Sunday, February 28, 2010

Olympic Winners

For a woman living in a retirement community who does not cook, wash dishes, clean house, or even change the sheets on my bed, I don’t have much “leisure” time. For the past two weeks I’ve spent as many hours as I can watching the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

I am disappointed by NBC’s coverage of the games. All I heard was about U.S. athletes and all their medals.

What about giving recognition to athletes from other countries? One time I heard mention that 15 countries won only one medal each.

I cheered when Norwegians won all those gold medals in skiing. Then I cheered even more when a skier from Belarus bested them and claimed a gold.

How about those Czech girls who skated to inch over the finish line in front of the U.S. team to win a bronze medal? Instead of giving them an on-camera interview, the reporter put his microphone and camera on the disappointed U.S. skaters.

People in other countries, especially in the Middle East, hate us. That is not a surprise when we keep telling them that we are better than they are. That’s called jingoism, and it is a dirty word.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Of Ships and Sandals

The travel section of Dallas Morning News featured a Kansas City museum with “walls and walls of china and other items” salvaged from the Steamboat Arabia, which sank in the muddy Missouri River in 1856 and which was found buried under a corn field in 1988.

The newspaper pictured the ship, smoke-stack still rising straight up like a telephone pole, sitting in the bottom of a bowl-shaped pit, surrounded by 45-foot walls of Missouri mud.

Another photo showed a salvage worker bringing up from the hull a wide-brimmed leather hat, looking as if it could be cleaned of mud and worn tomorrow, if somewhat out-of-style.

This reminded me of that trip to Europe in 1978 with my 13-year-old son, David. At the Frankfort airport, I got the rental car in gear and immediately drove onto one of those terrifying German autobahns and headed into the city.

With David’s help in looking for signs, we found Army Fifth Corps Headquarters in a multi-story office building built before World War II as the home office of one of Hitler’s munition suppliers. (I think it was I. G. Farben.) A military policeman came out of the building and told me not to park in front; those spaces were reserved for generals.

We were not challenged when we entered the building. I was again (after the autobahn) terrified as we faced the open door of the elevator. We jumped on a continuously moving platform; at the ninth floor we jumped off again. I marveled at soldiers who casually walked off and on that moving elevator.

David and I walked into the offices of Army Intelligence and found my older son analyzing information on the Russians. His officer gave Sergeant Karl the afternoon off, and we headed out sightseeing.

Since both my boys are nuts about military history, the first place we went was to the village of Bad Homburg. A fashionable spa around 1890-1900 – England’s King Edward VII used to “take the waters” there – it gave its name to the homburg hat. We toured the castle of the Dukes of Hesse, typical of the palaces built by minor nobility all over Europe in imitation of Versailles.

But the main reason we went to Bad Homburg was to see the restored Roman fort. In the first and second centuries A.D., this was the border of the Roman Empire. The Roman emperors built a string of forts across Germany, hoping to keep out the hordes of Germans who threatened to overrun the empire. Didn’t do any good; forts and walls never kept out determined invaders.

Various German tribes overran the entire Roman Empire: Franks into France, Visigoths in Spain, “Long beards” became the “Lombards” of Lombardy in Italy, and the Saxons became part of the Anglo-Saxons in England.

The Roman fort at Bad Homburg was abandoned and fell to ruin. In the 19th Century it was restored by Kaiser William II. Modern scholars say the German emperor made lots of mistakes, basing his restoration on German military plans rather than what is now known about Roman fort construction.

A small museum displays objects found by digging in the old Roman well. Evidently, when the Roman Army gave up on trying to keep out the Germans, the soldiers threw a lot of things down the well before withdrawing from the fort. In a glass case I saw a set of carpenter’s tools, hammers, pliers, chisels, etc, which could go into a toolbox today.

Another wall displayed dozens of sandals, original Roman ones, blackened and crushed by centuries underground along side modern duplications. A variety of designs, straps and slides, open-toed and toes covered in leather – it could have been a display you would see in the shoe department at Macy’s.

We think we are so modern. In two thousand years we have not improved on the design of tools and summer sandals. Why do we think we have improved defensive techniques? Why are we building that wall on the Mexican border? Does anyone really think it will solve the immigration problem? Remember those German hordes.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Dear Nancy Pelosi

Garland, Texas
February 21, 2010

Ms. Nancy Pelosi
235 Cannon House Office Bldg.
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Congresswoman Pelosi:

This is an important letter. Please do not ignore.

People are disgusted with Congress, Republicans as well as Democrats. If the Democrats want to retain control of Congress, you – as the leader of the Party – must take immediate action to restore the faith of voters in your party. Here are brief summaries of two pieces of legislation which should be introduced, as soon as your assistants can draft them:

(1) CAMPAIGN FINANCE. All funds spent by candidates for the House of Representatives should be from contributions limited to $2,000 each from adults residing in his/her district. Similarly, candidates for the Senate should be limited to contributions from residents in his/her state. Strict accounting should be written into the law.

This would “level the playing field,” putting elections back in the hands of the voters, preventing corporations and special interests from influencing elections. The National Party’s control would be lessened to giving advice, which the Party would not like. But candidates would be relieved from the burden of raising the enormous sums necessary now.

(2) INCOME TAX REFORM. The tax code must be simplified. I have several ideas about this, but the most important change should be:

Restore the 50% tax on incomes over $500.000. Please an income cap at $2,000,000.

(Anyone who claims he cannot live on $1,000,000 a year after taxes should be convicted of defrauding the American public and required to live on Social Security in a trailer park!)

To make this a little easier, 50% of income over $2,000,000 should be used, at the designation of the individual tax payer, to go to public local or state projects (i.e., school buildings, state universities, public hospitals, etc., all public projects, NOT TO RELIGIOUS INSTITUTIONS. The other 50% should go to reducing the national debt. (Republicans can’t object to that!)

Suggestions. But important, if you want to show the people that government belongs to them.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Mountain Views

Watching the Winter Olympics and seeing the beautiful mountains around Vancouver, reminded me of sitting in the lower level den of our house in Woodridge, Illinois, during the Innsbruck Olympics and becoming enraptured by the photos of the Austrian Alps.

I promised myself, “Some day I must see those mountains.”

“Some day” was 1978, on the trip to Europe I made with my 13-year-old son, David. After visiting with David’s older brother, stationed with the Army in Frankfurt, we drove down through the German Tyrol.

Our rental car was a cranky Opal. There are no speed limits on the autobahn. I floor-boarded the accelerator, but that little Opal would not go faster than 80 mph. Mercedes and BMW’s flew past us going 135 or 150.

Compounding my terror, we were driving through rain and fog. Somehow we made it over the Austrian border and into Innsbruck. Where were the mountains? The fog and rain came down from Germany with us. David and I spent three days in Innsbruck, and the fog never lifted. For all we saw of mountains, we could have been in West Texas.

On our last day there I drove up over the Bremmer Pass. As we came down into Italy, before us was a picture-postcard view of the Dolomites, snow-capped and gorgeous!

I went to Austria to see mountains and at last found them in Italy.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Only a Game

I met John in 1986 in Downers Grove, Illinois. I was 57 years old. He was 68.

John loved baseball, especially his Chicago Cubs. We dated a few months when I had an emergency appendectomy. I woke up the next afternoon in searing pain where I had been cut open. John was sitting in the corner of my hospital room.

“How long have you been here?” I asked.
“A while”
He pulled up close to the bed.
“You rest,” he said. “I’ll be here.”

I hurt. I closed my eyes.

John whispered in my ear, “Do you mind if I watch the game?”

I nodded and drifted off into a narcotic-induced sleep.

I developed a staph infection and remained in the hospital for a week. John came every day and walked me around the corridor, me without even lipstick and straggly hair drooping, barely covered by the white hospital gown, John holding me with one arm while he pulled along the I.V. pole. That’s when I knew, “This man really loves me.”

After we married and moved to Albuquerque, on summer afternoons we sat in front of the television watching the Cubs. Even after the Cubs were eliminated from the playoffs, we waited until after the World Series to travel.

John also became enthusiastic about Albuquerque’s minor league team, the Dukes. We went to games, sitting in the bleachers behind left field. The loud speaker boomed, “Please stand for the national anthems.” John and I stood up, and a young lady sang, “Ohhhh. . . “

We were ready to join in, “Say can you see. . .”
Instead she sang, “Can. . . a . . .da”

That night our team played Calgary.

That was the first time I heard the beautiful Canadian national anthem: “Oh Canada, our home and native land.”

This week, hearing it at the Winter Olympics, watching all those brave young people, losers and winners, brought back memories of travels with John (an afternoon in the rose garden in one of Vancouver’s beautiful parks) and of his loyalty to his teams, even when they lost.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Valentine's Day

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day. I spent all day, with interruptions, sitting on the couch with eyes on my 42-inch television, watching the Winter Olympics. I will write more on Vancouver and the Olympics later in the week.

Everyone needs love. Some of us don’t have sweethearts. Even family may seem to forget. I am sustained by the love of my friends.

At lunch time, I pried myself away from the beastly machine, picked up a stack of little Valentines and carried them down to the dining room. I walked among the tables passing out cards to old men and women. A simple gesture hoping to bring a smile to some who no longer have someone to remember them on Valentine’s Day.

After eating my chicken and cherries jubilee, I followed Harold as he pulled back and forth with his burly arms, pushing his wheelchair towards the door. This big man, crippled with multiple sclerosis, is anguished, less by difficulty walking than by the effect of the disease on his fingers. Formerly a professional musician, he can no longer play his beloved clarinet.

Behind him as he pressed the button to open the automatic door, I said, “It’s Valentine’s Day and I don’t have a sweetheart.”

Without turning around Harold said over his shoulder gruffly, “You are my sweetheart, Ilene.”

What a surprise! Harold lifted my heart and made me want to sing with joy.

I hope you, too, had a happy Valentine's Day.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

The East Coast is buried in snow. That makes the 9 plus inches that fell on Dallas look like a scoop of ice cream compared to a gallon. But here it is big news.

I endured 25 winters “Up North”. Remembering, before each trip to the grocery store, bundling up small children in snowsuits, scarves, mittens, and boots, I was not happy to see today’s big snowfall. Other old ladies here at Montclair were thrilled. Several said, “I’ve never seen snow like this!”

Today’s snow was the deepest on record! Previously the most snow ever to fall on Dallas in one day was 7.3 inches back in 1965. That year my family was living in Birmingham, Michigan. We were under snow from November to April, with several snowfalls of more than 12 inches.

Wallace was in Grand Rapids when one of those blizzards hit. I told the kids, “Daddy won’t be home tonight. We eat hot dogs for supper.”

Wally walked into the house at 7 p.m., stomping the snow off his boots and complaining. He had no trouble driving, following snowplows on the interstate all the way across the State of Michigan. The trouble came when he stopped in front of our house. The plow cleared the snow off our street by shoveling it to the side, making a four-foot high barrier to our driveway. While I cooked his supper – he didn’t get a gourmet meal that night – Wally spent a cold, dreary hour out in the dark clearing the driveway so that he could get his car off the street.

That winter David was a baby. I bought him a baby snowsuit at Sears. First time I put him into it, the zipper broke. I took the snowsuit back to Sears. At Saks Fifth Avenue in Birmingham, I found toddler snowsuits on sale. The smallest was size 2. David’s little hands did not reach the cuffs. His legs stopped at the knees inside the quilted pants. But I bundled that baby into that big snowsuit and carried him in it all winter, saying, “He’ll grow into it in the next two years.”

The following May, Wallace was transferred to Dallas. During the four years we lived in Texas, we saw no snow. Never once was it cold enough for me to put David into that snowsuit. I mailed it to his cousins in Salt Lake City.

I admit I agree with other Texans: today’s snow is pretty. We look out on the courtyard, where the snow on the branches of the tall evergreen are as beautiful as a Japanese print. Through the front window we laugh at the snowman built by our night manager. Not a snow “man” but a snow teddy bear, with snowballs for ears, funny dead branches for arms, and broccoli eyes.

There are advantages to living in this “old folks home”. Being retired, we don’t have to drive to work on slush and ice. Jackie, our driver, did not come to work today. She won’t drive on icy streets either. We can wait. Mickey will take me to dialysis tomorrow. Jackie will take the old ladies to the beauty shop and Wal-Mart next week.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Blow Out

I was thrilled when my parents invited us to go with them on a trip to a convention in San Diego with stops to sightsee going and coming. I had never been to California and was eager to see that part of our country. Wally said we could not go. He could not take time off from work. I knew that he had unused vacation time. He just did not want to spend the money.

That is when I said, “Okay. The children and I will go without you.” (I had a little money saved from substitute teaching.)

Wally still refused to come with us. I bought the tickets, and I and my two small children slept in coach seats on the overnight train trip to Fort Worth to join my parents.

From Fort Worth we headed west in my father’s old Cadillac. The car had air-conditioning, but that used a lot of gas. Mother rolled down the windows and commented on the “nice breeze” that made air-conditioning unnecessary, while in the back seat the kids and I felt the blast of hot air in our faces all day long. Karl, 9, and Martha, 7, were good travelers and did not complain.

The next day, after a stop at Carlsbad Caverns, we drove into a wilderness, up into cool pine forest on a narrow, winding mountain road. I was thinking, “How delightful!” when the wheel on Karl’s side of the car exploded. Daddy steered onto the shoulder beneath a cliff. We all got out and looked at the shredded tire. The road was deserted. Daddy said something about finding a farm house where he could call AAA to come change the tire. That was when I realized my father was helpless outside the city.

We waited 30 minutes before another car came around the bend in the road. Jesus loves my parents. The car stopped. Two burly men got out, Texas troopers headed with their wives to Ruidoso for the races. Within five minutes they changed the tire, and we were on our way.

When we got to Tucson, Wally called and spent an hour of long distance time telling me how cruel I was for going on this trip without him.

He did it again in San Diego.

When we parked in front of my friend’s house in San Francisco, Nora came out to the car and said, “We have a surprise for you.” Wally had flown out and arrived before we did. Somehow he had found he could take time off from work and also found money for air fare to California.

A few days later we left Yosemite. Wally took over the Cadillac. He drove over the Sierras and down the dangerous switchbacks to the desolation of the Nevada desert. We headed at dusk on a deserted road, surrounded on all sides be a black empty flatness when another tire blew out. This time we did not have to wait for strangers. Wally changed the tire.

Besides Carlsbad Caverns and Yosemite, we saw many wonders on this trip: weird rocks at Cochese National Monument, Tombstone, the Lavender Pit copper mine, San Diego Zoo, Hearst Castle, Zion Canyon, not to mention the Pacific Ocean and Grand Canyon. But when I think about this trip, I remember what I learned about my father's helplessness. And about my husband.

Monday, February 8, 2010


“Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” was on Turner Classic Movies again last week. A classic Western, I have seen it several times and always enjoy watching Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas playing Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.

Do not ask me when most movies first came out. I know a bunch of great movies aired first in 1939, “the golden year of motion pictures,” including “The Wizard of Oz”, “Stagecoach”, and “Gone with the Wind.” Other than that I can’t place most movies within a decade of their release, not since the 1950's, 1960's, and so on up to the 2010. For the past 60 years I have been too busy to think about such trivia.

However, I can tell you the exact date and place that I first saw “Gunfight at the O.K. Coral”. It was August 14, 1957, and Wally’s mother babysat with two-year-old Karl while Wally and I went to the Pickwick Theater in Park Ridge, Illinois. (That’s Hillary Clinton’s home town.)

After the movie, we picked up Karl and went home to 5931½ Northwest Highway in the far northwest corner of Chicago. That ½ always amused me; we lived at the center entrance to a big, “U” shaped apartment building. An hour later I went into labor, and our daughter Martha was born at 3:04 a.m. on August 15. A date a mother should remember.

As the children grew up, we moved from Illinois to Michigan to Texas to Pennsylvania and back to Illinois, where Martha graduated from high school. She went as an exchange student to Norway, to college in Minnesota, with the Peace Corps to Thailand, and came back to Illinois. She now lives in Naperville, Illinois, with her tall husband and three big (all over 6 feet) sons.

We lived in Michigan when my parents invited me and the children to go with them to a convention in San Diego, coupled with an extended vacation going and coming. Martha was seven years old.

On the trip west we spent a hot summer afternoon in Tombstone. We climbed boot hill, where all the wooden grave markers had been repainted a dazzling white with fresh black letters; the place looked like a set for a B movie. I loved the little Episcopal Church, incongruous in this Western town, gift of a wealthy Eastern family. My Dad loved the saloon with its long, elaborate oak bar. That was another thing that struck me as incongruous, as my parents were tee-totalers. The five of us, old folks, me, and the two small children, sat in the bar drinking lemonade.

In Tombstone we also saw the “real” O.K. Corral. It proved to be what a corral should be: a big, dusty pen for cattle waiting to be taken to market. The afternoon sun was blazing hot. The sand burned our feet right through the bottom of our shoes. Karl, 9, said, “Why did we pay money to see this? There is nothing to see here.”

It took a lot of imagination to realize that 100 years ago men pulled out their guns and killed each other in this miserable place.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Big House, Little House

For years our country was in a building boom. All around the nation suburbs expanded with beautiful big new homes. Young people rushed to buy them. Who wouldn’t want a beautiful house, larger and finer than the ones they grew up in? Credit was easy. No money down. The value of houses was sure to go up – and salaries would, too.

Oh, yeah! This is America where things are always bigger and better.

The current economic crisis was triggered when the enthusiastic young people who bought those beautiful houses could not meet the payments on their enormous mortgages. No one told them that good times would not last. Even their parents did not remember the Great Depression.

I was born in 1929, the year the stock market crashed. I remember the Great Depression.

Shabby men came to the door asking for work. Depending on whether my brother and I were at our house or at my grandmother’s, our mother or grandmother would make a sandwich and hand it to the man at the back door. My brother and I would squat down and watch as he sat on the back steps eating what may have been his one meal of the day. Sometimes our grandmother would have him split a few logs for the dining room fire.

Even as a child I was also keenly aware of the difference between “our” house and my grandmother’s house. We lived in an old frame house, five little rooms with no central hall. The door between the children’s room and our parents was always open. We had to go through our parents’ room to go to the bathroom at the back of the house.

I envied my cousins, the nieces who really owned the house I called my grandmother’s. Their brick house had seven big rooms and a long hallway with handsome mahogany doors, giving the three girls a privacy I never knew until I came home for weekends during my college years.

I always wanted a house like that. So I understand young people who saw a big, beautiful home and were told, “Just sign here and you can have it.”

It took me 80 years to realize I can be content in a four-room apartment. But I am. Surrounding me are all my favorite things: the books and pictures, the small souvenirs and mementoes. I don’t need or want anything else.

I am grateful for my two-bedroom apartment, with a room for my computer and a twin bed with trundle for when my son David brings my grandson for a visit. Thanks to my husband John, I don’t have to worry about paying the rent.

Many of the people I share meals with in the dining room are living on restricted incomes in tiny one-bedroom apartments or even one room “studios.” I am a lucky woman.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Tolstoy in Texas

Life is surprising. I should have learned: People can not be tied up in packages with labels like “Democrat” or “Republican”, “Catholic” or “Baptist”, “White or Black”. No individual person fits tidally and completely into one category.

When our exercise instructor announced this morning that I was going to give a program on my trips to Russia, I sat there, waving my arms and legs in our chair exercises and wondering what I would say to these Texans who have never been anywhere or read anything.

After class, as I stooped down to pick up from the floor the rubber balls and weights we used in our exercise routines, the woman next to me said, “I wish I could go to Russia. I became interested in Russian history after reading Russian novels, Tolstoy and Dostoyevski, especially Tolstoy.”

The favorite novel of this little old lady is Leo Tolstoy”s “War and Peace”

Years ago, when I was too young to really appreciate the depth of this novel, I spent a month of summer vacation – it must have been during World War II and a polio epidemic when I had to stay home and did nothing but read – I managed to read all the way through “War and Peace.”

As I grew older I realized I missed the significance of the book, but I never had the will power to make time to read it again.

The “typical” Texan in my exercise class read “War and Peace”, all 1,000 plus pages, twice.