12/2/05-Fri.-We have pretty well settled in again after our trip. Fran is doing her city park volunteer activities again, as well as going on other outings. Today, for instance, she drove to an acreage to the southwest of us, where she can talk about nature with the lady that runs the place and where there are oodles of butterflies, spiders, misc. insect subjects, and other wildlife to observe and photograph. Frances is also practicing her instrument playing, to get in shape again before the next opera rehearsals begin.
I resume my library work tomorrow morning. Yesterday I got caught up on some investing research with which I've been keeping tabs.
For one reason or another, we've been staying up late but not napping much lately and are often rather tired. So, we were already a little frayed around the edges when we went out to eat for a late lunch today, and were disconcerted first by an accident in which we were almost participants, then by poor service at the restaurant, and finally by an actual fender-bender on our way home (not involving us) that resulted in a big tie-up of traffic, so that we got home later than expected.
Still, overall things are going well. On a walk the other morning, Fran obtained an intact skeleton of a snake approximately five feet in length. Soon afterward, on another walk, I found and brought home for Fran's extensive "museum" type collection, a relatively fresh carcass of a screech owl still in good shape (except that it was dead!), apparently hit by a car.
I've begun the interesting and fun processing of my own accumulation of trip pictures, ones of Linda, Fran, and Puff as well as of many natural settings, plus photos of snakes, birds, fish, foxes, alligators, bears, giraffes, turtles, monkeys, and so forth.
And tonight is my favorite one of the week for TV viewing, when I catch up, on PBS, with what has been occurring financially and politically over the past several days. I am a real news analysis junkie!
The dog, as always, is keeping both of us entertained and often laughing. Last evening, for instance, she was rolling a ball around the room to us while also flipping a large furry mitten. Puff tossed the mitten over the ball without realizing it, and then ran all over, frenetically looking for the ball she'd just hidden, literally right under her nose.
12/11/05-Sun.-Time slips by while we're having so much fun. The most entertainment we've had in the last few days was going out with our friends, Glenda and Matt, to belatedly celebrate my birthday. We had dinner at a favorite Indian restaurant last Wednesday.
As it happened, besides the camaraderie, there was excitement due to the weather. Austin was experiencing its worst ice storm in about two years. We wound up scraping lots of the shiny cold stuff off windshields and other windows before we could head homeward. Then, we almost got caught in a massive traffic tie-up as hundreds or thousands of motorists were trapped for awhile on southbound Mopac, as well as much of I35 and the Ben White speedway. The upper levels were by then like skating rinks. Hundreds of accidents occurred in a short period. We got off Mopac just before becoming part of the huge vehicle jam, then took smaller traffic arteries back home. When we got close to the intersection at Brodie and the westbound access road for the Ben White speedway, we nearly went under an overturned 18-wheeler tanker truck. It was partly on the raised roadway and partly hanging over the Ben White railing, just above us. Rather dramatic.
Icy road conditions persisted much of Thursday as well. The majority of government offices and schools throughout the metroplex were closed then. Temperatures got down into the low 20s (F), with a wind-chill considerably lower, two nights in a row.
Of course, our rare experiences of cold weather are just pleasant, brief adventures, for those like us, snug in warm buildings. I ventured out a couple times with the mutt for walks in the neighborhood, but it was too frosty for me to be comfortable even with most of my winter gear on, so such excursions were kept relatively short.
I'm thinking now that, before our planned trip north to WI in February, we ought to get some skiing clothes or at least better outer garments than we now have. Fran dismisses this, saying she'll simply make do with what she has, but I do not believe that will hack it for her up there.
While we were for a day or two having temperatures around ten degrees below freezing, Trudy, Frances' sister, and her family, living on a farm in WI, were reporting strong winds and temperatures at or below zero. And this is about 2-3 weeks before winter even begins, according to the calendar. BRRRRRR!
At about the same time that our thermostat was going its lowest so far this season, Fran noticed a leak in the garage. I feared the worst, a frozen and broken pipe in the foundation. I had put a space heater, turned on but low, in the area the second cold night, but had thought things would be OK earlier, as we'd just driven home late the night before, and the warm car engine should have kept the garage temperature a little above freezing.
It turned out a faucet we do not even use, one of the laundry washer connections, for which we never got around to buying an appliance (always doing our washing and drying in a Laundromat), was turned on a little. Who knows how or why? Fran speculated it was because we'd been moving things around in the garage and may have somehow pushed against the faucet handle enough to release the flow. I did not think either of us had been doing enough out there to open it up. In any case, there is a set of shelves in front of it, and there was no indication at all that it had even been moved. It is all speculation, but I supposed perhaps water in a small part of the pipe leading to the faucet had frozen, the rest of the liquid thus being forced into the faucet mechanism by the expansion, and that it had been close enough to being open already that with that extra pressure the valve released.
Whatever! We are both quite glad the pipe itself did not break. However, enough water came out and down, inside and outside of the wall adjoining our master bedroom, that there was residual moisture, both in the garage and inside the house itself.
The problem appears to have been easily resolved, however. We left a strong fan on the small area of dampness in the bedroom. The equivalent area in the garage dried by itself after we had capped the faucet. We capped the other as well, next to the leaking one, to be cautious.
Am enjoying reading Five Days in May 1940, by historian John Lukacs, about his view that the crucial period in question, that year, made the difference in whether the Axis powers or the Allies won World War II (at least in Europe), and hence if totalitarian states or democracies (and western civilization) would ultimately dominate the world.
My library activities continue. Going over there begins to seem pretty routine.
This weekend, we finished getting our Christmas cards and most of the to-be-mailed gifts ready to send out.
Today, I mowed a vast pile of fallen leaves into a fine mulch that was dispersed over the backyard.
Tonight, I called my brother, Pete, and we chatted for nearly an hour and a half. Things seem about the same for him.
Per an e-mail from my sister, Alice, the challenging medical ordeal of 11/14, an evaluation in connection with an abnormal growth on her pituitary, was a mixed blessing. The results showed her enzymes to be normal. That did not validate the anxious suffering she had been experiencing, so she was upset over the outcome. I gather that whatever treatment she has been on has been working. But, with Alice as tense and histrionic as she gets around needles, it had taken four nurses over two hours to get the IVs started.
Tomorrow, it is laundry time for us again, plus my next library session.
The excitement continues!
12/16/05-Fri.-Arguably, if the Democratic Party is ever again to be a viable option, relevant to the ongoing realities of the new century, it will have to come together around key issues meaningful to a majority of the electorate and addressing of legitimate, primary, national points of concern. There is no sign of its doing so to date.
And it should not be too easy. What is needed is not something that can be accomplished in a glib, shallow fashion, simply with the right speech writers and ad campaign, but a comprehensive alternative to the Republican juggernaut, one forged through the long-term rough and tumble of grass roots and national political competitions.
As such, we would expect, whether or not the Democrats win a few congressional seats in 2006 or, against the odds, the presidency in 2008, this new party will not be achieved in just a few years. The old party is still divided and in disarray over a year after its weak 2004 bid for the highest office.
Yet the American electoral process is a crucible that must grind down to its essentials all serious choices before there may, with the right political chemistry, arise from at least one of them a weighty contender who, to mix metaphors, has legs and can carry her or his party into true, lasting power, while providing the country with a new direction consistent with the challenges facing us all.
The Republicans, since the early 1990s, have "caught the wave" and are now an entrenched force with which we must vie, willy-nilly, indefinitely into the future. It may take the Democrats another decade or two, or even more, to regain the initiative to that degree.
Until then, the American tragedy is that at present neither party truly is speaking to our nation's most crucial needs: better, cost-effective health care; a genuinely effective educational system, competitive with the best global offerings; a reasonable, progressive immigration policy which will then be enforced; a realistic, strong, sustainable national security effort, able to deal with the worst the terrorists have in mind for us; a true strategy (not simply lip-service and laws on the books) for the manifold disasters that may befall our cities and regions; genuine racial and gender integration and equalization of opportunities; the retraining of our work force for the actual avenues to profitable, productive labor in a globalized economy; an ethical shakedown that puts the needs, rights, and values of the individual voter once again ahead of those of the corporation, special interest group, narrowly defined Christian religion, overpaid executive, or U.S. military, intelligence service, or politician; a return to financial saving and to living within our means, both in our households and for the nation as a whole; an emphasis on the long-term viability of the biosphere, despite the stresses on it of a huge, modern human population; and a return to good personal health, with proper nutrition, the avoidance of harmful drugs and other stimulants, and assuring adequate, vigorous exercise. Unfortunately, in the face of such concerns, our current situation is one of the most morally bankrupt and irresponsible in US history.
We prefer, however, to continue in denial of this and many other unpleasant truths. We may do so until forced to deal with reality. Just as an obese populace sooner or later must come to terms with the medical consequences of its lifestyle choices, so too with a sick system of national priorities as we try, year after year, to live in a childish never-never-land fantasy world rather than deal with the facts of living as a mature member of the global community. The song is right: "Growing up is hard to do."
I am afraid that, over the balance of my lifetime, America will be, first, more in its "Pollyanna-ish" phase and, second, then in various stages of "facing the music" than dealing positively and reasonably with its necessary development. It will probably be left to future generations to pick up the pieces and carry on with our 21st Century national priorities in an effective, yet necessarily scaled-back, in fact likely much reduced, fashion.
Before those stages in our country's evolution have been fulfilled, we shall also need an in-depth addressing of just what it means to be free and democratic, when others have control of the media and an interest in effectively using it to keep us misinformed for their purposes, certainly not synonymous with our own, and are using their enormous powers to subvert our hard-won liberties, or even to be human, when we have the scientific ability, and ethical dilemmas over how or if, to utterly transform ourselves (medically, genetically, cybernetically, and through nanotechnology).
I was up this morning a little after 7:00. I took Fran's car over for its annual inspection. It did not pass, failing the emissions test. Now we have 15 days to get it fixed, in the midst of the holiday season. I am told 3-4 different visits with the repair folks are usually required before resolution and that often the costs run into at least several hundred dollars for the needed upgrades. Fran's vehicle also needs transmission work. The first servicing company I checked was closed till early next week. Bother. (Of course, this is me being immature about our own personal responsibilities for positive actions to help the environment and to limit global warming!)
Otherwise, it has been a low-key day. I did some Christmas shopping. Among other things, I bought a little book with the story on which a critically acclaimed new movie is based, Brokeback Mountain, by Annie Proulx. This afternoon and evening, I have been working on our next newsletter issue.
Yesterday, Frances and I had more bickering over little things. I'd give many tens of thousands of dollars if there were a way for us to get along better and be consistently considerate of one another. But that apparently is not to be. I've tried this approach on my own, but then the comments or behaviors on the other side persist anyway. If I am not to just be a wimp, I need to respond, and then we are into it again.
Each time, I agonize over whether the whole thing is worth it or if, instead, we should call it quits, since we do not seem to care enough about or respect each other adequately to simply be nice. Yes, often we go days without one of these heated frictions. But then when they occur it feels devastating.
There is no sense that Fran even sees that the current situation is painfully wrong. So, repeatedly she does things that push my buttons. (I suppose she would say that repeatedly I do things that push hers.) Perhaps we should resort to counseling, but I have the impression that Frances would sarcastically and defensively reject that option, feeling, as she has said in the past, that to go to a counselor is already an admission of defeat. Besides, it is hard to imagine her gaining insights into how we work at cross purposes to one another and so how we can stop it, or her being receptive to a counselor's interventions.
I like to think I would be more amenable to change and to trying new ways of relating if she would, but maybe I am fooling myself. On the other hand, is there more I can do by myself, without Fran's cooperation, to keep these struggles from happening. Or are they simply such a part of our natures and of how we tend to relate to people like ourselves (both first-born, competitive types) that I might as well resign myself to this being "as good as it gets"?
Our weather has turned cooler once again, but as yet we are still without any significant rain for a long while. At the same time that there is a need to cover the outside faucets, we feel we ought to be watering extensively. We put that off, but nervously, aware that if we are wrong and in the next few days once more get no precipitation, more things will die or the house foundation (vulnerable to cracking when there is insufficient moisture in the underlying and surrounding soil) may be at risk.
Or are my misgivings about the foundation cracking, or even about the state of the political parties, the nation, and the world, merely psychic metaphors for much more personal, internal, psychological concerns?
12/23/05-Fri.-The new Yuletide is upon us. As usual, the days leading up to Christmas weekend, even for retired folks like us, have been hectic.
Part of the reason, of course, is my volunteer work for the library. We also had several hundred digital pictures to process from our FL trip. And earlier this week we completed and put online the latest issue of our newsletter.
At my book discussion groups this week, we've had little informal parties, with a holiday exchange of baked goods. And for tonight's Christmas get-together with Matt, Glenda, and Sam, I bought wine, pastries and mixed nuts. We're also taking a magnificent fruit salad for the pot luck supper. We'll be playing or singing carols, telling funny stories, etc.
We have almost finished our shopping, but still want to get a few more things for our dog(!), who is celebrated both for her 2nd Christmas and her 2nd birthday anniversary (Dec. 26th).
Fran has continued her walks and volunteer activities as well. She and Puff had special excitement on a walk in town a few days ago, spotting a pair of brazen coyotes early one morning. They were only about 60-70 feet away and not swift to run off. She had time to get a picture, but it turned out blurry.
We have been quite occupied with her car, trying to get it fixed well enough to pass the emissions inspection. So far, we have had at least four trips in to service stations or other repair places, but will need to go back at least once or twice more next week, likely having to pay still much more. Already we have spent over $1100 and replaced at least four major things. Yet the car exhaust still smells as though it needs a major tune-up, and it has been using oil excessively for years. Not what one would expect from a 2000 Toyota, but Fran, in her long trips, does tend to be really hard on vehicles.
The latest about my nephew, who had been sent to Teen Challenge, is that he and his mother are staying for the duration of Christmas vacation with my mom, getting free room, board, and use of Mom's van, partly because the Teen Challenge folks insist he cannot be at his own home during the holidays, yet cannot be at Teen Challenge either, as they need a vacation too. Meanwhile, his mother's van is in the shop for major work, so her grown daughter drove them down to stay with my mother, then went back home to near Dallas herself.
Complications of which I'd not been aware earlier were that William (the nephew) had been arrested once before, for violating a curfew applicable to minors in his area, as well as more recently for stealing a package of over-the-counter cold medicine. The judge had indicated he would be inclined to be lenient if William were in some strict treatment regimen. My mom took him to court, back in his town, this past Monday so he could appear before the judge. Once that authority learned he was now in Teen Challenge, he put him on probation rather than sending him to reform school or some other onerous court appointed "solution."
But now, at my mom's, he has things more or less just like he wants them again, with the possible exception of access to drugs. He is staying up very late, eating whatever and whenever he wants, going off and being by himself much of the time, strongly vocalizing his dissatisfaction with Teen Challenge when around others, especially because of the religious differences: they apparently are very conservative, fundamentalist in their brand of protestant Christianity, while he sees himself as an atheist, a poet, and a budding intellectual.
Meanwhile, his mom, though she and her right wing Christian relatives were adamant in discussions with William's dad, my brother Ernie, that William must be sent to Teen Challenge, now is telling him, obviously to get on his good side, or at least not have to deal with his anger, that maybe if Ernie agrees he'll not have to go back after the holidays.
She is very childish and seldom if ever takes any responsibility, while Ernie is away most of the time for his construction job and, when he is home, does not relate well with William either, taking a rather authoritarian, judgmental approach with him. Ernie must be extremely frustrated, feeling he has no other really adult member of the household upon whom he can depend, that it is all on his shoulders, yet he is not there to deal with the day to day crises that require a minimum of one strong adult and parent figure.
Whether he realizes it or not, he may have chosen an occupation that keeps him away from home because he is uncomfortable both with his fat, immature wife and with the clashes he keeps having with a son who in many ways (except for her religiousness or obesity) takes after her.
Their daughter in quite religious, sure she has been "born again," but is also quite large in girth and not very attractive to boys or men. She is possibly a virgin well into her 20s, and, though grown, still lives at home and, having failed in other employments, now works as a secretary for her father.
Ernie's wife has tried working multiple times but finds it is simply too stressful and easily loses jobs with one excuse or another, just as she repeatedly goes off her recurrent diets, making transparent excuses for both types of lapse. Before she was herself "born again," she encouraged her then briefly beautiful high school daughter to do as she had done in the short time in her life when things were narcissistically satisfying, before the inexorable addition of pounds began, soon after she had gotten pregnant and married Ernie, to make hay while the sun shone, to go on lots of dates and to go all the way.
To this day, she encourages each of her kids to be as self-indulgent as she is, and not just with food and drink, sabotaging the more disciplined approach Ernie would have them follow. For instance, it is her view, often acted upon, that one should spend money whenever one wants, to maintain a certain luxurious lifestyle, even though she thus destroys Ernie's attempts at a balanced budget and depletes the family finances much more than she contributes to them. It is no wonder that, even though he is smart and works like crazy, Ernie is usually unable to stay ahead of the bills. For awhile they were talking like they might have a separation or divorce, but then Ernie was "born again" too, and now he sees it as his duty to be the loving provider, no matter what. Against this inclination, there are his natural tendency toward firmness, plus all the frustrations of a dysfunctional family.
Much as I deplore sending a youth who feels he cannot abide a very religious worldview to a place like Teen Challenge, where there are Bible talks or prayer meetings from morning to night when they are not doing chores, classes, or supervised studies, I find myself sympathetic toward Ernie in his current predicament, especially as I learn that his wife is now trying to tell William it is all up to his dad whether he'll have to go back to that bad place (that she had insisted was the only option). So many starts, so few things followed through for her, so many errors of judgment, so few admissions of mistakes, so that now she just wants to be taken care of, yet seeks the love and respect of others who are more mature and competent and caring of others than she, something of which only a true grown-up is really capable. William no doubt thinks and hopes he knows how to manipulate his parents against each other to his "advantage."
Meanwhile, a schism of another sort is developing, or greatly widening, in our extended family. My brother Horace, his wife Leila, and their younger children live only a mile from Mom's place in Waco. Yet, they contrive by one rationale or another to see even less of her than folks who go there to visit her from out of town. The situation is all the more glaring since Mom depends on Horace as her stock broker, and she and my father had moved from Austin to Waco, back in about 1985, mainly because Horace and Leila were moving there and starting a brood of adorable grandkids my folks wanted to be near.
Over the years, Dad and Mom did thousands of hours of babysitting for Horace and Leila. But the latter feel self-righteous, good Christians that they are, that Mom is not an adequate influence on their progeny and has not always shown them (Horace and Leila) unalloyed respect (as if they had ever given this boon to her). Slights that most might forget quickly they, especially Leila, hold as grudges against my Mom and adds to the mental demerits ledger tallied against her, so that, by now they can feel smugly good about themselves as they "dis" Mom and keep their kids from seeing her, or even to some degree the new spouses of their now grown kids.
Of course, it has little to do with true spirituality, for when was ostracism in keeping with the teachings of the New Testament Jesus? I hesitate to put words to it, beyond a kind of ungrateful meanness, but find it reprehensible, all the more so as Mom is the soul of generosity and forgiveness of others' many faults. Oh well, all is not perfect in this best of all possible worlds. If it were, perhaps we'd have complacency, when maybe what is required is to look behind or beneath the veil of things, as they seem, to something of greater depth and truth.
I am reminded of the example of Abe Lincoln who, though often surrounded by more shallow and petty people, put character above most all else and sought to make a lasting difference through the sheer power of his inner qualities, on the one hand, and his political skills, on the other.
I am surely not in his league, but can learn from his model. Like me, he apparently did not believe in any afterlife and must many times have also felt this world limited by too many fools. Yet, again and again, he found the resources within to rise above both the bleakness of his outlook and the circumstances in which he found himself. There was for him no point in demeaning others. And, indeed, it could be self-defeating for his larger purposes. Fortunately, he could see beyond the little or big grievances we all have and get the job done, almost no matter how challenging.
In the morning, fairly early, Frances and I are off to go see my mom and also a number of others who will be gathering there to celebrate Christmas together. Maybe for awhile we can put various reservations and small self misshapenness aside, to be warm and loving instead. I shall try to do my bit in this regard, starting with relations between Frances and myself. In fact, amid the background I have described above, Fran and I feel relatively close. But in some ways, going for family visits, particularly as the outward intention is to have happy times, can be like walking into mine fields. There is too often a great chasm between the impressions we would like to convey and the actual emotions roiling just under the surface.
12/24/05-Sat.-The plumbing problems are getting worse. Though still not sufficient, per the doctors, to warrant more aggressive treatment (surgery or the kind of medications that have significant risks), on an average day half of the first couple hours and of the final two are spent waiting for or assuring adequate elimination. Between these most challenging aspects of the difficulty, there are also numerous breaks required through the waking hours. Hardly a pleasant topic, but, willy-nilly, a major part of life now, one that must be taken into account when planning how long the simplest things may take, particularly a noticeable nuisance during visits, when we are others' houseguests, or as we are about to start trips.
We got up about 7:30 this morning and underway before half-past 9. The traffic was not as heavy, heading north, as we had feared it might be on Christmas Eve.
The dog is taking special interest in one part of the garage. Investigating, we note there seem to be rodents again. I have traps handy but decided not to deploy them yet, lest we return in a couple days to a smelly carcass or two.
Some youths (apparently) in south Austin have been driving around and randomly shooting out car, van, and truck windows by the hundreds in the entire area, from Oak Hill through the new developments off Slaughter. Some angry residents have demanded action after having to replace windows two or three times, but apparently the police still don't know or have proof of who is doing it.
I've started reading Flesh and Blood, by Michael Cunningham. It is well written, but disturbing. An example of the writing (from page 3 of my edition): "His father had a merciless eye that could find one bad straw in ten bales of good intentions."
We saw a hawk while passing through the Salado area.
Frances and I got in a little before noon, and the motel staff was not ready to check us in. We went over to Mom's and had lunch with folks there. After cleanup, I drove to the motel again, got checked in, and took a nap. Fran, meanwhile, went for a walk with the dog and worked on projects with her laptop, then gave Jane a flute lesson.
12/25/05-Sun.-Christmas Day. A day spent, from about 9:30 AM to around 11:30 PM, at my mom's, with lots of visiting, eating, cleanups, TV-video-DVD movie watching, pool playing, walking the dog, gifts exchanging, singing, listening to musicians among us performing duets, and photography.
Have had good chats with Ernie, William, Allen, Mary, Ron, and Esther.
William loaned me two of his banned (from the Christian reform school ranch where he must stay most of the time now) books: Naked Lunch, by William Burroughs; and Visions of Cody, by Jack Kerouac. I'd read writings of both authors back in my more intellectual and hip days, in the 1960s. But William is discovering them, fresh as new worlds, and finding their prose inspirational for his own early writing efforts, and for issues pertinent to lifestyle choices. I surely hope he makes wise decisions.
On a walk tonight with Puff, we saw a canine at dusk that looked like a coyote, but the lighting was inadequate to be sure. The pooch was certainly excited, and she wanted to follow the stranger into the woods. This did not seem wise, so I reined her in.
12/26/05-Mon.-Puff's birthday! A hectic period. This morning, we checked out of our motel and spent several more hours visiting with my mom and a number of other relatives, capped with a buffet brunch. We drove back to Austin in near record high temperatures, for late December, noting too that the central TX drought persists. We unloaded the car, unpacked and put away our things, checked messages, took welcome naps, replied to a few e-mails, fixed ourselves snack suppers, and exchanged Christmas or Puff birthday gifts between Fran, Puff, and me. The dog was overwhelmed and exhausted with her abundance of new toys and play! The presents from Frances to me, especially a couple big surprises, were also awesome. I hope she liked mine to her as well.
Late this evening, after my initial efforts to deal with our apparent mouse infestation and then taking care of Fran's vehicle maintenance, I got caught up on chess match moves and began sifting through hundreds of digital pictures taken over the weekend. Then, it was time for a not too late retirement for the day. Early tomorrow morning, I'll be taking the 2000 Toyota in for a second attempt at passing its emissions inspection.