Truly Hideous Gifts #1

First off, I want to start by saying that any gift, expensive or cheap, beautiful or ugly, is a wonderful gift when the intentions of the giver are genuine and the item is given with truly heartfelt love. I have received many gifts over the years that made me cry with joy - unintelligible pictures drawn by students, a cassette from an old answering machine that my then 3 year old recorded  with his voice saying "I can't afford to give you anything, so I am giving you this tape of me saying 'I Love You' " .

But....you knew there was a 'but', didn't you? ....for some reason there exists in our culture a drive to give people gifts - any gift - especially around the holiday season. To give gifts to people who don't expect them or want them or know what to do with them when you give them. To give everyone a gift. Magazines, news / media, pinterest and other sources are full of "cheap gifts you can make" articles. My question is, why must you give everyone a gift ? Many people who provide you with service year round - the doorman, your hair-dresser, the dog-walker, favorite bartender, dentist, manicurist, the baby-sitter, the maid, the mailman, the garbageman - would all rather have a thank you note, a day off with pay, and /or cash or a gift card in the amount of a nice tip or any other amount you can afford. Family members and close friends love things that have special meaning, stuff that they collect/want, or items that suggest some aspect of your relationship or shared experiences.

What I don't understand are crappy "do it yourself" gifts that are useless and ugly- gifts that only exist for the sake of having some gift, any gift, to give. Why do people think gifts should be some crafty hideous useless thing you have made that serves no purpose and accomplishes nothing, except to take up space, collect dust, make the giver feel they have accomplished something by checking one more name off their list? You can really tell how you rate with folk by the sort of gift they give you (and I'm not talking about money or giftcards here- I'm talking about effort, or thoughtfulness put into the selection of gift) . I had a student once who's mom gave each teacher at the holidays a tin full of home-made cookies. That was delightful. I will always eat cookies (or if not, someone in my family will.) I'm really not a fan of the sort of things like "Snowman Poop" (pictured above) or the equally ubiquitous "Dog Food for People", that are supposedly a cleaver way to check someone off your gift list with a minimum of effort and expense: attach a gross paper label to a sandwich bag of marshmallows. Really? How about you just give me the bag of marshmallows without the label, which I find more offensive than cute or funny? How about just skip the marshmallows, and give that $2.00 divided by however many of these you made , let's say 50c worth, to charity, or someone else who likes marshmallows? This one goes into the category of "ugly, cheap, lazy, offensive, and worthless".
When I see slightly more artisanal efforts like this Christmas tree made of corks from wine bottles, all I can really think is : 1)You drank all those bottles of wine, and all I got were the corks? Give me a bottle of wine, and let's call it even. 2)Cute for 5 minutes, but where am I going to put it - store it - how will I keep the dust off of it, and .....you drank all that wine and didn't share? Why do I want your old corks? I'd rather have the wine. So this one goes in the category of "cute but irritating and useless".
I've acquired a bunch of these over the years ....I don't even know what to call them......wine bottle clothing ? People generally pop one on when they give you a gift of a bottle of wine or liquor. Whoever convinced people to do this in the first place was brilliant and is surely laughing all the way to the bank, because now everyone feels pressured to compete. "My wine bottle dress is prettier than yours". But what purpose do they serve? Instead of wrapping paper ? What do you do with them, afterwards - dress your cat? The cat isn't going to tolerate that. Yet you can't bring yourself to throw it away - it's so cute. Either someone spent real money on it, or someone spent a lot of time making it. The only real solution is to re-gift it. But if a gift is given that serves no real purpose other than to be re-gifted, is that really a gift? Just give me the wine . If you feel the need to dress it up, put a bow on it. Or not. Another candidate for the "useless and irritating" category. I'm trying to de-clutter, not add clutter, and I have a box of these at home - can't give them away fast enough.
Lots of folk put together clever or useful baskets, tins, boxes, or bags - collections of useful items, often with a theme. You can buy these or make them - fruit baskets, gourmet foods, as well as other specialty categories: New baby survival kit (gas drops, thermometer, pacifier, diapers, bath tub thermometer, nasal suction bulb, wash clothes, snuggies, booties, diapers, copy of Dr. Spock's baby book, etc.) . You just broke up with a jerk kit ( chocolate, wine, voodoo doll with pins, box of tissue). You just graduated from college kit (bottle of champagne, cigar, $20 bill, a copy of "The Graduate" DVD). But the basket pictured above appears to contain sweatpants, hot cocoa, house shoes, and other items I can't quite figure out - toilet paper? Snuggies? I guess it's supposed to be the "stay in and watch tv" kit....but does anyone really need a kit for that? Should we be encouraging this behavior, is it a treat? given the obesity epidemic? One re-occurring theme throughout many of this is the gift of hot coca in pre-mixed packets. I am not sure why. If I want hot cocoa, I will buy it. What if, culturally, the socially acceptable item to give everyone was mustard? Or sardines? You see how weird this is? If you are going to give someone mustard, you don't just go to the grocery store and buy plain yellow mustard; you give them artisanal, gourmet, imported mustard, in a variety of flavors. So why just buy a box of generic hot cocoa mix and hand that out? Why not ramen? Cup of soup? Taco seasoning? A can of soda?

It is extremely popular to make and hand out cute little jars decorated in holiday themes filled with cocoa ingredients. While I appreciate the effort that goes into making these things, just like the wine bottle dresses, these are pretty much useless. I don't like any of the ingredients, and if I did , I also don't like the idea of someone using their bare fingers to take cocoa and marshmallows out of the bag, and put these items into the little jars. I don't like the fact that the plastic hats and scarves will just find their way, ultimately, into a landfill. I try to re-gift things like this, but have a hard time finding anyone who will take them. Even my kids only want the first one or so....It gets to a point where there are just too many of these being given about and there is a glut in the marketplace. What starts as a crafty unique idea becomes unwanted, via overproduction. As a teacher, I get about 3-7 of these a year. Right now, there are a dozen old ones sitting in my pantry, gathering dust.

Really, the issue boils down to feeling a need to give someone you don't know at all a small token of esteem, during the holiday season. Many of us aging baby-boomers are on special diets and can't consume all the sugary sweets that get passed around. People feel cash is crass or that a handmade gift is more meaningful, but it depends on the gift. Handmade food - yes! Handmade ugly useless dust catchers, no thanks. My grandmother used to say each year, "I don't need any more lotions, potions, perfumes, soaps, bubble-baths, ointments, doo-dads, or knick-nacks." Yes, it made it difficult to shop for her. In my extended family, has everyone makes a list, and we just buy each other what is off everyone's list. Sounds cold, but you know what? Everyone is happy that way. If you have a special talent like knitting or crocheting, by all means, make something lovely and share it. My son's gf last year knitted him a muffler. How wonderful! I have had students in wood shop carve me pens, or twist metal bars into pot rack hooks, any number of odd but useful items. I love them ! If you are a looking to give something to someone you don't really know, such as your child's teacher, I'd give out a gift card to Starbucks, Walmart, Staples, Target or similar. The teacher can then buy someone for one's self (cup of coffee) or supplies for their class. Even $5 is not too little. I know you love to craft things, Ok then. Craft a pencil cup holder, a hot pad, knit a scarf, a classroom helper chart, make some beaded jewelry. Even a painted macaroni necklace. I will wear it.


That Bible Verse You Quoted....I Don't Think it Means What You Think it Means

From the New International Bible

I live in the buckle of the Bible Belt ......and I am surrounded on all sides by people calling themselves a Christian of various stripes. Day and night, from old and young, at home and at work, everywhere I go I get told things by random people I come in contact with - people who are guests in my home, random people in line at the grocery store, people I meet at social events, in restaurants, at my job or my husband's work...... where I live, it is considered totally OK for these folk to share with me, spontaneously out of no where, and apropos of nothing, whatever their version of Christianity tells them to think or do about pretty much any topic that enters their head.

I regularly have students mis-quote the Bible in class discussions, make outrageously inaccurate comments, or not be able to understand simple Biblical allusions, symbols and motifs in literature . When asked where they got their ideas, they often say, "from my youth minister." When I ask them what Bible verse or which particular branch of the faith their idea comes from, they do not know. Many who claim to attend church regularly do not know any of the familiar tales children in western cultures are often told as bedtime stories, or that suggest the toys they have played with. If I ask my students if they study their own faith in Sunday school, CCD, catechism class, Hebrew school or some other structured learning situation, they tell me they don't participate in any of those. They get dropped off at "youth group" meetings so their parents can have some free babysitting.

I have been told about the "good news" repeatedly and asked about my own beliefs by my husband's secretary at work, soccer moms at sporting events, co-workers, a dentist, neighbors and friends. Christian muzak plays in the waiting rooms all over town. Co-workers, shops and businesses regularly feature religious art (never the "good" kind, either, say, Italian Renaissance reproductions from Michelangelo, Raphael, or Leonardo ...oh no....people around here just think those guys are teenage mutant ninja turtles) and sayings on the walls of their offices, classrooms, and shops. Inspirational posters, flyers, art, commercials and ads saturate the media. A co-worker once called me the devil and an "un-godly woman" because I did not attend HER church. A marriage therapist once told me that my problem was that I needed to follow the Christian rules for being a wife. I have been penalized at work for not belonging to one of the three power churches in town. Because I live on a main street, my home is subject to a continual parade of would-be proselytizers......frequently on Saturday mornings, large vans park out front, a dozen or more people spill out, then they start canvassing the neighborhood, ringing doorbells (upsetting the dogs, rousing my household from sleep or pulling folk, dripping, out of the shower) as they go. Sometimes I will have a door-bell ringer every 5 minutes, a dozen or more all morning, as they work their way back to the van. (I did put up a small sign that says " No salesmen, no missionaries" with a blessing in 5 different languages/faiths, but people still either think I am rude, or want to talk to me about the sign.)

The thing is, I have lived in other parts of the country and other parts of the world, and I know this is not "normal" behavior in other cultures. When I lived, taught and worked in the northeast, diversity in all forms was the norm, and people would get belligerent about protecting the rights of those who were different. I once taught school in Maryland, and we had Buddhist monks and Orthodox Jews from nearby temples come volunteer at our school, which was made up of students from a diverse array of faiths. No one tried to convince others of their beliefs, although they felt free to share them, and we celebrated 6 different festivals in December, including Kwanzaa.  

The other thing is, I was raised Presbyterian. I attended Sunday school where we studied the Bible - every August we'd start at Genesis, and every May we'd finish at Revelations. We'd parse each chapter and verse, read and discuss the various meanings and translations, the history of what happened, as well as the history of it being written down.  I did this for 18 years of my life, in gradually increasing complexity, year after year. As a young adult, I decided to become an Episcopalian, and went through the confirmation class for that branch of the faith (in addition to my childhood Presbyterian confirmation class.) In college, I was an ancient history major, specializing in near east religions. I read Latin, Biblical Greek and a little Hebrew, took classes in history, archaeology, anthropology, comparative religions, mythology, art history, philosophy, and studied it all in-depth. I traveled through the countries involved, and participated in archaeological digs in several of them. Read from the original texts, in the original languages. Guided by scholars as diverse as a Benedictine monk, a Coptic priest, and studied with American, Italian and Israeli professors. 

So I just don't "get it" when someone tries to tell me about their version of Christianity, without really ever having studied it, then wants to pass a judgement on someone who doesn't agree with what they think they know. I know this isn't just a problem peculiar to where I live - it is a problem worldwide, with people from many faiths. 

What does any of this have to do with the photo at the top? I was browsing pinterest the other day , and one of my feeds pinned this, so it was in my feed. Initially, I passed over it, then something in it caught my eye and I thought to myself, "hmmmm.....that really doesn't sound like what I remember of 1st Thessalonians." So I looked it up. The actual verse is underneath. And now I am even more curious : is this catchy pink meme someone's attempt to spin a meditation off the original verse, and say more about the topic? Or did the creator, and the millions who pinned it, think it was the actual verse that is listed? This is what happens when books disappear, when learning is not linked to a definite source that can not be changed. If the original source was removed or destroyed, no one would ever know how or that  it was changed. I'm not a believer in the inerrancy of the Bible, but I do believe one should know what one is talking about, if one is going to refer it. Many claim to have "the true version of...." but do they, really? The hubris at thinking your perspective is better than anyone else's astounds me. We have so many problems in the world today - people claiming a religious text as their source to justify abuse of people of differing faiths, beliefs, genders, orientations, practices is so perverse - but if you are going to do it, at least get the damn verse correct, people !


Family History - Pt 3



Family History - Pt 2

Letter to my children and grandchildren.....To understand my own life, and yours, you have to start with my parents and their parents......continued

I do know from the stories that Grammy told me that her childhood was sheltered and financially comfortable. She had toys, clothes, a stay-at-home mom, and her dad was financially well-off - Grammy Martha got anything she ever wanted. She often shared anecdotes about a personal family dress-maker and various other "help" (euphemism for Af-Am workers) cooks, maids, yard-workers, etc. Grammy's childhood home was a spacious, Southern style expanded wood bungalow, set up on high brick pillars off the ground and lined with deep porches, on a multi acre lot full of large oak trees. A former stable, converted into a garage, housed a maroon automobile. Behind the yard with its oak trees and well, was an orchard of pecan trees and vegetable garden, and behind that, was a pasture for cows and horses - in the middle of town. Inside, the house had high ceilings, punkas in every room, wood floors, and beautiful wallpaper and furniture made by Grandpa L.L. in his factory. Exotic objects d'art filled the house, as Ruby's brother was in the merchant marines, sailed all over the world, and brought her back little gifts - a porcelain censor from China, a moroccan lamp, a Navajo Bracelet, a French vase, fabric, and cosmetic box, a Japanese statue of a goose. The main bathroom had turquoise colored tile, toilet, tub, and sink, and 12 ft ceilings. I used to lie in that tub as a child and feel like a princess. Grammy's house was the first in SS to have a second bathroom, which was very bare-bones and oddly situated in a closeted porch area - it wasn't until I saw the movie "The Help" that I figured this out, bc no one ever talked about it. (Segregated bathroom for "the help." Suggests racism, yes, but you also have to look at it through the lens of the era. Ironically, by the time I came along, in the 1960's, everyone used this bathroom all the time bc it was off the kitchen and more convenient.)

Grammy told me stories of wanting (and getting) extravagant things (for that time and place ) and of her parents having to go to Dallas or other nearby towns to get them : a piano, orthodontia, prom dresses, fancy portraits, vacations to Mexico and France, expensive gold and gemstone jewelry; as well as stories of her house being the ones all the popular little girls in SS went to, to play with her, bc her mother Ruby would let them take off their Shirley Temple ensembles (starchy frilly dresses, patent leather shoes) , put on overalls and play in the dirt. I always wondered about these stories, bc I knew Grammy to be so introverted and shy, and to never socialize much as an adult except w immediate family, and wondered if Ruby invited these kids over so Martha would have someone to play with ? The picture this all suggests to me was of a spoiled young girl , an only child, who got everything she ever wanted. I know her father was generous with gifts to her and her friends, and until she died Martha would talk sadly how her father gave all her friends silver tea sets for wedding presents, but he died before she got married, and she never go to have one.

Martha went off to college at Baylor - an expensive private school. I think she majored in English. The norm in the 50's was for women to marry young - hence the story of all Grammys friends getting married before she did and getting the tea set gifts - and all I know is Grammy never ever in her life talked about boyfriends, dating anyone, anyone who she ever loved or who broke her heart, or men at all. I asked her specifically about her high school years - what was her life like, what were her activities, concerns, fears, likes, friends, hobbies, etc. The only stories she ever shared involved the rationing of food, sugar, gasoline and chocolate during WWII - all the kids in SS who went to some orthodontist in the next town had to carpool, so they got their appointments on the same day, combined ration tickets for gas in order to drive there - used Martha's parents' car. I think the rationing of foods in those years affected those kids deeply - Grammy and RF, if you notice, ate/eat sweets candy ice cream and baked goods constantly. It's like they can never get enough. When I asked Martha about what she and her friends did all the time, she told me a vague story about all her girlfriends in choir hanging out at some nearby creek, swimming and singing. That's it - that's all I ever got about her youth.

After Baylor, Grammy didn't get married , unlike all her friends, so she went to UT Austin to get a M.Ed and planned to be a teacher. I think she was worried about being "an old maid", how she was going to support herself if she never found a husband. While there, she met Papaw  "through some friends " and eventually they got married. No silver tea set - her father died around this time - maybe right before she and my dad got involved. 

Family history - Pt 1

Letter to my children and grandchildren.....To understand my own life, and yours, you have to start with my parents and their parents.

Papaw was born in a small Kansas farm town where German was as commonly spoken as English, in 1932. From everything he ever told me about his childhood, his parents were fairly poor. His father, Grandpa Sigmund "Siggi" was a mechanic or machinist - he repaired farm equipment, tractors and stuff. His mother was Bertha ("Berta") or Granny Bert, as we called her. All her life she spoke with a heavy German accent. At some point Siggi and Berta divorced, and Papaw and his older sister "Nell" (Eleanor) went to live with their mother Bertha in Greenville, Tx. I don't know how old my dad was when this happened, but I think he was very young. I have a photo of Papaw , about 6, standing in overalls with no shoes. He is tall and skinny. Bertha ran a boarding house in Greenville for a while - I don't know when she ended up in Temple, Tx - but by the time I can remember, she lived there in a tiny wooden house with only 4 rooms, all in a row - front to back: living, dining, kitchen, bedroom. No hall- you had to pass from one room to get to the next. Nell lived nearby with her husband Benny (Benjamin) and their child, my cousin Brenda. (You guys went to her wedding in 1997 but probably don't remember it.) Siggi remarried at some pt, a woman named Tillie (Matilda) - I met them when I was 3 ( there are pictures) but I don't remember any of it. They lived the rest of their lives in Kansas and I only saw them once. Papaw went to UT on a basketball or ROTC scholarship (I've heard various versions over the years) and majored in civil engineering.

Grammy, aka Martha , had a very different childhood. She was born in Sulphur Springs, Tx in 1933 to Ruby  age 37 and "L.L" Lawrence Lee (when someone from the South has "Lee" as part of their name, you know their political and cultural affiliations right away!) age 53. Some story there, which I've never been able to get from anyone - why were these 2 so old when they married and had a kid? Why only 1 kid? Why did Ruby marry a much older man, who had been a bachelor all his life?

My grandmother Ruby, whom I was very close to as a child and spent a lot of time with, once told me she had been married before, to a man last name Miller, who had died. She would never talk about it - many of that generation wouldn't - but given that she was born sometime in the 1890's ( no one knows for sure - she frequently fibbed about her age, shaving years off ) , this first husband could have died in WWI, from the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919..... Who knows. I do know that Ruby had a hard childhood - her mother died when she was little, and her father remarried, had a bunch more kids, and the step-mother treated Ruby and her little brother Bob , also from the first mother, badly. Not only Ruby told me this, but several other old relatives, cousins and stuff, told me this as well. Lots of tales of Christmases with no gifts, doing all the chores, tending all the little step-children siblings,  not enough food or clothes, that sort of thing. Various versions of her life have her born and raised on a farm somewhere along the Texas-Louisiana border. (I've heard diff things from diff sources.) At one pt when about 6 years old, Ruby had some kind of tumor on her jaw, and her family put her on a train to New Orleans, all by herself, with an envelope containing money that had written instructions on it to take this child to the hospital, remove the tumor, and return her when she was healed. Can you imagine? Why New Orleans? At the time, it was one of the oldest, largest cities in America, certainly in the south, with major hospitals. I don't know if the tumor was cancerous or not, but Ruby had dentures most of her life as well as a slightly mis-shaped jaw, and I'm thinking the tumor was the cause. The surgery went well, and Ruby made it back home - after several weeks away, all by herself.

I know a lot about Ruby bc I spent time with her as a child, and Grammy spoke frequently of Ruby, too. Ruby was probably the relative who showed me the most love and attention in my life. As a young woman, she came to Dallas and went to secretarial college, and at one pt worked as a nanny for several wealthy Dallas area Jewish families. To me, this suggests a brave young woman seeking adventure, someone not afraid to go off away from home and try new things, support herself, meet people . It was in these nanny jobs that she developed a taste for the finer things in life - clothing especially, and of shopping at Neiman-Marcus. I gather she was given a lot of hand-me-down designer clothing from her employers. In spite of her slight facial deformity (not that noticeable) Ruby was pretty as a young woman, slim, with thick curly auburn hair and deep bright blue eyes. I have a photo of her as a young woman- beautiful dark curly hair, cut in a 1920's bob, and a flapper dress. The photo is in black and white, and you would never know from it that Ruby had the most beautiful deep blue eyes.

I don't know as much about L.L. , because he died before I was born. (He would have been 80 years old in 1960 when I was born.... He died in the 1950's, from cancer of the mouth-throat-larynx, bc he chewed tobacco all his life. ) Grammy idolized him and often spoke about what a sharp dresser he was. He came from a large family - was the youngest of about a dozen kids - which means he had a dad, uncles, and much older brothers who served in the Civil War. Imagine that - bc my family lived so long and had kids so late in life, the number of generations going back is fewer, and historical events are more immediate. My grandfather had brothers who served in the Civil War.....that would be like your grandpa and his brothers, for you. L.L also had a mother who was half Cherokee; her parents lived on the Rez in Oklahoma. It is L.L.'s family, the Crabtrees, that goes all the ways back to the American Revolution (making you SAR and me DAR) , the period in Texas history before Texas joined the USA ( making me DRT and you SRT), the colonial period in America (we are also Colonial Dames) and into England during the Middle Ages - we are also Magna Carta society. Here's what I do know - in every war that came along (bc it is through these records that we trace ancestry), through the generations, the Crabtree men were always : 1)Methodist or Episcopal, 2) middle class craftsmen - carpenters, leather workers, builders, businessmen, etc and small farmers , 3) Masons (which is why I am also OES), and 4)served in each and every war in a non-violent non-combat capacity - as scouts, chaplains, messengers, guides, etc. I just find that interesting ......

I don't know anything else about L.L.'s life. As I said, he was 53 when Grammy was born, never previously married. Relatives say he was a confirmed old bachelor - what does that mean, really? Does it mean he was gay, had asperger's, was shy, a nerd, what? I do know he owned a very prosperous furniture- making business that manufactured church fixtures (baptismal fonts, communion rails, etc) and furniture (pews, altars, etc.) Even during the Great Depression, he was well off financially. He and my grandmother lived in a pleasant spacious roomy 1920s style bungalow in Sulphur Springs, filled with luxuries for the time : Grammy always bragged how they were among the first in town to have electricity, a telephone, a radio, a car, a clothes washing machine, two bathrooms. Grammy had a bedroom with hand-painted wall paper brought in from France, a piano, orthodontia, trips to Dallas to shop at Neiman Marcus - all while growing up.


Texas weather - Enough Said

Highest Temperatures

Large US cities where the temperature most often climbs to 100 °F (37.8 °C) or higher.
CityDays a Year
Above 99 °F
Phoenix, Arizona107
Las Vegas, Nevada  70
Riverside, California  24
Dallas, Texas  17
Austin, Texas  16
Sacramento, California  11
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma  11
San Antonio, Texas    8
Salt Lake City, Utah    5
Houston, Texas    4
Kansas City, Missouri    3


Rip Van Reidy Meets Harvey

Once upon a time, there was a man who loved to talk and visit and socialize with his friends and neighbors. Everyone loved him because he was so pleasant, kind and chatty. He never seemed in a hurry to go anywhere else, he always had time to help anyone with their problems or a little chore or task. You could call him anytime and he would drop what he was doing and run over to help you. When he was with you, you were all that mattered in the world. This fellow was always the last to leave a party - often at 4 or 6 am- because he and the hosts had engaged in fascinating conversations, often half asleep on the couch or while cleaning up, all the night long. He was popular at the local watering holes, where proprietors and other habitu├ęs knew him by name.

But not all was perfect with this friendly man, for he had a wife who appeared, to outsiders at least, to be an anti-social, nagging , bitter sort of termagent. This woman had numerous health problems, was frazzled over-weight and unkempt in appearance, was always tired, worried about money, claimed she had to go home for some reason, and often avoided the frequent socializing of her husband. She didn't roam the town, as he did, looking for friendly folk to pass the time with. She could often be seen, scowling and muttering to herself, in the front yard doing yardwork. No one could understand why her husband put up with her. He was such a pleasant fellow.

What no on in the town seemed capable of figuring out was that the wife of this man was the only adult in the household who was responsible: cooked the meals, cleaned the house, did the yard work, noticed and fixed or assigned the chores, paid the bills, raised the kids, bought what needed to be bought, and repaired what could be repaired, and generally kept things going as smoothly as she could. All in addition to her full-time day job that brought in a little money. When the children were little, she left parties early to feed them and put them to bed, because their father did not. She got up early and fed them because their father was still sleeping after a night of being out late. If the house was rundown and tatty looking, it was because she had no one to help her do the hard labor, and no money to hire help. (Her husband frequently commented how he was the lowest paid member of his department...but never did anything about it. He seemed content with his life as it was - and why not? It was pleasant, no stress. He was happy.) Day after day, weekend after weekend and year after year passed, and the wife grew stouter, less attractive, and had more health problems, because she never had a moment or the money to take care of herself or her needs. She also grew isolated, bitter, and worn out with managing their entire family by herself- without even the freedom of a single parent to make decision entirely her own. For you see, the husband was a great big child himself, and when he was at home he made messes, started projects he did not finish, agreed to do chores he never followed up on, and refused to let anyone come and help because "he was going to do it " (someday.)
It really might have been better for the wife if this fellow did wander up into the hills, find some dwarves, drink a magic potion, and sleep for twenty years. At least that would be twenty years free of his messes the wife didn't have to clean up.


Texas, Explained # 4 : History

5th Grade Version:

Stephen F. Austin, with a band of plucky yet determined pioneers, traveled to central Texas from (various versions Tennessee, Kentucky, or Virginia) in the 1820's to form a colony. This group was peaceful and happy until 1836, when mean ole' Santa Anna, the Mexican general, decided to kick them out. Leaders of the colony rallied, fought 3 quick yet decisive battles - the first, in Gonzales, famous for the flag the colonists made with a picture of a cannon on it that said "Come and Take It" ; the second, at the Alamo in San Antonio, where all the "Texans" who fought bravely were martyred, thus inspiring the motto " Remember the Alamo"; and the third, the Battle of San Jacinto, where General Sam Houston decisively routed the Mexican general Santa Ana during his afternoon siesta.

Grownup (short and overly simplified) Version:

European nations in the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were engaged in competition for natural resources and land for expanding populations. This caused them to explore the world beyond Europe via water and land. While the battle between Spain and Britain in 1588 may have settled the dominance of the seas issue from the British point of view, pretty much everyone else just went about their business and carved up the Americas, Asia, Micro- and Polynesia, Africa, etc., as they could. Chief colonizers were from Britain, Spain, France, Portugal, and the Netherlands. Long-standing conflicts were established in local areas where European nations formed alliances and enemies - conflicts which exist to this day as the under-pinnings of our current geo-political system. Think Palestine. Rwanda. Vietnam.

Spain and Britain, and occasionally France, continued to fight to determine who would control North America (and the rest of the world.). The French and Indian War / Seven Year's War 1754-1763 and the American Revolution 1875-1783 established Britain, later the Americans, as the winner for the east coast of North America regions. Local wars continued the pattern of being smaller parts of a larger geopolitical power struggle. Spain had a stronghold in the southwest, central and South America. Some French explorers sailed up the Mississippi and into the Hudson Bay and Canada but nobody really cared. As populations grew, each side pushed towards the middle. Texas is where they met.

Texas, geographically, was originally part of New Spain (settled in 1690), and later Mexico (which succeeded from Spain in 1821 in its own revolution). The region was filled with ranches, farms, and small towns; it contained Spanish and native-speaking peoples of Spanish, Native American, and mixed descent. The current borders did not yet exist, and many families owned land on both sides of the Rio Grande River, which is the present day border with Mexico. Stephen F. Austin brought his colony to Texas legally, with a land grant originally awarded to his father. As more Anglo settlers from the USA joined the original "Old Three Hundred" families, the need for more land created conflict with Mexican overlords and prompted the Texas War for Independence. From the Texans' perspective, this war was immediate and personal; Texans felt they "won" but Mexico did not recognize that belief. From the United States of America's perspective, this conflict was part of a larger series of wars over territorial jurisdiction, known as "Manifest Destiny”: the War of 1812 (related tangentially to the Napoleonic Wars), the US- Mexican War of 1845-1847 (also involved in the USA’s internal dispute over free vs slave states), and the Spanish American War of 1896.

Texas, once admitted to the Union, was a slave state, but did not have as strong a farming/plantation economy as more eastern, southern states. It was so remote compared to the rest of the Confederacy that it took months for the slaves in Texas to find out about the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, which is why "Juneteenth" is a significant African-American holiday in Texas. Small farms and large ranches predominated, with railroads arriving to take cattle to markets in Chicago and St. Louis in the 1870-1880's. Oil was discovered in the 1920's. Military bases sprang up in the wake of WWII. NASA arrived in the 1960's. Recent cycles of boom and bust in the US economy have driven huge swells of population to Texas, searching for jobs and a better life. Throughout it all, the culture of Texas has encouraged a "hands off" attitude reminiscent of the old Wild Wild West - seen today in the Texas approach to taxes, government, and laws in general.



The "princess-ification" of girls

This has got to stop right now ! I mean it ! Yeah, you.....hey, YOU ! Raising your daughter to think she can be a princess when she grows up is sending her the wrong message. Princesses are helpless bimbos, always stuck in some silly situation, who have to be rescued by making friends, finding themselves, acting adorably cute, or finding true love from the prince. Princesses value looks and pretty dresses over strong character or real life skills such as intelligence, hard work, integrity, or kindness. Princesses think it's all about them.....that the world will do their bidding if they are just pretty enough. 

Case in point #1 : Extended family welcomed first female baby in generations . Much arguing ensued over the all-pink, all-princess-y toys one side of the fam insisted on gifting said child as it was growing up. Child now pre-teen, is spoiled unrealistic self-centered brat. What are you teaching a young person about role models when the only options you provide are stuffed unicorns, tiaras, magic fairy wands, tea party sets, make-up, feather boas, and pink dress-up dresses? Whose fantasy of little girlhood is being served - yours, or your child's ? Whatever happened to "Doctor Barbie", toy horses, farm sets, tricycles, sand boxes with shovels and spades, doll houses, rocking horses, zoo animals, play houses, cowboys/cowgirls, building blocks, art and craft supplies, toy cars, games, puppets - the list goes on and on. In colors other than, and in addition to,  pink?

Case in point #2: I am now teaching the first wave of teens who were raised this way. Young women aged 14-18 these days do not know how to : look an adult in the eye, ask a question, wait their turn, explain something, talk about the subject matter at hand or their own lives, problem solve, take initiative for anything - without simpering and acting coyly babyish. On a 3 year old, this has been viewed as cute, and encouraged. On a 17 year old it is not functional. 

The princessification of America is what has created the whole "Bridezilla" phenomenon. 

You may think "feminism" means a bunch of strident lesbians shouting about bring down the man. Like anything depicted in the media, this is a caricatured stereotype and unfair to both lesbians and women who are straight. Feminism is a social movement that historically allowed women in the USA to vote, have access to their own money, a bank account in their own name not their husband's, and pushes now for equality in the workplace and health care. 

Think about your own life and those of your friends.....how many of you have learned, maybe the hard way as I have, that ultimately you have to take care of yourself - not depend on anyone else? How many of you have learned that to keep a job, manage your finances, keep your family together, and your life going - you have to have adult social and problem solving skills? Where are children / teens going to learn them, if not from you ? Everyone has to function in the real world, in real world ways. I am not saying burst little girls fantasies....I am saying, provide them with a range of  role models, skills and options. Encourage them in age appropriate interactions with you. Have them practice speaking to adults, shaking hands, looking peopkle in the eyes, and speaking clearly not coyly. young girls and young boys need to learn to have confidence, speak for themselves, and trust their own minds. If you don't shape them in the way you want them to do this, someone else will.

Texas, Explained # 3 : Religion

The media, always looking for something to create a "newsworthy" story and generate buzz, loves to fill the airwaves/internet with those bizarre religious cults that often live in Texas, the American south, or the midwest. Outsiders hear a lot about David Koresh, the Branch Davidians, "drink the koolade, man"; the Westboro Baptist Church; that crazy ignoramus on the Texas Education committee for textbook selection , a dentist I think, who doesn't believe in evolution and is always willing to provide a non-intentionally humorous soundbite as to why he should be the deciding factor in science book selection for the entire nation; tele- evangelists such as Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker or Joel Olsteen; or any other number of hustlers, crazies, salesmen, ignoramuses, con-men, crooks, extremists and carnies out there.

Here are some ideas for your consideration:

1)Media always picks up on the crazies and provides them endless free promotion, for the simple fact that their controversial pronouncements garner attention and thus increase ratings

2)Don't believe everything you hear or see in the media - that includes me

3)There was once a very interesting news article in Texas Monthly - I have searched in vain for it in the years since, but it came out before the digital era and I just can't track it down - that went something like this : Texas is roughly divided in half, laterally, with the Baptist/Evangelical faiths/culture having more adherents in the northern half of the state, the Catholic faith having more adherents/culture in the southern half of the state. This one simple idea explains why the northern half of the state was "dry" (until very recently, did not sell alcohol in bars or restaurants or stores, except in very limited places), and the southern half of the state was "wet"(freely sold alcohol everywhere.) While the booze rules may have changed in recent years, the culture that goes along with the underlying attitudes remains the same: northern half is more conservative, southern half is more liberal. Dallas is considered one of the buckles on the Bible belt - neighborhoods there are zoned so that schools and churches are not near bars and sketchy parts of town. Houston has no zoning at all and is a free-for-all of religions, bars, and homes. Even today, the northern half of the state is dominated by conservative industries: banking, finance and retail; while the southern half of the state has more risk-taking industries :oil and energy industries, world-class medical centers, most of the unvisities in the state.

4)Here is some actual data about the percentage of folk in various faiths, comparing Texas to the rest of America. It's not nearly as scary as the media would suggest.


Texas, Explained # 2: Politics

No one person can really explain Texas politics. I'm not arrogant or foolish enough to try. What I can do is provide readers with some of the best sources that exist.  Steer you in the right direction. For your reading pleasure:

1)Molly Ivins is a national treasure : smart, funny, irreverent, suffering no fools. She started as a journalist and finished as a goddess. Literally. I had the pleasure of hearing her speak a few years before she died, and was amazed in her presence: she was 7 feet tall with red hair, hilarious, captivating, angry, scary, hypnotic and charming. A real life Athena, goddess of wisdom. Read anything by her and it will be time well spent.....Below she weighs in our our governor.

2)Do you think people in this country just show up and vote.....that votes, and thus politicians, simply, mathematically, represent clear majorities and minorities - the voice of the people? Well, in that case, I've got some swampland I'd like to sell you..... In the USA we have a "winner take all" political system....voting districts are configured by the political party in power to ensure that party's candidate wins. Read further:

3)For good or for evil, due to its sheer size in population, Texas holds undue sway over this country:

4)Why do Southerners, Texans, and the shrinking middle class vote against their own best interests?

5)The best journalism commentary both positive and negative, about Texas:

6)One president from Texas, and his legacy : LBJ

7)More Presidents "from" Texas (remember, they really aren't) : the Bush family, George the father and George W the son

8)The best governor of Texas, so far, in my lifetime:


Texas, Explained # 1 : The Basics

Texas, like any other place on this earth, is complicated. It is so large- France is only 2/3 the size of Texas - that it contains wide diversity in its geography, climes, cultures, religions, social classes, and ethnicities. Just as with any other vast sprawling land, you can't summarize it in only a few words. Our media saturated world depicts cliched images of cowboys, oil rigs, rednecks, beauty queens, football, sprawling cities, monster trucks, rodeos, astronauts, movie stars, oil magnates. Think about where you live : is there a stereotype? Is it true for everyone? Movies about Texas simplify and romanticize various aspects : "Giant", "Urban Cowboy", "Steel Magnolias", "Friday Night Lights", "Dallas", "Last Picture Show", "Hope Floats" and other popular iconic images abound.

Recently, while traveling through Europe with a large group of Canadians, Greeks, Brits, and companions of other nationalities, many questions were asked of me as to what Texas is like, and what it is like to live here. My students were repeatedly asked if we ride horses to school every day, dress like cowboys, live on ranches, are rich from oil wells. My first answer is always : Dallas is hot, flat, brown, and ugly.
Urban vs Rural
Like many places in the United States, Texas was once a largely rural society, containing farms and ranches and dotted with small towns. It was not that much different from Ohio, California, Maine, Florida, Virginia, or Germany , Italy, or England - just hotter. Waves of immigrants came to Texas in the 1600's-1900's, just as they did to other parts of the new world: Spanish, French, English, German, Vietnamese, and Mexican peoples filled the land.

In the 20th century, Texas has grown at break-neck pace - due to the arrival of railroads at the end of cattle trails in the 1880's, discovery of oil in the 1920's, placement of military bases in the 1940's, invention of air conditioning in the 1950's, building of NASA in the 1960's. Our cities have exploded in population seemingly over night, and like much of America, the small towns and rural areas are shrinking in population at a rapid rate, as the cities grow. There are entire counties (governmental regions larger than small European nations) that do not have a store, or doctor, or school of their own, but must consolidate together and share these important services - due to population decreases. Because Texas is mostly flat lands and rolling prairie, there are no impediments to city geographical size, such as mountains or rivers. The cities in Texas sprawl outward, not upward, which makes them more like Los Angeles than New York. Texas contains four cities that are in the "Top Ten" of American cities, by population : Houston, San Antonio, Dallas/Ft Worth, and Austin. The triangle formed by these cities is now classified a megalopolis, much like the eastern seaboard of the US (Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore, New York, Boston.)

Because we have a traditional history that is rural, and because the distances are so great, and because our large population has been large only in the past 50 years, the cities in Texas are only connected at this point in time by highways/interstates/freeways, not by trains or other mass transit. (There is talk of a French style bullet train from Dallas to Houston....) Everyone drives, and we live in a"car culture".

Most of Texas has a hot, dry, arid climate. It is very similar to southern Italy, France, Spain or Greece. Not as temperate as the Mediterranean regions, and colder (windy, dry, ice in the winters) in the northern half of the state. Hot and moist and humid along the coast. Sunny more often than not. It's very similar to southern California - only not as pretty. It could be as charming as the south of France, if only we knew how to live the way the French do. But we don't.

Texas is considerably less expensive to live in than most places in the USA or western world (My friends often say, "The only place cheaper is Oklahoma, and no one wants to live there."). As I say, most of Texas is hot , flat, brown and ugly - but the cost of living is so cheap, you can have a large home, drive a nice car, and blast the air conditioning in both, all the day long. Jobs are plentiful; we barely noticed the last great recession, and our real estate is bouncing back.(No, I am not a business person, real estate agent, member of any chamber of commerce or "booster" of any kind.) Everything is cheaper in Texas than on either the east or the west coast of America : homes, gas, food, home heating/cooling, taxes, etc. It has to be cheap to lure folks here, due to the climate. (Think : India during the Raj.) People have a lot of extra money to shop and travel, and that's pretty much what they do.

Texans love to get away, when we can. Our favorite places : Colorado and New Mexico - higher elevation, drier cooler climate, beautiful green mountains, skiing in winter, snow. New Orleans : a 400 year old city full of  Southern gothic charm and fabulous restaurants, the Mississippi . South Padre Island : beaches, sun and surf. Thanks to DFW airport,many wonderful places are just a hop-skip-and a-jump short flight away : the Caribbean, NYC......


Making Plans for Retirement

The topic of retirement has been a popular one with friends lately. Hubster plans to work until he dies; mostly bc he enjoys it and can't think of anything else he'd rather be doing. Such is the life of a tenured college professor. He only teaches one class of about a dozen students per semester, and his grad students do most of his research for him. His hours are flexible and he gets all the same vacations I do, plus makes 2 - 3 times as much money. He travels to interesting places and does interesting things at his own pace. In many ways, he is his own boss. Contrast his life with mine and that of my teacher friends: in the past 3 years, we've gone from teaching 5 classes out of 8, to teaching 8 out of 10. Classe sizes have increased as well, from about 20ish to now 30ish students per class and above. (Last year I had 38 kids in one class and 185 overall.) The school day is now 30 minutes longer, and we haven't had a real raise in nearly a decade. (Yearly tiny pitances totally negated by increased health care costs.) I have gone from teaching two preps (differnt subjects) to teaching 4, and I have a "floater" in my clasroom - which means I can't even be in there to grade papers, plan lessons, etc. But hey! At least I am not the "floater!" . Believe it or not, this is not the stressful part of work, and neither are the students. I still enjoy the kids and will quit the day I don't. The stressful part comes from the endless, repetitive pointless meetings before and after school, all the extra duties that just multiply exponentially (Most days- no conference, no lunch, no bathroom break. Most summers: meetings and trainings. Most meetings : 5 versions of the same thing, in 5 different places/times, with 5 different bosses telling us the exact same things to do), the parents and other adults who make ridiculous demands ("My child needs an A!", "You lost Johnny's paper!" ,"You completed that training too quickly!", "Why is my child failing?" We are going to relocate your class to 5 different rooms in the next 4 days!" You must stop your lesson plan cycle right now-no advance notice- and bring your students to the computer lab to be trained on college preparation"), and the total insanity of our schedule, as dictated by Big Testing : we start testing in March and it goes through to the rest of  the year. That's over 1/3 of the school year spent on testing alone. (Why is testing a problem you ask? Because it shuts down the entire school: students are tested all day long, classes are moved or cancelled, some student groups told not to even attend for days at a time, others are herded into the auditorium and shown "Remember the Titans" for the 7th or 8th time, lunches are reconfigured, teachers get no conference, some kids never get lunch or get a sack lunch while still testing.....now imagine this scenario being the norm for  3 months of the school year.)

But this is not a blog entry about the ills of modern education - I'll save that for another day. This is about planning for my retirement. I have 5 years till I qualify for my pension, and am in "T-5 years" mode. Paying down debts and saving even more.. Finishing those big projects before the income stream diminishes. While I would love to stay and teach another decade (and still feel I have lots to contribute!), all the problems with education right now make it extremely likley I will retire when I hit my number. Every teacher I know is thinking along the same lines. Talk is focused on will we have enough money, what will we do next, how will we reconfigure our lives in retirement. I know many who tutor, substitute teach, started their own businesses, took on part-time jobs , stayed home with grandkids, started new schools, went back to school....the possibilities are endless.

I plan to be a radical. I've spent the past 30+ years muzzling my thoughts and ideas for the sake of being a public servant, and I am looking forward to speaking out about the things I care about. I'm going to join all the causes I never had time to support while working, and be out there in the picket lines. I'll be the granny with her hair in a bun you will see on tv being hauled away in a police car. Look for me.


Spring Break in Greece

Near Delphi on a find spring day

Most Americans vacation during the summer months, which is sad in a way, bc there is nothing worse than London, Paris, Rome or Disneyworld in July. Hordes of crowds, hot sticky weather, long lines to see the Mona Lisa or whatever you are trying to see. This is why I love the spring break trip, and have taken several. Sometimes I travel independently, as when I took my children to Paris. Sometimes I go with a group. By taking one of those pre-packaged educational tours where you drag a few students along, I got to go for free. If you hand select your students, lay down firm rules, know how to manage teens and travel disasters, it can be a pleasant experience for all. One year I took one of these tours to Italy, one year to Greece.
Most European countries regard the American spring break, often in early to mid-March, as late winter or early spring for them. We may be wearing t-shirts, shorts and sandals in Texas by this time of year, thinking about the beach; but for many regions in Europe, there can still be snow and sleet, the tourists are long gone and the museums and other attractions are nearly empty. Personally, I find this delightful.


Delphi with no crowds

The Acropolis Museum with no crowds

The Acropolis in Athens\

The Acropolis with no tourists but ourselves

Greek island of Hydra

My sons at the harbor in Hydra, Greece


Students at Sounion

We had such a wonderful time....I'd like to go back. Greece is my favorite place in the world.