Wednesday, January 2, 2019

On Noses

If the eyes are windows to the soul, what is the nose?

The first facial feature I remember having exemplary qualities was my grandfather’s nose. A Roman nose, the family called it, meaning large. It resembled the Meerschaum pipe that was prominent among the collection of pipes on his desk.

My mother’s family was well enough endowed throughout in that department, but always in balance with the other facial features, I thought. Strong features. Or at least vivid ones.

Nose and all, my mother was a beauty. She had beautiful skin, virtually unwrinkled, without any tinkering beyond cold cream. When she played golf with my dad, she wore heavy paste makeup as a sunblock (before chemical sunblocks were invented). The brow band of every golf hat she owned carried the brown residue, undaunted by detergent or dry cleaner.

I detested hats, of course, and when I was about fifteen, I received the first of several severe sunburns on my nose. These were the years, in fact, when girls marinated in the sun, basting with baby oil. I never lasted very long at that endeavor, fortunately. A headache would compel my retreat. 

I did, however, enjoy sports.

My late half-brother, a dermatologist, told me that I should never let a sunburn of that kind happen again, or I’d have trouble later. And I have made great efforts to follow his advice, more or less successfully.

Imagine my surprise, however, when I was told recently that I might have a skin cancer on my nose.

The dermatologist who said this had seen me several times over the past three years for the occasional precancerous spot, a keratosis. Never before had he paid any attention to the tip of my nose.

Biopsy, however, confirmed the diagnosis. Basal cell carcinoma, infiltrative, which meant that, although BCC’s were usually slow-growing, this variety was different. Indeed, much of the offending lesion might remain hidden below the surface.

Hmmm. I did not receive the news with grace.

That’s why I’ve spent the holiday season recovering from Mohs surgery, performed in early December. Mohs is a procedure where they scrape and test until they can detect no more cancer cells. Hale’s procedure on his ear last June took seven hours. Mine took six. The lesion was indeed larger, and deeper, than anyone expected, but the surgeon was able to close it with stitches.

I will have a scar.

But I’ve been spared the complicated reconstructions that some skin cancers require, the kind that leave you looking like a Klingon for a few weeks with several scars. And the cancer is gone. For good, we hope.

So if you see me around looking a little different, with a fatter, redder nose than usual, this is why.

The caution I would add is that, if you’re over fifty, any red  bump on the face that behaves at all differently from a zit should be seen by a dermatologist. In the early stages, removal is easy. Even Mohs surgery on a shallow one is easy.

Get it seen to pronto.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

The Face We've Earned

For most of my childhood, and a good part of my teen years, I drew faces.  Often, they were illustrations to whatever story I was telling myself, silently, at the time. I would see interesting ones in magazines, in stores. Beautiful ones, mostly. Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor. Handsome men, too, although my taste there tilted more to the rugged type. I would do my best to copy them.

I wasn’t very good, and after a time I switched to photography. Eventually, I set that aside to concentrate on writing, where the evocation of a face is less important than giving life to a character, from the inside out.
What remains, however, is my interest. Not in the beauty of a face. There are increasingly fewer beautiful faces around. But in the character of the expression. And often in what the expression reveals about the person wearing it.

There is some truth to the belief that, after fifty, we have the face we’ve earned. We have the mark of our smiles and frowns, of our default mode, at least. Does the quality of a character shine there, as well?
I do think that as one gets older, one becomes more adept at interpreting the total effect of a face, as it relates to character. Kindness, warmth, self-involvement, arrogance—all of these are visible on the face of the people possessing them.

Unless we interfere, which happens more and more in recent years.
A few of my friends have cuter noses now than they did at the beginning. Firmer chins, smoother necks, fewer wrinkles, as well. Once, at a Christmas party, I recognized a friend only by the sound of her voice. Disconcerting, and a little sad, because she was already very pretty. 

I have resisted the facelift trend, because I’ve found a kind of comfort in seeing, from different angles, my mother’s or my father’s face looking back. The visual connection, there, as I approach the age they were when I saw them last makes me happy. It helps me feel that they are still somehow with me, as I face rather fearful old age.

Our faces are so connected to our identity. I’ve wondered how a person could look in the mirror after a facelift and know that the stranger looking back is actually themselves. Doesn’t this promote a hint of dissociation? A wobble of uncertainty?

I think it would for me, and that is another reason I don’t find the idea of facelifts very appealing.

Injury and illness can combine to cause this dislocation, however. A woman I know--cultured, brilliant, at one time involved in films—suffered a severed facial nerve in a surgery, causing paralysis. What a devastation. A man I know well has lived his life with a rare bone disorder that alters one side of his face. Some people with that disorder die young, because the bone grows inward. He has been far more fortunate, but that doesn’t make him like mirrors.

The writer Jennifer Egan once wrote a novel, “Look at Me,” about a model whose face was ruined in a car wreck, then pieced back together, occasioning much intricate exploration of the emotions attached.

We ask a lot of our faces, the heart of the image we present, our armor, our vulnerability, the part of ourselves we arrange so much of our physical appearance—hairstyle, clothing, hats—to highlight or compensate for. It is such a small percentage of the human body, but the most visible, carrying the most significance, communicating when we do not even intend communication.
If we could see ourselves as others see us...Robbie Burns had that right. But, even in the age of selfies and videos, we cannot.

First published in the Fayette County Record, Nov. 30, 2018

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Beer Culture

One of our favorite places when we first came to Winedale was Wagner’s Store on FM 2714. We considered it, in 1985, the social center of the community. Growing up in Houston, I never knew a place like that existed, until Leon Hale expanded my horizons.

Very soon I discovered that I loved the people who hung out at Wagner’s—Rollie and Marilyn, Rosalie and Delphine, Selma and Bruder, Chris, Robert, and all the others. Beer, burgers, stories, jokes, acceptance.
It was a stark, and welcome, contrast to the beer culture I’d experienced at my women’s college in Virginia.

In the early sixties, our social life revolved around football weekends at Washington and Lee, and UVa. Older girls arranged blind dates for us at the fraternity house their own boyfriends belonged to. There was a hierarchy of desirability, I soon learned. Some were “animal houses,” so called (and well in advance of the movie some years later). Some were snooty, populated by boys from the northeast with chiseled cheekbones and firm chins. There were, however, plenty in the middle, and that’s where most of the blind dates came from.
A boy would drive to our college, load up his car to bulging with girls and drive back over the mountain’s twisty roads to his campus. We got out, wearing our heels and kilts and circle pins, full of expectation in the crisp air and falling crimson leaves. We would stay in all girl boarding houses, run by widows with strict rules.

The boys usually started drinking at the game. After the game, there were parties. After the parties, more parties, usually with live rock or blues bands.
Scene: a keg or three, vats of grain and grape, a slippery layer of wet on the dance floors, boys shedding jackets, ties, sometimes pants. Shirts clung, heavy with sweat. Hands wandered and it was very, very loud.

This was before 9PM, when we and our nervous, increasingly inebriated, blind dates wandered from frat house to frat house.  After nine, we came back to his home base where some boys would pass out. Some would duck into the pitch black “make-out room.” Some would stagger upstairs, with or without an equally inebriated girl. It never occurred to me to visualize what took place up there. I had just turned a very sheltered 17.
Why go at all? It was the only social life. It was the way it was done. Very few people had the sense to opt out, until later.

But, even when I was young, I never understood the desire of twenty-something people to render themselves intentionally insensate. So much energy seemed devoted to obliterating the personality, the self, the censor in the brain.
How many of those boys had blackouts? I don’t know. One boy I knew very well did stagger into a room where I was, talking nonsense. A strong, athletic boy who careened around the room, knocking over a table, a chair—alarming in his strength and lack of control—before he flopped on a bed and passed out. The next day he remembered nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not me, not the chair or table. Nothing after he left the place where he’d been matching another group of boys, beer for beer, shot for shot.

Girls from my college did date at most of the houses, even the ones known as possibly risky. Sometimes that was where they met the men they would eventually marry. I have wondered how many of those women, my contemporaries, resonated to the recent testimonies of Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, as I did.
Or how many of the boys they knew wondered, now in old age, whether they had done something similar to a girl back at W&L or UVa. They may not remember what they did while they were blacked out, but they certainly were told by a brother the next day that they had been “acting crazy, man,” “out of your mind.”

I know that much for a fact.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

The Almighty Self

You. Me. In all our wondrous onliness.

“The great suck of self,” author Walker Percy called the internal noise that complicates our ability to hear. It’s constantly at odds with the instructions we give our youth, at home and at school—that a person should share, pay attention to the feelings of others.

We know those actions don’t always come naturally or easily, even to the women who do much of the early socialization work, as we try to shape our children into good citizens, good members of a team.

It seems, all along, we’re asked to hold contradictory beliefs. We are encouraged to be an individual, to “be best,” to take our talent as far as it will go. But also to “get along” with others, set our selfish dreams aside to earn a living, raise and nurture a new generation of family. If we strive to do both, we’re accused of “wanting to have it all.”

Today we find it easy to indulge ourselves. Earbuds give us personal soundtracks. Streaming allows us to watch movies and sports events alone. Or we can inhabit the alternative reality of video games, where a heady power lies only a button away.

We watch our role models in sports and public life asserting Self, wielding their power, indulging their ego, when self-control is better for everybody. By now, I think even Serena Williams would agree. Maybe some of our political leaders would, too.

Because unrestricted individualism can go rogue, as it did during a road trip we were returning from last week. It happened three times, in three distracted acts, any of which could have caused a highway disaster.

One oncoming 18-wheeler swerved across the center line toward us on a two-lane road out of Cameron; a second rig came up fast behind us in North Texas, crossing into the lane we occupied as though we were not there, pressing us onto the shoulder.

Closer to home, it was a large pick-up towing a 20-foot trailer. You know the spot, I bet, on 290, coming toward Carmine from Brenham. FM 2502 is a left turn, so I’d moved into the left lane, getting ready.  And here comes the pickup from Oevermann Road on the right, crossing 290 in front of me, stopping for oncoming traffic at the median, completely oblivious to the steel trailer behind him that blocked my lane completely. Thank Providence I had good brakes…and an empty lane to my right.

Was the first driver reaching for his coffee? Was the second reading his phone? Was the third simply inexperienced with trailers? Or was each one guilty of solipsism—egocentric focus on himself, unthinking as a toddler intent on the cookie jar?

The distractions of our gadgets reward our solipsism. But we have to resist. We have to postpone the relief from boredom that our smart phones provide when we’re behind the wheel. We have to pay attention to the laws that underpin our way of life.

The alternative is chaos. And somebody, all too often, dies.

Friday, August 10, 2018

An Unsteady Surface

The challenge is not to let mourning begin too soon. Not to let it begin when the slide begins. You can never be sure anyway, that your suspicions are correct. Not until you are far past the beginning.
When your husband is a full generation ahead of you in chronological age, you may begin to doubt everything you knew about lifespans. You may think that you will follow him into longevity. You may think longevity lasts forever.
You let down your guard.
After all, you’ve been waiting for one kind of problem, one kind of blow.
But it will catch up with him, and you.
Age focuses a new lens upon the constancy of change.
Fayette County seemed fairly settled when I came here in the 1970’s. My initial visit, however, was concurrent with the first few droplets of the deluge that would follow. That rain of newcomers, many from Houston, just kept on coming.
Bringing a torrent of change.
Houstonians see nothing peculiar about this. They’re accustomed. That’s because Houston has minimal identity beyond its openness to transformation.
Massive disruption of the languorous, leafy, semi-Southern city of the early fifties was simply gulped down and digested over decades, excreting concrete freeways by the mile. And bands of residential boxes that march across the prairie and former rice fields. Once home to geese and coyotes, they now boast swing sets and standing water.
The older parts of the city have largely vanished into parking lots, multi-use districts, shopping meccas and apartment buildings.
We returned recently to Houston after a long period away over the past year and a half, and we’ve noticed a different feeling underlying all the new construction.
A frantic quality.
Every commercial thoroughfare inside the Loop is ruptured by road work. At one time, a person could search out routes that bypassed closed lanes and orange barrels. No longer.
The sewer needs of large new complexes now couple with alarm over inadequate storm drainage, as the hurricane season begins.
Hurricane Harvey has done what countless PR campaigns couldn’t. Confirmed a fresh and less mutable identity for Houston: The City that Floods.
The day we drove in, a downpour we consider ordinary, now—two to four inches in an hour—ground miles of traffic to a dangerous, sloshy halt in rising water, imperiling engines and people along freeways and residential streets.
This is the price Houston pays for unfiltered, unconsidered, unrestricted change that flows only where the money goes, ignoring the realities of the landscape and hydrology and human lives. The city has discovered what it means to have constructed itself on the unsteady surface of change. Developer-directed change.
Over the past few years, Round Top, too, has been enjoying the results of developer-directed change. Yet its core institutions—the Rifle Hall, Fourth of July Parade, Brass Band, DYD Club, Town Hall, Historical Society—survive.
Can these institutions endure, however, as music venues multiply and tourists convert streets to sidewalks? As the noise of revelers spreads from weekends to weekday evenings? As ugliness sprawls across the fields up and down Highway 237, outside city limits?
Prosperity comes to pretty towns and rural landscapes because many people desire to escape the stress and visual clutter of cities, along with traffic and other people, crowded together. A different kind of flooding.
Someone needs to be thinking about whether the current explosion of change, locally, might hit a point of diminishing returns. What are visitors looking for when they come to Round Top? Is it a certain charm, a distinct personality, a slower rhythm?
Are they still finding it?

Fleeing Facebook?

One of my politically active friends recently decided to suspend her Facebook account. She did it to protest misuse of account information for political purposes, specifically false news aimed at susceptible individuals.
As a gesture of disapproval, it will have no impact, of course, given the worldwide scope of FB. Remember the Arab Spring of a few years ago, when social media was used to oppose autocracy?
The problem isn’t social media, though. It’s us, the gullible recipients of targeted pap. More specifically, it’s our laziness in civic matters outside the most narrow of local definitions. We’re the ones who share shocking news about a politician we’ve known for years without confirmation. We’re the ones who jump on a bandwagon without thought if it agrees with our prejudices.
We’re the electoral sloths. Only thirteen percent of eligible voters in Texas turned out for the recent primary election. Come on, folks.   
My vote won’t matter anyway. How many times have we heard that? How many times have we said it? Why bother?
Because people with an axe to grind will bother, for one thing. They’ll take over your party, and before long your life.
Representative government requires people to represent. If you don’t vote, who is your member of Congress representing? Who is your state rep representing?
Not you.
The causes of apathy go deeper, though. My physician recently commented that she has seen a huge surge in anxiety among her patients. I am one of them. For the first time in my life, I can’t seem to tune out the orchestrated agonies of politics long enough to breathe.
Most people can’t tolerate an atmosphere of conflict for long. The heightened emotions of the past eighteen months have taken a toll on daily life. Friends tiptoe around friends; husbands are at odds with wives. The woes of the body politic walk into your kitchen, your bedroom. It becomes overwhelming.
Every headline. Nuclear war with North Korea? Shrinking ice caps? Ten children killed at school in Texas! Fifteen killed at school in Florida! Sounds like the heads you see in line at the supermarket on tabloid rags you never buy.
If you rely on FOX, you will learn that “experts” doubt everything from vaccines and public education to the effect of human activities on climate change. Nothing you rely on seems safe any more, not even lettuce.  
In our emotional overload, we no longer have the energy to check out the “alternative facts” we hear and read about. We hear the term “fake news” so often, we begin to hear “fake” whenever the word “news” is mentioned.
Apathy is the effort of our nervous system to protect itself and our health. Eminently reasonable.
And ultimately wrong.
Because apathy is the desired objective of large scale enterprises that do not have our true interests at heart. They do not know what is better for us than we do. They act only in their own narrow self-interest.
And they’re more skilled at manipulation than any entity has been for most of a century.
That’s why freedom of the press is under attack. Because information--verifiable, transparent, scrutinized by many skeptical eyes--is the one sure defense against tyranny.
I mention “a skeptical eye.” It’s the genetic equipment, honed in training, possessed by newspaper reporters. Even in conversation among friends they can’t let an unfounded assertion slip by. I’ll say something bland or generalized, and they’ll ask, “How do you know that?” It may make for awkward social interchange at times, but it’s the gold standard of our democracy.
Tyranny is a big word, until recently seen mostly in history books. We thought we had checks and balances to protect us from it. But all we really had was the Fourth Estate.
Journalists. Newspapers, like this one. Independent news divisions of broadcast media. Print media. And now social media. Twitter.
If our children, and their children, are to enjoy what we think of as freedom, we need to summon what’s left of our energy and work to perceive reality amid all the hoo-rah, and skilled hullabaloo.
In a flood of snake oil, there must be one or two snakes.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Count Your Blessings

I remember my mother saying this. Often. Count your blessings. 

I took it literally, then. I counted. 

Now I hear it as the hoped for antidote to a form of despair. The kind that comes when mortality knocks with the inner person yet unfulfilled.

Fulfillment varies, of course. For some women, it is knowing their children are happy, healthy, secure. It encompasses making a beautiful home for their family. Cooking delicious food. Easing the burdens of dailiness for loved ones. Those were certainly the fulfillments I and others of my generation were pointed to. Our mothers were pointed to. They—we—the privileged.

Count your blessings.

So many to count in that life. All the things that really matter. Children, friends, a kind husband, good health (for as long as it lasts), love. Maybe a garden?

And yet, and yet. What of the women for whom family, church and good works left a hole in the heart? An emptiness in the soul hollowed out when talent was set aside in favor of a woman’s duty?

My mother was a trained classical violinist, marrying late for those days. As I’ve mentioned before, I never saw her play a violin until the week after my father died.

He was an oilman, trained as a classical pianist. She respected him and his judgment of her musical ability. Apparently, he found it mediocre. Similar to his own, in fact, for he abandoned the piano for years.

He began to play again, for his own enjoyment and ours, when he turned sixty. She did not accompany him.
Failed artists, I suppose you could call them. Embracing necessities—earning a living, making a comfortable home. Leaving the hole in the heart to scab over, if it ever does.
I watch people I know today making different adjustments. Finding a way to keep working on their art, in addition to the necessities. Counting among their blessings the time they carve out for work on what they love.
Who will see or hear the results of that work? Is it important that the work of one’s soul be shared?
I think it is. In my view, all art is communication. A visual artist works alone. A writer—poetry or prose—works alone. A musician practices alone or with her/his band. We may value solitude. We may need it. But the expression must be received by others in order to be complete.
How lonely otherwise.
Exposing the intimacy of one’s art to others can be uncomfortable. After all, it is the private self that gives the expression life. But it can be difficult, too, because the opportunities for sharing are so limited. The judgments that apportion them so harsh.
I can’t speak for the visual arts, or music. My experience is limited to the literary world, or market, as it is often termed, in this commercial age.
The majority of fiction readers in our country consist of women over fifty, with young women rising fast. The first part of that observation has been documented frequently over the past two decades, corresponding to the boom in book reading groups, “book clubs.”
The principal market for writers of fiction, however, remains the “little magazines,” or literary journals, of which there are many, online and print.
Both book publishers and journals publish more works by men than women, although statistics indicate the majority of fiction writers are female. According to the national VIDA count, publishing around 35-45% women is still the norm. And, in 2016, only two of the major outlets for fiction published works by older women.
The gatekeepers for publishing remain young in general, particularly in literary journals. First readers there are often graduate students. In the offices of literary agents, first readers tend to be freshly out of school, even interns. When I was their age, my passion in literature centered around compelling concerns of my own. I was open to the quality of writing about the lives of middle aged and older people, but really, who cares about that stuff? What’s it got to do with me?

The journal that has published most of my work in recent years, Southwest Review, was cited as among the four worst with regard to numbers of women published. Thirty-nine percent. I have been fortunate, it seems, but last year they changed editors. Two young men now preside.

Count my blessings.