Friday, January 29, 2010

Rainy Day

Cold rain outside the dining room windows. At breakfast Ben put down his tea mug and said, “A good day for sleeping. I’m going upstairs and take a nap.”

I held my finger on button to hold the door open for Rosie, gray and stooped shouldered, to push her walker into the elevator. As the heavy metal door slid shut, closing out the rain, she said, “I’m glad I don’t have to stand on the corner waiting for a bus in this rain. I hated going to work on cold, rainy days like this.”

I said, “What I like about not working is not having to put on pantyhose every morning.”

The elevator stopped at the third floor. The door opened. Rosie pushed out with her walker, and I followed. She turned left, and I turned right.

As I put my key into the lock at my own apartment, I thought, for the 10,000th time, “There are advantages being retired and even for growing old.”

I hear young people say, “I never want to retire. I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t go to work.” Poor souls! They must be defective in imagination. After I quit making money, I was so busy I wondered how I ever had time to work! What good times I’ve had! Even now, when I spend half my days in dialysis and can not travel any further than Fort Worth, I am never bored, never lack things to do.

I don’t know about Rosie’s former life. She is old and handicapped and takes small, painful steps with the use of a walker. Yet she finds life better than standing in the rain waiting for a city bus to take her to some dull job.

Ben, on the other hand, had a fascinating career as an engineer which took him all over the World. He worked in Iraq. We’ve talked about the Netherlands and Germany and trips to the Far East. A massive stroke left him paralyzed on the right side. He had to learn to walk and talk again. He still walks with a cane. His speech is slow and deliberate, but his remarks are witty and pertinent. He also learned not to bother with petty stuff. Not for him to go to a boring exercise class when he could enjoy the pleasure of a morning nap.

Like a good girl, I went to exercise with the other old ladies. Then I came back to the apartment, thinking I would sit in my recliner and read for ten minutes then get to work on my income tax.

My cat Charlie climbed on my lap. I put down my book and said, “Charlie, I need to go to work.” I gave him a little push, but the heavy cat was like a load of laundry on my stomach. Charlie curled up and started to purr.

“Oh, well, why not relax for a few minutes?”

I woke up an hour later. A perfect way to spend a rainy day.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mozart's Birthday

Today is Mozart’s birthday.

Do you remember the movie “Amadeus”? It centers on the composer Salieri’s envy of Mozart’s genius. Once in a while WRR, my wake-up radio station, plays some of Salieri’s music as its “road rage remedy”: quiet music to calm harried drivers on Dallas’ wild highways. Salieri was a small russet potato next to Mozart’s Idaho – and he knew it.

Seems to me most of us are not even russets. I am just a little chip, and maybe a broken one. I could not compose even a jingle.

In junior high I played a cello in the school orchestra. I was not a good cellist. I gave up before I got to high school. From then on my musical experience has been as a listener.

I enjoy Tchaikovsky for his beautiful melodies. I also appreciate the technical skill of the musicians who play in the Garland Symphony. But I also realize I don’t know enough to understand what makes professional musicians thrill to Beethoven. A college course in “Music Appreciation” helped some, but when it comes to the structure and mathematics of classical music, I am ignorant.

Teachers make a big mistake when they tell children, “You can be anything you want to be.” I love the mellow sound of a cello, but no matter how hard I tried, my fingers never seemed to find the right place on the strings. The screeches my bow made hurt my ears, and those of everyone around me. I just did not have the talent.

So I learned to type instead. I became an excellent typist.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Muslim Stamps

Hey! There really is a new stamp celebrating Muslim holidays. I received a forwarded e.mail denouncing the post office for issuing this stamp and urging Americans to boycott it on the grounds that Muslims attacked the U.S. on 9/ll and on the U.S. Cole and are now fighting us in Afghanistan.

As soon as I read this e.mail, I got in my car and drove to the post office to buy some of these stamps. The clerk said he did not have any yet; the stamp was not to be issued until today.

So I have to make another trip to the post office. I will put Muslim stamps on my valentines. The proposed boycott is another example of American stupidity, prejudice, and bigotry.

Yes, some Muslims attacked us. But the vast majority of Muslims abhor the terrorists, especially those who kill innocent women and children. That is against the teaching of Mohammed. Any one who says all Muslims are anti-American terrorists does not know what they are talking about.

There are thousands and thousands of loyal Muslim Americans. Today more of our citizens are Muslims than Episcopalians.

We honor Christians with Madonnas on Christmas stamps. When I was a child, Baptists would have been outraged by that as “too Catholic.” Sixty years ago Baptists said Catholics were not true Christians because they baptized babies, and Catholics said Baptists were not true Christians because they did not believe in transubstantiation. Now we have progressed beyond such silliness. I hope!

The terrorists are a small group, followers of a sect which distorts the true Muslim religion. To condemn all Muslims because of a few misguided fanatics is like saying millions of Christians will not go to Heaven because they were not baptized by being dunked completely under water.

In December we chose between secular and “religious” stamps to mail our cards. The religious stamps celebrated Christmas. We also had stamps with a Jewish menorah in honor of Hanukkah. New stamps are decorated with Arab calligraphy for Muslim holidays. Why not? Let’s be true Americans and cherish our diversity in religion as well as politics.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

O Pioneers

“Texas is the best state in the U.S.” Governor Perry says this. His fierce opponent in the 2010 governor’s race, Senator Hutchison, says the same thing.

Texans agree with them. I am surrounded by Texans. Kind, gentle people who annoy me with their smug provincialism. Of course, most of them have never been anywhere else. Never having tasted the wonderful ways Greeks and Spanish cook fish, they say, “The only fish I’ll eat is fried catfish.”

Texans believe God dictated every word of the King James Bible (in English, of course), and anyone who believes in “the Theory of Evolution” will never get to Heaven. That makes a problem in our public schools for teachers who want to teach science.

These are my people. My parents were just like them.

Mother’s habits and attitudes were shaped by the experiences of generations who moved west in covered wagons. My grandmother, Sue Wade McDonald, said her grandmother was “the first white child born in Kaufman County.” That child’s parents came to Texas “in the days of the Republic.” That’s the Republic of Texas. The Comanches were still raiding, and buffalo roamed between Fort Worth and Dallas.

Those pioneers were truly on their own in this wild, empty land. Men needed guns to hunt for food and to chase away those Comanches. My three brothers all had guns. They did not hunt, and I don’t know of a single instance when a gun prevented a home invasion. But they were all avid supporters of the NRA.

Pioneer women cooked game and boiled beans in the fireplace of the log cabin. My grandmother thought she was a good cook. All she knew was how to fry things in a skillet or brew black-eyed peas and beans in a pot on the stove, just like her mother. The other day Erleen told me she spent the night before soaking kidney beans before cooking and seasoning them with salt pork. Typical Texan, like my grandmother.

The early settlers were pious folk. The Wades got together with a few neighbors and formed the First Baptist Church of Rockwall. Their only guide was the King James Bible. Last month, when I mentioned evolution, a gentle old lady said, “I believe man was created in the image of God.” She and reads her Bible every day.

In visiting Europe many times, I discerned that the main difference between Americans and their European relatives lay in the European tendency to accept the status quo, while Americans are constantly seeking change, new ways of doing things. It took a lot of courage for our ancestors to leave England or Germany or Italy and come across that great ocean to an entirely different life in a new land. Most Americans, whatever their ethnic background, are still looking for ways to improve their lives.

The pioneer spirit drove people to move westward into a new land. In me that spirit caused me to seek new experiences in many different places. With others, Texas was the end of the trail. Their minds became stuck, like the Europeans who did not migrate, and what their ancestors did as necessity became the only “proper way” to do things. With them pioneer spirit became pioneer prejudices.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Happy Days in Pennsylvania

Each morning I wake up to music coming from the radio on the dresser in my bedroom. I keep it tuned to WRR, Dallas’ classical music station.

This morning, as I took my sweater out of the closet, ready to go down to breakfast, I heard the soft voice of the woman announcer say the next selection would be a Hayden composition played by pianist Andre Watts.

That brought a flood of memories of one of the happiest times in my life.

In 1970 my husband was transferred to the home office of Penn Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Philadelphia, and we bought a wonderful old house in Drexel Hill. Our house had ten rooms; the Ritters, across the street, had fifteen. I loved our three-story stone and stucco house, built in 1910. It looked grand and formal, with Doric columns on each side of the fan-lighted front door, but our family had many good times there.

Like all the other houses on Forest Avenue there were big trees in front; in the fall golden leaves fell a foot deep completely covering the street like a down comforter. In the spring azaleas made the big stone houses look like Kincaid paintings.

At our house we stepped into a front hall with a fake Oriental rug, which became a dining room rug when we moved to the much smaller house in Woodridge, Illinois. In Pennsylvania an open stairway went all the way up to the third floor. From the second floor seven-year-old David tied a rock to a string and dropped notes down to me. The day after Thanksgiving he sent down, “What’s for dinner?” I scribbled a reply, “Turkey.” David pulled the paper up and sent down another, “Dispicable.” In our family we never were good at spelling.

Doric columns framed the doorway to the living room. The League of Women Voters came to our house for its annual meeting. I counted 54 women sitting on chairs in my living room. All the chairs they sat on were mine. I did not know I had so many chairs.

The living room fireplace was backed by another fireplace in the sunroom. We invited the neighbor teenagers to play monopoly on the old round oak table, which was our dining room table in other homes. Martha’s piano was also in the sunroom. Every afternoon I cooked dinner to the happy sound of her practicing. Martha enjoyed playing the piano, and I could hear that happiness in the way her fingers danced across the keys.

Most nights we ate dinner at the mahogany table in the formal dining room, using sterling silver and Lennox china on a daily basis for the only time in our 27-year marriage. We seldom sat in the formal living room; after supper we watched television in one of the second floor bedrooms which we converted into a cozy sitting room.

The other three bedrooms on the second floor were David’s room, the master bedroom, and a little room off the master where Wally could retreat to his big desk and his stamp collection. On the third floor were two big bedrooms for our teenagers, Karl and Martha. There was room for everyone in that house, room for parties, room for family to be together, and rooms for each of us to have private escapes.

What does this have to do with Andre Watts? In 1970 he was just beginning as a concert pianist – not as famous as Van Clyburn, but a career that took him all over the World. Clare Ritter, who lived across the street and who had boys Karl’s age, invited my kids and me to go with them hear Watts as featured soloist with the Philadelphia Symphony at a summer concert at the outdoor amphitheater in Robin Hood Dell. It was a beautiful program, and Watts was a terrific pianist. The only problem: we were caught in a downpour. We put up umbrellas, but it rained so hard the deluge drowned out the music. We sloshed through mud back to the car.

Now I live in Texas in a four-room apartment. Today is cold and damp. I hate these cold, gray January days. I remember Philadelphia, where it seemed to rain every day. I would sit in that big house listening to the rain and think, “That’s what makes the trees grow so tall.”

Even with the constant rain, life was good in Pennsylvania. And my life is not so bad now. Springtime and sunshine will come again.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Muslims at the Post Office

The internet is a wonderful thing. I rant about anything and post my opinions on this blog. Even if only a few people know about me, I feel consoled knowing anyone can read at his/her leisure about what I’m doing and thinking.

I also use e.mail to send brief notes, but, when I want to send a special message to a friend, I print a letter on paper and send it out by snail mail. That requires a stamp on the envelope.

I ran out of stamps. So I had to go to the post office. Our post office has a long barrier for patrons to stand behind as they wait to be called to the counter. As always, the line stretched along this barrier all the way back to the door. Only one clerk was on duty. As usual many people in line carried packages, which took a long time to process.

The line inched forward slowly. I let my heavy purse slide along the top of the barrier, glancing now and then at items on the shelf below. The man in front of me carried a big box; he looked Hispanic. I imagined he was a Mexican mailing something home to Mexico. That frequently happens at our post office. But for all I know he could have been a Native American sending a birthday gift to his daughter at Yale.

I got to talking to the woman standing behind me. As we neared the head of the line, we looked at the display of commemorative stamps behind the glass of the barrier: Gary Cooper, Bob Hope, and the Simpsons. I commented that I thought it sad that the new stamps were all entertainers. “Do these stamps really represent our country? Is this what our culture has degenerated into?”

The woman spotted a sheet of small dark stamps, partially hidden behind Bart Simpson. She said in disgust, “Those are Muslim stamps.”

The man in front of me was called to the counter.

The woman behind me said something about Muslims terrorists who should not be honored on United States postage stamps.

I said I knew some fine Muslim people.

She said, “I am a Christian. I won’t put Muslim stamps on my letters.”

It was my turn to buy stamps. I asked the clerk, “What do you have in commemoratives?”

“We only have the Hanukkah stamps,” she said and set out a sheet of the little brown stamps which the woman had denounced as “Muslim.” Each stamp pictured the eight-branched candelabra, a menorah. Observant Jews light one candle each night during celebration of the eight-night feast of Hanukkah, which comes near Christmas.

The woman I talked to at the post office could not distinguish between Muslim symbolism and a Jewish menorah. But what do your expect from a proud Texas Christian?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

On Hadrian's Wall

Last night on PBS I watched a program on Hadrian’s Wall. In 122 A.D. the Roman Emperor Hadrian came to Britain and ordered his legions to build a wall across the island at the narrowest point. It was a mammoth undertaking which kept his soldiers busy for many years. The remains of the wall stretch up and down hill like the Great Wall of China forming the border between England and Scotland.

Today at the retirement community where I live, I gave a talk on England The old ladies, who gathered in the living room to hear my talk, never heard of Hadrian’s Wall. I guess last night while I was watching PBS, they were watching American Idol or The Biggest Loser.

I first saw the wall in 1983. Mother, my son David, and I were on a month’s trip around England, Scotland, and Wales. On a cold, wet afternoon, I turned our little red rental car off the highway into a small asphalt lot. We were the only car there. Mother stayed in the car, while David and I climbed a steep hill, getting soaked in a freezing drizzle. Eighteen-year-old David bounded ahead while I struggled, huffing and puffing, to haul myself to the top of the hill. We found the wall, now reduced from its 30-foot original to the height of a garden wall. Even I was able hoist myself up.

We walked along the top of the wall for several hundred feet. I kept telling myself, “I am walking where Roman soldiers marched two thousand years ago!” It did not seem real.

David and I were both chilled to the bone. We soon gave up on trying to evoke the ghosts of Romans and went back down to the car.

The narrow highway ran along the base of the hills, but as darkness enveloped us, we could not see even a hint of the wall which paralleled us on the crests. We were all glad when we came to the bed and breakfast where we had reservations. It turned out to be a small hotel in a Victorian brick building which reminded me of old Catholic schools in the States. Our hostess was waiting to serve a most welcome supper of vegetable soup, followed by hot roast beef and potatoes. We were the only guests in the spacious dining room.

After supper David went up to bed. Mother and I went into the sitting room, where we were surprised to find a man and woman sitting close to the gas fire. We introduced ourselves. I told them I was from Chicago. They were Americans from Long Island, New York. The portly, gray-haired man was recently retired from Standard Oil; they were celebrating his retirement with an extended trip of the British Isles.

We talked about places we had both visited in the last few days. Then came the surprise. This couple from New York had grown up in Fort Worth. All four of us, on that cold, wet night in that remote place in the North of England, had attended the same high school. We ended the evening, not with ghosts of Roman soldiers, but recalling our terror of out Spanish teacher, Miss Bomar, at Paschal High School in Fort Worth, Texas.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Our Founding Fathers

I am suffocating under papers. The “second” bedroom I use as an office is like Van Gogh’s room under a haystack of paper. Piles thick as telephone books sit in a row on my desk, with a letters waiting to be answered stand propped up behind the telephone. Behind me on the twin bed's blue bedspread is littered with financial statements, Christmas cards, and notes on various scraps of paper. Old magazines are stacked up on the one chair.

I have not yet succumbed to dropping papers on the floor. But I have no idea what unfinished business lurks hidden behind the closet door.

Never mind. While looking for something else — isn’t that always the way? – I found the old envelope on which I scrawled a note while watching Book TV this weekend. I wanted to remember Gordon Wood's "Empire of Liberty."

The title comes from how the Founding Fathers referred to our country. Historian Wood talked about how these men could not foresee the changes in the United States in the first 40 years, between 1789 and 1830. Our Founding Fathers lived to see the new nation change in ways they could not have imagined.

The men who drafted the Constitution did not foresee political parties. They lived in a small, sparsely settled, agrarian country where “propertied” men would select leaders from their own class. The Electoral College chose George Washington as our first President without a single vote for any other person.

In 1790 the United States had a population of about 4 million (less than Dallas today). By 1830 it had grown to 10 million. The right to vote was extended, and the new voters were not all wealthy landowners. Political parties were formed and determined elections. Andrew Jackson was the first to be elected by “popular” vote. (Sarah Palin courts a similar electorate.)

Thomas Jefferson, with his brilliant mind, envisioned a nation of farmers. By his death he deplored the increasing numbers living in towns and cities. He could not have imagined an industrial nation where less than 3% of our people live on farms.

Among the social changes in those first 40 years was the spread of religion. In 1760 there were no Methodists in the Colonies. (People who say, “America was founded as a Christian nation,” don’t know their history.) By 1830 the Methodists had become the dominate religion, with other evangelistic groups, such as the Baptists, rapidly gaining converts.

My reaction: Today we hear that our laws should be interpreted in the way “the authors of the Constitution intended.” This is not possible. This is not the same kind of nation. The Founding Fathers lived in a small nation with a mostly homogeneous population. Today we are a giant nation with a widely diverse population. The important thing is to assure “Liberty and justice for all.” That is endangered by Supreme Court “justices” who let their narrow, outdated views restrict their interpretation of the Constitution.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Watching Book TV

When I moved to Texas four years ago I bought a 42-inch flat-screen television. It is like having my own movie theater in my living room. Especially on these cold winter mornings, I am grateful not to have to go out for entertainment. I am addicted to Turner Classic Movies.

In addition to that, like most Americans, I also depend on television to tell me what is going on outside the door of my apartment. I watch “Breaking News” on CNN, and also CSPAN’s live broadcasts from Congress. On CSPAN 2, during the Senate on health care, I saw Democrats and Republicans ramble on hour after hour with rows of empty desks behind them. I wondered if the absent senators considered the many sides of these debates as carefully as I did.

On Saturday and Sunday afternoons I sit in my recliner, sipping tea, still watching CSPAN 2, which on weekends becomes Book TV, where authors talk about their non-fiction books. All kinds of non-fiction, some on tape and some coming live from bookstores, libraries, and lecture halls around the country. I hear about new biographies of long-dead men. I also learn about today’s politics from guests at a store called “Politics and Prose” in Washington, D.C. Pundits of both right and left like to push their books in Washington.

This week I heard about two books which sparked my interest. Carmen Reinhart, a professor of economics at the University of Maryland, talked about factors which lead to recessions. Her book, "This Time Is Different,” is sub-titled “Eight Centuries of Folly.” She pointed out that risk is necessary for economic growth, encouraging employment and raising real estate values. Risk also involves increasing debt, until the debt reaches the point where the bubble bursts, resulting in unemployment and a decline in real estate. After studying the statistics on 800 years of recessions, Dr. Reinhart says the cycle is inevitable.

Dr. Reinhart also emphasized the role government must play in getting us out of the recession. From her analysis of recent histories, she pointed to Japan as a prolonged recession because of restrictions on lending which slowed recovery, while when Mexico faced bankruptcy, the World Bank loaned capital and recovery was rapid. She said the most important thing for our country now was to get the banks to write off their bad debts and start lending again.

The other author who impressed me talked about the early history of the U.S. I misplaced my notes on that one. When I find them, I will write another blog. Until then, this is that old lady curmudgeon, Ilene, signing off.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Controling the Future

Turner Classic Movies began the new year with a 1984 movie titled “2010". This is a sequel to “2001", made a couple of years earlier. Both movies are fantasies showing us how totally off the mark people are when predicting the future.

I only watched a little of “2010". It was just too silly to hold my interest. The movie began with a Russian scientist talking to an American scientist perched on the stairway to a giant reflective dish telescope.

The scene was obviously filmed at the Great Array in New Mexico, where a row of these monster dishes are lined up in the dessert where they are moved around on railroad tracks to scan various parts of the sky hoping to receive transmissions from other planets or alien space ships. I’ve been there, near Magdalena, New Mexico, and it is an awesome sight. What impressed me more than the size of these huge dishes was the fact that they have been scanning the sky for years and have yet to receive a single message from Outer Space.

In the movie the Russian tries to convince the American to share technology on building a robot to control a space ship. The film’s maker assumed that in 2010 the Communists would still be in control in Russia and that the Soviets and the U.S. would still be embroiled in the Cold War. He could not foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union or that our astronauts would live for months with Russian cosmonauts on the space shuttle. No robots in control here.

This reminded me of George Orwell’s “1984", which he wrote in 1948 and predicted that “Big Brother” would control every aspect of life. Well, today we have surveillance cameras everywhere, but they hardly control our lives. Cameras on traffic signals don’t even prevent people from driving through red lights.

Instead of “Big Brother” we have the chaos of the internet, where libel laws do not apply and radicals spew out all sorts of nonsense. I am just a little pot complaining about that big black kettle of fish. The internet is anarchy. No one at the controls.

History tells us how certain events have consequences, which could serve as guides and warnings about what might happen in the future. Unfortunately, many who shape events (i.e. Congressmen) seem totally ignorant of history. I don’t believe all those dire warnings about how we are becoming a “socialist” nation.

St. Paul told Philemon to remain a slave because Jesus was coming back to free him in a few days – or at most in a few months or a few years. Anyway, within his lifetime. That was 2,000 years ago, and Jesus has not showed up yet. People still believe.

But a Communist, Putin, is trying to bring Russia under his complete control. Will he succeed in reversing history?

I don’t predict the future. No one can control it.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year?

Most people are glad to see the end of 2009. As Jon Meacham wrote in “Newsweek”, “Things are neither as bad as many feared, nor as good as many hoped on that cold, clear noontime when Barack Obama became president.”

The economy is in a mess. We are bogged down in dreadful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. All the Democrats and Republicans in Congress are dolts. What to do? What can we do?

Personally, my life is good. I am living in a comfortable apartment in a retirement home where I don’t have to cook, wash dishes, or clean house. I have enough income to pay the rent with enough extra to buy theater tickets and go out to dinner twice a week – if I want to. I have excellent health insurance. Yet I empathize with people who can’t find jobs and seniors who go hungry in order to buy the pills they must have to stay alive.

My grandsons are still in college. They are not among the young men getting their brains crushed and legs blown off by roadside bombs. Still, my heart aches for our servicemen and their families.

What can I do? Write my Congressman and Senators. Rant on my blog and hope someone reads and responds!

I wish everyone a happier 2010. This year I will be “Eighty-Wonderful”. At this age, a person must adjust expectations. My hope for 2010 is that I will still be here to wish you “Happy New Year” in 2011.