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Memorial Day

 Memorial Day is an American holiday observed each year on the last Monday of May. It is a remembrance holiday in honor of the men and women who served, and died, in the U.S. military. Established in 1868 following the Civil War by General John A. Logan, leader of an organization for the Northern Civil War Veterans, the day was originally known as Decoration Day; the official date was set as May 30. 

     Though the Civil War claimed more lives than any conflict in U.S. history and thus prompted the establishment of the country’s first national cemeteries, there were already different commemorations honoring the war dead around the country. Some records show that the earliest commemoration was organized by enslaved people in Charleston, South Carolina, less than three months after the Confederacy surrendered in 1865. By 1890, most Northern states had made Decoration Day an official state holiday; Southern states continued to honor their war dead on different days until after WWI.

     Decoration Day became known as Memorial Day after WWI and gradually evolved to commemorate American military members who died in all wars, ultimately WWII, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and now the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 1968, Congress established the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which then placed Memorial Day on the last Monday in May regardless of the date. The Monday was declared a federal holiday, thus giving federal employees a three-day weekend; the formal change went into effect in 1971.

     Whether called Decoration Day or Memorial Day, this holiday was framed as a patriotic occasion from the very beginning. Unlike Veterans’ Day, which remembers all who served with honor in the military, Memorial Day remembers those who died in that service. Consequently, it is inappropriate to wish someone a “Happy Memorial Day.” Instead, people visit local cemeteries and place flags on the graves of the fallen vets, and formal wreath-laying events occur at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and other national burial sites.  Though most Americans aren’t aware of it, a National Moment of Remembrance is supposed to be observed, nation-wide, at 3 p.m. local time all across the Country.

     Nor are people generally aware of the original history and meaning of Memorial Day. So today, while cities and towns all across America still employ patriotic themes with their flag-waving parades, military concerts, and civic events involving various veterans’ organizations,  Memorial Day has also taken on a more seasonal, celebratory character. The establishment of the three-day federal holiday was probably the impetus to that. Suddenly, people had a workday off  and a long weekend to enjoy picnics and cook-outs, family gatherings and a day at the beach.  With most schools out and public pools and summer camps opening, the three-day weekend came to mark Memorial Day as the “unofficial” beginning of summer. 

     It also became the unofficial weekend of shopping.  At first, with “blue laws” prohibiting commercial activity on the Sabbath in almost all areas of the United States (a holdover from Colonial days), a Monday family shopping day was a real boon to retailers everywhere. Some historians have suggested that this was how the emphasis on mattress sales developed, because families, especially couples, were able to shop together for a significant purchase. From there, promotional sales of other housewares, outdoor grills and patio furniture expanded.

     Blue Laws endured in the US until the mid-70’s, but the Monday Holiday Act hastened their demise. Big retail chains, J.C. Penney among the first, began to be open on Sundays during the Christmas holiday season in 1969 and soon other big retail department stores and national chains followed suit. Coming after winter and tax season, May has traditionally marked a rise in consumer spending, so it was inevitable that retailers would want to take advantage of some of that disposable income. Sunday shopping, and then long weekend shopping became a functional and recreational way of life for Americans. Today, consumer spending comprises 70% of the GDP (Gross Domestic Product), a critical component of the national economy.

     This year, after the long Covid lockdown, people are understandably ready to break out and retailers are eager to recoup last year’s financial losses. While we were foraging for toilet paper and hand sanitizer at this time last May, everyone is now eager to not only to shop in brick-and-mortar stores, but also to get away and shop on vacation. After a disastrous 2020, the travel industry is seeing a welcome Memorial Day surge this year. According to AAA, about 40 million Americans will travel 50 or more miles away from home over this long weekend, 37 million of whom will literally “hit the rode” and another 2.5 million will take to the air. Memorial Day travel is not entirely back, but it is running about 60 percent above last year.

     We are neither shopping nor traveling this weekend — just having a cook-out of hamburgers and hot dogs with our little family. Never did like dealing with crowds and traffic on holidays anyway. For us, Memorial Day was always a time to visit family gravesites and maybe gather for family picnics, so I’m pretty much being true to form. Went down to Victoria this week to the cemetery where my parents are buried. After all the rain and winds and violent weather we’ve had in South Texas this spring, I wanted to clean things up a bit and put a flag on my Father’s grave (he was actually a WWII vet). Didn’t put a flag on Mother’s grave of course, even though she was a hero in her own right.

     That’s how I’ve come to see Memorial Day over the years, not to be unduly somber and sad, but to honor and remember all those among my closest friends and loved ones — and there are many — who are no longer here with me, but who fought battles large and small. From them I gained valuable lessons in living, and dying. From them, I learned what heroism is. 

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Solitude

   So much has been written about the loneliness and anxiety caused by Covid restrictions over the last 14 months. A recent study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association  from  Boston University School of Public Health found that the rate of depression among the general population has more than tripled, to 27.8%, from the pre-pandemic rate of 8.5%. A Center for Disease Control and Prevention survey found that 42% of Americans were experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression today vs.11% before. (Both examples in a report by Thor Benson for NBC News, May 20, 2021.)  Suddenly, the biggest health news is not about fighting Covid infection, but about living with the psychological effects of having survived the fight.

     Human beings are social animals and even the most anti-social among us crave some sort of interaction with others, however deviant or negative that might be. From the very beginning of the pandemic, the biggest concerns about closing schools for in-person learning were not only about the loss of academic progress, but also about the toll that separation from friends and families would have on children’s emotional well-being. Now we see that extended periods of loneliness, isolation and fear, not to mention the everyday stress of living in a chaotic society, adversely affect everybody.

     The arrival of the virus was so sudden and the shut downs across the Country so extensive that no one had time to think, much less to prepare. Unlike a hurricane bearing down on the coast or even a fire raging in the hills, there were just no established precautions and no time to implement them if they existed. Everyone was caught  off-guard by no solutions, no time frame —  only questions. It took months for any acceptable Covid protocols to be established, and even when the science afforded some guidance, many people refused to accept not only the protocols, but the very existence of the threat itself. The whole pandemic became politicized and people simply retreated from all the fuss. I know I did. 

    The new word and the dominant emotion of 2021 is “languishing.” With depression and suicide on the rise, you’re lucky if you only find yourself unmotivated, unfocused and “languishing.” It is described as the blahs, a state of ennui and disconnection that endures, even as the euphoria over available vaccines and the prospect of a “return to normal” engulfs the entire country in a frenzy of moving on. (“There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing,” Adam Grant, The New York Times, April 19, 2021.)  Once again, everything is sudden: vaccine rollouts gain momentum, CDC relaxes guidelines, and governors abandon (even ban, as in Texas) any mandates for masks or distancing requirements of any kind. 

Yea!!!! We are back to normal!!! Let’s break out and go to those restaurants, attend those huge concerts and sporting events, gather for parties and graduations, plan those cruises and vacations once again, and embrace not only those close to us, but any and all who are vaccinated, even as as we rely on the honor system of identifying who exactly that is. 

     Except we aren’t quite back to normal, not yet anyway.

     The irony for me is that the whole shut down and solitude of this last year has actually been beneficial and not unwelcome at all. Of course, I have the luxury of being retired and having an income and not being stressed about my kids or my job or my living expenses. Nevertheless, I came to appreciate this hiatus from my usual, busy routine of organizations and obligations and travel as a time out for reflection. I have written here before about the creative benefits, the art quilt projects I have completed and the writing I have done during this sort of “extended snow day” of exemptions from activity. Yes, the Covid vaccines have brought me some encouragement and hope, but I still am not ready to throw off the cloak of caution and resume previous routines. 

     Texas is only about 35% vaccinated at this point, and my husband and I long since decided that international travel, even domestic travel, for this year was out of the question. Maybe we would take a day trip or two, maybe even hazard a driving trip overnight later in the year, but we are not ready to jump right in, so to speak. We haven’t minded being cautious, after all, and so continuing our Covid lifestyle for a while longer is no real hardship. In a way, it is even a luxury.

     We actually went out to eat indoors in a favorite restaurant recently for the first time since March 13 of last year. The hostess who seated us (at a remote table I chose myself) couldn’t believe that it had been that long since we had been out. Ah, the invincible optimism of the young… Anyway, I was anxious, but I got over it. Last week, after the CDC announcement of no masks for those who are vaccinated, we went to another local favorite restaurant and found, to our dismay, that while most of the customers coming in were still wearing masks, the waitstaff was not! I’m sorry, but this is not going to do for me. Message to the CDC: reliance on the honor system for vaccination freedom doesn’t work when so many of our fellow citizens have no good sense, much less any honor.

     So, this is where I am now. Conflicted. I want to be hopeful, but I don’t want to be foolish and blow all my caution to the wind. I plan to keep to my Covid routine for quite a while longer, thank you, if for no other reason than my own peace of mind. Besides, a certain amount of solitude suits me.

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Stepping Out

     Spring has sprung, albeit a bit late, even in South Texas. Finally, trees are leafing, vegetables are sprouting, and wildflowers are blooming along remote country roads. Homeowners like us are clearing out the bushes and shrubs and trees that didn’t survive last month’s devastating winter freeze, and people are swarming local garden centers and nurseries in search of replacement plants. I’m told that flats of flowers and ground covers are snatched from the beds of delivery trucks before they can even be unloaded and priced. It’s not toilet paper anymore, but plants and shrubs that are in short supply.

     Which is why we made a “family field trip” almost three hours away up to The Antique Rose Emporium in Brenham, TX, to celebrate my husband’s birthday on Sunday. I love my herbs and orchids, but he is the real gardener among us, and he has been mourning the loss several of his prized, heirloom roses since the freeze. For all the convenience of ordering rose bushes through the mail, nothing beats selecting them from a nursery that specializes in heritage varieties and has them in bloom. So away we went for the birthday day.

     I should add, by the way, that even though we have all been vaccinated, this was the first time my husband and I were out and about to anywhere other than a grocery store, a drug store, or a doctor’s office since March of last year.  Furthermore, I have to admit to more than a little personal anxiety about making a day trip through the rural areas of Texas where masks and Covid precautions have mostly been dismissed all along. But that’s another issue.

     In spite of its rather out-of-the way location, The Antique Rose Emporium has been a destination for lovers of heirloom or “old” roses for 35 years. The eight acres of cultivated gardens and landscapes full of trailing vines and artfully arranged plantings, including sections of potted roses for sale, seems more like a botanical garden than a retail nursery. People come from all over just to wander the paths, hauling their plant selections in shopper wagons and taking advantage of photo ops at every turn. (See above.) Sunday was no different; it was crowded and there were few masks in sight, but at least we were all outdoors. Sadly, the ravages of the recent winter freeze were in evidence even here in many of the garden plantings, and certainly in the lower inventory of available rose varieties. Even so, it was nice to be out on a beautiful sunny day and my husband did find some selections.

     Our son, who drove us in his big Ford F150 (expecting, no doubt, a bigger garden haul than we ended up buying), had suggested that we celebrate with dinner out on the way home. Once again, having not eaten out in a restaurant since March 13 of last year, I hesitated. “Mom, it’s okay. We’re all vaccinated. You’re going to have to loosen up a little,” he said. After talking about that for a bit, we compromised. One of our favorite restaurants, The Gristmill located in the Gruene Historic District of New Braunfels, was close to home and offered multi-level outdoor dining overlooking the Guadalupe River. Though Gruene is a quaint touristy town (home of Gruene Hall, the oldest dancehall in Texas), late afternoon on a Sunday evening wouldn’t ordinarily be too crowded.

     Or so we thought until we got there. The throngs of (maskless) people were so massive that we could hardly maneuver our pick-up down the main street without hitting somebody, never mind finding a place to park. When we reached the Gristmill at the end of the strip and saw that lines of eager diners stretched all the way out from the river to the curb,  I said, “Nope. Sorry. I can’t do this.”

     “So, do you have a plan B?” my son asked, stepping on the gas.

     Actually, it didn’t take too long to come up with one, since we also have a favorite, smaller restaurant in downtown New Braunfels, with a lovely menu and a great wine selection. Being located on a hard to reach side street, it is not known to tourists and so offered the possibility of fewer crowds, especially in late afternoon. We headed there and found it peacefully calm. There is not much outdoor dining available (not terribly enticing anyway on a 90 degree afternoon), but the young hostess was willing to walk me through the entire restaurant in order to select a reasonably isolated place for the three of us to have dinner. “Forgive me,” I said to her, “but I haven’t been in an indoor restaurant for well over a year, and I’m a little anxious.”

     “Oh my god, are you kidding?” she, who was about 12 years old, exclaimed. Ah, the uninhibited invincibility of the young. 

     We finally settled ourselves into a corner table in an airy room and found familiar favorites on the menu. Though I still had some anxiety about dining in, and certainly wasn’t inclined to linger for after-dinner drinks, we did have a nice meal, and it was welcome after these many, many months. And it was a major step, for me anyway, in our initial emergence from Covid isolation.

     So you might wonder why I am narrating this personal tale of stepping out for the first time, but then again, you might be one of the many, many people like me who share a reluctance and trepidation about simply jumping right back into supposed “normalcy” simply because we are vaccinated. It is common knowledge that habits don’t take long to form, and while the habits of Covid mitigation evolved in fits and starts until they standardized themselves, they have, nonetheless, become deriguer among the mainstream reasonable population.  And for the most part, these mitigation techniques have worked. Masks and social distance and disinfectants and crowd aversion have become, not restrictions of freedom, but pillars of comfort in our daily lives, proactive choices we could each make to protect ourselves and others against the illness and death of a ravaging pandemic.  

     I want to share the optimism of the vaccines and I dare to hope that we can conquer the devastation of this pandemic, but I am also conflicted about what a return to normal might look like and whether I really even want that. Some habits are just too hard to break.

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The Covid Show, Part II

 We got our second Covid vaccination on March 10 and were thrilled to have done so, even though I was sick for a couple days after. But, okay… to be expected. Now that we and our son are all vaccinated, there is a new comfort level in our being together and out in the general population. Not invincible, mind you, but a little more protected.

     Texas, of course, has opened up like a beach long closed after shark attacks; people here are crazy wild with what they think are new-found freedoms from both the increase in vaccinations and the actions of an irresponsible governor. So, I still feel the need to balance the confidence gained from my own vaccine with the unreasonable and careless behavior of others around us who seem hell-bent on returning to the “old normal.” 

     One of the “old normal” things that I had foregone last year (happily, I might add) was the round of all those yearly medical tests/check-ups/diagnostics/visits that are such a part of life, especially of the lives of older people. All those doctors with their lists of recommendations by the American Academies of whatever that one should have or do by virtue of one’s age — please! Well-care is one thing, but unnecessary tests (for non-specific reasons) and redundant referrals (to tell you what you already know) have always rankled me. At the risk of sounding like Trump about Covid testing, the more tests you do, the more cases you’ll find. 

    However, now fully vaccinated and with established safety protocols in place in labs and offices, I did decide that my first nod to normalcy after a year’s hiatus should be the resumption of some well-care routines. I went on and scheduled a mammogram and a subsequent gynecological exam this month.  When I called the breast center to schedule, the person on the phone asked if I had been vaccinated for Covid and then said that I needed to schedule four weeks out from the last shot — no details, no reasons, just that it was recommended. Okay, so that’s what I did. Went earlier this week, four weeks to the day from my last inoculation.

   When I arrived at the center to sign in, the woman at the desk asked whether I had been vaccinated for Covid (didn’t they already know?) and, if so, what was the date of my second shot. When I told her, she hesitated, then consulted a colleague, and then proceeded to tell me that the new recommendations from the radiological association of whatever was that the procedure needed to be scheduled at least six weeks out. (Note: I have now read that some major medical centers are recommending six to ten weeks out, but never mind …) I explained to her that the scheduler had told me four weeks. She shrugged, and said it was my choice to reschedule for later or to go on with the procedure at the time.

     “So, what happens if I have it now?” I asked. “Will I shrivel up and keel over dead?”

     “I doubt it, but you will probably have to come back for another test, and that will take more time,” she replied. “But then maybe not.”

     Having just spent an hour of my time in traffic getting over there and already feeling my blood pressure rise, I decided to go on and have the mammogram.  Of course, late the very next day, I got a call from my gynecologist’s office that “they” (the ubiquitous “they”) needed me to come back for a sonogram to investigate a mass.

     “What do they suspect?” I asked this receptionist. “Is it urgent?” Of course she didn’t know, but went on to tell me that she had already scheduled me for the sonogram two weeks hence.

     I got off the phone and freaked out. And then I got on line, as we all do, and found that a false reading due to inflamed lymph glands are not unusual after the second doses of a Covid vaccine. Furthermore, radiologists reading the results should be informed of when and into which arm the last vaccine was administered. No one had asked me about that. My mass is in the right breast, and sure enough, my last Covid does was in the right arm. A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing, but that little bit calmed me down.

      I will navigate this latest issue with the vaccine, stress and all, and will see my doctor next week. Even after the hassles of getting a vaccine appointment, the odd occurrence of “Covid arm” after my first does (which I also, in alarm, had to research on the internet), the couple days of flu and discomfort after the second dose, and now this, I am still thankful that I have gotten vaccinated, both for myself and for everyone else. But here’s the thing: there are still so many unknowns and so many variables that to act as though the vaccine is the be-all and end-all to any threats from the pandemic is more than foolish, it’s stupid. Questions linger and advice changes from day-to-day: one injection or two; how far apart; how long until immunity is achieved; how long will that immunity last; will we need booster shots come fall; can a vaccinated person still get Covid or be a carrier; how effective are any of these against new variants; how about vaccinating children; and, finally, are there any other as yet unknown, unreported side effects? 

     I have two dear friends who are reluctant to get vaccinated right now. They are not conspiracy crazies or political nuts; they are sophisticated, well-educated, rational people who are nevertheless wary because they want to wait and see what happens among the general population and what the projections are for long-term immunity. Given that research on the vaccines continues even as they are being widely used, that caution doesn’t sound totally unreasonable to me. Let’s face it: we are still in the “emergency use” phase of the FDA. In effect, all of us who are getting vaccinated have become participants in a grand national test trial, much of which might have been done prior to dissemination were it not for the “emergency” of Covid.  

     I reported my earlier vaccine reactions to the CDC and have been getting regular text inquiries about my post-vaccine health ever since. I haven’t yet reported the mammogram incident, because I want to be sure that it is, in fact, just a false reading. Meanwhile, I know the CDC cares even if they don’t have all the answers. That’s something, I guess.    

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What to Wear?

 I got my first pair of high heels right before Easter — “high” being a descriptor relative only to ballet flats, but never mind. I must have been about 10 or 11 years old and I felt sooo grown up. I can still remember how pretty they looked on my feet: the off-white pearlescent pumps with a short stacked heel (the kind of heel I continued to prefer for most of the rest of my life, though of course at a little higher elevation.) While my other friends were still wearing those stupid Mary Janes buckled so tight that they made your feet look like sausages, I was sauntering down the runway of my front walk in my new high-heeled pumps, practicing before Easter Sunday so I wouldn’t stumble or wobble while walking down the center aisle in church.

     For as long as I can remember, my Mother and I got new outfits for Easter. It was a tradition. As I got older and moved into adulthood, the new outfits became slightly less of a complete ensemble, adding maybe only new shoes or a new blazer or yes, even, a new hat to an outfit I already had. (Even though I am short, I have always loved hats.) Yet, whatever new pieces I chose to add, I always felt I had a fresh presentation for spring. 

     The “new outfit” relied on another tradition which evolved once I was living in Connecticut: the transition of the fall/winter closet to the spring wardrobe. With such distinct seasons up East, that transition was a necessary, if sometimes a laborious chore, but I came to actually enjoy the rituals of trying on and discarding and reevaluating what I had in order to make a list of what I needed to add or replace going forward. It became sort of a “pre-shopping in my closet,” if you will, that inspired me to incorporate some new fashion trends into my classic tailored staples.  

     Once I moved back to Texas, I had to adjust my seasonal approach, considering that there are really only two season here: hot and cold (or seriously cool). But still, I have kept up this basic routine, even though I have long since eliminated digging those heavy wool sweaters and winter jackets out of the cedar chest while expanding more poolside and casual attire. Since I have been retired, my clothing choices and purchases have been more dictated by our upcoming travel destinations than by any professional needs. Still, I think I would characterize my overall style as classic and tailored, preferring solids over prints, slacks over skirts, and jackets and shirts over tank tops and sleeveless dresses.  

    I have been a “clothes horse” my whole life, and my Lord & Taylor account was a line item in our budget for years. I even had a student ask me once if English teachers made more money than other teachers because they dressed so much better than anyone else. (The answer was “no” of course, even as I smiled with secret pride.) But now that I have not been shopping in a traditional department store for well over a year, I have begun to rethink what I need for how I live. Do I really need to be the best-dressed person on the cruise ship or the most fashion-forward tourist on the Riviera? Not hardly. Dressing up used to be part of the fun of travel, but not anymore; just getting there if we ever do again, will be thrill enough.

     Covid has upended all my routines, not to mention my wardrobe needs and my personal sense of style. I have not done a change-over of my closet since the early fall of 2019. Then, in anticipation of a fall trip to New England and a spring trip to Australia in March (when it would have been fall there), I had purchased some new items to see me through both the winter at home and the trip down under to come. And that’s where my closet has been left ever since.

     Why would I bother to change it? All I wear anymore are my yoga pants, T shirts, a couple hoodies when the weather gets colder, and sneakers. Even though my husband and I have both been vaccinated now, we are not yet comfortable going out to restaurants or theatres or museum openings (with largely maskless crowds), much less planning big trips abroad. Simply put, I have nowhere to go except the supermarket or a medical appointment, and those are hardly high-fashion destinations.

     At this point, I don’t know how I would plan needed wardrobe updates even if I could identify what they are. It has been so long since I have dressed, really dressed, that I no longer remember what my own style is: what scarves go with what, what handbags match what outfits, what jewelry complements what tops— and forget the hats! 

     Actually, I think my wardrobe conundrums are a result of a growing agoraphobia. I don’t need to go out, I don’t want to go out, and I don’t care about going out — much less what I wear when I do. This is not a good sign for Lord & Taylor.

      But then again, they are out of business. 

The Ziggurat temple in the city or Ur in Southern Iraq
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The Good Ole’ Days

Lent is once again upon us. For Christians, Catholics especially, these six weeks are a time for prayer and penance, a period of quiet spiritual reflection in anticipation of the joyous celebration of Easter and the renewed sense of optimism that spring inevitably brings. For many of us, however, it feels as though the Lenten season of 2020 never ended, coinciding as it did almost exactly with the initial outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, which then thrust us into an ascetic existence of sacrifice and deprivation that has lasted for over a year now. Yes, the Covid vaccine offers the promise of salvation, but we must be cautious about premature expectations of resurrecting life as we once knew it, particularly since some versions of that life may no longer be possible, or even preferred.  Time has a way of a way of distorting memories of the good ole’ days. 

     Pope Francis spent part of this third week of Lent in Iraq on a mission to forge closer bonds between the Catholic Church and the Muslim world and to support the remaining Christian and Jewish minorities, in fact all minorities, left in the population. He met with civil and religious leaders, gave speeches and interviews, offered Mass with the faithful, and generally made an unabashed plea for peace and brotherly love in a country that has been torn by religious, ethnic, and sectarian strife for decades. The biblical and emotional symbolism of his visit at this time and in this place was inescapable: Ur in Souther Iraq is believed to have been the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, the common patriarch of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths; this year, the holy days of Passover begin on March 27, Lent culminates in Easter on April 4, and the holy month of Ramadan starts on April 12. 

     Iraq, located between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, was known in ancient times as Mesopotamia. This was where the wheel was invented in the Bronze Age, where cuneiform writing and the legal Code of Hammaruabi were developed, and where the wondrous Hanging Gardens of Babylon were built.  The city of Ur, founded by the Sumerians about 3500 BCE, became THE commercial trading center of the ancient world and was a sophisticated metropolis of affluent citizens using modern irrigation systems and burning oil for energy. Science, medicine, business, literature and architecture flourished here. The Ziggurat Temple in Ur, a World Heritage site (pictured above), is said to have been an early precursor of the step pyramid at Djoser, which is the oldest pyramid in Egypt (built in 2670 BCE).

     No other nation except Israel has more biblical history and prophecy associated with it than Iraq. From the Garden of Eden, to Noah and the flood, to the Tower of Babel, to Daniel in the lion’s den, archeological support for familiar Old Testament stories continue to be unearthed and identified by modern scholars. No wonder Iraq is often called the Cradle of Civilization, an acknowledgment Pope Francis obviously shares. “This blessed place brings us back to our origins,” he said when he arrived. “We seem to have come home.” (“Pope Meets With Iraqi Cleric…,” Horowitz and Arraf, The New York Times,  3/7/21.) 

     Over the years as I have been fortunate to visit Egypt, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and Turkey, I have to admit that I, too, always felt as though I was “coming home” to the familiar, to the reality of  those biblical stories in the Old and New Testament that I have been reading and hearing forever. What those Holy Land tour brochures promise really is true: history, certainly our shared history of Western civilization, does actually come alive when you experience these places first-hand. I am magnetically drawn to this part of the world and I still have personal hopes of completing my own tour of the Fertile Crescent in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq one day. 

    Unfortunately, a whole generation of younger people know Iraq only as the site of an endless war based on a false premise that began in March, 2003. The 17 years of US involvement there, which has cost us thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, has hardly made the country enticing to visitors, and the continuing sectarian violence and on-going humanitarian crisis created by the displacement of over 9 million people in the region does little to encourage an appreciation for the storied history of a great culture. Which is too bad.

     And which is why the Pope’s visit to Iraq has an even greater message than just an ecumenical one from the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics to religious leaders in the Muslim world. He didn’t go there to placate anyone, much less convert anyone; rather, he was there to preach unity, humanity, and mutual respect, which have become the hallmarks of his papacy. As arguably the most influential non-governmental leader in the world, his presence bears witness to the suffering and persecution of all minorities, “the others” in every society, and confirms his solidarity with all of God’s people, of every caste, every nation, and every god. It is worth noting that a highlight of his visit was his meeting the Shiite Ayotollah Sistani who, like Francis, believes that religion should not govern a state (as it does in Iran under the Shia Ayotollah Ali Khomenei). 

     As Americans anticipate a release from the travails of the coronavirus, we would do well to revisit our memories of the old normal and reflect on the past injustices, hostilities and persecutions of “the others” in our own society. What have we learned from our year-long Lent  of forced reflection? Do we really want to return to the “old normal” of bickering and bullying and hatred of anyone who differs in political opinion, race, class, religion, gender, region, nationality, of the toxic divisions that have almost done us in? 

     Time has a way of distorting the memory of the good ole’ days. Maybe the Pope could make a visit to America to remind us of that.

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When Hell Freezes Over

Having grown up in South Texas, my experiences of catastrophic weather consist mostly of floods and hurricanes. In fact, the first major weather event I can recall from my childhood was Hurricane Carla, a category 5 storm with sustained winds of 110 mph and gusts up to 150. It made landfall on September 11, 1961, in Port Lavaca, just 20 miles down on the Gulf from where we lived in Victoria, and it raged on, with torrential rains and winds and devastating flood waters for what seemed like days. When it was all over, 500,000 people had been evacuated from Coastal areas, 34 people had died, and $300 million in damage had been tallied.

     Images of Carla have stayed with me, and often been relived, both in actuality and in my dreams. I remember going to the grocery store with my Mother to stock up on canned goods and non-perishables, matches and batteries, and being intrigued by the “storm tracker maps” they gave away (stores in Texas still do this during hurricane season). I recall how the grey clouds gradually grew heavy and began to threaten as the winds started to pick up.  And I can still see the odd lines of the faithful outside one of the old Catholic churches in town. To me, the atmosphere was exciting even if somewhat ominous.

     We lived with my Grandmother in the house where my Mother had grown up. Built in the 1920s, it was constructed on a pier-and-beam foundation with a sizable crawl space underneath (convenient for water flowing under, not into, the house). It had wide front steps leading up to a huge wrap-around front porch and a screened-in back porch off the kitchen. Supposedly, it was one of the first houses in Victoria to have electric switches on the walls and an indoor bathroom (yes, with an original claw-footed tub). There was a separate, free-standing, but leaning, single-car garage to the side. By the time Carla and I had come along, this place had already weathered many a major storm  — a fact that my Mother repeatedly emphasized over the years every time a new one erupted.

     To prepare for Carla, we put out the candles, got out the kerosene lamps, moved all the porch furniture and anything else untethered into the rickety garage, got towels and tarps together, filled bottles, buckets and the bathtub with water, and then just waited. The house was one of those back-to-front designs (seeing straight through when you entered) and, having been built before air-conditioning was even thought of, had multiple windows in every room. We always left them open because of the heat and so, of course, we didn’t board them when a storm was coming in warm weather; instead, we opened everything up to let it all blow through. That was the conventional wisdom at the time, and it did work. We moved the furniture toward the center of rooms as best we could, covered things with tarps, and settled in for the duration listening to the radio (battery powered) and tracking the storm on the hurricane map. My grandmother prayed and paced the floor, and my Mother and I ate potato chips and peanut butter sandwiches while we sat out on the back porch watching doors and auto parts and various other neighborhood debris fly by and then float in the rising waters.

     Some things never change, at least not where hurricanes in South Texas are concerned.  I have written here before about the 1998 Central Texas floods which resulted in $1.19 billion in damage and 31 people killed, a convergence of the flooding of the Colorado, Lavaca, Guadalupe, San Antonio, and San Jacinto Rivers in October of 1998. We didn’t have much of an alert, and no storm map, but the flood became a major weather event nonetheless. The rains began slowly, caused by hurricanes far away near Baja and exacerbated by a prologued drought. Then the rivers rapidly started to rise and overflow their banks. The Guadalupe River in Victoria crested at 33.8 feet above flood stage putting the entire downtown under water. I had just flown down to Texas because my Mother had had her first major stroke, and we both ended up dealing with  dual catastrophes without much preparation or understanding of either one.  

     Then, in August of 2017, Hurricane Harvey (category 4) hit. Once again, I was down in Victoria with my Mother who had had another major stroke. It was déja vu all over again. Everyone was in hurricane mode, but I was the caretaker in crisis, more concerned about her than the impending weather. Similar story: long lines at the supermarkets, people stocking up on water and beer, Victoria ending up with no electricity, no potable water and me virtually living in my car. It was a nightmare, which I still keep having. (See September 4, 2017, blog post, “Come Hell or High Water.”)

     Over the years, I have experienced multiple extreme “weather events,” as the forecasters on TV like to call them. I have been through blizzards in Connecticut, crippling snowstorms in New York and on Cape Cod, and extreme ice storms, tornadoes and even a 5.0 magnitude earthquake in Memphis (on the New Madrid fault). But Uri, as they named last week’s historic snow/ice/winter storm in San Antonio, was truly — here comes that word again — “unprecedented.” Not even hurricane-seasoned veterans like me, not to mention the Texas power grid, were prepared for this; after all, none of us were even around over a hundred years ago, the last time a winter storm of this magnitude and duration was recorded in Texas.

     There were indications in advance that we had a weather system moving in and steadily dropping daily temperatures heralded a “cold spell” not all that unusual in February, but there wasn’t anything like a major, huge storm warning. After all, snow is such an anomaly in South Texas and thermometers rarely dip below freezing for more than a day or two. Besides, this was right before Valentine’s Day weekend and everything would be closed that Monday for Presidents’ Day anyway, so nobody got too excited. Here at home, we did what we usually do when a deep frost is predicted: we covered some of our less-weather resistant plants, put a small (electric) heater into the greenhouse, and insulated outdoor faucets. So far, so good — except that it wasn’t.

     Valentine’s Day was exceptionally cold (27°) and sleet and ice advisories started to appear; predictions were that we were headed for several days of temperatures below 20. Already some of the overpasses on major roads and highways were frozen and people were advised to stay home. About 2 a.m. Monday morning the rolling power outages began. It was 11° with a steady snowfall that accumulated to about 4 inches by the end of the day. Our electricity went out altogether in mid-afternoon. We dug out some of my quilts, gathered candles and flashlights, and settled ourselves around our gas fireplace and the gas cooktop in the great room. The rest of the house had gotten down to 50° by the time the power resumed on Thursday afternoon, but then we were notified by the local water company that we had a water problem. And I promptly had a meltdown. 

     To say that last week was hell is to put it mildly, even as I admit that we were a great deal better off than many others in San Antonio. For me, things like reading by candlelight or sitting in my idling car for warmth and wi-fi brought me back to the terribly sad and traumatic moments of Hurricane Harvey and all that came with it. On top of  the unrelenting stress that we have all been living under for so long — the ugly politics, the insurrection, the shaky economy, the coronavirus — you start to feel like Job. And then you get a freaky snow and ice storm in what usually feels like living in the middle of a desert and, well … you see what happens when hell freezes over. 

     Today, ten days after all this began, most of us are back to normal. Temperatures are in the 70s, things have thawed out, our own water problem has been solved, and we have been able to restock the pantry.  The damage to our yard and trees and my husband’s beautiful garden is significant, but he’s determined to renew and replant. All the Texas politicians and the leaders of ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas — great name, but not so reliable) are busy blaming each other for the failure of the grid though, in truth, scientists in every field admit to the challenge of balancing between low probability and high consequences when attempting to plan for the future. If Texans can learn anything from this horror story, it may be that we can’t have it all, both low-cost energy and a fail-safe grid. 

     Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the San Francisco poet associated with the “beat generation,” died yesterday at the age of 101. Some words from one of his poems seem apropos: “The world is a beautiful place to be born into…if you don’t mind a touch of hell now and then…”

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The Covid Show

 Since beginning in late January of last year, the Covid 19 virus has been center stage.  At first, it was the foreign invader, immediately suspect because of its origin, something to be concerned about, but contained. Then it became a bigger threat, a world player, much like a common adversary in war. Here at home, it was undersold, dismissed as a benign nuisance that would simply “go away.” When it didn’t go away and started to have profound effects on American life, it took on a larger social role, becoming a player in political gamesmanship and partisan identities. And while all the arguing and posturing were going on, the coronavirus continued to command the stage.

     Operation Warp Speed amped up the drama. Ever since the Pfizer and the Moderna covid vaccines were granted emergency use authorization by the FDA back in December, the race has been on. The vaccines have indeed become a ray of hope for a nation, and a world, frozen by fear and anxiety over a deadly disease that seems to be out of control. Now at last, maybe there is “a light at the end of the tunnel,” a cliché so many keep repeating.

     Or maybe not — at least, not yet. 

     My husband and I entered this new section of  “the tunnel” along with everyone else when the initial rollout of vaccinations began. We were not immediately eligible in the 1A category for healthcare professionals and other essential workers, of course, but even with all the initial wrangling about hierarchies within categories and who’s on first and who’s up next, we soon realized that we would be eligible as seniors at some point in group1B. By this time, in early January, the coronavirus was raging here in Texas (along with everything and everyone else), and I began to hear of more and more people whom I knew who had contracted Covid. Suddenly, I felt as though we were all competing for life in a drama already ending in tragedy for so many. 

     And then we realized that the rollout wasn’t really rolling at all, that there was but a loosely contrived patchwork of providers varying from state to state and county to county and town to town. As vaccine eligibility opened up to 1B, lines of thousands formed at vaccination sites, many waiting for hours and hours amid total confusion over a distribution system that simply wasn’t in place: How do you find out where the distribution centers are? How many people can be vaccinated? How do you get in line? Do you just go down before daybreak and stand or sit or idle in your car and wait?  (Scenes of that scenario on  local San Antonio TV were reminiscent of the horrible sight of hundreds of cars in a food-pantry line here that had made the national news back in December.)

     By Inauguration Day, hospitals and their staffs were at breaking points with Covid patients, the national death toll was pushing half a million, and I only knew one person (a friend in Seattle) who had actually secured an appointment for a vaccine. I started having bad dreams about being in a supermarket elbowing and pushing my way down a long, sparsely-stocked aisle in a race toward some rolls of toilet paper at the end. Evidently, my dreams were prescient: the Biden administration soon had to admit that not only were there major distribution snafus, but that there weren’t enough vaccines available to inoculate everyone who was eligible, much less everyone who wanted to be. 

    Ironically, these revelations and the sudden interruption in vaccine delivery seemed to give state and county officials time to redraw their priorities for distribution, and local hospitals and distribution centers time to figure out how they were going to dispense the shots equitably. Here in San Antonio, where there are huge areas, mostly in underserved neighborhoods, without broadband access, and where there are large numbers of retired people who are not computer savvy, or even physically mobile, the issue of equal access is understandably a major concern. What has emerged in answer to these problems is, once again, a hodgepodge of accessible avenues for the vaccines that become available at various sites and at various times: by telephone only, by waitlist only, by on-line only, by being part of a hospital group, a VA group, even part of a limited social network that sends alerts about new locations and registrations? It is a wild, stressful competition, which makes the hunt for toilet paper, Clorox wipes and other less-important shortages seem like leisurely shopping!

     My husband and I have been active participants in this craziness for the last three weeks. Working the phones — three phones between us, actually (two cells and one land-line), calling over and over again only to be met by busy signals, making former calls to the airlines or the cable companies seem stress-free. We have manned two desktop computers, each trying to log onto a site and trying, if possible, to coordinate appointment times by screaming at each other across the room. We have gotten ourselves on waitlists with weeks’ away possibility, nothing secure but forever hopeful. And we have continued to check updated sites everyday and updated listings in the paper and pursued rumor and heresay and any other avenue of gossip and information which might conceivably reveal an opportunity for Covid salvation. I even followed an inside lead from the mayor of a neighboring town who is a member of my church. (Almost succeeded with that tip, but then I hesitated when choosing an appointment time and — whoosh!All slots suddenly filled right before my eyes: 900 appointments gone in under 3 minutes.) 

     To say that this ordeal has been the ultimate experience of  FOMO (fear of missing out) is to put it mildly. With new strains of the virus and ever-mounting cases all around us, the stress of this pursuit has become way more than simply the stress of competition among eager consumers. This is now a drama of epic proportions, a matter of life and death.

     Finally, late last Friday afternoon, we got a call from the County waitlist. Hallelujah! For a person who has a needle phobia, I never thought I would be so thrilled to hear about getting a shot (which seems to be administered more as a javelin throw than as an injection, but I won’t think about that now). We have appointments for vaccinations later this week — Moderna, which my husband keeps calling Modelo because that is his favorite brand of beer. (Funny, Corona is mine.)  Anyway, the waitlist had 12,000 names on it; the County received 4,000 doses. Good thing we got on line early on the first day of registration. 

      As happy as I am that we have finally secured vaccines, I am under no illusions: being vaccinated won’t put an end to all worries and we will have to remain ever vigilant about its effectiveness against new viral strains. We will have to continue to wear KN 95 masks and keep socially distant until we can feel more comfortable in the presence of others, but the vaccine does offer some hope and some peace of mind to many of us, at least for now, and that is welcome.

     Everyone keeps writing about and talking about an eventual return to “the new normal,” by which they really mean a return to the “old normal,” but alas, I think the “before days” is a long-running show that has now closed forever. We, our society, and our way of life have been profoundly affected by this pandemic, and we would be wise to look at life as it is now, with all its changes and compromises, as part of the new normal we will will have to embrace. 

     This is not a dress rehearsal, this is a real reality show. We have to be prepared to play our parts, even as the script constantly changes.    

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Peace and Quiet

     Do you hear the silence? The lack of dings on your cellphone, the absence of “Breaking News” bulletins on your TV, the reduction of text messages and e-mails and even phone calls full of commentary and exclamations from like-minded friends and those not-so-like-minded as well? Have you noticed the peace and quiet?

     I have, and it’s a blessing. I am so tired of the noise. When you think about what we have been through just his month alone — the siege on the Capitol, the National Guard security at all State capitols, the impeachment in the House, the inauguration of a new President, the explosion of Coronavirus deaths amid a crippling shortage of Coronavirus vaccines, and now an impending debate over a covid relief bill and a Senate trial for a Trump impeachment — it is mind-boggling. And we’re only talking 24 days! No wonder a majority of the population is suffering some variation of PTSD. This has all gone on for far too long and, if we can agree on nothing else, I think we can all agree that we are exhausted.  

     So, the silence of the incessant social media and the normalcy of a return to the routine White House press conference is a welcome relief.  I remarked after the first one on Day 1,  “Boy, wasn’t that dull?”  Thank goodness! I no longer feel the urgent need to tune in and bite my fingernails about what lies and conspiracy theories might be floated to create distraction that day. The news going forward may not always be good much less exciting, but at least I have confidence once again that it will be real, generated by real national and international concerns, not simply by the antics of one man.  

     Make no mistake, however; all the chaos and violence and vitriol in our society was a long-time coming, the seeds sown and nurtured long before the election of one man, and it will take a long time to repair, long after the election of another man. For all the talk of unity and forgiveness and, yes, even accountability, the moral, ethical, political, economic, regional, racial, religious, and cultural divides in America will not simply close because we wish them to, any more than not listening to the news means it isn’t bad because we didn’t hear it.  

     Americans need this national time out to do some soul searching and to evaluate our own accountability, as individuals, for whatever attitudes, actions and rhetoric we might have contributed over the years to the deep divisions that exist in our country, our communities, and our families. Only then can we hope to regain some peaceful co-existence with each other even when we disagree. It is “The Hill We Climb,”  according to Amanda Gorman: 

                                  We’ve braved the belly of the beast, 

                                  We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,

                                  and the norms and notions

                                  of what just is

                                  isn’t always just-ice. 

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Where We Stand

When I was in school, we had a name for those kids who repeatedly lied, cheated, brown-nosed, back-stabbed, grand-standed, and otherwise tried to make themselves into something they were not. We called them “fakers.” Not quite yet old enough, or sophisticated enough, to recognize personality disorders as such, we nevertheless intuitively knew that such people were trouble, were dangerous and disingenuous and not to be trusted. 

     “Kids keep you honest,” I used to say when I taught high school. “They can smell a fake a  mile away, and will call you out on it, even if the faker is the teacher.” Unfortunately, it seems a lot of those kids lost that ability as they grew up. And so the nation elected as a president someone who has spent his life promoting a brand and projecting an image of what he is not. We elected a faker.

     Originally I had planned to write a humorous post this month, a spoof on the more outlandish conspiracy theories as a farewell commentary on the craziness and nonsense that has flooded the airwaves and infiltrated social media for so many months, even years, during the Trump administration. Surely, after a 7,000,000 voter repudiation of “the Faker” and an Electoral College decision, we could clear our heads, return to reason, and learn to laugh again.

     And then the siege of the Capital happened. And no matter how the Trumpsters are trying to spin it even now, this was not meant to be a peaceful protest, it did not simply evolve into a spontaneous explosion of emotion, and it was not instigated by Antifa;  it was a planned, orchestrated attempt to take over the country, as the t-shirts on the chests of some protestors proclaimed: “MAGA Civil War, Jan. 6, 2021.” These people were hell-bent, incited by a fake leader who came out to rile them up and urge them to storm the Capitol (where he did not, as promised, join them).  It was his last-ditch effort to overturn a legitimate election, one that has gone on way too long, but one that has been recounted, upheld, certified, and supported by state and local election officials, and validated by over 60 federal court cases and two Supreme Court pronouncements. We had an all-out insurrection over fake claims of a landslide by a fake president, a sore loser who refuses to relinquish power.

     Who would have believed  it would come to this? Evidently, no one, given the expressions of shock and surprise by so many of his congressional allies and the crocodile tears of disappointment and dismay by so many of his followers. 

      What fakers! All these people who looked the other way and refused to stand up, who rationalized their support (and votes) for a higher purpose (anti-abortion, judgeships, etc.), or who simply aligned themselves with him for their own personal gain and self-interest knew exactly what they were doing. How dare they feign shock and surprise now.  And the others, those MAGA mad hatters who are so disgruntled and aggrieved because they feel left out of mainstream (inclusive, multi-cultural) America, found the perfect leader who validated their anger and helped them feel empowered. They, too, knew exactly what they were doing. How dare they excuse the violence and mayhem in storming the Capitol by claiming to have just “gotten carried away with the moment,” as one pseudo-apologetic protestor did last week. 

     So, where do we stand now? According to news reports this morning, we stand at the precipice of an all-out civil war, with preliminary attacks on all fifty state capitols this weekend and the promise of open warfare on inauguration day. Thankfully, the safety of members of congress has been assured: they have been informed that the cost of bullet-proof vests is fully tax deductible. I feel better already. They can return to the Capitol to continue to debate impeachment and removal of the Faker from office until well into the next administration, if there is one.  

     There are 74,000,000 million people in this country who voted for Donald Trump. Some of them are friends and relatives of mine and, contrary to what the far left might have us believe,  they aren’t all stupid, even if they have forgotten some of those adolescent schoolyard lessons from school. A good many of them are just plain gullible, the kind of people who have been the easy marks of hucksters and charlatans, and dictators, for centuries; others, sadly too many perhaps, simply fall into the category of “good men doing nothing” while evil spreads. The point is that they, and we, are all Americans and most of us aren’t going anywhere else anytime soon. But, it is going to take a combined commitment from all of us, not just elected officials, to heal the wounds, repair the fissures in our democracy, and undo the damage this administration has wrought both at home and abroad. I pray the country can last that long.

    As for the Trumpster, reparations for his actions will be exacted from where it will hurt him the most, not from the loss of any Republican party clout or restrictions from holding office, but from the erosion of his brand, the defection of his financiers, the demise of his golf clubs and hotels, the onslaught of civil and criminal lawsuits, the outstanding debts that will come due, and the ultimate true revelations about his assets and liabilities. “God walks slowly,” an elderly friend of mine used to say, “but He always catches up to you.”

     And God is not a faker.