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.
Facebook.
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.

 

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Red Light Blinking

Many women of my generation were shocked by the outpouring of viciousness aimed at womanhood in general during the 2016 election. The Women’s March reflected that we were not alone. #MeToo put teeth in it. With so much outrage displayed, surely the prospects for gender parity have grown much brighter.

Something odd has happened, however. The term “intersectionality” has begun appearing in common usage. Previously confined to academic analyses of social configurations, it now takes over the discussion of gender equality in more practical circles.

The way this happened shows us a lot about resistance in the power centers of our culture to equal rights for women. It also shows us a deep weakness of the Left in American politics, a weakness with important effects on every forthcoming election.

Intersectional feminism, boiled down, says that you can’t have gender justice without racial and economic justice, too. Ordinary feminism is too white, too privileged. White women are marginalized, yes, but a non-white woman is more marginalized on account of race, ethnicity and class—separately or together—on top of gender.

Watch out for that word class whenever you hear it. Americans have an uneasy relationship with the concept. We’ve been denying it as un-American for generations. “I’m as good as you, maybe better.” That belief fuels reality TV, and spills over into the political arena as we are manipulated to hate “elites.”

We used to desire to “rise” in social terms. We wanted our children to “better themselves.” Now, perhaps believing that rising very far is nearly impossible, we appear to deny the value of anything worth striving toward.

I hope that won't become the effect of intersectionality on women’s rights.

When you couple racial, social and economic justice with gender equality you pretty much guarantee that none of it will result. The proponents will spend their passion, energy and industry on the ideal as they see it, while the power structure rocks on, unaffected. Barring violent upheaval, it is hard to see how that can change.

The oppression of women predates issues of race and class, as we define them. In many ways, it is the Original Sin. How can a man be expected to take his rib seriously unless, by breaking it, he feels pain?

And yet, where justice is concerned, we are closer to achieving it in the area of women’s rights than in either of the other areas of concern to intersectionalists.

I’ve never met a white feminist who didn’t desire equality for non-white women. I’ve never met a white feminist who wanted to see non-white women oppressed. We ride in the same boat.

And when we allow concepts such as intersectionality to fragment our determination, we enable our failure. When we allow or force our gains, as a subset of women, to come at the cost of other women, we guarantee failure for all of us.
 

Friday, March 30, 2018

On Soulmates

I found my soulmate. Well, I did. I think of it as circles on a page, each circle a discrete entity until it overlaps part of the other circle. The soul part.

The amount of overlap will vary from couple to couple. Each member of the duo doesn’t have to need the same things from his or her partner. Just compatible things. And the part that overlaps is what looks out on the world and sees a lot, or enough, similarly.

So much remains separate. Should remain separate. There is a line from Jane Eyre I remember from when I read the book, as a teenager. It’s about a strand, a cord, that connects Jane to Rochester’s heart. He fears he would bleed if she went away.

Long married couples form such connections, more than a strand or two. A web. More bonds between them in life, more places to bleed when one of the dyad dies.

February is a cruel month. In our family, for many years, it was the month when people we loved passed away, my father among them. All his life, my father hated February, gray and cold, as though the weather knew what mourning felt like.

His death blindsided my mother. “I’ve never lived alone,” she told me. I think of her when learning of friends who have lost their husbands, as a surprising number have, this month. Husbands—or fathers—after long illness or with shocking suddenness.

These friends bleed behind closed doors. And we, outside, still secure in our connections, know this.

One cannot live in constant awareness of impending loss. It is too stressful. We shut the knowledge away, and too often we shut away anything that will remind us. Anything. Even the knowledge that we have bereaved friends, aching quietly in empty bedrooms.

Cultivating the part of our circle outside the soulmate overlap makes much sense. It allows us to bring richness into the partnership while making more likely our individual survival when even the happiest of partnerships ends.

It’s more difficult to do this, though, when illness surrounds us, when everywhere we go there are sick people, coughing, sneezing, breathing into the air we share. (Yes, if the person breathing beside you in the grocery checkout line has a “flu-like illness,” she is infecting you.)

At community gatherings between November and March—over the holidays and during January when volunteers meet for the year’s planning—contagion is on the menu. No doubt it’s part of the reason for February’s macabre harvest. But it is also an example of a community-wide result from individual choices  made without thinking past the boundary of the self.

Do I have a solution? Not really. I choose to skip indoor group activities in years like this, hoping to avoid influenza for myself, and especially for my husband. We failed this year because we didn’t start soon enough. We were waiting until November to have our flu shots, and by November we were sick.

Once sick, however, we stayed home. We’re retired, so we could do that. Even when we were employed, we could do that, because we worked from home.

Technology allows many people to work from home when they are sick, if their employers allow it. I would argue that employers should revise their approach so that is widely possible. Even when the job must be done by a person on site, letting a sick person stay home for three days can pay off in reducing overall employee-hours lost to illness. It also protects the customer.

February doesn’t need to be as cruel as it has become. With foresight and consideration, it can be just another month, possessing its own versions of beauty and challenge. Challenge in the ice and cold that make outdoor activities less appealing; beauty in the romantic mists that lie upon pastures of brown and gold grasses, promising spring. Soon.

 


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 (www.friendsofwinedale.org). 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.

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