9/18/2015

Fed up with air travel





Listen up, airlines! We are baby boomers; while you may be chasing younger sections of the air travelers market, we are the ones who spend a lot of money on travel. Work or pleasure, we are out there moving around the country. Some of us are at the peak of our careers and travel quite a bit for business. All of us have the time and money now to fly for pleasure when at earlier points of our lives, we did not. Our kids are grown and we want to go on vacation! Visit our grandkids! Travel the world before we get too feeble! Money is no object, and we have more extra time than you think. Time to consider alternatives to the miseries of air travel.

Guess what, airlines? We don’t like how you’ve been running things, and we plan to vote with our wallets. We had a meeting. Here are our demands:

Seriously, a recent vacation spent with a dozen like-minded friends could not bring us together on topics involving politics, religion, cars, shoes, or even where to get the best pizza. But the one thing we all agreed on is that we all hate air travel. We hate it, do you hear? And we are actively searching for alternatives.

You had better heed us, airlines…..oh I know, you think it’s all about you, and your bottom line of profitability. You feel smug in your near-monopoly of the travel market. We’ll see how profitable it will be for you when we start to boycott your services.

1) Stop making those damn seats so small, packed so close together. Even average sized people have no legroom. As we get older, our knees get more stiff and brittle. We just can’t do it, any more. Or if you want, divide your economy cabin into sections, and charge us a small premium for better seats. We will pay $50 to $100 extra, per seat, to have a slightly more spacious experience. For example, on a night flight to Europe, our only options are the $5K tickets in 1st class, and the $1K tickets in coach. Don’t you understand price points? Can’t you come up with something in the middle?

2) You’d better bring back food – even if you have to charge us $10 more for that $1 rubber chicken you are going to serve us. Going without food makes us cranky, and you won’t like us if we’re cranky. Those crappy sandwiches that cost us $12 aren’t cutting it, either. Look at how many airline customers walk onto a plane these days carrying bags of food- and calculate how that money, spent at airport vendors, could be spent with your airline.

Speaking of airports – we are old, we are tired, we are cranky. We want mini-hotels in airports, like they have in Japan – those cube things. We want to be able to lay down if we are stranded in an airport overnight, or for 7 to 12+ hours, or we need to take a nap. We want a “private type club room” every 5 to 10 gates – we’ll pay for the privilege of admittance- where we can sit in a wide, deep comfy club chair and read or watch tv (using headphones) while someone brings us a drink or a quiet meal. It should look, feel, and smell like an old English gentleman’s club. We want mini-spas where we can get a chair massage or a mani-pedi.

We do not want to sit in a T.G.I.Friday’s, as I did recently at Hartfield Airport in Atlanta, with the music blasting so loud the waiter can’t hear over it to take your order. At this same restaurant, hubster and I watched a dozen wait-persons goof off near the entrance, laughing and slapping each other with menus, while no one came to our table to take our order – till the manager herself had to come do it. We also watched as one of the wait staff dropped my cheeseburger on the floor en route to our table, and watched as this person picked it up and put it back on the bun, before bringing it to our table.(Yes, we sent it back. Took an hour to get another, it arrived cold, and was looked suspiciously like the same piece of meat as the one on the floor.) I will never eat at a T.G.I. Fridays again. I am not sure I will ever eat at Hartfield Airport again.

When we are bored, or have extra time, or even if we are pressed for time , we want to shop at airports for the things we forgot to pack, lost en route, or had to give up to pass security. Why can’t there be a business every 5-10 gates that has easy access, quick in and check-out and sells bottled water, tasty hot meals packaged to go, small hand lotion, a traveler’s neck pillow, a small warm fuzzy blanket, chapstick, etc? Don’t everybody write me emails and tell me about the shops that do sell this stuff – I have been in every major airport in the USA and Europe, and I know there are clusters of these shops at some gates but not others. I also know I have spent many 30 hour “days” connecting from one airport to another- running to catch a flight because the previous one was delayed – and in those dire moments you can never find the kind of shop you need at the gates you are passing. It is one of those fundamental laws of the universe, like if you wear a non-waterproof outfit, it will rain.
Why can’t American airports sell tasty healthy food ? A recent pass through Heathrow found quick offerings that were kosher, halal, vegetarian, from Asia, the Mediterranean – all over the world. I sampled several going west to east and a few more passing back east to west. They were delightful.

“If you build it, they will come.”


As I stated at the beginning of this piece- we are fed up. We are seriously looking into around the world cruises and train travel because air travel has become so hellish. That’s a lot of money airline companies are missing out on.

5/28/2015

Rumpelstiltskin pt II



al·lu·sion
əˈlo͞oZHən/
noun
  1. an expression designed to call something to mind without mentioning it explicitly; an indirect or passing reference.
    "an allusion to Shakespeare"
    synonyms:reference to, mention of, suggestion of, hint to, intimation of, comment on, remark on
    "the town's name is an allusion to its founding family"
    • the practice of making allusions, especially as an artistic device.

There’s another version of “Rumplestiltskin” going on these days……teachers are increasingly being asked to spin “straw” (in this case, new generations of students who come up through the grades, each year less prepared than the previous), into “gold” (standardized test-passers, prepared for college) with increasingly “fewer amounts of straw” (schools, classrooms, textbooks, computers, money, materials, as well as support from students, parents, administrators, communities, and the state legislature), in ever increasing amounts (wanting higher testing results, greater outcomes for more students with fewer resources/dollars spent on education). Everything that goes wrong with schools, students, grades, or outcomes is blamed on teachers – never on students, parents, administrators, communities, or state legislatures, or the testing climate, the wrong goals, lack of vision, lack of rules, lack of educational materials.

Parents: This is not a “dis” on your child. This is a “dis” on our educational system. Let me explain:

I’m a baby-boomer. I grew up in American public schools in the 1960’s and 70’s. I was fortunate enough to attend a local public suburban high school that regularly had 20-50 merit scholars per school year. (One of the few ways we have of comparing “apples” to “apples” across the many various schools in this greatly varied nation of ours.) We didn’t have standardized tests back then to track our skills (or those of our teachers), and yet: Reading levels were higher.  Kids who were not in “honors” or AP courses, even teenage boys, regularly read complex novels such as Fahrenheit 451, Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy, or Catch-22 , often for pleasure, and understood them. More students were able to competently solve complex math equations at higher levels than students are today, even when fewer years of math courses were required to graduate. More subject material was taught in each math course. SAT scores were higher, and no one took prep or cram classes. And yet, we were not a wealthy school district. We were middle and low-middle class. Why did learning excel here? A huge fraction of students from my high school, including myself and my friends,  not only went to college, but to superior “Top Ten” sort of private, Ivy League and equivalent, colleges.

Don’t think I am a teacher who complains because I, personally, can’t make the grade; that my own test scores and results are low. They are not. I not only make the grade and then some, my campus regularly fill my classes with re-testers ( kids who did not pass the first round), because they know I can get them up to passing . My own student scores surpass campus, district, and state levels by 11-75% every single year, even the re-testers. You know why? I don’t use the so-called “test-prep materials” provided for me by the state. I teach the basics. The same stuff I have been teaching for nearly 30 years.  The same stuff I learned in school : writing, grammar, reading, vocabulary.

How many of you, if you could afford it, would send your kid to private or parochial school? Everyone knows what a great job they do educating our children, instilling discipline, self-respect, knowledge.  I have taught in some of the most exclusive private and parochial schools around, and I know what they do, and how they do it, that produces such wonderful outcomes. I also know that there is little “magic” to their formula: they teach the basics. Kids are disciplined appropriately for their behaviors; the environment is peaceful and pleasant and feels safe. How can we replicate that in our public schools?

If we could do anything we wished to improve education, if money were no object, we would have students in smaller, more personalized schools. Just like a small private school. Students, parents, teachers, administrators, and the community would be held accountable for their behaviors. Professionalism would be the expectation for employees; respect from the students. Whether you chose uniforms or a dress code, rules would be enforced. Kids would be fed nutritious well-like meals and have enriching extra-curricular activities. Their souls and minds would be nurtured. Doesn’t it all sound lovely?

I’m not saying that the school where I teach, or others around the country, don’t provide this. But I do know that the school districts in Texas have filed a class action lawsuit against the state legislature for not providing adequate funding for schools, which means staffing, textbooks, buildings, desks- everything you can think of that costs money -while simultaneously increasing demands. How do you feel at your job, when the boss says to make more widgets in half the amount of time, with fewer widget-makers? To raise sales results with fewer clients/customers?  To raise safety standards with fewer employees, rules that are not enforced, old, broken or missing equipment? I do know that I teach 38 kids in a classroom with only enough room for 25 desks, and I have to hold class in the hall frequently because we can’t all fit into the room. Kids regularly sit at my desk when there aren’t enough seats. Students share textbooks every day because we don’t have enough. We have two computer labs and one cafeteria to serve the needs of 2500 students. (My own high school, while growing up, had two cafeterias for this number of kids; and longer lunch periods. The twenty minutes our kids het is not enough time to get down there, stand in the long lines, and eat.) Like every teacher in America, I buy supplies for kids who don’t have any; I feed kids a snack at lunch who don’t have one; I drive kids home who are still at school at 7 pm when I sometimes stay late to grade papers or write lesson plans. I do know that teachers are often hired, regardless of their certification or experience, because of who they know or are married to. I do know that there is no supervision of new teachers beyond one 45 minute observation, once a year.

Most teachers at my school have given up on collecting cell phones – because parents call and complain and demand that kids get their phones back – often all within 10 or 15 minutes of the teacher picking it up. Most teachers at my school have given up on handing our detentions for rude behaviors, foul language, bullying, vandalism, dress code violations, tardies, gum, or any number of things, because if administration tries to impose consequences such as detentions, parents complain and fight them – loudly, and on the internet. The administrators at my school spend their days braking up fights and walking around checking lockers with the drug-sniffing dog. I know that when a student says I have” lost his paper” (and it is never the “A” student who attends class every day, is responsible, and turns his work in on time who claims this, it is always the barely passing student who is frequently absent and who never turns his work in on time who says that this has happened), parents and administration believe the student, first, and I who have been teaching nearly 30 years and have a sign-in system for tracking every single paper and have somehow managed to do this all these years, I am the one who has to justify and explain and “prove” myself.

When I first started teaching, years ago, my fellow teachers and I each taught 4 periods out of a 6 period day. Because we had an extra load of grading (all those essays), English teachers got an extra conference period to grade papers. Teachers of other subjects taught 5 periods a day, with one conference block to grade. (Now those extra blocks are given to coaches.) Teachers each had two “preps” (different subjects we taught). Now I teach 8 periods out of a 10 period “day”, and next year it is going to 9/10. In recent years, I have taught 4 different “preps” (short for the number of different subjects one must prepare lesson plans for on a daily basis). Some of the blocks I teach are 90 minutes long, some are 50 minutes long, some meet daily, some meet only twice a week - which makes it a challenge to keep classes together and up to date, cover everything uniformly, and fully. “That’s how they do it in college”, you say. Keep in mind, a full teaching load for professors is one or two classes per semester. (I know, bc my husband is a college prof.) A full teaching load for teachers at my school is 8. Soon to be 9.

When I first started teaching, my classes had 15-25 students in each. Nowadays, my middle-class suburban high school has 25-35+ per class, and we are told that next year we will have more.

Did you know that in Texas, we spend 1/3 of the school year in testing mode? That means some group or other is taking a standardized test, and since all teachers are called in to proctor these exams, regular classes are suspended/ moved/ not held. Often kids are rounded up, sent to the gym to watch a movie, supervised by a coach. This starts in March and goes most days till the end of the school year. This means as teachers, we have 2/3 of a school year to teach your child and show a year’s worth of improvement. It means your child is wasting 1/3 of his educational years either taking a standardized test, or sitting around waiting for those who are, while doing something worthless, and not learning.

Our school board thinks this is all great, because it saves costs. But at what human cost? Ignore the fact that this is creating stress on teachers, which increases the use of sick days, which costs districts more money and lowers outcomes. As a parent, you may not realize that when teachers are pushed to these limits, it is the children who suffer. Can I give your child the individual attention she or he needs? I wish I could, but I am sorry to say I cannot. I do know that a huge cohort of baby-boomer teachers are retiring this year. Soon, I will join them. Sure, every generation thinks they are the preserver of knowledge and skill, even as they give way to the next. But I am old enough, and fortunate enough, to have had a great education, myself. And I have finally, after all these years, learned how to teach and what to teach. I still care about the kids – just not the system. 

Rumpelstiltskin, pt I





Rumpelstiltskin by the Brothers Grimm

     Once there was a miller who was poor, but who had a beautiful daughter. Now it happened that he had to go and speak to the king, and in order to make himself appear important he said to him, "I have a daughter who can spin straw into gold."

     The king said to the miller, "That is an art which pleases me well, if your daughter is as clever as you say, bring her to-morrow to my palace, and I will put her to the test." And when the girl was brought to him he took her into a room which was quite full of straw, gave her a spinning-wheel and a reel, and said, "Now set to work, and if by to-morrow morning early you have not spun this straw into gold during the night, you must die."

     Thereupon he himself locked up the room, and left her in it alone. So there sat the poor miller's daughter, and for the life of her could not tell what to do, she had no idea how straw could be spun into gold, and she grew more and more frightened, until at last she began to weep. But all at once the door opened, and in came a little man, and said, "Good evening, mistress miller, why are you crying so?"

     "Alas," answered the girl, "I have to spin straw into gold, and I do not know how to do it."

     "What will you give me," said the manikin, "if I do it for you?"

     "My necklace," said the girl.

     The little man took the necklace, seated himself in front of the wheel, and whirr, whirr, whirr, three turns, and the reel was full, then he put another on, and whirr, whirr, whirr, three times round, and the second was full too. And so it went on until the morning, when all the straw was spun, and all the reels were full of gold.

     By daybreak the king was already there, and when he saw the gold he was astonished and delighted, but his heart became only more greedy. He had the miller's daughter taken into another room full of straw, which was much larger, and commanded her to spin that also in one night if she valued her life. The girl knew not how to help herself, and was crying, when the door opened again, and the little man appeared, and said, "What will you give me if I spin that straw into gold for you?"

     "The ring on my finger," answered the girl.

     The little man took the ring, again began to turn the wheel, and by morning had spun all the straw into glittering gold.

     The king rejoiced beyond measure at the sight, but still he had not gold enough, and he had the miller's daughter taken into a still larger room full of straw, and said, "You must spin this, too, in the course of this night, but if you succeed, you shall be my wife." Even if she be a miller's daughter, thought he, I could not find a richer wife in the whole world. When the girl was alone the manikin came again for the third time, and said, "What will you give me if I spin the straw for you this time also?"

     "I have nothing left that I could give," answered the girl.

     "Then promise me, if you should become queen, to give me your first child."

     Who knows whether that will ever happen, thought the miller's daughter, and, not knowing how else to help herself in this strait, she promised the manikin what he wanted, and for that he once more spun the straw into gold. And when the king came in the morning, and found all as he had wished, he took her in marriage, and the pretty miller's daughter became a queen. A year after, she brought a beautiful child into the world, and she never gave a thought to the manikin. But suddenly he came into her room, and said, "Now give me what you promised." The queen was horror-struck, and offered the manikin all the riches of the kingdom if he would leave her the child. But the manikin said, "No, something alive is dearer to me than all the treasures in the world." Then the queen began to lament and cry, so that the manikin pitied her.

     "I will give you three days, time," said he, "if by that time you find out my name, then shall you keep your child."

     So the queen thought the whole night of all the names that she had ever heard, and she sent a messenger over the country to inquire, far and wide, for any other names that there might be. When the manikin came the next day, she began with Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar, and said all the names she knew, one after another, but to everyone the little man said, "That is not my name."

     On the second day she had inquiries made in the neighborhood as to the names of the people there, and she repeated to the manikin the most uncommon and curious. Perhaps your name is Shortribs, or Sheepshanks, or Laceleg, but he always answered, "That is not my name."

     On the third day the messenger came back again, and said, "I have not been able to find a single new name, but as I came to a high mountain at the end of the forest, where the fox and the hare bid each other good night, there I saw a little house, and before the house a fire was burning, and round about the fire quite a ridiculous little man was jumping, he hopped upon one leg, and shouted -

     'To-day I bake, to-morrow brew, the next I'll have the young queen's child. Ha, glad am I that no one knew that Rumpelstiltskin I am styled.'" You may imagine how glad the queen was when she heard the name. And when soon afterwards the little man came in, and asked, "Now, mistress queen, what is my name?"

     At first she said, "Is your name Conrad?"

     "No."

     "Is your name Harry?"

     "No."

     "Perhaps your name is Rumpelstiltskin?"


     "The devil has told you that! The devil has told you that," cried the little man, and in his anger he plunged his right foot so deep into the earth that his whole leg went in, and then in rage he pulled at his left leg so hard with both hands that he tore himself in two.

5/18/2015

Hot Off the Press : Madeline Kahn Bio






My childhood friend Bill Madison has a new book out, a biography of Madeleine Kahn.  I would tell you how fabulous it is, but you’d never believe me, because he is my adopted brother and naturally, I am proud of him. So here are some of the many rave reviews: you can decide for yourself.







"Madeline Kahn: Being the Music, A Life" (University Press of Mississippi), by William V. Madison ... tuneful bride in "Young Frankenstein." Yet Madeline Kahnoften didn't seem to appreciate her comedic

May 04, 2015 02:22 PM Story from Entertainment DOUGLASS K. DANIEL Associated Press, ABC News



5/07/2015

All Hat and No Cattle




In the old days, when the economy of Texas was largely based on ranching and oil, saying that a man was “all hat and no cattle” was an insult. It meant that whatever persona he projected was a false pretense, an image that tried to fake its money and status, and thus, who he really was. To be “all hat” meant this person went out and bought the biggest cowboy hat he could find and wore it to try to look (what he thought) was the part of an old-time “real” Texan. Initially this terminology applied just to social climbers and “new money” oil men ( v.s. “old money” ranchers), but later, to anyone who was perceived as fake : politicians, Yankees recently moved here, con men, hustlers, card sharks, and bounders. The “no cattle” part meant, originally, that you (and/or your family) had no ranch – no cattle, no land, no actual substantial holdings of capitol (land, livestock, buildings), and by implication, no family heritage going back generations, and no class. It meant you were a “johhny come lately” and a bounder. This expression was a deep insult if applied to you. Ironically, politicians just LOVE to put on cowboy hats whenever they come to Texas, no matter how ridiculous it makes them look. The natives would rather they didn’t. It doesn’t give them “cred”.





Above: Various American politicians wearing cowboy hats. Some look worse than others. Below, two actual Texans, both famous actors, also wearing cowboy hats:





There is a new kind of “all hat no cattle” springing up on the Texas prairies today…..the mini McMansion. “Mini” because in spite of its tall imposing entrance and overall grande pompous facade, it is actually not that big of a house, comparatively speaking. “McMansion”, because like the restaurant chain McDonald’s, these homes are everywhere, plentiful and cheap (thus defying the notion, in America at least, of a “mansion” as something expensive, rare, genteel, and notable.) Newcomers (“no cattle”) are lured into buying these homes by the notion of upper middle-class gentility that rows upon rows of these homes would seem to suggest to those who don’t know any better. Full of what is called “lipstick” (“all hat”) in the housing trade (granite counter tops, two story entrance halls, master bathrooms with spa tubs), in actuality these homes are often hastily built of shoddy materials from China (drywall that crumbles due to being made of chalk, fake ”wood” laminate floors that leach toxic levels of formaldehyde, etc). Other than the master bedroom and bath, the rooms are tiny: children’s rooms that are 8 x 10 feet, dining rooms, if this house has one at all, that are the same small size. No separate living and den, only one large living area. No eat in kitchen. Often, the front lawns are only 8x10 ft as well, mere vestiges of the idea of a lawn. I’m not against sustainable, smaller homes- in fact, I am strongly for them. Anything that re-purposes old buildings, is environmentally-friendly, lets us stop wasting water on keeping a grass lawn green , mixed-use urban development – that’s what I am for. I just think the pretentiousness of these homes is hysterical. But by all means, newcomers, keep moving into them. Leave the better built older homes in stately neighborhoods for those who know.


4/20/2015

How to be a Sassy Old(er) Woman Pt 2

Now that we've addressed clothes, cars, critters and causes, its time to think about fun. One of the most fun things hubster and I have done lately was to go, with a group of about 20 friends to a honky -tonk in far west Texas, and dance. (We all stayed together at a B&B.) Hubster and I dance a poor two-step (bc I can never let anyone else lead) and the music was a mix of country and pop. We just reverted to our "old" styles of dancing (formed in the late 70's and early 80's....a little bit rock 'n roll, a little bit new wave) which apparently was quite a curiosity to the folk at this particular establishment. Strangers actually came up to us and inquired about where we had learned to dance, calling our style "unique"  - and no, it wasn't as bad as Elaine on "Seinfeld" - I just had to laugh. I didn't reply "in a bunch of gay bars back in the big city a long time ago", which was the truth. I just laughed. Who cares if we looked odd? We looked odd together. I just wish I could still fit into those size 6 leather pants I bought from North Beach.....
While I love love love the elegant ladies from "Advanced Style", I doubt I will ever be one. I just don't have the money to dress that well, I'm not thin, and I'm too action-oriented to ever look that good. My curly hair is always out of place (and this strands coming in gray are even curlier than it was), I'm sweaty, and besides, I want to DO STUFF not sit around and pose. Comfort is my goal and adventure is my plan.

You have to figure out what you want to do to have fun. Maybe knitting, playing bridge, and square dancing are your thing. Maybe you like watching tv and doing crossword puzzles. I want to be like T.E.Lawrence who died while riding a motorcycle near his home. I'd rather die on a motorcycle than in a hospital. I want to be like Gertrude Stein who encouraged young artists and created her own salon (in the French sense, as in, a gathering of writers and intellectuals who talk and share ideas, not in the small town sense, as in a place to get your hair done.) I want to find interesting, like-minded people to talk to about stuff. I want to do a wide variety of things, so that I have something to talk about. I'm not sure I can steer a motorcycle by myself these days, but I know I can steer a Vespa. "Normal" is boring. What have you always wanted to do, but never have done?
You have to get up and do stuff. If no one around you is making plans, starting things, then you make the plans. If you invite them, they will come. In the past few years I have started a bookclub, a dinner club (neighbors get together once a month and either go out to eat, or have a potluck with a theme, like "foreign vacation" or "Mardi Gras"), gone with friends to see plays, art exhibits, and concerts, booked fun trips. I created a "pub crawl" for hubster's birthday celebration (like a progressive dinner, only we went from craft brewery to craft brewery).
The big ticket item on my bucket list is travel. I want to travel as much as I can till I can't any more. I am scared by recent health problems that my travel days may not last much longer. But I started thinking: I just need to change my travel paradigm. Instead of the schlepping heavy luggage all over Europe thing - which I know I cannot do any more - I need to find other ways to get around. Rent a car. Sail a ship. The traditional thing for old folks is to take a cruise, but I hate crowds, formal dress, gambling, shuffleboard, and all that crap. Hubster and I are going to take a 10 person cruise on a sailing yacht in the Caribbean this summer - we'll let you know if it was fun, later. I just need to slow my pace, rest more often, not try to do as much. 

How to Be a Sassy Old(er) Woman Pt 1

Society doesn't really provide a script for women to behave as we approach mid-life, although there are plenty of archetypes to choose from at a more advanced age. I 'm not sure where the demarcation lies - is it 50? 60? 65? retirement? grand-motherhood? "I just don't care about conventions anymore?" "I'm retired now, I can do as I please?" "I'm pissed as hell, hear me roar?" The whole sexy-cougar-MILF thing just isn't of interest to me anymore. Maybe its due to the post-menopausal hormone drain, that leaves me feeling about as sexy as a balloon that lost all its air. I think that last surge of sexiness is something of interest to women who had their children at 20, and are now 38 with teenagers. That's the age where women start to get nervous about their looks fading; thank god I was overwhelmed with babies and diapers at that age and it just whizzed right by me as I tried to go a single day without getting baby stains on my last clean shirt.
 
Whatever the cause, I have reached the point in my life where I am quickly shedding my previous roles and concerns. Maybe what is liberating is finally, after 20-25 years, I don't have to change someone's diaper, feed them, work to earn money to care for them, spend every waking moment either driving them or else attending some function for them, giving them all my money and never having anything fun for myself, and then having the very child you slave for to turn and be embarrassed by your (extremely constrained, as normal as you can make it) self.  Ah, teenagers: God's gift to parents, otherwise, if they stayed cute and adorable like a 4 year old, you'd never want them to leave. So maybe the demarcation is when your kids have moved on to lives of their own and you are free to be as whimsical as you always wished you could be. (There's always the Mr. to worry about, your last child, but hopefully he can manage to take care of himself now and then.)
First on my list of reinventing myself at mid-age was to start at the bottom of my list (based on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.) After 20+ years of only having the pet the Mr and the kids wanted, I went out any got a pet for my own needs. Then I swapped out the mommy bus (aka minivan) for something a bit sportier, zippier, and luxe- hey if men can do it, why can't women? Next thing up is to consciously schedule more time with your girlfriends - because as the internet meme reminds us, the odds are likely that you will outlive your husband. You need to get some girlfriends stat to spend the last 25-30 years of your life with. Last but not least: fun clothes. I am at the point where I am working on a more comfortable, artsy -looking wardrobe , a little bit at a time.
 These aspects of reinvention, however, are all superficial. Who is your role model? What do you want to do with the last quarter or third of your life? Who do you want to be like? Mother Theresa? Eleanor Roosevelt? Tina Turner? I have one friend, Bonnie, who is an artist (yes, she actually earns a living from this) and who , in her late 60's or early 70's (she will never say) has the most energy, is the most adventuresome, creative, spirited person I know. Bonnie never seems to sleep, she stays awake all night, reads a million books, loves dancing, travel, can talk for hours on any subject and never be dull. She is in great health and has the pep of a 20 year old, and she is a great inspiration to me.
 I do know this much: I have spent a lifetime of keeping my mouth shut about the things I care about - worried about keeping my job, creating enemies, causing problems, going alone, keeping the peace. No more. I figure this is the best time, when not distracted by the overwhelming responsibilities of daily living, to speak one's mind. It is the duty of the crone (in the Jungian series of female archetypes: the maiden, the mother, the crone) or elder female to pass on the wisdom of previous generations, and to speak up when others cannot, to improve life and remind society of its values, to point out its errors, to help develop solutions. There are several versions of this speaking up, and I hope not to be the cranky old curmudgeon sort of person. Rather, I hope to be the cool granny out there, protesting and volunteering to help others live a better life. What are the causes you care about? Who else is going to raise awareness, if not you?


Demographics of Texas


Don’t talk to me about “fly over states”, you snarky east and west coasters, and include Texas in that dismissal. We take umbrage at that notion, and consider ourselves “the third coast”.
Some facts to consider:
Population Canada 35 million  (2013)
Population California 38 million (2014)
Population Australia 23 million (2013)
Population Texas 27 million (2014)
Population NYC 8.4 million (2013)
Population DFW 6.6 million (2012)
Population Los Angeles area  13 million add San Diego, total area  18.5 million (2010) + Population SF bay area 7 million (2013) = 25.5 in two urban areas
Population DFW 6.6 million + San Antonio Austin area 4.7 million + Houston Galveston 6 million = 17.3 million in 3 urban areas

Texas coastline has 367 miles (as the crow flies) and 3300 miles shoreline including islands, bays, inlets, etc
The economy of Texas is one of the largest economies in the United States. As of 2013, Texas is home to six of the top 50 companies on the Fortune 500 list and 51 overall, (third most after New York and California). In 2012, Texas grossed more than $264.7 billion a year in exports—more than exports of California ($161.9 billion) and New York ($81.4 billion) combined. As a sovereign country (in 2012), Texas would be the 14th largest economy in the world by GDP (ahead of South Korea and the Netherlands).
In 2011,Texas had a gross state product of $1.332 trillion, the second highest in the U.S.  Texas has the second largest population in the country after California. (Wikipedia)

Percent of Texas Natives Shrink as Newcomers Arrive
http://blogs.houstonpress.com/news/2014/08/numbers_of_texas_natives_shrinking_as_population_booms.php

4/17/2015

What Would Jesus Wear?

I write to you as a field reporter observing the local customs, much as I would if I were visiting Borneo, Oaxaca or Papua New Guinea, and reporting back on what the natives there were wearing. Even though I am a sixth generation Texan, born and bred, and my parents hail from small Texas towns, I never knew anyone who dressed like this growing up. This is how the "Bible belt" has changed since I was a kid.
I am not sure if all the crosses people are wearing these days are a true sign of their religious feeling, or merely a fashion fad. No, the question that burns in my brain until the wee hours is this: where do they buy this stuff? I shop at local stores and never see any of it for sale.
Perhaps they buy it at the gift shop in their evangelical mega churches, or like the Tupperware parties of old, in small home-based selling circles. It is apparently de rigeur to have a smug, superior look on one's face while wearing it, as if secretly thinking to oneself, "that'll show 'em," or, "I stand for J-E-S-U-S."
A friend and I accidentally stumbled into the "wrong" nail salon one day - not the typical sort of place - and nearly all the customers were sporting the ginormous leopard print- rhinestone-sequins-crosses-feathers handbag. I was worried for a moment about being tarred and feathered and rode out of town. Did I miss the memo? Weren't nuns wearing habits, you know, back in the day, because they gave up all their worldly possessions and served the lord with humility and grace?


I tell you what I do know.....I know that Jesus probably never in a million years imagined the cross that believers feel he died on would be snuggling up to the inside of some girl's butt.


Is that respectful to Jesus?

4/16/2015

No One Left to Stand Up



First they tried to prohibit basic human rights for the gays,
and I did not speak out-
Because I was not gay.

Then they tried to restrict a woman's control over her own body,
and I did not speak out-
Because I no longer worried about birth control, reproductive issues, or the fundamental privacy between a woman and her doctor to make intimate decisions about her healthcare.

Then they came for the schools and the teachers,
and I did not speak out -
Because I no longer had kids in school, or friends who taught, and I no longer cared about the social and economic importance of education for others.

Then they came for the 98%, the workers, the elderly, young children, the poor and the middle class,
and I did not speak out-
Because I felt helpless, powerless, unable to decide what to do, that my vote didn't count, or how to make a difference.

Then they came for me-
and there was no one left to speak out.


4/10/2015

"Tex-Mex" and Mexican Food Menu Items, Explained


Enchiladas
Tex-Mex cuisine, at least in the northern half of the state, starts with enchiladas. When I was a little kid growing up, enchiladas were always rolled by hand, and made fresh in the restaurant. Even today, having enchiladas on a menu is a signifier that this is a classy, sit-down, often family owned ( non-chain) restaurant  (which is why some of the more upscale fast food joints have added them to their menus). The basic enchiladas to be found when I was a kid, in the ‘60’s, were cheese and beef, and a traditional mom-and-pop restaurant serves these to this day. A cheese enchilada contains shredded cheddar cheese or a blend of cheddar with Mexican white cheese, chopped raw onions, and is rolled up inside a corn tortilla, which to a purist, has been dipped in hot cooking oil before this is all assembled, blotted dry with a paper towel, then placed in a casserole dish, side by side, covered in sauce, then more shredded cheese, and baked till hot and bubbly.  Beef enchiladas are the same thing, filled with sautéed ground seasoned beef in a vaguely chili flavored sauce.  These are covered in your choice of sauces, and you can mix ‘em up: queso (cheese), carne (meat), tomatillo, green chile, “red sauce” (theoretically, red pepper sauce, but more often than not, enchilada sauce from a can). The typical combo is a cheese interior with meat sauce chili style gravy, and a beef interior with a cheese, chili, or red sauce gravy. A little bit of shredded cheese, chopped cilantro or chopped peppers sprinkled on top are often the garnish. Oddly, an enchilada with both a cheese filling and a cheese sauce is called a cheese taco, not an enchilada. I do not know why. I have never known anyone to add salsa or hot sauce to their enchilada; they are always eaten as served. (However, you are welcome to swirl around on your plate any odds and ends of whatever you have left, and eat them all together.) I do have one finicky friend who always asks for the onions in his cheese enchiladas to be removed, as if that alone is going to make the difference in having bad breath: what about the cumin, the garlic, the jalapenos, the spices, bro? I think it’s just a way to ensure that his food is freshly made, or at least tampered with.


Enchiladas are always rolled fairly tight, like a big fat Cuban cigar, never gaping, like a cannoli. The end is not tucked under (see burrito, below). Really old-school restaurants will also offer you an option of flat enchiladas, with all the same ingredients layered flat like lasagna. While enchiladas are at least theoretically baked en mass, (perhaps ahead of time) they seem to have the additional requirement that when two of them are put on your plate in the restaurant’s kitchen, along with refritos (refried beans, pre-cooked pinto beans, mushed with lard into sort of a “bean porridge”) and rice, that the enchiladas be refreshed with more sauce and cheese and reheated; which is why your waiter will always say, “Hot plate! Hot plate!” as he brings your food to the table. The plate containing this wonderful gooey mess has been run under some sort of broiler, en mass.


Globalization changes everything, even Tex-Mex menus, and as a result we now have influences from New Mexico, California, and Mexican from Mexico cuisines. New Mexico Mex  food offers a chicken, bean or beef filling with a Hatch (type of chile) green chile gravy. California Mex  food also does a chicken version, (note: chicken is cooked beforehand, this is a great way to use leftovers) often with sour cream or spinach. Enchiladas aren’t as prevalent in Mex-Mex culture – they are mostly a gringo (white person/culture) Texican or what we call “Del Norte” (north of the Rio Grande) invention- but I have seen and eaten versions with a variety of fillings, most notably grilled cabrito (goat meat). There is a popular home-made Tex-Mex dish, called King Ranch Casserole, which is a staple of church and Junior League pot-luck dinners.  It is a type of flat enchilada casserole made with chicken; you can find recipes all over the web. It is considered a mark of high social standing to make and serve this, much like one’s choice of chicken salad or devilled eggs in the deep South. I always make one with turkey leftovers from Thanksgiving.
Note that enchiladas are always made with corn tortillas. They are not, as I have seen in some places, a lump of chopped up chicken, rolled and served dry (no sauce, no cheese) in a flour tortilla. Some authentic home-made enchiladas are “fluffed” with rice or potatoes, but if I got this in a restaurant, I’d complain.

I see a lot of recipes on the web that for some reason, have olives on them. I love Mediterranean food, especially Italian, Greek and Spanish   ....   and that's where I eat my olives. Note to self: Leave the olives off. They would taste hideous on Mexican food .(and I am a fan of olives.)


Tacos, including fajitas
If the enchilada is a signifier of an upscale dining place, tacos are clearly the hand –held portable fast food workhorse of Tex-Mex cuisine, much like burgers or a slice of pizza in other locales. Tacos come in dozens of varieties: The basic, old-school version is the standard sautéed ground beef seasoned meat inside a crispy corn tortilla that has been previously fried (is now cooled, drained and less greasy) and is shaped like a “U”. It is topped with thinly shredded lettuce and cheese at a minimum but often includes chopped raw tomatoes, hot sauce, jalapenos, pico de gallo, or other items. This was the taco of my childhood.



Somewhere in the late ‘70’s/early ‘80’s, a restaurant in Houston named Ninfa’s invented or brought to public attention “tacos al carbon” or fajitas (same thing), using marinated grilled skirt steak, sliced into thin strips, served sizzling hot in an iron skillet, along with a stack of warmed soft flour tortillas. You took some bits of the meat and veggies and built your own soft flour taco at the table. This a “del Norte” adaptation of the classic cabrito taco of south Texas/Mexico- only now it is marinated sliced beef. (Note: flour tortillas are like bagels in this one regard: you buy them half- cooked. Just as a bagel must be toasted or else you have a mouthful of semi-raw dough, if you do not finish cooking a flour tortilla before you serve it/eat it, you also have a mouth full of semi-raw dough. The way to cook them is to lay them on a skillet for a few minutes,  like making a grilled cheese sandwich, heat on med, turning frequently, till they just begin to puff up. Pull them off then and serve. If you wait till the entire thing is puffed, they will be too tough.)The marinating liquid for the meat in fajitas often included tequila, garlic, cumin, spices, cilantro and who knows what else. Later, chicken fajitas were added as an option. Fajita garnishes include sautéed green chilies and onions for a start (this arrives on the sizzling skillet, sautéed along with the meat) as well as other add-ons (lettuce, cheese, tomatoes, salsa or hot sauce, jalapenos, etc) of your choice. The fajita craze swept the country and now you can find them anywhere, from a roadside diner on the New Jersey Turnpike (I told my dining partner not to order them, but he wouldn’t listen. They were sliced bits of pot roast, with carrots, in a pita bread.), to a chain restaurant in Boise that makes them in some corporate kitchen in China, ships them frozen, reheats them locally, and poof! Out they come, exactly the same, no matter where you are.


A welcome addition to the taco category is “street tacos”, brought to us from our neighboring country to the south.  An authentic street taco is served on a white corn tortilla that is much smaller than the typical size – typically one person eats 4 to 6 street tacos, where they might eat only 1-2 regular Tex Mex crispy beef tacos. You could call them the sliders of the taco world. The tortilla has been steamed so that it is soft and warm and moist. Street tacos offer a diverse variety of meats, marinated and cooked in a variety of pungent, spicy sauces. There are fillings from different cuts of beef and pork, some are grilled, others are boiled with seasonings. My faves tend towards the jalapeno pork variety. Ask a native what’s the best or to translate for you; you never know what might be in them! The typical veggie condiments are chopped onions and cilantro.

Fish tacos originated in California, Miami and Baja. You can find them in Texas in upscale fusion restaurants, but they are not native to our area. The best version of these I’ve ever had have been in Key West.

Note to self: Leave the olives off. 

Breakfast tacos, huevos rancheros, and migas
Mexican breakfast items are among the greatest inventions known to man.  Something magical happens when you put salsa and cheese on scrambled eggs, and you can do this rolled up in a warm tortilla and call it a breakfast taco or burrito, or with salty crunchy tortilla strips and chorizo (spicy Mexican sausage) on a plate with a side of refried beans and call it migas, or with fried eggs and seasoned potatoes and call it huevos rancheros. Throw in a garnish of bacon or chorizo, and you are in heaven.


You say Chalupa, I say Tostada
All my life I have been asking if anyone can tell me the difference between a chalupa and a tostada, and no one ever has. So I’m going out on a limb here and making a bold pronouncement:  these are two different words for the same thing. Never once in 50+ years have I had one that was different from the following:  flat crispy (having previously been fried or baked) corn tortilla, layered with refritos, thinly sliced/shredded iceberg lettuce, and shredded cheddar or American cheese. It’s up to you to add more veggie garnish (pico de gallo, sliced jalapenos), hot sauce and salsa, if you want.

There are all kinds of recipes out there for this item, with additions of shredded beef, chicken, or even seafood. I prefer just the veggie option, its sort of a taco salad, in a flat presentation. But that's just me. It has a lighter, less greasy taste which balances the heavier meat and cheese flavors of the other dishes.

Note to self: No olives here.


Queso
Melted cheese, either as a dip, or poured over tortilla chips. (Not Doritos.) Some old school restaurants will pour it over an entire crisp tortilla, leaving it to you to break it up into pieces and eat. The best versions have a blend of American and Mexican cheeses. The easy-to-make- at home queso involves Velveeta+ Rotel, which you can spruce up with seasoned sautéed ground beef, or a can of chili.


Nachos
Nachos are an under-appreciated menu item and so easy to make as a quick meal for yourself.  You can go with just cheese but that’s pretty boring.  Evenly spread a layer of tortilla chips on a plate, sprinkle with shredded cheese, and microwave a minute or two (depending on the strength of your microwave) till the cheese is melted.  The trick is to get the chips evenly spread, about 2 or 3 deep but no more and no less, not too compact but with some air pockets. You want enough so that they catch all the drippings and are not soggy, but not so many that the bottom layer chips are dry.

The best nachos from a restaurant or made at home have at least 3 components: meat, beans of some sort, and cheese. Sprinkle these items on top of your tortilla chips. (Not Doritos.) I used to hand spread bean dip or refritos onto each one of the tortilla chips, then place each one on the plate, then sprinkle all with shredded cheese and other toppings, then microwave. This tastes awesome, especially when served with salsa, jalapenos, and other accouterments. But often I was so hungry and hasty that I would break the tortilla chips while trying to do this, and so I adapted to the way they do it in restaurants:  Spread out your chips (not Doritos.) on the plate. Take a can of beans- pinto or black bean (do NOT use BBQ beans, white beans, cannellini beans, pork n beans, any kind of flavored bean such as maple, bacon, hickory smoke, honey BBQ, etc) and first, drain off the liquid in the sink, then sprinkle/pour the beans on  top of the chips. You can next add seasoned ground taco meat, chili, roast or grilled chicken- whatever you have, chopped up and pre-cooked. Great use for leftovers. Cover liberally with cheese and microwave till melted. Add garnish: sour cream, pico de gallo, jalapenos, salsa, etc.

Note to self: Sour cream, pico de gallo, and avocado are left off until AFTER these are cooked. Leave the olives off. All of these recipes call for tortilla chips, made from tortillas. It's easy to make your own if you can find tortillas: just bake in an oven till crisp. But avoid Doritos at all costs. Too many chemicals, too many faux flavors, too thick and gummy, too salty,too....too....too.....


Burritos (and chimichangas)
A burrito is another staple of the make it and take it fast food culture. Oddly, when I was a kid in Texas in the ‘60’s, there weren’t any burritos around ….. I think they were imported from California.  (The fact that they are always made from an extra large flour tortilla would seem to support this theory. True Texas dishes always use corn tortillas.) Burritos have been here long enough that I can’t imagine Tex-Mex cuisine without them……take a large heated flour tortilla and lay it out flat. Draw a line down the middle of it with your choice of filling (shredded beef, taco meat, refritos, black beans, pinto beans, fajita meat, chicken, all pre-cooked) and garnish (sour cream, salsa, pico de gallo, jalapenos, shredded iceberg lettuce, chopped raw tomatoes, etc.) Add a layer of shredded cheese. Now you fold it: one side, left or right, over, then the bottom comes up, like a baby’s diaper, then the remaining side. It’s like swaddling a baby. A good burrito is a fat burrito. It never has an exterior sauce. All the interior ingredients blend together and taste great. A chimichanga is a burrito that has been deep fried, and is now served on a plate with cheese and/or beef sauce on top. I always suspect these are leftover burritos from the previous day, recooked and sauced so you don’t notice that it is stale or wilting or soggy, and I avoid eating them.

Note to self: Continue to leave the olives off. 


Quesadilla
A quesadilla is like a Tex-Mex grilled cheese sandwich. You take two flour tortillas and place one on a flat griddle or skillet, layer with shredded cheese in the middle, another tortilla on top, cook over medium heat till golden brown and crispy and the cheese is melted.  Flip it periodically so it cooks on both sides- I like to use a heavy flat plan lid, to sort of press it down, like a Panini maker. Viola! Cut into quarters, dip into salsa, and you have a quick snack. You can add pre-cooked chicken, taco meat, veggies to make it more substantial to eat.

Note to self: No olives here, either.



Borracho beans
Sort of a cross between a side dish and a hearty bean soup, borracho beans are often served as a little “extra”, a lagniappe, with your meal at some older family owned Tex-Mex restaurants.  This is a shame because they are awesome and I could eat them every day for the rest of my life. Prepared correctly, this is a rich, smokey, nuanced dish. I keep trying to make them myself at home and haven’t yet gotten the recipe just right. Borracho beans are a spicy pinto bean soup (low on the liquid, heavy on the bean, that’s why I call it a hybrid dish) with some combination of ham/lard/bacon, onions, cilantro and jalapenos – that much I can see when I eat them. The magic percentages to get the flavor just right, I have yet to discover. Several recipes online suggest the secret ingredient is beer.

Taquitos, flautas, pizza-tacos, taco-burritos, gorditas, and other oddities
You will find the most bizarre items at your local Taco Bell these days. I suspect this is for two reasons: 1)They feel like they have to constantly come up with something  “new” and “improved” to lure people in, and 2)I suspect this is a way to creatively use up left overs. Got a bunch of withered tortillas and some dry old taco meat lying around? Roll it up, fry it, and you have a taquito.  Just as the French turn day old bread into croutons and French toast, and Wendy’s turns their old hamburger meat into Wendy’s chili, these “new” fast food creations are creative ways to use up old ingredients. Anything wrapped inside something else would be your first clue, anything that is made then deep fried, especially if then covered with a sauce. Just say "no,thanks".


Guacamole aka guac, guac-o

Avoid the electric green  plastic-y goo that is sold in a tub in grocery stores. Read the ingredients on one of those tubs if you don’t believe me. Real guacamole is so easy to make we should all strive to put the purveyor of the faux guacamole out of business. Take a ripe avocado (should be slightly squeezable, like a young woman’s breast. Check the stem-pop it off- it should not be brown.), slice it in half lengthwise. Stick your sharp knife firmly in the pit/seed, if it pulls out cleanly, your avocado is ripe. If not, just deal with it. The flesh should be scooped out with a spoon, don’t waste time wrestling with it trying to slice or peel it. Dump the avocado flesh (meat, fruit) into a bowl. Add about two heaping spoons of the salsa of your choice. Mash with a sturdy whisk, or a fork, or a potato masher and Voila! If you don’t have salsa, you can chop up tomatoes; squeeze in a wee bit of lime juice and a tiny bit of salt. Taste as you go and for heavens’ sake, don’t over salt it. Eat it up quickly because it doesn’t keep and turns brown fast.


Chili and chile
Technically speaking, chili (a Texas dish consisting of beef, tomato sauce, and dry ground pepper spices, served like a stew but more solid, not as watery) is not considered a Tex-Mex item. It gets it's own entire category. Why, I am not sure. Sometimes this very same chili, however, is served as a sauce or gravy, on top of true Tex-Mex dishes such as enchiladas. Frito Pie is a bowl of chili with shredded cheddar cheese sprinkled on top, and either scooped out with or mixed in with Fritos corn chips.(not Doritos.) Chopped raw onions are optional. I'm not going to get into the argument of with or without beans - that's a post for another day.

Chile is the New Mexico Spanish word for the many different varieties of peppers, (not black ground pepper, but bell, jalapeno, poblano, banana, Serrano, ghost, Hatch, habanero, and more) that are harvested and served fresh chopped up (in pico de gallo), cooked (in chile rellenos), dry and powdered (in red chile spice/sauce). 


Tamales
Tamales are a labor-intensive food, nearly always hand-made (rare to find in restaurants) and associated culturally with the Christmas holidays. As a kid, I hated them, because the only ones I had ever tasted came from a can and were served in my elementary school cafeteria often cold or not completely cooked. They were greasy and gross, swimming in a slimy sauce. I've recently re-discovered tamales, as my Hispanic students have shared them with me - ones that are made at home by grandma and the entire family, as a special holiday (or late fall, that's when you get the corn husks) treat. Good tamales are soft but firm and not greasy at all. They are actually kind of dry in a way that is hard to explain, but tasty. Has a good "mouth feel". To eat one, you first peel off the outer corn husk wrapper (used to shape it while cooking, and hold it all together until you are ready to eat it), as any Texan knows. This is why it was such a gaff when former President George H.W. Bush (who claims he is from Texas) ate one incorrectly in public once, struggling to cut/gnaw through the tough, fibrous corn husk that, once cooked, has a consistency of cardboard. Any true Texan would know better.

Inside, the tamale is a bundle of mas (an exterior layer of course ground cornmeal, similar to polenta or grits, a little bit of water, and seasonings, worked together with your fingers) that is rolled out, much like the sticky rice used when making sushi; and a filling, one of several types of spicy-slightly yet not too moist-meat mixture. This is then rolled up, just like making sushi, and instead of seaweed as a base layer that holds it all together, is rolled in a dried (not fresh) corn husk (made pliable by soaking in water, first) , before it is cooked. Making tamales is an all day thing, but the reward is that they freeze and reheat well, and you can serve them, once re-heated, stored n a crock pot (no sauce) or low temp oven, for an event that lasts a long time, like an all day party. Keep them in their corn husk wrapper and they wont dry out. The meat filling comes in many varieties; my fave is jalapeno pork.

Like any ethnic cuisine, Tex-Mex makes a variety of dishes made from the same dozen basic ingredients. Just as Italian food uses pasta, tomato sauce, cheese in most of their dishes, Tex-Mex makes use of what is locally grown in a variety of ways. I can, and I do, frequently eat something Tex-mex nearly every day. but I don't eat the same thing at every meal: I might eat breakfast tacos, a quesadilla for lunch, and fajitas for dinner. Bon appetit!