Monday, February 12, 2018

The Cost of Upkeep

Give, give, give. Money, time, enthusiasm. Every nonprofit in the county, and the country, wants it. Needs it. It’s hard sometimes, though, to understand where the money goes.

Take, for example, Winedale in northeastern Fayette County, owned by the University of Texas. This collection of mid-nineteenth century buildings and their contents is famed for its annual Shakespeare performances, Christmas Open House, craft demonstrations and tours. And the annual antique quilt exhibition, scheduled this year for February 22-25.

Winedale’s financial support resembles a web, whose strands are woven together by UT’s Dolph Briscoe Center for American History and its highly professional curatorial and managerial staff.

Funds come from the state legislature, several endowments established to benefit Winedale, the Briscoe Center’s own managerial budget, and fundraising from the Friends of Winedale (FOW). In 2015, FOW, a volunteer non-profit, raised $250,000 at a 45th anniversary celebration honoring Miss Hogg.

Those funds underwrote the recently completed Lewis-Wagner House renovation, as well as paying for all the architectural and engineering plans required for the upcoming rehabilitation of the McGregor House and two log cabins, one of which collapsed during the severe rain events of last spring and summer. Work on the McGregor House is scheduled to begin in mid-February.

Additional progress is evident, even to the casual passer-by.

The old one-room Winedale community schoolhouse has been restored with the assistance of a targeted grant. Arrivals to the Visitors’ Center are welcomed by the new pollinator garden and fence, a project accomplished with a hands-on effort from the Gideon Lincecum chapter of Master Naturalists. [see photo]

These knowledgeable volunteers have also restored a woodland and wildflower loop, part of the old Arboretum Trail that once wound through the property’s extensive wildlife preserve.

A new site manager has arrived. Toni Mason has extensive credentials in historic preservation and museum work, making her a perfect match to the challenges that await her, including expanded public programming.

FOW expected that the funds they raised in 2015 would go further. And that the work would go more rapidly. They didn’t fully understand how Winedale’s several designations of distinctive historical significance would impose complex requirements. Meeting those high standards requires time and effort much greater than you or I would experience, if by some lottery or other miracle we could pay for work on this scale ourselves.

But the standards are there for good reason. Winedale is like a family treasure, only bigger. Fayette County is rich in treasures relating to our history and culture. Think of the Painted Churches, the Wandke Organ at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Round Top.

Winedale, however, is the only place where we can feel the lives of those who came before us. Appreciate, admire and sympathize with the hardships they surmounted while we stand in front of the fireplace they used.

Why should that matter?

Because we are who we were. The dreams of our forefathers and mothers have become our reality, even as their realities endure today within our lives: The need for food, health, safety; our vulnerability to storms, disease; the love we feel for family.

And, even in our technological distraction, the longing for beauty they expressed in their enduring handwork—carved furniture, intricately stitched quilts, expressively painted ceiling decorations.

Imagine: everything you use made by hand—by you, your mother, your father, your siblings. No Walmart or HEB to run to. No plastic.

A visit to Winedale is time travel we actually experience. And all it requires from us is care.

On August 25 the FOW will hold a Sommerabend Fest, where, “With a Little Help From Our Friends,” they will endeavor to raise $300,000 to continue the renovations. To complete the McGregor House exterior. To restore the two log cabins, which were such a popular destination in years past. And to institute interior work on both McGregor and Wagner Houses.

How can we help? We can become Friends of Winedale ( We can volunteer. Become a docent. (Docent training begins soon.)

Volunteering at Winedale is fun.

And it’s different from most similar opportunities. Because it enrolls us in the ongoing story of a place where memory and time can be touched and felt. In our increasingly virtual, abstracted world, that is a rare opportunity, indeed.


Babette Fraser Hale is a board member and a former president of FOW.

On Beauty and Profit

What a couple of years it has been in Fayette County. Little Round Top blooms with new ventures, shops, restaurants, cottages visible from county roads. Four miles away the Winedale Complex shines with new polish—much needed restorative work on the stellar Lewis-Wagner House coupled with a new pollinator garden among other landscaping improvements, and more to come, topped by the Sommerabendfest fundraiser next August.

Look at the real estate activity, here. I’ve lost count of the number of realtors and associate realtors busy showing property to prospective buyers.

We, ourselves—LH and I—are beginning our thirty-third year on this small patch of woods and grass, thanking providence for every moment.

Why are we here? Why do the city people keep coming? Keep buying? What’s the attraction?

There is fantasy involved, of course. Some of us grew up in a gentler world of less densely populated cities and family farms. Recapturing a small part of one’s youth is a potent dream. A small town, rural environment, where community is real, tangible, accessible; where neighbors know each other, help each other—this seems more valuable to us every day.

Beauty, too. Our cities separate themselves from nature. Heavy traffic, floods, pollution. Trees die in the oldest neighborhoods, ruined by oversize houses. Finding beauty in the city takes work, effort, time.

Here, however, it’s a given. The rolling countryside between New Ulm and Highway 237, between LaGrange and Old Washington, once resembled places of fabled beauty like Bucks County, PA or the Berkshires of MA.

Every day, as I walk the length of our long, thin house from the bedroom to the kitchen, I see beauty through every window. Light slants through the trees, casts patterns, highlights a brilliant leaf, green or red, depending on the season. Sometimes it’s a sheaf of leaves, a streak of pale grasses in a pasture. Creatures appear, squirrels, rabbits, the occasional chicken snake. Deer move, gray and silent, across our front field.

It is why we’re here, this quiet communion with a place that has been inhabited by Europeans for almost two centuries. But lightly, still, as compared with larger towns, cities.

One thing is certain: None of us, new resident or old have been drawn here by the desire for a shopping mall to obliterate the small scale, neighborly feeling.

We know that the month-long Antique and junk extravaganza that overwhelms the area twice a year brings a welcome infusion of money. The profit to local business benefits all of us, even those who stay far away from Highway 237 while the festivities are underway. Because of it, we have better restaurants, a better selection of comestibles and necessities—even luxuries—in the markets, and so on.

Success, however, quickly slides into excess. Too many tents left behind, too many absentee landowners, too little care for the effect on year-long residents. I remember a conversation with the late Jack Finke, the stonemason/artist whose work contributes so much to the visual atmosphere of Festival Hill. The Finkes have been in our area a long time and Jack deplored the “junky” look along 237 north of the Round Top city limits. This was ten years ago.

He should see it now.

We’ve been lucky that much of the new permanent development has been carried out with understanding of vernacular style. Henkel Square Market, the Compound, Rummel Square—despite being somewhat overcrowded—each contributes to the appeal of the area. (If only some shops didn’t clutter their appeal with junked up porches…)

The gateway into Round Top, however—the much traveled highway 237 between 290 and FM 1291—has been less fortunate. Outside city limits, no entity offers standards and suggestions. Minus those understandings, the ugliness of urban sprawl proliferates.

The Friends of 237, a new local organization, hopes to improve the situation. They’re drawing on the better nature of the vendors who leave the ugliness behind when they go to their homes, often out-of-state, after the shows.

Cooperation, freely given, benefits everyone, because it contributes to keeping the Round Top-Warrenton-Carmine area appealing all year. Businesses cannot survive only on the Antique Show experience. There are ten more months during which people live and work, hoping to preserve the reasons they remain here.

We can help the Friends of 237 in their effort. We can join as a member, as a volunteer. We can contribute our skills, our support. In return, we can get credit for our community spirit, which creates the firm foundation for everything around us. For more information, contact

Let’s keep our golden goose fat and happy and alive.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

A Random Gratitude

The neighborhood is a quiet one where everybody walks. Five minutes by foot to the office. Three blocks to school. Home is a multi-story building with a park on each side. Whole Foods has a store five blocks to the east. The walk back is only a little uphill.

In the afternoon, children throng the streets, heading by foot and bike to after school activities. Lessons, sports.

I love a particular stroll at dusk, past the playground where my grandson and granddaughter climb and swing, twenty feet from their front door.

It’s so peaceful. Even though when you lift your chin, you see Freedom Tower poking up six blocks distant, reminding everyone that peace is relative.

On Halloween, that tenuous peace was shattered by an Uzbeki terrorist. He did it in a van, mowing down eight tourists, and swerving into the area where a high school and two adjacent schools were letting out.

This happened three short blocks from where my grandchildren live. My son arrived ten minutes later at the apartment, on his way to the airport. His babies weren’t there. He couldn’t reach their mother. Very little was known about the extent of danger, that soon in the aftermath.

Before long he learned that they were, indeed, safe—a few blocks away from where evil blossomed, this time.

I was in Winedale, 1720 miles distant, but it felt like a near miss. The killer’s path of carnage ran along the Hudson River bike path toward Battery Park City. In June, my son, grandson and I had stood together on that bike trail, at the entrance to Pier 25, where many West Side residents take their children to play. There are tennis courts, a soccer field, beach volleyball, a miniature golf course, ice cream and hot dog stand, a marina, and so on. If the terrorist had made his foray ninety minutes later, he might have killed a great many more people, and their children.

We seize upon familiarities in the aftermath—a foreign terrorist, ISIS-connected, using a rental van similar to earlier disasters in Nice and London. The guns he waved weren’t real.

Five days after the van attack, peacefully worshipping residents of a tiny Texas town near San Antonio were slaughtered in their pews at the First Baptist Church. Twenty-six people died that morning for motives not fully confirmed at the time of this writing. The lone gunman was a Texan, a dishonorably discharged airman with a long record of trouble. Enraged at the time, possibly, over a domestic dispute.

The latter horror felt much too close for comfort, geographically and personally, for many of us in Fayette and surrounding counties. It was a town smaller than some of ours, a Sunday morning church service. Urgently, we want to know the why of it. A reason is required.

We want explanations because they give us the much needed opportunity to distance ourselves from the unthinkable. To make ourselves and the ones we love seem less at risk. The more details we learn that separate us, the safer we feel.

But we are not safe. We cannot be safe from random violence. Deranged minds may have motives, but motives don’t change the reality that for the victims, death came like a lightning strike, a falling meteor. Unexpected, undefended, random.

We human beings hate that. We’re hardwired to impose a pattern on chaos. And what lengths we go to in pursuit of those patterns.

What philosophies, what religions, what conspiracies we embrace in our desperate longing for order, for meaning. All of us do that in one way or another. It’s not limited by culture or nationality.

For some, even the most maleficent conspiracy is better than drifting among the vapors of randomness. Conspiracies imply a human cause. Cause implies the possibility of control.

As do guns. Why else do the most insecure, the most troubled among us, amass their arsenals? Their AR-15s and other assault-style rifles. Devices designed primarily to slaughter herds—of people, that is.

And so the bloody cycle of pain and loss continues, played out on our most personal screens, until—bless our bruised hearts—we are distracted from it once again.

A Power Thing

I was born into a world with clear boundaries, honored in the daily performance of chores. My mother, trained as a classical violinist, kept house. She did it well, too. She created a comfortable home for us, while caring for her aging parents who did not drive, and helping her uncle with his business.

She lived a family-centered life, directed by duty to others. The challenge lay in how to be happy and fulfilled within the restrictions that life required.
She had tricks for coping that she tried to share with me. Prayers played a large role. Count your blessings (of which there were many)…Her struggle would today be called a “first world” problem, a matter of “white privilege.”

Those descriptions, however, do not remove the sharp sense of wasted capability, as the years dwindled away. Perhaps that’s why she encouraged me to explore a wider world, despite her fear of the risks that entailed.

Today, working wives are the rule, rather than the exception. Women compete head to head with men. Work beside men.

And find, in every arena, that men remain the gatekeepers, the bosses to a large extent, the powers in government, entertainment, publishing, the churches.
We, as women, are still petitioners, needing their approval to rise in all fields outside the home.

Without this imbalance, we wouldn’t have Harvey Weinstein, FOX’s O’Reilly and Ailes, and the whole less well known army of unattractive older, powerful, men who sexually harass women who work for them.

“Me, too,” is the hashtag that peppered social media last week with support for the brave women who brought this common experience into the light of public attention.

People were shocked by the sheer number of women using the hashtag to express shared experiences of harassment, abuse or outright rape. Men were shocked.

Men have a hard time with this issue, I think. A hard time calibrating whether a joke will be sexist, whether friendly banter will sound to the woman like harassment. A friend, being prepped for a medical procedure, felt violated by the male doctor’s self-deprecating sex joke.

Why did he tell a sex joke at so vulnerable a moment?

Was he supposed to know that because he was a man, and she was a woman about to go under anesthesia, sex references were off limits? Personally, I have doubts. More likely, it never occurred to him how she would feel.
That’s not always true, however.
A restaurateur I once worked with referred several times in a discussion to whether I’d ever seen or eaten a particular pastry in the shape of a woman’s breast. It made me feel uncomfortable, but only now do I recognize that I had pushed him on a subject—unrelated to pastry or breasts—about which he felt far more uncomfortable. The sexual reference was intended as a warning: stay away. He cancelled the project soon thereafter.

When I was young and for a long time afterward, a boy, a man, was expected to be the suitor, the initiator of a date, a goodnight kiss. Rejection must have been dispiriting. Infuriating, often.
Perhaps those abusers whose transgressions have been plastered all over the news in recent months never recovered. Maybe their substantial egos were wounded so deeply they couldn’t forget.

Then, monetary success gave them the opportunity to retaliate. Beautiful, sexy young women who needed their approval and assistance would be made to pay for every painful rejection by a desirable woman in the far distant past.

When we dismiss sexual misconduct as an expression of disproportionate male sexual need--“boys will be boys,” after all--we miss the point completely. Utterly.
It’s a power thing, baby. 

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Romance of Losing

My husband, Leon Hale, was shot at by Hitler’s boys during fifty individual bomber missions in World War 2. “I had an easy war,” he says. “I was in an airplane.”

Most of us have a relative who fought or died at the hand of German Nazis, or one of their allies. Some of them, like my husband, are alive to witness the outrage of self-proclaimed Nazis marching in our country alongside white supremacists, the KKK and others opposed to removing Confederate war memorials.

My grandfather fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War. Family lore has him, as a boy of fourteen, shinnying up a pole to raise the Confederate flag at Ft. Sumter in South Carolina. He mourned the rest of his life for the plantation existence he’d left behind. The life of a gentleman farmer whose family owned slaves.

My Texan father, born in the 1890s, believed in segregation. It was as much a part of Houston at midcentury as the smell from the Ship Channel, or any July 4th encomium to the virtues of representative government. I would come home from college in the sixties, a year or two before he died, and try to change his mind.

He thought my convictions about equality were youthful idealism.

He was a thoughtful man who read history in his spare time, but he had been molded by his upbringing and environment. For him, segregation was a reality and a boon he didn’t question.

On Thursday nights, we often ate at The Confederate House, a popular spot where fine food was served by dignified African American waiters in white coats. Famed leaders of the Confederacy smiled down on the scene from every wall. My particular favorite hung in the entrance hall. Robert E. Lee. He looked so sad.

I loved the Confederate House. I loved the fried shrimp, and the genteel waiters. I loved the “black bottom” pie.

It took a few more years before I could see what I’d been looking at.

Today’s youth of all races don’t understand how segregation insinuated itself into our lives. It was the air passing through our lungs, saturating our blood. It was literally everywhere. Every meal, every visit to a store, or a public toilet. Every day at school. Unstated, unquestioned, rigid separation. Unforgiving, too. One black person’s stumble became the shortcomings of a race. Imagine if your white nephew’s drug addiction painted your family with the “sorry” brush, much less your race.

I never once heard anyone question it. Black schools were shabby. No one asked why. The poverty was somehow the fault of the people who dwelled in the surrounding neighborhoods. And yet, they were the people who raised us. Generations of us. My mother, me, my son. We loved these black women, respected and admired them. Our parents relied on them.

A perfect example of cognitive dissonance, if ever there was one.

My father might have known better. He’d been educated abroad, but the romance of the Old South dies hard. The romance of losing. It rides the back of those Confederate horses we see on so many statues. It mourns with the angels of sorrow in graveyards.

Honor. Chivalry. You will die for honor. Your honor as a man, your family’s honor. The honor of your womenfolk. Suicide is preferable to dishonor.

The dishonor of what made all that honor and chivalry possible, namely an institution that required people to be counted as “stock,” may not have entered my father’s mind. Did he ask himself how the attitudes that supported slavery connected to the segregation we lived under? If he did think about it, he never let me know.

Those Confederate statues in Charlottesville, and elsewhere, have no meaning except what we bring to them. To this granddaughter of a Confederate soldier they represent the South’s Defiance and Sorrow after appalling bloodshed in the name of autonomy. Renewed defiance, since most were raised well after the war ended. We have the right to be wrong, and cruel, those statues say to me—even when the rest of the civilized world has repudiated the institution we were wrong about.

My schoolteachers hardly mentioned slavery as a cause of the war. Perhaps they were too much aware of the blood ties between it and the segregation they still lived under.

But it’s easy now to feel how the statues appear to someone whose grandparents were slaves. They cause pain. Is that what you or I want? (I don't.) But maybe that’s what the demonstrators intend. To keep pain alive, to keep fear alive.

Fear has always been a weapon fundamental to Klan activities and to the rule of despots worldwide. When self-declared Nazis march beside white supremacists, and everyone is armed, they vividly evoke the bullies Hitler employed to intimidate ordinary citizens, the paramilitary S.A., or Brownshirts. Without them, he would never have attained power.

In Charlottesville, they carried swastika banners, clubs and shields, wore Hitler quotations on t-shirts. Marched with torches on Friday night while chanting “Jew will not replace me.”

Jew? Huh? How did we get from statues of Robert E. Lee to antisemitism?

The United States Army—our grandfathers, uncles, brothers—helped liberate Buchenwald, Dachau, Auschwitz, places of horror, death and sadistic suffering. Places of mass murder. Places whose sole measurement was the efficiency with which they turned white people of many beliefs into starving slaves, then corpses.

White people. People exactly like you and me.

A diabolical alliance, white rage and Nazi brutality. An un-American alliance.


Monday, September 18, 2017

Travel Time

In summer, we’re on the move. All of us. The airport is jammed with families and backpacks. Granny and the kids, big daddies, tall mommies, carry-ons as big as preteens.

Weather isn’t cooperating. Spectacular storms well up over the Deep South. Planes queue up on the runways. Outside, the temp simmers at 93. You sit on the tarmac, and wait. It’s hot. The captain apologizes, but obviously he can do nothing about the delay. Planes are diverted—to Atlanta, to Dallas.

New York is our destination. Fifty-four degrees there a week ago, and raining. Now in the 90’s. New Yorkers take it in stride. People sprawl in the sun, bake their skin. No worries about melanoma, it seems. They fill the Manhattan parks on the weekend for entertainment. Every patch of green lawn, carpeted in people. Music thrumming, pounding. Food sizzling. A barbecue festival, of all things.
Our hotel overlooks Bryant Park, where there is the kind of carousel I remember from my childhood, a festively striped pavilion, turning, turning. Even standing beside it, I can feel the sudden heady soar when the horse first rises.

Here comes the Puerto Rican Day parade, one of the largest. Traffic stops for blocks around its route, all afternoon.
We encounter smaller parades, too. Daily. People, dogs.

At eleven PM, hurrying past the front door of a residential building, towing owners: Little dogs—Shi Tzus, Bichons, Yorkies; big dogs—Doodles, Goldens, Labs; short-legged bull dogs, long-legged Weimeraners, all have internalized the New York pace, that of an accelerated human heartbeat. The city pulses to it. You feel it the moment you step out of your Uber from the airport.

On a midtown afternoon, the pedestrian parade hits flood stage. LH, now ninety-six, and I have meandered across Bryant Park and wait on the sidewalk for the light at Sixth Avenue to change. Cars and trucks will stop when it does, but the flood of humanity requires patience. Moses, we aren’t. Just two old people with canes, grinning at the comparative youth and energy of everyone striding by, in a rush to be elsewhere.

Walking—if knees and feet cooperate—can be so much faster, crosstown, than riding in a car or taxi. Manhattan has become worse than Houston for construction-related lane closures. Or maybe it always was. Certainly there are many more new buildings than a few years ago. Look-at-me buildings, stretching like Tai Chi practitioners toward the sun.

New buildings with glitz; conversions of older ones. My grandchildren are growing up in one of the latter, way downtown, not far from Ground Zero. Their backyard is a small park, appropriately called Teardrop; their front yard the Hudson River. The river is serene; the park is crammed with people, small and large, strollers as big as Smart Cars, nannies. Central Park might be as far away as Fayette County for all the wildlife one sees.

I worry about that, of course. The world these little ones inhabit differs so markedly from ours, and yet, in truth, theirs is a neighborhood life, automobile free. The way small towns used to be. School is only a few blocks away, an easy walk for an able person. Soccer, playdates, library, music lessons, groceries (Whole Foods, yet)—all nearby and so much closer to home than any of those activities were for me, or my son, growing up in car saturated Houston.

In a way, Battery Park City—that creation of an earlier generation of city planners—exists as a kind of oasis, compared with the rest of Manhattan. It is almost restful, with parks, river, restaurants nearby—once you get there.

Ah, yes. But getting there means air travel. Everyone, in the air and on the ground, tries very hard to be pleasant, but the system is on overload. There are too many people on the move, families who have sprinkled themselves across the country and the planet, seeking some sort of external satisfaction, carrying their inevitable disappointment with them.

Love strains to span the distance, relies upon the technologies that are generally responsible. Skype instead of a warm hug. Videos of the one moment in hundreds that happens to be captured.

If you have your grandchildren near, within a day’s drive, or closer; if you have the opportunity to know them on a daily or weekly basis as they grow; if you find yourself exhausted and exhilarated regularly from the intensity of small and endless curiosities, you should count yourself among the truly blessed.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Wabi-Sabi on the Square

Growing old in greater Round Top means watching the place you knew for many years become the other place you knew well as a child. Houston in the Fifties, that is. Endless possibility measured in what money can buy. A yearning eagerness to see land scraped clean and flat.

A person I know nodded sadly today at the remark that Round Top has become a shopping mall. At Rummel Square, several frame buildings of questionable architectural interest crowd a truly distinguished old tree and nearby early Texas stone fort. Will the tree survive? Will it flourish? Will we be so grateful for what the repurposed, repainted buildings have to sell that we won’t care?

On a more personal level, growing old means other things. The twinges you complained about at forty-five—a knuckle here or there—have moved into full time assault. At the HEB in Brenham lately (bigger than the one in LaGrange), old people ache along the aisles with their supportive carts; heavy people drag the misery of swollen joints all the way from produce to dairy, the length of football fields. Sure there are mechanized carts, but the popping up and down required to reach the products needs working hips and knees. If yours were working well, you wouldn’t need the cart.

Bigger in retail has meant better profits for big corporations. It’s been going on for thirty or more years, and hitting a peak, now, just as our baby boom bulge begins to grow old, and suffer.

That’s why small shops with adjacent parking seem so appealing. We increasingly look to Round Top Mercantile for a host of foods and equipment that once we might have expected to find only in a larger town’s superstores.

So the dilemma facing the town fathers of all our towns, is how to manage the growth and yet retain the neighborly connection, the friendliness and mutual support that makes us happy to be here.

What’s occurring in Round Top has happened in other places, of course. Tourists come in search of the ineffable, the undefinable. Soul, perhaps. What our cities have lost and we retain in our smaller scale, our charming galleries and stores and caf├ęs. Our town squares with big old trees and picnic tables. Our rolling fields of grasses and cattle and farmhouses, new or reclaimed.

So maybe our city fathers, the powers that be, should not be too quick to throw out the architectural review committees; not too quick to approve buildings with ceiling heights appropriate to an airplane hanger. That’s not what brings the dollars to our little towns.

Floating as we do today on a tide of cheap imports or virtual luxuries we will never be able to afford, we look to the handmade goods, the personal touch and feel of small things, objects that speak of what the Japanese call wabi-sabi—the beauty of imperfection, asymmetry, impermanence.

The characteristics that resemble all of us, getting older, and maybe at last old enough to understand what is missing from this new, frantic, consumer-centric world.