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.




Mural, mural on the wall

img_2868-1Last Saturday Mark, our friend Nancy, and I visited Orihuela. That’s a city of about 34,000 people that lies half an hour’s drive from us. Orihuela is an old city; it was well-established by 859CE, when Vikings attacked it, and still remembers its crafty  Visigoth king, Theodemir, who negotiated with invading Muslim troops headed by Ibn Musa and managed to retain a degree of sovereignty over his realm. Today, the city has some interesting historical sites, including a ruined Arab castle, a medieval cathedral, and a museum of floats from the Holy Week processions and the parade of Moors and Christians that take place each year.

We bypassed the long-ago sites this visit, though, in order to visit a more contemporary memorial. The neighborhood of San Isidro in Orihuela is home to approximately 200 murals remembering Miguel Hernandez, one of the foremost Spanish poets of the 20th century. The murals all appear on the sides of buildings in the area. Hernandez was born in Orihuela and had only a rudimentary formal education. But his poetry was soon recognized as being both simple and profound, and he moved further into the public eye with his leftist political activity. He became a Communist and was affiliated with the Spanish Republican government.

When the Civil War broke out in 1936, Hernandez joined the opposition to Franco and fought in one of the militias in the war. When Franco triumphed, Hernandez was arrested and sentenced to death. Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and others interceded on his behalf, but the best they could do was a commutation of his sentence to 30 years in prison. His wife Josefina and his sons suffered in poverty during this period. Their first son died as a result of hunger, and Josefina famously wrote to her husband in prison to say that she and their second son were surviving on onions and bread. This letter inspired one of Hernandez’s most famous poems, “Onion Lullaby.” Hernandez contracted tuberculosis in prison and died there in 1942.

Franco died in 1975, and King Juan Carlos I and the Spanish government began the process of moving away from totalitarianism. In 1976, murals honoring Hernandez first appeared on the walls of the houses in San Isidro. This happened despite the intervention of armed police, who tried to stop the painting process. Over the years, the political climate opened up, and Hernandez’s work as a poet and an activist began to be celebrated. Now, Orihuela holds a festival in March to restore the existing murals and add new ones. The festival includes music, dancing, speeches, and, I’m guessing, lots of alcohol. This is Spain, after all.

So that brings us to our visit to the murals. Saturday was hot, but after eating way too many delicious tapas at a local cafe, the three of us clapped on our hats and wandered the neighborhood. We took pictures, exclaimed over various displays, and tried to translate passages quoted on the walls. Some are real works of art. Some are rather amateurish. Some seem kind of random; there’s a tribute to Sojourner Truth near the gas station, for example. But to visit the murals is both sad, because of Hernandez’s fate, and inspiring. One of my favorite murals is the one shown above. This mural appears on the side of a school, and, as you see, the picture is simply lots of hands. The (translated) quotation from Hernandez’s poem is, “Hands are the tools of the soul.” I believe that. I love that.

As an American, it’s interesting to contemplate the process of remembering a dark period in history. We all know about the debates in the USA regarding removing statues honoring Confederates. For its part, Spain is still grappling with the legacy of Franco and the Fascism he brought to this country. There’s a lot of process there, and perhaps that’s for another blog post, after I come to understand more. All I can tell you now, though, is this: the statues and symbols of Franco and his regime are either in museums or gone entirely. Franco isn’t forgotten, but he’s not celebrated, either. In contrast, the murals honoring Miguel Hernandez blaze out in their lovely colors in the Spanish sunshine, inviting visitors to contemplate poetry and politics. And the hands that refurbish and add to these murals? I think like Hernandez thought. I think that they are the tools of the soul.



Apple pie

img_2857-1We had a death in the family yesterday. Oh, no person passed away, but a relationship died.

I’m not going to identify the person in question, at Mark’s request. Suffice it to say that this is a relation by marriage. This is what happened. Yesterday morning, I was still in my pjs, hanging on the couch with my coffee and Facebook. I happened to look at a post by the friend of another relative in the same branch of the family. The topic on this post, as on so many others, was the ongoing protests over the systemic racism in the USA. One of the comments was about the autonomous zone (should that be capitalized?) in Seattle. The person in question commented as follows: “Kill them all! Let God sort them out.” 


I knew that this part of Mark’s family was conservative, right-wing self-described “Christian,” and very into guns, but I mean – words fail me. Folks, that doesn’t happen often.

I know the origin of this phrase, although I have no idea whether the poster does. It’s attributed to a French Cistercian monk named Arnaud Almaric. Almaric was the official representative of the ironically-named Pope Innocent III, who promised in 1209 that anyone who went on crusade against the Cathars, a group of French Christians who had rejected some tenets of Roman Catholicism, could keep the land they seized. French nobleman Simon de Montfort decided to take the Pope up on his offer and attacked a town in southern France, Béziers, where the Cathars and Catholics had lived together peacefully for years. The invaders showed up on July 22, the Feast Day of Mary Magdalene, which Cathars and Catholics observed together. The Catholics of Béziers refused to surrender the Cathars to de Montfort. The invaders then attacked. Reportedly a soldier asked Almaric how they could distinguish between fellow Catholics and Cathars. Almaric is quoted as responding, “Kill them all. God will know his own.” So they did. And over the next 40 years, roughly 1,000,000 people were killed in this bloody domestic crusade.

The epithet has refused to die. American Special Forces adapted the phrase into its current form during the war in Vietnam. It was also the name of Metallica’s first album. The phrase continues to be associated with massacres and genocides.

And here it was on Facebook, posted by a relation. I showed it to Mark, who was as horrified as I was.

Virtually every family, I suspect, struggles with what to do with members who say horrible things. Excruciating conversations at holidays, for example, are commonplace. I had one uncle who always got drunk and loud and obnoxious at Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings. That was fun. But many of us are struggling now with how to handle relationships with family members who are advocating what can only be described as evil. Usually, in our situation, this comes from people who consider themselves to be Christian, even though their statements and actions would have poor Jesus whirling in his grave if he were still in it. How are we supposed to handle this?

Mark decided to handle it by cutting off the relationship with the person in question. He sent a message saying that we never want to see that person again. This practically is not a big deal, as these are not people with whom we’ve spent a great deal of time. In fact, I’m not sure I could pick the poster out of a lineup. But are we part of the problem by ceasing to engage? It feels like there’s a yes in there, but it also feels like there’s a boundary that just can’t be crossed. I’m all right with that, and Mark seems to be, too. But it also feels like a loss, like an ending. It feels like a death in the family.

I  decided  to deal with the hubbub by baking the apple pie pictured above. Butter and sugar are comfort foods, right? If I do say so myself, it turned out pretty well. Of course, I made a complete mess in the kitchen while cooking, which leads me to wonder why anyone would use the phrase “apple pie order” to describe cleanliness and order. And it also brought up a memory from childhood. My brother, who’s nine years older than I, was a child of the ‘60s. He dropped out and tuned in, growing his hair long and protesting the war. All of these behaviors drove my conservative WWII veteran father crazy. The specific memory that came to me was when my brother put up a quote from H. Rap Brown on his bedroom wall: “Violence is as American as apple pie.” In truth, Brown said “cherry pie,” and my brother used a sheet of cardboard for his sign that had come in my dad’s shirts from Munro’s Dry Cleaners, but we were a bit behind in Beaumont. Anyway, it took Dad and my brother years to find some equilibrium with each other. Some of those scars never healed.

As we sit down to pie today, I have no idea whether this death in our family will ever heal, either. All I can say is this: if you’re in the same situation as we are, there’s a slice waiting on our table for you.







Grass angels

img_2719This is a picture of a mountain laurel bloom. I took it in Texas last summer. Sadly, these plants don’t have a fragrance. But they do grow to be hardy and beautiful, despite intense heat, hungry deer, occasional brutal freezes, and frequent droughts. Perhaps the Talmud is right when it says, “Behind every blade of grass is an angel whispering, ‘Grow.’” Grass angels must work overtime on mountain laurels.

Actually, I’ve been thinking about growth a lot this week. First and foremost, one of my dearest friends in the world really needs growth right now. My friend had a bone marrow transplant, and the transplanted cells need to grow. I’m sending lots of “Grow, grow!” thoughts to the USA. It’s a pretty basic message, but it still counts as thinking in my book.

But that’s not the only thinking about growth I’ve been doing. With the demonstrations against systemic racism in the USA continuing across the globe, I have to do something. Mark and I have donated some money and probably will give some more. And I have used up my lifetime allocation of “angry” Facebook reaction icons in the last couple of weeks. But I know that I also need to grow in my understanding of the issue of racism, my unconscious assumption that whiteness is the norm for the world and the best that it has to offer.

To that end, Mark and I are participating in an online class offered by our church in Texas. The book we’re studying is called Me and White Supremacy, and it’s by Layla Saad. The book is intended for use over 28 days. Short daily readings on topics such as white fragility and white privilege are followed by questions you’re supposed to reflect on in a journal. So far I’m through Day 5, and, wow, this is an uncomfortable experience. I keep remembering things I did or said or failed to do or say that make me cringe. And that doesn’t count the things that others have done or said (or not done or said) around me. 

Here’s an example of what Saad is talking about. Just yesterday, a member of Mark’s family posted something awful. I blocked the source of the post and snoozed the person who made the post, but I didn’t say anything to the family member in question. Mark, bless him, was more direct. He sent this person a message explaining why he was unfriending them. So I exhibited white silence the day after I read and responded to the book’s passage on white silence. God must heave heavy sighs over me. (I also admit to puzzling one sleepy morning over a different friend’s Facebook post about supporting BLM. Why did my friend feel called to voice support for the Bureau of Land Management? But I blame this lapse on the fact that I hadn’t had coffee yet.)

All I can say is, I am ready to grow in this area. I’m actually a person who craves growth. Learning new information all the time was one of my favorite things about being a lawyer. Mark and I have settled in Spain in order to learn a new language, experience a new culture, and travel to new places. I just need a grass angel. I need to be equipped to grow in my understanding of systemic racism and my complicity in it. And I’m hoping that, like the mountain laurel, I can produce some blooms that will make the world a better place.


Promises, promises

img_2835-1Yesterday was the thirty-fifth anniversary of the day Mark and I got engaged. We always celebrate this day; this year we had a delicious, leisurely dinner on the terrace of a local restaurant. The palms overhung our table, the crescent moon shone up in the sky, and the Mediterranean splashed and frolicked in front of us. It was a lovely night.

Of course, because of who we are, there’s a funny story attached to our engagement. Although we’d only been dating three and a half months, Mark and I were pretty serious in May 1985. Late in the month we shared a romantic weekend in New Orleans. I thought Mark might pop the question on that trip, but no dice – which was fine, because we had a great time. But I was a little puzzled.

Fast forward a couple of days. Mark was moving, and I agreed to come to his apartment after work and help him pack boxes. We had a quick dinner at his place, and then he went back to his office in downtown Houston to make revisions on a document and give the new draft to the word processing pool (remember them?) to turn around. Kind soul that I am, I stayed at his apartment and packed boxes. I remember in particular that I packed the contents of the bookshelf in Mark’s spare bedroom. One volume really grabbed my attention. It was the alumni notes from Mark’s 10th high school reunion, which he’d attended shortly before we met. Mark’s entry included his educational achievements and work history to date, but the note at the end was what got me going. It proclaimed, “And girls, he’s still single!” I specifically recall looking at that sentence and thinking, “Not for long, if I have anything to say about it.”

Anyway, Mark eventually returned, and he asked me to take a break and sit on the couch with him. I complied unwillingly, partly because I didn’t like that couch (it was an atrocious green and white brocade, and lumpy to boot), but mostly because I wanted to keep on packing. Focusing on the latter issue, I was contemplating how to induce him to get rid of all the wire coat hangers he’d accumulated in his coat closet when he finished whatever he said before and ended with, “So, will you marry me?” Okay, that I heard, but I was so startled that I burst out with, “What? You’re kidding!” and then proceeded to laugh uproariously. Poor Mark. It was not my finest hour. When I finally managed to stop laughing and looked at my sweet, mortified suitor, I recovered enough to get out some sort of affirmative. Despite the laughter, he didn’t rescind the offer, and next weekend we went shopping for the middle ring you see above. No, he didn’t show up with a sparkler. Being a smart man, he knew I’d want a say in what kind of ring I got. (P.S. There is a story about the top ring, the solitaire wrap, that I got for our 20th anniversary. It involves cold water, marijuana, cave tubing in Belize, and one of the reasons I’m especially fond of the state of Pennsylvania. But we’ll save that tale for another post.)

When I started thinking about this post, I’d intended to stop here, after adding just a bit of verbiage about how happy we are and how grateful I am for this lovely man. But while both of those things are still true, between then and now George Floyd was brutally murdered by a now ex-police officer in Minneapolis. And as a privileged White person, I feel that I can’t just write a fluff piece here and call it a day. The inhumanity and the horror of this act, and the commonplace nature of the destruction of Black bodies, makes that impossible. George Floyd sat at our dinner table under the Spanish palms last night as we talked about him. Sandra Bland drank a toast with us. Trayvon Martin sampled my hake and Mark’s salmon. How can they not?

See, it’s all about promises. When Mark and I got engaged, we made promises to each other. Yes, I will marry you. Yes, I will love you. Yes, I will be true to you. We turned those promises into vows in September of 1985, and the vows turned into the love, laughter, children, friends, and  mutual support of the last three and a half decades. But what, I wonder, do we promise our African-American citizens?

John Locke said that our social contract, the mutual promises made between the state and the people in it, includes protection from harm and fair enforcement of the law. Up until the last few years, I believed that, more or less, the American version of this social contract extended to all persons. But I can no longer deny the evidence of my own eyes and the witness of people of color. The social contract described above extends to me, because of my race. And equally, tragically, it fails to extend to people of color. The promises made to them look a lot different, as far as I can tell. Those promises seem to be that their lives are expendable, their very existence is subject to a White man’s adrenaline-addled whim or, perhaps, calculated desire. I can’t imagine bearing that knowledge day in and day out. I can’t get my head around living in a place that hates you. It has to be a nightmare. So while I’m horrified that rioting has occurred in response to George Floyd’s murder, I also am beginning to understand where the impetus to riot comes from.

So here we are at the last paragraph, where I usually try to tie up some inspiring thought with a cheery epigram. I’m sorry, folks, but tonight I’ve got nothing but a broken heart at the broken promises our country has made. I love Mark, and I love the USA. But my soul is sad and heavy. May God have mercy on us all.

Curtsying in the bathtub


One of the most fun Christmas presents I ever got was a Magic Eight Ball. Do you remember these devices? You asked a question and turned the ball over. A little multi-sided die inside the ball would float through the liquid in which it was suspended and show you an answer. Options on the answers included, if memory serves, yes, no, it is most likely, outlook good, signs point to no, and cannot predict now. The eight ball was a must for sleepovers, because you could huddle with your friends and ask about life’s critical issues, such as the accuracy of reports that X and Y had actually kissed each other or whether Z liked you. We had lots of vaguely scandalous fun with the Eight Ball. And if you think about it, as a source of information it probably was about as good as half of what you see on Facebook.

One thing I never needed the Eight Ball for, though, was making decisions. For better or worse, I’ve always been a decisive person. I remember many years ago when our daughter Jane was a toddler and we were in San Francisco on vacation. A friend who lived in that lovely city had joined us for the evening and was walking with us as we returned to our hotel near Union Square. We were low on milk, which Jane enjoyed first thing in the morning and which we could stash in our room’s minibar. So as we walked by a small store selling drinks, snacks, and the like, I ducked in to buy a pint of milk. When I emerged from the little space, our friend was shaking his head. “I’m impressed,” he said. “When you saw a store, you just went in and got what you needed. I would have stood on the sidewalk and tried to decide whether this was the closest store to the hotel and whether this was where I’d get the best price.” This is me in a nutshell. If I overpaid by two cents and carried my pint of milk one more block than I might have needed to, I’m okay with that. We had milk. (P.S. There were no stores nearer our hotel, as it turned out.)

So imagine my surprise last Thursday when I found myself dithering over the question of whether to attend my book group meeting on Friday. I’d read the book and wanted to discuss it. But the organizer wanted the six members to meet in person at a cafe; what’s more, I’d have to ride the bus to get there. Small in-person meetings and bus rides are permitted now, with masking and distancing, but the prospect made me nervous and left me torn as to whether to attend. Is there such a thing as FOGO, which I guess is kind of the opposite of FOMO? Anyway, I couldn’t make up my mind and drove Mark crazy by repeatedly enumerating the pros and cons. Ultimately rain intervened and spared me the choice, because we opted to meet by Zoom instead of in person. But I noticed my unusual state of indecision; apparently it’s an unexpected byproduct of the pandemic.

In all fairness, we’re all probably a little bit at sea now. It’s like in the Star Trek episodes (and there are many) where the Enterprise has to navigate through space or time or the innards of some menacing galactic creature where there are no landmarks. What’s safe? What’s risky? What’s downright dangerous? Familiar guidelines and practices have become obsolete – impractical at best and life-threatening at worst. Perhaps indecision isn’t that surprising, under the circumstances.

I know I need to decide how to forge ahead, though, because life moves on even in the midst of uncertainty. So I’ve decided to make my COVID decisions one at a time. First up is the question of how to greet people. The kisses on both cheeks we had learned to give and receive here are history. Handshakes and hugs also are out. The “live long and prosper” Vulcan greeting, speaking of Star Trek, doesn’t make sense to some of our acquaintance, and even people who know what it is sometimes can’t make their fingers respond in kind. And I don’t dare use the University of Texas “Hook ‘em Horns” sign, because that means something truly different in Europe than it does in Austin. Getting arrested is not in my quarantine plans.

All is not lost, though. The namaste hands together greeting is a contender, but overall I’m leaning towards curtsying. It’s pretty and sweetly nostalgic in a Jane Austen kind of way. However, it’s also difficult. So I’ve been practicing curtsying in the bathtub, with a non-slip mat under my feet and shower enclosure walls to balance on if I start to wobble. It’s kind of fun, except when my knees creak. Following the example of Cinderella’s stepsister, I suppose I need to rub some unicorn oil on my joint to stop the offending sound. But Carrefour appears to be out of this salve, so I’ll just have to live with the noise as I keep practicing. 

This is all goofy, I know. Even as I savor my bathtub silliness and my dreams of unicorn oil, I’m aware that many serious decisions lie ahead. We’ve all got to learn how to live in our new normal. Personally, I’m going to have to dig down and find my old decisive self, the one who apparently has been quarantining somewhere else but who needs to show the heck back up now. And it’s no use asking my Magic Eight Ball for guidance. About ten years ago the die got stuck in the answer window, and now it perpetually advises me to “Ask again later.” So I guess it’s up to each of us to sort out the available information, take a deep breath, and move forward. God help us all as we do.