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The Tales of Mr. Poe

     I am in possession of a 1938 Modern Library edition of The Complete Tales & Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (Random House, Inc.). It belonged to my Mother. Along with Charles Dickens, Poe was one of her most favorite authors — 19th century writers being universal favorites of people who grew up and were schooled in the early half of the 20th century. It’s odd, in a way, that she, who was so very optimistic and upbeat and positive about life, would nevertheless love authors who largely concentrated on the bleak and the macabre. But then, she was a true romantic in every sense of the word, including literary genres.

     Anyway, because of my Mother, my association with Mr. Poe goes way back, even before I studied his work in English class or spent Saturday afternoons in the movie theatre watching 1960’s Hollywood renditions of his scariest short stories with Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Borris Karloff: The Pit and the Pendulum, House of Usher, Masque of the Red Death, and a cinematic version of Poe’s most famous poem, The Raven. I had read many of these tales before, of course, in her Modern Library edition, so was already something of a Poe critic long before I ever got degrees in American literature.

     During his unfortunately short life (he died at 40), Poe was prolific. He wrote 73 short stories (not all of them macabre), over 50 poems (not all of them dark and grieving), and several rather acclaimed pieces of literary criticism. But yes, he was a “tortured soul,” and that shows in his work overall. He married his cousin Virginia (who was 13 at the time) and they were together only 11 years before she died.The great love of his life, she is immortalized in his most famous grief poems, “Annabel Lee,” “Lenore,” “Ulalume,” and “The Raven.” They are all mournfully melodic, with interior rhymes and durge-like rhythms, and they are beautiful (and I am not a romantic). I delivered these poems repeatedly in oral interpretation of poetry competitions in my undergrad days, successfully, I might add. (It wasn’t hard if you could ignore the sing-song impulses and emphasize the narrative thread.)

     “The Raven” was first published in 1845 in the New York Evening Mirror and, though Poe was already a working writer and an editor, this poem brought him instant success among mainstream readers. The story of a profound sorrow that won’t leave struck a popular nerve, and it was subsequently published in slightly different versions in numerous papers around the Country. (Visit the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore’s website, for the various versions of the poem and other author information.) “The Raven” is a long poem, being 18 stanzas of six lines each, which precludes my reprinting it here, but when you read it, you will no doubt recognize several oft-quoted lines and phrases. 

     Good writing and great literature does endure, even when it is sentimental and clearly a product of its time. “The Raven” is a perfect example. The nevermore refrain has come to represent, at least among modern readers, more than just Poe’s loss of his wife, but the loss of everything that cannot be recaptured: our lost loves, our lost youth, our lost innocence, our lost faith. That, I think, is at the core of its continuing appeal — perhaps especially now. The appearance of a  raven was, of course, a sign of death and impending doom since ancient times, which explains the ubiquity of the avian image today at Halloween.

     Poe’s short stories also endure, particularly at Halloween, and he is rightfully considered a master of Gothic horror. In reality, though, only about a third of his stories truly fit the horror classification. He is also considered a master of detective fiction, psychological thrillers, and even some science fiction, and he also wrote satire and even humor. Many of his best-known short stories were inspired by sensational accounts of unsolved mysteries and horrific murders that he read about in newspapers. Some even found their inspiration in historic events, such as The Pit and the Pendulum (about torture in the Spanish Inquisition) and Masque of the Red Death (about the cholera epidemic). 

     In a way, Poe’s life itself became a sad, melancholy tale. Always troubled with psychological problems, with drugs and alcohol and then the loss of his great love, he died of “mysterious circumstances” in October of 1849. He is buried at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Baltimore. For over fifty years, an unknown visitor came each year and left three roses and a bottle of French cognac at his gravesite. No one is entirely sure of the symbolism of those mementoes, but Poe’s tombstone aptly reads: “Quoth the Raven, Nevermore.”

     And the Baltimore Ravens bear the name of Poe’s most famous poem.

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That Time of Year

It’s that time of year again, even here in South Texas, when the sounds, if not the sights, of fall are all around us.  The crisp, clear air amplifies the cheering crowds and marching bands of nearby football games, transports the wailing whistles and rushing rails of traveling trains in the distance, and interrupts afternoon naps with the incessant whir of neighborhood leaf blowers. As temperatures cool and the sun sits lower in the sky, children laugh and squeal outside in the last moments of daylight. Soon it will be too dark to ride their bikes in the cul-de-sac or even to go out alone to trick-or-treat. Soon, everyone will be hunkered down for the winter, such as it is in South Texas.

     What with shortages of beef and poultry, container ships with toys and clothes from China sitting idle off coastal ports, and higher prices on everything everywhere, it’s that time of year, particularly this year, to get a jump on the holidays. (We just ordered our 9 foot artificial Christmas tree from Balsam Hill while it’s still in stock.) Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, this year’s candidate for the grinch who is trying to steal Christmas, just announced that first-class mail delays are to be expected starting October 1. Call me crazy, but didn’t those delays begin ages ago? My cards and letters to the Coasts from Texas have been taking five to ten days for a while now, and a small gift from a friend sent via USPS recently took over three weeks to arrive from Connecticut.  Obviously, those of us who still send out holiday cards need to get a move on; at this point, we’re probably already too late to send Halloween surprises and are even cutting it close for Thanksgiving!  

     Speaking of holidays, this coming Monday, the second Monday in October, is Columbus Day, as it has been known since the 1930s. Originally intended to give working people a three-day holiday weekend, it was not officially made a US holiday until 1968. Commemorating the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492, Columbus Day is one of eleven official federal holidays, although it is only observed by about half the states. Non-essential government offices, banks, post offices, and some other civil services are closed everywhere (as are schools in those states where the holiday is observed), but the stock market and most regular businesses are open. In recent years, the growing controversy over Columbus and his discovery has caused some states and even cities (including Washington D.C.) to change the name of their holiday observance to Indigenous Peoples’ Day in honor of the native Americans who were already here when European explorers arrived.  

     In the Northeastern United States, Columbus Day is almost universally observed and celebrated, especially among Italian Americans who have been celebrating it since the 1860s. The long Columbus Day weekend, generally regarded as the fulcrum of the season, is eagerly anticipated by adults and children alike. “Leaf-peepers” pile into their cars and SUVs and take off on country byways into the hills and mountains of New England in search of Mother Nature’s most vivd last hurrah. Local newspapers and televisions stations actually list “color indexes” for the best routes to follow. Everyone knows it’s that time of year for a final outing before the frenzy of the Christmas holidays ensues and the dark days of winter keep us indoors.

     My birthday also falls on this weekend, as it often does, and yes, for many years, I was among the leaf- peepers traveling upstate Connecticut in search of old country inns, hot apple cider and plentiful pumpkins along our favorite autumn trail. Those day trips inspired me, offered me a brief respite in a calendar year rapidly coming to a close, even as they reminded me that I, too, with each birthday was closing in on the fall and winter seasons of my own life. 

     As usual, my birthday makes me contemplative and circumspect. It’s just that time of year.    

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Fall Becomes Us

     Fall begins today and not a moment too soon. I am soooo ready for this long, hot, awful summer to be over, with all its natural disasters, pandemic plagues, and combustible rhetoric fanning the flames of fires everywhere, both real and imagined. If weather forecasters are correct, a “norther” should be blowing in to South Texas this week, always a sign of autumn’s imminent arrival, even if the short period of brisk breezes and fluttering leaves are yet bookended by 98º days. I’ll take what I can get.

     Fall has always been my favorite season (probably because of back-to-school, football, and my birthday), even before I lived in Connecticut. But once I experienced the season in New England, where vistas of vivid foliage rekindle the spirit and sunlight filters strobe-like through the canopy of over-hanging trees on country backroads, I was really smitten for life.  We always took a little family field trip upstate into the Housatonic River Valley around Columbus Day when the colors were usually at their peak. We pretty much always took the same route, stopping and shopping in quaint little early American towns along the way, then have lunch at our favorite Fife ’n Drum restaurant in Kent, and finally ending up at the covered bridge in West Cornwall, our traditional photo-op destination. These were only day trips, but they felt much longer, having taken us away from our present-day cares and transported us to an earlier, simpler time. 

     No matter where you are, seasons begin on the solstices and equinoxes of the year. The very word season, from the old French session, means sowing and planting; it entered widespread use in English during the 16th century. The word autumn also comes from the old French autompne, which in turn traces its derivativation to the Latin autumnus. From there, things are less certain, but the common assumption among etymologists is that the original meaning is probably related to the Latin word augere, to increase.

     Calling the season “autumn” in English started around the 12the century. By the 16th century, the word autumn was in common use, but the word “fall” had also begun to appear, probably because of the routine sight of falling leaves at this time of year. “Fall” remains the preferred term here in the US, while “autumn” is still more common in the UK. Before all of this linguistic evolution, however, the season was most commonly called “harvest,” for obvious reasons related to farming and gathering of crops. To this day, it is harvest themes and images that define our seasonal decorations and celebrations, right through into Thanksgiving.

     Changing seasons matter because they help us mark the passage of time and provide a reset button, so to speak, from the relative sameness of everyday routines (even when we aren’t living in the Groundhog days of a pandemic). Though we don’t all experience the seasons in the same way everywhere we live, we still greet them with our own particular memories mingled with some universal images: snowmen in winter, singing birds in spring, beaches in summer, pumpkins in the fall.  Of course, those of us who don’t really have four distinct seasons have to make adaptations. I always wonder, for example, why people in South Texas send Christmas cards with snowmen and bobsleds on them. Is it a nod to nostalgia prompted by memories of growing up somewhere else, or is it just too many Normal Rockwell calendars hanging in Southern kitchens?

     In any event, the changing seasons, even if they don’t visibly change all that much, give us something to look forward to or, if nothing else, to complain about. An old country saying comes to mind: “Everyone complains about the weather, but no one does anything about it.” That observation was never so true as it is right now when we all continue to argue about climate change while the world implodes.

     Meanwhile, seasons change for better or worse and time moves on. To paraphrase an ancient philosopher, the only thing that doesn’t change is change itself. We may not be able to control the changes, but we can do our best to adapt in positive ways. For me, that means remembering those New England day trips fondly rather than sadly, decorating my house with fall leaves indoors rather than bemoaning the lack of color outdoors, and making my own squash soup and pumpkin bread rather than searching for a restaurant with a seasonal menu that offers  my favorite fall fare. 

     And in the early twilight of the evening, I can settle down with a good Italian wine, listen to Vivaldi’s “Autumn,” and let the music paint the scene.

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Inspiration: Part 2

 Dripping Springs, Texas, is a small, rural town of roughly 6,000 residents located about 25 miles west of Austin. It bills itself as the “Gateway to the Texas Hill Country,” and in truth, it is known for its rolling hills and country character. Long ago, it was a stagecoach stop between Austin and Fredericksburg, now known and promoted as the epicenter of the Texas Hill Country. Dripping Springs is a lovely, quaint little community, but you might be forgiven for not having ever heard of it before.

     And you might not have ever heard of Mr. James Akers, a 15 year resident of Dripping Springs, who recently brought an unusual measure of publicity to his small town. Mr. Akers is a parent of four children, one of whom is still in high school in the Dripping Springs Independent School District (servicing 7200 students — yes, more than the total population of the town because it also serves children of surrounding towns in Hays County). Akers appeared at the August 23 school board meeting to make a case for requiring face masks in the schools (in spite of  the Governor’s ban on such mandates). Dressed conventionally in a jacket and tie, he nevertheless gave an unconventional performance in his allotted 90 seconds of speaking time.

     This routine, small-town event ended up being widely quoted and reported by multiple local and national newspapers and television stations (from which the following synopsis has been compiled). This is the way it went: “I’m here to say I do not like government, or any other entity telling me what to do,” Mr. Akers began. “But sometimes I’ve got to push the envelope a little bit, and I’ve just decided that I’m going to not just talk about it, but I’m going to walk the walk.”  

     He continued: “On the way over here, I ran three stop signs and four red lights.  I almost killed somebody out there, but by God, they’re my roads too, so I have every right to drive as fast as I want to, make the turns that I want to.”  Then, stepping back slightly from the microphone, he began to take off his jacket. “At work, they make me wear this jacket. I hate it. They make me wear this shirt and tie. I hate it,” he added, removing both. 

     Mr. Akers’s not-so-subtle parody of those who oppose a school mask mandate became clear as he continued to disrobe.. “It’s simple protocol, people,” he said, by then having removed his pants. “We follow certain rules for a very good reason.”  

     When his time was up, the School Board President said she understood, but added, “If you wouldn’t mind putting your pants back on for a comment that would be appreciated.” Akers calmly did so and walked away amid a muffle of laughter and applause. “There are too many voices out there that I think are digging in for political reasons, and absolutely just not thinking about the common-sense decisions we make every day,” Akers later explained to Austin TV station KXAN. 

     An earlier order issued by Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra mandating masks in all public schools expired on August 21. No further action has since been taken by the Dripping Springs Board beyond recommending  masks for students and staff. Mr. Akers made his point, even if he didn’t win it, and he did so with dignity and a certain amount of self-deprecating humor. I found his confidence and mature common sense to be inspiring. No doubt even some of those in the audience on the other side of the mask issue found themselves chuckling and clapping, and sheepishly admitting that Akers had a point.

      Compare the tenor of the meeting in Dripping Springs to the insults, threats, heckling and physical confrontations that have erupted over masking in Tennessee and California, particularly the all-out parking lot brawl that occurred in Missouri this week (Sept. 7) when a small town board of education there voted to reinstate a school mask mandate. The issue is about the safety of school children, and these are, supposedly, the adults!  

     Reason, maturity, civility and humor — these have become almost impossible to find in public life in America anymore, locally or nationally. Instead, our leaders exhibit behaviors that would be promptly punished among children on the playground: bullying, name-calling, threatening, extortion, foot-stomping and temper tantrums. When leaders are no longer held accountable for what they say and do, then everyone else down the line feels licensed to act in the same offensive ways. In terms of modeling behaviors for our future citizenry, that promises as much long-term damage to our children as Covid does.

     Humor is the trait I miss most of all these days. No one laughs anymore, especially not at the self. Everyone is soooo self-righteous, soooo self-absorbed, not to mention soooo woefully ignorant of the definitions of humor-related literary tools such as irony, sarcasm, hyperbole, satire, understatement, parody, pun, oxymoron, or malapropism. Everyone frowns and scowls and stomps along so resolutely that they can’t even appreciate the inherent relief and wisdom of moments of comic relief when they happen. 

     But the wisdom of comic relief was appreciated in Dripping Springs on August 23rd and I, for one, was grateful. It gave me a brief, but welcome, reason to be proud of my fellow Texans on both sides of an issue. And it made me smile.

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Finding Inspiration

     Let’s face it: these have been some long, difficult, somewhat depressing 18 months. Even those of us who were managing fairly well all through last year, buoyed as we were by the hope of Covid vaccines, have now become a little frayed around the edges with the new surge of the Delta variant. Two steps forward, one step back…is this going to be our forever normal and, if so, how do we stay motivated to carry on through an endless repetition of groundhog days?

     You might recall from your high-school English or history classes that people always looked to their heroes to lead and inspire, especially in times of crisis.  In classic literature (think Greek mythology and Shakespearean tragedy), heroes were bigger than life, sometimes considered mortal gods, always willing and able to save the day. Classic heroes shared certain basic characteristics: they were generally high-born or of high position, destined for greatness with exceptional abilities that ordinary mortals didn’t possess. They were devoted to a cause or quest greater than themselves, which made them fearless warriors in the face of great odds, and of course, they were almost always men. But then there was that pesky “tragic flaw,” that particular character weakness that presented a nagging spiritual/moral battle within that usually ended in the hero’s death. (Again, think Achilles or Macbeth.) 

     The problem with classic definitions of heroes is that the line between myth and reality blurs with time, especially as tales of  the hero’s feats morph into legend over generations. To this day, glorious stories about some of the most towering figures of the past, people such as Alexander the Great or Moses, are short on factual corroboration. And when we move from heroes of the ancient world to those of the more recent past, to pivotal leaders such as Winston Churchill or Martin Luther King, reinterpretations of the corroborating facts invite controversy. For example, is Mahatma Gandhi the hero who freed India from British rule and established it as an independent nation, or did he ultimately allow India to be split in two?  

     Thus, the concept of a classic hero, both in modern literature and in modern life, becomes problematic. The cynics among us (or realists, if you prefer) see the “tragic flaws” of character as being at the core of the human condition, so our literary heroes tend to be anti-heroes, characters such as Willy Loman whose greatest flaw is his failure to see beyond the myth of the American Dream. Larger-than-life heroes with super-human strength and power are more commonly found  in fantasy than in fact, which explains the enormous popularity (and the multibillion dollar industry) of superhero figures in comic books, video games, and movies in our current age of cynicism.

     These days we are all more likely to agree on reasons to celebrate and award medals to the “everyman” heroes among us (Rush Limbaugh notwithstanding): our service men and women, firefighters and police, first responders and medics, doctors, nurses and healthcare workers, all of whom do the work that most of us are either unable or unwilling to do. Ironically, most of these everyday people would deny that they are heroes at all, often appearing embarrassed to be singled out for recognition claiming that they are “only doing their jobs” even as they risk their lives.  In a way, I understand their reluctance; hero is a hard title to live up to and the opposite  title of villain is always just a hubristic misstep away.  Ask Andrew Cuomo.

     I have never been much into hero worship, even as a kid. There are, of course, people whom I greatly admire because of their deeds or because of how they have directly affected me, but I don’t expect any of them to be superhuman and without flaws. Rather, as I always say about  love in marriage, you love someone not because he/she is perfect, but in spite of  their all too human faults and foibles. I prefer to look for inspiration in reality, not fantasy.

     This is especially true in my creative life and it has been especially true over these many long months of Covid and natural disasters and political upheaval and national discord. Amid all the bad news and bad behaviors, let me find some inspiration, let me find reasons to smile — please!

     Iris Apfel is a self-described “geriatric starlet.” At age 99 (her birthday is in a few days), she is a businesswoman (still),  an interior designer (still), a social whirlwind in New York City (still), and a style maven known for her iconic high/low style that mixes couture fashion with flea-market finds (still). Her sense of personal style is so original, in fact, that in 2005 the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art featured an exhibition (Rara Avis) of her clothes and accessories making her the first living woman who was not a fashion designer to be so honored. Since then, her fame and her recognition with her big black glasses have exploded; there are books, articles, films, collaborations with multiple brands and retailers, and even Iris Barbie dolls! 

     I have never met Iris Apfel, though I have seen the documentary, read her book and own one of the Barbie dolls, but I don’t need to know her personally to be inspired by her obvious energy and joie de vivre. As Rachel Zoe, a stylist to movie stars, has said, “Style is a way to say who you are without having to speak.”  Iris doesn’t have to speak because she screams with the confidence, gratitude, good humor, and acceptance of each and all that can only come from a life of hard work, well-lived and well-loved. Just thinking about her makes me smile.

     Which is why, here in the doldrums of a hot and hateful summer, I decided to do the thread-painted portrait of her above. “Oh, Iris!” is being sent to the Studio Art Quilts Associates for their traveling trunk show program, which passes samples of these small 10” x 7” quilts to member groups around the world for study and education over a three-year period. 

     Perhaps Iris will inspire them as she has me, or at least make them smile.

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Going for the Gold

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a fan of the Olympics, especially the summer Olympics. Oh sure, I love the ice skating in the winter games (doesn’t everybody?).  To this day, the single most significant, moving, memorable Olympic moment for me is still that of watching ice dancers Torville and Dean of Great Britain deliver a gold medal performance to Ravel’s “Bolero” in Sarajevo in 1984. Rarely has any artistic performance moved me to tears even when I’m in the live audience, much less while watching it on TV! Torville and Dean was not only the first non-Russian ice-dance team to capture an Olympic gold medal, but the spontaneous two-minute standing ovation they received from 10,000 spectators in the arena was also a first.

     Nevertheless, it is the star power of summer Olympians that remains in my memory even as I watch the current events unfolding in Tokyo: gymnastics — Olga Korbut, the Russian Olympian called the “Sparrow from Minsk” winning three gold medals in Munich, 1972 (which she later sold as a US citizen at auction in 2017 because she was almost destitute);  14 year old Nadia Comãnece of Romania (Montreal, 1976) winning three gold medals and scoring perfect 10s (she also became a US citizen); Mary Lou Retton of the US, known for her big smile and perky disposition, who won 5 medals including a gold on the balance beam after landing on one foot because of a sprained ankle (Los Angeles, 1984). And now, of course, there’s Simone, a champion among champions and gymnasts for much more than just medals. 

     I think my keen interest in the summer games might be because I spent most of my life teaching and grading papers, and so really only had the leisure time to follow the events closely in the summertime. Once my Mother retired and got older, I would come down to Texas for an extended visit during July or August. She particularly loved all the back-stories of the athletes, especially the underdogs or those who had overcome great odds to make it to the Olympics. I did too. As we watched day after day, we began to feel we knew some of these competitors, had a vested interest in their success or failure, and cheered them on with as much arm-chair enthusiasm as devoted fans cheer on their favorite football or baseball teams. 

     Those “personal connections” fostered interest in sports like track and field that I was never particularly interested in at all, but yet …  I can still see in my mind, for example, the wild, gasping, overjoyed face of Michael Johnson as he sprinted across the finish line in his gold running shoes to take the gold medal in the 400 meter in Atlanta in 1996, thus becoming the first man to win gold in both the 200 and the 400 in the same Games. (He won gold in the 400 again in Sydney in 2000). I can also see the tears running down Johnson’s face when he cried on the podium in Atlanta during the medal awards; my Mother and I cried with him. I watch track and field events all the time now, even know a good bit about the various events and heats and placements and relays, and find myself rooting for my favorites who have come up through the trials. I even got teary today, for example, when Allyson Felix, a 35 year-old new mother, won her 11th Olympic medal in her fifth Olympics, thus becoming the most decorated track-and-field star in history. Good for her, for the US, for women everywhere. Go Felix! 

          One of the Covid casualties of the Tokyo Olympics, besides the obvious absence of cheering crowds, is what I see as a rather disjointed reportage of the events. NBC’s coverage, spread over several different channels each seeming to cover different types of competitions, is hard to follow — and don’t get me started on the the insistent, unrelenting nighttime coverage of the bikini-clad women in beach volleyball almost every single night on the major network NBC channel (even though the American women did ultimately won gold). Please. But beyond the uneven coverage, it’s those “up close and personal” features of individual athletes that I miss the most. Yes, I understand that Covid prevented journalists from having the access or the technical personnel to cover them all, but it’s too bad. Part of the joy of the Olympics is the vicarious experience engendered in spectators like me who aren’t physically present. We want to cheer our favorites, our heroes, our champions even when they aren’t Americans.

     NBC Universal paid more than $1 billion to run some 7,000 hours of Olympic games in Tokyo, yet viewership is averaging about 16.8 million a night, a sharp drop from the 29 million viewers of the Rio games in 2016. TV ratings for the opening ceremonies last week were the lowest in 33 years. Again, I understand, but I also fear the distant drumbeats of doom arising even now as to the viability of the Olympic games going forward in the 21st century. The financial and economic risks for host cities are so great, and the growing political issues over human rights and repressive government regimes are so intensifying that threats to the future of the Olympics are, indeed, very real. 

     The summer games are extravagant and expansive: they typically involve more than 200 participating countries and more than 11,000 competitors, compared to the winter games that involve roughly 92 nations and about 3,000 athletes. (Latest figures from 2016 and 2018, respectively.) So far, the 1984 summer Olympics in Los Angeles are considered the model for financial success, in that they used existing facilities and enlisted corporate sponsors. Otherwise, most host cities go way over budget, with Montreal (summer, 1976) registering the highest overrun ever at 720% over budget. (Obviously, figures aren’t available for Tokyo yet.)

     Whether it’s Covid restrictions or civil rights legislation or college educations, everything these days seems to boil down to money, which is a shame. A major reason that the Olympics are so inspiring and refreshing is that, for the most part, the athletes are amateurs. They are not in it for the money, for big team owners or corporate sponsors, but for their own personal achievement and national pride, much like the motivations of high-school athletes and teams. Even when pro athletes do get involved, such as when the men’s basketball team won gold today under our own San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, there is reason to celebrate their uncontaminated spirit of genuine sportsmanship.  

     This is what the Olympics mean to casual viewers like me who aren’t particular sports fans, to spectators the world over who gain new insights into various countries and cultures, and to young people looking for future inspiration and role models. The Games are a celebration of excellence, of human perseverance and an indomitable human spirit. We need that, especially now.  

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Lazy, Hazy Days

 When I was a kid, summer seemed to go on forever. In South Texas, we got out of school in mid-May and didn’t return in the fall until right around Labor Day, so we had a full, three-month vacation. (Of course, we didn’t have all sorts of federal and religious holidays, except for Christmas and Easter, and we never even heard of winter or spring breaks or year-round staggered school terms.) For youngsters with no pre-scheduled activities, such as sleep-away camp, summer school, or youth organizations, June, July and August meant endless days of lazy freedom, sometimes boredom, often serendipitous fun.

     “Back in the day,” as they say (the 1950s and ‘60s), parents didn’t over-subscribe their children, believing instead that it was best to leave them to their own devices — even if those “devices” got them into trouble now and then. Kids were encouraged to amuse themselves, to play outside and explore their neighborhoods, and to settle their own squabbles with their playmates. Now I don’t mean to imply that this laissez-faire parental policy was ideal: after all, being outdoors meant bothersome chiggers, mosquitoes, and wasps; few houses were air-conditioned for relief from the relentless summer heat; and there were no video games or cell phones or reliable TV reception available even if you were allowed indoors. (On rainy days, you could stay inside and color in your coloring book, but it was still awfully hot and waxy crayons often smeared.)

     This summer feels like one of those summers from long ago: it is without direction, without any scheduled plans, and feeling endlessly lazy and hazy, each day like the one before: Groundhog Day. Instead of the scorching heat and drought, so far we have had hot but wet, with tropical showers and downpours each day that afterward send steam rising from the asphalt. My ready description for this climate is “sultry,” but without the sexy literary connotations of the word. Nevertheless, the mood reminds me of a Tennessee Williams play or a William Faulkner novel, the “eternal now” of a long, hot summer in which some things never change.

     Part of that mood is no doubt due to the resurgence of Covid cases being exacerbated by the Delta variant and the unvaccinated among us — not an insignificant number here in Texas, by the way (49%  of the State have gotten one vaccine, 42 % are fully vaccinated). The more virulent Lambda variant has now also been detected here and in 41 other states. Overall, Covid is dominating the news once again, breakthrough cases among the vaccinated are starting to occur, and many areas are bracing for yet another critical surge, especially as school begins in the fall. Former Covid measures such as masking and social distancing are already being implemented in some states and communities, but as usual, some politicians (the Texas governor among them) are forcefully resisting any suggestion of the need for reinstating such protocols. After but a brief, some say prematurely heralded, spirit of optimism and direction for the future, we now find ourselves continuously mired in cloudy uncertainty about the days ahead.

     Speaking of a cloudy haze, Texas is now experiencing what local weather stations are calling “the Saharan dust,” named more precisely the khamsin. Derived from the Arabic word for fifty, the dry, sandy wind creates a dust storm that blows from the Sahara over parts of North Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and the Mediterranean basin sporadically over a period of fifty days each spring. High winds move great quantities of sand and dust throughout the Middle East, across oceans, and around the world. And they arrive here in the summertime up from the Gulf of Mexico bringing low visibility and high allergy alerts with them.

     In Egypt, these desert storms are more commonly called khamaseen, as they are throughout the southern Levant (Israel, Palestine and Jordan). A few years ago, my husband and I landed in Cairo during the khamaseen. The air was so thick and hot with dust that you could hardly see a car length ahead. Everything was blanketed in a yellowish haze. I thought it was extreme air pollution and remarked about it to our cab driver. “Oh no, no,” he said, “don’t worry. It’s only the khamaseen. By tomorrow, it will be sunny and clear again.” And so it was the very next day — but it was still hot. And that bright, white dry heat reminded me of my childhood in Texas.

     The good news here, amid my summer ennui, is that peaches are now in season, albeit not many Texas peaches because of the winter storm we had earlier. Even so, the fruits available are big, blushingly beautiful, and just at the cusp of ripeness. A day or so in a paper bag on the kitchen counter will ensure perfect, juicy delectability.

     So, to celebrate these lazy, hazy days of summer, I made my tried-and-true peach torte today (above). It’s one of the few things in life that is actually as good as it looks, and that makes me feel better about everything else.

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  The fawns were late this year. This little guy appeared in our front yard only last week.  Because he was not yet scampering about, but still being safely deposited while his mother foraged for food, we figured he was only a couple weeks old. Was it the extreme drought of last summer that curtailed mating, or was a lower birthrate due to the local community’s “thinning of the herd” last fall, or did the terrible winter freeze/snow storm in February have some adverse effect? We had begun to worry because the appearance of newborn fawns is always an anticipated sign of nature’s renewal.

     Here in Texas, we are blessed (some say cursed) with an abundance of white-tailed deer. Indigenous to North America, these animals are everywhere: in the forests and on remote rangelands, on country ranches and along busy highways, even in urban communities and residential neighborhoods like mine. In fact, Texas has the largest population of white-tailed deer (about 5.3 million) of any North American state or province including Canada. Called the white tail because of the large, white underside of the tail when raised, the bucks are medium-sized (about 150 lbs.), stately and charismatic, especially when they sport an impressive rack of multi-pointed antlers; the does are smaller (about 110 lbs.), graceful and almost delicate. The fawns, which weigh 4-8 pounds at birth, are reddish brown with white spots that fade as they mature. They are a joy to watch as they frolic and explore, a reminder that life scampers on.  

     Everything this year seems to be about searching for signs of renewal, and not just from the long, dark months of Covid. My husband, bless him, has been tirelessly working to remove, replace, and restore some of the many plants, shrubs, and trees we lost during our devastating February storm. Almost all of our tropicals (palms, hibiscus, banana trees, Meyer lemon tree, and cacti) literally froze to death, and even some of our heartier roses and Oleanders finally had to be dug up and discarded. Even now, months later, we are hoping that small signs of regrowth on the sago palms and climbing jasmine mean that they will ultimately revive with patience and time. You can’t rush Mother Nature, you know.

     And you can’t mess with her either, as we are finding out already this summer with unprecedented (there’s that word again…) heat waves, drought, wildfires, rains, flooding, and the early emergence of  hurricane season. Scientists say that climate change is to blame and that this is what its arrival looks like. Even if we act right now, it might already be too late to reverse the onslaught of greater environmental disasters to come, much less to correct the damage already done to our land, air and waters. 

     On the other hand, Mother Nature is nothing if not resilient. The etymology of “resilience”comes from the 17th century Latin verb resilire  meaning leaping back or rebounding, but Mother Nature’s definition is hardly what we would describe as “bouncing back.”Rather, she takes her time, working through the immutable cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth at her own steady pace, forever absorbing the shifts and vicissitudes of an ever-changing set of circumstances. Sometimes, after a tragedy or disaster, she lays low for a while, dormant, slow to revive but nevertheless determined to do so when the time is right. Sometimes, with love and care and perhaps a stroke of serendipity, she bursts forth suddenly in such renewed health and vigor that we can hardly believe there was ever any doubt about her robust return. 

     I’m seeing lots of articles and essays these days about resilience, about how the long months of the Covid pandemic brought out a new sense of resilience in some people even as it thrust others into loneliness and despair.  With hindsight and, hopefully, some perspective, the question we would all do well to consider now is what accounts for the difference? Is it a matter of age and experience, of personality type, or is resilience just in one’s DNA? 

     Any trauma, personal or public, elicits a range of responses, though it doesn’t always produce any post-traumatic growth among those who have undergone it. Just look at all the people right now, vaccinated or not, who are racing out with abandon to join maskless crowds in restaurants and malls, at amusement parks and concerts, and yes, even on cruises. Their carefree, careless behaviors don’t indicate any reflective growth at all; rather, like school kids on spring break, they are simply “glad that it’s over” — if it ever really existed at all — and are determined to “bounce back” to their pre-pandemic life regardless of new realities. 

     That is not resilience; that is stupidity. Perhaps what we really need is a better definition of resilience, a more nuanced definition that references patience, gratitude, and reflection, a definition that mirrors Mother Nature. As my husband always says about his painstaking efforts in the garden, “Slow and steady wins the race.”

     Perseverance is the better word, I think. After all, “She persists.”

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Your Move

   So, here we are: summer has come, the restaurants are serving, the cruise ships are sailing, and people are gathering in large numbers indoors and out. It seems Americans have decided that they’ve had enough and that the Covid pandemic is over — at least for them. As the threat of outbreaks of the Delta variant looms on the horizon, the Country is still only 46% fully vaccinated, with rates ranging from a high of 65% in Vermont to a low of 20% in Mississippi. (Here in Texas, we are at 41%.)  Not surprisingly, the greatest resistance to getting vaccines is now among the young. Having been told for so long that they were the least vulnerable, little wonder that they are now skeptical about the need for a vaccination at all. 

     And we all know that the younger you are, the more invincible you feel.      

     In the last decade or so, a new field has emerged called Enterprise Risk Management (ERM). ERM is grounded in future projections that seek to identify adverse conditions and events that may not have not happened before, but that could have disastrous consequences if they do (think of  “Acts of God,” which are not usually insurable). In contrast, Traditional Risk Management (TRM) is based on predictable patterns of adverse events in the past in order to minimize the loss should those events happen again (think traditional insurance for common occurrences such as illness, accidents, etc.).  The ERM approach incorporates both ordinary, predictable risk planning, as well as the anticipation of unforeseen risks going forward and how they might be handled should they occur.

     You can now obtain an MBA with a specialization in ERM. All sorts of industries employ formalized risk management professionals and techniques, including aviation, construction, finance, insurance, energy, environmental protection,  AND public health. With all due respect to Dr. Fauci and the CDC, perhaps we each should have had our own personal ERM risk manager for dealing with Covid, sort of like a personal investment advisor or a cybersecurity analyst. The problem with pandemic management over the last year has been that politicians became our risk managers, calculating good and bad results not always on the physical welfare of the general public, but on the economic impacts in their local communities and the odds of their own chances for re-election. Even the decision to fast track vaccine development, while ultimately a good one, was largely motivated, and thus tainted, by the politics of the 2020 election.

     It occurred to me recently that living long and living well is all about risk assessment, and not just during a pandemic. Certainly, these many months of confusing, often conflicting advice about spreading infections and mitigation techniques have given us a crash course in the challenges of trying to calculate health risks for ourselves and our families. But if we stop to think about it, we realize that most of us have been calculating risks and making educated decisions about gains and losses for the better part of our lives. Welcome to adulthood. Granted, some choices, such as moving across the country for a new job or deciding to start a family, are weightier because they have major long-term consequences, but if we consistently avoid all risky decisions in life, we soon find ourselves in a permanent state of inertia. Making no choice at all becomes a choice in itself.

     From the foods we eat to the friends we cultivate to the places we go to the activities we pursue, almost every choice in life involves some risk, however small.  But, as they say about the lottery, “You can’t win if you don’t play.”  Young people often make foolish, impetuous choices precisely because they are young and inexperienced in the world, but over time and with the wisdom to learn from past mistakes, most of us manage to become comfortable, even confident in calculating the odds and making the right moves.

    Except in extreme circumstances like a global pandemic when collective anxiety, isolation and fear take us over and immobilize us to the point that every move, every day, including even the most mundane decisions like grocery shopping, become weighted with seemingly outsized  consequences. Rational or not, these concerns are born out of unusual situations; when everything is unpredictable and uncertain, withdrawal inevitably follows. And risk avoidance is not the same as risk management. 

     I learned all about that last year. I sailed through the early months of lockdown by avoiding any and all unnecessary risk as I stayed inside, worked on my art and my writing, cooked fabulous meals, read through piles of neglected books and magazines, and tackled long-overdue home projects. It was a collective “time out” for the whole country and I found, as did many, that I was surprisingly content to stay at home and be relieved of all social obligations. Yes, I missed my closest friends, and yes, certainly I missed our lifestyle of constant travel and adventure, but I also found the solitude and slower pace restive, even welcome. Without all the outside noise and distraction, I could focus my attention and immerse myself in the “creative flow” of my artistic pursuits. The single biggest decision I had to make most days was what was for dinner; the single biggest risk I took most days was braving the grocery store to prepare my ambitious menus. 

     Funny how easily one can become acclimated to an entirely new set of circumstances and how soon a new reality becomes the norm. Many people started to burn out on isolation a few months into Covid, but not me. I stayed productive and stayed hopeful and was determined to persevere at every stage with mask-wearing, social distancing, crowd avoidance, hand washing, and of course, the vaccines. And now I find myself calculating the risk of abandoning all those mitigation techniques among an increasingly carefree society of the unmasked and the unvaccinated.

     With recurring outbreaks of virus variants causing cities and countries around the world to suddenly retrench into shut-downs, and with many areas of our own Country woefully short of any kind of herd immunity through vaccines, the Delta and other emerging variants threaten a new wave of outbreaks come fall. (As of this writing, it has now shown up in all 50 states.) The World Health Organization recently recommended that even those who are vaccinated should continue Covid protocols, including mask wearing, especially as flu season approaches and the need for a vaccine booster becomes a bigger issue. Some community leaders in America where vaccination rates are low are now starting to recommend the same.

     So here’s the thing: life is unpredictable and even an expert in ERM can’t foresee the truly unforeseeable. Conditions, even science, continue to evolve. Ultimately, we each do the best we can with the knowledge we have to calculate the risks and then make our next move. 

     It’s sort of like a game of chess, except that you’re mostly playing it by yourself.

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Now What?

 Okay, I’ll admit it: I am one of those people who is wary, even anxious, about this rush to return to normal. Yes, I have been vaccinated, and yes, I am encouraged by the declining Covid numbers, and yes, I am hopeful that we will reach some sort of  reliable “herd immunity”threshold.  But you know, old habits die hard, especially those forged in an extended state of emergency.  After some 15 months of seclusion and a successful adjustment to a more isolated way of living, my transition back to the “old normal” or into the “new normal” — whatever you want to call it — is bound to come with some hesitancy and trepidation.

     And, frankly, with some resistance. I don’t necessarily want to return to my pre-pandemic self, nor do I necessarily want to engage in my pre-pandemic activities. I have, over these many months, thought otherwise about that life and that self. As so many others have discovered during this time, I too have found other ways of doing things (getting groceries, staying in touch, finding creative expression, etc.) and other priorities (how to spend my time and with whom to spend it). I am thinking that many of these discoveries will permanently alter my way going forward. 

     First off, the big basics: online shopping and grocery delivery/curbside pickup are here to stay for me and everybody else. I have it on inside information that major grocery retailers are expanding their online order and pick-up services by actually reducing their in-store sales space for the sake of bigger,  more efficient, even robotic, fulfillment centers. This idea was percolating among some major chains even before the pandemic, but Covid provided the impetus to make it happen. Not only was online/store pick-up a successful pandemic health strategy, but it proved to be both convenient and sensible considering the ever-expanding size of most supermarkets and ever-aging consumers (like me) who find it increasingly difficult to navigate mega stores. 

     Likewise for take-out meals from restaurants. In an effort to survive, the full-service restaurant industry, major chains and even some high-end establishments devised online ordering platforms and menus that could accommodate being picked up and enjoyed at home. Some even delivered to that home. For people who aren’t accomplished home cooks, and even for those of us who are but missed some of our favorite restaurant meals, this has been a godsend — and it is not going away. Especially when it is also being accompanied by take-out alcoholic drinks.  So whether it’s the joy of cooking or the ease of ordering in,  the whole “hunting and gathering” chore has, I believe, been forever simplified. 

     As have the way people are sharing their meals and other occasions. For example, even with all the stresses and strains of kids out of school and adults working at home, families nevertheless enjoyed their reacquaintance with each other by sitting down to have dinner together instead of running hither and yon and leaving post-it notes on the fridge. Friends, especially far-away friends, have found ways to have lunch or meet for a drink on Zoom and many have even been able to enjoy really special occasions that they might not have otherwise been able to share. I personally have “attended” two bar mitzvahs, one graduation, and Mass every week through Zoom or live streaming, all of which I found to be more intimate, more personal, and more satisfying than if I had been physically present in a crowd of strangers.

     Speaking of crowds, business professionals aren’t the only ones who have found relief from endless meetings and constant travel through remote connections. Those of us who are involved in various groups and organizations (professional associations, charities, churches, etc.)  have also found it liberating to “meet” at home via Zoom without having to get dressed and drive somewhere (which can be quite far here in Texas). With a set date and time and a specific agenda geared to a limited Zoom session, meetings seem to be more productive and freed from endless delays and idle chit-chat. Plus, there are no pot-lucks or bag lunches to deal with!

     Since I am already beginning to sound like a misanthrope, I may as well admit that I have also reevaluated the people in my life and those with whom I spend time. Now I realize that human beings are social animals and no one has ever accused me of being an introvert, but strangely enough, during the pandemic, I have also rediscovered the solitude of my childhood, the centeredness of my creative self, and the luxury of just being quiet.  Of course I miss my closest friends (whom I haven’t seen in two years or more because they all live far away), but I do not miss at all the inane conversations so common in groups of casual acquaintances and sort-of friends. I don’t want to discuss the weather, and I really don’t want to hear about illnesses and ailments, children and grandchildren, and other people whom I don’t even know. What’s more, I have happily discovered that a big bonus of more limited social interaction is a noticeable reduction in encounters with the truly obnoxious! 

     Simplify and sustain— those seem to be the new attitudes of post-Covid life and, already, they are in evidence across society. Witness the recent boom in used-car sales, for example. I just read that the average age of a car on the road today is 12.1 years. (My own much loved vehicle is 10 years old and just shy of 100K miles; I have neither reason, nor desire, to replace it.) Witness all the purging of closets and de-cluttering of houses that took place while we were homebound and finally able to consider all “the stuff” that we didn’t want, didn’t need, or would never use again. The effects of this reevaluation are especially striking in the fashion industry, now that its biannual shows in Milan, Paris and New York have been relegated to pre-pandemic history. No longer the arbiters of tastes and trends, even major designers (those who are left) recognize that people’s social and professional lives have fundamentally changed, and that in this age of diversity and inclusion, we don’t have to all dress alike any more than we all have to look alike.

     Obviously, there are many other more general changes in the ways people will live and work that are likely to become permanent, and some of those changes may not entirely be matters of personal choice. But for those who used the forced “time out” since March of last year to reflect and reassess the decisions we make and the choices we can control, individual attitudinal adjustments and a greater awareness of ourselves among others may hold the only collective promise of healing a fractured, divided society. 

     “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard wrote in The Writing Life  (Harper Perennial, 1989). Those of us who have survived Covid now have 15 months fewer days left in our lives since the pandemic began. Let’s spend those days wisely.