Monthly Archives: August 2013

No White After Labor Day and Other Ridiculous Fashion Rules

According to all the rules of ages past, my opportunity to wear white in any approved fashion ends on Monday. My mother, my aunts, my grandmothers and most women of their ages conditioned those young girls of my generation that it was strictly forbidden. Why? Why?

If, as some sources I’ve read assert, that is because white is reflective and makes you cooler, then not wearing white makes sense — if you live anywhere where the temperatures drop soon after Labor Day.

If, on the other hand, you live (as I do) on the Gulf Coast, where “cold snaps” might appear in October but last only a day or two, and where summer heat drops some and diminishes a bit yet lingers into what the rest of the world thinks of as “fall” and even “winter,” then this dictum makes absolutely no sense.

I don’t even put up shorts and flip-flops until December, and even then I’m reluctant to do so. Many Christmases in the Ware house have been spent with the air conditioner on.

Since it’s warmish to hot so long down here on the coast, I think white clothes reflecting heat would make a lot more sense if worn after Labor Day.

A second theory, related to the first, is that white clothes tended to be made of thinner, lighter material and thus wouldn’t be suitable for cooler weather. Again, I respond as I did for theory #1. I want thinner, lighter material as long as the temperatures are in the 80s and 90s.

Wealthy people, I read, broke this tradition by wearing “winter white” — perhaps in flannels or heavier fabrics, but they broke it nonetheless. “Winter white” became fashionable.

Other rules have disappeared. Wearing white gloves? Long gone. Thank goodness. I hated those things. Hot, not always comfortable, and quickly dirtied (I often felt like Pigpen in the Peanuts cartoon strip, though a girl version). Polite society no longer requires these for “dressing up.” I had them, though, in quantities. Short gloves for church and other dressy occasions. Longer ones, mid-length. And elbow length, for proms and dances where long dresses were required.

Once more I suspect the origins of those white gloves was related to class or income. Ladies, after all, didn’t get their hands dirty. White gloves implied leisure time and, because they weren’t easy to keep clean, announced to the world that you didn’t have to worry about that. You either had money to buy more or servants to clean them. Or, if you had aspirations, you wanted to show that too. Or, like me, you were just a kid who had to follow the clothing regulations that your female elders dictated. It just was the rule, followed to be right.

Even my Grandmother Ware, a farm wife who worked a garden nearly an acre, wore gloves and long sleeves and a bonnet. Why? Ladies didn’t have torn-up hands, or tan.

Gloves for work, gloves for cold weather? Of course I have those. Those make sense.
But no more white gloves.

A Time article I read notes that wealth and class have always “led” fashion — dictated it, really. And the trends were set and followed by those of the leisure class, or those who wanted to be perceived as belonging. Others (i.e., the middle class) followed suit, often not recognizing the role of wealth and class in setting the fashions.

Well, phooey. It’s a democratic world, supposedly egalitarian. As a retired laborer from the bright-color middle class, I hereby pronounce that white should be an approved color for everyone, in any season, any material weight. Class dismissed.

What other fashion rules that I learned still linger, waiting for my close attention? Just think about it. There must be lots of them waiting for me to break if I think about it.

In the meantime, I think that on Tuesday I’ll put on my white cotton capris and wear my white leather flip-flops.

Of course, I just saw a Vogue article that assures me it’s okay to wear white after Labor Day now. Does that mean I am still following the dictates of wealth or class?

Nah.

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London Calling: Fish and Chips and Mushy Peas

Dr. Samuel Johnson famously pronounced that “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Update that to expand from “a man” and I have to agree.

London was one of those places that I used to dream about when I was growing up. Since I was always a reader, I was familiar with Shakespeare and Chaucer and the other writers. London, it seemed to me, always glittered with magic. Roman Britain, Elizabethan England, Romantic London and England, Victorian London — you name it, you can find it.

I’d read so many novels set there, some historical novels from various periods of history, some of them Regency romances by Georgette Heyer. Jane Austen especially let me imagine the life of her time.

Sometimes I’d get a map and look up streets of London, or find articles on famous buildings — Big Ben, the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace. Some places no longer existed, long destroyed in some disaster or just by time. Some places were outside of London– Hampton Court Palace, Oxford, Cambridge, Stratford-upon-Avon, Stonehenge, Rye, Bath.

My love of history and literature, already established by the time I graduated from high school, only deepened with studies at undergraduate and graduate school.

By the time I first traveled to Europe in 1974, I’d long traveled there in imagination.

That summer I stayed in Stratford-upon-Avon for six weeks and was a student at the Shakespeare Summer School. I spent some time in London.

I was hooked on foreign travel. My mother, I suspect, secretly hoped that that one summer would get it out of my system. Not a chance.

Once I started teaching at Lamar University in 1975, I started taking a vacation to London and other UK sites every summer. I’d spent a week or ten days, go to plays, spend time walking and looking and just drinking in the atmosphere.

Sometimes, it seemed to me that I’d been there in some other life — that’s how familiar the streets were. I’d anticipate where to turn or walk, and there I was. That’s how much I’d read and studied for so many years.

I’d take day trips out of London, going to Canterbury or Oxford. I’d spend a few days in Stratford to see plays. In London I’d go to a museum, sight-see, take in a matinee, and sometimes in a week I’d see maybe 4 or 5 plays. Need I say that I bought relatively inexpensive tickets? However, it is also true that ticket prices were more reasonable then also.

Now London is somewhere I dream of staying for long periods. Maybe renting a flat for a month or so. When I go there now, I no longer try to jam in as much sight-seeing as possible, because now I target a few things, slow down, and savor the experiences.

So when I took a long weekend trip there in May, flying from Athens, it was a rather spur-of-the moment trip. This year, I built my trip around getting a ticket to see a special exhibit at the British Museum, one on Pompeii. Once I’d managed to get a ticket, for the Sunday of my trip, I could sort of think about what I wanted to do.

Specific things I wanted to do: catch up with a friend who was there before flying home to Florida. Have drinks with my friend Sara who lives there. Maybe see a friend’s son who is living there. I managed the first two, but not the third.

Arriving on Thursday, I got to my hotel, checked in, and walked up to Kensington High Street to do a bit of grocery shopping (there was a small refrigerator in the room). I walked around a bit and then went back to my room. I showered and unpacked, ordered room service for dinner, with some wine.

There’s just something so indulgent to me, still, about doing that. I love it. A nice meal, some wine, a book, and a comfortable bed with fluffy pillows and I was in heaven.

Friday was the Covent Garden day — just a short hop away from the Kensington High Street tube station. Emerging from the Covent Garden tube station, I headed left toward the small area known as Neal’s Yard. Until a couple of years ago, I’d never been to Covent Garden, despite many times in London. So my friend Christopher introduced me to it, and it was love at first experience.

In Neal’s Yard, I found Neal’s Yard Remedies, which makes organic creams and lotions and soaps and even makeup, sort of like The Body Shop, but not franchised. Now I always make time for a foray to the shop there, though I have found a New York City store that has a website and I’ve ordered from it. The original London store, though, small as it is, has such a neat setting.

Neal’s Yard itself was undergoing some changes when I was there in May. What had been a small restaurant and, on the corner of the same ground floor of a building, a hair salon, was under renovation. The small sandwich and snack place I knew was still open, though I wasn’t there on the day of the week when a guy plays the piano.
One place was still there — a walk-in massage business. Twenty minutes for my shoulders and back was just what I needed.

Above the Neal’s Remedies store, there’s a blue plaque that in England marks a building or flat or house associated with some historic or literary figure. This marker announces that Monty Python’s Flying Circus did something there.

Walking out of the little alley out of Neal’s Yard back to the street, I noticed a chalkboard with quotes on it. One was from Ralph Waldo Emerson. I liked that.
Once at the street, I took a right and two stores later was in Neal’s Yard Cheese shop. If you’re a cheese lover, as I am, this is a real treat. Huge wheels of small-dairy cheeses are everywhere. Hand-lettered signs tell you who made it, what it is, etc. If you’re interested in anything, you can taste it. I ended up with a variety of cheeses, a small hunk of organic butter, some crackers, and a hunk of beautiful bread. Wrapped and paid for, my cheeses and bread and butter went into a cotton shopping bag emblazoned with the name of the store.

I had enough for night meals and snacks, plus a useful memento (the bag).

That joined the Neal’s Remedies purchases, in yet another cotton bag.

From there I walked a bit and stopped at a Starbucks. With a big cappuccino, I sat with a view of the street, took out my iPad and logged on to the free wifi, and enjoyed a relaxing break in a warm place. My view allowed for a lot of people-watching. People wrapped up in coats and mufflers walked around, stopped and shopped. I was cozy inside, sipping my cappuccino.

Once I finished and decided to wander back toward Covent Garden, I stopped at one store to look at a leather bag I liked, but decided against it. A few doors down was the tea shop I’d been in before. Not a place to drink tea, but a store that offers teas and teapots and other accessories. Twenty minutes later I had a third bag on my arm, filled with several varieties of loose teas and a nice flowered porcelain teapot. Right now the teapot is sitting on the counter behind me as I’m at the beach house, which is where I intended for it to be.

Then I crossed the cross street and headed into what many people think of when they think of Covent Garden — market area. The Apple Market has a different set of vendors every day of the week. For example, if you’re interested in antiques, go on Tuesday. I’d walk up and down, look at what was on offer. I ended up with a nice small handmade purse and a shawl. At one end of the open market is an area where street entertainers position themselves. That day I joined a crowd watching some guy on a tall monocycle. Amusing patter, gymnastic antics. At the end, I put some change in his hat on the ground and wandered back to the market area. I popped in a Crabtree and Evelyn store. I found some homemade soaps. Finally, I stopped and ate a late lunch at a Jamie Oliver place. Second fish and chips meal in two days, complete with mushy peas and a great cider.

I walked around a lot more and finally headed back to Kensington High Street, picked up a few more things at a Boots chemist (pharmacy + other things, a UK chain), and then walked to the hotel. Once back in my hotel room, I warmed up under a hot shower that was perfect for sore feet and shoulders.

The nice thing was I wasn’t concerned about ticking another thing off a predetermined list. For a bit I considered going to a play, but I didn’t have any luck getting a ticket to see Helen Mirren in “The Queen.” Night two was another reading night.

And so it went. Though I started out with one idea on Saturday about what to do, and that was to wander down Portobello Road. Saturdays are always market days. Again, it’s worth it. People-watching, snacks, street singers and entertainers, pubs, stores, stalls. Once more, I spent a leisurely day, ending up with some presents — a handful of cotton shopping bags (Portobello Road). I’m not the only bag lady I know.

Saturday evening I met my friend Susan, who was with a friend of hers who lives in England. We walked around and ended up at a pub I’d been to before, the King’s Head, and had some drinks. After they left, I ate dinner (fish and chips again, more mushy peas) and had some more cider.

Sunday was British Museum day, and that was wonderful. That evening my friend Sara met me at my hotel and we sat in the bar and enjoyed catching up while we drank some wine. Okay, make that a lot of wine. I wasn’t driving, and neither was she.

On Monday I returned to Athens.

Just a neat short trip, and if there was something I didn’t get to do, that’s okay. London always has something on offer.

Dr. Johnson was right.

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What’s In A Name?

“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweetly.” So Shakespeare proposed in Romeo and Juliet.

As I was talking with friends a couple of days ago, I started thinking about names. About nicknames, actually. And about how some names just ask for trouble. Or jokes.

I never really had an obvious nickname. Some names invite one; others don’t. My brother Philip was Phil. My sister Kay is sometimes Katie. My mother Irene was Reenie to some of her cousins and also Butch. My dad was Henry Theophilus — he was H.T. to some (from childhood and family), Hank to others (from work).

Me? There were family names that outsiders usually didn’t know. My Uncle James called me Whistlebritches when I was a toddler; apparently when I was in diapers I was given to running off after dropping the diapers– so fast, my uncle would tease, that they whistled. My dad called me Princess when I was an infant, but after I started crawling and then climbing and running, I became Wart. That, he said, was because I “warted” him to death if I wanted something. Or the other very flattering name he had for me: Worm. Because I was hard to hold on to – I was, he claimed, a wiggleworm. Hence “Worm.”

Then there was the name that my dad’s work partner made me think was mine. Buddy worked with Dad most of my life — he was my “other dad.” By the time I was three, Buddy had me trained. He’d drill me with this. Often. If he asked me what my name was — usually in front of people — I would respond (as he had taught me) “Cheryl Lynn Stinkpot Ware.” Live that one down, folks.

Southern kids also always know when they’re in trouble — that’s when both the first and middle names get used. Both. At once. No nicknames. That’s unless you have some double-name combination that always functions as a single name. My mother just loved calling me Cheryl Lynn, as my aunts did. By the time I was 14, I was signing my middle initial– I thought “Cheryl L. Ware” sounded so grown-up, so mature. But I have cousins to whom I am still Cheryl Lynn. And that’s run together as a single name — Cherylyn. My Grampa Charlie, who was Swedish,” would roll the two names together with some strange Swedish twist at the back of his throat. No one else could call me that name the way he could — rolling the r and them almost swallowing the “yl.”

Couple any number of names with the last name of Ware and you can predict giggles or jokes. Initials, for example, for my cousin Barbara and me and my brother Phil: B Ware. C Ware. And the ever-lovely P Ware. Lots of laughs on that last one.

The last name of Ware itself simply invites all sorts of jokes — usually along the following lines: “Do you have any cousins named Corning? Baking? Stone?”

On bus trips in high school, usually the jokes came along with roll call. Remember roll calls? Usually as names were called, you said “Here.” Imagine your name is Ware. It’s called. You answer: “Here.” And someone (or several someones) begin laughing and responding “Where?” Eventually, smart-ass Cheryl started responding with “present” rather than “here.” That didn’t really help at all. I just got ignored and the “where” snickers continued.

In high school, my science and math teacher, Mr. Miller, once came up with a new one. Of course he managed to use it when I was taking a make-up test for one class while sitting in his Chemistry class (the students were a year older than I). While I was sitting there waiting for the makeup test, Mr. Miller told them I’d be there, taking the test. And in front of these students, some of whom were cool older guys, he continued: “You know, Cheryl, if your middle name was Sunder and you said the name really fast, you’d be Cheryl Sunder Ware.” Go ahead, readers — say it out loud, and fast. Run the names together: CherylSunderWare: Cheryl’s Underwear. That’s right. I wanted to die. Right then.

I didn’t, of course, and I aced the test, I think.

Some people have nicknames that have no relation to their given names, but arise from some incident, long forgotten. At some point, some of us would refer to my cousin Barbara as Babo — after a powder cleanser brand that you’d shake on a surface and then wipe with a wet cloth. It was humorous in high school. Maybe once or twice. Naturally, it was used to death for a while and then forgotten.

Other times, names are innocent enough in themselves, but suffer the problem of other associations with the name as a word. For a number of years, for example, I had a colleague whose last name was Dick. She could laugh about it. But she also liked to tell us that her sister married a guy whose last name was Peters.

Compared to that, Ware was just fine.

Sometimes nicknames reflect a culture or language. When I was in college one of our starting football players was called Ti Red (Little Red) because he was — you guessed it — kind of short for a football player. I don’t remember his given name.

Or the twins who were in my grade in high school — given names, Harrel and Darrel. Nicknames? Billy and Joe. True story.

Another guy in our class was called Snake. Even as adults that’s what we called him. Not his given name. Yet another had the unfortunate nickname of Meathead.

In south Louisiana where I grew up, some people had very different names because we were and are in a region that is culturally very French/Cajun more than English. So I went to school with kids whose parents or grandparents had names like Cyprien, or Telesphere, or Theophile. In fact, one of my sorority sisters had a brother named Theo — short for Theophile. My mother had relatives named Philemon, Plez, and Cecile.

My dad’s family had some interesting names and nicknames too. Dad, of course, had an interesting middle name: Theophilus. A nice Greek name. He was named for his grandfather, Theophilus Valentine Ware, also known as TV, also known as “Tump.” TV’s brother was named Nimrod Washington Ware; he was known as “Nim” or “Timi” (Tim-eye). I think they had a brother whose name was “Pont.” Nimrod was actually a family name. Imagine having that name, will you? Given the connotation of the name “Nimrod,” think about the laughs that come with it. I know it’s a Biblical name, but it’s hard to imagine that when you’re thinking about the connotation of the name and term “Nimrod.” I can laugh, then, and notice that while many families have nimrods in them, mine actually has Nimrods.

My Granddad Ware’s name was pretty straightforward: James Franklin Ware. No Greek name there. (Greek names were popular in the 19th century South.)

One of his brothers, though, was named Leonidas. His nickname: Lon. Uncle Lon had one son, also named Leonidas (or at least I assume so) but called Leon.

Some names, odd enough in themselves, get pronounced differently or combined with other names. My maternal grandmother had a sister named Tabitha. But in the family, the pronunciation was Ta-BYE-thee. We called her BYEthee. She was named after one of her father’s sisters, I think. My great-grandfather’s mother, though, had the most unusual name: Axie Eliza Snellgrove.

Sometimes names must have been written phonetically: my Grandmother Ware’s name suggests this. Somewhere, I suspect, my great-grandmother must have seen the name Brooke, but thought that the final e was pronounced. Hence my grandmother’s name: Brookie.

Certainly names shift in place in terms of popularity. There were years where I might have 4 or 5 Jennifers in class. Or whatever. Clusters of names in a given class at school will reveal what names were trending when those students’ mothers were pregnant and having to make the decision about naming.

In the 60s and 70s you might find infants named “Rainbow,” or “River.” Or, as Frank Zappa named his children, “Dweezil,” “Moon Unit,” and “Ahmed.”

No, C Ware is just fine with me.

It could be worse.

I could truly be Whistlebritches Ware.

Or Cheryl Lynn Stinkpot Ware.

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Catalogs, Magazines, and Paper Transactions

While I was working earlier today, sitting here at the computer, I heard the mail drop through the slot on the living room door and hit the floor.  I could tell by the heft and sound — by the speed between the brass slot cover slamming shut and the mail hitting the floor — what I probably had received.

Catalogs.

And yes, that was indeed what the bulk of today’s mail consisted of.  Not much else, maybe a couple of envelopes.  I put the catalogs aside for later, saving them up as if for a treat.  That’s what they are, really — a treat.

First I will look at the catalogs themselves — where are they from?  Are they ones I get regularly?  Any new ones?  I’ll even put them in an order that I want to follow.

I usually take the one I’m least interested in first, and put the one I’m most interested in last — or a new catalog might go last.  It’s sort of like the way I used to eat food on my plate when I was little.  I’d built up to my favorite thing.

Usually I put these aside until I go to bed.  I’ll sit in bed with a pen and slowly examine each catalog, page by page, marking anything I’m interested in.  Sometimes I turn back to look at something I particularly liked.  One catalog at a time, I work my way through the stack, whether it’s small or large.

And if I’ve bought any magazines that day, I’ll save the magazines for the same time as catalog time.  Once more I browse through, page by page.  Maybe I read something.  Maybe I mark a design or a piece of furniture or a color.  (Many of the magazines I buy are home decorating magazines or crafting magazines.)

I might even return to the catalogs the next day, putting them in my shoulder bag to peruse again.

And the magazines tend to stay on the bed or near it so that I can return to them for several days.  Sometimes they’ll end up in a stack on the storage box at the foot of my bed, or in a cute basket that I’ve put near the bed or in the room to hold magazines and catalogs.  (I got that tip somewhere years ago from one of the decorating magazines.  I now have more baskets than I need.)

At some point — maybe every three weeks, maybe once a month — okay, realistically every 4-6 monts — I am forced to sit and sort through what has accumulated over that time period.  Generally, it’s astounding.  Sometimes I wonder just how I ended up with so many different catalogs.  Some, I know, I’ve sent for.  Others?  Who knows.

There are some catalogs that I buy from regularly — most often from the catalog/company website.  Others I order from less often.  Some I’ve never actually bought anything from at all.

As for the magazines, I enjoy seeing others’ ideas about homes and decor.  Most high-end homes have nothing in common with mine, yet I might find some color combination or decorating tip that I really like.  I’ll end up tearing out pages and very rarely actually organizing those pages together in a file.  That file, I must admit, often ends up trashed at some point too.  Somewhere, though (usually in my head/memory) I’ll remember something really key, something I want to try, or a look I really like a lot.

Mostly with many of these magazines I just gawk at what people with money can and will buy.  And I don’t mean that I do so in an admiring sort of way.  Not at all.  Instead I find myself wondering just how people really live in these showcase houses.  Maybe they don’t.  Or maybe they have full-time staffs to keep it up.  I’m pretty sure that any pets in the photographs are never dirty, never roll in dead stuff, and certainly never have “accidents” on the immaculate furniture I see.  So often there’s no sense of a life lived in the houses on show — and that’s a problem for me.  If it’s too neat or too fussy or obviously staged, it doesn’t look real to me, and thus somehow loses appeal.

Yet I persist in buying the magazines, month in and month out.  It’s a cheap entertainment, after all.

Which is what the catalogs are too.  Cheap entertainment.

In a way, it’s like what I call the Christmas-catalog syndrome.  Those of us of a certain age anticipated the Christmas catalogs that came from Sears, J.C. Penney, and Montgomery Ward.  Those companies, in particular, had regular annual or seasonal catalogs.  But the Christmas catalogs were the special treats.

Mind you, this was prior to the computer, to the internet.  If you lived in a small town, as my family did, you didn’t get to a lot of large cities to shop, and smaller cities like Lafayette or Lake Charles offered the box stores and some local specialty stores.

So the catalogs were what we turned to, sort of like we use the internet now.  When I was a kid, I remember spending hours with those Christmas catalogs, carefully considering everything I wanted and then compiling the list that I had to submit to Mother.  I knew I wouldn’t get everything, but I also knew I’d get some of it.

Why shop this way?

It’s easy.  It’s convenient.  Of course, you can’t try clothes on, but if it’s a catalog brand you know, you have a sense of the sizes.  Additionally, you can always return something.

When Dad was ill, this was a crucial outlet for me.  My shopping opportunities were pretty limited, both in scope and in time.  I lived equidistant between two Walmart’s, one in Jennings and one in Crowley.  If I had more time, I might get to Target in Lake Charles or Lafayette.  Seriously.  So the catalogs were truly treats, whether I actually bought anything or not.  I could escape the realities of what I was juggling.

At holiday times I generally avoid crowds unless I simply must plunge into the shopping-crazed hordes that crowd the malls and stores.  Some of my friends adore Black Friday.  Not me.  I cringe.  I avoid.  I’ll sit at Starbucks and McDonalds that day, but won’t go near the advertised specials.

That’s when internet shopping is again a lifesaver.  Again, when I was teaching and taking care of Dad, Christmas fell to me, more and more, and I did both his shopping and mine (once Mother died, and once he began to get sick).  Catalogs and internet shopping made gifts possible.

Now they’re pure entertainment again.  I have no problem getting out to shop, if I want to.  Frankly, I still avoid malls if I can.  Specialty stores and local stores?  That’s different.  If I have a particular thing that, for instance, I know Dillard’s carries, I’ll park strategically, enter the store and make a beeline for the area I need, select the item or items, check out, and immediately exit.  I don’t really like to linger.

Occasionally I’ll make a trip to Houston to hit the Ikea store, or something I can’t get anywhere near where I live.

Otherwise?  Catalogs.  Internet.  Whatever I can get into and out of in Lake Charles.  With some clothes, especially, I’ve got two or three catalogs and online catalogs that are my default shopping choice.

Right now, I’m facing one of those “Oh my God I’ve got to purge” times.  Somehow the piles of magazines have accumulated in various spots, and I discovered that they’re now stacked in one place.  It’s scary.  The stack is probably as tall as I am.

Time to sort and throw, obviously.  More will get recycled than will stay.  I’ll tear some pages out and file them.  This is, after all, what the kinds of magazines I often read suggest — along with how to store/display such magazines tastefully and with style.  That’s why I have all the damned baskets.  Obviously, the writers of those organization articles never get behind, never forget to regularly edit, and obviously never ever end up with a stack of magazines nearly five and a half feet tall.  No.  They are perfect.  I, on the other hand, am not, and thus end up in an “Oh my God” phase, which is what I reached this week.  It’s time to tackle that stack.

But that’s next week, maybe.  When I sit down to tackle the huge stack, I’ll finish it in a concentrated couple of hours.  I’ll sit there with trash bags ready to fill and a basket for what I keep.

For now?  Tonight?

I’ve got three new catalogs that came in today and I want to savor them.

Where’s my pen?

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Technology Tuesday

I love gadgets and technology.  And yes, I’m a female.  No, I don’t do programming.  And I don’t really want to, either.  Technology — specifically computers and the internet — gives me pause today.

Here I am at 62, with a desktop (an iMac from the fall of Hurricane Ike, 2008), a MacBook Air (spring 2011), an iPad 2 (April 2011), and now an iPad mini.  I enjoy using my iPod, too.  For me, technology has been fun, though frustrating at times.

I’m old enough that I learned to type. On a manual typewriter — a big one, heavy enough to do serious injury to someone.  I actually took a typing class in high school.  When I went to college, my parents bought me a portable manual typewriter.  When I started grad school to work on my M.A., I got an electric typewriter, though one that still required that white paper tape to do corrections.  By the time I wrote my dissertation for the Ph.D., I had an IBM Selectric.

Only in the 1980s did I acquire my first computer — an Apple Iic, bought used from a friend.  From then on, I’ve been a Mac girl all the way.  Certainly at the university I had to be able to work with a PC — our later computer labs in the Department of English had them, and so did most students.  I became bi-lingual, or as I sometimes called it, bi-platform.

Most of my use has been word-processing, but I’ve learned to use PowerPoint and even Excel (the dreaded spreadsheet).  Learning is kind of fun, even if I am constantly challenged and frequently frustrated.

For teaching, I learned to use Blackboard.  And I tested Moodle.  I even tried to use LiveText.  If there was a new technology at the university, I was willing to jump right in.  But some friends resisted and continue to.  Our teaching world has shifted from one technological paradigm to another, and it hasn’t been an easy shift at all.

And then there are the problems for any individual today.  Many of us use online access for shopping, for banking, for bill paying, for accounts of all types.  And each and every site we access regularly means trouble.

I mean, just how many log-in names must one invent?  One site wants at least one capital letter and one number.  Another wants that as well as some symbol.  And passwords?  Don’t get me started.

At least once a year I find myself cursing at myself — just how can I forget how to sign on to some page I use less frequently than others?  I know I’ve made a note of the login name and password, but where?

And when I do try to retrieve it, or to reset a password, and the system tells me it cannot verify my security answers . . . .  I just want a baseball bat.  Or an adult beverage.  Or both.

Sometimes I triumph and recover it all.  Sometimes I slump in defeat, reduced to calling the help line that day or the next and confessing to someone I can’t see that I am a)stupid and b)can’t remember what I need.  I’m sure I provide lots of entertainment and laughter for the people on the other end of the phone line.

Just this week, I have: not been able to get into my TRSL member account; not been able to log in to a credit card account; not been able to get into my own Social Security page.  That’s just this week.  It’s only Tuesday night.

My backup when that happens?  To make phone calls.  Which I’ve done yesterday and today.  Tomorrow I have another couple of calls to make.

I can log on to almost anything from almost anywhere.  On my iPad.  On my smartphone.  On a computer.  Somewhere everything is linked in that great cyber universe beyond the seen world.

Maybe I really am in a Dr. Who episode.  Maybe my desktop is in some kind of crack between worlds.

Anyway, it’s only Tuesday.  What else can happen?

Well, I head to the beach on Thursday.  For some reason, AT&T tells me that the street my beach house is on can’t get service yet.  It’s not sure why — either the new grid is already full, or the new grid isn’t complete yet.  Please call back.  I don’t want a phone.  I want internet service.  And while I can’t get it because AT&T swears it isn’t available on my street, someone on a nearby street has it (actually several someones).  I can pull in several locked AT&T networks.  None of them, alas, are open.

To get internet via satellite is more than I pay for satellite television.  By the way, the satellite company that provides television service for Kay and me doesn’t also provide internet service, though it does in other areas.  No, for that we’d have to use another satellite company.  And its service is outrageously expensive.  It’s also not very reliable.

So I use the cellular data plan on my iPad.  Of course, getting good reception at the beach house doesn’t seem to work for me most of the time.  Phone service seems spotty.  I can get my iPad to successfully get some cellular service only when I sit at the dining room table.  But I console myself that at least I can get some internet service that way.

That’s when I know just how much the internet has become part of my life.  I need to log on daily.  I need to check mail.  I need to read my newspapers.  And, of course, I need/want to blog.

That’s why all these handy devices exist, right?  To make life easier?  To make the web accessible just about anywhere, anytime?

Right.

I get better reception when I’m on the ferry heading to Galveston than I get in my own beach house.

For years — decades– I lived without a computer or the internet.  I taught without a computer.  Without a printer.  All I needed was a typewriter and a stencil or mimeograph machine.  (You youngsters probably have no clue what those things are.  Look them up.  Google them.)

By the time I retired, we had smart classrooms, and whiteboards, and my students could log on to wireless access in some buildings in class.

Today I met friends for coffee.  It was the second day of fall semester, and they’d already met classes.  Both were talking about how the newly opened renovated building that houses English and history and social sciences wasn’t quite ready.  There were no desks or podiums.  There were new whiteboards but no markers and erasers.  I don’t know whether the new smart classrooms were working; neither friend teaches in a smart classroom.

And I smiled.  My own Tuesday technological difficulties are mine; they don’t involve other people’s technology.  Thank goodness.

I’m not a Luddite.  Not by a long shot.

Sometimes, though, it’s nice not to have to frantically keep up with newly adopted technology for teaching — that may or may not work.

I don’t have to log on to Blackboard or Moodle.  I don’t have to set up class sites online.  I don’t have to load on folders of notes and handouts and weblinks and assignments.  I don’t have to fumble with an online gradebook.

I just have to make a few phone calls tomorrow to remind myself: who am I?  What login name did I use?  Then I can reset passwords.

And that will work.

Until the next time I forget, of course.

Ah well.  Enough for tonight.

I think it’s time to go to bed and read.

An e-book, of course.

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Dog Days and Dad

Since today is National Dog Day, I’ve spent a few hours thinking about my two dogs, Gypsy and Zsa Zsa, to be sure, but also about all the dogs in my life.  And about Dad.  Because it’s all his fault, really, my life-long attachment to dogs.

I don’t ever remember life without dogs.  When I was six months old, Dad got transferred from Beaumont to Humble, a small town near Houston.  Before too long, he’d gone hunting with a neighbor of ours who had a young female pointer.  The dog really took to Dad, but when Mr. McIlvoy tried to give her to Dad, Dad refused; he couldn’t afford to buy the dog, and he wasn’t going to take her as a gift.  Sly Mr. McIlvoy got around that by giving the dog to me.  So Kate came to live with us and my love affair with dogs began.

Kate and I bonded, no doubt.  If Dad or Mother wondered where I was, all they had to do was say my name and Kate would take off to find me.  I could sit on her, pelt her with toys — you name it, and she simply stood there with me.  When I was maybe two, my Dad loved to tell friends (anyone who’d listen, really) about the time he found the two of us sitting on the back steps of our house, the dog food bag at my feet.  I’d pick out the nugget for her and then a flake for me.  He figured if it was okay for the dog, it wouldn’t hurt me either.

He loved that dog, and until the end of his life swore that she was the brightest dog, the best pointer, he ever had.  And the best tempered.  Even with a string of dogs that followed, none ever quite matched up with Kate.  

All of the dogs loved Dad, doted on him.  He was a good, patient trainer (and I suspect that was true with us kids as well as dogs).  Dad loved to hunt quail in particular, and that’s why pointers were so common around our house.  He also hunted ducks and teal.  And squirrels.  And deer.  He just didn’t need dogs for everything he hunted.

He had a tender heart and couldn’t stand to see injured animals of any kind. Dad would bring injured animals home and nurse them.  That’s how I got Jimmy the Crow.  

When we had two dogs poisoned a couple of weeks apart, a dachshund and a pointer, both kept penned and not loose, I think that was the first time I’d ever seen Dad so worked up.  That someone (who probably knew us) had chosen to come to our house — in the camp in Egan — two weeks apart and poison two of our dogs was just something without excuse.  I think there were over 10 dogs poisoned in Egan in that period.  One of ours survived.  The other didn’t.  Dad never got over the fact that someone was sick enough to poison a helpless dog.

When I was a freshman in college, we were visiting Dad’s brother and family in Longview, Texas.  On our walk in the neighborhood, my cousin Barbara and I came across a puppy that had been thrown out and abandoned.  It was so young it’s eyes weren’t open.  I picked it up and brought it home, and she swore Dad wouldn’t let me keep it.  He sat down in the floor with me, cuddled it, and showed me how to feed it.  We kept that dog for the few years he was alive.

After Kate, we had other dogs. We had one of Kate’s only two pups, but she got run over by a truck.   There were other pointers.  There were a couple of small non-hunting dogs. Dad’s last hunting dog was really my brother’s dog.  I was living here in Lake Charles when Phil came to pick me up one day.  He’d found a dog to buy, one he wanted for Dad.  A young pointer with a field-dog pedigree.   And so Buck came to live in Egan.  

Buck was sweet.  He just wasn’t the brightest.  Nor did he ever really hunt.  He was shy of loud noises, which didn’t bode well for a hunting dog.  Buck would point — beautifully, really — just perfect form.  But the problem?  He’d go on point for anything.  I watched him go on point for butterflies, for frogs, for almost anything that moved.  Once he actually got the frog, and then didn’t know what to do with it.

Despite the fact that Phil bought Buck for Dad, Dad always called him Phil’s.  Even when Phil moved to Florida, Buck was still “Phil’s dog.”  Yet Buck lived in Dad’s back yard in Egan.  We’d pet him, get in the pen sometimes to play with him.  He didn’t like some strangers, though — and someone we knew apparently hit him once, and when that person would come around, Buck would slink down and his ears would pin back. He really didn’t like that person, who just thought it was funny and would antagonize Buck by rattling noisy things on the fence.  But Buck loved women.  All of us.

It was strange, really. about Buck.  The day that Phil died, Buck (who’d was old by then and very frail) couldn’t walk and was falling over.  Dad had to take him to the vet to be put down.  We cried a lot that day.  

Though Dad didn’t bird hunt for years, he still loved “bird dogs,” short-haired pointers in particular.  Really, though, if it was a dog, and friendly, it headed to Dad.  And he loved to tell stories about dogs and hunting. He loved to watch field trials on television.  He and my cousin Jim (who also hunts, but has had retrievers) could talk about hunting and dogs.  Dad could always talk to someone and pay attention to a dog at the same time, as evidenced in the following photograph I took at Jim’s house in Galveston.  

ImageDad and Dixie

 

On my own since my 20s, I began acquiring my own dogs, but small ones because I lived in an apartment at first, and also because I had an erratic teaching schedule.  First came Punkin, a poodle-chihuahua mix.  Punkin was a treat — sharp and bright and funny.  Then I had Scarlett, my first Shih Tzu.  Soon after, I got a second dog, Rocky, a Shih Tzu mix.  Rocky was cute and sweet, but not really bright.  After them, I was hooked on Shih Tzus.  It just seemed destined.

After Scarlett and Rocky died, I took in a stray that my cousin’s wife found in Galveston — a black and white Shih Tzu. My niece Rachel announced that this little dog (I named her Zoe) was like Scarlett and Rocky had come back in one dog.  And that was true — she looked like them, even had some shared traits. 

Another stray came home with my from Krogers one day;  I’d stopped her from being run over in the parking lot, and she jumped in my car and claimed me.  So Scruffy added herself to my menagerie.

Hurricane Rita was hard on many animals, even animals that were safe and secure.  The stress was so great that many became ill and died shortly after the storm.  That was the case for Scruffy and Zoe and my cats.  Within six months, I was left with one pet, and that cat died too within a year. 

But I couldn’t live pet-less.  First I got Zsa Zsa from a friend whose dog had had a litter.  Then came Callie, a calico cat.  Soon after, my sister Kay found a stray Shih Tzu in Natchitoches, and when the pup’s owners decided they couldn’t keep her, she came to live with me.  They’d named her Princess Sugar Cokie (I swear), but I could not stand that name.  Gypsy seemed a more appropriate name for her because she was an escape artist and liked to roam.  Now one of the young girls at my vet’s office laughs and tells me that my dogs have stripper names.  Oh well.

So then I was back to three pets, a cat, a Shih Tzu and a Shih Tzu mix.  Before I knew it, I was taking in a male kitten from Dad’s garage, a black and white sweetie I named Romeo.  And finally, on Spetses a few years ago, a tiny kitten adopted me and hitched a ride back to Lake Charles from Greece.  I named her Homer.

I’ve grown to like cats, but I’m really a dog girl at heart.  

If I weren’t careful, I’d be overrun with stray dogs and cats.  I watched Dad take some in and nurse them back to health.  I learned from him that pedigrees weren’t that important in the long run.

Regardless, his favorite dogs remained pointers.  Mine?  Shih Tzus have stolen my heart.  They are bright and sweet, strong-willed, and love to snuggle.  They have distinct personalities.

Dad would joke about my little fur-balls being “worthless,” but he always said that with a grin as he was petting them.  

 

ImageDad, Scruffy, and Zoe

 

ImageDad and Zsa Zsa

Dad’s love of animals was evident to everyone.  My friend Tom Fox once heard Dad tell stories about dogs, and Dad was a great storyteller with an amazing sense of timing.  Tom said he’d listen to Dad talk about dogs anytime, and he didn’t really know much about dogs, or like them, or hunt, but it didn’t matter — Dad had him.

Dad let me do things I can’t imagine many other dads would:  when we lived in the camp in Egan, I can remember sneaking out the back door at night when I was maybe 8 and bringing Kate in to sleep with me.  I know he must have heard me opening the door, going outside, and bringing Kate in.  I had to unlock the gate to the dog pen, too, and close it.  I’d bring Kate in, make her get in bed with me, and go to sleep.  He’d let me get away with it.

From watching Dad, I learned about how to care for a pet, how to be a responsible owner.  He didn’t have to tell me much — he showed me, through his own actions.  And dogs always recognized that he cared about them.  They gravitated to him.  His face would soften into a smile and his voice would drop as he talked to them; his hands were stroking their heads, scratching their ears.  They knew a dog person when they saw one.

Treated properly, dogs are wonderful companions.  They have love and loyalty, unconditional love.  They sense their owners’ emotions.  I know mine certainly do — when I’m down they sense it and crowd me as though to reassure me I’m loved.  They lick me.  A lot.  

They’re good for us, too, studies show.  Blood pressures drop when people are petting dogs and cats.  Many nursing homes now allow therapy pets in so that their residents can benefit from petting a dog.  Some dogs, it appears, can even sniff out tumors.  

Yes, they can be trouble to care for.  Pets mean that you have to consider their care before you can simply hit the road for a trip.  

They’ll miss you when you’re gone. They may make you pay when you return, but not for too long.  

Treat them right — and you have companions that lavish love.

The dogs and cats I have now are the last pets I’ll have that Dad knew.  That makes me sad today, to tell the truth.  

But that I love my dogs — that I can’t see living without one — is one of his many legacies to me.  Thanks, Dad, on this National Dog Day.  

Now it’s time to pay some attention to Zsa Zsa and Gypsy, who wait for me.

 

 

 

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Movie Time and Other Cultures

I’ve hibernated this weekend — at least last night and today.  I spent several hours yesterday with friends but by the time I got home was ready for some time alone.

What have I done?  A lot of reading.  A bit of housework (mainly dishes).  No television.  But two movies ended up in the DVD player, one last night and one this morning.

Neither movie was made by a U.S. director.  Both were for English-speaking audiences.  Yet neither was about the U.S.  

I’d bought one DVD before I left for Greece, but hadn’t watched it.  The other I bought in Athens because it sounded interesting, yet hadn’t watched it yet either.

For some reason, last night and today seemed the right time to spend with these films.  For a few hours, each took me outside myself and my culture and time.  Each involved me in films based on true stories about real people and events, set in countries and times distance from my own.

First I watched Day of the Falcon, a film from 2011 originally titled Black Gold, based on a 1957 novel by Hans Ruesch called South of the Heart: A Novel of Modern Arabia.  Directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, the film depicts the beginning of oil production in early 20th century Saudi Arabia.  Antonio Banderas is the best-known actor in the film, and I admit that it was Banderas who caught my eye.  He’s one of those actors who could read the phone book and I’d want to watch.  

I don’t quite know what I expected, but the film surprised me.  Beautifully photographed in Tunisia and Qatar, it depicts Arabia before unification under one ruling family.  Instead, here there are two separate kingdoms, ruled by two very different men.  One, Sultan Amar, is a very religious, traditional man; he leaves his two sons with the other ruler, Emir Nesib, as hostages. The Yellow Belt, a no-man’s land as established between them by treaty to prevent war, is the reason for the two boys being left with Nesib.  He brings them up with his own two children, a boy and a girl.  The Yellow Belt turns out to be rich with oil, and while Nesib is quick to grasp the benefits of oil production, Amar rejects the idea altogether.  Despite the different attitudes and despite the agreement that the Yellow Belt would remain unclaimed, Nesib allows  a company called Texas Oil to develop an oil field there.  Banderras plays Emir Nesib, leader of Hobeika.  

The film covers a period of at least 15 years, since the boys have been left with him that long before one of them sees their father again.

The older son, Saleh, escapes after killing his escorts, and is in turn killed.  The younger son, Prince Auda, is a bookish, thoughtful, religious young man.  He and Nesib’s daughter Leyla have been friends since childhood, and each is secretly in love with the other.  The two marry with Nesib’s blessing, but without Amar’s knowledge.  Eventually, Amar is sent as an emissary to his own father, who refuses to return him.  Slowly, Amar comes to know his own father as an authentic, well-meaning leader.  

That the modern world is not welcome in Amar’s kingdom of Salma becomes clear to Auda.  Though his own half-brother Ali is a physician, he is not allowed to use medicine because it is Western.  Yet Auda’s spirited defense of the use of medicine, using the very Koran his father’s advisers also base their arguments on, impresses Amar.  

War is inevitable, and Auda reluctantly joins his father in moving troops toward the Yellow Belt.  Nesib’s army has at its disposal every modern weapon at hand, thanks to the wealth that has come with the oil.  Auda’s troops, in contrast, rely on camels and swords, though also having guns.

In the course of the battle, Nesib’s son is killed despite Auda’s attempts to prevent this.  Auda genuinely grieves the loss.  Eventually Auda and Amar triumph, but Amar is killed by a tribesman who doesn’t understand what has happened.  Auda ends up ruling both Hobeika and Salma, reunited with his wife.  Rather than kill his defeated father-in-law, Auda decides to have him go to Houston as their representative on the board of Texas Oil.

Why did I find this movie intriguing, despite its lackluster critical reception in the U.S.?  Perhaps it is the very non-U.S. nature of the film itself.  Here is a depiction of a critical period in Arab history, focused on Arabs, in a film produced by an Arab — yet clearly meant for an English-speaking audience.

It doesn’t bash the oil company or the oil development.  Rather it focuses on the clash within the Arab world itself, between the very traditional world of Amar that resists any intrusion of the modern, and the traditional world of Nesib that welcomes the changes of the modern world as bringing benefits.  

Young Auda is the figure who, in the end, will manage to balance the two, it is implied.  

It is a romantic film, to be sure, though not in the sense of the love story, which is almost secondary to the central story.  No, it is a romantic film about the Arab past and its emergence into the modern world.  The cinematography is lush and inviting.  Yet the grime and violence of this world are not hidden.  Here we see both camels and motorcars, airplanes and oil wells, swords and tanks.  

My sense is that the producer wanted to portray a positive image of recent Arab history to a non-Arab audience unfamiliar with much about Arab history or cultures.  The diversity of the various tribes might surprise many, but here we can see the many different faces of the Arab world.  It avoids any American-bashing or British-bashing.  It simply invites those of us who are strangers to this world and culture and history to experience it for itself.  

I’ve read a number of books about the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia and what happened; I particularly enjoyed Robert Lacey’s The Kingdom and Inside the Kingdom.  After watching Day of the Falcon, I wanted to find a copy of the novel it’s based on, but it’s apparently out of print.  I will continue to search for it to see if I can get a reasonably priced copy.  And I  would like to read more.  

While it was a bit slow, it didn’t let me turn it off, either.  Perhaps the sense that a film has to be quickly engaging is a particularly Western notion.  But I was glad that I kept watching.  And yes, I did enjoy watching Banderas.  

This morning I felt like a similar experience — and so selected God Loves Caviar, a Greek film released in 2012.  Once again I found myself watching a film in English for an English-speaking audience that offered as a subject something not Western at all.  

Set in the late 18th and early 19th century, God Loves Caviar depicts the story of one man, Ioannis Varvakis, a Greek pirate and patriot who ends up in Russia as a successful businessman who makes exporting caviar the center of his wealth.  Varvakis supports Greek nationalism with his money; he wants to free Greece from the Turks and the oppression of centuries.  

A compelling figure, Varvakis fails to find happiness in his personal life, but finds contentment only when he abandons his focus on money, gives up his business, gives away his money, and then returns to Greece to fight for Greek independence.  There he is imprisoned and dies.  

Again I found myself pulled in, yet couldn’t quite follow everything.  I found that though I liked the German actor who played Varvakis, and the Russian actor who played his friend and servant Ivan, I never got beneath the surface of characters.  There were other things that bothered me, too — the ages of some characters and the time passing didn’t seem to fit at times.  There were lots of characters and lots of scenes that weren’t tied together well for me. I found myself emotionally distant.  

A Greek audience would recognize the storyline and the history here, but a non-Greek audience wouldn’t be able to follow this unless already knowledgeable.  The Greek War for Independence (1821-8) is depicted but little is explained about the people involved.  Kolokotronis, for example, one of the great heroes of the war, is depicted.  But would the ordinary English-speaking audience know who he was?

The film moves in place as well as time, from Varvakis’s home island of Psara to Russia, to the Caspian Sea, and back to Greece.  Some comments I found about the film note there are discrepancies in some costuming — that while Varvakis is from the island of Psara, he is wearing Cretan clothing.  I’m not expert enough to know whether that’s accurate.  But I was quite impressed with the costuming of the court of Catherine the Great and in general.

The Greek director, Yiannis Smaragdis, is well-known there.  Though many of the actors are Greek, not all are.  Sebastian Koch, a German, plays Varvakis.  Yvgeniy Stychin plays Ivan.  Catherine Deneuve plays Catherine the Great.  John Cleese even appears in the film as a British character somehow involved in the temporary government.  John Diego Botto plays Lefentarios, a Greek whose rise parallels and intersects with that of Varvakis, but whose alliances shift from Turks to Russians to British as needs push.   It is through him and the quick depiction of the Greek War of Independence that the role of the Great Powers is suggested, but again, I’m not sure a general audience would be aware of the history here.

Yet I enjoyed the film.  The cinematography was quite fine.  The scenery was beautiful.  As with Day of the Falcon, I think this is a romantic film, very Greek in its sensibilities.  I particularly enjoyed watching the actors who played Varvakis and Ivan.  Koch’s eyes were compelling, and from what I have read about Varvakis, his name (not his birth name) derived from the fact that his eyes resembled those of a bird of prey from the island of Psarra — known as varvaki.

I was entertained by God Loves Caviar, moved by Koch’s performance, and knew enough about Greek history to follow what was being depicted.  There were touches of mysticism, almost magical realism, in scenes depicting Varvakis’s encounters with a God-like figure who seems to guide him at times. Though not at all familiar with the story of Varvakis himself, I find myself wanting to know more about him.

In both cases, I enjoyed being taken into another culture, from the perspective of that culture.  The very nature of the films themselves reveal, I think, something of the cultures that produced them.  

It’s nice to get outside yourself and your culture sometimes.  It allows insights that come only from some kind of displacement out of the known.  

But then, that’s why I travel, too.  

 

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Saturday Night Solitude

When i was younger, I lived for weekends so that I could go out on Friday and Saturday nights.  Dates, dinner, movies, dancing, parties — you name it.  

Now?  I sometimes enjoy dinner out.  Maybe a movie.  Dates?  Haven’t had any in a long time.  But my real pleasure?  Time alone.  Solitude.

Just a few days ago I was reading something online about introverts and extroverts, and how most people think that introverts don’t like people.  That people who get along with lots of people and who are outgoing are extroverts.  The article went on to discuss the misconceptions that abound about each.  

Just where do I fit, I found myself wondering.  I certainly like people; I enjoy visiting with friends and enjoy meeting new people.  Being in front of a class or talking to a group has generally always come easily to me.  I belonged to various clubs and organizations in school and at university.

Yet in many ways, those traits (associated with extroverts) are deceptive.  Most people might be surprised to know that I frequently feel shy.  As much as I love being around my friends, talking and laughing, there is usually a moment when a click happens and I’m ready to be alone, to be quiet.

And that’s what weekends slowly became for me.  Time to retreat, to curl up quietly with a book and the television and the pets.  I can spend hours gladly chatting and laughing, either in small groups or at large parties.  But I need the opposite, too, and often without warning I simply need to leave and be alone.

I’ve always been that way.  Even as a youngster, I spent hours with the other kids in the camp, playing and screaming and whooping it up.  Then I’d go home and spend hours alone with a book.  As the oldest of three children, I often found myself “hiding out” in my room (shared for years with my younger sister), with the radio and a book.

I could be quiet for hours, not needing much interaction.  

As I got older, that held true.  I found that even in a dorm I could achieve some kind of quiet alone time with a background of white noise and a book.

By my forties, I found that weekends had become rest and recuperation time.  As my mother and brother were ill and dying, I used alone time as a way to rejuvenate for the times I needed to be there with them and helping out.  When I was taking care of my dad, just being able to retreat to my own room, with the door open, was a brief respite.

Now my time is my own.  No one needs me to be a caregiver.  It’s just me and the pets.  

Yet I still feel the need to pull in, to think, to read and write.  To shut out the world, the busy-ness of the world.  Too much chaos and noise and I’m over-stimulated.  Stressed.

All that alone time isn’t rejection of the world; it’s necessary for me to balance everything, to maintain some kind of perspective.  Quiet time, time for reflection and thought, is as necessary to me as breathing.  Without it, I get frazzled and feel as though I’m spinning.  With it, the world is just right.

So it is today. I spent a few hours with friends at a coffeeshop, having coffee and visiting and making some earrings.  But then I packed up, drove home, came inside, and shut out the world again.

Tonight I’m sleepy and need to listen to music.  Right now, I’m listening to a tribute CD, one to Townes Van Zandt, one of the great Texas singer-songwriters.  His music can be lonesome and depressing at times, but it’s also just as often haunting in its evocation of a human spirit sensitive and bruised, loving and loved.  

“To Live is To Fly” (sung on this CD by Guy Clark) often pops up in my head.  As Van Zandt writes,

“Everything is not enough

And nothin’ is too much to bear

Where you’ve been is good and gone
All you keep’s the getting there

Well to live is to fly, all low and high
So shake the dust off of your wings
And the sleep out of your eyes

It’s goodbye to all my friends
It’s time to go again
But think of all the poetry
And the pickin’ down the line. .  . .

We all got holes to fill
And them holes are all that’s real
Some fall on you like a storm
Sometimes you dig your own

The choice is yours to make
And time is yours to take
Some dive into the sea
Some toil upon the stone

Well to live is to fly, all low and high
So shake the dust off of your wings
And the sleep out of your eyes
Shake the dust off of your wings
And the tears out of your eyes.”

 

What does this have to to with solitude, with that introverted need to turn inward?

It’s basic — to some of us, anyway — a need to make sense of what’s outside and what’s inside.  A need to contemplate our own experiences, our own existence and those of others.  To reflect and find meaning.

Some people can’t stand to be alone.  I have friends who need to always be with others.  

Me?  I can’t imagine always being with others.  That would be agony to me.  Too much constant buzz, too much input.  Sensory overload.  Some people like Van Zandt deal with that with alcohol or drugs.  

Luckily, I’m not like Van Zandt in that respect.  I’m able to cope in other ways- I need to shut out the world.  

I’m with Townes Van Zandt otherwise, though. To live is to fly, surely, to feel the highs and lows.  

So it goes with me.  But tonight I’m spending time alone, being grounded, so that I don’t crash when I do fly. 

Sweet dreams, my friends.  

 

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Mapping My World

Friends laugh when I make a map giving directions to my house — I am, they claim, challenged.  I believe that my house is the center of the universe.

Perhaps I am challenged when it comes to making a map (though often it does work just fine, thanks very much).  However, when it comes to using a map to get around, I can manage to find my way around most of the time.

My ability first appeared clearly in the summer of 1974, when my grandmother Ella took my 16-year-old sister and me to Europe for a couple of weeks. I was staying on and going to summer school for graduate credit that summer.  By the time they got home, my grandmother was bragging that if you gave me a map, I could get us around just about anywhere.  Somewhere buried in the trip souvenirs from then is at least one map, of Florence, I think.  It is well-used, cracked and torn and folded.

Just this week as I was making one more organization-sweep in my office, I realized just how many maps I own.  A couple of hours later and one visit to a craft store, I was working with matching photo-storage boxes (on sale, the best kind).  One box is labeled “U.S.”  One is labeled “Greece and Turkey.”  One is labeled “London and UK.” And I just bought a fourth box for “Italy and . . . .”  Some of the maps need to stay in my car — those for Louisiana and Texas, in particular.  Not just the large state maps, but the more specific ones as well — for New Orleans, for Houston, for Austin, for Galveston.  I needed one not long ago, and only then realized that my pile of maps hadn’t made the move from the Mini Cooper to the Prius when I traded cars late in the fall.  So before I hit the road again to travel anywhere, I need to make sure my maps are stashed away in the glove compartment.

Those are just the maps that I have here in Lake Charles.  I know there are duplicates — there are a lot of maps in my apartment in Athens.  I’ve left some, certainly, but renters have also contributed maps to the collection.  I’ve got maps for specific towns, like Cortona in Italy.  For Istanbul.  And for particular islands, like Spetses or Sifnos in Greece.  

Maps and globes have always fascinated me.  I loved spinning the globe in my elementary classrooms.  I think I had a globe at one point.  Of course, now I joke that we need a Velcroed globe so that we can keep up with changes.  

With a map or a globe and some idea of a place (usually gleaned from reading), I could add an encyclopedia article (a World Book one, since my mother bought a set of World Book Encyclopedias, complete with annuals) and my imagination — and be transported anywhere I could locate.

And I mean I paid attention to those maps, too.  In sixth grade, I was the geeky kid who wrote the textbook company when a river on one of the maps didn’t match what I found elsewhere.  The textbook map was wrong.  I pointed that out to them.  Someone answered me, too, and I kept that letter for years, though I haven’t run across it lately.

I’d trace rivers to see where they started and where they finished.  I’d follow how they wound through countries and what cities I might see if I traveled on them.  

Once I started traveling on my own, having a map became crucial.  Sometimes, even now, I end up with two or three in my purse, just in case one doesn’t quite give me the information I need.  Maps — good ones, I mean — can give so much more information than simply street names.  Good ones will include museums and important sites as well as bus, trolley, metro and other transportation information.

I’ve bought maps.  I’ve collected free ones.  Some are paper and unwieldy, the kind that have to fold up just so to fit neatly back as they started, even though somehow they’re never quite right after the first use.  Others are laminated, a great idea, though some of those don’t include enough area.  Which brings me back to why I often have more than one map on me.

My favorite map of Athens, for example, is a free one available from the Greek National Tourist Organization.  I still have at least one extra map stashed away.  Others are tattered and torn, but still useful.

When I was 23, that first summer I traveled to Europe, the maps I had were truly magical.  Everything was new and fresh.  Wandering the streets of Florence, for example, or London — simple adventures just in walking and looking.

Even now, all these years later, some of that magic still lies in maps.  Yes, I’ve got a GPS.  I can use my smartphone or iPad.  But frankly I prefer the old-fashioned paper maps if I’m walking around.  I bought the GPS (and have European city maps for it) just in case I drive by myself.  It’s easier using that than a paper map, at least most of the time.  Unless, of course, the GPS fails to take you to the right place, or gets you off course, or doesn’t recognize where you are.  That’s when you need to pull over to the side of the road and go back to the proven, the paper map.

In elementary school, I remember having to locate state capitols on maps.  In eighth grade, I remember having to know every parish seat for all the parishes (counties) in Louisiana.  It was fun for me to know capitols of other countries, too, though I’m nowhere near as knowledgeable as my friend George is.  He’s the expert on that!  

I even have wall art that derives from maps.  One here in Lake Charles is for Spetses; it’s a print I found one summer when I was there, and had to buy it.  Another is the outline of Texas, printed on rough brown sacking material, with the words “Texas Roots” printed on it.  

At least two of my poems have dealt with maps, and in fact I printed one of them on a sheet of paper that I’d printed with a faint map of Athens (technology can be amazing).  This summer I wrote something light about some streets in New Orleans, and want to get a hand-drawn map (not wanting any copyright issues) to use as the faint background over which the poem is printed.

My late friend Tom Fox loved maps even more — he’d had to work with maps when he was in Vietnam.  Cartography was a passion of his ever since then.  He used to say he’d even love to make maps.

I can’t say my fascination goes that far.  Not by a long shot.

But lately I’ve been thinking about looking at maps of specific places over time to see how they’ve changed.  To look at the earliest maps of “America,” for example, from before any explorers had landed — there’s an insight into imagination.  

Maps tell us about place and geography, about organization and direction.  Over time, they can also tell us something about the people who drew them, and the purposes for which they were drawn.  How amazing, I used to tell my students, to land in a place and have no idea where the boundaries were (which was the case for the earliest explorer and settlers here in the U.S.).  What would it be like to not know where a country ended or began, not to know the physical boundaries?  To attempt such an imaginative leap is to begin to realize just how different the world was for those people.

What will our own maps look like to our descendants in 100 or 200 years?  Will they think them crude?  Limited?  

I can’t imagine traveling without a map.  Even if I am challenged when it comes to drawing a simple one.  

At least you don’t have to rely on it to get someplace complicated.

For now, I’m going to settle in with a book about the Borgias in Italy.  But I need to look up the maps for Italy too — just to fill in what my curiosity is teasing me about.

Oh, and I have a globe now, too.  It’s cute, but it isn’t good enough.

Guess I need to start searching again.

 

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Back to School and First-time Freshmen: 44 Years Later

Today many friends were heading off to school at McNeese State University for workshops, campus-wide convocation, and college/department meetings.  For the third time now I haven’t joined them as a new academic year begins.  Fall term begins on Monday.  I watch them, talk to them, and remember what it felt like to return to another year of teaching. While I miss the classroom in many ways and the students and certainly seeing my friends every day, I do not miss the daily schedule, the ever-increasing demands upon the faculty, or the shifting expectations of a state university.

This fall, though, what I am caught by, is something I read a couple of days ago addressed to first-time freshmen.  The exact advice wasn’t really what I was interested in. Instead, I found myself remembering what it was like to head off to college.

I graduated from high school in May 1969.  Two weeks later, I was living in a dormitory at McNeese State University (Bel Dorm) and taking 9 hours of classes in summer school.  I had my own mailbox at school.  I had my first checking account.

The absolute excitement of that time has never left me.  My various suitcases and boxes filled the back of the Chevy Bel Air station wagon.  As my dad helped me move that into the dorm room on the second floor, I remember having to yell “Man in the hall!” to warn the other girls.  Of course, they were yelling the same thing. Once my bags and boxes were in my new room, my parents and I went for lunch and then I watched them drive away.  No regret, no loneliness.  Just sheer soaring excitement.

Mind you, I had only moved about 45 miles away from home.  But it was another world.  From a small village of maybe 400 where everyone knew everyone else, I was now living in a city.  Certainly now I know that it wasn’t a big city, but I was living in it. And I was on my own.  Meeting a new roommate and having to get along was just part of the adventure.

There was never any question in our family that we kids would go to college.  My mother had gone to business school after high school, and Dad had attended the University of Texas for a couple of semesters.  He was an electrician for Sun Oil Company, and she was a stay-at-home mom.  Yet they’d saved for this, planned for this, and wanted us to experience what was possible.

Many of my fellow Sun Oil kids didn’t go on.  At least the kids of the “hands” or workers.  If they did, it was often the girls, who might become teachers.  Or the sons and daughters of the management, of course, would attend college.

For me, there was never any question that I wanted to get away — to go to school — to get out in the world.  Just as books had always opened the world for me ever since I learned to read, now the college classroom offered me that same path to a future I dreamed of.

My parents always laughed that I was the one ready to hit the road running as soon as I was born.  I was always eager to spend time with cousins and grandparents, not shy about going away from Mother and Dad for a week or two at a time.  That’s me.  Ready to jump in feet first.

I was no different then.  I knew some older students from Egan and Iota who were attending MSU.  Yet in the dorm?  I knew no one.  I had to meet new people and learn to get along.  I had to meet people in classes.  I had to join organizations.

I well remember registering for my first classes.  And pushing myself to get up in time to make class, since Mother wasn’t there with my breakfast to wake me up.  It wasn’t easy, but I did it.

It was a different world then for women students.  We had curfews — and as a freshman, my curfew was 30 minutes before the library closed.  We’d get an extra hour on Saturday night if no one on our dorm wing had received any demerits during the week.  Otherwise, I think our Saturday night curfew was 11 p.m.

Having to be in at 9 p.m. at night meant there was a lot of time to hang around with the other girls.  We had a communal television room on second floor, and a kitchen as well.  Yet some of us had our own tiny television sets and stereos.  Most of us knew how to cook various things.  It was amazing what I could do with an iron and aluminum foil,  or a hot-pot.  I remember seeing the cost for that summer term:  something like $85, I believe, paid for tuition and fees.  With dorm fees and cafeteria plan, my first year (3 semesters) cost Dad something like $1000.  Total.

I plunged into college life with glee.  Late-night jam sessions with guitars (we didn’t demand a lot of actual talent).  Ouija board sessions.  Dance lessons down the hall.  And yes, date nights where you had to stand outside the dorm doors to say goodnight and kiss your date — while everyone else watched.

Before too long, I’d joined the college newspaper staff and the yearbook staff.

I was an English major.  That surprised me, frankly.  I remember that when I first filled out the papers at registration that June I meant to write down “Biology” as a major — I’d been planning on that.  In high school I had taken every science course available, including a second biology that was really a college course being piloted in some high schools.  What my pen wrote, though, was “English.”  Automatic writing?  Destiny?  Or just laziness because that was the easiest thing in the world for me?  I have no clue.  But that choice has threaded my life together.  Reading and literature opened the world for me as a reader and then as a student and finally as a teacher, a professor.

Living on campus in a dorm was a huge adventure.  I had curfews, yes, but I had a sort of self-determination, too.  There were rules and regulations beyond the experiences of today’s freshmen women:  no curlers in your hair outside the dorm; no jeans or slacks to class (at least for a year until rules changed).  We wore sweater sets, skirts and blouses, dresses.  And hose.  Every day.  Yet by the end of my college time (I graduated in December 1972), I was wearing jeans and t-shirts or peasant skirts and sandals.

My first fall semester was the first time that freshmen didn’t have to wear beanies or get hazed as freshmen.  The “college life” I’d read about and anticipated had been a 1940s-50s culture, evident in television and movies.  It was passing even as I entered college.

McNeese was then and is now basically a commuter school, yet it was possible for those of us who lived on campus to have a different experience, to be part of the campus life.  That was challenging at times, but fun.

Lake Charles isn’t that big — maybe 73,000 people — though it certainly has changed in many ways, offering many more cultural outlets and places to go.

It was huge to me, though, and I was limited that first year by not having a car.  I walked to K-Mart, to the drugstore near campus where I could cash a check, to Little Pigs or Taco Bell or maybe Burger Chef for a meal on weekends.  By the second year, my parents had bought a new car and I was driving the Bel Air station wagon.  I could haul lots of friends to the drive-in on nights when the charge was $1 for the entire carful of us.

We had dances.  We went to football games.  We entertained ourselves and, thank goodness, survived the stupid stunts of youth.

We laugh that the 60s finally hit Lake Charles and MSU — in the 1970s.  That was true in many ways.  There were controversies over the length of boys’ hair.  Over dress regulations.  Especially, though, over the hair issue.  That was somehow symptomatic of the turmoil going on all over the U.S.

Somewhere buried in my many photographs are some from those years.  I have some of the newspapers and yearbooks, and my photos are scattered in those as well.  Mostly, though, I have the memories.

What did I expect?  I didn’t know, not really.  I just knew that the world was opening up, and that I was ready for it, for whatever would come.

That I ended up back in Lake Charles, teaching English at McNeese State University, was hardly something I planned.  In my dream academe I thought I’d end up in New England — not that I’d ever been there at all, but it fit in with that ideal I’d derived from movies and television.  Instead, I got a job right back here, and made a career on the campus that made it all possible.

That opportunity has been both profoundly satisfying and profoundly frustrating.  To watch the college emerge as a university, with world-class faculty, and to be part of opening the world to other young people was without price.  Yet to experience the state funding issues that continue to rip apart state-funded universities in Louisiana is painful and frustrating.  This state has been slow to see people go to university; my generation was perhaps the first to do so in large numbers.  It may take another generation to regain lost ground.

All in all, though, I have loved being part of McNeese, both as a student and as a faculty member.

My friends are going back to teaching, and I watch them and have no pangs of regret.  Retirement came at the perfect time for me.  And once more, my world has opened up.  Retirement from McNeese was, I laugh, just another graduation.

And the first-time freshmen about to start their fall term?  I hope they are excited.  Their world is so much larger and fuller than mine was.  Yet for them too, university will offer a world beyond.

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