Beverly Sills, music, and aging

This is where I spend most of my time at work. You will notice the wave keyboard and orthopedic mouse. Also the theater monitor screen, which is more for opening several docs at once for reference and comparison.

Just the floaters that swim around in my eyes (I know they really don't!) can make me swear there's a comma rather than a period at the end of a sentence.
Needless to say, unless I'm 8" from the laptop screen, I always bump the magnification to 150-200%. Don't get me started on dotted note values in music...

This issue of reading music is looming on my horizon. It may come down to a race between which goes first, the eyes or the voice. The limiting feature of musical scores is that the larger the notes/words, the larger and heavier the printed edition, and the more pages to turn. The only solution I can see at the moment is magnifying glasses. This would mean scaring myself or the conductor to death with alien bug-eyes, or relying on peripheral vision to watch the conductor.

I refuse to give up my musical endeavors. I just hope that I have the perspicacity and class to bow out before I 1) make a pitiful fool of myself, or 2) compromise the musicianship of a group. One of my sheroes, Beverly Sills, the gifted opera soprano, retired at the peak of her career. I admire her more for dealing with the personal loss she must have felt than for reasons 1) and 2) above.

Ms. Sills filled her life with activities just as meaningful as performing at the Metropolitan Opera. After retiring from singing, she became the director of the New York City Opera, elevating the organization to the top of the field. She didn't stop there--she eventually directed the Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center.

Even as she guided the fortunes of these stellar organizations, she managed to raise more than $70 million over ten years as national chair of the March of Dimes Mothers' March on Birth Defects.

My musical career is miniscule in comparison. I hope that when the time comes, if it does, I have the integrity to make as graceful an exit as she did.

Brava, Bubbles. You made the world a better place in many ways. We miss you.


The dark side of Austin

I listen to NPR on my drive to and from work--KUT-FM, with studios on the UT campus. Mornings, I listen to "Eklektikos," hosted by the marvelous John Aielli. As he read a few announcements this morning, he paused, then spoke as if he was having difficulty controlling both his emotions and his words.

"The Austin Interfaith Ministry Thanksgiving dinner and gathering this Sunday announces a change in venue."


"Originally scheduled at the (a prominent, central Austin Baptist church)... pause...the dinner has been relocated to (a central synagogue)."

Longer pause.

"The reason given for the venue change...was that the (HPBC) learned...that there would be non-Christians attending."

Even longer pause.

The silence stretched.

"Here's a song by (xxx), called 'Jesus Loves Me.'"

There followed a C&W song distantly resembling the Sunday School version, with significantly different lines such as, "Jesus loves me, but he hates you."

Longest pause of all.


Straight to pre-recorded piece. No further comment from Aielli. Good man.

I am not bound by the restraints of maintaining a sense of decorum in a conservative public forum. There is no way I can refrain from commenting, especially since my father was a well-educated, responsible Christian minister. This is not the Christianity he believed in and preached.

Fer Chrissakes, even the puritan Pilgrims invited non-Christians to the first Thanksgiving.
Is not the tradition we honor based on charity and an open heart and mind? The event in question wasn't even scheduled in the church proper, but in another building. If what my father taught me is true, I hardly think Jesus would have turned anyone away from an expression of good faith and brotherhood. Maybe my daddy knew a different Jesus. Jesus Jones, or Jesus Garcia maybe, certainly not the Jesus that was born and lived his whole life in (gasp!) the Middle East, which is where Nazareth and Bethlehem and Jerusalem and all those towns are, according to the last atlas I consulted...

This decidedly un-Christian, hypocritical, inhuman, fear-based, appalling way of thinking is not only misinformed, it mirrors the same attitudes these so-called Christians so vehemently oppose. The scariest part is that this is the attitude that (dis)informs the current White House resident.

Verily, who(m) would Jesus bomb? Thus endeth the lesson.


I actually have roots

I denied it for decades. A broadly-educated, cosmopolitan adventuress doesn't do roots.

I've just returned from Aunt Midge's funeral and memorial gathering. It was an unexpectedly satisfying and reassuring experience, one of the few times in recent history that my sisters and I have interacted with that branch of the family, as my father was a minister and pastored churches far away for a good portion of our lives. In spite of our limited acquaintance with Aunt Midge's husband's family, the day gave us a welcome opportunity to get to know our various cousins and their offspring.

It was daunting, absolutely, at least at first. How could counting the number of surviving family elders on one hand, and finding oneself in a benign but slightly alien scenario not be daunting? Participating in conversations and listening to stories revealed that we had in common a rich, enduring heritage that typifies the spirit of those tough, durable ancestors who migrated to Texas in the 1800's in the hopes of carving a decent life from the earth.

Two octogenarian women sitting behind us in the chapel whispered to each other as immediate family filed out at the conclusion of the service. I'm quite sure they didn't realize that their conversation was clearly audible--they unconsciously compensated for impaired hearing by whispering louder.

"That Roy Junior is a handsome young man." (Roy is at least four years older than I am, which puts his age between 65 and 70)

"Oh yes he is--a very handsome young man."

Adorable. My heart swelled with pride and love for a family that I've been away from for too long.

Ordinary? Yes. We come from hard-scrabble farmers who worked themselves to death in the struggle to survive and flourish in a frequently hostile environment, rarely completing more than a few years in school. They were needed to keep the farm producing. At times, the only option was everlasting physical labor under brutal conditions. And when Ol' Boll Weevil brought King Cotton low, these hard-working people turned to less risky, more dependable employment in the local butcher shop, grocery store, or filling station. A microcosm of an agrarian populace adapting to the changing world.

Extraordinary, certainly. These descendants of the original Texas settlers inherited and passed along the more useful traits of their sturdy ancestors: courage, resourcefulness, love and husbandry of the land, determination, the importance of family, honesty, and a natural wisdom sufficient to thrive.

Today was a marvelous, gorgeous, warm, late autumn Indian Summer gem, gentle, stray breezes giving notice of an impending cold front. Midge was buried in the Young's Prairie Cemetery with many of her ancestors. Earlier this afternoon, our little gang visited our Daddy/Papaw, grandparents, and other family spirits in the tiny Elgin cemetery, recounting childhood stories, with occasional interjections to clarify the relationship for my niece's benefit.

The late afternoon sun saturated the cemetery and surrounding farms in a soft, golden light. A profound, peaceful stillness settled over the land. Pecan shells crunching underfoot, we wandered among the old and new headstones as the service proceeded, our attention focused on the solemn ritual unfolding under the small, open tent, even as we processed the experience--one foot grounded in the earth, the other connected to the small group of people huddled together near the casket.

My sisters in our usual style--quietly making irreverent quips to one another, unobtrusively pointing out the cultural artifacts particular to Central Texas--headstones decorated in the school colors and symbols of the oldest college football rivalry in Texas: The University of Texas at Austin and Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College, better known as the tea-sipping Longhorns vs. the hard-drinking Aggies. A visceral manifestation of a long-standing Texas tradition.

Delicate tinkling sounds bubbled into awareness, drawing us close to an old pecan tree close by, where four silvery wind chimes danced in its wind-rocked branches, adding a pleasant, high-pitched polyphony to the minister's simple, elegant homily; weaving a magical contrapuntal progression into the murmured prayers and responses.

After saying our last goodbyes to Aunt Midge, we re-convened at a local family-owned Bar-B-Q establishment renowned for their smoked meats. We enjoyed the traditional two-meat dinner plate, with pinto beans, potato salad, sweet or unsweetened iced tea, onions, pickles, two slices of foamy, white bread, and a taste-tingling infusion of two humble ingredients: ground chile peppers and vinegar. Each bottle carries a warning label for the tender of foot or tongue. One of the grand-daughters brought a scrumptious, home-made lemon pound cake--a companionable finish to a Texas-style dinner.

Small town Texas, country goodness. Robust tales of days gone by. A gentle and reverent gathering to honor the passing of a well-loved and accomplished elder.


Goodbye, Aunt Midge, please say hidy to Ann and Molly and Judythe for me

My aunt Mildred, affectionately known as Aunt Midge, passed away this Wednesday morning. Beyond the feelings of loss, grief, sadness, it is significant to me personally in that we were not particularly close, but that we recently reconnected after decades of wildly divergent lifestyles, tacitly agreeing that it was all water under the bridge, and discovered a fondness that has spanned six decades. Her spirit remained as robust and her mind as sharp at 91 as it was fifty years ago. I am fortunate to have such a vibrant, life-affirming heritage.

Aunt Midge is a legacy from the era of independent, hard-scrabble farming, the native Texan offspring of a Welshman and French belle who migrated from the Carolinas across Alabama and Georgia to the fertile sandy loam of central Texas. The Hill Country is a gentle remnant of the ancient Balcones Fault, which lies thirty miles to the east of Elgin.

The north-south fault line exposes a hundred mile long slash of granite, marble, and fossil-laden limestone formations, honeycombed by the myriad cold water springs that percolate through the matrix. To the east of the fault, the land slopes off to the fertile, black, loamy topsoil accumulated through the ebb and flow of archaic tides. A rich, alluvial plain gradually descends from the heart of the state to the Gulf of Mexico 130 miles east.

Long stretches of beige, sandy beaches ring the deceptively small, utterly treacherous bowl of water that regularly brews up ferocious hurricanes to batter, drown, and gouge out huge chunks of the coastline. The circumference extends from the Yucatan Peninsula of southern Mexico, north along the oil-soiled Texas coastline, across the swamps of lower Louisiana, the diminutive panhandles of Georgia and Alabama, to end at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula. The finger of land appears to stretch toward Cuba and other Caribbean Islands that dot the narrow mouth in an attempt to complete the circle. A tricky gap where cooler currents from the vast Atlantic to the east frequently and forcefully intrude into the shallow, bathwater-warm Gulf.

Alas, poor Florida! The straining finger is frequently bombarded from coast to coast when a big 'cane plows across the entire state unabated. Florida is the point of no return, deftly deflecting a big blow to the north, drowning much of the Atlantic coastline; or diverting the storm westward, to be whipped into a frenzy when the chilly Atlantic system travels over the tepid Gulf.

The Cherokee were one of the largest groups of Aboriginal people, with established communities in North Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia. My European ancestors commingled with these original residents to establish one of the robust, hybrid stocks common to Texas. So common, in fact, that I have Cherokee genes from both parents. An earlier product of the blend, Aunt Midge was closely connected to the land--she spent her entire life within a one hundred and fifty-mile radius encompassing Austin, Elgin, and the Gulf coast.

A few scant years after the second World War, Aunt Midge found herself a widow. Big Roy, my uncle, lost his leg in a lumber mill accident. Whether he died of complications resulting from the maiming, or from his inevitable surrender to alcohol, or simply from despair (it was never clear to the younger cousins), he left her with two young children still in school, and the burden of supporting a family as a single mother.

At some point along the way, she obtained a nursing degree, and embarked on a lifelong career as a practitioner and teacher of nursing, eventually retiring from the faculty of the UT School of Nursing.

My cousins were exemplary, negotiating the difficult years to excel in academics, participate in school activities, and make significant contributions to the community. Midge's daughter also earned a nursing degree, and became involved with the Travis County blood and tissue bank and other health service organizations. Midge's son also studied the sciences, retiring as a biologist for the Texas Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. A Water Ranger, as it were. Both epitomize the drive, passion, and acumen of well-educated, hardworking, diligent, salt-of-the-earth Texans.

More significantly for the younger cousins, the older cousins consistently showered us with love and joy, and exhibited the endearing, sweet, caring demeanor that I associated with our father. My kind and handsome male cousin exuded that same kindliness and acceptance, and my female cousin was the distaff manifestation of this most benign and caring facet of the Snowden persona.

In processing such a significant life change, I am impelled to honor my ancestresses for their wisdom, experience, love, support, and courageous spirit--all the life-affirming characteristics of an exceptional and caring human being. I gratefully acknowledge the essential life force that connects me with my predecessors and progeny.

Oh, Fortuna! Velut luna. Status variabilis. The Wheel of Fortune inexhorably turns once again in ever-expanding consciousness.

Rest in peace, Aunt Midge. Your indomitable spirit above all else makes me proud to be a Texan. And give Daddy a hug for me, would you?