Short and Sweet: A Lunar Love Letter

It’s a big day for the moon; or more specifically, it’s a big day for humanity’s relationship with the moon. Fifty years ago today, Apollo 11 landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon while Michael Collins flew the command module in orbit. American kids have watched the spine-tingling recordings of Neil Armstrong since we were old enough to sit still, eyes wide:

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It took some 400,000 people, working together, to make that miraculous trip possible. Collins said in the Google doodle dedicated to the anniversary that when the astronauts journeyed around the world, the refrain was “We did it. We did it.” Our common love for that beautiful orb and for the courage and ingenuity of our brothers and sisters connected us.

Being a Houstonian, I have visited the Johnson Space Center and stared at the moon rocks, nearly unable to comprehend the distance those rocks traveled. The module the men were in is so tiny, it’s hard to conceive of the courage it required to suit up and shoot beyond Earth’s atmosphere with so little protection.

Last Tuesday evening, after a busy day working, babysitting my grandkids, exercising, folding laundry, and writing, I wearily trod upstairs to my bedroom to soak in a warm bath and go to bed. The blinds in my bedroom were open and the bright, silvery light of the moon caught my eye. I stood at the window, just drinking in her beauty, breathing, and allowing my spirit to settle.

A little later, face washed and teeth brushed, I climbed into my cool percale sheets, fluffed my feather pillow, and curled up with my iPad for a few minutes on Facebook before reading myself into sleepy oblivion. My friend Kyle had posted this lovely, eerie photo:

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Isn’t it heavenly? I commented, “I  stood at my bedroom window to watch the moonrise tonight. Beautiful. Glad to know my sweet friend was watching too.” A few minutes later a mutual friend chimed in from New York City, she had also been taking in the sublime view from her hotel room. Three friends, touched by beauty, connected by a celestial light.

The moon connected the human race in a vast way in July, 1969. She connected three friends in a small way in July, 2019.

We often tell children to wish upon a star. I love the song from Pinocchio, it’s a perfect message for children about having the courage to wish. But tonight, on this momentous anniversary, I am going to wish upon the moon:

I wish that we can love each other more.

I wish that we will learn to listen better.

I wish that we will allow grace to scatter its beams into the dark corners of our lives.

I wish that the moon’s glittery light will light a lost one’s way home.

I wish.

What’s your wish?

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Peanuts, Cracker Jack, and Fairy Dust!

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It’s late September, and for many folks, it means pumpkins, golden and red tree leaves, sweaters, and hay rides. In south Texas, it just means it’s a high of 88 degrees instead of 98, but not a whole lot changes down here. We keep wearing our flip flops and shorts while envying our neighbors up north who crow about snuggly sweaters and hot chocolate. It’s not even cool enough to enjoy a full-bodied red wine yet, I am still sipping crisp sauvignon blancs. I did hang a wreath on my door this afternoon, it’s of red, yellow, and orange preserved fall leaves from some clime obviously far from here.

For this south Texan, autumn’s arrival means baseball playoffs are coming soon.

I love baseball. I know I am not alone in this, it’s America’s pastime, and many of my fellow citizens feel the same- over 70 million fans attended games last year. It’s right up there with hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet as the most American things ever. Even another great American institution, the Broadway musical, has gotten in on the act with Damn Yankees and a fantastic song called “What a Game” in the masterpiece Ragtime. 

I think loving the game is in my genes: my dad played when he was a kid. So did my mom, though of course, she played softball, in the 1950s that was the only option. Schools didn’t have teams yet so she played in an outside league. When our family moved to the Dallas area back in 1972, we started going to Texas Rangers games. Jim Sundberg was the team’s star back then, but I had a crush on a player whose name I no longer remember,  he had curly hair and bright eyes and reminded me of singer Mac Davis. I kept a photo of him on my wall and sometimes I kissed it with my virginal little six-year-old lips. The only player I have ever since come close to loving like that is Jose Altuve, the current Houston Astros second base player; he’s just my type- short, stocky, and impishly cute. I don’t keep his photo on my wall for kissing, but I do have his card pinned to the cork board on my desk at work. When the huge Texas grocery chain HEB runs ads featuring George Springer, Carlos Correa, and cutie Altuve, I stop whatever I am doing and giggle like a thirteen-year-old ridden with acne and bashfulness. Fortunately, I have a tolerant husband.

Baseball is woven into my family’s quilt of memories (rather than quilt, I’ll say “pennant”). When my poor, drug-addicted and mentally ill mom felt good, we played catch; she gave me one of her old ball gloves, and its leather was soft from years and years of play. The thud of a ball hitting the pocket against my palm is embedded in my sense memory, as is the smell of the leather. I played in my town’s girls softball league, and I tried, just once, to play with my index finger stuck out of the hole just above the logo patch because I’d seen a pro player do it, but it didn’t work for me- I felt awkward and unstable. No, my index finger wanted to be snug inside its finger sleeve.

Daddy coached Little League for both his sons’ teams, and when they outgrew the League, he kept signing on to coach anyway. He lit up at evening games played by the huge halide lamps at Cottonwood Park’s baseball fields, baseball diamonds gave him abundant joy. He and Mom had not had a good marriage, nor a good life, really; and I would go watch his games. When my brothers weren’t on the field or at bat, it was my dad I watched. It was a joy to see his face brighten, and a gift to observe as his shoulders relaxed amid the chatter of the outfielders.

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I grew up, got married, and had three kids, and baseball was the first sport my son Travis signed up for. At the tender age of just five years old, he donned a navy blue shirt with “Minnesota” across the belly in block letters and the Twins’ logo on his cap. We sat in bleachers and watched the boys pick flowers and sit in the dirt of a wee little field, dads standing at each base to teach the kids how to run the circle (hopefully  in the right direction) and catch a rolling grounder. That was the start of ten years of spring practices in cool Texas spring evenings, stiff legs and sore butt from sitting in bleachers too long at All Star tournaments, rejoicing at home runs and celebrating with ice cream, and picking up the pieces to rebuild my boy’s confidence when he missed a ball or his team lost.

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When seven year-old Libby told us she wanted to play baseball, we were sure we misunderstood, and corrected her, “Don’t you mean girls’ softball, Sweetpea?” She most certainly did not. The Little League rules allowed for it, so we signed her up. She was “drafted” into a team whose coach refused to take her, but a hero came to the rescue and traded one of his boys for her. Libby excelled, she loved the game, and her team made it to the playoffs. My husband and I loved going to games, we stood in the space between son’s and daughter’s two fields and watched both kids play simultaneously while eldest child Hilary did her homework in the bleachers. Because sometimes the Universe loves to bestow karma, Libby’s team faced the team whose coach refused her in the championship game. Libby’s team won, and the coach presented her the game ball. I have a photo of the exact moment, and my daughter’s face is sweet and proud.

I am lucky enough to have a father-in-law who loves baseball, too. I don’t know that I have ever seen a football game on his television, but I have, many times, seen baseball. I think he loves the strategy of the game- he’s an analytical guy. Me? I love the stillness. There’s a moment at a home game, just before the pitcher winds up, when the crowd holds its breath, collectively waiting to see if the ball will go low or high, outside or in; and will the batter swing? If a fly ball goes to the high infield, we wait again to see if it will be caught or whether it’s safe for the batter to run.

Baseball is Community, for me. I guess all sports are, but for an introverted and quiet soul, the boisterous socializing of a football tailgate is too much. The violence of the sport makes me flinch, to be honest. No, I love a game that has order and moments of hush, when I can feel the love of the game in the fans around me. I join with strangers to sing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” and we count our three strikes in the air, we yell “Charge!” at the organ’s cue, we do the wave around the seats of Minute Maid Park. The train conductor who sits in the locomotive above center field exhorts us to yell for our team, and the best mascot in the league, Orbit, twerks his giant bum to make the kids laugh.

Recently, my 27-year-old son and I went to a game, just the two of us. The giveaway that night was a replica of the 2017 World Series ring; we had the pleasure of being on the field for batting practice, visited the press box and control room, then bought adult beverages to sit and chat as the stadium slowly filled up. It was a good game, though the Mariners killed us when their pinch hitter slammed a ball over the center field fence, with bases loaded. Didn’t matter too much, though, because I was too busy being grateful for one-on-one time with my bearded, articulate, generous son. For a middle aged woman who’s trying to infuse each and every day with little bits of enchantment, that game, with its diving catches, synthesized organ riffs, and mother/son time was absolutely magical. Red infield dirt subbed in for fairy dust.

Baseball just might be the greatest thing about America (well, except the Constitution). I love it. Play ball!

 

 

Texas Girls Don’t Always Wear Boots!

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Recently, while perusing the gift shop area at a Buccees on I-10 between San Antonio and Houston, I found myself surrounded by Texas paraphernalia: earrings in the shape of longhorn steers, bluebonnet shaped magnets, bronze Texas star yard art (every block in Texas is required to make sure at least one house has one of these over the garage door. It’s a law, I am pretty sure. On my block, it’s the neighbor two doors down).

I attended my first rodeo a couple of weeks ago. I was pretty nervous, afraid the animals would be mistreated (they weren’t) or that the country music concert would grate on my ears (it didn’t). The animals were beautiful, the horsemanship phenomenal, and Little Big Town put on a hell of a show. I didn’t dress any differently than I normally do, and I wondered if people would stare at my bootless, hatless self and banish me from the grounds for not being a true Texan. But for every bona fide cowboy or cowgirl whose boots and jeans looked authentically worn, there was someone in spanking new Wranglers and fringe looking like an extra from a movie about a dude ranch, and for every one of them, there was someone like me- in soft pastel jeans or hipster skinnys or urban baggys. There were as many Toms, Converse, and Nikes as Justins and Tony Lamas.

I come from a long line of Texans. Though I was not born here because my Texan parents were temporarily living in Tennessee where my daddy got his first post-college job, I have been here since I was three, all of my memories are of living in Texas. I love my state (though it’s become a little harder lately, not sure if that’s because the politics keep shifting to the right or because I have just leaned a little more to the left), but there are assumptions that folks have about Texans that I would like to set straight:

We don’t all wear cowgirl boots.

We don’t all listen to country music.

We don’t all own guns and/or horses.

We are a pretty famous place. I guess it’s because of so many western movies, maybe our performers  like Beyonce and Matthew McConnaughey. Or maybe it’s because of George W. Bush. Being President during the 9/11 attacks makes you a household name, like Churchill or Roosevelt from WWII. When my daughter, who lives in Australia, mentions where she’s from, she’s always quizzed about all sorts of “Texasisms”

My youngest daughter’s Australian boyfriend is in Vietnam, and he just sent us a photo of a fast food joint called Texas Chicken. Basically, it was the logo from Church’s Chicken.

You can be a Texas girl without wearing cowgirl boots and listening to country music.

What we do do:

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1. Love bluebonnets and have requisite bluebonnet photos: Right now is the time of year when driving on a Texas highway you’ll see families pulled over with their little ones squatting in the fields of bluebonnets. We all have these photos, except for the poor folks who live out in the panhandle. Bluebonnets don’t grow out there. Their kids take photos with tumbleweeds.

2. Most of us own at least one piece of James Avery jewelry: I actually own two charm bracelets (one for theatre keepsakes and one for family), an angel bracelet, a necklace, and a ring. My eldest daughter has just one ring and a charm bracelet, and my younger daughter has at least three rings, a charm bracelet, and a necklace. She jokes that all sorority girls are required to have at least one piece. I sort of took the ubiquity of James Avery for granted, until a recent trip to Arizona. While there, I received frequent questions and compliments about my jewelry. A Texas silversmith out of the hill country, James Avery makes beautiful stuff that has a distinct Texas aesthetic. I love mine.

3. We always clap four times when someone sings “The stars at night are big and bright…” Do you remember, in “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure,” when Pee Wee proves he’s in Texas by singing the opening lyric and everyone on the street stops and finishes the line? That really happens here. It’s ingrained in us starting in our early education classes. However, on rare occasions, it flops. Recently I was in San Antonio for the state music teachers convention, having a drink at Durty Nellie’s Irish Pub. The piano player, knowing the room was full of music teachers, started the song. “The starts at night are big and bright…” Nothing. I think the music teachers needed a break.

 

4. Use the words “fixin’ to” and “y’all”: These are the best words ever coined by Texans. When a Texan visits a place for any length of time, the people around her will, without realizing it, adopt these words. Especially “y’all.” It is the perfect pronoun for a group of people. Inclusive and succinct. Gender neutral and much more pleasant than “you guys,” it works in any situation. “Fixin’ to” is what we say instead of “about to.” I don’t really know why, but I do know I like it better.

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5. We all know where to find our area’s best chicken fried steak:  In my case, it’s either Mel’s Diner or Goodson’s Cafe, both in Tomball. Both of these restaurants bring enormous crispy steaks out, swimming in cream gravy. You never want to finish the whole thing, lest your rump get as big as the Texas panhandle.

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6. Texans have big open hearts to match our state’s big open spaces: Once you get out of our sprawling cities and suburbs, Texas is full of vast open scenery of all sorts- piney woods, beaches, desert mountains, dusty plains, and grassy prairies. It’s breathtaking, really. Equally so? Our kind hearts. Texans love to help folks out- whether it’s with food for the hungry, care for animals, or hugs for suffering kids, we just can’t bear to walk away when someone needs us.

But I don’t think that’s uniquely Texan. One of the traits that ties us all together, whether in Texas or Minnesota or India or China, is that people love to help each other. It’s how most of us are wired.

So whether you wear a cowboy hat, sombrero, or beret, look around today. Appreciate your home’s flora, music, and customs. Love your neighbors. And y’all come visit us here in Texas. We’ll feed you chicken fried steak!

 

And the winner is…

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It’s baseball season! And since I live in Houston, the home of the current World Champ Astros, for whom I just bought a new team shirt and am anxiously awaiting the chance to go to a game at Minutemaid Park,  I find myself contemplating the concept of sport. Of Competition. I wonder how much we Americans are conditioned to Competitiveness and how much is innate. Clearly, some element of Competition has existed in humanity before there was even organized society. Cain Competed with Abel for Adam’s esteem, spilling blood to be the favorite. The Greeks held magnificent athletic and artistic Competitions in the original Olympic games. Who was Alexander but the most Competitive general to lead an army?

So I don’t really have a problem with Competition. It is a necessary force that pushes humanity to make new discoveries, chart new frontiers, and achieve excellence.

But sometimes I wonder why we have seemingly made everything here in America about being the best. We give trophies and tiaras to four year olds who prance and priss better than the other little girls. We pit students against each other in spelling bees in first grade so that the adept learners can lord it over the ones who are a little (or a lot) behind. We award trophies to kids for being on a sports team, making the trophy the desired end, rather than emphasizing the lessons learned about sportsmanship and personal physical fitness.

It is a mentality that permeates every single aspect of American life. We rate our movies according to top box office gross every Monday morning. We look at the cars next to us at the red lights and either pat ourselves mentally or grit our teeth in envy. We slave endlessly (or pay yard workers to) so that we might put that “Yard of the Month” sign in our front yards. Most women eyeball each other in the mall, comparing rear ends, wrinkles, and wardrobes. We brag about our kids’ grades on bumper stickers. It’s in our schools, our churches, our businesses, our neighborhoods.

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Even when the cause is worthwhile we compete. Weight loss competitions abound in businesses. Companies use competition as a marketing tool, cloaking it in contests for charity. For goodness’ sake our kids even compete for medals to see who can read the Bible best (how in the world we American Evangelicals could have imagined that children showing each other up is a Jesus thing is just incomprehensible to me)!

So no wonder we Americans believe we live in THE BEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD! Most of us have never visited any other country, but our Competitive conditioning tell us it must be so. That ideology was a deciding factor in our most recent presidential election. Competition, not competence. Supremacy over alliance.

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I don’t think I really am very Competitive by nature, though I think growing up in American culture can impart a pretty fierce dog-eat-dog mentality in all but the the most passive . I could never enjoy the fierce push to win at team sports, it seemed a silly waste of mental energy to me. When we had to shake hands and say “Good Game” I just wanted to make friends with everybody. I didn’t enjoy the All State Choir audition process in high school. I enjoyed the singing, but not watching some girls cry whose names were not called out. When our class elected its top ten most popular senior girls, I was #12. I watched as girls strategized and agonized about getting on that list, and I could not have cared less about that vote. I was surprised I got as close as I did. One of the top ten boys, Kevin R., told me in my yearbook that I could have been so popular if I had just tried a little harder. As a young adult I couldn’t have cared less about having better stuff than my peers. Still don’t.

As a theatre teacher, I found myself immersed in the arts, and Competition was probably one of my least favorite aspects of the job. Year after year I watched my students create beautiful work onstage and backstage. They were full of pride in their accomplishment. They gloried in the story they had told and they knew they had learned and grown in their craft as well as in their humanity. Then the trophies and medals got handed out and the kids without gold sparkly things suddenly doubted everything they thought about the art they had created. As a director, I had begun to start thinking cunningly, plotting for a win rather than for learning. Principals like it when you can set a trophy on their desks.

Irony of ironies, now that I am no longer a full time theatre educator, I serve as a judge at those very competitions. I go into those days with the goal of teaching and edifying the kids. Most of my judicial colleagues do, too.

I did discover that once the competitive element of trophies was introduced into my local community theatre stomping ground, much of my joy in that hobby was lost. I don’t get involved any more. I guess I have had one too many conversations with people who introduce themselves with their number or trophies, or who find ways to work their victories into conversation.

I am all for excellence. Anyone who knows me well knows I do not tolerate laziness or mediocrity. I used to lay that burden on others. I held everyone to my standards. Then I let go, and just held myself to a constant and unrelenting expectation of quality. That exhausted me. Through my practice of yoga, I have learned that winning has its place, but so does failure; that excellence is a worthy goal, but sometimes relenting and just being is just as worthwhile.

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I envision a world where kids play on rotating sports teams, drawn by lotto. Everyone works out and plays together and switches teams to make new friends and team parties at the end of the season include the whole league in one great big bouncy castle. The top spellers help the ones who are having a hard time. The beautiful popular girls hang out with the regular girls doing stuff completely unrelated to fashion, makeup, and boys. Neighbors come together to help each other with their yards. Plays are not pitted against each other in UIL, so that students and directors can come together and share their work and inspire each other without worrying about medal count, and Americans take the time to learn about all the beautiful countries and societies that populate our planet, appreciating cultural and religious diversity without feeling somehow disloyal to the States.

I may not be the thinnest or most beautiful woman, most talented performer, best mom, winning cook, or most decorated high school director. Fortunately, I now know (at least 80% of the time) that it just doesn’t matter. What I am is a human being discovering her own path, knowing that her path is not a race track. There is no medal for winning at the end. There is only the love we leave behind as our legacy, and there’s no blue ribbon for that.

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