Friday, January 13, 2023

Slow Change is a Natural Wonder


You’ve invited some friends to visit Round Top over the holidays. They haven’t been here in a while. Ten or twenty years, maybe. Well before anyone thought of the word “Roundtopolis.” (How about that word? We’ve always needed a name, I think, for the area that spreads out around the town. This word does so many things—evokes Superman, drips with irony, fits nicely into hype of all kinds).

But I digress.

Your friends, arriving at the square—pausing at the surprising, but welcome stoplight—will they recognize Round Top? Will they even be able to see it after dark in the glare of a thousand tiny white lights wrapping every tree? (Again, I digress.)

The bones of the town remain, of course. Fine, authentic bones. Von Minden Store, for one. (Oh, you don’t remember that? You don’t remember when Betty Schatte held court over beer drinkers meeting to tell stories and solve the problems of the day? It’s now Popi Burger.)

And Klumps—the small store where realtors now answer phones, and the larger restaurant, once an area anchor with plate lunches and Saturday BBQ. (It's now Mandito’s.)

The buildings—those bones I mention—have rarely looked better, I think.

The Stone Cellar, named for its location in what is now Lulu’s, has been transformed into wood and expanded under new ownership.

Henkel Square, formerly a greensward with exceptional live oaks and the town’s earliest buildings (rarely visited), now offers popular shops and gathering places clustered around a parking lot. Plus, next door to the square’s bottle shop, a relatively new Episcopal congregation brings life to the old Haw Creek Church. Take your dog along (at least some of the time).

Your friends will notice another change, too. The sprouting of spec houses and subdivisions.

All these changes sing to the tune of fashion and the desire of city folks to hang onto urban conveniences when they come to the country. It’s the reason “farm kitchens” in new upscale “ranch” houses have granite counters and dishwashers and a toilet for every bed.

An earlier generation of Houstonians coming here wanted contrast with urban life. In cities, the wildest creature one encounters is often a flying roach or earth-bound rat nosing around the garbage can.

Well, we have squirrels and field mice around our country place, but we aren’t seeing so many shy creatures we once glimpsed with awe. Many fewer rabbits, birds, coyotes, deer, possums, bobcats. We once knew where the jackrabbit lived on our road, and where we were likely to spot the roadrunner. And in the evening, choruses of barred owls vied with the goblin sounds of coyotes, the wildest sound of all.

No longer, though.

So why do we keep coming when the activity of developers displaces much of the reason for being here as fast as it can?

We come to touch reality, I think. To appreciate the wonder of being alive, often blurred by the distraction of cities. We come for what has been called “the rhythm of the land.” The visible, tangible life of leaves. The slow coloring of native grasses. The waves of distant sound and nearby rustling that signal migratory birds. Many fewer of those, now, too.

Here, on a porch in the woods, we feel ourselves at home in the slow, inexorable seasonal roll of nature. We make friends with ourselves as human beings and we feel grounded.

Whether we know it or not, that’s what we long for. Not the Viking Range or Insinkerator. Not the extended shopping mall that some of our pastures have become.

The First Blessing

Rushing about in preparation for the holidays, I’ve been thinking about reasons to be thankful. There are so many—and no, this will not be the list of them we occasionally see this time of year.

I do, however, want to point out the first and best of reasons: We are alive, following years of upheaval. Those of us who lost loved ones during the pandemic isolation time may find our own survival to this date somewhat miraculous, in fact.

I’ve had a stark reminder of this situation over the past week. My otherwise healthy cousin in Seattle died of circulatory complications from Covid, and my son has the virus right now, in Manhattan. So does his wife. Three friends who went to Europe on dream trips returned with it, and two have recovered.

The pandemic intensified our understanding of human vulnerability to forces we cannot see. Viruses, for example. Some of those forces move so slowly we don’t notice them until much damage has occurred. I’m thinking here of the attrition experienced by our woods and wildlife since LH wrote in Texas Chronicles about what it was like to be here alone in 1986—surrounded by wild creatures and dense foliage.

We do recognize drouth, and we pray for rain. Even the least traditionally religious among us asks the Universe for mercy in a variety of troubling situations.

This may be the characteristic most defining of human nature. We ask for help. We give thanks for blessings.

Each time we do it we confirm our certainty of the tiny, fragile position we represent in the vastness of space. A terrifying thought, unless we believe there’s a guiding Force to supplicate.

All this is why I think of Thanksgiving as our most ecumenically religious American holiday. Everyone who gives thanks on that day participates in a religious act. Because thanking requires a recipient.

Think of the holiday tables where we’re asked to say what we’re thankful for.

Who are we thanking? (And it’s not just the cook or the person who paid for the food.)

The experience isn’t really confined to one day, either.

Even the most secular of our households find their inhabitants expressing thanks or gratitude for various blessings during the year. (There I go again. Hard to talk about it without using religious terms.)

But blessings do feel as though they fall from a great Magnanimity that surrounds us, listening, caring, providing comfort. We may want to think we have done something to encourage those good things, but have we? Perhaps. But do we diminish them by treating them as a transaction? Aren’t blessings most deeply a gift for which to be thankful?

I’ve had many reasons to give thanks this year, aside from the matter of survival I mentioned earlier. My fiction writing has begun to gain recognition, opening the doors of a fairly reclusive life to possibilities of broader connection. Less loneliness, perhaps.

The process of grieving the loss of my husband showers me with reasons. I give thanks for him, for his forbearance with me, for his love. Perspective on our life together is like a peony or other many-petaled flower slowly unfolding from bud to full-blown. It takes time to appreciate all the stages, both while they’re going on, as well as later.

And time, itself—which is life, after all—is maybe the fundamental thing to give thanks for. The first of our many blessings. 

It's our nature to center certain emotions on recurring calendar dates, but being thankful is one we can hold close all year.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

Dressing Up


Here they came. In van and pickup, in Benz and BMW, peopling our streets and stores and cafes with strangers. Interesting strangers, though, despite the costumes.

Yes, costumes. Have you noticed? Apparently, toward the end of 2022, we have a need for costume when we travel certain places, even without a specific party to attend.

I was in Santa Fe last month, where the urge to dress up like someone you’re not became a national fashion in the Eighties. Santa Fe Style still rules, when you visit there.

We’ve got a Style of our own, though, don’t we? Call it Junk Gypsy? That’s certainly a part of it.

I watch the young women strolling along the road or street in cut off denim and cowboy boots, draped in various trailing decorations—feathers, scarves, necklaces, artistically torn shirts—topped by western hats, often black, even when it’s hot. They look pretty great, if not particularly comfortable.

Old(er) women wear long(er) pants. Long(er) skirts, blending into the Santa Fe look.

It reminds me of the Urban Cowboy fad in the 1980’s. When I met my husband, his entire wardrobe consisted of a denim jacket and blue jeans and a checked shirt. Ranch clothes for a man who actually builds fence, although he didn’t. His reason for the garb was a difficult divorce, nearing conclusion in its second year.  

But because of Urban Cowboy fashion at the time, he looked very cool to me. Happy coincidence.

Our Round Top Style today, if you’ll let me call it that, is more ornate. You find it on display often in PaperCity, and at the events held so often during Antiques Showtime. You can see how everyone enjoys wearing the (sort of) Western Look.

It has its own capacity for leveling social differences. In fact, all that matters is one’s ability to select and accessorize.

What got me thinking about this was a tall man at Farm and Ranch this morning, a stranger, who carried a sack of birdseed to the car for me. He had style in the way he volunteered. He did it just right.

In the fifteen or twenty seconds it took, I noticed a well-used western hat, muddy boots, round glasses—tortoise shell with a glint of gold at the bridge—and a white mustache. He looked real, not in costume at all, but also not a local person, quite. A local person most likely would have worn a cap. And different glasses.

How quickly we send our messages, now.

I wonder how many of us spend time thinking about it.

In the nearly twenty months I’ve been alone, I think about about it frequently. I still wear a mask pretty often, so I don’t have my smile to convey myself to those I meet. Also, I wear glasses, and big sunglasses. With that mask I might as well be Iron Man, for all the nuance conveyed.

How do I communicate, other than with muffled speech?

Clothing is an obvious answer. But which comes first? The clothing or the message? That Round Top Style I refer to above has a consistency that hides personality. It focuses attention on the jewelry, the workmanship of boots, the art of assembly in how it all fits together.

Who’s underneath?

Who are you, really?

That fellow who helped me stood out, first, for an authenticity—dried dirt on boots—and then became defined by those spectacles. I’m guessing he’s a city person who has a place around here. I did call back to find out his name. It was Tom.

Thank you, Tom.

Handling Tourists


I’m sitting here on the side of a mountain in Santa Fe, NM. It’s another perfectly gorgeous morning. Deep blue sky. And the sloping fall light that always seems three times brighter here. I’ve been in this little house all month, fleeing the heat and finishing my memoir manuscript about Leon Hale and me.

The deadline has caught me thinking about timelessness and place. About tourists.

In Fayette County we’re learning the effects of popularity. Round Top bulges with it, changing our daily landscape and our traffic patterns. There’s been a influx of developer activity—growing over the past ten years or so, and recently accelerating.

I always think Santa Fe is a good example of a place that understands tourism. That takes it in and uses it, revels in it to some degree, but allows none of it to affect its core, source of its blood and spirit.

I hadn’t been here for a protracted visit for more than fifteen years. When I came for a week last year, visiting my longtime friend Donna Norquist and her husband, I stayed downtown in the old La Fonda Hotel. Tourist Central, that is. And I found the city much changed.

Coming back this year, I don’t notice those changes as much.

I’m staying where Hale and I had a place, in an old development up the hill from the city center. The condos are like little adobe houses, and they’re arranged around a wicked 9-hole golf course. Great dog walking, and I’ve done a lot of that. Rosie loves it.

Staying in this familiar place activated all the familiar pathways we trod twenty years ago. Routes we took through the city to accomplish errands and have fun. Our dry cleaner is still there, so is the neighborhood grocery store. All the landmarks—museums, cathedral, Plaza, Canyon Road—are in place and only a small area near the railyard has been altered significantly.

Mainly, of course, the mountains haven’t moved. And although the sweeping basin to the south is dotted with more houses, the basin is there, the mountains encircling it still shimmer in ever-shifting blues and lavenders.

One reason for Santa Fe’s endurance in the face of truly daunting numbers of tourists and new residents (a California influx of tsunami-like proportions) is that they have strong land-use restrictions.

Letting themselves Houstonize fifty years ago—tear down whatever, build whatever, wherever—would have destroyed this place.

It’s a lesson for us.

Round Top, LaGrange, Fayetteville and the surrounding communities appeal to tourists by being different from daily life in the city. We all know that. But creeping urbanization threatens our future.

Creeping developments, on properties that are subdivided into lots that are too small, too numerous. They increase the load on well water, without any return possible. They add to traffic.

Junky construction on the outskirts of our towns duplicates the origin of urban blight.

These creeping negatives partake of the human drive to turn every resource into money, especially land in a pretty place. This drive is part of our culture and our human race. It seems as strong as the highly restricted drive to procreate.

Santa Fe surely loves money. And money loves Santa Fe. Big money. But the city’s underlying strength of spirit continues to prevail.

Intelligent developers understand that the character of the place whose appeal attracts them must be maintained, and enhanced if possible. To some degree they restrict themselves from taking the short-term approach to maximum gain.

Some days I see examples of this in our county and I feel myself exhaling in relief and gratitude.

But then, on other days, I wonder.

Loving Men


Are men, really, “a lot of trouble?”

A friend recently quoted a woman he knows as saying that. She was trying to explain why an eligible older fellow might have difficulty finding an interested new female partner.

When I began to check it out, I discovered that a surprising number of unattached women have quit on men. They like the freedom of living alone. Housekeeping for one.

Men, they say, require “double the work.”

One woman said men turn into “old geezers” the day after they get married. “They expect women to work hard at staying attractive, but they don’t bother about themselves.”

A friend in real life (IRL) pointed out, “All the older ones want is a ‘nurse with a purse.’” And she made a face.

This is a very sad state of affairs.

But I think it may say more about their experience in marriage than it does about men.

We Boomers were set afloat in our youth on waters roiled by change.

Women rose up, stepped away from their mothers’ Miltowns and afternoon gin, and began to surf the power that resides in assertion. We crested successive waves of it, each one larger and larger until the curl came to tower above our heads.

Has it crashed, yet?

Today, a man begins comfortably to impart his knowledge about something to his lady and he’s shocked to be accused of “mansplaining.”

He didn’t ask if she needed an explanation before launching into one.

He didn’t notice launch pad cues—the expression in her eyes and her body language as he began to talk.

I’m not sure men are particularly alert to cues. Most of them haven’t been raised that way.

Is it fair to nurture anger and disappointment against a whole group of people because of something that was missing from their childhood? Something they can’t help.

Can they help it?

I love men. I also like them. I think a man often possesses a carefully buffered, tender heart and that women are much tougher, emotionally.

At the core of every man lives the little boy he was.

Many of the negatives the women express are trappings that our culture has draped across the men. Trappings and traps.

Left out are two of the best things men do, and like to do. That is, help and protect.

Think of daily life. Think of the chores a husband or partner usually performs around the house. Think of the security the presence of a good man conveys to the deepest part of a woman’s being.

These things matter. And they promote happiness if the man understands the perils of making assumptions.

Here’s where things get complicated.

If a man assumes a woman needs help with something and steps in—and she doesn’t want that help—many times she’ll respond with sharp words.

Ouch. He steps back, stung. He has absorbed a lesson, probably the wrong one. Because, afterwards, he waits to be asked.

And she begins to marinate a resentment to the effect that he “never helps.”

What if the transaction goes smoothly and he performs all the duties they’ve agreed on? Still, the woman can become irritated because she is left with the minutiae of domestic planning—children’s scheduling, and so on. She works, too, doesn’t she?

A man might find all this rather confusing.

I had a very happy marriage, it’s true. Neither of us wanted to make the other person uncomfortable. Where we diverged, we compromised. And many times I didn’t realize a compromise had been made.

I have only lately realized that’s because he was the one who made it.

Escape Hatch


Texans often travel to escape summer’s heat, heading for the Gulf Coast, the Hill Country or the mountains.

A few travel to Europe, where they’re finding a “heat wave” that’s even more punitive than ours.

But at some point, you have to come back. Walk into the oven everyone else has been roasting in while you were gone.

That makes it seem even hotter.

I was only gone two weeks, but, driving in from Houston, I thought the land looked emptier, bleached. A cornfield that was ripening when I left on July 6, is now straw-dry, brittle, stunned.

The grass on my own small sloping field is shrinking, drawing in on itself.

A few neighboring pastures are going gray, like they did in the terrible drouth of a few years ago. (I like the way that old spelling makes you feel the dry in your mouth.)

Don’t you sense protest from the living vegetation around you? From the trees, grass, flowers—and absent vegetables. And how about  those poor cows huddled in patchy shade while the grass loses moisture with each minute that passes.

We keep trying to power through. By our capacity to do so we measure our character.

Is it enough?

Scientists study the factors contributing to world weather conditions. They think they understand why Europe is having a “worst heat ever” period—a matter of divided jet streams and varying ocean temperatues interconnecting in complex ways that affect rain and the movement of weather systems.

Our situation is related. And here, we have the addition of Saharan Dust flowing in—quite visible when you’re descending in an airplane from 36,000 feet.

Saharan Dust is reputed to diminish the likelihood of hurricanes. No one likes a hurricane, but right now we’d really like a gentle tropical storm to wet us down.

Are we hapless victims of Nature’s whims? I don’t have the technology or the knowledge to give an answer, but I do know what I think.

And I think we’ve got a population problem that we have no way to solve. Population that requires destroying forests for farming. To feed and clothe the people. Forests that that exhale oxygen and contribute to the cycle of moisture that makes life, at all, possible.

Cow people know how much land it takes to graze a herd of a particular size. You and I have seen what happens when a field is overgrazed.

How much land does it take to feed a human population of eight billion people, growing hourly?

Until recently, the problems of insufficient food and water have seemed confined to the so-called Third World. The worst abuses of unbridled development, too, seem centered, now, in that part of the Globe.

But we are not insulated from the consequences, anymore. We created the technology and the philosophy that propels development, and now we are enjoying some of the less comfortable, even threatening, side effects.

One of them involves your well and mine. Water to live by, in other words, right here at home. I know the water my new pump draws on has diminished. How about yours?

Point is, we are not going to be able to open a hatch in the floor and drop into safety while the winds of anguish howl above. And we also aren’t going to populate a Space Ark in time to help our children or grandchildren.

All we’ve got is here. And now.

Maybe we’ll start paying attention to the balances we can correct if we get miserable enough, and if we don’t forget the misery with the first good rain.

Blame it on the Tomato


Dear Boss,

Please let me explain why I don’t have a column today although I have struggled mightily to produce one.

I blame it on the tomato. Yes, one tomato, and it had a blister on it bigger than a half dollar. (Remember those?)

This was no ordinary tomato, either, but an heirloom variety given to me by a friend when it was just a sproutling. Anticipating its yield had my mouth watering for months. Pretty much the only thing that did water around here, in fact.

Because the blister drew my attention to the plant’s foliage, turning brown and yellow before my eyes. And that led me—you know how these things go—to examine the irrigation.


Irrigation Man arrived and gave the bad news. The problem was our well. Apparently, irrigation needs constant water pressure and our well couldn’t provide it.

There are technical words to describe the problem, but I only know four: call the Well Man.

He came, with his big truck and his machinery and he pulled our well.

Nervous hours followed. This well had been going strong in 1985 when we arrived. Had it outlived its time? But no, it was the pump, the Well Man said, and he replaced it.

That evening, with the temp on the porch at ninety-two, Rosie began acting strange. She resisted her usual plunge out the door into the yard and, instead, tiptoed to the steps and sniffed, watchfully. I followed with a flashlight. “It’s okay,” I said, sweeping the yard with the beam. But it wasn’t. She had smelled the copperhead before I saw it.

Next day on the way back from visiting a friend in Sugar Land, the low tire light came on. We were somewhere out on the prairie along 529. Next morning that tire was rim flat. The Toyota dealer took care of it in only two and a half hours.

On Monday, an agent accepted the book manuscript I’ve been working on for just over a year. That’s the one about Leon Hale and me—half fiction, half memoir.

She liked it. And to help her sell it to publishers, she asked me to create a table of contents describing what happens in each chapter.

There are forty-six chapters in this book, Boss, each one crammed with feelings. A daunting task.

So you see how it is, Boss, and I didn’t even mention the $5.10 gas or the Toyota dealer’s empty lot and showroom. Or the fire ants in my cupboard and kitchen sink.

Or the constant heat all month, until last night’s rain.

But the rain may be the biggest reason of all why I haven’t written a column this time.

It reminded me of Leon Hale’s Madame Z, the Brazos Bottom fortune teller. How, when the summer temp started to climb, Madame would pack up and head north.

I’m about to do the same.

I haven’t made up my mind yet for sure, but I’m leaning toward a trip by car to Connecticut, where my grandchildren live. A slow trip, watching how everything changes, gradually, in a rhythm and with a speed that feels human size.

An old dog and driver (me) looking at the reality of America today.

It will take an extra twelve days, if all goes well, but I’m hoping to learn something useful, something important on the way—other than the high price of gasoline everywhere. Maybe I’ll see what we Americans share in a good way, because I know it still exists.

I’m sure to be able to write a column about that, Boss.