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Thanks for the Memories …

 Many of you will recognize the above phrase as being the opening of Bob Hope’s special theme song sung at the end of every performance, no matter where it was, on stage, on television, or on a USO tour in Viet Nam in the ‘60s. A comedian, actor, singer, dancer and famous emcee of the Academy Awards, Hope died at the age of 100 in 2003. Having led a truly rich and full life, he no doubt had plenty of memories to be thankful for.

     As we get older, memories seem to dominate our gratitude list at Thanksgiving. I know they do mine. Sure, we’re thankful for our health and our families and our friends, even our bank accounts and personal successes, but with decades of experience behind us we begin to see more than just particular blessings. Age brings with it the ability to take “the long view,” to see how the patterns of our lives have brought us to who and where we are and, yes, even to appreciate the enlightening gifts of tragedy and loss along the way. 

     When I was a kid growing up in South Texas, Thanksgiving wasn’t an especially big deal. First of all, my family was just the three of us in our house, my Mother, my Grandmother and I, and so we hardly mirrored a Norman Rockwell painting. We had no other relatives nearby, so we never traveled to see them or had a groaning-board of food surrounded by hoards of diners. Also, my Mother worked in retail (at J.C. Penney, so you know what that meant!); back then when department stores were open later hours during the holidays but before they were open on the holiday itself, she felt lucky just to have Thanksgiving Day off. No matter how late she had gotten home the night before, she would still get up at daybreak to put the turkey in the oven, (why did our mothers all do that???). We would spend the morning not watching the turkey, but watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade on TV. By noon, the turkey was beyond done, but the pies, usually chocolate and lemon meringue, were destined to be the stars of the show anyway. My Mother, bless her, was not much of a cook, but she was an avid baker.

     A few years later after I married and moved to New York, I was suddenly faced with more relatives, and more command appearances, than I knew what to do with. My Father, who was originally from New Jersey, had been one of six siblings, and my husband’s Mother, originally from Brooklyn, was also one of six. You can just imagine how many aunts, uncles, cousins, children, and significant others made up these families and traditions.

     As newlyweds, we lived in New York City. Since all my husband’s relatives were on Long Island, Thanksgiving meant schlepping out to Nassau County for Thanksgiving dinner, in what is even today crippling, gridlock-inching traffic on the Long Island Expressway. No matter how well we planned or how early we left, we usually arrived just before dessert, to my mother-in-law’s eternal chagrin. Of course, we never got to watch the Macy’s parade on television, much less actually go into Manhattan to see it. The brutal introduction to traffic congestion in the Northeast is perhaps my most vivid memory of those early Thanksgiving holidays.

     That, and the food. On the rare occasion that we actually arrived in time for dinner, I also faced a totally unexpected, and often un-recognizable, menu: pickled herring, creamed onions, sausage dressing that could have been mortar for a stonemason, mashed potatoes with turnips, and yes, another over-cooked turkey. The star desert was mincemeat pie!  Lots of people, loud kids, tables extended into other rooms to accommodate everyone — it all seemed to me to be as crowded and chaotic as the traffic on the Expressway. 

     We moved to another state for five years and, when we returned East with our small son, it somehow became our turn to host family get-togethers. We had lost some of the older patriarchs and matriarchs by that time, and since we lived in a house in Connecticut and had the room, we took on holidays. Naturally, everyone brought something for Thanksgiving — even the creamed onions and the pickled herring. However, I had become something of a cook myself by then, and so I integrated my cornbread dressing and Gulf shrimp platters and mashed potatoes without the turnips into the traditional menu. Our gatherings were still as loud and chaotic as ever, but by then I loved these people and enjoyed them all. Even with all the clutter of dishes, complaints about the traffic, and bouts of bad weather, we made our own version of a Rockwell poster.

     But Thanksgiving dinner was work — a lot of work. I was teaching, our son was in school, and our holiday break only began at noon on Wednesday. Time passed, family members relocated elsewhere or moved to Florida, and the three of us began regularly celebrating holidays with friends. Of course, we still fought the traffic. For several years, we went up to a shared condominium in Sugar Bush, VT. where everyone brought dishes for the dinner. But the drive, about 8 hours often in snow and ice, became arduous — and we weren’t even skiers.

     Next we began to join friends who owned a house on Cape Cod. I-95 could still be a beast if you didn’t time it right, but our friends were also teachers and they knew the driving tips and shortcuts. The first year we did that, we stayed at The Chatham Bars Inn in Chatham. Cape Cod at Thanksgiving became our “family tradition” for years, enduring long after our friends no longer had a home there. We three even spent the last Thanksgiving in 2019 at The Chatham Bars before the Covid pandemic. Maybe it wasn’t exactly our own Rockwell portrait, but we certainly inserted ourselves into one. There is simply nothing like New England at Thanksgiving.

     Now, three years later, it’s back to just the three of us around the dining table here in Texas, my husband, our son, and I. My Mother passed away in 2018, actually over the Thanksgiving weekend, which has left me with a lingering memory of a different sort, but I try to remember the joy and the laughter and the love, and even the grumpiness, I experienced through all those Thanksgivings over all the years. I try to say “thanks for the memories.”

     And I don’t cook. I purchase the entire dinner from a specialty market because whether you’re cooking for three or thirty, a holiday dinner is still a lot of work. 

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Too Many Hats, Too Many Hands

Today is mid-term election day, finally. Thank god. It seems as though we have been campaigning, fund-raising, polling, robo-calling, predicting, debating, and of course, mud-slinging for a full two years now. Too many hats in the ring, too many hands out for money. It is all quite simply too much.

     I hardly ever write about politics, it being a subject that has never been of particular interest to me and, in these polarized times, one that now only invites discord and disdain from those who don’t share your views. Historically, I have often split my vote among different parties, even independents, and supported candidates not on their party affiliations, but on their positions on the issues. I have been a registered-party voter for years, but never a straight-party voter. And I am one of those people who never responds to polls (even though I am a former journalist myself) preferring, if you will, to remain under the radar of prevailing winds when it comes to election forecasting. Today, however, on Election Day, I am emboldened to offer a commentary on our increasingly distressful political situation. Please indulge me. 

     In a New York Times essay posted on-line yesterday (“The Morning” newsletter, 11/7), writer German Lopez calls the US a “global outlier,” in that Americans have more elections and are asked to vote more often than citizens in any other democracy, and he attempts to explain how and why that has come about.  He points out that we have federal elections here every two years, with various primaries leading up to those, along with state and local elections, many of which also involve primaries. (And let’s not forget the interim elections held to fill sudden vacancies, resignations, deaths, and the like.) All in all, Americans elect over a half million officials each cycle, from President to county coroner. Heck, even my Homeowners’ Association holds yearly elections for officers and candidates campaign around the neighborhood.

     Now some might say that frequent elections are a good thing, designed to hold officials accountable lest they be booted out for malfeasance. But have you noticed that there doesn’t seem to be much concern about “malfeasance” anymore, much less any real demand for either political or personal accountability. In my own state of Texas, for instance, our Attorney General Ken Paxton is running for his third term in office, in spite of being under indictment for securities fraud for the last seven years, not to mention the abuse of the power of his office with well-publicized shenanigans (often court-contested) even involving other states. 

     Americans’ fondness for voting dates back to the early 20th century when activists believed that more frequent elections would give citizens a greater voice and keep them politically engaged. Over time, state and local governments expanded the number of offices and put more and more propositions directly before the voters. Now back in 1900, when the total US population was roughly 76 million mostly rural citizens, that might have been an admirable intention. But now that the population has more than tripled to the 330 million diverse, mostly urban/suburban voters we have today, this voting mania has fostered some less than desirable consequences. We have created a massive political machine that has overwhelmed the general electorate, disenfranchised far too many groups through gerrymandering and outright voter suppression, and caused many tired and busy potential voters to simply tune out and stay home. Even in our national elections, voter turnout is much lower than the rate of participation in other Western democracies, and the turnout in state and local elections is so low as to be downright abysmal. (Pew Research rates voter turnout in the US as 31st among 49 democratic nations.)

     Obviously, voters aren’t as involved and engaged as all the newscasters, pollsters, and pundits would have us believe. Many of us, even those who might have once been active supporters of issues and causes, just can’t deal with all the chaos and commotion anymore.  We’ve had enough of the vitriol and the name-calling; enough of the politics of threats and fear; enough of the political double-speak of those who seek to serve only themselves and preserve their own power; and enough of all the conspiracy theories and court battles over voter fraud. 

     We’ve all had enough of nothing getting done in Congress because no one takes the long view — on climate change, on on healthcare, on education, on immigration, or on anything else that might take time to negotiate compromise and come to consensus. When you have to run for office again every two years, it is much easier and more expedient to demonize the other side, to challenge the validity of any election you lose, and to call into question the integrity of our entire democratic voting system. (Already tonight as I write this, the GOP has sued to extend voting hours over malfunctions of tabulating machines in Maricopa County, Arizona. Steve Bannon loves it.) Some 300 Republican candidates in today’s election are 2020 election deniers; some, such as Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michaels in Wisconsin, have even been so bold as to speak his intentions out loud: “Republicans will never lose another election in Wisconsin after I’m elected governor.” 

     According to Open Secrets, a non-partisan watchdog group, the financial costs of our 2022 mid-term elections are expected to top $16.7 billion, the most expensive elections in history. Biggest spenders are both the Republican and Democratic Congressional Super PACS, but let’s not forget about all the dark money, the corporate money, the donations of billionaires and special interests, and even the nickels and dimes extracted from small individual donors through repeated, and incessant solicitations?  And let’s not overlook the unreported taxpayer money involved in all the lawsuits and investigations and recounts in the name of “voter fraud.” When you think about the humanitarian causes that could be served, especially here in our very own country, the amount of dollars invested in the election circus is appalling. And most distressing of all is that the cost to all of us, ultimately, is even greater than money.

     It just makes you want to go to bed and forget the whole thing. But I didn’t. I voted, and for the first time in my life, I voted a straight party ticket.

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Our Birthday Month

October is birthday month around here. My own birthday is early in the month, on or around Columbus Day, and our son’s birthday is at the end of the month, close to Halloween.  Since fall is also my favorite season and Halloween is my favorite holiday, it’s no surprise that October is also my favorite month of the year. But I’ve written about all of this before.

     What I have not written about is the third big birthday of the month, that of our beloved four-legged family member, Mac. He will turn nine this week, which is an occasion for both joy and sadness, since nine is something of a landmark age for large canine breeds, but one that inevitably raises the question of how many more birthdays there will be to celebrate. Perhaps I am particularly sensitive to this mixed mood of birthday joy and sadness, since I reached a landmark birthday myself this year. Luckily for Mac, dogs don’t lie awake at night contemplating their own mortality; rather, they live entirely in the moment, wanting nothing more than to play, to love, and to share joy and devotion with their human family. Ah, a dog’s life indeed. But I digress…

     Our Mac is a Greater Swiss Mountain Dog, the largest of the four Sennenhund breeds that include the better-known Bernese Mountain Dog, the medium-sized Appenzeller, and the small Entlebucher. Legend has it that the Greater Swiss is descended from a large, Mastiff-type canine that led the Roman legions through the Alps 2000 years ago. Early ancestors of the Swissy (as they are familiarly called) in Central Europe were used by farmers and merchants for herding and drafting. Large and muscular, they are eager and able workers, steady in temperament, natural guard dogs, and devoted companions. They were often called “butchers’ dogs” or “the poor man’s horse” because of their utility. While still considered a rare breed, today’s Swissy is a fully recognized AKC Working Group dog who competes not only in the conformation ring, but also successfully claims titles in drafting and obedience. (See the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog Club of America, gsmdca.org for more information.)

     My husband and I have been “doggie people,” showing and training and for almost 50 years. In 1974, we encountered our first Swissy at Grant’s Farm, the historic Busch family farm (as in Budweiser) that houses the Clydesdales outside of St. Louis. Though we had Rottweilers at the time, we fell in instantly in love with that great big black, white, and tan good-will ambassador named Casar von Neuhof owned by August Busch III. It took us six years of research and waiting before we finally got a Swissy of our own. 

     He was Baron of High Ridge and he was a star right out of puppy class, named Best in Show at a Club Specialty (because the breed wasn’t yet recognized by the AKC) in both 1994 and 1995. Baron was “discovered” by an ad exec at one of those Specialties and became the mascot called “Network” for Sun Microsystems. We used to take him into New York City for photo shoots, where he was so incredibly well behaved that no one could believe, after their initial apprehension about his size, that he not only didn’t need a leash in the studio, but didn’t even nibble at the food and refreshments set out for the staff. Baron, aka Network, appeared in magazines and newspapers all over the Country and even accompanied the CEO of Sun on stage in Manhattan at an annual meeting. Baron was regal and impressive; his name was a perfect fit.

     Our next Swissy was Derby’s Eisenhower, Ike for short. While Baron was dignified and composed, Ike was all over the place: anxious to do, eager to please, hard to ignore. As a little puppy, he gave Baron no rest, scrambling over and under him, nipping at his heels, stealing his toys, and occasionally eliciting a disgruntled growl. He had boundless energy which made him quick to learn and easy to train. He was a beautiful dog, easily becoming an AKC conformation champion (the breed was officially recognized in 1992); he was smart, attaining a CD obedience degree in short order; and he was a real worker, becoming the first Swissy to earn a NDD in drafting (cart pulling). Always alert, he slept with one eye open, the little brown dots above his eyes that I call eyebrows shifting and raising with every noise or movement around him in guarded vigilance. In addition, he was fun and had a definite sense of humor, once stealing a houseguest’s underwear and taunting her until she chased him down the hallway for it. “Mom, you finally have a dog that is you,” my son had said when we got him. He died of bloat in a veterinary emergency room late one night because a young, inexperienced vet didn’t know how to treat him. I have never gotten over it.  

     Once we moved to Texas, we gradually quit showing our dogs. There wasn’t enough competition in the ring within easy driving distance to earn points, and the challenges of extreme heat and the mess of dirt floors in a cattle ring on a black-coated dog were too much. We have had three more Swissys since Ike, all descended from Baron, all alike in conformation, all good-natured and loving, but each also different in his own way. As we have gotten older, our dogs’ lives have also necessarily gotten quieter, though we still train them to be well-mannered. 

     Mac is short for Mt. McKinley, the mountain litter from Taylor Made kennels in Tennessee. We drove to pick him up in an ice storm right around New Year’s in 2014 and he rode in my arms and on my shoulder all the way home, just like a baby, which is why I call him “Baby Mac.” Swissy puppies are so adorable, perfectly proportioned little black, white, and tan bodies with big fat paws that indicate the size to come. Poor Mac was so frightened at being scooped up and taken away from his littermates that he couldn’t stop shaking, so I held him. As I looked into the deep, dark brown pools of his eyes, I thought how old and wise those eyes seemed. They still do.

     Mac has proven to be the perfect Swissy for us at this age and stage of life, especially during these years of pandemic isolation.  He is calm and loving, all but climbs into your lap for a big, hearty hug around his neck, which feels soooo good for the both of us. He notices everything, every detail in a room, every small change, every new addition. He is an abiding companion, staying by your bedside if you are ill, sitting by you quietly if you are sad, lying out in the yard “working on his tan” while you are gardening, standing by your feet (sometimes on your feet) while you are cooking, and yes, lying on the couch next to you when you watch TV in the evenings. He is hardly ever sick, still has his youthful good looks with little graying, and will still run and play in the backyard if someone can keep up with him.

     I’ve read that the average Swissy can learn about 165-70 human words for a vocabulary that is similar to that of a 2 ½ year old child. I don’t know about the exact number of words, but I would agree that Mac has the understanding of language and direction and the general disposition of a small child without any of the tantrums. He is easy to be around, friendly and affectionate with guests, and never aggressive with strangers. (Given his size and his deep-throated  bark, why would he need to be?) And he loves presents and treats and special occasions like Christmas and holidays, sharing in the spirit with great curiosity to see what all the excitement is about. 

     This birthday will be all about him. I have made Mac a new Halloween kerchief, and we have gotten him a giant, stuffed candy corn toy, which we will give him in his own gift bag filled with colorful tissue paper that he is free to “open” by sniffing, pawing, pulling, and dragging around. And he will get some special additions to his doggie dinner that day. We’ll even sing “Happy Birthday” as we hope for many more.

     The sad truth is that Mac will probably be our last Swissy. As easy and darling as he has been to live with, he is still very big (about 125 lbs.) and impossibly large (28” at the withers) for us to handle if he is physically incapacitated. These are the realities of growing older for all of us, canines and humans alike. Coincidentally, St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, has his feast day in October, so today as I say a prayer for Mac, I will also ask for some of Mac’s “in the moment” enviable attitude of gratitude and joy as we celebrate his longevity.   

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Helter Skelter

Those of a certain age or those who are music aficionados will no doubt recognize the term “Helter Skelter” from the Beatles” White Album (1968). Generally considered a pivotal moment in the early development of heavy metal music, Paul McCartney’s song by that name was an attempt to create a sound as loud and as chaotic as the world seemed to be. It was a harbinger of the future, a nod to the increasingly insistent drums of change. 

     The English dictionary recognizes the word “helter” as a synonym for disorder (though helter is not an accepted Scrabble® word in America), and “skelte” is a middle-English word meaning hurriedly. (Skelte even appears in Shakespeare.) We commonly use the term helter-skelter to mean scattered, disorganized, or chaotic. Boy, does it fit the moment! We are all existing in the helter-skelter worlds of politics, of the environment,  of international relations, of public health, and of economic instability. And the constant barrage of bad news, both real and imagined, doesn’t help allay our anxieties.

     My own little world has been somewhat helter skelter in recent weeks as I hurried to get our house dressed for fall (in spite of continued scorching temperatures) and did some fall cleaning. I opened up the guest rooms in anticipation of company coming (for the first time in over a year), planned some meals and activities for the visitors, and even did some cooking in advance. Of course, as the saying goes, “We make plans and god laughs.”        

     In the middle of my systematic preparations, we had several little household calamities (with the pool, the oven, the irrigations system) which slowed me down, but then our first guest’s arrival schedule also started changing unexpectedly. It seems a mutual friend of ours, whom she was to visit before arriving here, contracted Covid just before her arrival. After several days of shifting plans and many discussions, our guest did finally make it here last week and we had a good visit. But then Hurricane Ian hit Florida, reviving all my terrible memories of struggling through Hurricane Harvey here in 2017 and triggering new fears for the safety of dear friends in Sarasota.

     In between this and that, I was still trying to get that art quilt finished for an international competition deadline this month (see “The Art of Craft” 8/30).  Not surprisingly, there were lots of fits and starts with that project, which turned out to be remarkably difficult for something that appears so simple. The theme of the exhibition is “Minimalism,” which in itself is enough to crowd my comfort zone since I usually do more representational work created in appliqué from my own photographs. In contrast, this design idea had come to me months ago during a spontaneous creative-play exercise in which I simply cut and paste and doodle without any expectations other than to just let my mind wander. I usually throw the mock-ups away after such sessions, but this little sample I liked and so I kept it.

     Ironically, my mind certainly wandered far and wide these last couple weeks as both the quilt entry deadline and the arrival of company grew closer and I found myself struggling to concentrate on any one thing. I began to describe my process of finishing this quilt as helter skelter and even considered using that as a title for the piece. The more I looked at it, however, at its straight lines and sharp angles, the more it began to resemble a bus stop or kiosk of some sort — a shelter. So at the last minute, I decided to free-motion quilt the dark grey space in a spasmodic, lurching motif mimicking the chaos all around.

     I completed my art quilt a couple days before my friend arrived, just in time to get it photographed, documented, and ready to submit on-line, which I did yesterday. (See the photo above.) Thus, this story has a happy, if unfinished, ending, at least until I learn whether or not it gets juried into the exhibit. I have titled it “Helter Shelter.” 

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The Long-Lived Queen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     God save the King.

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The Art of Craft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Hmmm… But is it art?

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“Book-Wrapt”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bookish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Red, White and Blue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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June Is Bustin’ Out All Over

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

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

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

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

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

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

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