Star light, star bright

Note: I’m posting this entry several days after it was written; also, I couldn’t get a decent shot of the night sky and therefore went with a picture of the Mustang.

I bet you think you know how this line ends. We all learned this little poem when we were kids, right? “Star light, star bright/First star I see tonight/I wish I may/I wish I might/Have the wish I wish tonight.” Then you made a wish on the star and quickly squeezed your eyes shut, because your wish wouldn’t come true if you saw another star. I actually always wondered how long that prohibition lasted. Does it only go for that viewing, or for that evening, or for the rest of your life? If it’s the last of these options, we are doing this process all wrong. As a child, naturally, I wished for childish things, like a Chatty Cathy doll (she was supposed to talk when you pulled the pink ring lodged in her back) or all the books in the world. If I could have saved that wish, I might have gone with more useful wishes, like a cure for cancer or the end of systemic racism. Or, honestly, I might have stuck with the thing about the books. 

But if you’re thinking about this rhyme, you’re wrong. You see, I’m a child of the space age. We drank our Energy Tang like the astronauts do, so that we could join the space gang and do the moon walk, too. (For the uninitiated, that’s a reference to an orange juice commercial, not to Michael Jackson). We pretended to enjoy the Space Sticks we begged our mothers to buy for our after-school snacks, even though the sticks tasted like rubber flavored with enough chocolate not to get the manufacturer in trouble with the FDA. Part of of astronaut training in those days must have been to learn to eat the food. And, clad in pajamas and sprawled on the hardwood living room floor, we stayed glued to our TVs on Saturday morning to imagine ourselves driving George Jetson’s flying car. Now I’d settle for one that folds up into a briefcase like his did. Can you imagine never having to hunt for a place to park? 

Since we had our own drinks and snacks and wishes, it’s no wonder that Space Age kids had their own rhyme. I’m sure this was hilarious the first twelve or so times I heard it: “Star light, star bright/First star I see tonight/I wish I may, I wish I might/Never mind, it’s a satellite!” Yuk, yuk. I admit I’ve been suckered by a few planes in the sky over the years, though. Out of the mouths of babes….

Last night, though, Mark and I got to see the real deal. That’s possible because our house in Texas – a cabin, really – sits in the middle of 28 acres in the Hill Country. Even with our relatively large space we can see other houses in the distance and get light pollution from nearby Dripping Springs, but we still have a pretty good view of the night sky. Last night was spectacular. We had no cloud cover to speak of, and at 1AM an uncountable number of white points of light winked at us. This was no random expedition outside in the chill, though; we stuffed our sleepy selves into parkas and shoes to go out and see the Leonids meteor shower.

Ecclesiastes says there’s a season for everything, and meteors are no exception. Where we are, you can see the Perseids (meteors seeming to arise in the constellation Perseus) in August and the Leonids (meteors seeming to arise in the constellation Leo) in November. When the girls were little, we’d lay sleeping bags on the ground and rouse our sleepy-eyed kiddos and lie down together on the bags to watch for meteors. We’d count the brief flashes of white that marked a space rock’s entry into Earth’s atmosphere and murmured the legends of brave Perseus saving the chained Andromeda, Leo the fearsome lion slain by Heracles, and the mighty hunter Orion, eternally roaming the heavens in pursuit of Taurus the bull and being chased by his nemesis, Scorpio. The tales and the viewings ended when someone fell asleep, and we’d all stumble up the path back to the welcoming house and our comfy beds. I don’t know whether the kids recall those interludes; the nights were late and the kids were young. But I hope they at least dreamed of fables and stars.

Last night, though, it was just Mark and me in our jammies. We also departed from tradition by forgoing the sleeping bags and putting the top down on our Mustang convertible, which is currently parked on a macadam pad in front of the house. Once you recline the seats and wrap yourself in a blanket, you’ve got one sweet seat for sky watching. Having neglected to figure out where Leo was in the heavens and being too comfortable to bother getting out of the car, we decided to look right where the car was pointed. And we were rewarded with meteors – not a ton, only five over the course of about 45 minutes. But we enjoyed every bit of our time outside, and not just because we got to see meteors. If you’re not awed by a brilliant night sky, with its vast mixture of time-machine stars and the humble human need to tell stories in order to make sense of things, you’re not looking right. And the ephemeral nature of meteors – literally come and gone in a second, Nature’s Snapchat – makes the spectacle all the more wonderful. 

This morning, I am out in mind of another rhyme, one a little classier than “Star light, star bright,” and probably less subject to modification. It’s by Walt Whitman; do you know it?


WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and 
measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much 
applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

I get what Walt’s trying to say here. Don’t misunderstand: I respect science tremendously. Without astronomers, how would we know when and where to look for meteors? And I respect wishes, too, although their limitations become clearer now than they used to be. I actually received a Chatty Cathy for Christmas when I was five or six, and she talked for about two days and then just coughed for the rest of her time with me. And, reluctantly, I admit that even we don’t have enough shelf space for all the books we own, much less all the books in the world. So I’ll be happy with a little time under the stars and a few meteors in my memory. And I wish the same happiness for you. That’s probably the best wish of all. 

Planes, trains, and automobiles

Except in our case, it was automobile, train, automobile (twice), plane (three times), automobile.

Let me explain. Mark and I are currently in New Hampshire, enjoying the beauties of a New England Fall. I’ve taken a lot of pictures, but this one is my current favorite. I took it looking down on Glen Ellis Falls, just a few miles from our condo. But when we’ve talked to people about being here, folks mostly have wanted to know about how traveling here from Spain was. So here goes.

We took a taxi from our apartment in Torrevieja to the train station in nearby Alicante. The taxi driver wore a mask, as all drivers do, and we did the same. We got a sandwich for lunch at the train station. The Tim Horton’s was closed, but Gambrinus was open. The tables were disinfected and spread out, and all of the personnel wore masks. Everyone at security wore a mask, as did the Renfe people who greeted us train side. The greeter also gave us each a small bottle of hand sanitizer and an individually wrapped alcohol wipe. We wiped down everything and wore our masks the entire ride, as did all the other passengers and the train personnel. We arrived at Madrid’s train station, Atocha, right on time. Everyone in the terminal wore masks, except for the tiny kids. We grabbed a taxi and drove to our hotel near the airport. The hotel had moved all of its restaurant tables outside, so we ate dinner away from others and without having to leave the premises. The hotel was a little noisy, but it served its purpose. Our 4AM taxi took us straight to the terminal, and we had no trouble checking our bags. In each airport, we wore plastic face shields as well as our masks.

Boarding a plane is actually more organized than it used to be. We had sprung for business class seats and therefore boarded first, but otherwise the plane boarded back rows to the front. This prevented a lot of jostling and crowding. Because people were passing by us on the way to their seats in coach, we left our face shields on in addition to our masks. The flight to a Frankfurt was unremarkable, except that the papaya served with our breakfast was extra juicy.

The airport in Frankfurt was not as busy as usual, but there were still many people there. The Lufthansa lounge was closed due to COVID concerns, so we seated ourselves near our gate but away from other passengers and spent our four-hour layover there. Our flight to Newark was on time. Again, business class boarded first, but we were to the left of the jetway and coach was to the right, so no one passed by us on the way to their seat. The flight attendant handed us individually wrapped sanitizing towelettes and reminded us to keep our masks on during the flight. We had a meal and then stretched out to sleep for a remarkably long time over the Atlantic. I’d wondered if wearing a mask would interfere with sleeping, but that all went fine.

Immigration and Customs in Newark were easy – too easy. We’d been given contact tracing forms on the plane and had duly filled them out, but no one asked for them. In fact, Mark tried to hand our forms to one Immigration officer and was waved on. The guy was too busy complaining to his cohort about a mechanic who’d tried to cheat him. Most people in the airport were wearing masks, but not all. We rechecked our bags to Portland, Maine, and headed to the United lounge, which was open. We sat as far away from other people as we could and used our own wipes to sanitize our seats. Only individual packets of food were available, which was better than the usual buffet service. After a couple of hours, we headed to the gate for our flight from Newark to Portland.

The flight from Newark was on a regional jet, and it was completely full. The seats are two on each side, so I don’t know what United does about rows with middle seats. The only mention of COVID was an announcement that the flight attendants would not be offering drink service. We were not offered sanitizer of any type, but we used the ones we’d brought with us. Because of the full flight, we left our face shields on over our masks. Again, boarding and deplaning were done with business class going first and then rows being called to avoid crowding. I’d be fine with that practice staying in place from now on.

It was a relief to get to Portland and pick up the car. We had an uneventful drive and brought our bags up without incident. After a nice, long sleep, we enjoyed the Dunkin Donuts we had picked up (drive in only available) and have had a lovely time since then. We will head back to Portland and fly to Austin on Monday.

So that’s how we traveled, and it seems to have gone well. Neither of us has had any indication that we’re sick, although we know where the local COVID testing is performed. We have stayed away from people on the walking trails and affirmatively turn our backs on unmasked walkers. All businesses require masks inside buildings, and we have gotten no blowback from anyone about wearing masks. We will see how it goes in Texas!

Suicidal peanuts

Mark and I recently celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary. I’ve screwed up a lot of things in this life, but as for this marriage, so far, so good. In fact, we’ve been asked many times over the years what makes our union work so well. We’ve given different answers over time – communication, compromise, humor, companionship, forgiveness – but on some level, neither of us has a clue. Marriage is the original black box technology. But having said that, I’m guessing that one important thing we have going for us might surprise you. So here goes: 
We are very, very good at the small stuff. 

Now, I know that small stuff gets a bad rap. It’s dismissed as being trivial and time-wasting. In fact, a best-seller in the not too distant past enjoined us not to sweat the small stuff. But while I completely agree that you have to pick your battles (that’s a topic for another blog post, I suppose), small stuff matters.

Consider our conversation at breakfast yesterday. Apropos of nothing (I could tell you how I got there in my head, but that’s immaterial here), I looked at Mark and asked him if he remembered the peanut song our daughters had on a cassette tape when they were growing up. It goes something like this: 

A peanut sat on a railroad track

Its heart was all aflutter

Along came a choo-choo train 

Woohoo (aka, train noise)

Pea-ee-ee-nut butter! 

“Something’s bothering me about the peanut song,” I said, looking Mark in the eye and leaning across the table towards him. “I really need to know. Do you think the peanut is suicidal?” The man never missed a beat. “I’ve wondered about that myself,” he said, and took another bite of toast. This is a small thing, but it’s what makes us hum along. 

Of course, there are millions of small things over the course of three and a half decades. Mark makes coffee every morning. I got him a copy of his favorite snapshot of his grandfather. He watches film adaptions of Jane Austen books (we had Greer Garson as Lizzie Bennett and Laurence Olivier as Darcy the other night). I encourage him to collect autographs from his favorite baseball players. True story on this – we’d gone to Cooperstown a few summers ago for the induction of Jeff Bagwell into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Many players come up on Induction Weekend and sell tickets so that you can get their autographs. Mark was reluctant to fork over for some player, I forget who, because he said he’d already spent enough money on autographs. Tired of arguing with him, I just pointed at the ticket line and said, “Stop protesting and go get your —- in line.” He shrugged and turned to comply. The stranger next to me, who was on his phone at the time, covered the microphone with his hand and said, “Lady, will you please talk to my girlfriend?”

Little things count in friendships, too. Some friends give great hugs. Some friends give great book recommendations. And some just know when to fill the small gaps that arise in life. Take last Saturday as an example. Friends here in Torrevieja were going out for tapas. Normally we’d have gone with them, but we’re quarantined in anticipation of returning to the USA soon. One of the merrymakers dropped a package by our apartment on her way to tapas. The package contained a bottle of wine, a nice cheese, fancy mixed nuts, and the date cake pictured here. The accompanying note told us that she’d made up the package so that we could have treats that night, too. I might be willing to walk over crushed glass for this woman. 

So here’s to the little things that maybe aren’t so little after all. I urge you to go out of your way to do something little and kind today. The effect on the recipient will be agreeable, I hope, but here’s the main objective: you may notice all the lovely little things that others do for you. And that, my friend, is as sweet as a date cake and as heady as a bottle of wine. Always.

Go weird or go home

On September 14th, Mark and I celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary. Plan A for celebrating this big number, concocted a couple of years ago, was to meet up with friends in Munich and go to Oktoberfest. Except Oktoberfest got cancelled this year, so that didn’t happen. Plan B was to celebrate with 10 days in Florence. Thanks to our airline, Vueling, for cancelling our flights and our inability to find another way to get to Florence that didn’t involve two days’ travel on either end, that didn’t happen. Remarkably, Plan C actually worked. We rented a car and drove to Altea, a Spanish city about 90 minutes from Torrevieja. We had a great time seeing Altea’s Old Town, with its roofs of blue tiles and narrow cobblestone streets lined with white-washed buildings sporting wrought-iron Juliet balconies covered in bright flowers. We also visited the cities of Jávea, Denia, and Guadalest. Guadalest has remnants of an 11th century castle that are well worth a visit, despite the many stairs you have to climb to get there. My glutes are still mad at me.

The most hilarious part of our trip, though, was our room at the Hotel Sun Palace Albir. (Albir is a small town very near Altea.) Since we were already on our third anniversary trip plan, we picked this hotel largely because of its lenient cancellation policy. When we were booking, Mark called my attention to the “Casablanca Suite,” which for a bit more money included breakfast and a king-sized bed. Okay, this way we don’t have to look for a restaurant or sleepily fight over territory in the wee hours. Besides, (Plan) C is for Casablanca, right?

Now, I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels in my time. The worst where I didn’t pack up and leave without spending the night was in Durham, North Carolina. The ceiling leaked. On the other end of the spectrum, there are a lot of contenders for best, although the Gage Hotel in Marathon is right up there. But the Sun Palace – specifically, the Casablanca Suite – gets the prize for most, well, surprising.

To begin with, the Casablanca Suite isn’t a suite. Like lots of hotel rooms, it has a little entryway, but that hardly counts as a separate room. But you don’t notice that once you walk into the room. As you can see from the picture, the decor apparently was purchased as a job lot from a low-budget movie set in Morocco but filmed in the spare bedroom of the producer’s brother-in-law in a less affluent suburb of Madrid. Plastic paneling sporting Arabic script ran where you might expect crown molding, and one section was inserted upside down. Paper red rose petals covered the purple shag throw rug. A two-person hot tub occupied a fair percentage of the room and came equipped with bathrobes, bath oil, and bath salts. It even has a TV in it, as you may be able to see in the picture.

The most surprising accoutrements, however, were delicately arranged on one of the bedside tables. One was a heart-shaped box. Mark ripped it open; I think he expected chocolates. Instead, the box contained a blindfold, two feathers, a small tube of lubricant, massage oil, and two condoms. (Only two? The proprietor either must assume that the ambiance of the room would work its magic a limited number of times or that after two, you’re on your own.)

The second was the room’s literature, which was also, um, unique. I’m used to fake leather notebooks with the room service menu and phone numbers for the spa, with maybe a Gideon Bible thrown in for good measure. Not here! Before the Casablanca Suite, the most unusual piece of literature in one of my hotel rooms was a booklet in a hotel room in Seattle that listed 10 reasons not to move there. But the Casablanca Suite blew way past accounts of dreary skies and eye-popping real estate prices. A paper underneath the box listed a dozen or so sexual positions you could practice on the very oddly-shaped divan with a mirror and a small copy of the room service menu hung next to it. Mind you, the names of the positions were in Spanish, so I had to use Google Translate to figure out some of them. Worse, I had to put on my bifocals to see the pictures. All I can say is that a few of those should come with the sort of warnings amusement parks post next to roller coasters. “Do not try this if you’ve recently had surgery” or “Not advisable for persons with back conditions” would not have gone amiss.

Actually, this whole thing turned out great. It’s been a while since Mark and I have laughed that hard. And the bed was king-sized, the breakfast (see picture) was delicious and sufficiently generous that we made a lunch of the leftovers on our first day. The hotel had a terrific pool and rooftop bar with a gorgeous view of the city. So it all turned out fine. Plan C came through for us, even though it was unexpected in many, many ways. Go weird or go home.

So happy 35th to us! Let me end this post by noting two things. First, we’re still hoping to go to Oktoberfest and to Florence. And second, I’m not answering any questions about this post. 😉

Sherry baby

 Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons released “Sherry Baby” in 1962. Did you know that originally  the song was entitled “Jackie Baby” as an homage to then-First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy? Anyway, the song was an instant Top 40 hit, although I was three years old at the time and probably was unaware of its existence. Does a three year-old even know 40 songs? As near as I can recall my top two were “Rock-a-Bye Baby” and “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider.” But 58 years later, I’m a fan of Frankie and his opus.

I’m a fan of the liquid type of sherry as well. My parents didn’t stock it, and it’s not exactly the drink of choice at college keggers, so sherry was a mystery to me well into adulthood. It was something that people who were about to murder or be murdered drank before dinner in English manor houses. That all sounded terribly sophisticated, if a little ominous. But Mark and I bought a trial bottle many years ago, and we’ve been fans ever since. And I’m happy to report zero murders in conjunction with said sherries, although there have been a few manor houses along the way.

That’s why I was so glad recently to have the opportunity to tour a sherry production facility, or bodega, in Jerez. Jerez, a city in Spain very near the border with Portugal, is the birthplace of sherry. The Phoenicians brought wine-making to the area in 1100 BC or thereabouts. The Greeks kicked out the Phoenicians but kept the grapes; the Romans did the same when they supplanted the Greeks. The Romans named the town “Ceret.” The Moors conquered this part of Spain in 711 and adapted the Latin name to “Sherish” – hence, the name “Sherry.” While Muslims aren’t allowed to consume alcohol, wine was produced for export to non-Muslim countries, and grew significantly after the area was reconquered by the Spanish in 1231. Inhabitants of Iberia became big fans of the fortified wine produced in this area. Columbus took sherry on his voyages to the New World, and when Magellan outfitted his ships for his Around-the-world voyage, he spent more on sherry than on armaments. (This seems like a solid choice to me.) The Brits became big fans when Sir Frances Drake captured 2900 barrels of sherry from the Spanish During a raid on Cádiz and brought them back to what was probably soon a very cheerful Queen Elizabeth. To this day, a drink called “sherry” must come from this region. It’s the oldest official denomination of origin in Spain.

Sherry is made by aging, fermenting, and mixing wine in casks like the ones you see in the picture here. Different methods are used to create different types of sherries. A fino, for example, is made with a cap of yeast in the barrel to prevent additional oxygen from getting into the wine. It ends up being very dry and rather sharp. An oloroso is a middle-type sherry, which is more robust and sweeter. Cream sherry is the classic choice for Brits, and amontillado (of Poe fame) is common in the USA.

The part of the process I found most interesting was the blending. The producers use the solero method. This refers to the three-row stacking you see in the picture (suelo means “ground” in Spanish). The youngest wine is always on the top row. The middle-aged wine is in the center, and the oldest is on the bottom. Twice a year, a percentage of the oldest sherry is taken from the bottom casks. That percentage is replaced by wine from the middle row. The middle row is replenished by the top row, and the top row gets new product. In this way, many years’ vintages are present in each bottle, and it’s said that to drink sherry is “to drink time.”

It seems to me that, at least in this regard, we’re all a little like sherry. I’m 61, and people expect me to act like I’m 61, whatever that means. But inside me is the three year-old singing “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” quietly to herself and working her chubby fingers to get the hand movements right. There’s also the slightly snotty, anxious girl of 15 and the gung-ho young woman of 22 wearing a suit and one of those dreadful bow ties from the 1980s. There’s the busy-ness of Ms. 35, who’s running from job to job to daycare to school to home with a to-do list that keeps getting bigger and an energy supply that keeps getting inversely shorter. There’s the woman in her late 40s, watching both parents die and both kids head off to high school and college and adulthood and wondering who she will be when no one needs her any more. There’s the woman of 56, seeing gray hairs in the mirror and the clock on the wall that ticks faster and faster each year. And there are all the other ages in between. You get the idea. That most American of poets, Walt Whitman, said that he contained multitudes. That’s usually interpreted as meaning that he had many facets to his personality, but I think we also each contain many ages in us. Like the sherry, we’re a blend, and to know a person is to taste their time.

I find this idea comforting, in a way. It’s normal that my 61 year-old body wants to parasail and ride roller coasters and hike in the woods; it thinks it’s 21, sometimes. And if I’m cranky and tired and hungry, well, my three year-old is just showing up. And if I’m ready for an adventure now because
time is just so bloody short, welcome to my current age. I’m in the cask on the bottom row, and all of my vintages want to sit on my tongue and be noticed.

So here’s my toast to all of you who read this, to every age that you’ve ever been: Let’s raise a glass to Sherry Baby. And may wine and music infuse each and every one of your days.

Fillering in the details

When I was a kid in Beaumont, my family subscribed to the local newspaper. When I was very young, we got the Beaumont Enterprise in the morning and the Beaumont Journal in the evening (or maybe it was the other way around, but you get the idea). As a cost-cutting measure, the two editions later combined into one evening paper, the Beaumont Enterprise-Journal. As far as I know, it continues to this day. Anyhow, my favorite part of the paper wasn’t the comics, although that came in a solid second. My favorite part was the fillers.

For those of you who’ve only read newspapers composed on computers, let me explain fillers to you. Newspaper columns were long and narrow, and a lot of the typesetting was done by hand. Occasionally, a newspaper article would not quite fill the column inches allotted to it, and the technology to adjust the column by stretching the column’s lettering didn’t exist. So at the end of the odd column, in the, say, half-inch of leftover space, the newspaper staff would insert a filler. Our fillers were bits of trivia. Randomly, one of my favorites was the fact that August Kotter invented the rifle. Heaven only know why that stuck with me. And did you know that the Statue of Liberty’s nose is six feet long?

Fillers are long gone, but my love of trivia remains. It’s fun to know odd facts, even though most of them are fairly useless. You can live a happy and fulfilled life without knowing that Venice was mostly founded by people hiding from invaders by living in swamps. (I also think that you can live a happy and fulfilled life without having studied calculus, but that’s a topic still under discussion at our house.) Most people are perfectly content without carrying in their heads the fact that the design that we called paisley comes from the Middle East and is associated with flames. And perhaps only truly nerdy Methodists know that Welch’s grape juice was originally created as a non-alcoholic communion wine for my supposedly teatotaling denomination. But if you have a mind like mine, which is roughly akin to the attic in the Smithsonian where the curators store all of the stuff they have that’s too trivial to exhibit but too cool to throw out, knowing this stuff makes you happy.

Loving trivia is one reason I enjoy traveling so much. You learn a lot when you’re on the road. The tidbit about Venice, for example, came from a tour guide we employed on a visit to La Serenissima about twenty years ago. In Normandy, I saw my first hedgerow and realized why they were such great spots for hiding murder weapons in my beloved manor house cozy mysteries. At the Alhambra in Granada I learned that “Seventh Heaven” isn’t just an Aaron Spelling TV production from the 1990s; in fact, it’s the highest level of heaven in traditional Judaism and Islam. In Jumilla, a trip to a winery taught me that Rioja wine comes in four grades, based on how long it’s aged: Rioja, a couple of months; Crianza, at least a year in oak; Reserva, at least a year in oak and two or more after that in the bottle; and Gran Reserva, two years in oak and at least three more in the bottle. And in London, I learned never to leave your toddler unsupervised with a Beatrix Potter puzzle. Apparently the pieces are delicious. But that may be another kind of learning, perhaps to be explored in another blog.

Living abroad has had the desired effect of teaching me a lot of things that are interesting, if not overly useful. In particular, for me, lots of things I’ve read about in books have been clarified. Like the hedgerows, which I’d only read about, I’ve now seen (and photographed, see evidence herein) wine being dispensed from casks straight into large plastic bottles that consumers bring with them to market. And handsome, dark men do attach the containers onto motorbikes and drive off with attractive young women behind them on the seat, arms wrapped around said HDM. Total bonus. Likewise, conversations, even the quietest ones, do travel up the central stairwells of apartment buildings, echoing off the marble and tile stairs. So all of those gossipy grannies who tender important overhead clues about the mischief of their neighbors below to baffled police inspectors might actually exist!

Of course you also learn some less salubrious information. An Italian mystery I’m reading now involves the prostitutes who wait by the side of the road for clients to happen by. This occurs in rural areas as well as urban ones. In fact, Mark and I were driving down a road between two fields last week and passed a woman sitting in a chair under a beach umbrella placed next to the entrance to a farm. I turned to Mark and started with, “Do you think she’s a…,” to which he responded immediately, “Yes. Otherwise, why would she be wearing high heels out here?” Actually, apparently a lot of the ones who wait by the traffic roundabouts can be very helpful if you’re lost, and I do mean only with directions here.

So I may not know calculus or remember the names of the big Constitutional Law cases we studied in law school, but that fine. I rarely need any of that information any more, and besides, there’s Google. I’m happy fillering in the trivial, entertaining details that keep me amused and enliven my reading.

Bend and stretch

When I was in early elementary school, we would do mild exercises in our classrooms during the school day. In retrospect, I suspect that the teachers were trying to work out our wiggliness, but I thought we were having fun. One exercise I remember in particular was a routine that we did to a recording of a little song. It went like this: “Bend and stretch, reach for the stars! There goes Jupiter, there goes Mars!” I’ve forgotten the rest of the ditty, but lately I’ve been thinking of the part I recall. That’s probably because I have been doing a lot of bending lately. Part of my bending is actual exercising, although this week I haven’t done so well on getting to that. But the bending I really have in mind here is being flexible in attitude and action.

There’s a lot of call for flexibility in life generally, and that requirement seems greater than ever these days. Living abroad is one long exercise in learning, changing, and figuring out a way to do something. Just saying something, for example, can be an exercise in improvisation. In a store recently, I needed two of something, but only one was on the shelf. In English, “Do you have any more just like this?” would just flow out of my mouth in this situation. But here, I manage best with simple language. “Tiene más?” and holding up my item must suffice. It’s not lyrical, but it gets the job done.

Likewise, dealing with remote transactions requires some work-arounds. Voting remotely in Texas, for example, is all done by mail. Get this – you have to request for a ballot, which can be done online, but then you must get a ballot mailed to you, and mail back the ballot. Our last ballot showed up a week after the election. In a world of S-L-O-W mail, this is ridiculous. This circumstance has moved us to return to Texas for early voting in order to make our ballots count. To be fair, lots of businesses and other institutions have gotten the memo on the need for remote access. Here’s a shout-out to the Austin Public Library, which allows me to renew my card over the internet. I filled out the renewal form and then had a question, so I emailed from the “Help” button. A friendly librarian responded promptly. What a deal!

And then there is flexibility required in traveling. We had planned a stay in a nearby city, Altea, with our good friends Di and Jean-Marc Longo. Di had kindly arranged for an apartment that advertised itself as air conditioned. Sadly, when we arrived at the apartment, we encountered one puny unit emitting a weak stream of semi-cool air in the corner of one room. So much for that apartment. Over a nice dinner in Altea, we agreed to return to Torrevieja and settle for day trips. This enabled us to sleep in the climate-controlled bedrooms of our own apartments. So that’s how we ended up doing day trips in a gorgeous national park that reminded Mark and me of Big Bend (there’s that word again), at the pictured winery, and at an artists’ colony in a series of caves. It wasn’t exactly the getaway we planned, but it’s the one we got and enjoyed.

Being able to bend is also necessary in dealing with COVID. We’ve canceled more trips than I’d care to count this year. We still have a couple on the books – a triumph of hope over experience, I guess. I am unable to count the number of flights we’ve had change, hotel reservations we’ve reworked, and rental cars we’ve reserved, unreserved, and, in some cases, reserved again. These days we are opting for more expensive refundable reservations in our travel. And there is zero percentage in being upset at it all, because this is how the world works for the foreseeable future. But we persevere. And we bend.

I’m hoping that all of this bending changes me permanently into a more flexible person. I’d like to be less attached to my plans and expectations and more ready to go with the flow. That’s a piece of Buddhism this Methodist would happily incorporate into her life. I’d be happier, the people around me would be happier, and I might even learn how very unimportant most of what I care about is. That’s growth. Bend and stretch, people. Reach for the stars.


Many people ask us what we do with our days here in Spain. The answer is, really, that we do a lot of what everyone does. Living outside the USA, sadly, does not exempt you from cooking, laundry, dishes, banking, grocery shopping, housecleaning, and the like. We also have a lot of the same diversions we did in the States. I read, grow plants on our balcony, enjoy Zoom visits with book groups and friends, and write blog posts like this one. Mark reads, plays guitar, Zooms with his buddies, and finishes Sudokus in annoyingly little time. Together, we exercise, swim, see friends, attend church and language exchange groups, watch movies, and hang out with iPads and coffee before breakfast. Sometimes, as the recent picture above shows, we get to see beautiful spectacles celebrating holidays or feast days. And, of course, when we can, we travel.

One activity that’s new this year for me, though, is reading with a friend. This started during our lockdown and has continued after our restrictions eased. Every day about 6pm our time, I call my friend Kathleen in Texas, and we read the fun murder mysteries that we both adore. Courtesy of our internet telephone connection, I’ve had the pleasure of spending an hour or so most days reading with her. I love getting to discuss plot twists and share appreciation of fine turns of phrase. In case you’re wondering what our booklist contains, here’s our inventory to date: the first two Donna Leon mysteries, which are set in contemporary Venice; the first Billy Boyle WWII mystery, written by James Ben; Bruno, Chief of Police by Martin Walker (we are reading the second one in this series now); and Mr. Churchill’s Secretary, another WWII mystery set in London.

This last book introduces us to Margaret “Maggie” Hope, a new secretary/typist for the newly-elected PM, Winston Churchill, and from it comes the title of this blog post. Maggie becomes involved in thwarting Nazi and IRA espionage and a solving a mystery surrounding her family. By the end of the book she’s survived bombing, kidnapping, and several attempts on her life. Spoiler alert: she saves the code-breaking operation at Bletchley Park, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the PM all in the last five chapters. At the end all these spots of bother (we are talking about Brits, after all), a grateful Churchill inscribes a book for her, imploring her to continue on to the adventures in the subsequent books. He does this by signing his name and writing the letters “KPO” – Keep Plodding On.

KPO works for us here in Spain as well, at least right now. As happy as our lives are, we are aware of wars, natural disasters, and the pandemic around the world. In our beloved home country, COVID-19 rages on in eye-popping numbers, and federal forces are fighting our own citizens and, it seems, our democracy. And Spain has its own worries. In fact, the other question we get a lot these days is about what’s going on with the rise in Spain’s COVID numbers. For now, we feel relatively safe. The upticks are mostly in northern provinces several hundred miles away from us, and federal and provincial governments are requiring masks on everyone in public all over the country and closing down hotspots like night clubs and bars in the areas that have been hit the hardest. So we watch the numbers and the geography and know that the government here is following recommendations from doctors and scientists in its responses. That’s the best we can hope for.

So how do we spend our days? Mostly we KPO, like Maggie Hope. Out plod is quite lovely, but we know that our situation can change drastically and suddenly. Two days ago, for example, who was worried about dream sex with demons and alien DNA? Lately, I have started emails asking about plans with the phrase, “Assuming that the world hasn’t gone to hell by then…” But we go forward, keeping all of you in our prayers and hope (of the not-Maggie kind) in our hearts.

The history of history

img_2917Last week Mark and I enjoyed a short stay in Tarragona, a city in Catalonia about five hours’ drive from here. Tarragona started out as Tarraco, the capitol of part of Roman Hispania and Caesar Augustus’s winter getaway. The picture above is of a statue of the Snowbird Emperor, as I’ve come to think of him, although I’m guessing he came in a galley and not a Winnebago with a bunch of “See Rock City!”  and “We’re spending our children’s inheritance!” bumper stickers on the back.

Tarragona has many delights, but, geeks that we are, we concentrated on the Roman sites. That focus actually didn’t narrow the field much, as there’s a lot in this category to see. For example, we ate our first dinner in Tarragona at a restaurant overlooking a park and the ruins of an amphitheater that once seated 15,000 people. This amphitheater once boasted, among other delights, gladiatorial fights and the burning of Christians. Behind the ruins, the Mediterranean rolled its gentle sea rhythm, and we were shaded by a vine-covered pergola. That was not too shabby a start.

We began our first full day in Tarragona at the Praetorium. It was Augustus’s quarters in Tarraco, and local legend says that Pontius Pilate was born there. Much of the building was redone in the Middle Ages, but you can still walk through an arched Roman tunnel out to the remains of the Circus Maximus. This is the tunnel Augustus would have used to go take in the odd chariot race in the Circus. One curve of the track and some of the stands remain, and models and drawings allow you to get a sense of how the area looked during its glory days.

Our next stop was the archeological promenade next to the Roman city walls. Again, the walls were modified in the Middle Ages, but most of the wall is original (from the 3rd Century B.C.) and is spectacular. The promenade is beautifully landscaped and runs about three-quarters of a mile. Opposite the walls, stairs lead up to overlooks with views of the sea. And statues like the one pictured above and signs with information about Roman times dot the side of the walkway. One set of signs talked about Scipio, the Roman general who, against the odds, defeated the Carthaginians in Hispania in the Second Punic War (have to be careful with Auotcorrect on that name) and established a base camp here that evolved into a city. Pliny the Elder wrote about Scipio and his work in Tarraco.

Deviating briefly from our Roman theme, we next visited the Cathedral, which was, well, very cathedral-y. My favorite part was the courtyard, which is surrounded by a loggia and contains beautiful flowers and orange trees. Moving back to the Romans, we next toured the remains of the local forum, where people socialized, worshipped in a temple to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, and transacted business. Not a lot is still here, as much of the site was destroyed during a city expansion in the 19th century.

Our last stop that day was a section of Roman aqueduct outside of town. Google maps took us on the scenic route, to say the least, but the end result was totally worth it. The aqueduct is composed of three levels of arches supporting a long sluice at the top. The section we saw was in great shape, and we clambered up a hill to get a look at the sluice. The engineering is amazing.

The next day we saw sites that were a bit farther afield. Our first stop was an early Christian cemetery, used between the third and fifth centuries CE and home during part of that time to a basilica. The cemetery reportedly grew up around the grave of St. Fructuoso, one of the Christians martyred in the amphitheater described above. (I have to admit that the name Fructuoso was a new one to me, and I fleetingly contemplated searching for the companion grave of St. Sucroso.) Fellow Christians wanted some holy osmosis, I guess, and arranged to be buried near the martyr. In all, over 2,000 graves have been discovered at the cemetery, and an underground mausoleum and displays of sarcophagi and funerary mosaics rounded out the tour.

After that we drove to the so-called Scipio’s Tower, which is said to be a funerary monument to Scipio, even though it dates from a later period than his and he was reportedly buried at his villa in Italy. Then we went to see the Berá Arch, which was built in the first century BC. It’s in remarkably good shape and stands on a grassy island on a road still called the Via Augusta, after Cesar. We left the Arch and had a lovely lunch on the way back to the hotel at a restaurant that served its meals in an interior courtyard. The courtyard contains several trees with low, leafy canopies, so you eat in the dappled shade. It’s delightful. The only odd thing about the restaurant was its advertisement of “Breakfast of Fork” for €8.50. I have no idea what that means.

So that’s our itinerary. However, our trip was more than just a series of places, as cool as those places were. It was also an opportunity to reflect on how history is shaped by what is told and what’s not, what is preserved and shown and what’s not. For example, we know that part of the Forum was destroyed for new construction in the 19th century, but what about the much more recent construction of the three-story shopping mall next door to the early Christian cemetery? It’s an odd sensation to sit in the food court in a busy mall, sipping your soda from McDonald’s and wondering who’s buried in an amphora underneath you. Too, some history just doesn’t make the cut. Iberians get no mention in Tarragona’s historical exhibits, but they inhabited what became Tarraco well before the Carthaginians arrived. They traded with the Greeks and Phoenicians, built city walls on which the Roman walls were later constructed, and provided Scipio with valuable supplies and information during his battles. And some history is just cheerfully, overtly fake. As I noted above, the Scipio Tower has nothing to do with Scipio. Somebody just noted that there were two figures carved on it, decided that they must be Scipio and his fellow general brother, and the Tower got its present name. There’s history to our history, and it’s not always clear.

It is possible to learn some of our history’s history, though, and that process seems refreshingly honest when you encounter it. The best example I can provide you here is the sign next to the statue of Augustus shown above. The first part of the sign explains that the statue is a cast of one in the Vatican’s collection, minus a random dolphin and Cupid hanging off the right leg of the original. But the explanation continues, noting that Italy gave the statue to Spain in 1934 as a show of friendship from Mussolini to Franco. The statue was hidden away to keep it safe during the Civil War and then reinstalled in 1939 during a goodwill tour of a Mussolini government official. So conflicts old and new are explained and sins laid bare in this one, brief sign.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to see interesting and beautiful historical sites. I also  wish for all of us to get access to more of the history of the history. The United States, of course, is struggling with this issue right now. We’re asking questions like the ones I wondered about in Tarragona.  Who was here before the conquerors showed up, and what were they like?  What barbarity is associated with this beautiful structure or that handsome statue? What’s been covered up or suppressed or lost? What falsehoods do we tell ourselves about “historical” monuments and movements and people? Once we start answering those questions and see that history has both literal and figurative layers, perhaps we can begin to deal with the biggest question of all: How do we come to terms with a history that is a mixed bag of good and evil? To me, that coming to terms would in itself be a historical event. So maybe our current questioning and searching is the history of the history. And it seems to me that’s a great place to begin.





Summertime, and the Livin’ Is Tinto

img_2876As you may know, Spain is prohibiting most travelers from the USA from entering the country. This prohibition stems from concerns about the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the USA. For its part, Spain has experienced a small uptick in cases since reopening about two weeks ago, reporting 200 new cases and three deaths yesterday (June29). Most of these cases, though, are located in pockets in Madrid, Catalonia, Aragon, and Andalusia. Several of the cases are linked to persons entering Spain to work on farms and in meat-packing facilities. This isolation allows for quarantine and tracing to take place.  At the same time, masking and social distancing requirements remain and are enforceable by the police by on-the-spot citations carrying fines of up to €1,000.

Here in our nest in Torrevieja, life continues to be good. We see friends, go to restaurants, and take daily walks. We’re planning a day trip with friends to visit some nearby historical sites. And, of course, we read, chat with friends and family via Zoom, and exercise most days. It’s a good life which isn’t terribly different from our pre-COVID existence, if you don’t count wearing masks and social distancing.

The biggest change in our life recently is the arrival of summer. We’d planned to travel all summer, both in Europe and in the USA, but of course that’s not happening now. But we have a couple of pleasures associated with summertime that I’d like to share with you.

The first is swimming in the sea. The Mediterranean is outside our doorway, and we take full advantage of that fact. Most days we meander down to a small inlet near us that somewhat protected from the wave action. We toss our beach bag in the shade of the pedestrian walk’s retaining wall, strip off our T-shirts, and head into the water. It’s cool but not bone-chillingly cold, and you have to go out about 75 feet before the water is over your head. This is, therefore, prime floating territory. Sea salt makes your body very buoyant; it’s easy to lie back and stare at the puffy white clouds that drift by overhead. After half an hour or so, we generally get out of the water, reverse the T-shirt and bag process, and go home. We could hang out on the beach, but I both burn easily and dislike getting sand inside my clothes. As a result,  our little jaunts are perfect.

One other joy of summer here is Tinto Verano – red summer wine. This is a mixture of red wine and lemonade that’s sold in bottles like the one shown above. It’s a bit like sangria without the chunks of fruit floating in it. Tinto Verano tastes tangy and refreshing, and it’s a lovely drink to sip on the balcony at the end of the day, catching the sea breezes and watching the world go by. It comes in alcoholic and non-alcoholic versions, and we like both of them.

It’s not like the problems of the world have gone away this summer. As noted above, COVID-19 is still present in Spain and appears to be racing across much of our beloved home country. In fact, the first member of our family to test positive was diagnosed last week. Too, tourism forms a large part of Torrevieja’s economy, but travelers seem scarce. Our pedestrian walk, the Paseo Marítimo, should be packed in the evenings, and it’s not. Some restaurants have closed permanently. Daunting social issues such as systemic racism top the headlines; on a personal level, we have several dear friends struggling with bad health and, in a couple of cases, deep grief over recent losses of loved ones. But just for right now, and just for this afternoon, I’m going to savor the joys of this summer. Mark and I will head to the beach soon, and this evening we’ll lift our glasses of Tinto Verano as the day winds down. And as we do, we will drink to you, deriving what joy you can from your summer days as well.