Friday, December 30, 2011

Goodbye to 2011

Looking at 2011 from my recliner, the World is in pretty much of a mess. The “Arab spring” was amazing, until it disintegrated with the military torturing protesters in Egypt and the dictator slaughtering his own people in Syria.

Like everyone, I rejoiced when the President finally bought the troops home from Iraq, leaving the Iraqis to blow each other up (as they always have done), and 90,000 American boys facing the same hopeless situation in Afghanistan.

In our own country, farms and ranches produce so much food we have a problem with obesity. Manufacturing jobs have disappeared, and in this global economy are not coming back any more than the horse-drawn plow. Congress is paralyzed and unable to deal with the horrendous unemployment.

Now we have the spectacle of the Republican farce starring candidates for President. In Texas the Democrats were so ineffectual Rick Perry was reelected as governor. Now he’s made a laughing stock of himself, yet some people still consider him a serious candidate for President of the United States.

I comfort myself with history. Before the Civil War, Congress bogged down in acrimonious debates. Henry Clay was a big hero for his speeches protecting the rights of slave holders. We had mediocre presidents. George W. Bush is the most recent, but there were also Franklin Pierce, William McKinley, both the Harrisons, and others. Does anyone remember them? The country survived. Somehow.

This year we’ve also survived the assaults of Mother Nature. Even the most hardened World War II veterans sympathized with the Japanese for the loss of life due to the earthquake and the Tsoumi (can’t spell that – but you saw the pictures). Joplin, Missouri, where I used to sleep in motels on my treks back and forth between Albuquerque and Chicago, was devastated by a tornado.

As I sat, wrapped in a blanket like a warm cocoon in my recliner, I watched all this on television and realized how lucky I am to have excellent health insurance and a secure income. My life seems insulated against all catastrophes. My son David is in earthquake-prone California, but I’m in Texas, which is the place in the U.S. “less likely” to have earthquakes.

Then it happened. I was sitting in the recliner, as usual, with the cat dozing on the little green chair facing me. The chair began to shake. Not violently, but a definite tremble. Then the glass shade on the “Tiffany-style” lamp beside me began to rattle.

Charlie woke and sat up. I said, “Kitty, we’re having an earthquake.” The trembling stopped. Reassured by my calm voice, the cat lay down and went back to sleep.

The next day the television told me that it was indeed an earthquake. The epicenter was up in a rural area of Oklahoma. It did little damage, but the shock was felt from Iowa to Dallas.

What will happen in 2012? Mother Nature and the Arab extremists are sure to provide surprises. Hurricanes will roar out of the Gulf; perhaps this time FEMA will be prepared. Let’s also hope voters will wake up and throw out all of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans. And if they don’t – well, we survived both Franklin Pierce and Henry Clay.

Finally, I hope 2012's disasters are no more serious than the earthquake, which didn’t frighten the cat enough to make him jump off his chair.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Day After Christmas

Twenty-five years ago today John Durkalski and I were married in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Downers Grove, Illinois. That began the happiest four years of my life.

I was 58; John was 69 and had been retired for 12 years. He had nothing to do but make me happy. We traveled all over the U.S. Twice we went to Europe. Any time we encountered a problem, John would make a joke about it – and then work at solving the problem. .

He had his “Polish Solutions”. In the little house in Albuquerque, the garage settled, pulling the wall away from the door to the house. I held my breath when John got out his drill and made several holes in the wood of the door frame. He put heavy bolts through the holes and pulled the door frame back against the wall. I thought, “He’s ruined the door. It will never look right.” John filled the holes with spackle, then painted over. No one noticed where the holes had been. The man was a Polish genius.

I get excited about things. I get angry. John would say, “Let’s sit down and talk about this.” Then we would sit down and talk. Calmly he listened. He never called me names, like “You are stupid to act that way.” Not even when I was stupid to act that way. He knew exactly how to show me a better way to react.

(I wonder what he would say about my diatribes against the greedy rich, recalcitrant Republicans, and the stupidity of Tea Party members. Oh, well, John listened to me, which no one else does.)

The big test came when I had cancer. John showed no disgust when my breast was cut off; he tenderly drained the tubes which hung out of my chest after surgery – and then insisted I put on a coat and go out to breakfast in our favorite restaurant. He wasn’t going to let me hide after my disfigurement.

When I was too sick from chemo to get up off the couch, he cooked Polish sausages and put frozen pizzas in the oven, then sat down next to me and made jokes about whatever was on television. He kept me laughing during six months of chemo and six weeks of daily radiation.

I got well, and John died.

John taught me how to live. The years since he has been gone have not been as glorious as the few years of our marriage, but I continue to have a good life. I became a fearlessly independent woman. I traveled. I went to China, where he would not have gone. I moved back to Texas and bought a house – at age 77. I’ve had 20 happy years. .

To avoid being lonely at Christmas, I used to go away. I spent Christmas in Rome, in Portugal, and in New Orleans. This year I am tied down by dialysis. So I put a wreath on my door and invited other old people who live in this retirement community to come to my apartment for cookies and cider. We had our own merry little Christmas, and it was good.

Today I do not weep for my lost past. On the day after Christmas I give thanks for happy memories and additional thanks for continuing a happy life today.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Too Busy

I have not posted a blog for over a week. With dialysis taking so much of my time, I am always busy, but this has been an unusually busy time.

My friend Lois sings in the choir at Garland’s First Baptist Church. On Sunday I went to hear her sing at their Christmas program, with a pageant of little children as angels and Mary cradling in her arms a real baby. The mystery of Christmas: How did she keep the infant so quiet?

On Tuesday I drove into Dallas, only a twelve minute drive from my place to the home of Betty Smith, for a luncheon reunion of “girls” who graduated from Texas Woman’s University in 1950. In past years there gathered a large group of alums living in the Dallas area. On Tuesday there were only ten of us. We passed around pictures of great-grandbabies.

Wednesday a group of us boarded the Montclair bus for another trip into Dallas. This time it was a 30-minute ride to the theater in the old bath house at White Rock Lake. We saw a play about a Catholic family celebrating Christmas in Pittsburgh, when the son shows up with a Jewish fiancé.
I thought it an interesting play, using humor to show love overcoming prejudice. As so often happens, our reaction to things depends on our previous experiences. Something similar happened in my husband John’s family. In a Pittsburgh suburb, his sister and her husband, devout Catholics, must have been dismayed when their only child, a daughter, became engaged to a Jew. Now Maggi and Stephen have been married for 30 years and have two accomplished sons, one of them an M.D.

On the bus going home, I asked the old lady sitting next to me if she enjoyed the play. A fundamentalist Christian, she was offended by the whole concept of the play. “That’s not my God. It was all lies.”

Since I skipped dialysis on Wednesday, I had to go on both Thursday and Friday. There were special events at Montclair afterwards each afternoon. On Thursday I grabbed a couple of cookies and went to my apartment and collapsed. Yesterday I felt better and went down for the chili cooking contest before another evening of recliner television. Again “Christmas in Washington, D.C.” brought back memories. The concert was in the National Building Museum, which impressed my 10-year-old grandson Doug when we went there as part of an intergenerational Elderhostel. Now he’s a senior at Southern Illinois University.

This afternoon Lois comes to go with me to the Christmas program at the Garland Senior Center. That will end this too-busy week. I’m tired. Too much activity. I’ve become over-scheduled.

A great thing about the trip I made to Europe with David: We had no fixed schedule. Each morning we got in the rental car and started out, sightseeing haphazardly at places we discovered along the way. When darkness came, we stopped at a roadside inn for supper and then looked for a place to sleep. No rush. No trying to “make it” to some specific event. Every day was a surprise. As I said, it was great.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


There are fashions in art, just as there are fashions in clothing, interior decoration, cars (anybody looking for an Edsel?), and everything else. If you watch “Antique Roadshow” you know how popularity in painters affects prices. Right now the most fashionable of “old masters” is Caravaggio.

In The New Yorker I read an article about a Texan who married an Italian prince and is now restoring his palace in Rome. The story barely mentions the Michelangelo sculpture in the garden, while going into detail about a ceiling of Roman gods painted by Caravaggio. Neptune floats above so that the viewer looks directly up into his crotch.

In Rome some years ago I toured churches. Lots of churches in Rome (over 300) and all of them filled with art. In one gloomy old church I stood on the cold marble tiles while our guide lectured for thirty minutes on Caravaggio’s “Crucifixion of St. Peter.” The saint asked to be crucified upside down, as he felt unworthy to be crucified in the same position as his Lord. The painter pictured the saint being nailed to the cross, arranged diagonally across the canvas with the saint’s face writhing in agony in the foreground. Against a black background, the painting was as dramatic as a horror movie. I did not feel inspired with religious ecstacy.

Doubtless Caravaggio is important in the history of art for introducing paintings of ordinary people, such as beggars and card sharps. In a painting of the nativity, the guide pointed out that the shepherd, kneeling near the crib, had dirty feet.

Now the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth has an exhibition of paintings by Caravaggio and his followers. The exhibit is considered so important that the museum placed a full-page ad in the New Yorker. That advertising costs mucho dinero.

I still drive, which surprises some people. Going to doctors’ appointments I drive on the 635 expressway. But I don’t drive to Fort Worth. For an old lady, that trip is simply too tiring.
While David was here, he took me to meet my friend Emma at the Kimbell.

Emma told me, “Barbara and I often visit museums together.” (Both were art majors in college.) “Each of us looks at art with different mind sets. Barbara is an artist and interested in how effects were created. I have more of an emotional response to art but know enough of the difficulty of creating to appreciate the creative skill of an artist.”

I guess I look at art the same way as Emma. After spending an hour in the Kimbell’s Caravaggio exhibit, with a whole room of St. John the Baptist by Caravaggio and others, Emma said she found it interesting how he and his followers treated the same subject, but “I don’t really like his paintings.”

I said, “I feel the same way.”

We ate lunch of quiche and salad from the Kimbell’s buffet. David wandered off to look at more of the museum, while Emma and I lingered over our iced tea glasses. It had been over a year since we sat down together. This chance to talk made it a splendid day.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Tilman Riemenschneider

Until David and I went to Germany, I never heard of Tilman Riemenschneider. Maybe he was mentioned in that History of Art class I took 20 years before, but I doubt it.

As David and I ventured out of Frankfurt, one of the first places we went was Wursburg. The old town sits at the base of a mountain, with an enormous castle brooding on top. I navigated the rental car up the steep, narrow streets lined with old houses, through numerous switchbacks right up to the base of the massive walls of the castle.

I parked the car outside the gate, and David and I walked into an enclosure with a church and a number of other buildings housing several museums. Naturally, I headed for the art museum. And that’s where I discovered Tilman Riemenschneider.

To say he was a wood-carver would be to denigrate his work. He was an artist, a sculptor who worked in wood.

The museum displayed a collection of his statues, some almost life-size. I remember a beautiful St. Ann, the folds of her drapery following the grain in the golden wood.

A few days later David and I saw his altarpiece in the cathedral in Rothenburg. That is a charming, walled town. David had a great time climbing the stairs and running around the walls which completely encircle the town. Coming down to the cobbled streets, we shouldered our way through tourists gawking at shop windows in every narrow street.

Most tourists seemed intent on buying Bavarian nicknacks. I wonder how many stepped inside the church to see Riemenschneider’s altarpiece, a typical German triptych with small panels telling Bible stories with dozens of little figures carved in high relief. Very intricate, very skillful carvings. But I preferred the large, individual statues I saw in the museum in Wurzburg.

Riemenschneider worked in Wurzburg from 1460 to 1528. How do I know? I looked in a big, heavy book I have in my bookcase: “A World History of Art” by Gina Pischel. “Painting, sculpture, architecture, decorative arts from prehistoric times to the present day.” That’s also where I found out how to spell that difficult German name, Riemenschneider.

Pischel dismisses the German’s work by writing, “The elaborate, pretentious sculpture of Tilman Riemenschneider . . . has little appeal.”

Well, maybe it does not appeal to Pischel, an Italian who saves her praises for the white marble statues of the Italian Renaissance. To me, the warm wood tones of Riemenschneider’s statues are appealing indeed.

When it comes to art – or music or books or movies – who says we all must like and admire the same things? Who says we must see the same things when we travel? Okay, I like museums. If you prefer to shop, that’s okay, too.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Opening My Eyes

Every morning when music from the radio wakes me, I dutifully push myself out of bed and stumble into the bathroom to brush my teeth and swallow the first two pills of the day. I am a creature of habit. The saying is, “I can do it with my eyes closed,” I don’t open my eyes until I pop those pills into my mouth.

What happens when something happens that disrupts the routine?

Life has a way of changing plans. Sometimes big and dramatically. I never foresaw spending my old age languishing three days a week in dialysis, unable to travel. Last week my 46-year-old son David took me to Fort Worth for the first time in a year and a half. It was as big a thrill as the first as the first time I saw Paris with him when he was 13.

There are also little breaks in routine that can be annoying. To pass the time during dialysis I read current magazines: TIME on Mondays, New Yorker on Wednesdays, Newsweek on Fridays. Last week I read the New Yorker as usual on Wednesday. I discovered an unexpected interest in an article on apples. After years of selling nothing but Washington Delicious and Macintoshes, growers are rediscovering the taste of old varieties.

The mailman must have decided to read Newsweek himself before bringing it to me. It did not show up in my mailbox. So? On Friday I read the Smithsonian. I did not regret missing Newsweek. The Smithsonian was full of interesting bits of information. In one of the first pages I learned that last year China produced 36 million tons of apples, eight times the amount grown in the U.S.

An article on the great defense attorney Clarence Darrow explored the ethics of bribery and perjury. Darrow was accused of bribing a juror to prevent his clients being sentenced to death for murder in a Los Angeles bombing that killed 20 printers and newsmen. Put on trial for bribery, the author found evidence that Darrow bribed another juror to obtain his own acquittal.

Was Darrow justified in committing a felony? Darrow claimed his conscience was clear. His friends forgave him “because they shared his conviction that the vast power and wealth arrayed against labor unions, and the often violent and illegal tactics of corporations, justified such extreme measure to spare the defendants.”

My reaction: With today’s bombings in Jerusalem and Kabul, does anyone remember when terrorist attacks were perpetrated by our fellow Americans in Boston, Oklahoma City, and Los Angeles? It is always difficult to climb over the fence and look at a situation from the other side.

Meanwhile, in Saturday’s mail I found new copies of TIME, the New Yorker, and Newsweek. Now I am all set for next week. If I don’t find anything to rant about, I’ll finally get around to telling you more about the trip to Germany and discovering Tilman Riemenschneider.