Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Romance of Losing

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

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

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

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

He thought my convictions about equality were youthful idealism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White people. People exactly like you and me.

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


Monday, September 18, 2017

Travel Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 7, 2017

Wabi-Sabi on the Square

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 2, 2017

What's the Point of Art?

What’s the point of art, anyway? Maybe that seems a funny question when the arts play such a large role in our local economy. Huge, when you include the decorative arts. Antiques, and such, you know.

But, separate from the dollar benefit, the idea of art itself remains prickly for many non-artists. Maybe it smacks of self-indulgence. Or of elites in snooty museums drinking wine and nibbling canapes.

We do like art for our children. As the public schools minimize or eliminate funding for arts education, local groups step up to provide equipment, instruction, encouragement. Every year, organizations like the Round Top-Carmine Educational Foundation, ARTS (Art for Rural Texas), Texas Women for the Arts, Unity Theater in Brenham, the Round Top Library and others, renew these commitments.

Why do they think it’s important? What does art bring to a child’s life? In my opinion, much the same thing it brings to ours.

There are a lot of timeworn descriptions: self-expression; teamwork; the honing of senses, as the mind opens to the world it inhabits; eye-hand coordination, development of verbal ability, fun. All valuable to human beings of any age.

For adults, though, art opens the door to fuller communication. The kind that can move heart to heart, gut to gut. Most artists I know long for that.

But communication implies a recipient. An audience. And that’s where the marketplace comes in. Will they buy a ticket to our concert or play? Buy my watercolor or sculpture or necklace? Buy my story, my book?

Sometimes they will.

And if they don’t, why should we care? Sure, we value being known as an arts rich community. That reputation brings visitors here, to shop in our stores and eat in our restaurants. We thrill to the performances, the music and plays, concerts and exhibits that enliven our weekends.

And yet superlative local organizations such as Festival Hill at Round Top, Fayetteville Chamber Music, ARTS and others have to scramble constantly for donations and grants.

Many of us shrug that off. Somehow, we’ve got the notion that the marketplace makes good decisions about what deserves support, and what doesn’t. That popularity alone is the yardstick.

But how do you measure the value of art to a community’s soul? How do you experience the richness of human life if all you can see, hear, smell and touch is what “most people” want to pay for? Most people love potato chips powdered in flavor enhancers. How about if those were all you had to eat?

That’s why non-profit groups, private foundations, individual donors give time and money to keep alive what the marketplace overlooks.

Donor fatigue, volunteer fatigue, are real factors, however, in a community as small as ours. That’s why many of the groups feel such gratitude for the grants they receive from the Texas Commission on the Arts, itself under pressure from shrinking state budgets. The TCA, in turn, receives 10% of its annual funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, presently on the budgetary chopping block.

As those factors indicate, some people don’t think the arts deserve taxpayer support. Yet we’re benefitting so greatly from the activity of the arts, here in Fayette County. Benefitting personally, economically, emotionally.

Did you sell snacks to a student from Festival Hill last summer. Did you attend the annual Fourth of July concert in its superb concert hall?

Do you enjoy the programs and exhibits sponsored by ARTS for Rural Texas, out of Fayetteville? The variety of children’s programming is remarkable for any rural area.

Are you proud that your child can play a musical instrument, participating in a rich local tradition?

Is your B&B booked by people who’ve come here to hear music, see or buy art and antiques?

How about the houses you sell to new buyers, or build for them, because people are attracted to the art and culture we offer in addition to lovely scenery and fine neighbors.

By my calculation the Texas Commission on the Arts will lose $964,100 if NEA funding stops. Our local organizations (counting Round Top, LaGrange, Fayetteville and nearby Brenham) have received a total of $53,244 from the TCA so far in fiscal 2017. Not much, yet crucial to their survival. Will they lose all of it?

To replace that funding, it will take 1,064 new donors at $50 a pop every year. Spread between several organizations and committed in advance so budgets can be set up, teachers contracted with.
Can we count on you?

Thursday, March 2, 2017

You Know This Guy

You know him from TV or film, if not from high school. He was skinny or too fat. He wore his pants too high, and his shirt buttoned almost to his chin. He wrote for the school paper, joined the electronics club.

He didn’t run for class office, or try out for debate.

His impressionable years were highly politicized. Shocking assassinations in the recent past. Marches, clashes with police. The Vietnam war dragged on.

He noticed, however, that beneath all the chaos, all the noise, lay a framework of laws and rules most people accepted. Even the protesters used it to give their arguments ground to push against. Or ideals to invoke.

So he majored in political science. Studied what others found boring. The mechanics of democracy. Party structure, party rules. How people got elected and rose to power.

Computers made everything visible, voting patterns, party affiliations. Easy to correlate with a host of demographic details, age, sex, employment figures in the relevant districts, etc. The tools of marketing transferred well to the job of electing candidates. Easy to isolate your target audience, and then provide the ideas they would respond to.

That way, you’d control the candidate, too—supplying his words, telling him where to say them. You’d have real power without needing to be popular.

Power to change the rules, themselves. Change district boundaries so the opposition loses representatives. So their supporters’ votes no longer count.

Power to restrict voting hours and locations. Limit the numbers of machines in opposition precincts. Require picture ID’s that work a hardship on the elderly, poor people, some minorities and on married women who change their names.

The data showed that fewer voters helped his party win.

Intimidation had its place, too. The threat that voting somehow would make your political views public, thus harming your business, affecting your job. Despite recent changes to the primary election rules, we still don’t declare party preference to register in Texas. But we do declare it, in public, to get a primary ballot. That small distinction can be enough to induce hesitation. Shrink turnout.

After that, what’s left?  One more set of rules, the logical next step for the policy wonks and political operatives: Change the U.S. Constitution itself. The ultimate Framework. The ground we stand on.

Thirty-four states need to request an Article V convention. And Governor Abbott has made approving the request an emergency priority this year. (See his State of the State address.)

Wait a minute.

Did you or I vote for that? Did we ever tell Abbott we wanted that? Where’d he get the idea?

From the Texas GOP platform, that’s where, playground of far right true believers and activists. (Have you even read it?) This arcane arena of party rules and pronouncements is where our Nerd is most at home.

When someone can’t win an honest battle of ideas—when he’s given up on appeals to informed reason—all that’s left are these structural tricks. Deflating the football, juicing the bat, dog or horse. Gaming the system. Because our political Nerd of the high pants, drunk on the game of power, will try to win by any means.  

We tell our kids not to cheat, but all around them are the spoils of cheating adults.

For every political operative who emerges from the back room—as Stephen Miller and Karl Rove have—there are a thousand others whose names we will never know.

But our children will eat the tainted fruit of their labor.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Created Equal

I've seen memes and comments on Facebook the past few days saying that “The Women’s March doesn’t speak for me.”

To be sure about that, though, you need to know what the March was saying. I think it was very simple. The marchers were asking for respect, equality, safety and freedom.

They were doing it peacefully, too. (Those references you hear from Conservatists about violence refer to the previous day, Inauguration Day, demonstrations that were unconnected to the Women's March.)

“I have equality,” said one of my Facebook correspondents. “Why can’t we (women) just be happy to be what we are and stop trying to be something we aren’t?” she said.

Men, she meant. An old stereotype, and false.

Feminism has been draped with a lot of confusing descriptions. Underlying all of them, however, is the desire for treatment that confirms equality. Respect for a woman’s self, mind and body. In law and society.

Equality is an absolute. You can’t be partially equal.

So keep it simple. Whatever one’s social position in American culture, if you’re female, you’re less. Paid less, respected less. Objectified more.

And the usual source of disrespect, the focus of demeaning, unwanted attention, is a woman’s reproductive equipment.

A male candidate for president brags on tape about groping women’s genitalia. The very part of a person we warn our children that strangers must not touch.

When someone grabs you in that way without invitation, it’s a crime.

“Men talk like that.” Some women said.

But even when it is “only talk,” it assumes dominance. He assumes he has a right to humiliate you, to hulk over you, and know that there is nothing you can do about it physically. The only thing preventing rape, broken bones or death is the man’s good will and self-control. (And, if we are lucky, an effective judicial system.)

Many women reacted viscerally to the taped conversation and to the body language candidate Trump expressed in the second debate. Remember how he loomed over Secretary Clinton, invaded her space with his size and weight? A tactic, no doubt.

But it reminded many women of personal experience. It reminded them of unwanted fondling in the workplace or from strangers. Of catcalls on the sidewalk. Of verbal abuse, punches, and yes, rapes.

The frequency of personal invasion is shocking. At work, in school, in social situations, even at home, among the women I call my friends, not one has escaped it.

If you want to know why there are so many people upset and disturbed about our new president, this is one reason.

The issue is power, of course. The human drive to power over others. 

Power is the basic American currency. A show of power, real or pretended, is required. Football enables viewers to bask in the glow of hyper-masculine strength, just by watching. Open carry laws bring that feeling into the supermarket and café.

Human beings need to feel powerful to varying degrees. It’s a part of competence, maturity, mental health. Where it goes wrong is when it becomes a matter of controlling other autonomous individuals.

The need to control others can be ugly. Can lead us to dark actions.

That may be why most of us don’t want to examine it too closely. Introspection is not popular in a Republican White House. Both Bushes, as well as Trump have admitted to steering well clear of the process. They can’t take the risk of discovering the measure of their own weakness.

But without introspection, many important things can escape notice. And Power has a way of dismissing what it fails to notice.

The Women’s March made dismissal more difficult. It brought the attention of the world to bear on how our new government intends to exercise its power. It puts millions of faces on the people our government’s actions will affect, for good or ill.

That’s why the women marched, all races, colors, creeds, national heritage; all varieties of gender and orientation and age. Peacefully, worldwide. They were saying women’s equality, human equality, matters. Don’t forget that. Don’t overlook or dismiss it. Don’t destroy it.

And the men who understand the stakes marched with us. Even my 95-year-old husband who couldn’t walk far. He was there, with me, supporting equality.

Why? I asked. Because I think of myself as a fair-minded person, he said.

It’s as simple as that.

(A version of this appeared in the Feb. 2, 2017 Fayette County Record.)

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Who Are These Elites?

We hear the term a lot lately. “The elites.”

In sports, elite is a compliment. In travel, it’s a perk. In politics, it’s poison.

Particularly in the recent election. The electoral college, which is tilted away from the dominance of city-dwellers, shows a substantial vote “against the elites.” Although the beneficiary is himself a billionaire.

Apparently, money alone isn’t enough to make you “elite.”

What is?

There has always been an elite in this country. Boston Brahmins, New York’s “Old 400” families. The Roosevelts, Teddy, FDR and Eleanor. The east coast intelligentsia. Wall Street bankers.

The elite gets blurred with issues of class—the upper class of birth and the upper middle class of meritocracy. The latter includes smart people who write successful books, publish the news, who set and administer policy, who run corporations and things, in general.

This election added a new meaning to the term.

No longer is elite status an aspiration to work toward and celebrate in a child’s achievement. Now it expresses the parents’ alienation.

We think “the elites” look down on us.

If they do, the reason is education.

For generations, Americans have believed in education as the path to upward mobility. Public education. Higher education. Community education. Something more than job training. Gradually, that has slipped away.

Why does it matter? Because a rounded education gives us a lot more than job skills.

Such as, a fuller understanding of where we come from, how we fit into the story of our village, town, state and nation. How those stories fit into the story of the world.

No story is more fragile.

My ancestors came from Scotland, France and Germany. The American story that brought them together is an invention of the human mind.

We like to think it descended in pure form from our Founding Fathers, “the elite” of their time, as we imagine it. But in truth the story of America is altered continually, by every generation.

By every individual family that pulls away from community, by every schoolroom (public, private or home) that gives in to the seduction of propaganda when choosing texts to study.

It’s altered by every vote we cast.

The narrow definition of “the elites” as people who “don’t get it,” who “look down on us,” is a product of perception distorted by hidden purpose. Very gradually it has risen to supplant the dream of our parents and grandparents for better lives defined by something more than the size of a television set or waist.

We don’t even know it is happening because we don’t have the education to decode it.

The father of modern advertising, a German named Goebbels, taught us that power can be gained by inventing an alternative “truth,” then repeating and repeating it. Imagine if he’d had the tools of social media and the internet to do that with.

We vote from our gut, not our minds. We vote by feelings created by the information we take in. From media, community, church and friends. From personal experience.

And all of it can be manipulated by one elite we didn’t notice.

The cynical elite who hovered behind the scenes in this past election, but whom we are coming to know all too well.

The popularizers of the alt-right, neo-Nazi fringe: Steve Bannon and Breitbart News.

And the billionaire outliers slated for Trump’s cabinet. Former Goldman Sachs traders, hedge fund managers, contrarian ideologues and more generals than most military juntas boast.

We spoiled children have set fire to our homeland without even a cave to run to.