leave things as they are because … well, that’s the way it’s been for ages. Who knows? But I will admit that I am finding my own wake/sleep cycle interrupted these first few days into Daylight Savings time. I can’t seem to make myself get up and do my morning walk in the dark, and I hate feeling sleepy while the sun is still high at 8 o’clock in the evening.  I guess I will adjust eventually — I do every year— but experiencing jet lag without the benefit of an overseas vacation is a real bummer.  

     So, here we are — the whole Country needs a reset. I’m going to have to get over my anxiety about interacting with others and gradually accept careful interactions; I’m going to have to brave the risks of limited travel (domestic, at least) in order to see friends and restore some social connections with those who are most important to me; I’m going to have to expand my days to include some activity with local groups and organizations; and I’m going to have to adjust the rhythms of my days going forward to achieve a reasonable balance between racing and meandering, 

     None of this is easy; rhythms are personal and habit-forming. Tonight’s super moon happens to coincide with this year’s equinox, and that won’t happen again until 2030. As I look out on that brilliant orb in the sky, maybe I’ll be inspired to dance in the moonlight. Fascinating rhythm. Can you get me on the go?

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A Winter of Discontent

     During the 40+ years I did not reside in my home state, the main thing I missed about Texas (besides my Mother) was the sky. The sky here is so wide, so blue, so often completely cloudless, and sometimes so spectacularly vivd that only photos of bluebonnets and Texas longhorns rival its replications on souvenir postcards. Because Texas is vast, the sky stretches from horizon to horizon, sometimes fully visible on vacant lots and open roadways  even in heavily-populated areas. When I was a small child, my father and I would lie on our backs in the open yard next to our house in the evening and look up. We would watch the shooting stars and he would describe all the constellations we could see. He died when I was only six, but even today, those lie-down lessons are some of my most vivid memories of him — and I still know my constellations. He was a pilot and he loved the sky. So do I.

     At this time of year, the sky is especially vivid in a winter sunset. We have had a particularly cold season this year, and that produces some of the same color as extreme heat does in the summertime. I don’t know the atmospheric particulars of these phenomena, but I always think of the old maritime saying: “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight; red sky in the morning, sailer’s warning.” Accordingly, a sky such as the one pictured above would indicate hope, at least for the next day.

     But I’m finding it hard to hang on to hope these days, having lost it so often after just the briefest glimmers over these last long and difficult years. Yes, Covid appears to be waning, at least for now, but there’s a giant collective hangover that won’t be cured with a simple Alka-Seltzer: inflation is up, the blame game is ugly, and the crazies are out in full force and running for office. With a dearth of sensible solutions, we’re banning books, buying guns, and cheering trucker convoys.  We are all still angry and tired and aggrieved and, most of all, lonely; we miss our friends, our former activities, our civil society, and our plans for the future. Even the much-anticipated winter Olympics, which might have brought devoted fans some new heroes and moments of inspiration, turned out to be, as a USA Today article proclaimed “…the strangest, most controversial, most unwelcoming Olympic games of our lifetime.” (Christine Brennan, February 20, 2022)  Unfortunately, having watched it all, I have to agree. Even the Olympics were reduced to a familiar cliché: unprecedented.

     And now there is the invasion of Ukraine to epitomize “the winter of our discontent,” with Russia’s own Richard III living in a world that hates him. As in the Shakespearian play, winter once again becomes a metaphor for a time of oppression and sadness, the sympathetic landscape for malevolent evil and ambition while Russian tanks role over snow-packed roads into Kyiv. (As Putin wages this military assault in retro-WWII style, will he remember what happened to German tanks when the land thawed?)

     Yet, irony of ironies, this outrageous transgression by a deranged dictator might ultimately be the source of our hope and salvation. Here are the moments of grit and determination the world has been looking for. Here is Chef José Andres and his World Central Kitchen feeding Ukrainian refugees at the Polish border; here are Ukrainians living elsewhere returning home to fight for their country; here are world relief agencies coming together to provide shelters with food, clothing and medicine for displaced persons; here are the Western nations, even the the notoriously neutral Switzerland, coming together to condemn Putin’s unprovoked aggression and coordinate serious  sanctions to deter him. And here is the young Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a former television comedian and winner of  “Dancing With the Stars,” emerging as a once-in-a-century leader and patriot by refusing to be bullied and by not abandoning the fight for freedom even in the face of what seems like insurmountable odds. “I don’t need a ride,” he said when the US offered transport to safety, “I need more ammunition!”  

     These are visions of leadership, patriotism, and humanity that have been missing in the world; these are visions of hope and inspiration that might finally free us all from the paralyzing fear of forces beyond our control and deliver us from still more winters of discontent. Faith in our better  selves is a powerful weapon, as Putin is finding out, and examples of that faith give us all hope whether we’re Ukrainian or not.

     So I will continue to enjoy the brilliance of these late-winter sunsets and try to muster the hope they promise for the next day. “One day at a time,” my Mother used to say. Isn’t that how we always make it through the long days of winter into the delights of spring?  

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Hearts and Flowers

 Because I’m a seamstress, I have plenty of holiday-themed table linens, so I spent this morning washing and ironing some of them and setting out Valentine’s decorations. As I was ironing (something I realize most people don’t do at all anymore, even for their clothing, much less for cloth napkins), it occurred to me that most people don’t put out many seasonal holiday decorations in their homes anymore either. Oh, they may put up a Christmas tree, or dye eggs to fill a basket at Easter, or set out pumpkins at the front door on Halloween, but unless they have a family with children, that’s usually about the extent of seasonal decorating. All my fuss over relatively minor holidays makes me something of an anomaly, I know.

     My grandmother, with whom we lived while I was growing up, was a real curmudgeon long before she had accumulated enough age to be entitled to an attitude (if you ever are). When birthdays or Christmas or other holidays rolled around, she would scoff Scrooge-like and say, “Nothing to it. Just another day of the year.”

     To which my Mother would reply, with unfailing good humor, “Well, Mom, nothing’s special unless you make it so.” That became my mantra: I choose to make it so.

     Years ago when I was teaching in a large, urban high school in Connecticut, I never let even minor occasions go unnoticed. I’d bring in themed cookies or snacks (that was when you were allowed to bring in food) or plan a little fun holiday game with prizes, and of course, I’d put up appropriate  decorations. For Christmas, when we weren’t allowed to display only religious symbols such as a tree or a menorah, I really went over the top with decorations not just for Christmas and Hanukkah, but also for other holidays celebrated by our students at that time of year: Kwanzaa, Dinali, Posadas Navideñas, Têt and the Chinese New Year, even Boxing Day for good measure. My classroom looked like a clearance sale at  Party City. The kids would laugh, and roll their eyes, but then bring in additional decorations of their own to add to the mix. “If you’re gonna’ go over the top,” they’d tease, “then you may as well go big!”

     Nothing is special unless you make it so, and everyone likes to feel special.

     Not surprisingly, I’m also a big greeting-card sender. A friend of mine in Connecticut owned the local Hallmark store where I distinguished myself as one of the very first Gold Crown Rewards card holders. “Keep sending those Hallmarks,” she’d urge every time I came into the store. “I’ve got two kids to send to college and that takes a lot of greeting cards.” (She did send both kids to college, by the way, and one of them grew up to become the largest, most successful Hallmark franchise owner in NewEngland. I like to think that I contributed to his success.)

     Social critics (like me) might criticize the stereotypical images of the perfect home and the perfect family often portrayed on greeting cards, and cynics (like me) might find fault with the saccharine messages too often found inside. Yet, an actual greeting card chosen with a particular recipient in mind, hand-signed and accompanied by a brief note, and then sent through the mail, beats a text message or an e-card in eliciting “specialness” every time, if for no other reason than it can be saved and enjoyed over and over again. I even use cards as decorations, especially the beautiful pop-ups so popular now. As those Hallmark commercials always proclaimed, “When you care enough…”

     I certainly don’t consider myself a romantic by any stretch of the definition, but I do care enough — about relationships, about letting those who matter to me know they are valued, and about sharing little things that can make us all feel special. That may mean decorating the house for holidays with my family, setting an inviting table even for routine dinners, or remembering birthdays, anniversaries, and other personal occasions. To a great extent, the cards and notes I’ve written and received, and yes, the phone calls and e-mails and e-cards too, have been the connections that have kept me from feeling so isolated and alone all through this pandemic, but more importantly, connections like that have enabled me, an only child with a small family, to sustain many life-long friendships that have spanned the intervening years and miles between us for decades.   

     So, bring on the hearts and flowers this Valentine’s Day and make all those you love feel special. Heck, make yourself feel special with some chocolates or a bouquet of roses.  After all, Valentine’s Day is not just another day.

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The Olympics are Here

 It’s winter and unusually cold here already in South Texas with several nights dipping below freezing and several days hovering just above.  After the devastation caused by last year’s severe winter storm, my husband is busily trying to protect his fragile flowers and shrubs with “plankets,” alternately covering and uncovering as the temperatures and sunshine shift. I, meanwhile, stay indoors. I don’t like winter, even a mild one.

     You’d think that after 40 years spent in Connecticut I would have come to at least some nostalgic appreciation for the beauty and calm of a snowy landscape, the homey scenes of all those Hallmark holiday cards, but nope. We went skiing with friends once up to Sugar Bush, Vermont. The landscape was beautiful and the weather was perfect for downhill and cross country — or so I was told. I spent the whole time drinking hot tea in the lodge and enjoying the fireside ambiance — when I wasn’t shopping for those cute only-in-ski-country sweaters in the shops.

     With that backstory, it might surprise you to hear that I am an avid, ardent, and fairly knowledgeable fan of winter sports, especially of the Winter Olympics, and most especially of the ice skating, skiing and ski jumping competitions. I trace that enthusiasm to one distinct source in my childhood: the Ice Capades. 

     Founded in 1940, the Ice Capades was a touring theatrical show featuring skating performances by former Olympic and national ice skating champions who had retired from competition. With its lavish costumes, daring choreography, and big-name stars, it was something of an icy Las Vegas review, only more family friendly. The shows toured cities large and small all around the country, and by the 1950s, it had become a popular theatrical event even in places like South Texas where ice and winter sports were decidedly unfamiliar.

     My Mother first took me to the Ice Capades in late October, 1958 (the 19th edition) at the Memorial Coliseum in Corpus Christi, Texas. Corpus was only a 90 mile drive, so we could easily go down and back, have a nice restaurant meal and attend a matinee performance all in one day. My memories of that first show (and subsequent ones in later years) are a little vague, anchored mostly by my Mother’s commentary on the stars we were seeing such as Sonja Henie (Norwegian-American three-time Olympic gold medalist, 1928, 32, & 36), whom I remember being applauded as something of a “grand dame” as she slowly waltzed around the rink on the arm of a younger male skater, although she was only in her 40s at the time; Frick and Frack, the famous slapstick comedy team (Frick with a new partner because Frack had become ill); and of course, those crowd-pleasing pinwheels, wherein a line of 32 skaters spun around (a move my Mother insisted was inspired by the Radio City Rockettes, which she had seen). And I clearly remember always being cold in the arena.

     The Ice Capades and similar spin-off shows (Ice Follies, Stars on Ice) were popular for several decades well into the 1990s, but by then, comprehensive television coverage of ice skating and other winter sports had educated the public and cultivated among us a preference for displays of competitive skills over kitschy theatricals (the 1992 theatrical drama of the Tonya Harding-Nancy Harrigan scandal  notwithstanding). The first live coverage of the winter Olympics on American television was of the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley, California. CBS paid $50,000 for coverage rights. Trusted news anchor Walter Cronkite hosted the telecasts on-site, and Olympic men’s gold medalist Dick Button (1948 & 52) pioneered the role of ice skating commentator, a role he continued to dominate on television regardless of network for 50 years. 

     I was one of those who started watching the winter Olympics in 1960, and have seen every one since. I have vivid memories of favorite ice skaters and their signature moves:  perky Dorothy Hamill (gold 1976) with her distinctive haircut and the Hamill Camel still done today; Michelle Kwan (1998 silver and 2002 bronze) and her effortless, gliding change-of-edge spiral; Scott Hamilton and his back-flips on ice (four US championships and Olympic gold in 1984); Brian Boitano (gold 1988) with his one-hand-over-head jump called the Tano; the beautiful East German Katerina Witt whose moving routine to music from Schindler’s List won her gold (in 1984 & 88) without even attempting an axel; and fancy foot-work dancer Kurt Browning of Canada, a four-time Canadian champion, four-time World champion and three-time Olympian, who was actually the first men’s figure skater to land a quadruple toe loop at the World’s competition way back in 1988.

     But beyond them all, there was still my forever favorites, ice dancers Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean from Great Britain, with their Olympic gold performance to Ravel’s Bolero in 1984. It actually moved me to tears as I watched it live from Sarajevo, and I can still visualize every move of their routine when I hear the music today. The control, the passion, the perfect synchronization between music and movement. Their skill and expression netted a perfect artistic score of 6.  

     Ice skaters were always my favorites, but there are other Olympic greats I remember: Jean-Claude Killy, 1968 Grenoble triple gold medalist in Alpine skiing, who became an international heartthrob and star, along with ice skater Peggy Flemming, who was the only American to win a gold medal that year; Noriaka Kasai of Japan, the only athlete to compete in eight winter games, who took the silver medal in large-hill ski jump at Sochi in 2014, which made him the oldest ski jumper to ever medal; Bonnie Blair, American speed skater who dominated the sport by winning five gold medals and one bronze over three Olympic games (1988, 92 & 94); Apolo Anton Okno, American short-track speed skater who won eight medals over three games (2002, 06 & 10); Tara Lapinski, at age 15 the youngest female gold medalist in the winter games (in figure skating), 1998; and those famous underdogs, the four-man bobsled team from Jamaica, who didn’t win anything, but who brought out such good will and good-natured sportsmanship in Alberta, Canada, in 1988.

     In 1960, television offered about 20 hours of covered events; this year, NBC will offer over 200 hours of coverage on their major networks (NBC, CNBC and USA, plus streaming on Peacock). Because of Covid restrictions, the games will be coming to you from — are you ready?? —the NBC studios in my old hometown of Stamford, CT, where roughly 900 announcers, technicians, and support staff will manage coverage from afar (with some technical and support staff in Beijing). 

     Covid or no Covid, I’m excited. I’ve already planned my easy-prep meals and invited ourselves, with bring-along dinners, over to our son’s house to watch his humongous TV. (This is our version of “the big game,” though I’m afraid I am not an ice hockey fan even at the winter Olympics.)  I will be watching Nathan Chen in men’s ice skating and expecting Shaun White and Chloe Kim to each capture gold again in snow boarding. I’m also looking forward to the new sports of big air skiing, mixed-team ski jumping, mixed team skating relays, and mixed-team aerials. And guess what else? The Jamaicans are back! They have qualified both a four-man and a two-man bobsled team, and for good measure, have their first female athlete in the monobob (another new event). 

     The 2022 Winter Olympics are here and it’s going to be great. Maybe the Jamaicans can help thaw the world a little, and I won’t have to be cold in the home arena.

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Afternoon Delights!

     Wayne Thiebaud died on Christmas Day. He was 101. The name probably doesn’t mean much to you — it didn’t to me either until a few weeks ago —but you would no doubt instantly recognize his delightful paintings of cakes, pies, and ice cream cones. Often associated with the Pop Art movement of the 1960s, Thiebaud hardly shared the consumerist satire of Pop artists like Warhol however; rather, he celebrated the simple objects of everyday life with playful honesty and genuine respect. Whether it’s a piece of pie, a pair of shoes, or a picturesque landscape, each subject is given his undivided attention and elevated from the merely mundane to the realm of reverent nostalgia. His art inspires us to notice.

     Now that we are in the throes of yet another Covid wave and in the thick of the cold, grey days of winter (even here in South Texas), I have been looking to be inspired for my next art quilt project, something light and humorous. For some reason, I had started thinking about macaroons, visualizing them lined up on a table, “marching,” if you will, toward an afternoon respite. I even  had a title: “The March of the Macaroons.” Never mind that I don’t really like macaroons myself, they are colorful and cute and would be well suited to the small composition I’m planning to donate to a silent auction fund-raiser at my Studio Art Quilts convention later this spring.  

     Not only do I not like macaroons, I don’t bake them or buy them either, so that meant that I had to do some research on the assorted kinds and colors commonly made.  And it was in the exploration of macaroons and their many, many manifestations on Pinterest that I discovered, or should say re-discovered, the artwork of Wayne Thiebaud, thereby propelling me into one of those on-line detours down a rabbit hole so familiar to researchers everywhere. 

     I soon forgot all about my macaroon project and, instead, became engulfed in ah-ha moments of recognition as I explored Thiebaud’s cityscapes, landscapes, portraits, hats, shoes, fast foods, and of course, his “confections”. I ordered books from Amazon and notecards from Pomegranate; I read critical reviews of Thiebaud shows in newspapers and magazines,; I explored the work in his gallery, Acquavella, and…  And then he died. Here was an artist whose work I had often seen and admired over the years, and yet I hadn’t even known his name, much less how to pronounce it (T-bow). Shame on me for never bothering to find out.

     I read his obituaries and learned about his long and productive life. Still working and in his studio every day even at the age of 101, he was gone too soon I felt, before I had a chance to really get to know him. I was sad. But then, as if by some sort of timeless artistic magic, there suddenly appeared an exhibition of his work right here at our own McNay Art Museum in San Antonio: “Wayne Theibaud 100: Paintings, Prints, and Drawings.” Organized by the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento (Theibaud’s home city) in honor of the artist’s 100th birthday, this traveling exhibit is about as up close and personal as you could get to the artist, given how humble and unassuming he was, and given that it features many of his best-known works. The show at the McNay has been beautifully staged (see the stylized entry above) and designed to “…evoke reflection on our own experience with the people, places, and foods we love.” (McNay curator René Barilleux’s introductory statement) 

     After attending this exhibit last week, I came home enriched by new knowledge and inspired by new ideas. I was even motivated to take a three-hour ZOOM class on fabric painting! And now I am ready to begin my new little project. Forget macaroons. In homage to Wayne Theibaud, I’m going to depict the the foods I love from my childhood, the foods that evoke memories of shared afternoon delights with those I loved: treats plain and simple on a blue checkered cloth from the DQ (Dairy Queen.)  No, I won’t copy Theibaud, but I will pay attention to his aesthetic preoccupations with light, space, and color. 

     Ideas for my next project(s) always make me smile before I even begin, which is how I will get through what may prove to be another difficult year ahead. Meanwhile, that promise to practice an “attitude of gratitude” by writing my Christmas thank-you notes, which ended my last post of 2021, is sure to get completed now that I have those Theibaud notecards from Pomegranate to write them on.  That, in itself, is a winter’s afternoon delight!

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Romjul

   Okay, so the gifts are put away and the wrappings are disposed of, the leftovers have been eaten and the china has returned to the sideboard, the holiday phone calls have been made, the “Year in Review” has been written in the Christmas Memories book, the dates and appointments for 2022 have been entered on the new wall calendar, and the big tin of sugar cookies is all but empty. We are now in that period of interlude between Christmas and New Year’s, and all I’m feeling is the urge for a “long winter’s nap.”

     It happens every year, this listless week between one big holiday and the next. Work schedules are amended, normal routines are out of whack, and no one is even sure what day of the week it is. (Sounds like the years we’ve spent in Covid.)  This year, if you’re visiting friends you find yourself in someone else’s house with uncertain expectations and even less to do than if you were home; if you’re returning home from those visits, then you’re likely spending this week in a long winter’s nightmare rather than in a long winter’s nap — unless, of course, you’re sleeping in an airport. 

     Some people call this awkward time period “Betwixtmas” and blame the general ennui on the ever-expanding Christmas Creep of zealous merchandizing that seems to start counting down “shopping days ‘till” earlier and earlier each year. By the time the Big Day actually arrives, we’re all completely spent, both financially and emotionally. This holiday season, what with Americans’ absolutely defiant determination to have a “normal” Christmas, supply chain issues, extreme labor shortages, and ever-mounting Covid threats be damned, the pre-season shopping FOMO (fear of missing out) was worse than anyone ever thought possible. Holiday decorations were on display before Halloween here where I live, and Christmas trees, both real and artificial, were mostly gone by the first week in December.

      There are cultural traditions that can help weather the discomfort of this in-between period. For example, the British have Boxing Day on December 26, which has nothing to do with boxing, but which honors a practice begun under Queen Victoria in the 1800s. On Christmas Day, boxes were placed in the churches into which the wealthy could contribute gifts and money to be distributed to the poor the next day. Hence, “boxing day.” These days, Boxing Day is celebrated mostly with sports in the UK — rugby, cricket matches, horse races, and most of all, the sport of fox hunting.  Americans’ generosity of toys, gifts, and money to the less- fortunate during the Christmas season, as well as our enthusiasm for celebrating Bowl games and play-offs at this time of year, might be indirect interpretations of  the British Boxing Day.

     Catholics and Christians everywhere honor the Twelve Days of Christmas leading up to the feast of the Epiphany on January 6, also known as the Feast of the Three Kings. Various Christian cultures have different ways of celebrating this feast day, but Spanish cultures honor the Three Kings with a Rosca de Reyes or Three Kings Cake. It is round, shaped like a crown, with a small porcelain figure of the Baby Jesus buried inside. Whoever gets this slice of the cake must then provide the next celebration for everyone on Candlemas Day, February 2. No doubt you recognize the direct legacy of this tradition in the famous King Cake associated with Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

     And then there is Kwanza, which is a distinctly American celebration of African history and heritage held at exactly this time of year, from December 26 to January 1. Created in 1966 in the aftermath of the Watts riots by Black Power figure Maulana Karenga, the seven days of Kwanza honor the seven principles of African heritage. They are invoked with decorations of African art, traditional dress, music and dance, and communal meals, all intended to offer respect and gratitude to ancestors. Although originally envisioned as a cultural rather than a religious occasion, many African-American families today celebrate Kwanza along with Christmas and New Year’s. 

     Search as I might through all these different traditions, however, I am unable to find an antidote to my current restlessness and latent feelings of dread about the year ahead. If you’ll recall, in early December  I was, if not exactly hopeful, at least motivated to resurrect some of our own Christmas traditions and to take responsibility for my own holiday happiness (see “Making A List…” posted Dec.12). I did manage to address every preparation on that list, including touching base with all my far-away friends, mustering my anti-Covid courage to attend Christmas Eve Mass down at the Cathedral, and practicing the piano for my Christmas Day concert (awful though it turned out to be). But the legacy of holiday joy from my Mother has waned more than a bit, and now I’m just tired, and tired of.  What a difference three weeks makes, especially during the course of a pandemic.

     The Norwegians have a word specifically for the days between Christmas and New Year:  Romjul. Literally translated, it means “yule space,” a period of extra time with no expectations, not for anything nor of anyone. That concept suits me well right now and seems to be a reasonable attitude to adopt going forward. After all, who knows what the New Year will bring?

     Meanwhile, let me finish this year with an attitude of gratitude by writing some Christmas thank-you notes.

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Making A List …

  I’ve always been an avid list-maker, but “avid” is hardly the word for it this year— more like compulsive. Perhaps that’s because I’ve suddenly felt an overwhelming urge to revive some of our old Christmas traditions, most of which we haven’t enjoyed since my Mother was last here to supervise and to enjoy them with us. She was debilitated with a series of strokes in 2017 and then passed away right after Thanksgiving the following year. My spirit for the holiday season sort of passed with her, and Covid finished it off. 

     To say that Christmas was my Mother’s most favorite holiday is an extreme understatement. She was the ultimate Christmas Elf. She started planning for the next Christmas on December 26, hitting the sales to buy greeting cards at half price (something I still do) and looking for after-Christmas bargains for those who were always on her gift list the following year. By Halloween, she was wrapping presents; by Thanksgiving, she was addressing cards; by December 1, her tree was up, her house was decorated, and she was shipping boxes of gifts up East to us in advance of her usual holiday visit. By mid-December, she had organized a “tamalada” with her friends and made several dozen tamales to bring with her in her carry-on on the flight to New York (prompting other passengers to ask about the smell and other Texans on the plane to express a wistful jealousy). She had also made her famous chocolate fudge (to bring up) and sometimes, at my special request, even carried Texas barbecue and smoked sausage. It’s a wonder the entire flight of passengers didn’t erupt in a revolt of feeding frenzy!

     Before she retired, my Mother was a personnel manager at J. C. Penney’s, but through all those years she still maintained that indomitable Christmas spirit. She loved going to work with the store all decorated and meeting the excitement of all the shoppers, even though for her the holidays in retail meant long hours,  staffing headaches, and mediating customer complaints. When I was in high school, she let me and my best friend Judy work in gift wrap. That gave me a crash course in dealing with unruly, unreasonable customers (though my Mother was not sympathetic, since “The customer is always right” was the official Penney motto). To this day, however, I attribute my expert gift wrapping techniques, if not my lack of patience with unruly people, to that that early retail experience. 

     So, back to the present, to the list I’ve made in order to resurrect some of our old Christmas traditions. You can follow along if you’re interested (and I will post recipes and directions if you wish):

  • get the tree up (assemble the artificial one, new this year)     check
  • string lights outside on the fence and make new red bows    check
  • hang the big wreaths over the garage and front door check
  • put bows on the front grills of the cars                                     check
  • take useful, pretty decorations to Goodwill early                     check
  • decorate all rooms inside and cull decorations as we go  check
  • write Christmas letter for greeting cards                                check
  • hand-write and send out all greeting cards (130 or so)          almost
  • find recipes and shop for all baking ingredients                    check
  • make the fudge                                                                       check
  • make the biscotti                                                                    check
  • make the sugar cookies                                                          in progress
  • make the black/white cookies                                                in progress
  • make reservations for our Christmas Eve dinner                   check
  • order/send far-away gifts                                                        check
  • wrap gifts in house                                                                  in progress
  • dig out Christmas china and serving plates                            check
  • practice the piano for the Christmas Eve carols                     not yet
  • plan an outfit for Christmas Eve Mass/dinner                        on order
  • order the prime rib for Christmas Day                                    not yet
  • call close friends far away for an overdue conversation  in progress
  • clean up the whole house and make it sparkle                       check

If this list makes you tired, imagine how I feel. But I promise you, I will feel a whole lot better when it is complete. 

     I think this compulsion to recreate our Christmases past comes not from, frankly, an optimism about the future or a hope for the end of Covid or the resolution of the rancor of politics in the nation, but from a deep sense of gratitude for the years, and holidays, that I have enjoyed in my life. I have a legacy of joy from my Mother and a determination not to allow the state of the world to reduce my expectations for my own happiness in the years, and the Christmases, I have left. 

     So I’ve made my list and I don’t need to check it twice. It’s good. And I’m good to go. I hope you are too. Merry Christmas!