The Great Book of Unfairness


A friend of a friend decided that there really should be a Great Book Of Unfairness. And that people should write down everything that is unfair in this Great Book and let it go. So she set forth to do that. She passed the book along to some of her friends to pass along and send back. It wound up with my friend. And in the fullness of time, my friend passed it along to me and told me that I had a week or so – and one page.

The Great Book of Unfairness came to me in a big black briefcase. Like the kind someone’s dad used to carry to The Office in the 1960s. The book is the size of a Houston telephone directory, it was bound, black, hardcover, with bright endpages with quotes. You could say the book was heavy with the burden of unfairness.

About 60 people had written in it. Some wrote one word. Some filled their page.  Someone just doodled around their paragraphs and daydreamed about what they wanted to say. Someone almost tore a hole in his page trying to erase something that maybe wasn’t that unfair after all.

Day One: What a great idea, and I am glad I get a chance to write in it. I have a lot to say. I need to gather my thoughts. Only one page? Will I have room?

Day Two: Granted, it’s a big page but where do I begin.  I should write in small print so it will all fit. I probably should write with a pencil with a very sharp point in good handwriting. I can use that good box of Dixon Ticonderoga #2 pencils. My handwriting used to be good but I’ve gotten out of practice since I rarely write words with a pen anymore, unless you count the occasional signature on one of those screens at the grocery store when they say credit or debit, or doodles on the side of an agenda as my mind wanders in stifling meeting.

Day Three: Organize, I think. Don’t waste this opportunity.

My head spins as I think about how to put the unfairnesses in order.


By level of importance- or greatness?

Alphabetically? I am sort of blocked. I cannot think of an “A” unfairness that is worthy of this list. Wait, I just thought of one.

Day Four: I know – How about if I start with the self-created rule of promising to let go of the personal unfairnesses that I write on My Page. Will I be able to do that? Do I want to make such a commitment?

Day Five: Should I begin with those unfairnesses that have fallen on me personally, or those of a more global magnitude? I’m thinking it would be a little unfair to have to give up my page to those big picture things. But then again, it is sort of a big page.

Day Six: Maybe I should divide the list into columns: Personal unfairnesses | General unfairnesses | Global unfainesses | Historic unfairnesses | Friends and Family Unfairnesses …

Day Seven: Has it been a week? Where has the time gone? I am starting to feel panicked and a little guilty for not doing this already. Maybe I should just write one sentence and draw some stars and circles around it and let it go. Things will slow down tomorrow. I will do it then.

Day Eight: No. I cannot just scrawl out a sentence and send this book on its way. This is My Chance. Not just for me, but for my friends who don’t get to write in this. I am going to sit down and start that list tonight.

Day Nine: Maybe I should not have started a “draft” list on a legal pad with a pencil. Lessons learned: Unfairnesses are hard to categorize. It is hard to come up with equal numbers for the Personal list and the Global list and the Historic list. And when my personal list starts to get long, I feel obligated to add those poor children with cleft palates in the ads in the Reader’s Digest, and people who don’t get Morton’s Iodized Salt so they get big ol’ swollen goiters on their necks, and wildabeasts that get run down by lions and die painful deaths. And while those are huge unfairnesses, they seem sort of generic and general, and they seem to diminish some of my personal unfairnesses… and then all of a sudden my pencil is getting dull again.

Day Ten: Maybe I ought to just use a nice roller ball pen and just push on through with a few random thoughts and scratch out and make edit marks when I mess up and when I get to the end of the page, I should just close the book and let it go. I am starting to think that I am overthinking this opportunity.

I have to start somewhere. It’s my turn. It’s my page. So don’t judge me. That would be unfair. *I really do have a strong social conscience, and I am sorry for all those things in the world that are unfair that are too many to list here.

I am going to start at the beginning of my life and use this whole page and let go of the things I write about.

… to be the firstborn child of an 18 year old girl who deserved much more. And before she knows it, that mom is raising three kids by herself, and then she is 34, and has a 16 year old daughter who is getting to do things she never got the chance to do. But it’s not fair. She’s only 34 – or 36 or 40… .   No matter how successful the mother’s life may become, she can not get past the youth she sacrificed.  It’s not her daughter’s fault. And to be fair, it’s not her fault either. From a distance it’s easy to see the problem and to rationalize how to heal and improve relationships, and believe it is not too late. But up close, things blur out of focus and lots of lines are crossed. Someone owes someone something. Or maybe no one owes anything at all. And no one quite knows how to let it go – or hold on. Unfair.

… to try to not make mistakes with my kids. To read all the books on parenting and relationships , and debate whether to use cloth or disposables, or schedule feedings or feed on demand, or piano lessons or t-ball, or television or books, and believe with all my heart that I am doing the best job I can do – and then to suddenly have grown children and see as clear as day, all the mistakes I made, and feel sick about it, and wish with all my heart for a do-over. My greatest fear is that my children will resent me for not being the parent they deserved. I know now that I could have done better. I read somewhere that a parent only gets 936 Sundays between the time a child is born and he or she reaches the age of 18, to spend quality time doing something worthwhile. Boy, I wasted a lot of those days. And I didn’t do that great of a job some of the time. But there are no do-overs. Unfair.

…to finally find the great love of my life and truly know that if I get to spend fifty years with him, it won’t be long enough. To know that his was my last first kiss and that THIS really is happily ever after. And know that we won’t get fifty years. That we might not get twenty years, and we have already had almost eight years of this. And to wake up sometimes and wonder what life was like before US. And if I will be able to accept the inevitable with grace, thanksgiving, and Winnie-the-Pooh and Dr. Seuss-esque platitudes like “Don’t be sad because it’s over. Be happy because it happened.” Is this an unfairness? Maybe not. But it is a useless worry that is far beyond my realm of control. So I am going to put it here and try to let it go. Unfair.

…to have let myself go. To carry an extra 40 pounds and to not have the willpower to make a life change. To know rationally that all things would be better if I invested more time in self-improvement and less time in self-destruction or laziness, but not having the core drive, motivation and self direction or whatever it is that some people have – to make that change. Unfair? Maybe that is not the word I am looking for.  

When it comes to tying knots in a length of ribbon to let go of my worries, or writing words on a page to let go of unfairness, maybe my list is not as long as I thought it would be, after all. Maybe I don’t need a whole page in this book after all. In the big picture, my unfairnesses are couched in good fortune. I have a mother who wanted to fight for me almost as much as she fought with me. I have children who, if you asked them, probably think I did okay by them, at least today. I have a husband who loves me, and we both recognize and cherish our good fortune to have found one another. We know our time together is precious and try to make every minute count. And I am going to see what I can do about that self-improvement thing. Writing those words in this book  is a giant step forward.

While I am not an overly evangelical person, I have been, for the most part,  what can be deemed a “good Episcopalian.” And for anyone has read this far into my trivial list of unfairnesses, I want to share this benediction that my friend and priest, Ben Nelson offers: “Friends, our time here is short. We do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those around us. So be quick to love. Make haste to be kind, and be assured that God is infinitely more concerned with our future than our past.”

And I think that’s fair.

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I wrote most of this essay in 2012 – after my week with The Book. A young friend is going through a rough patch right now and I told her a little about it. I went back to find this essay and update it. And today – three years later, I have learned that it helped to make that list, to  write all of that unfairness down. And let it go. Glue the page together. Burn it in a fire pit. Tear it into tiny pieces and scatter them to the wind.   Or just save a file in the bowels of your computer.   Did the unfairness go away? Did everything get better? Well, yes and no. Butterflies are not circling my head. But since the day I closed that book, I feel stronger and happier and – I guess “at peace” with unfairness. It’s out there. In a book. In a briefcase. Somewhere. Just one page of many contributed by people who have had much bigger and somewhat smaller and louder and quieter unfairnesses in their lives. And three years later, I am glad I saved this essay and dusted it off to read again.

I told my young friend to get a journal and write her list of unfair things in it. And then glue the pages shut. And to keep writing – and doodling – and dreaming. And in the midst of her to do lists and dreams and plans and wishes and wants, to start writing one good thing every day.

And for those good things, she can have all the pages she wants.

Listening to: I Had A Real Good Time by Delbert McClinton.

One of those annual letters…

One month into the new year – Happy Amost February!

Sorry I have been out of the loop. While I hate this excuse. I have been burning the candle at both ends. And since a few of you had asked where I’ve been and what is going on, I  just decided to pour a cup of coffee and write to you this morning to fill 155916237you in…   So this is sort of the email I was planning to send to you during the holidays and kept putting on the back burner… well. Today is the day to write it and press send!

In no particular order:
We got a new executive director at ALERRT, and he is wonderful. I received a major promotion and am juggling two jobs, but beginning in April, I will be exclusively handling marketing, media and governmental relations, which is the dream job. We moved into fabulous new offices near the hospital, and I have huge windows and can look out and see the Texas Hill Country – and Alkek Library and Old Main!   I am getting here at dawn and leaving at dusk most days, but suffice to say that I feel like I have a new job and absolutely love it.

I have been asked to write Delbert McClinton’s bio  – he is a legendary Texas musician, who wrote “Two More Bottles of Wine,” among other country hits – and now – in his 75th year, he is moving into more of a crooning style. I am looking forward to working with him and getting this project done and developing it into a multifaceted definitive profile of Delbert.

I have cut back on other freelance projects and carefully considered taking this on, but it is truly what I love to do – and no one has written a major piece about him to date, and hey, he taught John Lennon to play the harmonica, for goodness sakes, and most of all, I think he has a very good story to tell in Texas music history.

The collaborative Texas songwriter book project for Texas A&M Press was hung up in legal for a little while as they got permissions to use some song lyrics in other chapters – but looks like it is going to press soon.

Speaking of Texas music, in March, I am representing the Center for Texas Music History and presenting a paper at the Texas State Historical Association Annual Conference in Corpus Christi: “Texas Music: From Frontiers to Footlights.” I am looking forward to that conference and getting to soak up a lot of great presentations – not to mention the book fair that happens along with the conference.

On a sad note, my children are struggling with their father’s mortality — as his heart grows weaker. My former husband, Kent Finlay  has been in Methodist Hospital in SA for about 9 days and they were hoping to move him to a rehab facility but have been unable to stabilize him enough to make that move.  HalleyAnna and I drove over to see him this week – and it is very sad. Each of my children is handling this differently, and while I am not in a place to facilitate this, I can only sit back and pray for grace and peace for them in their own ways. As you know, these sorts of things can tear at the fiber of the best of family relationships, but I can only hope for comfort and good memories for each of them.

Jenni, who took the lead on taking care of him last spring while he had the bone marrow transplant and cancer treatments, has a book of poetry coming out this week Here is what the blurb says:

Jenni Finlay will soon release her first chapbook of poetry, entitled Table For One (Mezcalita Press). Acclaimed author Brian T. Atkinson recently submitted the book’s foreword. “Turn the page,” he writes. “You’ll learn life lessons in care and compassion and calling your own heart into action.” Illustrations by the amazing Marc Harkness complement the poems, written during the months when Jenni was her father’s caretaker during his cancer treatment and bone marrow transplant.  The bittersweet vignettes are as humorous as they are heartwrenching.    Stay tuned for more details of Jenni’s poetry debut set for release in early March 2015!  CLICK HERE to pre-order today!

Her book about her dad, coauthored with Brian T. Atkinson, Kent Finlay: Dreamer is slated for fall release through the Texas State University’s  Center for Texas Music History  John and Robin Dixon Series – also through Texas A&M Press.

Mark and I are still taking care of – and spending as much time as possible  with – his dear mother, who at 90, is still the beautiful woman his father fell in love with. She has a wry sense of humor and enjoy driving Mark crazy in a way only mothers can!  My mother has settled in comfortably in Savannah, Georgia near my brother and his family and has found a truly happy place to be.  Mark and I have determined that 2015 is the year that we focus on quality time doing things that are important to us.  I got on a walking kick last fall and when my knee started to give me trouble, I researched and then talked my best buddy Kim Porterfield into getting Really Great Bicycles and we love them.  We started a regular riding regime but my knee was not getting better.

The knee was not further harmed by the bicycling (in fact, I am told that is good for it) but it appears that the meniscus (sp) has been compromised in my left knee and it hurts like the devil when I move it in certain ways. So — as my brilliant non-doctor husband says, “Don’t move it in those ways.” But I finally went to my dr and after dealing with some insurance fal-de-ral am finally seeing a sports medicine orthopedist who specializes in knees next week. I throw in the sports medicine part just to point out that it is not a “old peoples” knee doctor! lol!  I might just need to go see Jenice’s Dr. Jim, since Mark always insists that vets are much  better doctors than human doctors – because they have to learn about every kind of body – from birds to horses! — though, wait–  thinking of horses,  he may have to shoot me if my knee is unfixable!   So for now, Kim is riding solo and I am waiting till i go to the knee guy before I get back on the bike.

Sterling gave me a wooden sign a while ago that says, “Enjoy life. It is not a dress rehearsal.” and this year, we are taking that to heart. We are determining what is important vs what is urgent.. and finding that last year, we let much important time pass while addressing squeaky wheels and the loudest squalkers. We are finally both at a place where we feel we are doing our best — and we are very lucky.

Yes. This may sound like one of Those Emails that people laugh about  that attempts to catch people up with everything great that is going on,  so for the record, life is not a bowl of cherries. We have to jiggle the handle on the toilet in our bathroom to make the water stop running, and you have to walk single file through our garage because of all the junk, and our outside Christmas lights are still up BUT THEY ARE UNPLUGGED — but Mark and I have decided that taking deep breaths and enjoying quality of life — and that spending time celebrating real friendship are much more certain keys to happiness than chasing our tails and trying to keep up with a full calendar of meetings and committees and to-do lists.

And as we approach Barkley’s first anniversary with us on February 4,  we are grateful for PAWS animal shelter for saving him for us – (he had been turned over  to the shelter three times  and had been there since October when we got him last February)  and for the great adventures we have been on together. He is the best traveling dog and truly adds another dimension to our family.

As I mentioned, the first quarter of this year is a bit of a challenge but we are getting things organized and squared away personally and professionally, and will be living in a new kind of normal beginning in April.  Let’s make it memorable. I hope to spend more quality time with good friends in this new year. And look forward to sitting and visiting and catching up soon. So here we are almost 1/12th of the way through 2015. Here’s to all of us. Quality life.


Listening to: Green Leaves of Summer by Asleep At The Wheel

Where I’m From…

I really am going to put away the rest of the Christmas decorations today – but I have been busy. Reading a yearbook. From a private boy’s school in Dallas. No. I guess you would say I don’t have any connection there – beyond my first journalism teacher. But when I look back at my career of writing, I remember the cinderblock walls of his classroom in the “new” English building that has since been torn down. And I know that group of St. Mark’s journalism students and I have a lot in common. Ray Westbrook’s classroom: It’s “Where I’m From.” 


Ray Westbrook came to San Marcos High School right out of Southwest Texas State University as our first “real” journalism teacher. Before he stepped into the role, journalism teachers had generally been English teachers who were saddled with the newspaper and yearbook staff, or coaches who had to also teach something else during their off periods.

The year before he came to us, Ray had edited The SWT Pedagog, an innovative and journalistic yearbook. In high school we looked at that as the definitive yearbook. I managed to wrangle a copy a few years ago.  It read like a time capsule. In recent years,  that yearbook has set on my desk at the office, raising my iMac two inches to the perfect height. And yes, occasionally, I  pick it up and look through  it. More than group pictures and class favorites, that college yearbook chronicled our world at that time. Folk singers and war veterans, streakers and sorority girls, and current events and trends –   a new movie theatre opens – a Hollywood movie being filmed in San Marcos with Big Stars – protests continue as America’s youth finds its voice.  At the time it was published, I was still in high school and this was a college yearbook, but it spoke with eloquence of the times of our lives, and the weight of the world our generation was soon to inherit.

When Mr. Westbrook came to SMHS, he was not much older than we were. At the time, I don’t think we realized that. There was a line between Teachers and Students and when one crossed that line, they aged quickly, and began to wear sweater vests and ties. But he was different. Behind the sweater vests and ties, he understood us. And he knew, better than we, what we could be. He brought that new way of thinking to The Rattler yearbook. We were allowed to sit ON the desks and hang out in the journalism room when we had free time. We began to tell our stories – and we learned elements of design and life lessons along the way.

It wasn’t until several decades later, when the magic of Facebook brought us all back together in our 50s, that we realized that Mr. Westbrook was Our Age. In that way that the years blur as we get further away from seventeen.

So what is Ray — yes, now we call him Ray — doing now? He has The Dream Job. He teaches journalism and publications at the famed St Mark’s School of Texas in Dallas. He went from teaching at SMHS to working for Taylor Publishing Company (a major player in yearbook publishing) for nearly two decades.  Along the way, he served as director of academics for the University Interscholastic League and the Texas Association of Secondary School Principals – and in 2001, landed in The Dream Job.

For the last 14 years, he has taught at St. Mark’s Of Texas, a private boys school on Preston Road in Dallas, with about 850 students between first and 12th grades. In 2011, he earned –  and continues to hold –  the Gene and Alice Oltrogge Master Teaching Chair. He explained, “In private schools, some teachers are honored with a Master Teaching Chair. The Oltrogge Chair is funded by H Ross Perot Jr.  When it was founded, I was honored to be given this chair. It is basically an “elevation” in rank for good work – and it came with a $20,000 pay raise – no small potatoes!”  He teaches journalism and design, and is the advisor for the student newspaper, The ReMarker, and The Marksmen yearbook.

Student newspaper? Hardly the stuff we would expect. The quality is outstanding. Check it out.

As we swapped text messages during the holidays, Ray told me he was going to send me their latest yearbooks. I looked forward to receiving them and seeing what my old friend and mentor was doing these days. And, it’s been more than a decade since I have looked through a current high school yearbook. I wondered what they look like now.

Wow! This is a dream job. His multitalented stuIMG_4378dent staff handles all phases of the publication, from theme to content, to layout and design, and operations.  The 2013 yearbook theme is “Where I’m From,” and after I poured over the pages and read every word, and wrote back and raved about this coffee table book, he casually mentioned that it did happen to sweep the three most prestigious national and state awards for yearbooks last year.

The three national awards are the Gold Crown from Columbia Scholastic Press Association (NY), the Pacemaker Award, given by the Natl. Scholastic Press Assn., and the Gold Star, given by the Interscholastic League Press Conference (the state journalism group housed at UT Austin).

Where I’m From offers well written feature stories, such as “20 Years of Arnie,” a story about the longest serving headmaster of the school preparing for retirement; a definitive “Class Tree” that lists a year by year roster of the Class of 2013 graduating students beginning with their first grade year — (second grade out – second grade in… third grade out – third grade in, etc.);class pictures of each group from first graders to seniors; a feature about a physics teacher who plays a little blues music on his guitar and harmonica when there is time at the end of class; and  each senior gets his own page – including a personal essay about his experience at St. Mark’IMG_4380s, and includes his activities in school, a favorite quote and other details.

Yes, I guess it seems odd for a 50-something woman to spend a couple of nights curled up by the fireplace reading, cover to cover,  a high school yearbook from a boys school in Dallas. I only know one soul in the book, and he is a greying master teacher now.  But I do feel the spirit of the place.

When I read the notes from the editor, I see, “Ray, I can’t thank you any more articulately than past editors, but suffice it to say I am the man that I am because of you. Even when we disagree, there’s no one I respect more. Thank you.”

And the last words on the last page: “It’s where I became who I am – and where I will come back to for the rest of my life. 10600 Preston Road. It’s where I’m from.”

Where I’m From speaks volumes. Not just for these Dallas prep school seniors, or former students withIMG_4381 old yearbooks and faded memories.  It is the one thing that we all have in common. We wear that like a class ring or a letter jacket wherever we go in life.  It is the tie that binds.

And it’s heartwarming on this freezing January Saturday,  as I look into the faces of these bright young strangers, and wonder about all  they will see in the next 40 years.

I think of my earliest friends, Kate and Gregg and Shelly and Lloydean and Debbie and am grateful. They are a part of who I am today.

And Mr. Westbrook. And his classroom.

It’s Where I’m From.

Listening to: “You’re Always Seventeen In Your Hometown”  – Cross Canadian Ragweed  

Hello, Twenty-15. Happy. New. Year.

I love new years. No. Not New Year’s Eve, but the new calendar, new year, new start. As a confident traveler on the road to hell, my new years are traditionally paved with good intentions, and with a nod to my favorite seasonal holiday songwriter, Robbie Burns, my plans often go astray (or a-gley, if you are a purist).

But Twenty-15  has started out in a different way. The last two weeks have been the best holiday break in my memory.  Many good things have set the stage for a truly Happy New Year and as a career list-maker, I cannot help but make a to-do list and doodle around the edges, daydreaming about what 2015 will bring.

Part of the fun of the new calendar is looking back at what happened in the old year. How are we different – how are we the same? How are we better – and worse?  What makes us happy – or sad? A little Monday morning quarterbacking comes into play. What would I have done differently last year?  Can I make those changes this year?

Is it too late to change? Old dog adages notwithstanding, I don’t think so.  Two of my friends (Susan and Kim) and I have gotten bicycles. And we are riding them. I got my bike a week ago tomorrow and have ridden just shy of 30 miles. My goal is 100 miles a month. I set it high – and if I cannot do that in January, I will readjust. It’s not mixed martial arts or Cross Fit boot camp, but it is a start. And I have already moved my body further in a week than I did in all of 2014. We are using to record our efforts.

In 1942, Woody Guthrie wrote a list of his goals in his Moleskine. You have probably seen his list. Good goals.  I think I will borrow several of them for my To Do list.


A good list for anyone — in any year, and if it was good enough for Woody, I think I can live (better) with some of these goals. Someone on Facebook shared this “action item” list, and I sort of liked it too. Not too ambitious… I think it bears consideration.


And finally, I am going to write more. And submit more projects for publishing. This blog is simply an exercise… a place to start.  Before real life gets in the way, I am going to sign up for this WP Blogging 101. I have shared it with my writing buddy, Janice. Maybe we will get things rolling with this.

I have committed to 280 Daily for a while. That is 280 characters per day – a  private online journal- memory jogger.  Good thing 280 daily is not public – sometimes it is just cryptic notes.  No one else would be too interested in those.

Dang. This is starting to sound suspiciously like a list of resolutions. But the difference is that I am not committing to major changes. I am just going to try to do a few things that I meant to do in 2014 and never got around to.  Baby steps. I do well with deadlines  and lists and if I give myself some deadlines, I just might complete some of these things.

I have heard that if you do something for 28 days, it starts to become a habit. So tomorrow- January 5, I am going to try some new habits and routines. I will shoot for one week. And then one more week. And then one more week – and I will see how it goes. I may write these ideas down later. Because if I do, I feel more accountable!

Strategic planning.  Mission Statement. We have all come to loathe those phrases. But I get it on a basic level. What is my mission? What is my plan?

Maybe my plan is to define my mission.  That is a lofty goal…

Here goes…

Wish me luck.

Faded photos and family memories

I love old photos –and once in a while one will float to the top of my
consciousness – or desktop, as was the case here.  (Actually, I found it
on my baby  brother’s facebook page!) This is surely one of my favorites
though I can’t, for the life of me, figure out what was up with Sammy.


My brothers and me.

From left to right, I (Diana Leigh) stood with my  little brothers,  Guy Allen (whom we called Sammy) and Ronald Gene (whom we called Chuckie).

If these nicknames make no sense,  you are obviously not familiar with the old Southern tradition of nicknames. I can attempt to explain. Unlike “Mike” for Michael or “Susie” for Susan, Southern nicknames rarely make sense. I think somewhere along the line, our  forefathers got “nickname”
confused with “codename,” hence the nonsequitur.

That tradition has faded. I think it was one of those Title III or XXXVII kind of federal government rules handed down by the high court of the land somewhere along the way – that said people ought to be called by some semblance of their given name. So Sammy and Chuckie fell by the wayside and we have long since begun  to call them Guy and – well- ok, family still
call Chuck “Chuck,” though the rest of the world calls him  Ron.

And I  answered to  a variety of code names ranging from “Tee-tah,” (a baby brother’s bastardization of “Sister” that caught on in the entire family)  to the more common “DianaLeigh,” a more common and rational moniker that is still used by old family friends to this day.

This snapshot was taken sometime around 1965,  because I was at the first of several awkward ages  – about eight and a half –  when one’s nose grows faster than the rest of one’s body,  and arms and legs are at that spaghetti gangly stage… (Ah, to be gangly once more, I dream!)

In this old picture, I have a hair style that could only have been achieved by sleeping in those bristle-y old grey  brush rollers affixed to the scalp with pink plastic spears, something I only got to do on Saturday nights when Mama wasn’t using the hair net.

I was still wearing lacy nylon socks with my good shoes.  We were obviously getting ready to go to church because Chuckie is wearing his clip-on tie and Sunday School attendance pin. I HAD a Sunday School attendance pin, too, but it was probably in my Barbie shoe box.

But for the life of me,  I am not sure what’s up with Guy in that picture. Obviously he was not going to Sunday School that day, standing barefoot up against the car, nursing what might have been a red ant bite on his arm .

Truth be told, that grimace may have been  our fault. We tortured Sammy.

Not physically.

We  were much more conniving than that.

Much worse.

We would  “look” at him until he would squeal.

Then someone would call out “What are y’all doin’ to Sammy?”  And we’d say, “Nothin’, Mama.”

Somewhere along the line, someone said, “That little Sammy has a rubber tail and he squeaks when anyone steps on it.”

From then on, we could answer, “Nothin, Aunt Robbie. The devil musta stepped on his rubber tail.”

While we were all born the old fashioned way to our Mama and Daddy, Guy grew to an age of insecurity, believing everything his older siblings would tell him.  Chuck and I  would whisper that he was not really ours.

And so we’d torment him – weaving tales of buying him  from gypsies at a carnival. In our story, he never had slept on a real mattress until we got him. When he was a baby, he  had to sleep in the back of  a greasy truck on a bed made from stuffed animals filled with sawdust.

This store bore some truth in his mind and ours, because our Grandma never let us vie for those prized plush toys at the  carnival that set up each year at the  Confederate Soldiers Reunion  out at Camp Ben McCullough because  she said, “Those teddy bears are filthy and filled with bugs. You know those carnival gypsies   – they make beds from those toys for their children to sleep on.”

Since Guy was the third of three children, photos of him as an infant are rare. At that point, our mother was working full time and raising us and keeping food on the table,  so photographs were a luxury reserved for Christmas, Easter, funerals and a rare vacation, if at all.

So it made sense that we didn’t have pictures of Guy as a blue-eyed, tow headed baby. (If it was any consolation, we told him we had to pay the gypsies much more for him  than  for a plain ol’ brown-eyed boy like Chuckie.)

So, in spite of a perfectly legitimate birth certificate and my clear memories of his birth at the Hays County Hospital, this picture does appear to be worth a thousand words. This was the day Mama dressed us up  and we went out to buy a kid from the gypsies.  And, yes,  this was the one we picked out.

Could anything be more devastating to a little boy?

That is a fundamental difference in boys and girls. Girls raised by their birth families (is that how one would frame this concept?)   probably won’t admit that we have all had snippets of daydreaming of the day we find out that this is not our REAL family.

We are really the daughters of wealthy and exotic jetsetters, right? Folks who simply didn’t have time for the tedium of child rearing but as soon as we get to an appointed age, we will go back to our rightful lifestyles. And we will  never again be forced  to wear nylon lace socks that slip on the heel, and our mamas wont have to sit us in the high chair on the porch and  give us home perms and trim our bangs with the kitchen scissors.

We have flashes of that dream well into adulthood as we transform the dream from  waiting for the limo to arrive to take us to our REAL home – and we begin to pray that surely we are not going to wake up one day and be  five baby steps from flat out crazy like most of  the other women of our family. We rationalize that what appears to be the dominant family gene is simply not going to pass on to us because  we are not scientifically genetically related to these crazies.

But we are.

Still that doesn’t keep us from going back and studying old pictures, trying to figure out who we are, and looking closely to see if we can see clues that will lead to  who we are going to be….

When we grow up.

And you were there – and you – and you…

The Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion

Happy Mother’s Day. Mark and I are moving kind of slow today at my house. This weekend marks the end of a very busy semester. Nine hours of grad school, two gallery shows, three magazine cover stories, and a wonderful community wide election that brought unlikely groups of people together to push forward in a new direction with some greatly needed school improvements. And it’s Mother’s Day.

While we have lots of images  of our blended family with all five of our fabulous kids, this one was on my mind this morning. Sterling, Jenni, and HalleyAnna — the three kids who helped me grow into who I am today.

I have had this picture on my computer desktop and in a frame on my desk for a couple of years. A quick shot taken at a rare moment when everyone was together somewhere, it has always made me think of that final scene in “The Wizard of Oz,” where Dorothy wakes up in her bed on the farm in Kansas and sees everyone around her.

“You were there, and you were there, and you were there,” she says, as she looks at the familiar family members with a different eye…as she remembers a technicolor dream of the adventure of her life.

And I look at this picture, I see my own versions of the  Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion.

The Scarecrow: Sterling is one of the smartest people I have ever known. In the third grade, he carried a well-worn copy of Thoreau’s Walden in his book bag, reading and quoting from it. He liked reading Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and books of lists and world almanacs and Texas maps.  He was a Duke National Scholar with high scores on the SAT while in junior high, and grew to be San Marcos’ first National Coca-Cola scholar and a presidential scholar. And along the way, he stumbled into more questions than answers and  started doubting his own ability – wondering how life would be  “if he only had a brain.” Ah, but he does.

The Tin Man: Jenni has been goal driven and organized since she was a toddler. She grew up overnight when Sterling was born and before she was two, she had stepped into the role of second in command in the mothering department.  A childhood on stage led to a successful career on the business side of music, a challenging, competitive, and sometimes  careless world. She has faced family illness and stopped her world to take care of others. And against common practice, she has put her artists’ needs ahead of hers, and taken on much more than what would normally be required. Through her dedication, her clients have become friends and those friends have become family. Though along the way, when  forced to make difficult decisions, she has confided, “I am sort of heartless, I guess.” I beg to differ.

And HalleyAnna, the Cowardly Lion. She learned to walk before she crawled -and always knew she wanted to keep up with the big kids. She has stepped up and stepped out of her comfort zone and made her own good decisions for a long time. She had heart surgery at the age of 13 to fix an extra electrical pathway, was hit by a car while riding her bike nine years later, and has traveled solo to New York City, Walden Pond, Costa Rica and across the Great Divide in Colorado, and got at tattoo of the state of Texas on her index finger, lest she need to find her way home from somewhere far away. As she prepares to release her second album and is packing her car to head across the southeast to promote the record, she thinks a lot about courage. And wonders what it would look like.

And so today as the dust settles after a whirlwind month,  I look at this picture of those  children who grew into adults while I was looking the other way, while I was busy traveling down that yellow brick road, fighting off flying monkeys and trying to figure out how to get to where we needed to be.  And I think of a million things I would have done differently —  and oh so much better — if I only  had the brain and the heart and the courage …. and time.

And if I had known  then what I know now. And the things I wish I had said while time was  slipping through my fingers.  I wonder if they know how much I love them – and how proud I am of who they are – deep down,  far beneath their own doubts and worries and questions.

Looking back, I think that that if I’d only had a brain… a heart… and courage, I would have passed  it all on to them.

But for now, I will look at this picture and think of that great adventure over the rainbow that was motherhood.

And I will be so very proud of who they are.  And who they have been all along.  Even if they don’t completely know themselves.

Happy Mother’s Day.

A Psychic Valentine

Okay. Here goes. A Valentine story.

Some years ago, my good friend, Mary Mikel, and I happened to be going through divorces at about the same time. Quietly, painfully, and not so much commiserating together, but sort of feeling our way through this new kind of normal that was single  at the advent of the 21st century.  And I had no interest in ever – EVER – getting involved in a relationship again.

And here came Valentine’s Day with hearts and flowers and Noah’s Ark pairing up of folks. Blah! Humbug! we said. Until Mary Mikel, who is quite adventurous, said – “Hey – I have an idea. But we have to scrounge up $75 and go to Austin.”

That was a bit of a struggle but she found some middle-of-the-month money, and promised me it had nothing to do with oiled dancing men and dollar bills.

Definitely better than that. She made appointments for us with Madame Ruth, The Psychic. Yes. What a hoot. We got the full-meal deal – for a whopping $75– which included the tarot cards, the palm reading and the (you have to say it with Madame Ruth’s accent), “Kleee-stal” Ball.

Not actually Madame Ruth.

Ever the reporter, I took a notepad and told MM that I would write down notes for her and she could do the same for me.  It was fun and goofy and we came home no worse for the wear, but not exactly feeling like we had a life-changing experience.

Mary Mikel had written the words Madame Ruth said as she read my palm:
“You will marry again. The man you will marry is in your circle of consciousness now but you only see him as a casual friend. Be open to a life that is different from what you know. Be open to that relationship and let him into your life.  I see five children: three girls and two boys.” (At this point I think I snorted -as three kids was plenty for me, thank you very much.)
“And I see some juggling and struggles  but it will eventually work itself out so be patient because it will be worth it.  And I see laughter in your eyes, and joy in your heart.”

Time passed. MM soon married her college sweetheart, and they are living happily ever after.   I was still not too interested in the drama of dating. Much less marrying – or having more children – God forbid! I was actually kind of loving being “woman-hear me roar” and celebrating a new, albeit struggling independence – while savoring the last remnants of HalleyAnna’s childhood as she entered high school.

Several years later, Mark and I had just gotten married, after  kind of a whirlwind romance that  started in July with a wedding the following April.  We were combining households – selling my small bungalow in SM – moving to and renovating his rustic cabin at Gruene to sell so we could get something we could all fit into.  As I went through boxes in the garage, I came across that note pad from Madame Ruth’s visit.

Madame Ruth was long forgotten. We were boxing my world up to put into storage units, and moving into Mark’s 1000 square foot cabin with his 14 year old son and my 16 year old daughter. I came across that notebook. “You will have five children,” was the phrase that jumped out at me.

I counted our wonderful, truly blended family of Jenni, Sterling and HalleyAnna + DeLynn and Patrick, who had fallen into the coolest bunch of friends anyone could dream of for any siblings… and I said, “Hey Mark – look at this.”

Yes. He had been in my “circle of consciousness” for a long while. We had known each other at the time of Madame Ruth and long before – but only casually- I had been an editor at a couple of area newspapers, and he was the news information director for the university – and, in fact, we had worked for the same paper at different times  but we had never worked together. And all the way back in our 20s and early 30s, we sort of knew one another by name or occupation, as we’d managed bars only blocks from each other — Cheatham Street for me and the Long Branch Saloon for him.

At the time of Madame Ruth’s Valentine’s Day, we were in a quasi-professional organization that met for lunch about once a month to discuss public affairs and local rumors.   He was struggling  to raise his two kids alone.  The LAST thing on his mind was a relationship with anyone.  He was up to his neck in being the best single parent he could be.

Time passed. Long after Madame Ruth and that Valentine’s Day. To that day in the garage when I found that notebook.

Weird. But I have to admit she hit the nail on the head. Today, I do have laughter in my eyes and joy in my heart.   And this life is certainly different – 180 degrees from before. Crazy, right?

Psychics? “Klee-stal Balls?” They are for people like Loretta Lynn and Nancy Reagan –  and the National Enquirer. It was a hoot. And kind of spooky – but in a good way – like Ouiji boards at slumber parties. And  it was a Valentine’s Day to remember.

And I guess this is where I say, “And they lived happily ever after.” 🙂

It’s true.

But mostly I think Madame Ruth had good advice when she said, “Be open to a life that is different.”

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Be True to Your School: I’m Proud to be a Bobcat

Today on a Facebook alumni group, one of my friends asked, “What in your life are you most proud of?”

This is a group of a little less than 200 folks  who graduated from San Marcos High School  between 1970 and 1980 – and  I would guess that at least 2/3 of them moved away from San Marcos after high school graduation. After a split second of thought, I knew my answer(s).

Topping the list would be the Great Love of My Life,  and a whole bunch of pretty cool kids, which I go into (probably too much) detail about on this blog and in other social media outlets – often to their chagrin.

But hands down – on a more “community level,” I would have to say that  being here on the front lines, watching San Marcos and Texas State University grow together has made me pretty darned proud.

Some of my dearest friends who moved away more than three decades ago, still think of our university as this sleepy little suitcase/ teacher’s college on the hill. After all, when we graduated from high school, the university was less than 1/3 the size it is today  -and was comfortably staying within its boundaries “on the hill,” with about 10,000 students.

And since I have been needing to kickstart this somewhat neglected blog page again in 2012, I figured today and this topic are good places  to begin. So in addition to random and often tangent driven subjects, I am going to offer a  three-part “State of My  Community” blog to kick off this year’s resolution to writing more often in this online diary.

√ Texas State University – San Marcos (Be True To Your School)

San Marcos Consolidated Independent School District (Oh, The Places You’ll Go!)

The City of San Marcos (We, The People)

While some might scoff at the pedestrian idea of living for more than 54 years in the same place, it does not lack a unique sense of adventure.  And the view from here can still take my breath away.

Today’s topic: “Proud to be a Bobcat”

In case you haven’t kept up with such things,  with more than 34,000 students, Texas State is now the fifth largest public university in Texas, and the 36th largest in the nation. We have just been named to a very short list of “emerging research institutions” AND our home opening football game next fall is against Texas Tech in our newly expanded stadium seating more than 30,000, and Coach Dennis Franchione leading the Bobcats into FBS Division I NCAA football (the highest level of college football competition).

Lots of great town and gown initiatives bring our “communiversity” together – – like the Bobcat Promise – where Texas State University-San Marcos will cover tuition and mandatory fees for any new freshmen from San Marcos High School whose families have adjusted gross incomes of $35,000 or less.  Students may qualify for Bobcat Promise for up to eight continuous long semesters (fall and spring). The program will cover the cost of 15 credit hours of tuition and fees – an award in excess of $7,000 per academic year.

Some of us were in elementary school and got to take a “field trip” to campus when President Johnson came here to sign the Higher Education Act of 1965.  Almost a half-century later, I’m thinking he would be pretty proud of the Bobcat Promise today.

And construction crews are working seven days a week on a new performing arts center on the edge of campus.   The state-of-the-art facility will feature a 400-seat theatre and a 300-seat recital hall as well as rehearsal spaces, staging areas, classrooms and a grand lobby.

According to the University Spokesman, (who coincidentally is mentioned in the beginning of the third paragraph of this entry) , “the location of the Performing Arts Center was chosen specifically to facilitate interaction with the San Marcos community. A big parking garage is included in the construction plans with easy access to the venue, eliminating the long-standing community complaint about the difficulty of finding parking on campus for entertainment events.”

Good things are happening in San Marcos these days — and you know what? You can come home again.

As Tom Bodette says, “We’ll leave the light on for you!”


Read more about Texas State’s new status as an emerging research institution in the Jan 21, 2012 edition of the  New York Times.

Listening to the Beach Boys’ “Be True To Your School”

The Obit Club — Expansion League

Rust Never Sleeps Fenced graves at St. Rafael Cemetery on Kaua'i.

June, 2011 :: Obit Club Membership Report

Ok – here is the current incarnation of the Obit Club – or at least my take on it — though I may not be exactly correct about some of these details. In the true southern storytelling tradition,  if I don’t know the facts, I can generally fill in the blanks with some semblence of fictionalized truth. (And if, as one of the subjects of said fiction,  you are not completely offended by it, just go with it. Don’t be too picky.)

1. Jenni Finlay– she got us all together originally. One of the top Americana music promoters in the biz. Leading her artist roster are James McMurtry and Ray Wylie Hubbard, Gurf Morlix and a slate of other talents.  Oh yeah, and she is my firstborn daughter – who has been dragged to funerals with me (as features editor of The Paper, I had to attend a few high profile  funerals); been late to school when I had to stop and shoot a bad wreck for The Paper (“Mo-om, Don’t stop… It doesn’t look that bad – they don’t even have the jaws of life…”), and grew up to appreciate a well-written obit, a good funeral, and proper mourning food.
2. Janice Williams  is a recovering disc jockey. She was the music director at KVET for a while and bad corporate evilness got rid of her and started having the music programmed somewhere in a factory so you don’t get to hear Austin musicians and  right there in the Live Music Capitol Of The World, now the music  has to be the same as it would be in Anytown, USA.  Janice is from Amarillo, Tx and her favorite holiday is the Day of The Dead. She decorates an altar and everything. She has a shrine to her dead cat that includes some of the actual ashes.  She loves cemeteries, and has a good blog.
3. Joan Kornblith lives and works in Washington, D.C . She  is the only one among us who currently has a stage name – she’s Katherine Cole, on the radio – and a real-life, award-winning broadcast journalist, and hosts a radio show on Voice of America – and (my favorite thing) – she wrote the definitive obit for Mary Travers. And her sister is the State Treasurer for Maryland.
4. Denise Boudreaux- she is from the same hometown as Marcia Ball and their parents were best friends,  and she worked for The Father of Austin Blues, Clifford Antone,  for a long time. Now she works for Lucky Tomblin running the music aspect of his operations.  Denise sent us some really cool photos of herself with Pinetop Perkins,  the 97 year old blues pianist who died this spring.
5. Susan Hanson  –  teaches really popular writing classes at Texas State University – with titles like “Nature and the Quest for Meaning” and has written some books that come with dust jackets. One of her books was excerpted (is that a word?) in Oprah’s “O” magazine. We worked together in Features at The Paper, and she has written at least as many obits as I. I was most proud when she got to interview Sargent Shriver and Bill Moyers for quotes for Ambassador Bill Crook’s obit. I knew her when.
6. Bill Wence —   lives in Nashville. He is a radio promoter like Jenni. He was at her house earlier this year during SXSW and several of our club members were there. He told us that country legend Ferlin Huskey had died. Collectively, we said, “What?” And rushed for our smart phones to confirm. Yes. He had.  We told him about the club and, of course,  he wanted in. So we let him break the gender barrier – as a probationary member.  So he hurried back to Nashville, went to the Ferlin Husky funeral. Scanned the funeral program and sent it to us with a delightful low budget review of the memorial.  We voted him into full membership. BTW, before he became a radio promoter – he has been a piano player – and he still plays on tour occasionally. Just got back from a  tour with country legend Wanda Jackson across the Western US.  He worked in the lettuce fields in California in the 50s, and played /plays with Tom T Hall, Bobby Bare – and about a million other people .  And he has some close connection to the song “Brandy, you’re a fine girl…” I think he played on that record. I know he recorded it on his last cd.
7. Jill Conner Browne – Her Royal Highness, herownself of Sweet Potato Queen fame.  Hailing from somewhere in Mississippi, she co-wrote what may be the best obit ever for her own blessed mother and we voted her in unanimously upon reading it.
8.  And me — Read the blog —  or my website  for more than you would ever want to know.

The rules are simple – in the time honored tradition of my own great-Aunt Robbie, we all want to be the “first to know-first to tell” when we see an obit that is exceptionally good – or famous – or has a good story with it. (I recently went off on a tangent after Jane Russell died  – about the small town department store owner  who measured me for bras when I was in junior high –  and people thought it was fine – because he had been professionally trained in bra fitting – and as such, it was kind of like he was a doctor of brassieria.)

After the initial announcement – which sometimes is submitted multiple times, members of this intellectual and well-read club often make a comment about  said obit or news report, and reply all  if they have a personal connection,  or a jarred memory of something related, or had a preteen crush on the deceased.

Jenni is our founder and, if we elected officers, she would probably get to be president. She is also our social chair and has hosted two obit club events in her home. She brought us together and got us as organized as we will ever be. Bill was a delightful overachiever when he was new but has been on tour so he’s slacked off a tad.  But he’s holding his own in this group of women. I think  Janice would hold the record for the most “firsts,” if we were actually keeping score – and Joan still wins something for writing obits heard round the world.  Denise is good at adding her two cents worth on a lot of the roots music deaths. Susan catches some of the obscure death notices, and Jill tosses out a doozy once in a while.

All in all, we are a committed, if unlikely bunch. If any of us were adept at needlepoint, we would make throw pillows with our motto stitched on it. “First to know…”

That’s pretty much it. And  for now, I have to go post Elizabeth Stillman‘s obit from the Statesman. That was a good one.  I was lucky to meet her a few times.

My favorite line – “She did what she came here to do.”


Listening to: Johnny Cash & June Carter – “Farside Banks of Jordan”

The Island Is Calling Me Home

“Kaua’i,  say you love me once again.
I can hear you calling like a long lost friend.
I wasn’t born there, but I belong there,
Kaua’i, say you love me once again.”
– Mike Young


We are on our way home.

The bags are packed. HalleyAnna, our trusted house sitter, is ready and prepped with several lists. The neighbors are keeping an extra eye on things while we are gone. And the dogs know something’s going on.

We are heading to the island. Kaua’i. The farthest of the Hawaiian Islands. Nearly 4000 miles away, and it feels like home to us. Makes sense for it to feel like home for Mark. He spent much of his childhood running barefoot on the Oahu beaches, living at Kaneohe Bay.  Hawaii has always held a part of his heart.

Until a few years ago, the Gulf of Mexico was the only “ocean” I really knew. I’d  been to Cayman Brac once, and dipped my toes in the icy Pacific at Venice Beach one time long ago. But  the first beach I fell in love with was the Texas Gulf Shore. And it will always hold a warm place in my heart.

But Kaua’i holds a piece of my soul.  The island, the people, the water, the landscape. It feels like home.

And by this time tomorrow, Mark will have begun his island decompression. There is no tonic or magic pill that could do as much for a person’s mental, physical, and spiritual health as this island air and the effervescence of the crystal blue water.

Mark listens regularly via internet to KKCR, Hawaiian community radio, broadcasting out of Hanalei on the north shore. He likes having it on as background music while working at his River House office on campus at Texas State. Hearing the daily surfing reports around the island makes him feel closer to the sand.

We read the online Garden Island daily newspaper almost as regularly as the Statesman and Express-News.  The stories are good, offering a sense of community through the crime reports, the surf reports, news of elections and capital improvement projects, along with occasional feature stories and of course, obituaries. Between the Garden Island and Kaua’i Community College, we sometimes talk about living the dream, and wonder  if they might need a features editor or a public information officer on Kaua’i.

We have some friends who are living the dream on Kaua’i. Mike Young, a prolific songwriter, is among them. Between our visits, we talk somewhat regularly on the phone. On any given workday afternoon, a cheerful “aloha” greeting takes me nearly 4000 miles instantly – as he shares the latest news and laments about the island happenings. He tells me about the low surf at Hanalei -and how this week, everyone’s surfing down at Beach House.  And talks about the price of gas, and the economy on the island, and who’s shooting movies out there this month, and…

And he asks what it’s like to live someplace as big as Texas. And wonders how it feels to have so much wide-open space, and to be able to disappear into its vastness. And he makes me realize that everyone needs a second home, a passion place. Whether it’s a South Padre condo or a cabin in the hill country, we all need to have a place to go when we can and dream about when we can’t.

By this time tomorrow, I will have a shell in my pocket and sand between my toes.



“There’s a place I recall
Not too big, in fact it’s kinda small.
The people there know they got it all
The simple life for me.
Hele on to Kaua’i
Hanalei by the bay
Wailua river valley is where I used to play
The canyons of Waimea standing all aglow
The magic of the garden isle is calling me back home.”
– Israel Kamakawiwo’ole

Listening to: Iz – “Hele on to Kaua’i