My Quest to Find the Rude in Rhode Island

In case you’ve ever wondered which state is the most polite, asked the following question to 77,000 people across the nation: do people in your state tend to be more rude or more polite than most other Americans. You might be surprised to learn that Rhode Islanders ranked themselves as the most rude, 50th place on the politeness scale.

This is especially significant considering that Rhode Island is really small, boasting a whopping 1.06 million residents and 1,214 square miles of territory. It would easily fit within the boundaries of the Greater Houston area. So, even weighting the results as statisticians do, if Rhode Island got enough responses in the polite rankings to come in dead last, rudeness must be rampant. Or, maybe Rhode Islanders excel in candid self-reflection?

I’ve had a particular interest in Rhode Island since my boyfriend, Robin, took up residence in Providence for a while. I hadn’t heard of this survey before I visited him, so I didn’t expect to be landing in a snake pit of incivility. When it was brought to my attention early on during my stay, I was surprised because all my interactions with the natives had theretofore seemed pretty darn polite. Rhode Islanders complimented me on my Texas accent and, overall, were extremely helpful in the restaurants, bars, and retail establishments we frequented. Many people had visited Austin for one reason or another and were glad to meet us. We cycled on city streets where drivers seemed especially accommodating, not a bit interested in running us off the road. Admittedly, it was a small sampling of the state’s residents.

On the PVD Providence Pedestrian Bridge

But suddenly, my sample size ballooned when I had to meet a bunch of Rhode Islanders all at once. You might question the structure of that last sentence, particularly the “had to” part. You’ll understand when I also explain “suddenly.”

Like, suddenly, I fell off my bicycle. Robin and I were having a wonderful ride along the East Bay Bike Path, when I began to sense my steering wheel was wobbling. Maybe there was a smattering of sand on the concrete. Maybe it was just me. Whichever, I decided to stop. My best reconstruction of the accident is while I applied the hand brakes, I might not have come to a full stop before I tried to dismount. The bike’s remaining momentum threw me down and I broke the arm in an attempt to brace my fall.

By the time Robin had peeled me off the pavement I was hugging, my cell phone rang. I was being called by the Providence Fire Department which had been alerted by the fall detector on my Apple watch (best watch ever!). They couldn’t find us because the path wasn’t visible on their GPS map. Robin gave them directions and a swarm of friendly firefighters was soon upon us. With polite concern, they performed some first aid and gingerly placed my arm in a sling before hauling me down the path to the ambulance. Soon after arrival in the ER, I began meeting Rhode Islanders around every corridor who all wanted to have interactions with me, some painful, some not. But, all polite.

I visited the hospital’s x-ray room frequently that day. Each time I showed up, I was greeted with a “welcome back!” How’s that for friendliness? My second or third photo shoot involved someone pulling my arm to more clearly show the edges of the break. After enduring this tortuous ordeal, which I met with some spectacular grimaces, I was congratulated. Many people, a technician told me, screamed when that was done, so I probably could have gotten away with a sob or two. Was I trying to show my Texas toughness?

But back to Rhode Islanders. Once, while I waited for x-rays in a holding area off the main corridor, a woman on a gurney was wheeled by to get her x-rays. She spots me on my gurney and says, “Oh, there you are! How are you doing?” I thought it was strange that she appeared to know me, but she seemed nice, so I just responded, “I’m hanging in there, thank you.”

Apparently, she soon realized she’d mistaken my identity, and upon leaving the room, she said to me, “I’m sorry, I thought you were my roommate from last night.” I told her that I thought she was just being friendly, adding that Rhode Islanders seemed to be very nice people. Then, a man on a nearby gurney who had appeared to be sleeping, raised his head and said, “We are.” I’m guessing he didn’t respond to the survey.

Unfortunately, I would need surgery and a few days later, I met the surgeon who would perform it, Dr. Andrew Evans, co-director of Orthopedic Trauma at Rhode Island Hospital, surgeon with University Orthopedics, and an assistant professor at Brown University’s Alpert Medical School. With so many credentials, I expected an older man. When I asked someone about his apparent youth, I was told he was about 45 — no Doogie Howser. But the more important point is that he, and everyone on his staff couldn’t have been less hostile. Actually, they were great professionals. Not a rude person among them. Dr. Evans’ secretary, Becky, was just a phone call away both before and after my surgery. She was an absolute pleasure to work with. Same with Amanda, her assistant.

A week after my fall, I went back to the hospital to join Dr. Evans as he joined my humerus back together. Since every single person I encountered in pre-op and post-op was so compassionate and caring, I was forced to conclude that rude people didn’t make it into Rhode Island health care.

Nor do they become hairdressers. While incapacitated, I went to a nearby salon and got to know two of the hairdressers, Ray and Jaclyn, who washed and dried my hair at least four or five few times. Both made me feel like an old customer by the time I left town.

You have probably figured out by now that I failed to find rampant rudeness in Rhode Island. I still wonder whether my sample size was too small, even for this small state, but I’d prefer to believe that Rhode Islanders might be too hard on themselves. I’d also like believing that Robin, who doesn’t have a rude bone in his body, is living among a population of equally nice people.

So, that’s what I did during my summer vacation – conducted a survey of rudeness among Rhode Islanders and broke my arm. I wouldn’t recommend breaking an arm, but if it has to happen, Providence, Rhode Island is not a bad place for it. I received excellent care from a great surgeon and very compassionate people. In my case, of course, I had the added benefit of having Robin, the most wonderful and patient caretaker a gal could ask for. He never seemed to tire of caring for the functional equivalent of a five-year-old.

By the way, just in case you wondered about Texans in the YouGov survey, we were ranked No. 19 on the “more polite” scale. Obviously, we have a pretty high opinion of ourselves. In the past, I would have agreed with this opinion, but I run into more rudeness all the time, which I suspect may be the result of migrants from other states. Despite my doubts about their actual rudeness, I might even accept the possibility that we have some former Rhode Islanders in our midst. Maybe it’s no wonder I couldn’t find any rude ones up there!

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Zelma for President!!!

The woman known as Bicycle Annie has found her way to my pages of Austin memories on several occasions.  During the 50s, 60s, and 70s, she was a frequent sight along the Drag (the part of Guadalupe on the western edge of the UT campus) and other downtown Austin streets.  As her nickname would suggest, she was often on her bicycle or walking along as she pushed it.  Most Austinites and UT students of those decades remember her, some referring to her as the Indian Princess, other referring to her as simply Bicycle Annie.  She seemed to eschew interaction with others (if not outright resent it) and, was, accordingly, left alone  with the mental issues we assumed upon her.

But, as I learned recently, her real name was Zelma O’Riley.  This information arrived at my doorstep from Diane in Wichita Falls, a relative of Bicycle Annie’s who has been researching her life.  Through an exchange of emails precipitated after she discovered my blog entries, Diane shared with me what she has learned about this well-known, yet unknown, woman who once roamed our streets and garnered a place among local legends.

So, thanks to Diane, I have the opportunity to tell you that Zelma was from Durant, Oklahoma, where her father, John O’Riley was a professor.  John and wife, Mary Catherine Harkins, had five other children including, Lester, Arlee, Zula, Lula, Ora, and Lela.  Mary Catherine was a full-blooded Choctaw Indian who actually came to Durant on the “Trail of Tears.”  The family was purportedly very wealthy, and raised their children quite traditionally.  Zelma, who was very intelligent, moved to Fort Worth for a few years, and then finally to Austin to go to college at UT.   Here she started the publication “Up and Down the Drag” in 1941.

In an edition of “Up and Down” from November, 1947, she wrote what I think are the most prescient words I’ve ever heard:  “It will take a woman to save America.”    She saw herself as this potential savior of the country, and explained that her principal campaign plank was:  preparedness.  The advertisement read, “Vote for Zelma O’Riley for First Woman President of the United States –  she is Irish, she is Indian and she will care for you.”   Also, it is known that as the daughter of a strong Indian woman, one of her main causes throughout her life was Native American rights.

To finance her publication, Zelma sold subscriptions and advertising along the Drag.  But even after she stopped publishing”Up and Down,” she would periodically continued to sell advertising once in a while to fund herself.  It’s possible to believe that she actually intended to publish it again.  Whether her intentions were real or part of a delusion fantasy, many businesses bought “ads” to make her leave them alone.

While stories circulated about her being married to the man of her dreams and his death causing her to go into a depression, Diane says these are not true. She was never married and never had any kids. Her having a house in Hyde Park was also a fiction, although the Blue Bonnet Courts where she appeared to have lived is at the northwestern corner of that neighborhood.

Diane reports that throughout her life, Zelma visited Durant, in addition to Dallas where she stayed with her niece (Diane’s grandmother). Strangely enough, Diane’s uncle went to college in Austin and had many encounters with Zelma although he did not know at the time that he was her great-nephew.  He only knew her as “Bicycle Annie” for years.  Additionally, there are rumors that she attended Law School at one point to understand the judicial system to better “fight the power.”   The law school attendance cannot be verified, but in characterizing Zelma as a pioneer activist, Diane finds it credible.

Apparently, the niece (Diane’s grandmother) knew Zelma suffered from some mental problems and tried to keep up with her without much success.  After her grandmother’s death, Diane found Zelma’s obituary and a few copies of “Up and Down the Drag” among her things, which sparked her interest in this unusual relative.

Zelma passed away April 30, 1991, and is buried in Durant in a Choctaw burial ground.

As troubled and  as unconventional as Leslie ( our once-celebrated local transvestite), Zelma is significant to me because she is a piece of the original weirdness of the Austin I knew and loved.   In sharing our memories of her, Zelma links me to other Austinites who cherish yesterday’s city.  While our Indian Princess could be a bit shocking and disagreeable, she made a unique mark in our psyches, tying us to this unique city.

May Zelma remind us — in these times of antipathy toward the homeless — that even the most unappealing person was once child and part of family that cared about them.  And even if we can’t comprehend their world, they are still human beings, deserving of our compassion and understanding.

I hope our Indian Princess is at home resting in a world of peace and love. Austin sends you prayers and remembrance, Zelma.   And on a personal note, I think you were right about a woman president.

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Tail-Wagging New Year’s Eves

As the worst year ever finally rolls to an end, I am reminded of another New Year’s Eve two years ago when I ended the year alone for the first time ever, or at least since my marriage. My husband of 44 years had passed away seven months earlier.

I experienced many “firsts” in the year after his passing in May. He had been declining progressively since 2013, but had held it pretty much together while my father endured 18 months in hospitals and nursing centers with me helming the ship of his medical journey.

In what seemed like a seamless transition, my husband took a definitive turn for the worse shortly after my father’s death in 2016. My passing acquaintances with dementia, diabetes, and heart failure evolved into close and personal relationships. Each of his maladies came with its appropriate doctor, who, one by one, joined the circle of my new best friends.

As many care givers can confirm, overseeing someone with these conditions compounded by memory loss requires constant observation and vigilance. Many nights I went to bed, mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted, experiencing a fitful sleep and wondering whether the man next to me would still be breathing in the morning.

One morning, he wasn’t. In fact, I found him on the floor, his heart having stopped suddenly when he was walking to the bathroom. I didn’t even hear him drop. He left this world as most of us would prefer, quickly and painlessly, leaving me to record the ending in my mind’s eye.

In the aftermath, I had much to do. Preparing a memorial, notifying friends and family, getting financial affairs in order, and probating the will kept me occupied. Within months, most everything was done. Adrift in a sea where no one needed me to do anything, be in any particular place, perform any particular task, I’d lost my moorings. What do I do now?

One doesn’t make plans for their widowhood. First of all, you don’t know when that time will come. Second, it smacks of wishful thinking, which feels a bit unseemly. Then, there’s the difficulty of imagining a single life.  Even more difficult was imagining that I might need help.

That was proven in September that year when I hurt my back and couldn’t leave my bed for several days. No one was around to notice that I had to crawl to the bathroom. Asking for help didn’t occur to me. I was, after all, the one who helped others!

A few weeks after that episode, my son in Los Angeles asked me to temporarily shelter his ex-girlfriend who was moving back to Austin and needed a place to stay until she could get on her feet. I liked her very much and welcomed her to my too-quiet house. I figured she might even bring me food if I landed in bed again! But the real bonus to this arrangement was her ownership of two darling little dogs, Pascal – a Maltese – and Einstein, a mix of Maltese and Chihuahua. Since they didn’t have to go to work during the day like their owner, we became devoted companions.

Of the two, Pascal was the Alpha dog – very bossy. An on-line search of Maltese characteristics revealed that this was a common trait of the breed. In fact, one site said that a Maltese can take over a household if you aren’t careful from the beginning. I learned this too late. He kept me on a tight schedule.

Pascal, alpha dog

Specifically, aside from the periodic calls of nature, there were the morning and evening meal times, not to mention my own meal times when I was expected to set aside a few scraps for him. When it came time to walk, Pascal would position himself close to the door with eyes steadily locked on me, demanding action. In the late evenings, he’d leave his sofa perch and I’d find him laying in the hallway, pointedly waiting for me to announce it was crate time (bedtime). And yet, he’d lose all control and run around in happy circles when he saw me bringing his food or reaching for the leash. I always smiled to see such joy in motion!

Einstein was more easy-going, often just following Pascal’s lead. That said, he had one nasty habit stemming, I think, from his Chihuahua genes. Specifically, he was a bit over-protective, barking at people he saw from street side windows or the delivery people on the other side of the front door. Worse, though, was how that trait manifested when my friends, who were just trying to get on his good side, made the mistake of letting their hands get too close to his teeth.  Yikes!


In short, my roost was ruled by my little boarders. But I was okay with that. Having lived under the rule of a relentless and cruel medical regime, I appreciated the lively reign of these shaggy beings and their wagging tails.

So, I wasn’t actually “alone” on New Year’s Eve 2018. The dogs and I spent it together while their owner went out with friends. I decided to watch the movie “Roma,” which was lengthy and required my attention to read the subtitles. I thought I’d simply watch the movie, put the dogs in their crates, and go to bed early. No countdown, no clinking of glasses, no saying “Happy New Year” to another human being. I’d just power through the night.

But then, fireworks rang out in the neighborhood, way before midnight, and the two little dogs clamored to my side, whimpering, shaking, and shivering. Flat-out terrified! With one hand, I caressed Pascal who had firmly planted himself on my lap; with the other arm, I closely embraced Einstein whose little body was just one big shiver.

We stayed like that, glued together, a threesome of beings in reassuring contact, until midnight passed and the fireworks stopped. The movie was good, I think, and whatever I watched afterwards, I’ve long since forgotten. All I wanted was to help these scared little animals cope with the terror of the night.

They didn’t know it, of course, but they were helping me, too. I was finding my own kind of comfort from patting their furry bodies and keeping them close. It was a strange little miracle of caretaking in my household that night.

In the last few months, both of my sweet canine friends passed over that rainbow bridge, succumbing to health problems that weren’t apparent that year. It’s a sadder world without them, but I’ll long remember that night when three disconcerted souls found comfort with each other in that year’s waning hours. May they rest in peace and live on in the hearts of all of us who loved them.

This year couldn’t be more different than 2018. I consider myself a lucky woman to be ringing in the new year with a wonderful human being who will take care of me if I begin to shiver. And, he may even take me for a walk on New Year’s Day! Life can be sweet with the right companion!  Like running-in-circles sweet with tail a-wagging.

Robin & Jeffee


Here’s to a better 2021 as we say good riddance to 2020! We deserve better.  Take care, be safe, and stay healthy, my friends!

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Thanksgiving’s Cornucopia of Remembrances

Like many Americans, I spent the day of Thanksgiving feeling nostalgic for the customary family and food-filled celebration with my extended family and friends. It’s always been my favorite holiday – simple, straight-forward. People cook, people gather, people eat, drink, and enjoy the fellowship. It’s the one time when we organize a “foodathon” to appreciate the company of the loved ones and friends who populate our lives – and remember those who used to be a part of our celebrations. Food, as the sustenance of life that utilizes all of our senses, is a powerful vehicle for steering us down that memory lane.

Long-time readers may remember a previous post in which I explained how my family expects me to make the same chocolate pudding/pecan/whipped cream dessert every year for Thanksgiving.  Knowing how much they look forward to it, I find reason enough to repeat it year after year (although I could blow their socks off with my dump cake). Before me, my maternal grandmother, Madeline, would bring it to our family celebration after she had retired her chief cook apron and applied herself to desserts. She called it “Angel Delight,” and in my recipe book, it is entitled “Madeline’s Angel Delight,” to be forever associated with her. (Can it be a coincidence that I recently found, among my grandmother’s things, a lock of hair in an envelope with my name on it and the additional words, “Angels Hair?”)

I suppose the dessert (not my angelhood) will be associated with me in the long run. Grandmother died in 1984, so our younger family members never knew her or her cooking. But whoever gets the credit, it brings me pleasure to prepare it (even the crust, which is kind of a pain), because it conjures up memories of being in her kitchen where she stood by the stove, always in 1-2 inch heels. She spent her working life in such shoes and she never gave her calf muscles an opportunity to adjust to flats or going barefoot.

Cooking and feeding others was one of her love languages, which I absorbed and learned at her knee where many of my young years were spent. Few places brought me more comfort than her kitchen as I watched her deftly frying chicken, my most favorite food as a kid. In those days, fried chicken was not easily acquired – there were no Kentucky Fried Chicken or Popeyes franchises, and many restaurants did not serve it. Generally, fried chicken was done at home. My mother disliked cooking in general, and chicken, in particular, so I had to wait for Dallas visits with Grandmother, who made it a point to prepare it for me.

My grandmother was not only a willing cook, but a very good cook in the Southern tradition. Her chicken and dumplings made your mouth start watering, even before they made it to the table! Some might say her green beans were too limp, but I learned to love them that way. (Certain people have insinuated that my green beans are over-cooked and limp. . . to which I say, Bah!) I will never understand barely-steamed green beans that crunch when you bite them and taste like chlorophyll! But I’ll always remember the sound as I snapped the long fresh beans into pieces as I helped in Grandmother’s kitchen, getting them ready for real cookin’.

These days, my sister, cousin, and I alternate the hosting of holiday get-togethers between the three of us. We try, in vain, to replicate the 40-year tradition of gathering at my aunt and uncle’s house on Thanksgiving. It was a rollicking affair with all of our family members and my uncle’s family, which outnumbered ours by about three to one. Just as soon as I learned all my uncle’s cousins’ names, they had hordes of offspring and I had to learn more, or, at least, remember to whom they belonged! While my aunt would make the turkey, dressing, gravy, and bread, she would coordinate with the rest of us to bring desserts, salads, and vegetables, usually the same ones year after year depending on their popularity, e.g., Angel Delight.

Now that my aunt has passed on, one of us often tries to make her dressing, which for us is the gold standard of what good cornbread dressing should be. Invariably, the resulting dressing will become a point of discussion. Did we get it right this time? What does it lack? Too much sage? Generally, however, the dressing appraisal boils down to a single factor: whether it’s too dry or not. Sad to say that those of us who really care about dressing are dwindling. Only two or three of us even remember that it was Grandmother’s dressing before my aunt took over from her.

So many associations and memories are part of Thanksgiving. Among the unforgettable ones was the year I showed up and my uncle expressed his unfiltered disappointment with my apparel. He said, “I was hoping you’d wear that sweater again, the one where your nipples showed through.” My aunt overheard and was, naturally, horrified. But I just laughed to cover a sob with the realization that he was beginning to lose contact with his internal editor. Meanwhile, I’m still pondering which sweater he was remembering so fondly.

This year, my son and daughter-in-law invited me to share Thanksgiving at their home with everyone in masks (even the four-year-old!) and wide-opened windows. It was a first for all of us, but it was very nice. And while it didn’t conjure up a lifetime of associations for me, I felt the love and ties that bind us as family. And that’s plenty to be thankful for.

That will be one of the lessons I’ve learned under the tutelage of this pandemic – how things don’t have to be all or nothing. A nice meal can be as good as a feast. Phone calls can be enough to keep the family ties taut. And the many memories of Thanksgivings pasts and hopes for the ones to come, will sustain us. One thing is certain: none of us will ever take for granted our good fortune when we are able to reunite again.

Looking forward to 2021, I want everyone to be on notice that Angel Delight will make a triumphal return to our Thanksgiving table. And, just maybe, a big bowl of limp green beans to feed our ever-lovin’ southern souls.



Posted in Great Lessons, Memories, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

I Want a Senator who Stands with Women

During a recent coronavirus briefing, Donald Trump gave a shout-out to Ghislaine Maxwell, wishing her well, as she sits in jail, charged with procuring young girls for a sex-trafficking ring, grooming them to be raped by influential men. “Why, why,” I hear decent people asking, “is Trump still this country’s president?”

The answer is simple. He’s supported by Republicans, both men, and, sadly, women. Some of these Rs are U.S. Senators, and earlier this year, these senators (with the Romney exception) couldn’t find their way to remove this president after he tried to obtain election dirt on Joe Biden, his most-feared rival, by bribing the Ukranian president. As if this were perfectly acceptable for a U.S. President to do! No doubt, they wouldn’t vote to remove him if he shot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue.

Sadly, two of Trump’s most devoted enablers are from Texas, a state that in modern times elected men of principles at least twice – Lloyd Bentsen and Ralph Yarborough. And let’s go ahead and count L.B.J. as a third, despite the Ballot Box 13 incident. Now, Texas is represented by a couple of Trumpist toadies, one who is incurably obnoxious, the other, a bit more measured (which is probably more dangerous).

Ralph Yarborough

Lloyd Bentsen

The obnoxious one is Ted Cruz, of course, whose name will appear in the thesaurus as a synonym for that adjective one of these days. But I never expected Ted Cruz to be anything but a slimy, self-promoting weasel. During our coinciding stints of employment at the Texas Attorney General’s office, I can’t recall that a single positive thing was ever said about him, just many negative ones.

John Cornyn was another matter. As Attorney General, he seemed like a decent person, even if I didn’t agree with every policy and legal position. Many of the other assistant attorneys general agreed, finding him to be a Republican who hadn’t swallowed the Kool-Aid of rabid, knee-jerk partisanship. But, as Senator, he proved himself as a chameleon who became as power-hungry as so many other Republicans in Washington. Upon arrival, he didn’t just drink the Kool-Aid, he started chugging it.

As anyone who has been a regular voter understands, buyer’s remorse often sets in after a period of performance that fails to meet expectations. John Cornyn’s lapdog performance, standing next to Mitch McConnell, grinning and nodding while in support of Trump and his heartless policies, should be particularly distasteful for many buyers, especially considering that everyone thought he looked oh-so senatorial.

My opinion as a Democrat may not count, but I’m beyond ashamed by his political representation. Moreover, in the wake of the death of my own father, who never gave me cause to be embarrassed, I’ve often thought about the feelings of daughters with fathers who support this molester-in-chief. If I were one of John Cornyn’s daughters, I would be mortified to see him standing in front of the world voicing support for – or even tacitly supporting – a man who bragged about grabbing a woman’s genitals, as if they were playthings for his personal enjoyment. Few men get a national stage to be their daughter’s hero and tell the world that such behavior is despicable and no man should be “handling” anyone’s daughters. John Cornyn missed that opportunity. Instead, he stands shoulder-to-shoulder with a man who admits that he’d like to date his own daughter.

I also feel sorry for John Cornyn’s wife. Many of the same reasons apply. My husband’s embrace of Donald Trump would make me wonder who I’d been embracing during our long marriage. Every day I’d be wondering how he had surrendered the principles he seemingly lived by as a judge and Attorney General to serve as a yes-man for Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, two men lacking any empathy or respect for the norms of fair play and decency. Living with a spineless spouse who supports a man who admittedly assaults women would be revolting.

And, I am saddened to think how being his mother would feel. It’s in a mother’s arms and at her knee that a man learns about unconditional love, good and bad, what makes a woman cry, what brings her joy. Often, her pride in him is the sole factor giving him the confidence to go out, take his place in society, and do well while doing good. Most sons seek to justify that pride. I imagine her disappointment as her once-commendable son shredded any patina of decency, supporting the head of a criminal enterprise, molester of women, and friend of sex traffickers (Jeffrey Epstein and Maxwell). I can imagine her sadly thinking, wherever she may be, “That’s not the son I raised.”

During this era of Trumpification, many of us toss and turn in our sleep, but it’s a wonder that John Cornyn can sleep at all, having thrown out his pride and that of his family’s and constituents like ballast from the little boat carrying him on his power-trip. Also tossed overboard are this country’s norms, institutions, and respectability in the world of nations.

If only we could elect Cornyn’s November election challenger, Mary Jennings (“MJ”) Hegar, an Air Force combat veteran and recipient of the Purple Heart, a daughter, a wife, and a mother.

She could help us wake up and recover from this national nightmare. She would have the guts to call out a man who assaults and disparages women, no matter what his position. And let me throw this out: she’d be one of the last people to allow Vladimir Putin to influence our election or put bounties on our soldiers’ heads. In short, instead of simpering in some corner trying to win favor with political masters, MJ has the balls to stand up and say, “No way!”

I will not insult all the good and decent men in this world by making some caustic comment suggesting that only women can right the wrongs of this world. But when our Senator is a man who can’t even lift up his own rifle at those wrongs, we need to give a strong woman our votes. Undoubtedly, MJ Hegar is better equipped to serve as our Senator than either of the men currently serving themselves in Washington.

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The Scars and Detours of this Pandemic

Yesterday, as I traveled down one of Austin’s neighborhood streets that does double duty as an east-west thoroughfare, I impulsively detoured from my route home. Some quirk of the mind summoned me to deviate a few blocks south to pass by a house my family occupied for a number of years after moving from Northeast Austin. From there, I decided to retrace the steps I took on my daily walk to Bryker Woods Elementary School where I attended the second semester of sixth grade, having moved in the middle of the school year.

The detour, in essence, was a trip down memory lane, or at least, an attempt to see what actual memories still remained along that lane. At the former residence, I noted that much was the same except for new windows partially installed and a proliferating landscape. Along the route to school, I vaguely recalled that I made my younger sister walk some distance behind me. Could I really have been so mean?

In vain, I strived to find familiar sights. I tried remembering what that sixth grader was thinking as she trudged along the street followed by her third-grade sister at a distance between “too close” and “not too far.” Was she dreading the day ahead thinking about the new friends she was slow to make and missing her old friends, her Girl Scout troop, and the school she had attended for over five years? Did she notice the irony that the name of the street she walked and the school she missed was the same? Harris. Was she wishing she didn’t wear glasses, had prettier hair, owned cooler clothes?

As I struggled mightily to reconnect with my younger self, I realized that this sudden nostalgia was an aspect of pandemic thinking. Many of us in isolation, no doubt, do more than take our temperatures and test our ability to hold our breaths for ten seconds. With so much time coupled with fear, I often find myself in these reflective moods, seeking keys to who I was and who I am now, pulling at existential threads, pondering my mortality, and wondering why we need bucket lists when the best thing in the world is just waking up healthy and hugging a loved one.

So my desire to reconnect continued as I surveyed the elementary school grounds that, of course, had appeared so much bigger in my memory. I noticed that portable buildings occupied the area of the kickball diamond where we used to play during recess. Strangely, I sensed my younger self the strongest on that missing playground. Waiting her turn to kick, she felt painfully self-conscious and awkward, hyper-aware of her failure to fit in with these girls.

In my mind’s eye, I could still see Ellen, one of my classmates, who was always the pitcher (for some reason) in the field’s center where she’d do a little dance as she sang, “There she was just a walkin’ down the street,” before she moved forward and let the ball unroll from her arm. I had a girl crush on this natural beauty – tall, thin, and blond with an animated personality. In short, she seemed everything I was not.

In comparison to Ellen’s coolness, my younger self was somewhat nerdy (had that word existed), overly serious, and inhibited. She no longer sensed the existence of that extroverted young girl who had lived in that northeast Austin neighborhood surrounded by friends, enjoying all kinds of play and activities. The result  was that after a couple of years of relatively loneliness, she turned inward — surrendering that free-spirited self of her past.  She developed coping skills —  pretending that she was someone who was liked and fit in. Eventually, she began to believe in her act and was able to reanimate at least part of her authentic self.

But, unlike the children living through this pandemic, she wasn’t scarred by having to deal with a brand new world with life or death in the balance. She was not closeted away from others, from grandparents, the library, or the parks. She was not taught to fear contact with others – it would be many years until the “stranger danger” mentality needed to be taught.

I fear to think how plague-thinking will impact the children today, living in isolation with only parents and other siblings, feeling the world they knew dismantling piece by piece. Where does a third-grader, like my sweet grandson, find the psychological clutch to downshift into this smaller world without stalling or ruining the transmission altogether? Will these children be able to recover from this detour from their childhood, regain their footing and trust the world again?

We have to ask these questions because this is a crisis like no other in recent memory. It’s different because it’s so all-encompassing – not just a hurricane on the coast or even the World Trade Center attack on 9/11 in New York. “No, this affects all of us and all the things closest to us: our health and safety, our children and parents, our ability to move freely and sleep soundly, our ability to go to work and send our children to school,” says Charles Blow in his New York Times opinion column. And unfortunately, he notes, we have a president who can’t be trusted to show a modicum of competence, or the ability to at least partially quell our unease and foreboding.  Trump’s handling of this episode guarantees that fear and panic generated by this pandemic will leave scars etched in the American psyche.

This makes sense to me. I know about scars, although mine are relatively small and personal, especially when compared to those chiseled by the Great Depression and the polio, tuberculosis, and other health epidemics. But, indeed, this experience and the alchemy of loss, loneliness, and fear will create wounds that will stain our days long after the pandemic ends. As we are whipsawed around on this leaderless train, all we can do is hold on … hold on to our sanity, keep up social distancing, hug our children close, and hold on to our belief in a light at the end of the tunnel. Safe travels, my friends.

The kickball pitcher, Ellen, and I reconnected years later as adults and she became one of my best friends. May she rest in peace.  Ellen Roberta Bradley, June 5, 1953 — January 21, 2016.



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Love in the Time of Coronavirus

If there is one thing I’ve discovered during this pandemic, it’s that we love our toilet paper. In fact, for those of us lucky enough to survive this (please stay home, folks), I believe that the enduring symbol of these times won’t be the social isolation, grocery store swarms, or the incoherent ramblings of our Commander in Chaos. No, I think it will be the lowly, unassuming roll of toilet paper.

Like so many of us, I have had a long and personal relationship with toilet paper. And yet, I’ve never given it the love it deserves for its contribution to my quality of life. As one of those things I’ve always had access to, it’s been easy to take it for granted. After a recent scare involving our water supply thanks to zebra mussels, I often marvel at the miracle of being able to summon potable water from my faucets, but I haven’t been similarly appreciative of toilet paper.

Even while camping as a Girl Scout, toilet paper was always available. We might have built latrines – digging big holes and lashing together poles to fashion a primitive tripod with a seat (because we weren’t up for squatting). But we always brought toilet paper – no making do with leaves or other primitive modes of getting the job done.

Then, there were the days as teenage girls when we literally wasted toilet paper, getting together to “paper” a guy’s house, or better said, his parent’s house. We’d get rolls of toilet paper and in the dark of night, throw them up in the tree branches to create looping streamers when the roll fell back.  What better way to let the young object of our affection know that some girls had a big crush on him? Waste a few rolls of toilet paper was the answer we came up with! Of course, today I think of the clean-up required and wince at our thoughtlessness (juvenile delinquency). But, it was a thing back then.

When I lived in Peru – I actually gave toilet paper a passing thought. But it wasn’t the lack of it, rather its disturbing characteristics, being only slightly softer than tissue paper and colored in a strange magenta hue. The good thing, however, was that houses generally came with bidets, so the uncivilized toilet paper could usually be eschewed in favor of the very civilized washing facilities. After 18 months of residence in the country, the bidet was the one thing I wanted to bring with me back to Texas, even where the toilet paper was high quality. Remember when we needed Mr. Whipple to remind us not to get overwhelmed by the softness of the Charmin in his grocery store?

So, this pandemic has forced me to contemplate what might happen if we were to run out of toilet paper. I’ve heard recent stories of people cutting up t-shirts, using them as toilet paper, flushing them down the toilet, and thereby clogging up sewer lines. Just. Don’t. Go. There. I have a friend who is contemplating some kind of rag solution, but is smart enough not to risk clogging up the system. Instead, he is toying with the idea of disposing the used ones in a pail like we used in the BDD days – before disposable diapers. If you had babies back then, you’ll undoubtedly remember the diaper pail, a lidded container with water and Pine Sol for tossing soiled diapers until it was time to run them through the washing machine.  You knew it was time when, upon opening, the wafting fragrance was more toilet bowl than pine forest.

But it’s nice to see how this love for toilet paper is bringing us closer to our friends and neighbors as we share in this looming crisis. On Next Door, one of my southwest Austin neighbors has written that he could show us how to use only one square of toilet paper at a time. Thankfully, he decided not to post the video, but I feel he would probably share it in a private message if asked. That alone brings us closer.

Similarly, as a public characterized by political divisiveness, it’s refreshing to find one thing we can all agree on.  We are a people divided into carnivores vs. vegetarians, MAGA hat owners vs. Obama lovers, dog vs. cat lovers, vaccinated vs. unvaccinated, Apple vs. Windows users, but we can ALL agree that toilet paper is a good thing.  Of course, we may have differences in preferred brands, but ultimately, when the need exists, the brand is negotiable.

And, by the way, we probably shouldn’t blame our neighbors for hoarding and, thereby, creating this shortage.  I urge you to read the explanation for the shortage as detailed in this article from Medium.

Basically, it explains that factories are hindered on the production end by the sudden shift from businesses and schools needing large amounts of industrial toilet paper on those big spools to residential consumers needing paper in little rolls, which works much better in our bathrooms. So there’s a mismatch of supply and demand for the two products, exacerbated by the fact that few factories make both types. The good news is we can go back to loving our neighbors; bad news, the mismatch isn’t easy to fix.

Right now, I’m glad that my bathroom is well-stocked with toilet paper. After all, I’m pretty much alone here so the metrics of my usage are pretty low. That said, I drink a lot of liquid, some to stay awake, some to quell my rising panic. But even if I were to run out, let me show you the one roll I will not use:

Preserving this roll is very important because it’s simply too wonderful to finally see Donald Trump’s visage somewhere that makes sense. Feel free to download my picture for your screensavers. After all, we need to take our pleasures wherever we can find them these days. Stay safe, my friends!

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The Unpardonable Occupant of our White House

On February 18, 2020, the current occupant of our White House, Donald Trump, granted clemency to eleven individuals who – except for two drug offenders – had been convicted of crimes involving fraud, bribery, tax evasion and other sorts of corruption. You know, the best kind of crimes, as I’m sure Trump and his history would confirm. (The only one he might like better is an assault on women’s genitalia.)

I’m not saying Individual 1 didn’t have the right to issue those pardons and commutations. The president’s power in this regard is what they call “unfettered.” Even so, most Americans expect some kind of fettering by a deliberative review process that includes the Department of Justice, the Pardon Attorney, and others in the executive branch.

Needless to say, since it’s Trump we’re talking about, none of that happened here. All eleven recipients had an inside connection or were promoted on Fox News. Some were vocal Trump supporters, campaign contributors, or, in one case, had a son who partied with Donald Jr. Connections is the name of the game with Trump.

As for names, Trump granted relief to Bernard B. Kerik, a long-time friend, Edward DeBartolo, former 49er’s football team owner who hosted a pre-inauguration party, Rod Blagojevich, former Illinois governor and onetime “Celebrity Apprentice” contestant, and the infamous investor Mike Millken, championed both by Rudy Giuliani, and the billionaire who hosted a recent $10 million Trump fund-raiser. Even three obscure women serving time on drug or fraud charges received pardons based on the recommendation of Alice Marie Johnson. Remember Ms. Johnson? She was pardoned by Trump in 2018 after Kim Kardashian West spoke to Trump on her behalf. Ms. Johnson served here as a “pardon whisperer,” some have said.

No, the normal pardons process wasn’t even considered by Trump, the man who claims to know everything. It doesn’t matter that groups of Americans were harmed by their crimes and might look askance at their escape from the consequences.

I can’t think of a better contrast to Trump’s approach to the clemency process than President Obama’s Clemency Initiative, ensuing from his keen and oft-stated interest in criminal justice reform. By the end of his term and the initiative, Obama had granted commuted sentences to 1,705 prisoners serving extremely long sentences compared to today’s standards, mostly for drug crimes. In fact, half of all federal inmates are drug offenders. And, of course, they are mostly poor and/or minorities.

But what really differentiates Obama’s approach to clemency compared to Trump’s is the process. First and foremost, none of these individuals had connections or high-profile champions. Instead, the inmates needed to file petitions for commutation or a reduced sentence. The Office of the Pardon Attorney and others in the Department of Justice then reviewed those petitions based on the following criteria, requiring that inmates:

1) be serving a sentence that would have been substantially lower if convicted of the same offense(s) today;
2) be a non-violent, low-level offender without significant ties to large scale criminal organizations, gangs or cartels
3) have served at least 10 years of their prison sentence;
4) have no criminal history;
5) have demonstrated good conduct in prison; and,
6) have no history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment.

Based on these criteria, the Department of Justice was able to provide 16,776 recommendations to the White House, including all of those serving life sentences for drug offenses by the end of Obama’s term in January 2017.

This remarkable number was achieved through the efforts of many individuals both in and outside of government. Because tens of thousands of prisoners could be eligible, non-governmental agencies and private attorneys were asked to help with the Clemency Project 2014, as it was called, to find and present the best cases. Their efforts would be pro bono (unpaid).

Responding to this request were the Criminal Justice Section of the American Bar Association, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Federal Defenders, the ACLU, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums, as well as individuals active within those organizations and other lawyers wishing to participate. Ultimately, 4,000 volunteers found this project worthy of their unpaid time. Altogether, they processed 36,000 applications and represented 894 of the total 1,705 inmates whose sentences were commuted by President Obama. The American Bar Association believes that this might be the largest pro bono project in American history.

At the receiving end of these petitions and recommendations was W. Neil Eggleston, then White House counsel whose objective was to make a recommendation to President Obama on every petition. This became an increasingly pressing goal near the end of Obama’s presidency, when petitions increased dramatically. Accordingly, Eggleston’s own staff – which was normally involved in selecting judges – was freed up to help in the administration’s waning months. Additionally, lawyers elsewhere in the White House volunteered, even though it meant working nights and weekends. “I think this project was enormously rewarding for the lawyers in the White House,” Eggleston has said, noting that many thanked him for the opportunity to participate.

The most committed to the cause was, of course, the highest-ranking attorney in the White House, President Obama. He would call Eggleston to his office to debate the details of individual petitions and, during his busy last week as president, Obama made time to review and grant 540 commutations.

In regard to the President’s commitment, Eggleston tells about the occasion in April 2016, when seven clemency recipients (some from past administrations) visited the White House. They had been invited to speak with staff about their experiences after prison and how to improve the justice system. Around noon, however, Obama walked into the room and invited them all to lunch. Over an hour or so, he heard their stories. Explaining that an hour is a huge amount of time for the president of the United States, Eggleston told an interviewer, “He cared a lot personally about this project.”

Like all of our greatest presidents, Obama is a decent man who brought compassion, principle, humanity, and a sense of justice to the presidency. His clemency project is just one example. And while it was intended to benefit the 1,705 inmates who received the commuted sentences, there is no doubt that the attorneys and volunteers involved will long remember the parts they played in this effort. After all, how often in life do you get the chance to make such an enormous difference, not only in the lives of men and women, but also in affirming the hallmark value of our country – justice for all?

Sadly, Donald Trump would never understand this. His shortcomings as a leader of this country are, of course, well known by now. He is nothing more than an uncouth hustler who conned his way into the White House. As he pardons his friends and his friends’ friends, he continues to show how unworthy he is.

Trump is America’s unpardonable president. May we never repeat this mistake.


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The Antivenom for Trumpian Times

Generally, I score optimistic on the life-outlook meter. But after three years of the orange madman helming our mothership, it’s hard to whip up even a soupcon of positivity. As we whirl around the sun at Trumpian whim, anything seems possible – and all of it negative.

Like most of us, I feel powerless on this carnival ride. I worry about nuclear North Korea and World War III breaking out in the Middle East.  But if Jared can’t fix it, who can?  I guarantee you, the Ayatollah isn’t taking my phone calls.

It doesn’t help that our public discourse has taken on the aspects of toxic sewage slime. The blame for this lies, partly, with talk radio and social media sites that have emboldened people to abandon civilized dialog and spew their pugilistic, profanity-laden tribal passions. But even more blame should be heaped at the feet of our madman-in-chief who takes pleasure in whipping up the hate, racism, and the general godawfulness that his devotees used to keep among themselves.

If only there were an antidote to snark, a neutralizer of artistry and grace that would celebrate community and feed our souls. It may sound crazy, but could infusions of poetry provide us some immunity against despair?

This possibility occurred to me after reading a blurb by Austin poet, Robin Cravey – written long before the Trump regime and these seasons of our discontent. On the back cover of his book, Diverging, he writes,

A culture lost between aimless materialism and empty religion is one failed by its poets. Human culture is self-awareness in the universe. Poetry is self-awareness in culture. Poetry is also universal awareness in the self. It closes the circle.

Robin Cravey

You may wonder, perhaps, what happens when this circle is closed? I wondered, too. Could it be a cessation of angst and the existential fears that render us incomplete, anxious, and susceptible to fear-based intolerance?

In fact, I had been reading more poetry after a presenter at a summer writing retreat had made a strong case for it improving our prose. I tried it at bedtime and almost immediately noticed my awareness shifting away from the potholes of daily life. By  simile, metaphor, meter, assonance, and alliteration, a new lens was focusing me on the marvels of life, the emotional responses to wonder, and our shared tenancy on the planet with all its living creatures. Even brief poetic immersion induced a sense gratitude and reverence that I don’t often experience without a magnificent sunset involved. Might that work for others? Could we begin tweeting, if tweet we must, in the key of Awe?

Wimberley 2013

Closing the circle also suggested a reconnection with our earliest selves who were fed a steady diet of rhythm and verse along with mother’s milk. Rock-a-bye, baby, soothed us, Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man… , called us to play, and Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle . . .  delighted our budding imaginations. Did we wonder why everything didn’t rhyme like Jack and Jill going up a hill or Little Miss Muffet sitting on her tuffet? Only the most precocious among us cared what a tuffet might be – it was enough that it rhymed with Muffet.

Then our young minds moved on from the nursery with an owl and a pussycat who went to sea . . . and danced by the light of the moon. Dr. Seuss was a perennial friend. With misty eyes we might have read Poe’s Annabel Lee, the maiden who “. . . lived with no other thought than to love and be loved by me.” Or we might have thrilled to Rudyard Kipling’s manly verse, Gunga Din, or Robert Service’s Yukon foray in The Cremation of Sam McGee. In English classes, we found Emily Dickinson contemplating Death stopping by and Robert Frost stopping in the woods with miles to go before he slept.

But, soon thereafter, many of us abandoned poetry – maybe we wanted it to be rhymed instead of metered. Free verse was hard to embrace because aside from O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo? it didn’t enchant us or whet our appetite for more. Eliot’s Waste Land and Joyce’s Ulysses, seemingly written in Enigma code, frustrated us.

We are older and wiser now, and, no doubt, hungrier for connection, be it with the universe or our inner selves. No spoiler alert here: we won’t find it on Twitter and Facebook. Might we return to our early love of verse and discover kindred spirits in the images and expressions of the universal so intricately wrought by the likes of Mary Oliver, Walt Whitman, and H.W. Longfellow, to name a few? Is poetry really dead to us?

Some contend that poetry is alive and well because we have rap music. But rap songs are not pieces of great artistry for the simple reason that they are not written to be. Rather, the words merely serve an external beat. While the lyrics possess musicality (repetition, assonance, alliteration), that musicality is incomplete without the beat and notes of the music.

And when was the last time your spirit soared to rap song? Compare Tupac’s verse (“If you make it through the night, there’s a brighter day/everything will be alright if ya hold on …”) to Maya Angelou’s poem that we heard her intone at President Clinton’s inauguration:

The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of change.
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out and upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here, on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope –
Good morning.

Maya Angelou

Such words inspire and remind us that we are not adrift, stranded in a morass of our primitive and most brutish natures. We are beings who have courage, grace, and hope. We co-exist with our brother- and sister-travelers, sharing the same existential reality, its inherent fears, and our need for hope and compassion. Cravey sums it up in the last stanza of “Kinship,” a poem from Diverging:

I feel therefore I am
kin to every feeling being
I love therefore I am
committed to speak up against hate
I act therefore I am
free to change the world
I am therefore I believe
every living one has the right to be

During the last 1,111 days, I’ve often felt less kin and more stranger in my own land, a refugee from the state of decency, occupying a territory governed by divisiveness. I need more than just another story of murders and detectives to take residence in my head.  I’ve found that poetry has the power to transport my awareness to another level of existence, where labels like democrats, republicans, socialists, and concepts like racism, hypocrisy, and bigotry are meaningless. In this heightened state, I find hope . . . hope for a restoration of our country’s ideals, hope for a healthier planet, and hope for the rediscovery of civility as the guiding principle of our discourse. So, Ms. Oliver, Mr. Frost, Mr Auden, Ms. Alexander, be my bedfellows, stir my soul with your words and help me face, with hope, the miles to go before I sleep.

Hey, diddle diddle . . . let’s take the antivenom, let’s close the circle.

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An Ode to the Symphony

Living through the debacle of the Trump presidency, I imagine that I share with others the sense of dread that greets my mornings. With the help of my snooze button, I manage to avoid wakefulness a few times, but eventually I force myself to concentrate on the broadcast from the NPR-tuned clock radio. It’s a good sign when I hear conversation about a movie or book, or maybe an interview with a presidential candidate, all indicators that Trump didn’t start World War III while I was sleeping. I’ve found myself relating to Maureen Dowd, one of my favorite political columnists, who reports girding herself every morning for the latest vitriol coming from the White House, her energy sapped before she even gets out of bed.

Many friends have suggested that I would feel better if I just cut down on news consumption. But I am compelled to check on the travesty du jour because I worry about the raging narcissist with nuclear codes and abuser of small children who follow their parents despite Donald Trump’s personal preferences. As Mayor Pete Buttigieg says, “It is the nature of grotesque things that you can’t look away.”

Which brings me to my soul yearning for escape and the sweet solace of the symphony. Before the music even begins, I forget our national nightmare, finding myself calmed by the sight of six dozen or so musicians, after their tuning session, sitting immobile on stage at the ready for their signal to break into motion.  The thousand or so audience members are settling in and chatting softly. But, as lights dim, they, too, fall still into a profound silence – the hall is preternaturally quiet with nary the ping of a cell phone, the whine of a child, or even a whispered word. Here, in the Dell Concert Hall in Austin, Texas, a city renown as the allergy capital of the world, no one sneezes, coughs, or even clears a throat. I savor these wondrous few moments infused with both serenity and anticipation.

When a smiling man with floppy black hair and glasses strides in from stage right, looking more like Harry Potter than Leonard Bernstein, the silence is broken sharply by applause as instantaneous as glass shattering on concrete. Maestro Peter Bay steps up to the conductor’s podium acknowledging the audience with a brief bow. The silence returns as he lifts his baton and with one precise flick of the wrist starts the music that will suffuse our ears and lives for the rest of the evening.

At one recent performance, the concert began with the William Tell Overture by Gioachino Rossini.  I’ll venture to say that all audience members are familiar with at least the last three minutes of this overture, having grown up watching the Lone Ranger astride his horse, Silver, galloping across our television screens to its accompaniment. But the magnificence of this musical piece never shines as brightly as it does when played by a full orchestra flooding a hall with near-perfect acoustics, the instruments in perfect balance, tugging at our collective consciousness and spurring on our passions. As the horns pump energy into the melody, the strings play furiously, reined in only by the magic baton. Adrenaline courses through our veins as our spirits soar, transported to another level of awareness beyond our anxieties and earthly concerns. We want it to continue – to ride ever faster on our stage-bound steeds!

And yet, the last note must be played. Its airy life has barely died when the audience explodes like a champagne cork, excitement no longer containable. Minutes of sustained applause are required before we can gather ourselves and get our bodies seated and stilled again. After another respectful bow, Maestro Bay leaves the stage.

We wait for the next item on the program – a Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4 in D Major K. 218 featuring visiting soloist, William Hagen described as a “brilliant virtuoso,” in a quote from the bio printed in our programs. Notably, he would be performing on the 1732 Arkwright Lady Rebecca Sylvan Stradivarius.

And so, Maestro Bay returns to the stage with Mr. Hagen and the precious violin. Ascending the conductor’s podium, Bay takes his baton and begins the process of weaving together his musicians, the soloist, and the sound from one of the world’s 600 Stradivarii into the blissful musical tapestry that Mozart intended.

Maybe I was merely in the throes of musical emotionalism, but at times I felt far away from where my body sat – I seemed to be floating within the collective awareness of millions who had listened to this concerto across the world during the almost 250 years since its inception. Periodically, the Italian craftsman, Antonio Stradivari, would come to mind.  Did he ever imagine that audiences in a country that was barely discovered when he lived would be enthralled by his craftsmanship 300 years later!  Could Mozart and Stradivari ever have dreamt about their places in the cultural soul of Western Civilization?

Granted, classical music is considered classic because it has stood the test of time, because true genius doesn’t lose its currency with each new generation. But there’s something else about it – the way its melodies and motifs embrace and transport us to another dimension  where there are no political parties, concentration camps, wars, divisions between people because of their origins, skin color, religious preferences, or who they love.

Yesterday, on July 4th, the Austin Symphony Orchestra, along with orchestras all over this country, performed the 1812 Overture while audiences tingled to the sounds of cannon fire at the music’s climactic end. Did anyone complain that it was written by a Russian composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, to commemorate Russia’s successful defense against the Napoleonic invasion in 1812?  Did anyone complain that it’s an un-American piece of music?

Chances are that no one complained.  The 1812 Overture was played right along with the Stars and Stripes Forever, because despite its national origins, it’s become American, just like The Star-Spangled Banner (set to the tune of an old English drinking song) and My Country ‘Tis of Thee (sang to the tune of God Save the Queen, the British National Anthem).

When we applaud for our orchestra performers, we are commending them for more than a job well done. We cheer them for their devoted care-taking of a timeless and all-embracing musical heritage and for their ability to reset – in 90 minutes – the rhythm of our lives from a 24-hour news cycle to a flow of centuries.

In these days, when we are bedeviled by a leader whose goal in life is to win the day’s news cycle with an emphasis on discord and aberration, we need more harmony and artistry to sooth our increasingly tired and troubled souls. Here in Austin, I urge you to support the Austin Symphony Orchestra, the Austin Civic Orchestra, and the Austin Symphonic Band, so they can continue to support us. As long as they perform and this music survives, I can continue believing that so shall we.

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