Ominous Signs of the Times

GFT generally avoids topics of politics, current events or hard news. I leave it to my readers to "read between the lines" to determine my political leanings and other important barometers of worth. But an article caught my eye in the Dallas Morning News this morning - about impending layoffs in Plano ISD, said to be necessary to eliminate budget shortfalls, along with the requisite assurances that teachers would not be among them. (It is true that GFT is a teacher, so this topic is naturally one of interest, though I do not work for any of the school districts mentioned here.)

Citizens of the DFW metroplex have seen how reliable these assurances are, in the previous situation last fall where Dallas ISD announced that it was laying off several hundred teachers to avoid similar budget shortfalls. Hundreds of teachers were sent home, then months later, miraculously, new funds appeared in the budget, and new teachers were hired. Mirabile dictu !! (Latin for "marvelous to speak of ", like saying " it's a miracle ! ") . Was this truly a budgetary issue? Was there really some other agenda , underneath the surface? Inquiring minds want to know.....Why is there not some media watchdog analyzing which teachers were laid off, and their corresponding job performance reviews or TAKS results of their students or other important factors ? I once worked for a school district that announced a "reduction in staff for budgetary reasons" and it turned out, after a hellish year of stress and multiple job reviews and staff meetings with dire threats to all the workers, that the decision of who to fire and who to keep was based on whether administration deemed you were using too much of your health benefits, esp insurance, in terms of being seriously ill. Those with recent medical procedures or too many doctors visits were terrorized until they left voluntarily, or left go if they did not. Illegal you say ? Try arguing that your suddenly recent poor performance review is illegitimate if you've just had open heart surgery and aren't yet feeling snappy enough to fight it.

Why do school districts have budget shortfalls in the first place ? Shouldn't they have some reserves to handle short term cost over-runs ? Last fall, Dallas ISD argued that the high cost of fuel to run school buses and other transportation costs was the reason for the unanticipated expenditures. Of course we now know, with hindsight, that the retail price of gas dropped in mid-fall and went to historic lows, where (at least in Texas) it has hovered ever since. Would not high transportation costs incurred from Aug- Sept have been more than offset by low costs from Oct onward, in terms of an overall yearly budget ? Who knows where the truth of that situation really lies.

The Plano ISD announcement in today's paper is far more ominous, however. Citizens of the metroplex are used to the helter-skelter behaviors of Dallas ISD. Seems like they are always in the news for outlandish corporate spending, hiring and firing superintendents, always something wacky going on. Plano ISD, however, is not. It is the rock, the beacon of light, the golden standard against which other school districts and teaching staff measure themselves in terms of TAKS scores, teacher salaries, educational standards - you name it. We expect the best of Plano ISD, and hope to emulate them if we can. So to hear that their school district is having budgetary concerns is like the canary in the coal mine.......if they are having difficulties, can other school districts be far behind ?

Those of us in education have long known we will never get rich. We hope to serve mankind, earn enough to be comfortable, and have a steady, reliable job that is fairly recession proof. My teacher friends and I have sat through this hideous recession, thus far, keeping our fingers crossed for friends and relatives in other fields, and felt that our own jobs were secure. This new uncertainty is not going to encourage the remaining few of us with steady paychecks to start spending, and jump start the economy, any time soon.

Here is the news story :

Plano teachers won't lose jobs in district layoffs
09:08 PM CST on Tuesday, January 27, 2009
By MATTHEW HAAG / The Dallas Morning Newsmhaag@dallasnews.com
Several Plano school employees will lose their jobs under a plan to reduce the district's multimillion-dollar budget deficit.
School board members approved layoffs and other personnel actions estimated to save Plano ISD $1.5 million.
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More Plano news and resources
Targeted are employees in two departments: elementary academic services and library/media services.
No teachers would be let go under the plan, the district said.
"Like everyone else in this country, the district is tightening its belts to balance its budget," board member Mary Beth King said.
Other board members declined comment, deferring all questions to board president Skip Jenkins, who did not return a phone call or e-mail message seeking comment Tuesday.
The plan also calls for several central office positions to go unfilled.
Plano ISD hasn't revealed the number of people to be cut or the number and types of positions that would remain empty.
The district projects it will save $1.05 million through the layoffs and $440,000 by keeping jobs vacant, said Karla Oliver, a Plano ISD administrator.
Plano ISD last implemented cutbacks during the 2003-2004 school year, when it eliminated hundreds of jobs through early-retirement incentives and contract terminations.
The district is taking other actions to reduce its $14 million budget deficit. The district shaved about $500,000 by implementing energy-efficiency measures and it benefited from the drop in gasoline prices, said Richard Matkin, the district's associate superintendent for business services.
Plano ISD and other area school districts have asked state representatives to approve additional money for public schools. But they expect little, if any, extra state funding.
"We have to see if the Legislature is going to come up with additional money," Mr. Matkin said. "I'm not sure how many years people can absorb deficit budgets."

Tea Time

A co-worker recently celebrated National Hot Tea Month by hosting a series of tea-tastings , a different flavor each day, at work. (I'm so glad she chose this food item, instead of National Prune Month to celebrate ! Googling this event to check my facts turned up a host of food related celebrations that I had no idea existed......I've been blissfully unaware, all this time !) In the interest of getting along with my co-workers, I decided to pop in, share a cuppa and a chat. Several other coworkers were hovering about, and it all turned into an impromptu tea party that ended up being rather pleasant, and a welcome break from an otherwise hectic day. I got to know some folk I didn't previously, and the added caffeine zip powered me through the afternoon.
I love tea but don't drink it often as I otherwise would, as it is on the "forbidden" list of oaxalate (kidney stone ) causing food items for me. Years ago, when I lived in Houston and used to tutor little Japanese children, (whose fathers were in this country working for Nippon Steel), their mothers would serve me tea, Japanese style , and very delicate cookies or pastries as I taught their children English. It was a charming and delightful custom that I enjoyed very much. Too bad I can't do this more often.


Instructions for My Funeral

Emily Dickinson once wrote :

Because I could not stop for Death,

He kindly stopped for me;

The carriage held but just ourselves

And Immortality. *

I know it seems morbid to talk about your death, or what kind of funeral you want to have. Death visits us all my friend, sooner or later. Many people avoid this topic forever, and end up with some generic, bland, Holiday Inn sort of funeral with trite readings that sound like Hallmark cards, all because their surviving relatives were too distraught to know what to do or to think clearly. So I'm putting it out there : this is the kind of funeral I want. Any of you reading this who survive me (you know who you are !) , I am counting on you to help my loved ones arrange all this . It really will be better for ALL of you.


Had a conversation, recently, with one of my doctors, about all my health problems, (read "Disease of the Month " Club, in this blog, Dec 2008, for more on that topic ) and he casually threatened that I could be shaving 10-15 years off my life if I don't do a better job managing certain aspects of my health. I was discussing this verdict with some of my gfs at lunch one day, and one of them said, "How good is that last 10-15 years, anyways? " Which brings up so many questions ; sure, I'd rather go off a cliff like Thelma and Louis, maybe on a motorcycle instead of in a car, maybe with Brad Pitt as well !!! , than suffer and be in a hospital and tethered to machines. But I digress....


My funeral wishes :

1)First, don't spend a lot of money on a casket, or embalming me, or a funeral plot or headstone. Absolutely no open caskets or "viewings " !!! (Bleeech !!! ) Don't let those folk at the local funeral parlor guilt trip you into doing this. I believe that once I am dead, my body is dead - my spirit lives on, but I don't need or care about those earthly things any more. Here's what I'd rather you did with all that money:


2)Cremate me. You, survivors, family and friends, I ask you to take a wonderful trip with the money you would have spent on a funeral ( there will be a nice insurance policy with plenty of funds available for you to do this) , and go somewhere that I loved - Greece, Italy, France, anywhere along the Mediterranean - and spread my ashes on the wind, the water, along the sites where I spent so many happy times in my youth. Really, this will make me so much more at peace, bring me - and you! so much more joy, than being in the cold hard ground. I will feel like I am getting one last chance to share something of my life with you; it will be a healing experience for us both.

2)Next : Plan an Irish wake for me. I am serious, I want a big BIG party to celebrate my death... I am not Irish by birth, but I am by marriage, and I've seen enough of these events to know that this is the way to go. Invite 100 people or more, people who knew me, people who didn't. Hire an Irish Celtic band, and rent out the local VFW if you need a room large enough. I want a fully stocked bar, with all major liquors and a margarita machine, good food, a big spread - and dancing. Get a few photos of me from when I was young, thin, cute and peppy, and blow them up to poster size, and prop them onto some easels ( I've got a few at the house you can borrow). Dance, eat, get drunk ! party, and tell all the old stories. Someone has to make a toast to me every hour, on the hour, and then everyone has to drink. Tell all the old jokes, ( a guy walks into a bar.... ) and share all the old anecdotes - about the time I danced on the bar at Valhalla, about the time I rode a motorcycle up Mt Ida on Crete and nearly died, about the time I got drunk with one of my bfs and tried to sneak onto an airplane bound for New Orleans. All about when a childhood friend and I tried to joust on our bicycles, when we tried to play practical jokes on drivers late at night at Hide-A-Way Lake, about the time we snuck onto the golf course and made love, walking up Riverside Park in the rain holding hands, when we spent part of our senior prom at a cemetery, the friends who wanted to build a copy of the bridge of the Enterprise in someone's garage. Tell about the days each of my children were born, and how I met the hubster and all about our wedding 14 years later. Hire some kid to play the bagpipes, and have him play "Amazing Grace". Get drunk, have fun, celebrate my life; don't mourn my death.

* I love this poem, in spite of its morbid topic. Perhaps that would be a nice one to read at the service......if you must, I'd rather have a Church of England service, or else gather together with some of my Buddhist friends and read some Isak Dineson, that poem by Auden she reads at Finch-Hatten's funeral is a good one, even if too masculine.....


Slumdog Millionaire, A Fine Balance

I took my mom to see "Slumdog Millionaire" this weekend. She hated it; I loved it. Mom only really wants to see happy movies like old American musicals and Masterpiece Theater remakes. I dragged her to see Bollywood's "Bride and Prejudice" a few years back, but even that jolly version of Jane Austen's classic love story didn't work for her. I think a lifetime of growing up in the deep South, with its attendant prejudices, leaves her sadly unable to appreciate great stories set in other cultures.
As I was watching "Slumdog Millionaire", the tale of three little children growing up in the slums of Mumbai, I couldn't help but think it was like Oliver Twist meets Romeo and Juliet, with a little Schindler's List thrown in for good measure. Sweetness and light this film is not, although eventually there is a happy ending. All the Dickens characters are here : master of the beggar pick-pockets Fagin, Jamil's brother Salim as the Artful Dodger, an evil Bill Sikes, Laitika as gentle Nancy - in slight variations. Plus star-crossed lovers that will make the problems of Romeo and Juliet seem tame in comparison. Most people will tell you this is the story of some poor kid who wins a million rupees on an Indian game show. That is a true summary, but ignores most of the storyline of this film. The recurring references to the Three Musketeers explores the strong bond the three main characters have with one another as they help each other survive the harsh poverty and violent events that mark their childhood. The environment - the slums of Mumbai - these children grow up in will wring the most jaded westerners' hearts and make you want to go out and donate money to "Save the Children" or something similar. (Feel free to do so. It can't hurt.) The bond between the two little brothers, and the winsome faces of the young actors who played them in the film, are not easily forgotten, even days after seeing the movie. I may have to go watch it again, to catch all that I missed the first time. I remember being dazzled, visually, by all the beautiful colors of the slums.....
This film reminded me also of a great book I read a few summers back : A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. (Oddly discordant sidebar : I was reading this tome while riding on trains throughout Italy. As fond as I am of the lovely Italian countryside, I think I remember the vivid scenes from this book, more.) This novel has a dozen characters, some wealthy, some poor, whose lives intermingle by happenstance, and it follows them through a series of mis-adventures that are so tragic they are almost comic. When I first read this book, a winner of the Man Booker prize for literature, I felt it reminded me of Dickens in its vast sweep of humanity and unobtrusive comments on the human condition. What this book and movie have in common is the dignity humans can possess in the face of unspeakable tragedy.

Snow Daze

Students pray for snow days; teachers view them as a mixed blessing. A day off today means one less holiday, later in the spring - a day I might need more, in terms of mental health, than I do this one. It is a difficult task for school districts to decide which days should be snow days. Keep in mind that someone - a director of transportation, a member of the school board - is out looking at road conditions at 4 am, as well as watching weather reports, and trying to figure out what the roads will be like in 4 hours or 10 hours. Can the buses run ? Will parents be going to work today ? Is it safe for people to be driving on these roads ? Will there be mass absenteeism, as people just decide to ignore attendance laws and stay home ?
Today my school, as well as many others around us, called a snow day. The weather reports were predicting ice storms and mass chaos all day long. One never knows if they will be predictive of the actual weather, or not ......Right now it is drizzling some in front of my house and that is about it. Above is a photo of a day that was not called off as a snow day ... it started off like any other spring day : cloudy, rainy, cold but not freezing. By noon the snow started falling - remarkably rare for north Texas any time of year, much less March. By 1 pm the snow was accumulating, and parents starting coming up to the school and taking their kids out. School was closed by 1:30 but the roads were so bad by that point, my normal 5 min commute took me 45 min ( it's all of 2 miles). Not sure what the official snowfall was that day , but it's clear from this photo of my backyard, it was 6-8 inches at my house. You just can never tell how the weather is going to go.
Right now I'm still in my jammies, blogging. The kids are arguing over whose turn it is on the video game, and I've about had it. I think I'll go run some errands I didn't get to this weekend.....then I am going to come home and cook up a big pot of something tasty to eat.


Do You Bite Your Thumb at Me, Sir ?

GFT never really understood young men, especially not the "group think" of many young men hanging around together. Growing up, GFT agonized over the young men she knew, and like any normal teen aged girl, spent most of her time contemplating those young men, what they thought, what they wanted, and worrying about what to wear to attract their attention. In my experience, when teenage girls hang out together, they mostly want to talk about the teenage boys they know : Does he like me ? Does he like you ? Why do you think he likes me ? What makes you think he might like me ? Does this purse look cute ? Do these jeans make my butt look fat ? Has he called ? When will he call ? What does it mean that he hasn't called ? What did it mean when he.....Oh, the agonies of dating......It all revolves around me, me, me, and of course, him.
Now that I am a mother of sons, and am surrounded not only by my sons but many of their friends on a near continual basis, my perspective has changed so drastically. I grew up in a home with only one sister, so all of this is relatively new territory for me. Teenage girls spend so much time, energy, money and stomach lining worrying about the boys they know and what they think. The boys, I have learned, (at least up to the age my sons are - early teens) rarely think about the girls at all. For years now I have driven my sons home from school, around town, to birthday parties, out to eat, to pick up or drop off a friend who needed a ride. Many days, I am the "mom taxi " for the neighborhood - actually traded in my minivan for a little compact car just so I could cut down the number of kids I had to drive home each day, from 8 or 9 to only 3 or 4. ( I don't mind driving a kid home, in the abstract, but it was getting out of control - and using up a lot of gas and time.) Other moms do this, too, and on the days I have to stay late at work for a meeting, I am forever grateful that someone took my kid home. But most days, because I get out mid-afternoon, I am the one doing the chauffeuring.
A curious thing happens when you are the mom-chauffeur to a gaggle of boys (or girls). Keep quiet, keep your hands on the steering wheel, stare straight ahead ( it is especially important not to make eye contact - they must totally forget you are there for this to work) , and listen. Eventually you will find that sooner or later, you disappear. They completely forget that the car is being driven by an adult - that you are there at all. The kids will start talking and if you listen, you will learn the most amazing things. All about their day at school (that no "How was your day ?" will ever illicit from them, consciously.) Which teacher did what, who farted in gym class, who likes whom, what the coach said or did, who got in trouble for drinking in the local park last Saturday, how "far" various friends have "gone" ( if you know what I mean), whose dad got laid off, whose parents are getting divorced, who cheated on the math test. It is truly amazing the stuff I have learned this way, over the years. One of the things I have learned, from listening to these kids, is that the thought of girls rarely entered the picture. Of course, all that is changing, and No # 1 Son is driving himself more and more these days, so I will soon be losing my "mom taxi connection" in terms of knowing what was going on in the neighborhood.
When the hubster and I bought our home, we chose it because of its kid-friendly layout and pleasant, entertaining-friendly design. It is a large rambling house, famous locally for having a fire pole that connects the upstairs toy room (toys, video games, Foosball) to the downstairs game room (pool table, free weights, squat rack). The kid's bedrooms are huge, and currently have bunk beds and sleeper sofas in each that can easily sleep 4 friends per child before anyone has to sleep on the floor. Due to the hubster's tv addiction, we have a tv set in nearly every room and all are connected to cable and video gaming systems that run the spectrum. It is no surprise that not a weekend passes without several of my children's friends either spending the night or living with us on a semi-permanent basis. Sure, they are eating me out of house and home, but I wouldn't have it any other way. I grew up in a home that was completely unwelcoming to guests, whether child or adult. My parents never entertained - not even birthday parties. In only had two, in all those years - 4th grade and 10th grade. That was it. My mom always said it was "too much trouble" to entertain, no matter how informally, and my sister and I almost never were allowed to have anyone over, not even one friend for a sleepover. Mom was always worried about the house being clean enough, or presentable enough - in reality, her issue was that she was just too introverted and didn't want the bother and noise. As a consequence, my sister and I each spent all our free time at our various friends' homes, and were never around. We grew up involved in other families, instead of our own. I vowed I would never be that kind of mom. While I may grumble when my son and his friends play their electric guitars and drum set at midnight, I'd much rather they do it at my house where I can keep an eye on them, than somewhere else where I have not idea what they are up to.
As a consequence, I get to observe teen aged boys in all their pimply, greasy-haired, saggy jeans down to their mid-thigh, arm-pit farting glory. They say things like : I read that if you hold your breath long enough, you'll explode...The Count of Monte Cristo is the BEST BOOK EVER ... They argue which drummer, from whatever rock band is the band du jour, is the greatest...Did you know that in India people have to kill themselves if someone in their family dies ? (Many of their ideas are partially true, or based on something they once heard, but partially remembered, such as this notion of Hindu burial practices which is only about 3% correct.) ...I once heard that some guy, he ate a hamburger, and it contained a fetus all ground up in it... Which quarterback or team is the greatest of all time... I hit him because he said something stupid... Who liked syphilis first ?...I'm faster/greater/smarter than you are... What if you turned into a rain cloud ? ...What if an object was not made up of its components, but instead was made up of 1000's of tiny little versions of itself ? Listening to my children and their friends banter ridiculously with each other brought to mind the interactions in "Romeo and Juliet" between Romeo and his friends Tybalt, Mercutio, and the other guys just hanging around 15th century Verona. Not much has changed in all these years. Before I had kids of my own, I never understood those scenes, what the guys were doing or saying, the power plays that were happening between them. I never understood the insults that aren't insults at all, and the little phrases that on the surface, seem like they have no meaning, but to those involved, have deadly portent. It's a common thing for real life experiences to give added insight to situations in ways you hadn't thought of before. I just never thought my children would help me understand Shakespeare.


Winter Road Trips # 1a Goliad

La Presidio la Baha in Golida - otherwise known as "the fort"

GFT has been making road trips nearly since she learned to drive ....somewhere in high school, at the tender age of 17, I started driving off to visit older friends who were already in college in Austin (UT) or Houston (at Rice) . I had two good friends who drove away to New Orleans for a week by themselves at about the same age. We were all barely old enough to vote, but back in the day, old enough to buy liquor. Sometimes I wonder at what our parents were thinking, or IF they were thinking at all. Most parents, including myself, would not let their teen aged children nowadays journey far without chaperones or supervision of any kind. I continued this tradition of independent road trips throughout my college years, schlepping various boyfriends, willing or not, to see the State Fair of Texas, Neiman-Marcus Fortnights, Texas beaches, partying on 6th street in Austin, various museum exhibits around the state, or touring the River Walk in San Antonio.
Texans, I think, generally love to drive - with a state this size, and public transportation consisting pretty much only of Southwest Airlines until recent years - we've had very little choice in the matter. I know folks who routinely drive across the state to another city to visit the doctor of their choice, or shop, or get their hair done, whatever. When I have moved cross-country (which I done, several times), I have often chosen to drive at least a portion of that journey, just to see and experience the land and the people who live there. My little brood continues to drive east to the beaches of North Carolina each summer, mostly b/c we kinda have fun eating and visiting our favorite spots along the way.
No collection of road trip anecdotes would be complete without a mention of perhaps one of my favorite road trips of all time. Clever observers will have noted that this latest batch of short pieces are numbered out of order. That is because this road trip to Goliad, which was actually undertaken several years ago, remains the quintessential road trip in my family's collective memory, and thus is forever honored with the number "one".
Folks who know GFT know that her own natural biological family is small and dysfunctional. It has been a survival strategy of GFT from her earliest days to "adopt" other families she comes into contact with via the road of life, and make them her own. GFT does this not out of cunning but due to a genuine need to find additional folk to love on and be connected to. One of the many families she has adopted over the years belongs to that of childhood friend Vincent the Spell-Checker. In the earliest days, GFT's contact with this family involved little more than dining out together for Tex-Mex, or having Vincent's mother drive GFT and Vincent around in her yellow station wagon, known affectionately by all as "the banana", before the two of them were old enough to drive. In recent years, the bond has grown closer as Vincent's family was instrumental in helping GFT survive her disastrous divorce from husband # 1 and several other rough patches in the road. At this point in life, GFT dotes, absolutely dotes, on this family and enjoys spending time with them whenever she can. So it was with great joy that she accepted an invitation to visit them in their hometown of Goliad, Tx, a few winters back, and bring the junior rug rats. Thus began one of the all time great road trips of GFT's life.

Goliad Mission Espiritu Santo, otherwise known as "the mission"

Vincent the Spell-Checker's family hails from Goliad, Tx, in much the same way that the Kennedys claim Hyannis Port as their family compound - with the exception, of course, that Vincent's family has lived in their old hometown for several hundred years longer. (GFT feels affinity, as her own family on her mother's side has lived in Sulphur Springs for pert near just about as long, maybe longer.) Goliad is one of the oldest most historic towns in Texas , and was where one of the major battles of the Texas War of Independence was fought. A tiny hamlet nowadays, Goliad boasts a few dozen streets, several beautiful historic buildings, some truly magnificent ancient oak trees, a small grocery store which also sells deer blinds, and several decent Tex-Mex eateries. Tourists come from far and wide to visit the mission and the presido ( a fort), located just across the road from each other. These old historic buildings were built by the Spanish, as part of their colonization of the region they called Tejas, and were what the rebels were stealing, or defending ( depending on your point of view) during the battle that waged there in 1836.


GFT took off in her little car one fine winter weekend, kids in tow, and tore down the highway as fast as she could to visit Vincent and his kin in Goliad. The trip, which normally takes Vincent's mother 9 hours or more, was completed in just 5 and 1/2 hours by GFT. Once there, Vincent took GFT and her kids, who are only some of the many godchildren he claims, around to meet all his relatives and see all the sites. The hard work of being a tourist was broken at intervals by restive visits to local eateries.

The Number 5 Combination - GFT's favorite Tex-Mex meal

Goliad County Courthouse
A fun stop on the tour of missions and forts was the old country courthouse. Texas is famous for its country courthouses, and many Texans "collect" visits to various ones, often comparing and discussing their relative merits or weaknesses. The one in Goliad is a fine example, and is surrounded by a ring of ancient oak trees which are delightful to climb on, walk under, and generally contemplate. (Remember, trees are relatively rare in this state- most of them, other than mesquites, have been planted by the folk who live here. Thus, when we come across them, we revel in them. Never ever take them for granted.)

Winter Road Trips # 1b Goliad

The grounds of the Goliad courthouse host numerous bric-a-brac, including a cannon which has a little commemorative plaque that states this cannon was officially operated by Colonel Fannin, who was one of the heroes of the Texas Revolution and the commanding officer at Goliad. Above, Vincent plays with his godsons and the cannon......it is a joy, now, to see them being so unselfconsciously silly, as nowadays they eschew most photos generally, and if you can catch them and force them to pose (via threats and bribes), it is generally with scowls on their faces.

Boys flying out of cannons ! They are clearly qualified to get jobs at the circus now.
In between all the historic sites and Tex-Mex dinners, we took a little tour of one of the extended family member's ranch. It was a lovely sunny late winter day, and we rode the rugged terrain in the back of a pick-up truck.

Along the way we met some cows, which No#2 son began naming and turning into pets. Sadly, these cows went to make hamburgers, a few months after our visit. An extended years-long draught has plagued south Texas recently, making it difficult to grow enough grass to feed livestock, thus forcing ranchers to purchase hay to feed their cattle - an expensive proposition.

One of the most vivid "Texas-ish" moments for me was when one of Vincent's great-aunties took us all to see her personal oil well, located on the ranch. Yes, you heard me right, her own personal oil well. This is Texas, after all. As we stood there, looking at it, the auntie said to me , "You know, sometimes I come out here at night, and look at it, when it's all lit up. It looks just like a Christmas tree to me. A big ole fat Christmas tree that is just pumping money right out of the ground. " Her eyes twinkled a little, as she said it.


Winter Road Trips # 3 Wichita Falls

The famous falls of Wichita Falls
Wichita Falls is a medium sized town in far north Texas, near the Oklahoma border. It 's located approximately halfway between the DFW metroplex and Amarillo, (which lies in the panhandle region), pretty much in the middle of no where. W.F. was settled eons ago by plains Indians, who came to this spot for the waterfalls located there - an anomaly in the middle of the prairie. Later, ranchers and oilmen and other sorts made it a regional collection point for some banks, stores, a hospital, and a couple of restaurants all of which have names that sound like "Cattleman's All-You-Can-Eat Steak Ranch House". Growing up in Dallas, as I did, the chief thing any little child knows about the place is that it is always either the hottest spot, or the coldest spot, on the weatherman's map on tv.
I took a little road trip to Wichita Falls the other day, bringing my mother along with me, to see some artwork at a gallery there. A friend of mine, Bonnie Siebert, is a painter of local renown who shows in galleries from Sante Fe to the Hill Country, and she had an exhibit of her work in Wichita Falls. With nothing better to do - hubster comfortably ensconced in front of the tv for days now watching old "House" reruns, I'd had about all I could take and decided to get a little breath of fresh air on another winter road trip.
We headed north on I-35 towards Gainesville, planning to turn left (west) at Gainesville on HW82 and drive trough Muenster, et al, towards Wichita Falls. Hubster dutifully mapped this entire trip for me on his GPS and kept telling me to head west to Krum and Decater, then take HW287 which cuts along the diagonal to Wichita Falls and is the most direct route. Mom and I ignored him, and pointedly left the GPS at home. Even after all these years, hubster does not "get it" that sometimes the journey is just as important as the destination. Mom wanted to check out the old outlet mall in Gainesville ( now largely gutted and dead, since the new improved outlet mall opened in Allen a few years back) and some bakeries in Muenster ( famous for it's Oktoberfest and numerous German restaurants, beer breweries, butcher shops, delis, bakeries, etc.) The shorter route only offers a strange inexplicable camel farm as it's only sight worth seeing, and that just didn't provide enough shopping opportunities for us.

One of Bonnie Siebert's paintings

But I digress from the main reason for this trip. The Kemp Center in Wichita Falls is a multi-purpose building (was originally the town library, so the docent informed me) that is now used for art exhibits, classes, symphony concerts, weddings, and other things. It is a beautiful old classical style building with Palladian windows, nice natural lighting, a grand staircase. It also has a lovely sculpture garden outside (we chose a beautiful warm sunny mild day to do this) and a great little gift shop inside.

The Kemp Center in Wichita Falls

Bonnie's artwork is truly lovely, and well worth the trip. Someday I hope to be able to save up enough to buy one of her paintings. She has a remarkable way with color, brushwork and composition, and her paintings can best be described as Grandma Moses meets Toulouse Lautrec. They are so cheerful and lively you just feel like dancing after you see them - kind of like Bonnie herself. My mom was so excited - we discussed them all the way home, comparing them to various Impressionist artists whose work we had recently seen at the Kimball in Ft Worth when it hosted its recent Impressionist exhibit from the Art Institute of Chicago .

After we saw the exhibit, my mom and I looked around Wichita Falls for a suitable place to eat lunch. The kindly docent at the Kemp Center gift shop (lovely stuff - we had to support the arts and buy some souvenirs, don't you know) recommended some chain restaurants along the highway, but we just weren't in the mood for that sort of thing. Spoiled by living in Denton, we hoped to find a little tearoom or "ladies who lunch" sort of spot in downtown W.F. We drove all over, our tummies growling piteously, (it is, after all, a long journey to W.F. - from pretty much anywhere), but all we could find were the aforementioned steak houses - not really in the mood for that, either. Mom announced that she was going to wait till we drove back through Muenster, a good hour away. I muttered under my breath and started driving. Several towns on the near deserted highway later, I needed to pull over to get gas, and decided I could wait no longer - we ate chicken sandwiches at Sonic. Not charming, but at least you know what you are getting. By the time we rolled back through Muenster, it was late in the day. We did pop into a bakery and purchase goodies - I bought hubster his all time fave, a cream cheese sour cherry strudel. It was about 2 feet long and could easily be used to kill a man: if he broke in to the house, I'd sneak up on him and whack him with the giant, baseball-bat sized dense heavy strudel, on the head. Hubster, who announces every year about this time that he is embarking on his famous "death diet" ( more on that topic, later) , saw the strudel and muttered that he was going to wait just a few more days to start the diet. I checked later that night, and he'd eaten half that strudel, about a foot of it, in just a few hours. Good thing I didn't take the route he suggested, past the camel farm , or there would have been no cream cheese sour cherry strudel for hubster. Perhaps I would have brought a camel home, instead. Try cooking that up and see how tasty it is.

That's really the end of this anecdote. While searching for photos of Wichita Falls on google, I came across this old ad. I include it here just because I like kitsch - it reminds me of my childhood, when my parents drove to Colorado and New Mexico each summer pulling a trailer behind their monster SUV. We always stopped in Wichita Falls or Amarillo along the way to spend the night - it took us several days to get to our destination. My dad drove s-l-o-w-l-y down the interstate, pulling the trailer. (Nowadays I can make it to Albuquerque or Colorado Springs in one day. Lord knows how slow that man was driving.) This ad brought back all those memories......and I think some incarnation of this hotel is still there.

Winter Road Trips # 2 Clifton

Old Lutheran Church in Bosque County

Movie theater in Clifton, Texas

Those who live in more northern climes may not truly appreciate the winter road trip. Sure, in Texas we have periodic "northers" - storms with sleet, ice and miserable weather, (rarely snow)but in between those storms we have long periods of warm, mild, sunny weather. Daytime temps are often in the 60's or 70's, and lately (due to global warming ?) even in the 80's. I have always said that winter in Texas is like summer in Vermont, and so this is a particularly great time to take a little road trip. (In fact, I tend to avoid summer road trips all together - too many tourists, too hot, too miserable.)


One of the places I find myself driving to repeatedly is Clifton, Tx. (My father-long story-ended up in a nursing home there. I visit him several times a year. It is a clean cheerful nurturing place, and they take good care of him. He is lucky to have stumbled across it.) Clifton is pretty much in the middle of no where, or as the highway sign euphemistically says, "At the northern tip of the Texas Hill Country". From the Dallas Ft Worth area, this means you head south on I-35, through Ft Worth, and turn right (west) at Hillsboro on HW22. You keep heading west, past the Lake Whitney Dam, (an area with some of the loveliest bluebonnet patches this side of Austin come springtime), and turn south just before Meridien. The whole trip takes me about 2 and 1/2 hours, each way - but I have a tendency to drive pretty fast.

Rolling Texas countryside on road to Clifton

The drive to Clifton is full of what we in Texas refer to as full of rolling hills - "hill" being a relative concept, if you are from Colorado or Switzerland. There are some actual smallish cliffs that the town is named after, just outside of town. The area was settled by German farmers, and is dotted with quaint little churches with old world style steeples. In the spring time, these roads are full of folks searching for bluebonnets, and the side of the road is often lined with parked cars as people feel free to just pull over anywhere, and get out and tromp through folks' private property, snapping photos of their kids and pets sitting in the bright blue flowers. Summer time brings with it people pulling boats to and from Lake Whitney on the weekends. Which is why I enjoy making this trip in winter: it is quiet, calm, pleasant. Far from any radio station, I tune into Sirius radio or load up the CD player ( my sons, trapped into joining me for this familial duty) of course are "plugged into the matrix" of their I-PODS.


There isn't a whole lot to see or do en route to Clifton- there is an outlet mall in Hillsboro, as well as a junior college which is locally famous for hosting a Civil War historical conference each spring. (Not reinactors, like that famous scene in "Sweet Home Alabama" - just professors and authors presenting papers or discussing their books . My mom, whose hobby is genealogy and the history of her family, often attends.) Neither of these activities tempts me to stay longer. Road trips like this give me plenty of time to get caught up on all my thinking. My mom, when I drag her around with me, is ever on the lookout for places that sell ice cream, be it the local Dairy Queen, or some mom and pop type independant place. Nothing really exciting awaits us on this journey; I do it for familial reasons, and enjoying the scenery is enough for me. My children have learned to imitate grammy's speech patterns perfectly, as every day around 3 pm she will say, (thick Texas accent), "Isn't it about time for some ice cream ?" They have learned to parrot this, too, and that's usually what it takes to bribe them into joining me on this journey.

Lake Whitney

The trip this year was made more pleasant by the fact that son # 1 is now old enough to drive, and still in that excitable phase where he actually wants to drive as much as possible. So I let him drive all the way there - major highway, country roads and all. He did a pretty good job. I enjoyed being able to relax - a little. I drove us all home ; it was getting dark, after all. Didn't want any unfortunate altercations with a deer on the road that might involve swerving suddenly. As a reward for good behavior, hubster met us all at our fave Tex-Mex restaurant in downtown Dallas for dinner, when we were almost back home. That's what spells "holidays" for me in so many ways : Tex-Mex and road trips.