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Monthly Archives: February 2013

Preventive Medicine

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Last week I enjoyed a lecture by a researcher at the Cancer Therapy & Research Center, who said that in order to try to prevent cancer, we should all drink lots of tea and eat local fruits and vegetables. So, when I awoke on Saturday to a beautiful, crisp, sunny, cool day in San Antonio, I called a girlfriend to see if she wanted to join me at the Farmer’s Market at “the Pearl” (formerly the Pearl Brewery, now the hottest spot in town.) She didn’t, really, but because she was bored, she agreed to let me pick her up. Before hitting the market, we fortified ourselves with breakfast at the Culinary Institute of America Bakery: perfectly poached eggs with shaved Parmesan and broiled tomatoes accompanied by a giant slice of buttered toast. Oh, and we each had a cup of hot tea, as the doctor ordered. We ate quickly and headed out to buy lots of green veggies, but were slightly distracted by all of the booths and a band playing live music at 9:30 a.m. There were farmers selling the usual: brussel sprouts and beets, arugula and leeks, strawberries, herbs and eggs, but there were also Hill Country wines, artisan cheeses and chocolate, goat’s milk soap and lavender candles. A chef was offering samples of steaming paella from his grill located in the middle of everything. After tasting as much as possible, we bought a few fresh greens to go along with the wine and cheese we had purchased. (Happily, the doctor had mentioned that a glass of red wine a day is a cancer preventative, as well.) Some chefs in their tall hats and white coats were lounging on benches outside two of the Pearl’s cool new restaurants, Nao and the Boiler House. They told us about their cutting-edge menus, and we resolved to head down there soon for delicious-sounding Latin American cuisine. Heading slowly to the car, our shopping bags filled with goodies, we realized it was noon. Neither of us was ready to go home, so we called our daughters and offered to take them to lunch. They readily agreed and we went, literally, to find our place in the sun.

We landed at a popular beer garden, The Friendly Spot Ice House, in the beautiful King William district.  As we stood in line to order, we wondered aloud about the menu and whether we should head elsewhere for healthier offerings. Someone in front of us turned around. “Their homemade Sangria is really great, and their Micheladas are good also!” Ok, ’nuff said! The five of us decided on a couple of sausage wraps, a few brisket tacos, and a somewhat healthy veggie burger. We were told to hurry and claim a table as they would be going fast on such a pretty day. A friendly young man noticed our party and helped us pull colorful metal lawn chairs up to a rusty table.  We waited for our number to be called while sipping delectable red wine sangria with fresh slices of  limes, oranges and lemons tossed in tall, icy glasses. I didn’t ask if it had been grown locally, but surely all that fruit in my drink was a good thing. It had to be better than the Mexican cokes with real cane sugar syrup that the girls were drinking. The courtyard was filling up with families, young couples and a few bicyclists who chained their bikes to the surrounding chain link fence. Everyone seemed to be regulars and we felt like we’d just discovered a precious secret. “Now this is the way to spend a Saturday afternoon in San Antonio,” my oldest remarked.  Breathing deeply, I sat back and let the sun warm my winter white face and arms. Soon our food arrived and I bit into the juiciest, most delicious sausage link covered with mustard and wrapped in a hot flour tortilla. Everyone else agreed that the tacos and burger were delicious as well. When our drinks were drained and our plates cleared, we glanced at the chalkboard behind our table which proclaimed, simply, “Ice Cream Treats.” One of our girls went to check it out while we adults shook our heads and declared that we just couldn’t. She returned, smiling broadly, carrying chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwiches. We passed them around the table and oohed and awed as if they were delicacies. Finally, licking our lips and fingers, we decided we should give up our table for those now forming a line, waiting patiently to sit. We all piled into the car, opened the windows and the sun roof, cranked up the radio and headed home. As I drove up my driveway, happy, satiated and a tiny bit sunburned, I glanced at the veggies in a bag on the back seat, remembering why I’d headed out that morning in the first place. “Mission accomplished,” I told myself. I’d gotten my fruit and veggies, along with a little Vitamin D, and enjoyed a day with people I love who made me laugh. Surely, that had to be good for me!

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Oscar Season

Academy Awards tourism destinationsI love awards shows, although they usually last way too long and are inevitably silly. But, I just can’t resist the wardrobe malfunctions, the miscues by actresses tripping up the stairs, the crying as though they really didn’t expect to win, and the memorials to those who died in the past year. This Sunday my daughters and I will gather around the t.v. with our popcorn and snacks (wine) to watch the Academy Awards, an annual tradition.  The best part, as far as we are concerned, is watching the stars walk down the red carpet before the show begins.  My husband will be in another room watching a Spurs game, or any other sporting event that happens to be on television. He has boycotted the Oscars since  1979 when Kramer vs. Kramer was awarded Best Picture over Apocalypse Now.  He does, however, agree to go with me to see most of the nominated pictures when they are in the theatre.

This year we have seen and enjoyed all the big contenders: Argo, Lincoln, Les Miserables, Zero Dark Thirty and Silver Linings Playbook. However, there is one movie that I absolutely refuse to see and can’t imagine that anyone would choose to see, “Amour.” This French film with subtitles is nominated for 5, count ’em, FIVE awards: Best Picture, Actress, Director, Foreign Language Film and Original Screenplay. While the title makes it sound lovely and romantic, the San Antonio Express News’ “Quick take” was:  “A feel-bad but unforgettable look at the indignities of old age.” Really? Please tell me more! In his review last week,  Express News movie critic Mick LaSalle awarded the movie three out of five stars, but issued a warning that “it is not enjoyable;” rather, he described it as “bleak and hopeless, and to call it ‘depressing’ would be to make it sound like a peppy, MGM musical compared to the misery of what is onscreen.” Let’s all rush to the theatre, grab some Junior Mints and a Coke and settle in for a good time! Apparently, “Amour” is about a loving elderly couple at the end of life. The wife has suffered a stroke and is paralyzed on one side. The husband tries his best to help her and, apparently, it goes downhill from there. As a daughter who just experienced the death of my mother following two years of watching my father suffer through her decline, I say, “No, thank you.”

However, the critic made some points about the movie that I found very thought-provoking. He said that the director was trying to show two things that movies never do : 1)  that an 80-year old is the same person she was at 30, and it is just as devastating to suffer a debilitating illness as it is at a younger age;  and, 2) while we all want to live to a ripe old age, dying of old age is truly awful. These are good points and I think it is why, in real life, we all feel sad and helpless when we watch an elderly parent or grandparent decline. I, for one, never thought of my mother as elderly or infirm until a couple of years ago, and she was 90 then! And, when you watch a vibrant person, even one in their 80’s or 90’s, suddenly change before your eyes due to a stroke or dementia or any number of horrific diseases, it is truly horrible to watch; doubly so if their loving spouse is watching with you. So, I guess the critics have a point; we are a culture that celebrates youth and beauty, and our music and movies reflect what we want to see. To make a movie about the ravages of old age and death is unique and remarkable, and, therefore, maybe even worthy of an award. Even so, it is not pleasant entertainment and I, for one, choose to escape unpleasant realities when I settle into a dark movie theatre with my Junior Mints and soda.

Let me know what you think, especially if you’ve seen “Amour.”

College Visit 2

I have been reminded by my youngest daughter that when I write abIMG_0685out her in my blog posts, I need to be more accurate (i.e. truthful). She does not accept poetic license when her name is used in a published blog…so, with apologies to my near-graduate, here is my revised, more accurate “College Visit” entry.

Some day, all of us must accompany our high schoolers on a college visit. We just returned from one with our youngest daughter, a senior in high school.

There is something terrifying about visiting a college that your child is considering, but you’ve never seen before. Instead, you’ve only heard and read about it (in U.S. News & World Report’s College Rankings’ edition.) You know the school’s average ACT/SAT scores. You know the number of students who apply annually and how many are accepted. You know how many people “go Greek.”  You have the stats regarding the admitted students, their majors, minors, and hometowns. Everything is a statistic. Then you drive up and see the Admissions building and realize, like spotting a celebrity, this is for real!

My daughter was recently accepted to a well-respected, small, liberal arts college in the South. It was her “stretch school,” as they say, and we were all excited when her acceptance letter arrived in our mailbox. It was entitled “The Large Envelope,” as the small ones always contain bad news. She had applied blindly after a representative from the college visited her high school and showed an impressive slide show. We decided not to wait until Spring Break, instead heading out for a President’s Day visit. We stopped first in Nashville to visit with dear friends we’d met in college. After a weekend of good food, conversation, and sight-seeing, it was time to move on to a new adventure.

An hour and a half after waving goodbye, we arrived at our daughter’s potential future home. We parked the car, exited, and walked purposefully towards the Admissions Building where several families gathered with their high school children. We introduced ourselves, received our maps, schedules and grabbed a cup of coffee. Soon we were led into a beautiful convocation center that reminded me of a scene from the Harry Potter movies. The Admissions counselor of the day announced excitedly, “We have a very special visitor today. The President of the University has popped in to speak to you.” Everyone clapped heartily, although we had no idea who this person was. “Good morning,” he started. “It is my privilege to welcome all of you to our campus home.” I was hanging on his every word. “This place may not be for you,” he said, “and that’s ok. But if it is, then this will become your community. We will live together, eat together, pray together, and play together. We want you to succeed and we want you to feel welcome here.” I tried to stop the tears smarting near the edges of my eyes.

After the President’s pitch, we were divided into groups and led out the building by current students for our campus tours. Each guide was introduced, and each had an impressive resume. Our guide was a triple major: Physics, English and French. Hmmm. We dutifully followed her all over campus, learning about the buildings, the traditions, and a little college history. She couldn’t help but share some personal info along the way; she was the first in her family to attend college right after high school, and while she was proficient in the sciences, she also excelled in English, History, and Creative Writing. (This fact was pointed out when she told us about the excellent tutors available in the Writing Center, of whom she felt she didn’t need to avail herself.) I asked about writing for the school newspaper or magazine and was informed that our guide also wrote for the paper and it was “no big deal.” Wow…who was this girl? For some reason, I felt I needed to ask a question when she asked, “Any questions?” I said, “What recommendations would you have for a high school student trying to decide between several colleges?” “Well, definitely do not wait until second semester senior year to tour colleges you’re interested in.”  Oops.

Soon it was time for lunch and we clingy parents were informed that our students would be dining with current college students and, while we were welcome to purchase lunch in the cafeteria, we were not allowed to eat with our children. Most of the parents looked nervously toward their loved one, while my husband and I high-fived each other. We headed down the hill to a local cafe. While enjoying our meal, we talked about what a good fit this school was for our daughter, and how we wished we could have attended school here. After an hour or so of talking about the good ole days when you could simply apply to college and get accepted without submitting letters of recommendation and resumes,  we tossed back our Blue Sky sodas and decided we should probably return to campus. When we did, our senior was walking towards us. “Hurry up! It’s time for the tours of the dormitory.” Off we went, following our tour guide into co-ed and all male dorm rooms, despite the fact that we were all females. The first room was small with a dirty, tiny bathroom. The second room was also small with the recycling bin overflowing with beer bottles, and a book opened on the desk entitled, “Whores and Other Feminists.” Another mom asked the guide, “Did they know we were coming today?” The guide happily answered, “Oh yes, this is a tour room.” Since this isn’t my first rodeo, I just smiled and shrugged when the horrified mom looked my way. Exiting the building I noticed a poster entitled “How to Help An Intoxicated Friend.” The first suggestion was, “Be sure to help him to his room. Do NOT leave him on the floor.” Helpful advice, I thought.

As soon as the dorm tour ended, we hurried back to our car, info-overloaded, and concerned about making a flight home in a couple of hours. We simply smiled at one another and fell into the rental car. Our daughter pulled out her headphones and plugged into her iPhone. My husband collapsed in the back seat and dozed off. I had agreed to drive the hour and a half to the airport. Soon we were back on the plane and headed home. “Recluse?” I heard a woman in the seat in front of me ask, hopefully. I watched as her blonde daughter, hair pulled tight in a ponytail, looked toward her mother for help. “A person who wishes to remain alone,” her mom stated, matter-of-factly. “Oh God,” I thought, “It’s SAT season.” Thankfully that was behind us. Now, all we had to worry about, was where our daughter would matriculate next year.

Ash Wednesday

Well, it’s Lent once again. Time for a season of increased Catholic guilt, as one of my good Protestant friends would say! I admit that in the past I’ve spent a lot of time during this liturgical season feeling sorry that I had that glass of Chardonnay (or 2) while preparing dinner, or that I had indulged in a Girl Scout cookie (or 2) with my daughter after school. How could I be so self-indulgent when Jesus died on the cross for me, I’d repeatedly ask myself. So, this year, with Lent approaching, I decided I was going to make a firm decision about giving something up; one definitive thing that I can give up, with a reasonable chance of success. (Chardonnay did not figure into this equation.)  I thought if I did that, then I could have other little indulgences without feeling bad about them, rather than feeling bad about everything. Today was the day I’d commit, I promised, as I entered church this morning. My parish priest, just before distributing ashes, began his homily, saying, “This year, let’s not give anything up.” Oh perfect, I thought, just when I’d made my decision to give up Girl Scout cookies. “Let’s instead try to live the gospel values. Rather than hating, feast on love for others. Instead of feeling proud, feast on humility. Reject selfishness and engage in service of others. Instead of anger, feast on forgiveness. This year, let’s focus on feasting rather than fasting.” Everyone sat in silence, listening, pondering his message. Great idea, I thought. Soon, I’d received ashes on my forehead and rushed out the door to get on with my day. I was thrilled with Father’s message;  how wise and sensible to live the gospel values rather than give up some silly little thing. Then, someone cut me off in traffic and I realized how difficult it would be to love this person. I sighed and made a renewed commitment. I would proceed with my plan to decline all offers of Samoas and Tag-A-Longs, but would try harder to love, serve and forgive. Gosh, how long does Lent last?

Unpaid Internships – WHAT the WHAT?

When did unpaid internships become the norm for college students and new graduates? I felt like an old fool when I began asking my daughter questions about this common practice. She was a sophomore at The University of Texas School of Communications, working on an Advertising degree, when she informed me that she could not graduate until she had completed an internship in the field. Ok, I thought, makes sense. Get some experience, see if  this field is the right fit for her, good idea. She attended job fairs, tweaked her resume, and was working hard to get hired by an agency that was approved for credit by the university. By the end of her sophomore year, she hadn’t found anything. She came home for the summer and, thanks to my sister who had some connections, was hired by a public relations firm. Well, it wasnt really a firm, it was a solo act that couldn’t afford to pay her, but would give her lots of experience. Fine, I thought, we’ll take great experience for this summer. She worked hard and learned a lot about making “cold calls,” and chaperoning various traveling acts through the local maze of theaters and malls. It wasn’t long before summer ended and she was back at the university, a junior, stressing again about finding an internship for required credit. The spring was filled with interviews, and, eventually, she was hired as an intern with an approved agency. We were thrilled for her; now she would get to see what a job in advertising was all about. Then she told us a couple of interesting facts. 1) The internship was “unpaid,” and, 2) since the internship was a required class, we had to pay tuition for it. Well, this was a different kettle of fish.

My husband and I  each graduated from college and pursued professional degrees without ever participating in “unpaid internships.”  I admit it was the ’80’s, but is this considered progress?  In order to graduate in 2012, a student must work long, hard hours for no pay, no benefits and no guarantees of future employment? And, not only that, he or she must pay tuition for the privilege of interning? Are you kidding me? Who came up with this idea? That is a query worth looking into. One can see how the university might benefit (3 hours’ paid tuition without the expense of  overhead for professors or classroom space.) And, of course, it’s obvious how the firm benefits (free labor from children without the repercussions of child labor laws.) Our daughter rolled her eyes, explained that this is how the world works these days, and basically called us dinosaurs. Other parents solemnly assured us that yes, unpaid internships are a necessary evil, but often lead to full-time employment, and, at the least, are resume builders. So, our daughter plugged away all summer in a cubicle with little direction, feeling bored and unfulfilled. When the internship was over, she couldn’t name one thing that she had learned, but she had amassed the 3 hours’ required credit and was on the path to graduation. However, we were dismayed to learn that even her Bachelor’s degree did not assure that she would earn money in her field.

After graduation, she spent many months in four different unpaid internships, necessitating her move from Austin back home to San Antonio.  (See “All Roads Lead Home,” a prior blog.) The most recent “opportunity” came from a business in Austin which needed a social media specialist. Our daughter accepted this position with the assurance that she could work from home, as well as the promise of future payment if she did “a good job.” I know what you’re thinking, but don’t assume that a 22-year-old without experience in the field is going to demand details of a potential employer; “a good job” went undefined.  Within a couple of months of providing virtually all of the company’s social media marketing for free, she was highly praised for a job well done. The reward? Her job duties would be expanded! She tried to remain upbeat, but one night, after a few days of working even longer hours on this job, she came to us and announced she was fed up and was going to demand to be paid. We immediately agreed and supported her decision, even helped her rehearse the conversation with the boss. She went to her room, slammed the door and called the owner of the company. Great! My husband and I assured ourselves that this must be the point of these internships; a short period of deprivation that teaches one to stand up for oneself and demand that her rights be recognized.  We heard our daughter tell her boss that she loved the work and was happy for this wonderful opportunity, but she remembered that she had been promised payment for good work. Then, in her most pitiful voice, she added, “I had to give up my apartment and leave Austin because of people like you.” Ok, she didn’t use those exact words, but it was something like that. We were so proud. After a few minutes, she quietly opened her bedroom door and sheepishly entered the kitchen. Looking up at our hopeful faces, she explained that her boss understood her situation, but explained this job simply wasn’t a paid position. Furthermore, she said that if she paid our daughter, she would have to pay ALL her interns!  I looked at my husband and said, sarcastically, “We can only imagine what a horrible predicament that would present for the company.” “But wait, Mom.  She’s willing to pay me $150 a month!” As you may know by now, I have problems thinking before speaking and said, ” Your 17-year-old sister makes more money babysitting!” What I meant to say was, “I am so sorry that you spent so many hours working on projects, tests, and marketing campaigns these past four years; not to mention the four years of high school you spent proving that you were worthy of even sitting in a classroom at such a prestigious temple of higher learning. I can only imagine how demeaning and demoralizing this must be for you.” Luckily, my husband stepped in at that point and hugged her and told her we were proud of her. She brightened and added, “She did invite me to their Christmas party in Austin, and, it’s open bar!” As usual, I went to bed that night frazzled and worried, but was soon reassured  by the faint murmuring of our daughter on her cell phone telling her friends she’d be back in Austin in December.IMG_0627

Adios Mamacita

A year or so ago I found an old note in a kitchen drawer scribbled by one of my daughters that said, “Amama called.” This was my girls’ name for my mother before they could say “Grandmama.” Looking at that note, I realized my mother hadn’t called me in a couple of years. She couldn’t; she suffered from dementia and had lost the ability to make a phone call. Eventually, she lost the ability to even speak on the phone, write a letter, or initiate a conversation. Not long ago I found what was probably the last letter she mailed to me; it was in a scribbly scrawl, atypically addressed to my maiden, rather than my married, name. That was in 2010 and, since then, my sister, brother, father and I have watched Mom slowly fade away culminating in her death last Monday. News of her passing was shocking, but, because of our faith, it was also strangely comforting. We truly believe that she was taken to a better place where she will no longer suffer the ravages of dementia and physical pain. We believe she was welcomed into heaven by the many, many dear friends and relatives who pre-deceased her, (one of the drawbacks of living nearly 93 years!) We are finally able to publicly grieve for the woman we began losing 2 years ago when our fun-loving, life of the party mom’s personality was gradually stolen from her by this awful disease. We are able to breathe deeply again without the pain of seeing her unable to enjoy any aspect of living. We have flung open the windows of her bedroom, kept dark for so long to enable her to rest. We threw away the plethora of pill bottles and lotions prescribed for a plaguing, inexplicable constant itching. We remember and talk openly about the good times and funny moments, laughing instead of crying. We can celebrate her life with many other friends and relatives who knew and loved her but were timid to ask about her condition, and even more afraid to come and see her, unsure what to expect. And we can be happy that even in her last days she recognized us. The last time she saw my husband she grabbed his hand, clearly said his name, and thanked him for coming to see her. She called my daughter by the nickname she’d always called her, “Katy-Poo.” And, in November, after a celebration for my dad’s 90th birthday, long after she’d stopped asking questions or conversing with us, she heard me tiptoe past her bedroom. “Hey,” she called out. “Come in here.” I quickly opened the door. She patted the side of her bed and said, “Come tell me all about it.” I did and she responded just like her old self. I curled up in bed next to her and couldn’t believe that for a few minutes I had Mom back with me. Shortly after she died on Monday, as we prepared for her funeral, I found a book in her bedside table entitled “The Book of Myself: A Do-it-Yourself Autobiography in 201 Questions,” by Carl & David Marshall. I had written inside, “To Mom with love from Constance, Christmas 1999” though I had completely forgotten that I’d given it to her. It was a book with prompts to help you write your life story. My dad said he’d never seen her writing in it. We opened it up and the words written inside were, literally, like a gift from heaven. On page 172, was the prompt “As I approach the end of my life my attitude towards death is:” followed by Mom’s handwriting, “I don’t fear it like I used to – I hope I’ve lived a life worthy of heaven.”  What a gift to us in our grief; what a reassurance from a woman who had nurtured, loved and reassured us all of her life.

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