Thursday, January 29, 2009


The inauguration of Barack Obama last week, which brought changes in our government, coincided with a major change in my life. I started dialysis.

At the dialysis center I lay in a leather recliner with a private television screen ten inches in front of my face. The attendant stuck two needles into my left arm. Attached tubes draped across my stomach, one pulling out blood and carrying it up to a machine to the right of my chair, to be filtered and pushed back into my arm through the other tube. Blood moving throughout my body provoked an odd, tingling sensation. It took four hours.

From now on I will be driving myself to the dialysis center at noon every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. At the first session I tried reading Newsweek but found it difficult to hold the magazine and turn the pages with my right hand while my left lay immobile, many strips of tape holding needles and arm in place, as my blood rushed in and out. For the rest of my life it looks like I’ll spend a lot of time with Judge Mathis and Dr. Phil.

Eighteen hours a week sitting in that big leather chair. The first session was miserable. I was cold; next time I’ll bring a big, thick blanket to wrap up. My body let me know it did not like having the blood moved through every artery, every tiny capillary, every vein. My leg muscles cramped like labor pains. The nurses assured me that things will get better as my body becomes accustomed to the treatment.

In the past I came through life-altering experiences, and the changes brought better things. The summer after I graduated from high school, surgery on my enlarged colon changed me from a miserable teenager into a happy college student. The wedding when I was 23 took me from being a genteel but provincial Texan and thrust me into the midst of uneducated Scandinavians in a vibrant, cosmopolitan Chicago. The divorce, after which the man I loved for 30 years abandoned me and tried to make me starve, lead to the second marriage where I found true love and total happiness. Then breast cancer. I lived and John died.

Life goes on. Even without John, life has been good. Big adventures on wonderful trips. Little adventures with wonderful friends, sharing meals, museums, classes, book discussions, and private talks. Life has been good.

Now dialysis. No more trips. This morning my abdomen cramped so painfully that I could not stand. At noon suddenly all the pain vanished. I feel fine. That’s life: Things happen. Things are bad. I can get through it, and everything will be all right. I am looking forward to a big party in March to celebrate my 80th birthday.

We must not fear changes n our country. I am appalled by people who refuse to support our new President. A friend sends me copies of diatribes circulating the web which attack Obama in a nasty, misleading way. These people are unwilling to face changes that must be made. They continue to live in the 20th Century. Barack Obama is dealing with two tragic wars, broken health care system, shattered economy, and a mountain of other problems. The United States is on a rocky road, but we are going to change. We must. Yes, we can.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Versailles Delusion

Barack and Michelle moved into the White House, and next week George and Laura Bush will move into their 8500 square feet house in North Dallas. That’s about seven miles away and 7200 feet bigger than my house in Garland. This place has more than enough space for me.

In my travels I saw many big houses. One of the castles in Denmark was built by Christian IV after visiting his sister, queen to England’s King James I, at Hampton Court. He went home and ordered a palace on the same scale.

The grandest of all “houses” is Versailles. France’s Louis XIV spent his country’s wealth on that one; then all the monarchs in Europe, from Catherine the Great of Russia to Bavaria’s petty king, tried to equal Versailles’ grandeur.

At Versailles, after gawking at the Hall of Mirrors and other wonders, I bought an extra ticket to see the private apartments. Each night the courtiers put the king to bed in the huge bed in the state bedroom. It was an honor to hand the king his nightshirt or hold the pot for him to pee in. After they left, he sneaked up a secret staircase to the private apartments where his current mistress waited for him in a cozy little room.

As I saw other palaces – in Sweden, in Bavaria, even in a corner of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg – I learned that the monarchs did not really live in those great halls of state. Each had a private place to get away from the crowds. People, even kings, are only comfortable in intimate rooms. I’ve heard that at Buckingham Palace, with its 100-plus rooms, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip really live in seven rooms on the second floor – just like our first family in the White House.

England is stuffed with “great houses” like “raisins in a pudding.” These “homes” of the aristocracy are so expensive to maintain up that they are now open to the public – for handsome fees. A guide told me that in the “old days” when they were private residences, those enormous drawing rooms and long dining rooms were only used once a year, when the duke or earl entertained royalty.

I’ve been amazed to see “megamansions” going up all over the country from Dallas, Texas, to Naperville, Illinois, even to Albuquerque, New Mexico. I wondered how anyone could feel comfortable surrounded by all that useless space. Now George and Laura will move into their 8,500 square feet. Maybe the Secret Service will keep them company. How will George feel to get up in the morning and pad through all those rooms in his bathrobe, only to find two or three Secret Service men drinking coffee at the kitchen table?

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Castles in the Air

Next May my brother Don and his wife Mary are flying to London to attend her nephew's wedding. Don wants to take an extra week and go to Wales to see the famous castles, mostly in ruins, in that area. They came to my house to pick up three books I pulled off the shelf which give detailed descriptions of castles in Britain.

I spread the books out on the coffee table. While Don and I leafed through the pages, marveling at pictures of the huge ruins and locating castles on maps, Mary read the Dallas Morning News, as she sat on one of the little chairs I inherited from Mother. Mary does not want to drive around mountains looking at ruins; she will go just to please her husband.

Mary knows nothing about Wales. Is it part of England? Or, if part of Great Britain but a separate country like Scotland, why does it not have a parliament? Why did someone build all those castles during the Middle Ages? Mary has no idea of the turbulent history between the English and the Welch. She did not even know that the term "Welch" referred to the people of Wales.

I wish I could go in her place. I love history. Looking back on my life, I am grateful for many things. I read and acquired books on history, art, and architecture; then I journeyed to see the places I read about. Many things surprised me everywhere I went.

The only castle I saw in Wales was Cardiff, which I remember as mostly a Victorian reconstruction, a neo-Gothic fantasy embellished by the Marquis of Butte, a Welch version of Nieuw Schwanstein (spelling?), the often-photographed castle built by Mad Ludwig of Bavaria on a mountain in Bavaria. Today, reading one of my books before Don came, I found out that the walls of Cardiff Castle, now topped with 19th Century sculptured animals, were built in 1080 on the ruins of a ROMAN fort. It had a long and amazing history before I showed up.

The great age of castle building was the 12th Century. In Germany it seems as if every hill is crowned by a ruined castle; no village felt safe unless fortified against its neighbors. Then came the discovery of gun powder and cannons that could knock holes in thirty-feet thick castle walls. Thousands of castles fell into ruins for tourists like Don and me to climb up their crumbling stairways to the crenelated battlements.

Understanding today's events requires us to look back at what happened in the past. The ruins of numerous castles throughout Britain and Europe are reminders that we have made progress in cooperation between peoples. Some Welch still clamor for separation from England, but they are not going to fight for it.

It takes a long time to learn the lessons of history. Up through the 19th Century we were still building castles in this country. When my children were small, they played in the case mates of old Fort Wayne, built on traditional castle designs to protect Detroit from an invasion from Canada. On an Elderhostel I saw the fort in Savannah harbor, complete with moat, draw bridge, and portcullis; during the Civil War the garrison surrendered without firing a single cannon ball.

I remember wars hot and cold. I knew young Americans who died fighting Germans in World War II; then I went to Paris and sat in sidewalk cafes with German tourists drinking coffee at the next table. I remember fear during the Cold War. That dissolved without any armed conflict, and I made two trips to Russia.

Today no one builds castles. The stoutest of stone walls are no defense against missiles or hijacked airplanes. Even the Irish gave up on planting bombs in London. Sadly, Hamas fires missiles into Israel, and Israeli planes drop bombs on Gaza. Our only hope is that Muslim fanatics will realize that in today's world we are all neighbors. Somehow we must learn to live near each other without setting up walls, neither of stone nor in our minds.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Looking Forward, Looking Back

This morning on "Face the Nation," Bob Scheiffer looked back at the beginning of 2008. Who could have predicted then that John McCain would be the Republican nominee for President or that Barack Obama would defeat him? Who foresaw the worldwide economic collapse? Bob said, "I did not see it coming."

And he is an expert reporter!

One thing is sure: The economy is a mess, and when Obama becomes President in a couple of weeks, he won't be able to solve all our problems in months, maybe not even in years.

Why am I so pessimistic? I, too, can look back.

I am a child of the Depression. My grandmother's house was near a railroad crossing where freight trains, puffing steam and whistles blowing, slowed down as they approached the station in downtown Fort Worth. "Bums" jumped off at our street, and shaggy men, dirty and unshaved, with ragged shirts and torn shoes, showed up at my grandmother's back door. She made sandwiches for them. They sat on the step outside the screen door as they ate. They always said, "Thank you, m'am."

Those were tough times. Hopefully, we now have "big government" -- which the Republicans despise -- but which will prevent such desperate times coming again.

In college I took Economics 101. That did not make me an expert. But I have done some reading. Also, I had experiences. Lots of experiences. With the stock market. With jobs.

Many years ago I did temporary work in Chicago. I was an excellent typist. I typed correspondence and reports in corporate offices of major businesses: banks, insurance companies, and others. Those executives thought I was part of the machine, without a brain. My observation: The heads of most firms were so isolated and insulated from the real business of their companies that I wondered why the economy did not collapse then. Maybe the execs at Ford, Chrysler, and G.M. would have understood the problems of the auto industry if they had spent more time driving cars -- including their competition from Toyota and Hyundai -- rather than flying around in their corporate jets.

No prophet me: It took twenty-five years for the economy to come crashing down.

Maybe Obama's team will find quick solutions. Let's hope so.