Thursday, December 15, 2016

Thanks Must Be Given

After an election like the one we just endured, Thanksgiving—with its focus on what’s good—can’t come soon enough. Here’s a list of some things I’m thankful for this year, in addition to my dear family:

Autumn. At last. Narcissus bulbs, emboldened by the receptivity of Texas voters, have been trying to bloom in my garden. Not yet, fellas. Not till January, at least.
BBQ turkey at Truth Barbecue outside Brenham, piled high on a bun and anointed with cole slaw and sauce. Love that word, Truth.

Books. H is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald; A Writer’s Diary, by Virginia Woolf; Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf; All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr.
Cell phone coverage, when and if you have it;

Our churches, source of necessary consolation to so many. And the wonderful Wandke organ in Round Top’s Bethlehem Lutheran Church, soon to be 150 years old.
Festival Hill, year-round. A source of pride as well as beauty in our world. Music is the surest form of time travel.

Football season winding down. Soon the sound of helmets and shoulder pads colliding will fade. Young bones and brains will be relatively safe for another year.
Handicap parking. The whole Americans with Disabilities Act, in fact. What a hassle going anywhere would be without it. Remember: climbing stairs and curbs before ramps, public lavatories without a railing to grip, and with stalls too small for a wheelchair? HEB or Lowe’s would be impossible if we had to walk from the far recesses of the parking lot, too. I’m thankful to whoever accomplished that beneficial change. Congress, you say? Signed into law by President George H.W. Bush? Yep.

Innocence. A rare commodity and getting more so. I see it in the littlest children, three and four-year-olds, before the internet can climb into their minds. I see it in dogs, the way they wholly inhabit their true selves. What is more beautiful than a dog doing the work he was intended to do? We should protect and cherish innocence wherever we find it.
Onion rings at JW’s Steakhouse in Carmine. Mmm.

People who come to book signings.
Pulled pork sandwiches at Teague’s Tavern. The tavern itself, a welcome addition to the Round Top menu.

Poems. The Poem-a-day from Comes in email. Always interesting, often elevating.
The Constitutional right of citizen protest. Let’s make sure we squash any attempts to shut it down.

Rain when we need it, and sunshine when we don’t.
The resilience of German and Czech heritage in our area ensured by heritage societies, museums and organizations such as the Round Top Schützen Verein. Traditions live.

Respect for the good intentions of others, even if you loathe the political decisions they make.
Restaurants that serve fish: grilled snapper and sautéed veggies at Royer’s; butterflied grilled trout and salmon at JW’s in Carmine; Teague’s butter glazed salmon, too. Thanks, guys!

The rich array of Texas crafts at the Copper Shade Tree. And the sprouting of so many shops in Henkel Square Market, the advent of French Antiques in old Von Minden store, liquid solace and conviviality at Prost, music at the Stone Cellar, etc., etc.
Our schools, the teachers inside them, the parents and community volunteers who enhance them, the students who work hard to learn, to think, to understand.

Winedale Historical Complex, grounding visitors in the craftsmanship of our ancestors, for whom it was a necessity not a hobby. Compared to the urban creep in which we increasingly live, Winedale’s hand wrought construction and painted interior decoration by our German immigrant forebears feels like a soothing cloth on a fevered brow. And it is not commercial, so it survives on our good will and donations alone.
And because it is the holiday season: pie whereever it may be found. Coconut meringue at JW's, pecan at Royer's, your mom's and your own favorite. Mine is pumpkin, made with molasses and a splash of bourbon. But not this year. This year I'm dieting.

Friday, November 25, 2016

A Changin' Time

The harvest of our post-literate society: the Nobel Prize for Literature goes to a songwriter. I’m talking about Bob Dylan, bard of the Baby Boomers, of which I am one.

I call our world post-literate because, although most of us can read and write, the dopamine zap of visual images is obliterating our capacity for complex thought.

Instead of reading, we watch: videos, films, selfies, panoramic phone shots of wherever we or our friends happen to be. We smile at close-ups of our cats, our dogs. We indulge the latest heartstring tweak of manufactured sentiment.

It’s all so easy and quick.

Songs—even the best songs—are easy to understand, compared with poetry. The music helps the lyrics land with force and, sometimes, stick.

Literature, however, is hard. Literature requires effort from the reader, and mental effort is difficult. Few are willing to try. A lot of us tasted Ethan Frome in high school and declared, “nevermore.”

That’s one reason literature has become associated with elitist intellectuals, in opposition to which the Nobel Prize committee chose an icon of pop culture.

Our society embraces the easy emotions of pop culture, even when it includes social criticism. Set to music, the flattest, most awkward lyrics can energize, manipulate the mood.

Poets, though, spend their lives struggling to express human complexity in words alone. Mostly without monetary reward, they evoke the heights and depths of the human experience. And although Dylan’s words, free of music, can qualify as a kind of poetry, they are in no way close to the highest literary achievement.

We can dissolve this reality into the post-literate brain-soup of our personal “likes”, but the standard remains.

The fact is, we need standards of excellence. We have a soul-need for goals to yearn toward, to admire in bald stupefaction when others attain them. That need isn’t merely a desire for entertainment and distraction, the easy fixes of our time. Songwriters require a Dylan to rise toward; poets need a Heaney, or Brodsky.

Standards motivate. Without them, why run a marathon when 5k will do?  Why do baseball teams dream of beating the Yankees? Where sports are concerned, the reality is obvious. Young men will brain themselves for a Super Bowl ring.

In the world of words, however, standards are under siege.

Yes, we are reading, but what are we reading? Texts from friends. Bloviating blogs, in dire need of editing. Headlines designed to juice us up. And when we click through, we find that the headline was a come-on, failing to fulfill its promise of outrage, or titillation. But the damage has been done. We will remember the come-on, and the disappointing content will become another cup of brain soup.

Advertising is becoming our nation’s great creative achievement. From the moment we get up until we turn out the light at night, we’re being sold something. From the cereal box to the toothpaste container to the medicine we take.

We can no longer tell the difference between life and selling. Heck, we no longer even notice.

We’re sold politics just like acid reducers. You and I are sliced and diced into categories of remarkable specificity via data mining. Ever finer differences between us are isolated and bombarded. “Targeted,” is the word, for good reason.

We no longer know how to dig past the surface of a sales pitch for product or candidate to understand the bias, or the agenda, that squeezed it forth. We latch onto conspiracy theories invented by people we hope are seeing more deeply, more truly. We can’t even see through that.

Because the post-literate mind looks for the easy thing to understand. The generality. The simplified answer. It celebrates that Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. It accepts that Donald Trump is running for president. It ignores how the vulgarity of celebrity culture spills off the tabloid racks into our living rooms, into our election dialogue, sullying our children’s innocence.

Celebrity culture is so easy.

The culture of excellence rewards the effort it requires. The Nobel is awarded to elite physicists, biologists, doctors, and so on. The concept of an elite in the sciences is fine. It is only in the language of words which everyone uses to some extent (so much easier than math, after all) that elitism is sneered at.

Definitely, the path to greatness should be open to all talent, but the pinnacle must be there to strive toward.

The way we’re going in this post-literate society is to lop off the pinnacle, lower the standard, give everybody the award.

Render human striving meaningless.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Taking Politics Personally

For some time now this campaign has felt like a personal assault.

Ladies, do you enjoy being called a hag and worse? Much worse? You’re a year away from 70, say—sick—and you go to an important event looking, well, definitely not your best. And some younger man calls you a hag. When you’re the virtual double of his mother or grandmother at that age. Others call you the b-word and describe the various painful punishments they’d like to inflict on your disgusting flesh.

Am I the only one who finds it upsetting to see, revealed through the lens of politics, what younger men really think about me? They don’t say it to my face, of course. Most women over 60 don’t have actual faces. We’ve gone invisible under the magic cloak of menopause.

One of us isn’t invisible, though, and she’s running for president.

Is her most unforgiveable offense the fact that she has made the men look at her? Forced them to accept she might become the most powerful person in the world?

Truth is, the biggest threat to the power of white men isn’t brown immigrants, or African Americans, or refugees from Syria.

It’s women.

1972 was the tipping point. Title IX passed. The first issue of Ms. Magazine hit the newsstands with depictions of the Click Moment. Awareness of male entitlements gave birth to a new generation of feminists.

Household duties became contentious. The workplace, the career path, the universities, teemed with competent women. Women who had always done better in school and who would work for 30% less salary, if not by choice.

Suddenly wives didn’t stay at home doing the laundry, planning meals. They took jobs in post offices, stores, banks. White men’s lives came under pressure. Still are.

Why wouldn’t men resent that?

But it doesn’t explain female hostility to Hillary Clinton.

Does her success imply we’ve made the wrong choices? Do we see her as a reproach for what we value in our families, in our lives? Do we think she’s an atheistic threat to the world, this woman who exemplifies Methodist values of service right down to her bones? Who has met for years with a Congressional prayer group in Washington? Raised her daughter successfully despite everything?

She did sneer at baking cookies one time (it was a metaphor, of course, for that life of the 50’s we had left behind). She did stay with her needy husband after his public humiliation. Was it the public part we can’t forgive her for? Jackie stayed with Jack, whose transgressions remained secret for years. So have many other First Ladies stayed with philandering husbands.

Or was it that from the beginning she had let us see her desire for public service, her self-respect, her belief in her own abilities? Her ambition? That she had let us see these things openly because she and her husband thought they were a plus. Whipped cream on the sundae. Lagniappe.

It does look a little naïve, now. And the Clintons may have been naïve, at first. They were embraced by nobody when they came to Washington in 1992. These Arkansas outsiders. These centrist Democrats who appealed to a country that always votes centrist for president. (Up to now, at least. We’ll have to wait to see if that holds.)

Most threatened of all were Republicans. As the party hurtled rightward, consolidating its Southern Strategy base, it risked losing the “moderates” that had kept it a contender for the presidency. Cue the conservative chattering classes, the think tanks, the deep pockets of far right moguls. Bury the bumpkins was the call, and they’ve been trying ever since.

With so much “smoke” around the Clintons there has to be fire, right? Except that no one can find anything real to corroborate any of it. In forty years, a handful of mistakes, a little hubris, a little arrogance of intellect, but nothing illegal. Nothing serious. Nothing to warrant the focused outpouring of hate we’ve been seeing for over a year.

That hatred targets her person, her body, her manner of speaking, her life. The Twitter feeds and Facebook comments urge tortures, imprisonment, ghastly consequences for her daring. They smear this grandmother who’s running for president.

They do it grossly in the alt-right and Limbaugh universe, and cleverly in the so-called “liberal” press—with insinuating adjectives that point up the peculiarity of a woman aspiring to the top position in government, the leadership of our country. A woman as Commander in Chief. Imagine. Who does she think she is?

As I said earlier, I take a lot of this personally. I think many older women do. Or will, once they’re inside the voting booth.


Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Wolf at the Door

Demonizing has become a popular habit in American political chatter. Just try to count the Nazi references to candidates of every stripe over the past eight years.

Remember “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” the Aesop’s fable that our parents read to us, as children?

With the 24/7 news cycle this year, it seems we have entered the landscape of that story and forgotten its moral. Otherwise, why do we run like sheep before the Wolf’s specter every time the Boy yells?

The Wolf wears many disguises. He’s the terrorist in a bomb vest or the unhinged loner with a grudge, firing guns randomly, mowing down pedestrians in a truck. He’s a black president to people who harbor racist fears, or a woman president to men who find that alarming. He’s a gay married couple, or a transgender uncle become aunt. He’s the idea that our guns, the last bit of power we can hold in our hands, will be taken away.

He’s the people who call America weak and powerless or who call on us to welcome refugees from the wars we’ve been fighting since 2001.

All of a sudden everything around us is complicated. Everything around us needs work to understand. Nothing feels familiar.

Would we like some simplicity? Would we like someone to show us a clear path toward the decisions we have to make?

Oh, my, yes.

And the Boy will be happy to comply. Or you could think of him as the Master of Wolves. The wolfmeister.

He takes good care of his wolves. Feeds them just enough fresh meat, but not too much. He wants ’em hungry when he points them at us. He doesn’t even have to think about it. In some ways the wolves tell him where they’d like to go.

And it seems to work because we are so afraid of people who look different. Whose culture feels different, particularly as ours seems to spin out of control.

Fear of differences is hard-wired in us. The German word is Überfremdung. The more familiar word to me is xenophobia, fear of the foreigner.

We think of Muslims, in particular, as different, and threatening. We have one image, encountered in the news, in our films and television shows, and that image for Muslims is “terrorist.”

It can’t possibly be accurate. Islam has more sects than Protestant Christianity. It marries those sects, over centuries, with tribal and even familial differences. Layered on top of that is the legacy of European colonialism.

But now we have an alternate image to consider.

The appearance of Khizir Khan at the Democratic Convention and on a host of follow-up news programs showed why.

Here is a bereaved American father, a Muslim whose son, an Army officer, died a decorated (Bronze Star, Purple Heart) hero in Iraq. Here is a dignified gentleman whose stirring words of love for our country provide American Muslims, at last, with a recognizable face and voice. He pulled our Constitution out of his jacket pocket. He seems to know its contents by heart. Do we? I haven’t even read it since college.  

His wife and he sit across from a network anchor and remind us that there are many good, innocent Muslims who long to come here because of what we stand for—freedom and opportunity. They say this although it was people of their own faith who blew up their son. Their handsome son who joined the Army to pay for law school.

It is easy to disparage, dismiss and fear abstractions. Harder when they are people who look you in the eye and show you their hearts. Even with a camera in between.

That, like so many of the differences between us—race, class, religion, city-born or country-raised—melt away on the personal level. Do you know any Muslims? I’ve known a couple, slightly. Do you have African-American or Latino friends—who are not your employees?

My grandparents were late 19th century immigrants, from Germany and France, respectively. The moment America went to war with Kaiser Wilhelm in WW I, my grandfather Diehl became The Other, although he was a citizen and a veteran. He was called names. His business shriveled and closed. Occasional bricks were thrown by stupid people. My grandmother gave French lessons to support the family.

Xenophobia is not new. Neither is scapegoating a group when one’s own world begins to look shaky. Ask a Jew. Ask any of the Japanese-Americans you happen to know. At least my grandfather wasn’t incarcerated or deported.

The Boy in this story, the wolfmeister, is a good salesman. Like other good salesmen he knows how to push our buttons.

The advertising business prefers the buttons of sex appeal and dreams for a better life.
The wolfmeister prefers fear.

This post appeared as my August column in the Fayette County Record.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Bang, Bang

The first concussion comes a little after nine a.m. Will there be more? A fusillade? Or just the one gunshot, at a snake most likely.

On the Fourth of July weekend you expect a variety of explosive punctuation. The rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air:

It’s the way we have chosen to remember our nation’s stubborn survival under fire. British fire in 1814. Two hundred and two years ago.

In the meantime, we have built a nation of unparalleled opportunity for a greater proportion of citizens than any other. And still we celebrate ourselves with words describing combat.

We like to think about war, don’t we—those of us who haven’t experienced it first hand? We like to feel the adrenaline rush of safely witnessed mayhem. We like to imagine ourselves as the underdog, surviving clear and direct danger against all odds.

Our taste in films and video games certainly suggests that. Our love of fireworks, too. We like to feel the power in each explosion on screen or overhead, although we’re just watching.

Except, of course, some of us here in the malls and towns of America aren’t just watching. We’re buying guns and using them.

We have those guns for a variety of reasons. Hunting, which includes putting meat in the larder. Defense of property. Criminal activities. Suicide. Hardly anyone buys weapons with the intention of mass murder.

In our neighborhood, fun is the largest reason. Round Top has its historical Shutzenverein, or “marksmen’s club.” During deer and dove season the hills around us reverberate, morning and evening. Distance reduces the concussion to a series of pops, like popcorn cooking on the stove. Closer to hand, a friend nearby has his own target range in the back pasture.

I learned to shoot targets as a girl. My daddy told me that his father, at one time a Texas Ranger, could draw his pistol and hit a silver dollar flipped in the air. It may have been true.

I never tried to do that, but I became quite good with a rifle. So good that I surprised a new boyfriend the first time we shot skeet over his parents’ stock tank. I’d never used a shotgun before, but it felt natural.

A few weeks later, we graduated to doves. In the sky, a dove didn’t look so different from a clay pigeon.

When my friend went over to scoop up the harvest, he ripped the head off the first bird and I had a revelation. I had shot a living creature. I had killed an innocent. Just to show off how good a shot I was.  Pure ego, in other words.

It made me sick.

I thought about this recently when I saw a video on Facebook of a young girl striding through what had once been a grove of trees, pulverizing targets on every side, relentlessly, with her semi-automatic weapon.

Oh, the power! So young! Gee.

I wonder when she will realize that those targets she’s praised for blowing up represent human beings. And why has she been trained to do that, presumably by her father? No need for that kind of weapon to hunt deer. Kill elephants, maybe…wade into a herd and mow ’em down. Not likely she’ll find a herd of elephants in Texas, though.

Has it been for fun? Can there still be fun in simulating what has become a terrible reality?

Fun is a poor enough excuse for shooting innocents; and madness an infinitely worse one. Allowing the first to enable the second feels obscene.

That’s why this year the Fourth of July lost its innocence for me. The explosions of fireworks all around us that weekend no longer recalled childhood amazement. Instead, I could see a nightclub, an elementary school, a movie theater—places of tragedy that have become known by names we should not forget: Orlando, Sandy Hook, Columbine. 

I suspect I was not alone. Those horrible events have a way of worming themselves deep into us. The fact they happened has changed us.

And so, when our neighbor set off the barrage of annual fireworks in his pasture that Monday night, I wondered how we would know the difference, ever again, if we couldn’t see the colorful phosphorous blossoms overhead.


(This essay appeared in July, in the Fayette County Record.)


Thursday, July 7, 2016

The (Very Wet) Elephant in the Room

I made myself a promise during the drought a few years ago. If it ever rains again, I said, I will utter no word of complaint. I will not even think a complaint. So this is not complaining, folks. Consider it documentation.

Some of this paper’s readers incurred serious damage from the severe storm of May 26-27 and we hope for their speedy recovery.
We, personally, were very fortunate. We didn’t lose a house, or car, or loved one to the floods. We weren’t hit by one of the twisters that passed through.

Before the power died, we’d been watching the storm on radar, somewhat compulsively, I admit. A strange storm, too, the houseguest who wouldn’t leave. Who just sat back on his haunches and grew bigger, instead of moving on.
It gave us three tornado warnings, targeting Winedale specifically, and an aerial bombardment for eight dark hours. I asked my husband if it felt like war to him. But of course, he’d been in an airplane then, with flak coming up at him. Not below where the bombs landed.

Some folks are prepared for tornadoes. Some folks have a basement to retreat to, as the warnings direct. Our house is one room deep. There are no interior rooms.
Once the power went out and we weren’t able to “see” the storm on our phone and computer, we were like our dog, Rosie, adrift inside the flashing darkness, amid roaring rain, with random nearby explosions of sound, and the smell of worry all around.

At one point in the evening, I caught her, by flashlight, looking at me with a mournful expression: Why? She seemed to ask. Why all this falling water and noise? Why won’t it stop?
I suspect it’s a question many of us shared. And we would like an answer better than: Oh, a cooler mass of air has pushed into warm, wet air from the Gulf.

That’s a description, not a reason.
Even the official explanation, isn’t sufficient. The phenomenon was called a “backbuilding mesoscale convective system”, and a similar one caused last year’s Memorial Day flood. It’s a seasonal occurrence in our area, according to the weather guys ( And this year we had two, back to back.

Funny how, in all our thirty years together in Winedale, and my husband’s much longer experience in the area, we don’t remember such oscillations of extreme weather. Nothing remotely so severe. And on the heels of such devastating drought.
The Texas State Climatologist tells us to expect more of this kind of thing, but he doesn’t say why.

A few minutes ago, I happened to check the news. The same thing is happening in France. Yes. The worst river flooding in more than a century. Slow moving low pressure systems, warm air colliding with cold upper air. Evacuations. Immortal works of art threatened. In Germany, several deaths.
So much for thinking local.

But once the larger view is indulged, questions multiply: What about those polar glaciers, calving at a vastly increased rate? Greenland’s shrinking ice caps? The unprecedented intensity of heat in India, and drought in Syria and neighboring countries? Why so many climate-driven disasters all at once—all over the world—and escalating?
The elephant in the room wears a GOP blanket saying, “I do not exist.”

But that is fear speaking. And fear makes it very hard to accept the harsh reality of what we find uncomfortable.
Especially when we can’t see a clear solution to the problem.

It’s so much simpler to concentrate on repairing washouts, rebuilding what has been swept away. Even when we know it will all happen again. Because, hey, maybe it won’t be us, next time. Maybe it’ll be somebody else.
And we hope for that, don’t we—that next time somebody else will bear the cost?

Which may be the most uncomfortable reality of all.
(This appeared as my June column in the Fayette County Record.)

Inside, Over, Upside Down


The week after antiquers leave always finds us recovering from disruption, Round Top style. Traffic is reasonable, again. The Mercantile is restocking. A certain peace prevails.

But the truth is we should be getting used to disruption, and not just during our biannual madness. Because our country is living through it, too.

Nationally, “disruption” has become policy, in both corporations and government.

Silicon Valley is proud of it. A new tech innovation is measured and valued by its level of potential “disruption,” meaning its capacity to upend our world, our lives. The word and concept are everywhere in business today.

Congress is proud of it, too. “Disrupt Obama” has been its motto since the moment our current president was elected.

Some of us have been cheering through it all or, maybe, wondering what the heck is going on?

And the answer is: a revolution.

Not the kind we had in 1776. Or the French had in 1787. Not the kind Russia had in 1917. Not yet.

It’s more like the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. Think of the frog in the pot who doesn’t feel the temperature rising until he’s cooked.

We snapped up the labor saving devices that began arriving a generation ago. Personal computers, cell phones, smart phones. World connectivity in the blink of a newt’s eye. We never thought what the logic that had made all that possible might do to harm us.

Not that it would have helped if we had. Change so devastating and transformative is impossible to stop. And somebody always pays for it.

Guess who?

Us. The American middle. The people who have long been called the nation’s backbone, the basis on which our prosperity and democratic success has been achieved.

Jobs are disappearing. Blame robots. Blame the companies who employed us for sending our jobs abroad to cut costs. Blame them, too, for the pensions that have evaporated, for the broken contract between employee and management that offered security and a wage or salary for quality work.

Blame the hedge funds who continually emphasize a corporation’s quarterly earnings over long term success. They say it’s to benefit the shareholders, and we picture people like us. But no, the shareholders they have in mind are themselves, their own large investors. We are afterthoughts.

Disruption is very hard on a nation, harder on its spirit than a declared war. We look for somebody easier to blame, somebody that doesn’t require an economics degree to suss out. But everywhere we look, we see the power of big money exerting what appears to be an outsize influence. Our Congress no longer pays attention to us. They seem locked in their own virtual reality, a cycle of reelection myopia.

Into this situation, stride Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, two halves of a whole. Like the mythological Centaur, half man, half horse. It’s no accident that both men shout when making a point. No accident that both men distill their message into easily digested bite-size morsels.

Think bait at the end of a fishing line. And we are the bass, striking.

The professional elites who observe national politics missed the appeal of Trump-Sanders. They missed it completely, because they don’t know anybody who has been damaged by the current economic reality. They’d have to go home to do that. To Iowa, Indiana, Mississippi, West Virginia and Oregon. They’d have to visit places where meth use is highest and hope has gone on life support.

It’s odd, in a way, that the media has been so slow to catch on. Few industries have been upended as abruptly and painfully as the newspaper business.

Human beings don’t flourish in the middle of constant upheaval and ceaseless stress. Maybe that’s why the systems of the world move toward stability if given half a chance. People want to feel secure and hopeful of a better tomorrow. No wonder strident Bernie, preaching more disruption, has failed to defeat Hillary Clinton.

But what can any politician do to alter the momentum of technology and the price it exacts from families and individuals?

During last month’s Antique Disruption along Highway 237, I found myself wondering whether I might be seeing a picture of our world’s future. While robots run factories with minimal human supervision, the rest of us might be scrambling to survive in the micro economy of proprietor operated businesses, itinerant sales and service.

The popularity of Frantique Month speaks to the appeal of objects that date from the machine and artisan age, of freshly made food in stalls or tent cafés, of people gathered in happy, chaotic socializing. It harks back to the village market days of our collective past.

Will a resurgence of small family farms be the next step?
(This appeared as my May column in the Fayette County Record.)

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Narcissism of Youth

For awhile in early April, the Twitterverse was steaming over a satirical poem in the New Yorker by long time contributor, Calvin Trillin, a man widely known for his opinions on barbecue.
The subject of the doggerel was the popularity of Chinese cooking by province among trendy foodies. But never mind that.
The uproar was over racism.
Mr. Trillin is eighty years old and white. His record as a writer is long and distinguished and carries with it no hint of racism.
But the Tweeters don’t know about the comet’s tail. All they see is the leading edge of today’s burn. And they see it through the lens of their own, quite sharp, prejudice.
Against old people.
Ah, the narcissism of youth. Could we have a society without it? Could we go to war in any corner of the planet at a moment’s notice without the supreme belief of youth in its own immortality? Could ISIS find an endless stream of suicide bombers without young people willing to die before they have lived?
Youth values its own preferences, inflates the accuracy of its own perceptions, magnifies its own power for change and the purity of its vision. All this even though the human brain doesn’t reach maturity until its possessor is 25.
Through the lens of narcissistic youth, an old white man is by definition racist. Just as he is by definition entitled. (Except for Bernie Sanders, who gets a pass on both, for some reason.)
Racist is an easy epithet, with an infinite capacity for expansion as the actions it can be applied to multiply. Institutional racism is hard to see by those it doesn’t affect. Small wonder those who are affected feel the need to point it out. And they should. No argument, there.
Even Mr. Trillin’s defenders say that someone his age just can’t “get” the complexities of today’s vastly different world.
But don’t the young always think their world is unique? Didn’t you and I think that? Don’t we reinvent the world with each generation?
It’s true that gender is parsed now into variations my cohort could scarcely imagine at twenty, much less name. It’s true that technology creates what feel like miracles while suggesting possible nightmares to come.
It’s true that human beings grow up carrying the scars of mistreatment so subtle and pervasive that the people dishing it out often don’t realize what they’re doing. And older people are among the worst at failing to realize this. After all, we remember separate water fountains and Selma, Alabama in the present tense. Racism, for us, was segregation--and lynchings.
We have husbands who were shot at in wars they were drafted to fight. Children like us sheltered under our 3rd grade desks, practicing for the day nuclear war began. Sexism was the shape of reality.
No human being, anywhere, faces a life or world without challenges. Removing institutionalized injustice is a worthy goal, a lifework. But it’s no excuse for casual ageism in the process.
Older people can be partners in change. After all, they can see the issues unfurling, mutating over time. They have perspective and, often, considerable sympathy, although they may not say the right words to convey it. Sensitivity to today’s terminology is hard to come by once you leave academia.
Our president addressed the problem recently, when he counselled a campus group against oversensitivity to verbal slights.
Finding anti-Asian racism in doggerel that pokes fun at New York foodies smacks of the very oversensitivity Obama talked about. Among other things, it siphons off the energy needed to confront real wrongs. And there are more than enough of them.
As for ageism, most of us AARP-eligible folks just want to be seen as the people we are, not a stereotype. We want our work judged on its own merits, without reference to age.
It’s hard for a writer like Trillin, or, indeed, any writer to find humor in the midst of today’s fractionalized consumer culture and polarized political atmosphere. But one thing we older people know about life is that you’ve gotta, at least, try.
(You can read the poem for yourself at

(This column ran in the Fayette County Record on April 29, 2016.)

Saturday, April 9, 2016

A Good Fit

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about the stunning physical changes underway in the town of Round Top (Texas Monthly, the Fayette County Record, PaperCity). We’ve been seeing them first hand whenever we drive down Highway 237.

They’re hard to miss.  Hammers, saws, trucks hauling in rock, hauling in—hey—another building for what is now known as Rummel Square. (You know, where Scotty and Friends used to be.)

It’s the buildings that move, and move, and move again. Almost the only feature from last year to remain in place is the historic and specimen live oak—although for how long, who knows? (Construction is not friendly to live oaks.)

That block reminds me of packing glassware in a crate. You wrap each piece carefully, with lots of padding and fit as many pieces inside the package as you can. Except on Rummel Square, there’s no padding.

When do you have so many buildings on a block that the location loses appeal for its target audience? That’s the aggressive developer’s thorny dilemma.

Context is the architect’s word for it.

Take Henkel Square Market, for example. Begun with care, it has recently shown signs of contracting the Rummel Square virus. I’m talking about the Teague Building, rising to new heights opposite our iconic Courthouse. Dwarfing it. Sort of like Shaquille O’Neal has joined the Round Top-Carmine basketball team.

How on earth did that pass any kind of meaningful architectural review?

The architect on this project genuflects in the direction of context by picking up an element of an existing building’s profile, and repeating it, much inflated, on the new building. So Henkel Hall mimics the profile of the old barn beside it; and Teague hints at the façade of the old Apothecary Building.

But a thin slice of pumped up profile isn’t sufficient, folks. Round Top isn’t a western movie set on a backlot in California, where facades have nothing behind them. The rest of the building counts, too—the shape, the massing of elements, the way the building looks from all sides. Its size, or scale, in relation to others around it.

Ignore scale and you get buildings that hulk over their neighbors, killing the trees that made the neighborhood appealing, overloading sewers, consuming ever larger amounts of precious energy.

I’m guessing the Teague’s designers knew they had a problem. Because the building has sprouted another building like an extra nose on the side facing Bybee Square. It’s a smaller structure whose dimensions relate better to those of its immediate neighbor, the von Rosenberg house, occupied now by the Copper Shade Tree. Or would if it were separate, on a different lot, or even if its connection showed evidence of architectural intent.

Probably it serves a functional purpose for the building’s first users, but the awkwardness of its design will outlive that purpose, possibly by many years, even generations.

Change is inevitable, though, isn’t it? Round Top has a history of reinventing itself. Today’s commercial hub is just the newest incarnation.

And change doesn’t have to ruin a town if it’s handled right. With vision.

But it can’t be the vision of the most recent enthusiast, the newest arrival. The new arrival tends to see what’s there—the place and people—as aspects of himself. Either they’ll be helpful to his project, or they’ll create obstacles.

It is the most narrow, short-sighted of visions.

That’s why you need a community vision. You need a longer view. A view that looks beyond an individual project, or group of projects. 

You need questions: How much change can the town absorb before people stop wanting to visit? How much tourism can it handle without killing the appeal? How much traffic?
Do you intend to enforce height restrictions? Limit garish signs? Limit clutter, visual and auditory? 

Just having a rule isn’t enough.

Do you want a town that residents can live in? Or will it be a shopping mall?

These are questions that may very well have been asked and answered. But if they haven’t been, the time to do it is now. In public, and out loud.

(Published on March 25, 2016 in the Fayetteville County Record)

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Who Am I?

The other day, in this season of political glut, I came upon the Facebook comment: I don’t like her because of WHO SHE IS. (Their caps.)
I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but it got me to thinking. Who is she? How do we answer that question? Not only for presidential candidates, but for ourselves. Who are you? Who am I?

What comes first in our answer? Marital status, religion, accomplishments? How many children and grandchildren we have? Are we measured by our resumes—the education, jobs, club, church or community offices we’ve held? And does any of that get to the essence of who we are?
Maybe it’s easier to narrow down responses that satisfy us, if the subject is a man. We’ve had more experience, historically, with men in elective positions. But even there, it isn’t easy.

We have opinions about people all the time in our private lives. Much of the information we use to arrive at those opinions comes from what others say. People we know and trust. People who actually know the person being discussed.
What people say of men and women in politics, however, rarely comes from personal knowledge. Our impression of a candidate is so often a crafted image, created for effect by supporters or opponents. Or both of them at once. One reason we watch televised debates is we’re yearning for a glimmer of reality to shine through the fog of words. And, maybe while it’s at it, penetrate the veil of our expectations.

Because we have expectations of politicians, individually and in general. For a president, we hope to see competence, eloquence, a steady hand and solid judgment. We hope for the hard-to-define quality of leadership.
We have an image of what a president should be, whether it’s FDR, Ronald Reagan, or Jimmy Carter. When an outside factor alters that image, it complicates matters. With JFK, it was his Catholic faith. With Obama, it was his racial heritage. With Hillary Clinton, it is her gender. Each designation carried, or carries, with it a fresh set of expectations, somewhat like the filter on a camera lens. It’s hard to know whether that filter is helping us see more clearly or just fogging up the screen.

What do we expect from a woman in politics, in public life? Can she be seen for herself, for the qualities and experience she brings to the job she seeks?
When someone is brand new on the national scene, we can make quick judgments, right or wrong. Sarah Palin was new. Bernie Sanders is new. Ted Cruz is almost new.

But when a candidate has been in the public eye for more than a generation, like Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, we carry with us a grab bag of impressions, most of them formed when the person was playing a role vastly different from the job of a president.
We don’t know what the Donald’s first two marriages were like. Unless we live in New York, we really don’t know how many buildings he has built, or how he has treated any of the people he has dealt with.

But we know Hillary’s husband, or think we do. He has been watched, and pulled, and twisted inside out for us while the camera focused on her face, while pundits criticized her reactions. And so many of the nasty spitballs thrown at him have missed and landed on her. Where at least an impression of them sticks. Every negative thing. No matter how untrue, if it is repeated often enough, it will stick.
Worse, given time, its details, along with the way it was thrown and by whom, will be forgotten, leaving only a vague sense, a whiff: wasn’t there something? Didn’t we hear something? This technique has come to dominate politics in the last twenty years, replacing real and honest dialogue for many politicians. Professional handlers know that it works.

Our job, dear readers--fellow voters—is to scrape off enough of it to see the reality that will let us do our civic duty.
(This post first appeared in the Fayette County Record, February 26, 2016.)

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Why Doesn’t It Taste Good?                   
I’ve been thinking a lot about pie, lately. Not so unusual after the holidays when we seem to be wearing every extra piece we ate. But pie isn’t only for celebrations. It’s an everyday event in our community. Dining reputations are made on it. Supermarkets sell it by the stack. Some of us buy frozen pie crust and make our own pies. And a few people--I know they’re still around--make theirs from scratch. That is, make the pie crust themselves, too. How radical is that?

I  think pie crust is an excellent example of what has happened to American food.

What does it take to make a crust? Flour, water, salt and fat. Simple. But not easy, hence the appeal of “shortening.” Shortening comes in a tin and is the color of nursery school paste. It makes a sturdy crust that can be crimped attractively and mass produced, if desired. But it has no taste. Add to it the current habit of omitting salt from the crust and you have what I think of as throw-back pie. Back to the middle ages, when crust was a “coffin” intended to keep its contents together long enough to serve. Gentry got the filling (usually meat and gravy) and the servants ate the coffin crust. But I’ll bet that tasted better than most crusts today because the fat, over there in England, was likely to be lard.

The best pie crust I ever ate was, actually, in England. Fresh gooseberries baked without sweetening in a light and flavorful crust. You passed the sugar in a caster, for dusting across the top—before you dolloped on the heavy cream. The crust brought all those flavors together and elevated them because it was made with lard. And the right amount of salt.

Have you had a pie, lately, where the crust enhanced the flavor of the pie? I haven’t.

Butter makes a delicious crust, too, although not as sturdy as shortening, of course, so you don’t often see it in a store. A butter crust, however, will surprise anyone who is accustomed to shortening only, or to shortening and the list of preservatives that you find in the supermarket.

Convenience is a large part of the reason for diminished flavor. And it’s not just pie crust, is it?

Have you noticed in the supermarket how much of the produce is wrapped in plastic? Over the holidays, I even bought some haricot verts, the skinny green beans that when fresh (and properly cooked, not raw) will burst with green bean flavor. These came from Guatemala. They looked beautiful inside their plastic wrapping, all grouped in the same direction, ready for the pot. And they were terrible. They had maintained their fresh appearance, that appealing green, but lost every trace of flavor.

Why buy something shipped “fresh” from abroad, you will ask. And you’re right. Quality inevitably deteriorates. A better question, though, may be: why stock it? At Thanksgiving several years ago the same supermarket had bins of young green beans that were outstanding. Unprocessed. Truly fresh and they tasted that way. I’d been hoping to find those this year, but maybe bad weather ruined the crop.

The question of flavor in food brings me to the annual New Year’s diet. Why do I overeat when the food is nothing special?

Can it be that I’m remembering how the dish is supposed to taste? And I keep eating in the hope of finding that satisfaction in the next bite?

Or, more generally, can it be that deeply satisfying food has become more difficult to find? What I’m talking about is a meal when what we eat feels good throughout our being. When it satisfies a hunger of the body for real nutrition combined with flavor. (A little like that “deep down body thirst” we hear about in commercials.)

Instead, we seem to be training our palates, if not our bodies, to desire processed fakery like chips embedded with flavor enhancers.

Here’s a choice we’re asked to make all too often: On one hand, a packaged snack that explodes with carefully tested lab-created flavors developed to make us want more; on the other, a plate of tasteless vegetables from far away whose colors have been preserved to withstand shipping.

I know which one I’d choose, doggone it.