My new word: Instead. After last week’s post, I began to think about the time I spend reading or listening to political commentary. I also may spend time doing word jumbles. One of my children remembers a particular addiction to Tetris, but that was years ago. So now, I have a new question: What could I be doing instead of what I am doing?

Many wiser folk have contributed to this kind of problem. I’ll discuss two. Voltaire said something like “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” The general idea here is that trying to do something perfectly defeats the purpose, since such a thing is impossible. We can usually be satisfied with what we are doing.

My favorite of all, however, is this from George Stigler, a 20th century economist who suggested this: “If you never miss a plane, you’re spending too much time at the airport.” Having spent a lot of time in airports this year, this is not the advice I would have liked to hear. Could he be right? I have friends who arrive 3-4 hours ahead of schedule. They get more done than I do in other walks of life, however, so I can’t fault them there. Still, I like Stigler’s sentiment. Saturday we weren’t near to missing the plane, but we were the last ones on because we were waiting at a different gate. How nice to avoid the long lines and the standing! Once before I was also last because one more bit of fun was crammed in on the way to the airport. That was a little more challenging.

So why the butterfly? When I was looking through pictures on Flickr, using just the word “instead,” one result was a butterfly with that word printed on the image. I love butterflies and looked for something prettier.

Considering all of us somewhere in the life cycle of a butterfly stretches my point perhaps. I don’t think of myself as a caterpillar, ever. (This aside from the fact I sometimes identify with The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle, an animated version which you can watch here. Only two weeks in the pupa stage!)

Butterflies were, in fact, part of a life-changing experience for me. Sometime in the 1970s, I heard a lecture by Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. If you have heard of the stages of grief, you know about her work. Believe it or not, there was a time when people who were dying were not told that their illness was terminal. She did groundbreaking work in the area of death and dying, but my connection with her had more to do with the fact she believed in an afterlife and did much work with people who had near death experiences (NDEs). She uses the butterfly analogy to explain life as a pupa stage, with the emergence of a butterfly in a beautiful world to come. What I remember most, however, was her telling of a visit to a concentration camp at Maidenek, seeing the children’s section with walls covered with depictions of butterflies.

It is a tiny word, instead, but I think I want to spend my time a little better. Less wasted on things I can’t change, boring, dreary things, and more on the creative, the uplifting, even the cleaning. An occasional game isn’t bad, or a podcast. Too many, not so good. One of my mottoes is “Because I said I would,” based on a social movement which will send you promise cards. I don’t like to end with the idea of trying to do better; I actively dislike the word “try.” We’ll see. My list of things undone is long. We’ll see.

The Altered Painting; or, Hands Off!

The painting is BIG, 42×48. For all my childhood, it hung in pride of place over my grandmother’s baby grand piano, complete with its own lighting. Frankly, I didn’t like it much. Its title, “Autumn Scene,” reflects the gold and brown hues, the lack of leaves, the dryness of the landscape. A tiny red-roofed house sits in the background; a blue stream trickles through rocks in the foreground. Really, there’s just not much there. I’m big into flowers—my laundry room alone has flower-embroidered curtains, faux stenciled flowers, 19 pieces of floral art, plus an elephant that’s also a water spout in a garden. Two others are not hung. I defy anyone to top that. So, never my favorite, the painting now hangs over my fireplace, in pride of place, with its own lighting.

There’s a backstory, of course. My grandmother, an artist herself, bought several nice pieces of art in the 1950s and 60s. This was the biggest and supposedly the best, procured from a dealer in Austin. Porfirio Salinas signed this picture. He was a BIG deal then and now, one of the top Texas artists from that time period. Most famous for bluebonnet paintings, he completed between two and three thousand works. When President Kennedy came to Texas in 1963, his gift from Lyndon Johnson was to be a Salinas landscape commissioned for the occasion.

Time went by, and my grandparents, my mother, and one her twin brothers died. The big Salinas needed to be sold, with the proceeds going to my surviving uncle and his brother’s widow. David Dike Fine Art is an establishment on Fairmont in Dallas, with a top-notch reputation for buying and selling Texas art. David had managed the sale of my uncle’s Salinas—of bluebonnets which I wish I’d been able to keep. He seemed pleased to have “Autumn Scene” and gave it (of course) pride of place and its own professional lighting

But then came the call: “Mary Ann, could you come down? I need to show you something.” The painting looked wonderful when I arrived. David asked that I look more closely at some of the trees. They weren’t by Salinas, with the possibility of their being Dwight Holmes’ instead. Now, I knew Holmes; his studio was in San Angelo, just around the corner from my childhood home. I’d been in a number of times with my grandmother, but I wasn’t a fan. He painted landscapes, with lots of distinctive, fluffy clouds. Not so many flowers. As we stood looking at the Salinas, comparing it to a Holmes, I could see David was right: A signature, but not an authentic product. Apparently, artists do this commonly—it’s called overpainting. Both work on a large canvas some dull afternoon. Or perhaps Holmes added trees later, no fun involved. He was known to do that very thing. People who are paying BIG money for paintings care about that. You don’t spend thousands of dollars on a painting because it’s pretty and would look good over the couch. You pay because the painting is an investment. This one had suddenly become worthless. Down it came, and home we went.

A second opinion was in order, so I hauled the thing down to San Antonio. The dealer agreed with David Dike. The trees were Holmes; the rocks, Salinas. He said something like “I wouldn’t touch that thing with a 10-foot pole.” He did offer me $1000 for a little riverscape by Margaret Tupper, but I like it and wasn’t interested in selling, even if there aren’t any flowers. My uncle and uncle’s widow were understanding. I offered to donate it to a museum in San Angelo, but they weren’t interested.

As good a story as this makes, I have always wanted to make a lesson of it. This week, I can just call it “Hands Off.” That may be more literal than it needs to be, but “Let Me Think for Myself” seems unwieldy. Someone wants to paint on my canvas.  Critics are happy to do it, of course. A movie called Cosmopolis has a recommendation on its cover: “This is a masterpiece.”  We should be suspicious of that, and Rotten Tomatoes gives it an audience rating of 31%. That’s 10 points below the worst movie I’ve ever seen, Noah (2014). Someone can disagree, of course, but spare me the hyperbole.

These days, at least in some circles, you are allowed only a narrowly prescribed set of acceptable thoughts. Anything else and you’re castigated until you apologize. Any day would find at least one example. This is recent: Mark Duplass, an actor, tweeted that Ben Shapiro was nice to him and “a genuine person” whose views he doesn’t agree with but who is worth listening to. Not so fast. The twitterverse exploded, denouncing Duplass or hurling epithets at Shapiro as a “racist sexist bigot.” Duplass apologized and thanked his criticizers for helping him learn.

So heaven forbid you should admit to listening to Shapiro (I do for a few minutes most days) or watching Fox News sans Hannity (ditto). I have a brain. I can read articles all over the internet as well, and I do that daily. I know what slant is, and I admit puzzling over people not recognizing slant in the mainstream media. I could probably go on for a good while but won’t. For now, I’m just asking that you stop worrying about what I hear or see. I’ve got to be genuine too, and I can spot misinformation wherever it is. That poor Salinas. Worthless. So I’ll ask a big favor: leave me alone.

Stray Cat

This morning, early, I looked outside and saw a new cat looking in. He resembled an older cat I once had, the best cat in the universe, who one day just didn’t come home. A coyote probably. This cat was younger than the long-gone favorite, more mottled with some gold, not very pretty. But those eyes: trusting that I would continue to feed my other outside cats, that I would keep fresh water in the fountain out front. That I would never try to pet him.

So much lately to talk about, but so little interest in doing it. When I saw the cat, the bond between creatures reminded me of our interconnectedness with the universe. Wait. That has an absurd sound, as if I feel alone in it. I don’t feel alone at all, but the eyes of a cat do make me think that all the news is of secondary importance to what I, as a reasoning individual, can experience.

He ran off when I opened the door for a closer look. That’s fine. I wasn’t going to invite him in. A closer sense of his beauty would have been nice, but not necessary.

Why the lack of interest in the public scene? The list is long: too much screaming and name calling, too little educated discourse, too much shallow knee-jerking, too little cause for personal concern. If that makes you scream and call names, feel free.

When the world focused on the Thai soccer team last week, we were never sure until the first ones emerged how it would end. The boys are still in the hospital, with a month of family time prescribed by doctors who fear their new-found fame may cause them harm. The boys just learned that one of the divers who worked to save them died in his attempt. This video shows part of the ceremony honoring him. Those boys—and this morning’s cat—suggest that there is a greatness about this precious existence we call life. For today, I’m just going to savor that joy.



Gate Ways

Airports are such fun. I’ve been to a lot of them lately. On a trip last March, I spent time in ten, in three different countries. It was no record because five visits were at the same one. The record stands from last year, when I was in eight different airports in four countries for one of our famous “What a great price!” trips. Security makes the time special, of course. Perhaps you remember going to pick someone up and meeting them at their gate as they exited the plane. Those days are long gone, of course. Lines of obedient travelers wait for a chance to have their shoes placed in a box, their belongings x-rayed, their persons patted down.

Today we have a poem that memorializes the loss of a favorite item, confiscated by TSA for some hard-won, sought-after safety. What makes the dedicatee remarkable is that she is now the Texas State Poet Laureate, Carol Coffee Reposa. I knew her as a teacher at San Antonio College when she would come to a yearly conference for English teachers, usually to read her poetry. One year, she flew to our meeting and had her favorite comb taken from her; she seemed mad about it. I wrote her this poem:

Gate Ways

How silent the brave who stand and surrender

Sharp edges, prongs, dangerous devices

To those who wait at the gate and ask:

“Will you give over instruments of harm

Which—while they have damaged no one

In decades of secure use, “Improved!”

So as not to nick a shin or make bleed

Cuticles or pull our hair, in pain—

Might still destroy the lives of many

Should you so choose to die?”

Yes. Angry, tense, our words fail fear.

But we the mute deliver our goods,

Our good, in this sham of safety,

To you, the innocent, earnest troll.



Once, at a little regional airport in Brazil, we watched as people were allowed to take their opened water bottles through security. The horror! I’ve known people who lost all their make-up, chocolate sauce, and potentially deadly snow globes, to name a few examples. But am I suggesting changes? Not really. Until comes the day when people no longer want to do one another harm, we will endure the lines and the rules, the delays and the frustrations. And usually without complaint. Read about Carol and the other Texas-honored artists above. Think about her arguing about a comb. It will give you some welcome perspective to imagine, perhaps, the TSA agent as a diligent troll at a gate instead of the proverbial bridge. A New Hope?

Separating families. No, I’m not going to weigh in on the problems at the border. I saw enough people screaming at each other on Facebook to go there. Politics are dividing families in ways that haven’t been seen before, in my memory at least. One newspaper investigated to make sure it’s not just perception that we’re spending less time together and used Thanksgiving visits as a base, with data from 10 million cellphones (yes, your carrier knows where you are and for how long.) Last year I had a long piece called “On This We Agree” about trying to work with each other to communicate better. Then I had one in which I felt like giving up on the whole idea. Today I am feeling good.

Serendipitously, information about a new group fell into my lap this week. It’s called Better Angels, as in the famous passage from Lincoln’s first inaugural speech. This is his last sentence: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” The Civil War then began in earnest, with a fury and loss of life never equaled in our history. This, then, is the last sentence of Lincoln’s second inaugural: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” He had only weeks to live before he was assassinated.

Why so much history? We’re hearing the phrase “cold civil war.” Heaven forbid that it become hot. Rhetoric swirls, issues ebb and flow, and tempers flare. People begin to limit their contact with those in the opposition. Some think the media are to blame; Michael Goodwin suggests that the already left-leaning journalists lost any sense of non-partisanship during the 2016 election. Writing in 2012, The American Prospect contributor Jamelle Bouie said that Barack Obama was the most polarizing president but that presidents shouldn’t be blamed for trying to do what they believe they are elected to do. Regardless of blame, friends and families are struggling.

Better Angels was formed weeks after the election. Ten Clinton voters and ten Trump voters met amid the resulting chaos and shock to form a group in which listening to each other was the main purpose, not arguing, not trying to convert. Numbers at the recent convention in March 2018 were equally divided between red and blue, though the actual membership skews blue. Funding is also from both sides of the political spectrum. This article from USAToday summarizes both the organization and the convention.

Yes, I’ve joined. I’ve signed on to be an organizer and listened to the training. Although I didn’t vote for Trump, I’m a conservative. The pain resulting from not just the election results but also the last 18 months of wild tweeting and ill-advised commenting has been palpable, although I can see positive things that have happened as well. And I have a bad habit of being defensive about my beliefs, resulting at times in tears and my own ill-advised comments. I want this to be different.

This talk is cheap: $10 for membership in Better Angels. I urge you to join if you’d like to see people talking and learning rather than demonizing and hating. Enough of my friends are on both sides that we could bring an event to our area. For the first time in a long time, I am encouraged. As cute as this week’s picture is, I think we need to be swimming in the same pond—in this case, the country we all love.