It’s My Hobby and I’m Sticking To It

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I was reminded by a Facebook memory that I have been posting blogs five days a week for six years now. If my math is correct that means that I have somehow managed to write somewhere around one thousand five hundred sixty essays, a number that is almost overwhelming when I think about it. I suppose that in many ways an undertaking that was supposed to be an avenue for advertising the book that I have written has become an obsession, while the book itself languishes in a state of unfinished editing which leads me to believe that I have some sort of psychological hangup regarding my opus magnum. Surely there is a reason for prioritizing my daily chatter over the work that took so much of my time. Anyway, this is an anniversary of sorts which brings me back to one of my earliest and most memorable posts.

Husband Mike and I had gone camping with friends at Ink’s Lake State Park located in the hill country of Texas. Things went awry from the start, beginning with the failure of one of our tent poles that resulted in a fix that left the structure leaning to one side. We should have taken this as an omen and either left immediately or made a visit to a camping store to purchase new outdoor living quarters. Instead we soldiered on, and for a time everything went remarkable well until the next bad sign came with the arrival of a group of young people late one evening. They literally came into the campground like storm troopers intent on stealing our sense of security

The members of the group appeared to have no sense of the lateness of the hour as they set up their tents using the bright headlights of their trucks to throw light on the project as well as all of the nearby sites including ours. They bantered so loudly that we heard every sound that they uttered which included both arguments laced with profanity and laughter laced with profanity. One of the members of the group had a chortle that most surely had been designed to drive people insane. Unfortunately he seemed to think that everything was funny. Even after the new folks finally went into their tents they chattered on and on and on, with the sound of that horrific laugh punctuating every single comment.

Needless to say it was a very long and unrestful night, but I was encouraged when I awoke to find the irritating people packing up to leave. In truth I almost asked if I might help them in order to hurry the process along. Instead I simply observed them while I ate my breakfast. I noticed that they were flying a large flag that was unfamiliar to me so I Googled a description and learned that it was something known as the new Nazi banner. Somehow I wasn’t surprised at all because the group was accompanied by a black Labrador Retriever whose name was a pejorative starting with the letter N. I held my temper as best I might, and soon enough they were gone leaving behind so much garbage that vultures came around to clean up the mess. As creepy as those birds were, they were preferable to the people whose place they had taken.

I was able to laugh at the adventure and enjoyed a lovely day at a winery with our friends.  Later that evening we enjoyed dinner together and played a rousing round of Scrabble while sipping on wine, so I truly thought that I would enjoy a night of deep sleep until thunder, lightning and a torrent of rain began falling mercilessly on our tent. The “sturm und drang” only got worse as the wind picked up and took advantage of the broken tent pole that now threatened to collapse under the intensity of the weather. I was far too terrified to sleep and so I lay on my cot hoping and praying that the little stream right behind our site would not decide to flood the floor of our home away from home, or that the wind might become too much for our structure. All kinds of warnings were making frightening noises on my cell phone, so when there was a small break in the downpour I raced to our car with a pillow and a blanket and found the refuge that I needed. It wasn’t long before Mike had given up his post and joined me. It wasn’t the most comfortable situation, but at least it felt safe.

By morning we assessed the damage and decided that it was time to bail and head back home. As we were leaving the park rangers mentioned that we had been the only tenters left in the park during the storm. They said that they were glad to see that we were okay because they had worried about us and even considered coming to check on our safety,\. Sadly they felt that it had been just too dangerous outside for them to brave it. Somehow I did not feel better for their kind thoughts.

Ultimately Mike and I gave up on being boys scouts and invested in a nice trailer that has kept us safe from other storms that we have endured. We were eventually able to laugh about our adventure in the tent, and I felt some sense of gratitude that it had given me a topic for launching my blog.

I’m not quite sure why I still get so much out of writing so prolifically. I sometimes wonder if anyone other than my good friends Linda and Adriana or my cousin Terri are reading my work. I know that I am addicted to putting my thoughts on a page. It is my drug of choice and since it does me no harm I suppose that it is as good as any habit gets. The ironic thing is that six years later I find myself in a new state of chaos much like the storm of long ago, and it is just as humorous. Who knew the power of water? Just a brief sprinkle from a hot water heater has upended my household for six weeks now. By tomorrow I should have all of the repairs completed including getting new carpet, but the process has been akin to moving out of the house, tearing it apart, rebuilding it again and then moving back in. For someone as obsessive compulsive as I am it has taken a great deal of laughter to keep me from losing my perspective. I’ve even thought of those God awful campers of late and chuckled at the thought of them just to stay sane.

Right now every item from our walls, closets, drawers, etc. is stored in boxes stacked high in the garage. We attempted to remember to leave out things that we would need for the duration but have found ourselves returning again and again to those boxes because we neglected to keep something at hand. Mike realized that he was going to need his checkbook after we had boxed it up,  and after a bit of a hunt retrieved it and carried it around in his back pocket. One morning he came to me and announced that he had somehow lost it. We searched everywhere and were on the verge of calling the bank to have the account changed when I used my most excellent sleuthing skills to retrace his steps. I eventually found the missing item on the floor of the guest bathroom where it had apparently fallen from Mike’s pants when nature called.

I’m doing rather well given my perfectionist tendencies. I’ve made my journey a study in empathy as I think of friends and family who suffered far greater devastation in the floods of last summer. I also have a new appreciation for anyone who is remodeling in any way. I remember Adriana telling me once that she and her husband had been forced to stored their belongings sky high in their garage while new floors were being laid in their home. I honestly had no feeling or understanding for her situation. Now I just want to give her a long overdue hug for what she must have endured.

In the meantime I suppose that I will keep writing, even if it is only for myself. I’m part of a vast group of people crying out in a kind of wilderness, unknown authors who write out of compulsion. Perhaps I am a bit crazy for doing it, but it’s my hobby and I’m sticking to it. Oh, and I really do want to get that book out for the public. I really believe that it has some merit. I hope it won’t be another six years before I get it done.

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Tasteless Bread

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“Radio and television speech becomes standardized, perhaps better English than we have ever used. Just as our bread, mixed and baked, packaged and sold without benefit of accident of human frailty, is uniformly good and uniformly tasteless, so will our speech become one speech.” 

― John SteinbeckTravels with Charley: In Search of America

Back when I was in college I took a linguistics class that was fascinating. One of the requirements was to write a paper and I decided to do some undergraduate research. I recorded the voices of several women who had all grown up in Houston, Texas. They varied in age from the late sixties to early teens. I had them all read the same passage and then answer some questions about it so that their more natural way of speaking would become apparent. I then created a questionnaire whose purpose was to find out if the listeners detected any kind of regional dialect in the speakers. I played the recordings without comment and then had the respondents complete their answers to the questions.

The results were much as I had expected them to be, but fascinating nonetheless. A hundred percent of those who took the survey could hear a definite Texas twang in the speech of the older women, but wondered if the younger speakers were from some other part of the country like the Midwest. In fact, the survey answers indicated that as the speakers became younger, less and less of a regional dialect was apparent.

I drew some conclusions based on various theories that we had studied in class, the main one being that the younger individuals who spoke had grown up watching television which generally favors a rather bland Midwestern way of speaking. In addition our city of Houston had become much more diverse and cosmopolitan over time leading the younger women to more exposure to different ways of speaking. Finally, the educational system had impacted the young by allowing them to interact with teachers from places all over the country, unlike the older women who had mostly learned from people native to the area.

My professor was quite pleased with my study and gave me a high mark. I knew that to draw any meaningful conclusions regarding dialects I would need to have more speakers, more respondents and better controls, but it was a somewhat daring project for an undergraduate and my teacher appreciated my efforts. He also agreed with many of the conclusions that I formed as to way there was such a dramatic difference in the ways of speaking.

There was a time when it was quite easy to detect linguistic differences in people. New Orleans had its “Where ya at?’ natives, and Chicago had its south side workers who cheered for “da Bears.” There were the people from Jersey and those from Georgia, all of whom gave away their place of origin the minute they opened their mouths to speak. Of course there was also the classic Texas drawl that stereotyped our state for posterity, but according to the most recent research many of the linguistic differences are dying out as people have more and more access to the world at large. The kind of isolation that bred distinct ways of speaking is becoming less and less frequent, so for the most part there are few people today who actually never hear anyone but the people in the immediate neighborhood.

My high school English teacher used to encourage us to become citizens of the world. This was long before anyone was even dreaming of the Internet or hundreds of channels on television. At the time I rarely ventured more than a few miles from my neighborhood and even then it was to visit with relatives who spoke in ways similar to mine. To this day I have a discernible accent that has been described by strangers as cute, southern or even Texan. They seem able to determine where I was born, but mostly are unable to hear the same dialect in the speech of my daughters. Only once was one of them referred to as a “Cracker” when she was working in Chicago and someone heard a hint of the south in her speech.

We are more and more becoming just Americans with regard to the way we talk, The old differences are fading and mostly found in older citizens rather than the young as noted in the most recent studies. The old ways of speaking are becoming the venue of folklore and should probably be recorded for posterity so that we might one day remember a way of life that is vanishing.

My grandfather grew up in the hills of Virginia. He was not even listed in a census until 1930, mostly because nobody wanted to travel into the backwoods areas to find him and his family. His way of speaking was quite representative of the area where he lived. When I played a recording of him telling a story to someone whose childhood was spent in the same part of the country, he smiled with recognition and said that it sounded just like his own older relatives. He noted that there are still places so remote that the local accents thrive, but in his own case all traces are gone. His education as well as his travels to New York City and Chicago have all but eliminated any hints of his origins.

Language is a fascinating way of expressing ourselves that tells us so much about who we are and where we have been. Today our influences are so many that it is becoming more and more difficult for anyone who is not an expert or who does not possess a good ear to discern our stories simply from the way we speak. In some ways that is a sign of progress, and in others it is just a bit sad. There was something quite delightful in the variety that was once so evident in our voices. Perhaps it will one day be little more than a memory as our speech becomes one speech, better but devoid of our frailties.

Invest In Experiences, Not Things

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Love and romance are the stuff of literature and film. From Odysseus and Penelope to Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy we humans have lived vicariously in the stories of two people whose love seems almost destined to be. We gleefully celebrate as romantic tales unfold. There is something in our natures that is drawn to the happiness that comes from the joining of two compatible souls in marriage, and so we revel in the joy of young couples who agree to love, honor and cherish one another. Our human experience is enriched by love, but that first flush of emotion is often challenged by the routines and surprises of daily life. Sustaining the fires that brought two people together in the beginning can be fraught with problems, which is why so many dreams are dashed by unfaithfulness and divorce. It is quite an accomplishment and an inspiration when couples are able to continue their devotion to each other through decades of both happiness and disappointment, health and illness, riches and financial difficulties. We are inspired by those who are still in love even as their hair grays and wrinkles line their faces.

We were reminded of the power and beauty of true love in the touching example of George and Barbara Bush, a seventy three year marriage in which their feelings never appeared to wane. Barbara thought George was the most beautiful person she had ever seen when she was only sixteen years old and a lifetime later she still boasted to her nurses that he was the most handsome man on earth. The two had most surely become a team, one working for the good of the other in every aspect of their days together. They were as complimentary as cream and sugar, adding spice and flavor to their individual strengths and talents. We admire and desire the companionship that they achieved and search for ways to incorporate their kind of devotion in our own lives.

Back in the nineteen sixties another love story was quietly unfolding on the University of Texas campus. She was a tall beautiful and fun loving young woman from San Antonio named Barbara who had come to Austin filled with hopes and dreams. He was a bright engineering student named Gary with a big inviting smile. They enjoyed crazy dates at Zilker Park and fall days at football games where they cheered for their Texas Longhorns. It didn’t take them long to realize that they wanted to become man and wife, and so on an April day in nineteen sixty eight they were married in the company of family and friends. They had little idea how much adventure lay ahead, but they somehow knew that whatever happened they wanted to be together.

Gary’s Chemical Engineering degree would take them to many different places, and all along the way they would explore the history and landscapes and befriend the people that they met. They decided early on to invest in experiences rather than things, and they lived by that ideal by taking trips to the places that they had both longed to see. Barbara was as masterful at planning their excursions as Rick Steves and each year they set forth on expeditions to learn more about their world. Those vacations became a cornerstone of who they were and created memories that would cement their time together.

Of course family was always paramount and that included rituals like a Thanksgiving reunion with Barbara’s clan that they rarely missed. Each year they joined their ever growing group of aunts uncles and cousins in a celebration of life. Even as they had their own children, a boy and then a girl, they welcomed new members of the extended family with great happiness. The foundation of who they are and what they believe was found in those gatherings filled with laughter, song, stories and food to nourish both body and soul.

Somehow the years flew by and in spite of the usual kinds of troubles that come into everyone’s lives Barbara and Gary were able to navigate their way hand in hand, dealing with problems together and maintaining hopeful optimism. They worked hard and played hard and centered their lives on each other and their children. They built traditions and character and did their best, always with an eye to keeping their own passion for each other alive.

Before long the circle of life had repeated itself as their children made their way to the University of Texas where they met their own soulmates and repeated the lessons that they had learned from their parents. Barbara and Gary welcomed the new members of their family with the same openness and love that had always been so much a part of their natures. They celebrated as one grandchild after another enriched their lives, and all the while they continued to have fun with each other, never forgetting the importance of a hug, a kiss, a compliment, or a good laugh.

There were hardships along the way of course. Gary’s dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Barbara’s sweet mom developed cancer. Gary’s brother died far too young also from cancer. They watched as people that they loved developed life threatening illnesses. Gary had a frightening heart attack. Their children and grandchildren endured difficulties. Through it all both Barbara and Gary remained rocks of strength, compassion and wisdom. They held hands and together weathered each storm that came their way, and then they found a way to celebrate with an exciting trip with family or friends, never losing sight of their promise to invest in experiences rather than things.

It’s not an easy thing to reach a fiftieth wedding anniversary in today’s world. Statistics are rife with stories of broken dreams and promises. It takes hard work and determination and more than a great deal of love to keep a relationship happy and strong. Barbara and Gary Greene have mastered the process and their secret appears to be in working together with neither person more or less than the other. They value each other in all that they do and then purposefully find ways to celebrate the life that they have. Carpe Diem is not just a platitude for them, but a way of living. The generosity of spirit that they have always shown to one another extends to everyone that they meet leaving them surrounded by people who support their journey together.

Happy fiftieth anniversary, Barbara and Gary. All of us who are part of your beautiful love story have been blessed and inspired by both of you. Thank you for showing us how it’s done.

The Car

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The stories on the television series This Is Us are so heartwarming and real that rarely a week goes by that I do not identify with some aspect of an episode. They have a universal appeal that reaches into the heart and soul of who we are as members of a family. I have duly noted the kinship that I have with the characters depicted on the show. As with my own situation there are three siblings, a girl and two boys, who continue to struggle with the impact of their beloved father’s death. I have known the pain of their loss of their father all too well, and like them I have never quite come to grips with the reality of the situation even years later. The writers of the series are certainly gifted to make each of us feel as though they have somehow tapped into our own personal memories. The title itself hints that we are all part of a great big family of mankind that endures the same types of struggles. The characters are us. Their history is ours.

A recent episode of This Is Us was titled The Car, a brilliant look at how an inanimate object becomes a symbol for a father’s love and all that is good about a family. The storyline was particularly touching for me because it was one car that devastated my family and another that brought us a new day of hope.

My father was a Pontiac man. He loved the sporty nature of that brand and insisted on getting a new one almost as soon as the last payment was made on the one he was driving. He had proudly purchased a brand new Pontiac with all of the bells and whistles for our move from Houston, Texas to San Jose California. It was an automobile boasting the kind of luxury that earned second glances as we drove down the road. It carried us in grand style and comfort thousands of miles to our new home. When things didn’t work out there it brought us back to Houston and the promise of a fresh start in familiar surroundings. We used it to visit friends and family whom we had missed while we were gone. We drove it to inspect houses that we might purchase to set up a household. We were planning to take it to the beach on Memorial Day to launch a summer on the Gulf Coast. We loved that car and the sight of our daddy sitting so happily behind the wheel. How could we have known that it would become the instrument of his death?

He died in that car on a lonely stretch of road when he accidentally drove into a deep ditch that was unmarked and laying in wait on a dark night. It had no seatbelt to protect him, no collapsable steering wheel, no exterior designed to take the brunt of the crash. Instead the car built as it was became a weapon that crushed his chest and stopped his heart. It would change our lives and create questions in our minds that haunt us even to this day.

We would later find evidence of our father’s loving nature in the gifts that he had already purchased in anticipation of his wedding anniversary and my mother’s birthday. A card would arrive in the mail from him with a postmark from the day before he died. He had used his car to plan for a future that would never come for him. He was dead and the car had become a heap of scrap.

My mother had to pull herself together somehow. She began the process of building a new kind of life for us, and for that she needed a car. The one that she purchased became the auto that would carry us through our youth and into our adulthood. It was a homely thing, almost ugly, but it was reliable. It was painted in a two tone pattern of white and a strange beige color. It had ordinary cloth seats and rubber mats on the floorboard. It was as basic as a car might be, not even possessing an automatic transmission or an air conditioner. It was so unlike anything our father might have purchased, but my mother was able to pay for it with the insurance money that she received from his accident. It was so stripped down that there was very little that might break, and best of all she owned it. It was a good car in spite of its appearance and it became the vehicle that drove us into our future.

Once we managed to move beyond our grief that car became a source of great fun. We used it to visit our grandparents in Arkansas, and piled inside on Friday nights to meet up with our aunts and uncles and cousins. We sat inside it at drive-in movie theaters enjoying grand epics on the big screen even as we batted the mosquitoes that buzzed about. We ran our weekend errands and drove to church in our ever faithful auto. We motored to Dallas and San Antonio for vacations, and went to Corpus Christi to enjoy the ocean that our dad had so loved. When we were sick we sat safely inside the car as we traveled to see the doctor. The car took us to ballgames and bowling alleys, pancake breakfasts and excursions at the mall.

From time to time one of our mechanically inclined uncles would change the oil, rotate the tires, or install a new battery. Year after year passed and it was that ugly old car that took us to the places where we celebrated the milestones of our youth. It was ever dependable, always waiting to help us enjoy a new adventure. It helped us to heal and to move on from the tragedy that had so changed us. It served us as well as anything might have, requiring little attention to keep faithfully working.

About the time that I was close to graduating from high school my mother decided that it was time to replace the car which was nearing its eighth or ninth year of service to our family. One of my cousins purchased it from her and our next car was a great deal fancier, but somehow not as comforting as the old one had been. I found myself missing our friend even as we toured the city in grander style more akin to the kind that our father had always enjoyed. We had carpet on the floorboards and air conditioning to keep us cool, but somehow it would never feel as secure as “The Car” had been. In fact, I have few memories attached to the new model. It would always be that ugly old stripped down Ford that I would remember with so much fondness.

It’s funny how a car can become such a vivid part of life, representing all of the things that are good about its owners. That’s the way it was with ours. The car was one of us and we loved it.

Abundance

vans-2015-summer-geoff-rowley-footwear-collection-11My grandmother was one of those people who saved all of her nice things for some future day when she would need them. We used to joke that our Christmas gifts to her would be stored away and not seen again until the things that she had been using were worn beyond usefulness. When she died there were items still wrapped in cellophane and stored in boxes. I suppose that hers was the habit of a woman who had lived in a state of poverty for most of her life. She was brought up to use what she had rather than to concern herself with acquiring abundance. I suspect that there were many people of her generation and economic status who did exactly the same thing. It sometimes made us sad that her tendencies prevented her from fully enjoying the advantages that we sought to give her. I suppose that it mattered little to her because by then she was set in her ways, but it always amused me that we kept trying to provide her with luxuries even as she resisted our efforts. Perhaps in some ways she was actually wiser than we were because she was perennially happy with little more than our presence. The things we brought her were not required to make her smile.

I was reminded of my grandmother recently as I helped a friend to dispose of her deceased father’s possessions. I realized as we packed away boxes and boxes of items that he had accumulated that most of us probably own more than we ever really use. When all is said and done we are drowning in stuff and yet we continue to shop and add to our collections. I wondered if we have our priorities straight or if we are simply addicted to consumption, victims of enticing commercialism that convinces us of what we must have rather than what we actually need.

I mentioned to my friend as we worked that perhaps we would all be best served by pursuing memories rather than things. She smiled knowingly and noted that she had planned a summer trip to Alaska because of that very idea. It occurred to me that we don’t always recall all of our purchases, but we do think about experiences time and time again. Our trips and outings are the stuff that often make us the happiest and leave the longest lasting impressions.

I have two friends who live frugally so that they will be able to take phenomenal trips each year. They have travelled the world and seen wonders. The wisdom of their choice to buy vacations rather than things really made sense when their home was flooded by hurricane Harvey this past August. The one thing that they did not lose was the joy that their journeys had brought them. They were certainly devastated by the damage done to their abode, but somehow I found comfort in knowing that they still had memories that not even floodwaters could wash away. What after all, do we really require to live full lives? Is there a way to enjoy ourselves and still be mindful of our tendencies to waste our resources and purchase more than we truly need?

Years ago a cousin noted that we begin our time as an adult in a tiny apartment which soon becomes too full, so we move until we have accumulated so much more that we are once again searching for room to store everything that we own. The practice continues again and again and in many ways we end up with bigger and bigger homes not so much because we actually want the space, but mostly because our possessions have overtaken us. I have often felt guilty as I fill every nook and cranny including the attic with my acquisitions and  wonder if I need to scale back.

What would I truly want to keep if I were somehow forced to pare down my life to a barer minimum? I suppose that it would require a bed on which to sleep with enough linens to have a clean surface for my slumbers and a blanket to keep me warm. A chest to hold my socks and underwear, pajamas and some clothing would probably be good to have. I’d want a table and some chairs for partaking meals, and a couch on which to sit whether I’m reading or visiting with friends. I have to admit to my need to own a television if for no other reason than to have access to the news, but in reality because I enjoy relaxing with shows that touch my imagination. A few lamps would be nice and bookcases to hold my treasured volumes, but I suppose that I might even eliminate that necessity by purchasing electronic copies of my favorite titles. I’d need a refrigerator and a stove and I’ve grown accustomed to having a microwave oven, a coffeemaker and a toaster. I could wash dishes by hand but I wonder if that method is as efficient as doing a load now and again in the dishwasher. I also must have a clothes washer and dryer or at least a clothesline in my backyard along with some cleaning tools to keep things tidy. A few changes of clothing and some towels would round out my needs, and yet I own so much more than that and seem to think that it is important to preserve it all in a kind of shrine to my accumulations that takes twenty seven hundred square feet plus a garage and an attic to store. I don’t want to live like a monk, and I find nothing wrong with decorating and collecting, but I sometimes imagine my children and grandchildren one day culling through my things and wondering what to do with all that I possess. 

My mother once told me that she had never been owned by things. She commented that she might have carried all that really mattered to her in two suitcases which is in fact what she did in the last two and one half years of her life. She spent those months living with me and my brother with little more than a weeks worth of clothing changes, her bible, and a radio for listening to Houston Astros games during baseball season. She had uncluttered her life so totally that she had few worries related to possessions. When she died the distribution of her estate was uncomplicated and debt free. My brothers and I could not have had an easier task. Her life was in order because so little of it focused on things.

I know people in Houston who are back in their houses after having to leave when four feet of water flooded the insides back in August. They once again have walls instead of bare studs, but they walk on concrete floors and sit on lawn chairs. Somehow they are happy because they feel the warmth and security that they worried had been destroyed by the waters. They realize that it was never the things inside that made their houses feel like home. Perhaps each of us should consider how much we truly need and begin to live with less dragging us down. We may find freedom, joy and purpose in learning to live with what we need rather than being possessed by our wants. Perhaps my grandmother had the right idea all along.