Friday, May 30, 2008

Coming Back to Pierre

Recently someone asked me to write more about Pierre. My response was, in hindsight, ungracious, since I pretended not to have anything to write about. But truth be known, it is hard for me to write about him now because the pain is still so fresh.

Recently I have read C.S. Lewis' wonderful book "A Grief Observed". I found in this slim volume more wisdom and clear unfettered thought about the universality of the process than I could have known till this day. For those readers who would know about what I am experiencing, a brief encounter with this book will tell you all you need to know. It is as if he took the very thoughts and feelings and words right out of my head, heart and gut.

This week I have been most ill, and in the throes of restless nights and ruminant discomfort come the thoughts of even worse nights to come, The cycle of doubt and uncertainty begins to rage and and I, with so few reserves at this point, find myself in the unfamiliar position of doubting my strength to carry on.

Fortunately the stomach virus or whatever it was has passed and I am now on the road to recovery. Still, when I was so very ill, tossing and turning in bed, I could not help but think that the many manifestations of grief are still unknown to me. Am I ill because I grieve, or am I simply ill? I have no idea.

Nor do I expect to. How, in just a few months, could I possibly explore the depths and possibilities that grief has brought me? Just knowing that it will be a long time healing doesn't help, of course. I want to be healed. I want the very thing I cannot have, not now, maybe not ever. The awful rapacious thoughts that consume my mind at night--when rest should be it's goal--are taking a toll on it, and I fear that no amount of writing, or certainly tears shed are going to make any difference in the way I feel.

I can say this. No day, no hour, no minute goes by that I still do not think of him. The violent flood of emotion that consumed me early on is now merely a raging torrent. That is some progress, I guess, but each day brings a new reminder; the arrow-like thought that pierces before it is even visible. I look down and there it is. I dare not pull it out lest all the life force drain from my body, yet I cannot continue to fight so wounded. So I retreat, waiting to find my strength. I'll come back.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Dog Days of an Abilene Summer

I sat at the kitchen table, staring at the brushed blue aluminum cup in front of me, waiting for the shot. I could taste the aluminum in my mouth when it came. The crack me me jump. I looked up at Paul.

"Was that it?"

"Yeah."

"Maybe he missed."

"Nah, he don't miss."

"But it was just one shot!"

"That's all he needs."

I knew he was right but I held on to hope for a minute. Then I heard his footsteps on the back porch, the click of the breech of the rifle and the clink of the shell on the concrete. As he came in to put away the gun, I could smell the lingering odor of gunpowder drifting through the room. I didn't look up at him.

It was only just past six in the evening, but it had been a long day. Even then, the memory seems as it does now, faint and distant, as if seen through a long paper tube. I can see it and smell it but I have limited it to that tiny area for now forty-five years.

Allen Glenn was an attorney who had an office in town but whose home was out in the country. He and his wife 'Emo' (her nickname - I have no idea what her real name was) and their three children, Paul, Caroline and oh ack I can't recall the name of the youngest, a girl. Paul was my 'best' friend, even though we didn't see each other but on weekends, and not every weekend at that. His mother and my mother had become friends through their mutual involvement with the Abilene art scene, such as it was back in the late fifties and early sixties.

Emo was, like Lynda, a painter, struggling to find the inspiration as well as the resources to practice her art. Like Lynda, she was forced to paint in the kitchen, after all the dishes were done and children off to bed. Her work was figurative, and many of Lynda's early 'portraits' are reminiscent of Emo's work, though the two never painted together, as far as I can recall.

Emo had an infectious laugh and a positive spirit. In my mind, she was that sort of mid-fifties pioneer woman who represented a whole different culture than the one Lynda had come from in New York, yet the two had much in common and often spent time together talking while we played in the yard and had our many adventures out in the woods that surrounded the Glenn home.

These were some of the greatest times of my life, but they were not without difficulty. For one thing, it seemed that it was always up to me to invite myself over to the Glenn's house every weekend. Even though we had what seemed to me to be some wonderful times together, it never seemed to me like Paul valued our friendship in the same way that I did. I can still recall the anxiety that would well up in me every Friday as I anticipated the weekend. I was anxious because I knew it would be up to me to make a call if I wanted to see him that weekend. He would never call me. Sometimes, his mother would call, on his behalf, but I think it's just the way Lynda played it out for me. In fact she and Emo often made plans for a Saturday that would include 'getting the boys together' and some cocktails on the back porch in the afternoon. If no such plans were laid by Friday, if I wanted to see Paul, I had to call him and, in the spirit of fairness, invite him to come over to my house.

He did this, sometimes, but reluctantly, as I lived in town and there were not merely so many things to do as we could find out in the country. Whether or not they had a television I do not recall, but I do know we did not, so there was never any sort of inside activity that appealed to us. We spent all our time, dawn to dusk, outside, adventuring if we were lucky, laying around, bored in the heat, if we were not. And, unfortunately, we did far more of the latter than the former when he came to visit. It's no wonder he was reluctant to come over. We weren't allowed to shoot our bb guns, even in the back yard, so, even though we managed to fill the long hours with some sort of play, it wasn't our preferred activity.

What we wanted to do, morning till night whenever possible, was to take our bb guns out into the 'woods' and go 'hunting'. Both terms are in need of qualification, for both imply something that they were most decidedly not. For one thing, the 'woods' in which we played were merely thickly tangled and overgrown mesquite 'trees', which are in reality little more than woody shrubs with two-inch long needle sharp barbs emerging every six inches along it's gnarled and bent tendrils. Dusted only lightly with tiny leaves, these 'trees' begin to offer shelter only when they become so think that a person can not walk through them. We had the advantage of small size but were still unable to make our way through some areas lest we get trapped or worse, stabbed in the arm or leg with one of those infernal needles. Even the slightest poke would immediately get red and swollen and itch as if it were a wasp sting, which it closely resembled in form and feeling. I had plenty of yellow jacket attacks and honestly preferred the insect sting to the dull aching hurt of the mesquite needle.

Neither form of pain compared though, with the insidious and unrelenting discomfort that came with an encounter with a prickly pear cactus. At the very least, one could, with some care and attention, manage not to get stuck with a mesquite needle, but there seemed to be no way to avoid at least one brush with a prickly pear, no matter haw careful you were. There were just too many of them. They often grew in patches that could get up to twenty feet in diameter and over six feet high. I am referring to cacti that had no natural enemies in this harsh environment. They thrived while other vegetation shrank in the withering sun and at times it seemed that they were all that grew besides the mesquite. Avoiding the big patches was easy enough, but it was the little ones, hidden in a tuft of withered prairie grass or tucked under a rock that would attack without warning and almost without pain at first. You might notice when you kicked it, accidentally and think well, at least I didn't get stuck, but soon the burning would begin and you knew you were in for it. The prickly pear has two sets of needles, big and small.

The big ones are easy enough to avoid, and if not they can be pulled out with fingers, if you are careful not to break it off. If you are not careful, or get a bundle of the smaller hair-like barbs that grow around the base of the larger spines, you have to get out the tweezers and begin a very painful job of pulling as many two or three dozen teeny tiny little poison tipped daggers no bigger than a nose hair and ten times more painful to pull out. And heaven help you if you broke those guys off at skin level. Then it was just a matter of time till the body could absorb all the toxins and break down the tip of the barb. The problem was, the time was long, and nothing felt much worse than sleeping with the heat and throbbing set off with every tiny movement and touch.

So it was in this harsh west Texas land, still more frontier than civilized, that Paul and I found ourselves one Saturday morning, out by the edge of the 'tank' - an earthen berm around a low-lying bit of land filled with water pumped from the ground below. Many landowners had a tank for their cattle, but the Glenn's didn't have any cattle. The Glenn's tank also had an electric pump instead of a windmill, which meant that the water level in the tank remained fairly constant, enough for fish to grow and for us to swim and float in it on hot summer days. We were always tracking animals, and that morning, found a fresh set of tracks in the mud around the edge of the tank.

"A coyote?" I opined.

"Nope. It's a dog," said Paul. "Don't seem him though. We better look for him and run him off before Daddy gets home."

"Why?"

"Cause Daddy don't like dogs. He specially don't like stray dogs cause he says they're dangerous."

"Then why do you wanna find it?"

"Cause if Daddy see it first, he'll kill it."

"Nah, really? Why?"

"I told you, cause he don't like 'em. He'll give us a day to run him off but if that don't work, he'll shoot it."

I knew, of course, that Mr. Glenn was an avid hunter and very good with a gun. He had a collection of rifles and shotguns that were neither hidden nor locked away, but which resided in the hall closet in a rack where we often stood an admired the firepower we were hopeful of someday being able to make use of. But in my gun lust of those days, I hadn't really stopped to think about what the real function of those guns was.

After all, our hunting consisted of shooting our woefully underpowered bb guns at birds who invariably flew away after a bb passed near enough to make a sound but do no harm. Even bbs which hit their target had not force enough to penetrate the feathers of even the sickliest of white winged doves (our favorite target becasue they were big and slow, as opposed to the sparrows, which were too tiny to get in our sights and too fast to hit anyway. Often they would fly away at the sound of the gun going off and the bb would only approach it's target several milliseconds afte they'd taken wing.

As Paul revealed to me what his father would do if he encountered a stray dog on his property, it began to dawn on me that guns could be used to ends I had not anticipated nor would have allowed had I had the choice. Of course he could shoot a dog, but would he? Why? The answer Paul gave me was not satisfactory, but it didn't seem to matter as long as the dog was nowhere to be seen. Nothing to fear, no worries.

Then we saw the dog. Even from across the tank I could tell that it was a Collie. I should say here that I am not a dog 'person' if you will, and my ability to recognize a breed had more to do with the fact that I'd seen 'Lassie' and this was the one breed, other than a German Shepard, that I could easily recognize. Had it been a German Shepard instead of a Collie, things might have been different, for the affable Collie bounded over to greet us as soon as it spied us. It was a beautiful dog as I recall, even if that recollection may be enhanced by the inevitable end that he faced, I felt something special about him.

How he got there, and to whom he had belonged before he arrived on the Glenn's property I will never know. How he followed us around that day, in spite of our best efforts to scare him off, sticks with me more. He was obviously someone's pet, not feral or even starving, he had somehow gotten out of his territory and, in the middle of a grand adventure, gotten lost.

Certainly he wasn't trying to ask us for directions home, but then he wasn't afraid to seek out our companionship. Possibly he had more practical needs.

"You think he's hungry? I asked.

"Prob'ly."

"We should get him somthin' to eat."

"Nah. We should run him off."

"We can feed him then we can get him to run off," I said.

"We can't just let him starve."

"He aint starvin."

"Yeah, but he's hungry, and if we don't feed him he will be starving. We can't just let him go off hungry. Let's feed him, then we can run him off. After all, we got all day."

"We'll I s'pose we could give a meal for the road."

The Glenn's kept a 50 pound sack of dog food for their own three dogs in the garage. I ran back to the house and scooped up a coffee can full of food. Sure enough, the Collie was plenty happy to get that food, but in hindsight, this was the completely wrong thing to do. Try telling that to a couple of eight-year-olds who still know that they can change the world. Sometimes, an act of kindness, it seems, can set in motion the worst possible consequences. The most difficult part of life, for me has been, from that day till this, figuring out when it is appropriate to be kind and when it is necessary to be hard.

The remainder of the events that day are missing from my memory. I know that the Collie followed us all day, and in spite of our best efforts to make him leave, I think he sensed our kindness and assumed that no harm would come to him in our association. Sadly, the opposite was true, and I find myself wondering today if I might not have made this very mistake more than once.

My First Job - The Barn: Part 1

"You ever shot yo gun?"

The question was posed to me by a fellow busboy who sat crouched next to me in the back of the waiters station. We had our backs to the partition that divided our space from the dining room, squatting below the glass racks and in between the linen bag and the trash can whose rancorous odor I can recall with more clarity than any other detail. The dim light of a single lamp was enough to see the metal sink in front of us and make out the profile of my questioner to whom I turned with some uncertainty. He was a bulky black kid of my age whose name I cannot now recall, but I have never forgotten that question.

"Sure" I said. I have no recollection as to just how convincing this sounded, but I do remember that I although I had a couple of ways to interpret that question, no answer but the one I came up with that sounded at all convincing. After all, I had indeed shot 'a gun' but I was pretty sure that wasn't what he he was asking about. Now if, perhaps, he was asking if I had fired a weapon, I might not have remembered the incident with such clarity, but as a virgin, I think it is fair to say at least that this is what I was hoping he meant but in my heart (and elsewhere) I knew otherwise.

But he didn't press me on details, thankfully, choosing instead to answer his own question for himself and me. This quickly confirmed that we weren't talking about firearms, since he had, apparently, recently 'shot his gun' to his detriment. He said that he'd gotten his girlfriend pregnant and was being forced to marry her. He warned me, in essence, not to do it unless I knew what I was doing. The warning wasn't necessary, as I was really sufficiently terrified by sex at the time to know with some confidence that I was not about to be 'shooting my gun' anytime soon.

I probably hadn't been on the job for more than an hour when I faced this question. What I remember most about my first job is being scared. I was so scared that, in hindsight, it is amazing to me that I even got the job, to say nothing of how amazed I am that I actually survived. And I haven't just survived, I've thrived. The restaurant business has been in my blood, so to speak, since that day. Perhaps I just love being scared.

This restaurant was called The Barn. Owned by a long-time Austin restaurant entrepreneur Jack Ray, The Barn was a classic steak and seafood place way out on the northwest edge of town. Back then, of course, Mo-Pac didn't even exist, and only one road went out that far north, Balcones Drive. At the time, it was so far out of 'town' that it was considered to be a special trek by the many people who ate there.

Interestingly, although this was long before the concept of fine dining had been introduced to Austin, it didn't mean that the food was poor. In fact, as a testament to the quality of the food, the customers were legion; and the place was packed every Friday and Saturday night, with at least three or four 'turns' of every table in the house! It was the kind of place that you took a business partner with money to do a deal, or the whole family when the mother-in-law was in town (or just 'over to the house' as we say). There was also an adjoining banquet room called 'The Silo' where many a wedding reception and family reunion was held.

The Barn was dark and smoky and mysterious, and to me at the time, it seemed like a 'high class' place. There were white tablecloths and red napkins, red cut-glass water glasses (we called them rubies) and when patrons were seated at table, they were greeted immediately with a huge chunk of swiss cheese on a cutting board with a serrated steak knife stabbed into the top. It was accompanied by another cutting board and serrated knife that bore and offered means to dismember at hot, moist miniature loaf of white bread.

It was my job, among others, to deliver these two items along with water to the table, as soon as after the guests were seated as possible. At first I really struggled with the weight because even though the damn block of cheese only weighed three or four pounds, we had to carry it in one hand while we carried the bread in the other. I wasn't very strong when I started, but it didn't take me long to get in shape.

The busboys were were forbidden to eat anything, especially the cheese and bread, and as a consequence of this prohibition I wanted to eat constantly, especially that cheese and bread. I did, of course, with every opportunity. Were we to be caught, we were assured that we would be fired, but naturally this didn't deter our appetites, it only increased them. I use the plural here because it wasn't just me, but all the busboys and even some of the waiters who experienced this odd bread and cheese lust. In spite of--or perhaps because of--the prohibition, we gorged ourselves on the sweet bread and tangy cheese at every available opportunity in the back of the waiters station. We did it on the way back from the table, back in the dish station, the kitchen, the bathroom and anywhere else we could turn away long enough to shove a big moist warm wad of sweet white dough into our mouths and swallow so fast it hurt.

Now, to be fair, I have never been terribly fond of swiss cheese and wasn't even back when I was sixteen. But, for some reason, it was apparently the absolute height of culinary delight for me to carve off a sick chunk of pasty white cheese and wolf it down without even tasting it, all while working and without allowing the manager to witness it. It was quite the feat, actually, and one that we pulled off with considerable regularity.

Of course there were other things to eat. When it came to eating, while bread and cheese were the most easily obtained foodstuffs for us busboys, it was the oft-maligned and ever-denied practice of eating food off customers plates as they were returned to the kitchen that held the greatest reward. There were perfect bites of charbroiled steak to be had, untouched baked potatoes slathered with butter, sour cream, cheddar cheese, bacon and chives. These items not eaten by customers were too tempting to pass up. Even if we knew that someone had eaten off the plate, or even more precisely, eaten off the other side of the plate, it did not diminish in the slightest our lust for the food thereon.

It is worth nothing that this practice, known as 'bus tub buffet' continues to this day in every restaurant on the planet. Denial of it, is of course, de rigeur, but in fact, even the chefs pull a bit off a plate coming back now and then, if only just to see why someone didn't eat it. It's not as if every restaurant employee is starving so much they need to steal food off the customers' returning plates, but it is a habit that is much like families who eat off one another's plate as a way of socializing and sharing food.

This brings me to an important aspect of why that first day was not my last; why I have continued on the journey through the restaurant business for now more than 35 years. It didn't take long for me to realize that this life is not for everybody.

Most people who work in restaurants do so when they are young and inexperienced. They do it because they need the money, but as soon as they finish school or join the marines, they leave and don't come back. Only a few individuals remain in the business past the age of twenty or so, and even fewer decide to become professionals for life. If they do, it is because they really do 'get' all that.

I was sixteen when I went to work at The Barn, and I have been working in restaurants almost continuously ever since. The reason for this longevity in the business has primarily to do with the sense of belonging to a family, but there are also the aspects of hard, fast-paced work, serving people who are (for the most part, hopefully) having a good time, and ultimately, making a living while doing something enjoyable. I've written about this a bit in my essay 'A Real Job' and it continues to be an important thread in this tapestry I have begun weaving about restaurants.

The damn bread and cheese at The Barn, however, almost proved to be my undoing, even before I got started. More in part 2.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Writing about Restaurants

This week I began my research into my first freelance article, which will be a history of restaurants in Austin. Ok, I haven't yet sold this article, so, like the effort it represents--making money from writing--it is an experiment.

I am also taking the old saying, 'write about what you know' literally for two reasons. First, it's a subject that I am interested in, and second, it simply hasn't been written about enough, in my opinion. If the successes of Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential and the whole Food Channel phenomenon are reasonable measures, I feel that there is a lot of interest waiting to be tapped, so to speak.

Of course, for me, the place to begin is local. I don't want this piece to be a memoir or a personality piece, so I will concentrate on facts which will be of some interest to many Austinites and thus could be sold to a local magazine or perhaps even appeal to Texans in general, which would open the door say, to Texas Monthly. Now, ironically, even though the sale of the piece is of course the critical reason for writing it, on this topic I think I've said enough, because I am conscious of the fact that every word written about writing is a word not written for sale.

My first pass to see if I could easily uncover a book or article about the history of Austin restaurants fortunately yielded nothing, so I am at least heading into some relatively uncharted waters. My visit to the Austin History Center website confirmed that I must make a few forays into their archives for texts and photos that can be used for historical reference.

There are plenty of other topics related to restaurants that I can eventually write about, and I by no means want to limit myself to this one subject. Ideally, though, I'd love to combine travel with writing about restaurants, so I am, for now anyway, setting myself up in that vector with hopes and plans that it entails. Note that this is not going to be about food, per se, but about the places and people that make and serve the food. I guess I can be clear that this is not going to be a restaurant review, so there will be no need to crank them out or write about places that I have never been or have no interest in.

Finally, one obvious side benefit of the subject is that we will get to go to more restaurants for research purposes. If my writing only paid for this, I'd be pleased with the start.

Writing about Restaurants

This week I began my research into my first freelance article, which will be a history of restaurants in Austin. Ok, I haven't yet sold this article, so, like the effort it represents--making money from writing--it is an experiment.

I am also taking the old saying, 'write about what you know' literally for two reasons. First, it's a subject that I am interested in, and second, it simply hasn't been written about enough, in my opinion. If the successes of Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential and the whole Food Channel phenomenon are reasonable measures, I feel that there is a lot of interest waiting to be tapped, so to speak.

Of course, for me, the place to begin is local. I don't want this piece to be a memoir or a personality piece, so I will concentrate on facts which will be of some interest to many Austinites and thus could be sold to a local magazine or perhaps even appeal to Texans in general, which would open the door say, to Texas Monthly. Now, ironically, even though the sale of the piece is of course the critical reason for writing it, on this topic I think I've said enough, because I am conscious of the fact that every word written about writing is a word not written for sale.

My first pass to see if I could easily uncover a book or article about the history of Austin restaurants fortunately yielded nothing, so I am at least heading into some relatively uncharted waters. My visit to the Austin History Center website confirmed that I must make a few forays into their archives for texts and photos that can be used for historical reference.

There are plenty of other topics related to restaurants that I can eventually write about, and I by no means want to limit myself to this one subject. Ideally, though, I'd love to combine travel with writing about restaurants, so I am, for now anyway, setting myself up in that vector with hopes and plans that it entails. Note that this is not going to be about food, per se, but about the places and people that make and serve the food. I guess I can be clear that this is not going to be a restaurant review, so there will be no need to crank them out or write about places that I have never been or have no interest in.

Finally, one obvious side benefit of the subject is that we will get to go to more restaurants for research purposes. If my writing only paid for this, I'd be pleased with the start.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Maddie's 18th Birthday

Well, it seems hard to believe, and yet here we are. Madelaine was born now eighteen years ago! One of the greatest pleasures I've had in my life has been watching her develop. As I looked at her soft sleeping figure oh those many years ago, I wondered, as do all parents, I am sure, what she would be like. I wondered about the sound of her voice, and how tall she would be. I also wondered, naturally, whether or not she would be happy, but looking at that little baby, I especially was curious about the physical.

So, she is now a beautiful young woman. She is taller than her mother but not quite as tall as me, and has filled out quite nicely, so to speak, since she was an kid. As she approaches adulthood, she has a good sense of how to dress and carry herself in public, which makes me proud. I think that once she is out on her own, she'll discover a whole new part of herself that is just beginning to emerge.

This coming month will be a busy one for her. Next weekend she will have her 18th B-day celebration with her friends. A limo will come to pick her and three friends up from school and whisk them off to a hotel, where we've gotten them a room. After playing in the pool and relaxing in the sauna and jacuzzi, they'll get room service and stay up watching TV all night long.

That's just the fun part. She also has to finish school and we have to arrange for an apartment in Portland this coming week. But we won't have to think about that till tomorrow!

Lynda Dubov: 1917 - 2007

What follows is the text of the biography I put together for the occasion of Lynda's memorial. Since it remains to be fact-checked, improved and revised, it should not be considered a finished work.

Ultimately, I plan to incorporate this text along with a number of personal memoirs and the photographs that I collected for the album into a bound book. Though I got a lot of material in this first 'pass' so to speak, I still do not have it all. I spoke with several people who are sending me photos or tributes to be included, so it will be a month or two before I can realize my final goal and tribute to Lynda, which will be a limited edition hardbound book.

There are any number of internet publishing sites that allow one to upload the materials, lay them out in a book form and have it printed and bound professionally. Though this is primarily a selfish effort to make use of the work I have put into the memorial, I also think that there are a number of people, family and friends alike, who might enjoy reading this volume and having it on their shelf as a memento of Lynda.


*******************************************************

Gladys Lynda Allen, daughter of Oglesby and Rosiland (nee Heller) Allen, was born in Chicago, Illinois on August 1, 1917. Her sister Anita was born two years later. Her first memory, as she often recalled, was of being held aloft on a balcony above a Victory Day parade in Chicago when she was four, which was two years before the family moved to Biloxi, Mississippi in 1923 to run a family grocery store owned by relatives of Rosalind.

A pivotal moment in Lynda's early life came when she won an art collection competition in grade school in 1928, sowing the seeds for her long career as an artist later in life. In 1932, her father left the family, leaving Lynda to support her mother and her sister, which she did after graduating from high school in 1934. She wanted to attend college, but for practical reasons, settled on a trade school in Wheatland Wyoming, where she was trained as a lab technician specializing in reading blood types. She received her professional certificate from the school in Wheatland in 1936-37. She returned briefly to Biloxi before moving, with her mother and sister to Shreveport, Louisiana in 1938. Here she took a job in a community hospital and, eager for an 'intellectual' life, became active in a local small theater company.

In 1940, in this theater group, she met Jack Smith, son of L.E. and Anne Smith of Shreveport. She and this adopted bookish son of a Louisiana sportsman immediately fell in love and were married the following year, in 1941, in Shreveport. This was just prior to the beginning of American involvement in World War II. In 1942, Jack tried to enlist in the military but was rejected at first for poor eyesight. He persisted and gained a stateside commission as a Lieutenant at an internment camp for German prisoners of war in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. It was here, two years later, their first child, Stephen, was born in 1943. In 1945, Lynda became pregnant with their second child, Anne. Tragically, Jack was killed in a traffic accident later that same year. Anne was born in 1946, and shortly after, Lynda moved to New York city, with her two small children and mother in tow.

This was a particularly active time in her life. She worked as a lab technician in a private hospital in New York city, enrolled her children in a private school called The Steiner School and generally enjoyed the life of a single mother in a big city. New York City in the late forties was a vibrant place, and for Lynda, it was an intellectual's 'dream' tour. She went to the symphony and heard Toscanini conduct and play, fell in love with the music of Wagner, went to jazz clubs, attended the Metropolitan Opera, the New York City Ballet, and saw many Broadway and off-Broadway plays and shows. She went to the Museum of Modern Art when it was a 'new' thing, and spent hours combing through art galleries and shops in Manhattan.

She kept up her interest in the theater. She soon joined a small theater group called the "Little Theater", where she played roles in several productions. In one of these, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof", she played the role of Big Momma, and the man who played opposite her, in the role of Big Daddy, was Wilbur Earl (W.E. 'Bill) Dubov. She had actually met Bill a few years earlier in Shreveport. When they met again in New York in 1954, they began seeing each other. They were married in 1955 on Thanksgiving day, and moved to upstate New York. They settled Deansboro, which was close to Utica, where Bill has taken a job as a photographer in the public relations department of the Bendix company. When they met, Bill was working in a camera store in Manhattan, having just returned from a trip to the Antarctic as a photographer for Life magazine. He shared with Lynda a love for those things intellectual, including art and books.

Bill adopted Stephen and Anne, then ages 13 and 10, just before his and Lynda's first child, Phillip, was born in 1956. At the time, the couple was anxious to move out of the cold weather and were looking south for a new place to live and work. They settled on Abilene, Texas, where, after but a single trip down to look it over, they purchased a bookstore called, appropriately enough, the Abilene Bookstore. They moved to Abilene in 1957. They situated the bookstore in a large two-story frame house and lived above it. Their second son and Lynda's fourth child, David, was born in Abilene in 1961.

Though the move to Abilene had seemed promising at the time, the lack of research proved fateful. The community was far more conservative than they had anticipated, despite the presence of several colleges and Hardin Simmons University. This was the McCarthy era and many people were suspicious of the books they supposedly carried. In reality, they probably sold more Bibles than any other single book, but they also managed to expand the choices available to readers in Abilene prior to their arrival, developing it into a cornerstone of the small intellectual community in this West Texas town.

Lynda and Bill were also active in the tiny Jewish and Unitarian communities and met often with what few artists and intellectuals there were at that time in that predominantly Christian town. With these friends they helped create the Abilene Museum of Art, and Lynda was among the first students in the first art class ever taught in that institution. Her first painting was a still life and went on display in the first ever art show in Abilene, sometime in 1963 or 1964.

Stephen graduated from high school and moved away to attend the Kansas City Art Institute in 1961. He went on to graduate with a masters degree from Stanford and teaches art in Austin, Texas. Anne finished high school in Abilene as well and went away to attend the University of Texas in Austin in 1964. She eventually moved to New York City, where she met and married her husband Eric Shapiro.

Lynda was an life-long active lover of books, reading and literacy. Not only did she and her husband own a bookstore, Lynda also volunteered at the library, when she met her lifelong best friends, Len and Lisel Radoff. Lynda spent many hours riding around in the Abilene Library's first (and perhaps only) Bookmobile, which traveled to outlying rural communities where there were no libraries or bookstores. She and Bill were, with the Radoffs, active (and charter) members of the Abilene chapter of the Great Books Society.

The demand for books in Abilene was just not sufficient to make a living at the time, though, and in 1965, Lynda and Bill sold the bookstore (but not the house) and Bill began to look for work in other cities. He went first to Dallas, where his sister Rae and her husband Ronald Weiss lived, then to Houston and eventually to San Antonio, where he found work as a manager of a camera department in a large discount store called Shoppers World. He moved up there first and Lynda joined him with Phillip and David in 1968.

San Antonio was a time of great energy and activity but also hard times for the family financially. Lynda and Bill were once again active in the theater, joining a group at Saint Mary's College. Their involvement with a Dominican friar named Bother Alexis landed Lynda the job of 'stage manager' for a small theater troupe that performed daily on a plaza at the 1968 World's Fair, called HemisFair '68. She also spent a lot of time on behalf of Brother Alexis' charity organization, touring community centers in poor Hispanic communities, teaching and promoting art.

At this time Lynda was just beginning to paint regularly, though it meant painting only after the dinner dishes had been put away. It also meant storing her canvases beside and her paints on top of the refrigerator in the tiny, three bedroom apartment in which the family lived on San Antonio's poor South side. She also wrote her first play in 1968, called "Black and White Checkerboard Society" and saw it produced at the theater at St. Mary's College that same year.

Despite this flourishing of artistic energy, Bill's income was insufficient to support the family and Lynda began to look for work as well. Her found that her training as a lab technician was no longer of value, and she turned to sales. She tried selling Fuller brushes at first, then moved to Encyclopedia Britannica and eventually to life insurance, where she finally broke through and was able to make some money.

Working for the Banker's Life and Casualty company as the first and only female agent ever was a very difficult way to make a living, though. Lynda spent many hours traveling the dusty back roads of San Antonio, selling insurance and collecting the premiums as well. Sometimes folks couldn't pay cash and paid in eggs or butter or bread. While this didn't pay the premiums, it did put food on the table and Lynda often made up the difference out of her own pocket. This attitude towards the welfare of her clients, while seemingly unprofitable to many in the business, proved to be the foundation of her eventual success as an insurance agent, which allowed her to travel the world and eventually retire with an income to paint and draw for many years.

In 1968, Bill found work at in Austin, as the staff photographer for the State School for the Mentally Retarded (as it was called back then), and the family moved again. In Austin, Lynda found work for a much more reputable company called the Great West Life Insurance Company, again as their first-ever and only female agent. Her skills as an agent, as opposed to a saleswoman, were key to her success, and soon her income began to increase exponentially.

In 1969, her mother Rosalind died in St Louis, where she had been living in a nursing home near Lynda's sister Anita. Lynda missed the funeral but the family traveled north to attend a memorial for her later in the year. Lynda and her sister were never particularly close, but they did keep up a regular correspondence throughout her life. Anita traveled to Austin once, in 1984.

Lynda's career as an insurance agent became the family's sole source of income in 1970, when Bill suffered the first of a series of heart attacks that rendered him unable to work for the rest of his life. In addition to nursing her husband back to a state of semi-stable health and raising her two teenage boys during these years, Lynda worked full time and did well at it, though she had little time to pursue her art. She and Bill did attend the symphony, opera and ballet as often as he was able, and they were also active members of a Great Books Society group that met once a month, often in their home. Lynda was anxious to move and move on yet again, and after answering in small ad in the back of an insurance trade magazine, committed to go work in Europe for the John Hancock Life Insurance company in 1974.

Her son Phillip graduated from high school that same year, and he elected to remain in Austin as Lynda, Bill and David packed up and moved to England. They settled in a small town about sixty miles north of London called Bedford. Based here, she sold insurance to G.I.'s on two nearby military bases (Alconbury and Chicksands) and did so well at it that she rose to become the number two agent, in terms of sales, in all of Europe. Meanwhile, in spite of his deteriorating heart condition, Bill enjoyed a period of relatively stable health, and was thus able to enjoy the fruits of Lynda's success with her as they traveled throughout Europe, Russia, China and the Middle East. David graduated from 'high' school in Bedford and moved back to the U.S. to attend college at Bennington, Vermont.

Lynda was surprisingly prolific as an artist during these years, despite the cramped living quarters and a hectic schedule. She managed to paint enough to participate in an exhibition in London in 1976, the same year she wrote her second play, "The Daughters of 1776". She and Bill often traveled to London on weekends, attending as usual, the symphony, opera and ballet, as well as many, many hours walking the marbled halls of the British Museum. They walked the back streets of London as often as they could, exploring art galleries and discovering out of the way restaurants and pubs in the art district. Phillip moved back 'home' briefly in 1975, then moved on to attend the American College in Paris in 1976.

Bill's health continued to fail, and after a brief trip to visit Phillip in Paris in 1981, he died at home in Bedford. Lynda buried her second husband and moved to a small apartment in London, where she continued to paint and visit galleries and museums. Eventually, the isolation of living alone in a foreign country became too much work to be enjoyable, and she moved back to the U.S. in 1983 to be near her daughter Anne, son-in-law Eric, and her two grandchildren, Jennifer and Daniel.

She spent a great deal of time with the grandchildren as they were growing up, but she also manged to get into new York City for a taste of the city life again. The rounds are by now familiar ones: museums, galleries, theater, symphonies and opera. She often made these rounds with her cousin Bernice "Bunny" Heller, who lived in an apartment in Manhattan. The two cousins even made a pilgrimage to Ireland during this time, with Lynda doing all the driving and arrangements for her wheelchair-bound cousin.

She continued to paint and draw during this period, and her interest in learning brought her to attend the prestigious Ragsdale Art Colony in upstate New York in 1984. Although she enjoyed writing and wrote her third play at this time, in Ragsdale she made a firm commitment to herself to pursue the life of a painter at long last. The cold winters and snow in New York once again made her look south for a place to live. She soon settled on Austin, where her son Phillip was living and going to school at UT and moved back again in 1985. In the interim, Phillip had met and married Valery Caselli. Their first child (Lynda's third grandchild), Pierre, was born in 1987. He was followed just three years later in 1990 by Lynda's fourth and last grandchild, Madelaine.

As she did in New York, in Austin Lynda spent a great deal of her time caring for her young grandchildren, teaching them about life and art from an early age. She was especially close to Pierre, as he seemed to share her passion for art. As she did with her own children, she took him to museums, symphonies and operas and spent a great deal of time with time in her studio.

The studio that she set up on moving to Austin in 1986 had several locations, but it was always the very heart of her life. Almost every day she managed to spend at least some time in and among her many works, whether it was crowded into a tiny hot space above a warehouse on east Sixth Street or in the busy and noisy ArtPlex on Guadalupe. With a single aging box fan running constantly to cool the summer heat and the powerful creative energy that burned within, she churned out dozens and dozens of large brightly colored paintings, filled dozens of books with her drawings, sculpted figurines and made mobiles, collages and wrote in her journal when she wasn't covered in paint. Often she simply sat in the heat and napped among her works, listening to Wagner on the radio and dreaming, no doubt, of making more art.

In 1987, Phillip organized a 70th birthday tribute to honor her already long life, not knowing that it was, in many ways, still getting started. At an age when many folks slow down, she actually picked up the pace. She set an example for many people, artists and women all ages, of how a life many be lived energetically even when years begin to advertise the opposite. She began a life-changing habit of exercise at this time, getting back in to the swimming pool to enjoy water aerobics. She joined a health club, The Hills of Lakeway, and attended bi-weekly water aerobics sessions there for twenty-plus years. Doubtless, the exercise helped not only prolong her life, but made it more enjoyable as well. Always gregarious, she met many friends in the pool, many of whom were also in the artistic community that was the other half of her life.

The new millennium brought Lynda a fourth grandchild, Madelaine, and saw a move to join the ArtPlex community in an old state office buildking on Guadalupe. It was by far her most active studio to date. Here, she was in the company of many other like-minded people, for not only artists gathered at the Artplex, but musicians, craftsmen and tradespeople also occupied the building, which was literally a hive of activity for the nearly five years that she was part of it. Lynda was, quite simply, a central figure in the Artplex and the Austin Visual Arts Association. Often one could find her sitting in the Association gallery for hours because that was where she felt she could best contribute to the cause.

So, for about five years, from 2000 to 2005, the studio in the ArtPlex was the very center of her life. She literally had an 'open-door' policy in her studio and could be found there most every day for those five years, painting, drawing, reading, listening to the radio or perhaps, napping in the big red naugahyde chair that sat in the center of the tiny cramped and filled-to-overflowing space. Many, many friends and fellow artists report that they spent many a long afternoon in the studio with Lynda, talking about life and art. Lynda had a way of listening that made each person feel as if she were the only person who mattered to her, and honestly, at that moment, she did indeed care. It was a therapy of sorts for many of her artist friends, many of whom would bring others by for the same 'treatment.' Lynda treated them all with the utmost respect and concern.

During this time Lynda created her series 'Voices of the Ghetto'. A series of black and white pen and ink drawings, it was her unique vision of the many souls who were lost in the Holocaust. Although she was not a regularly practicing Jew, Lynda felt a strong affinity for what she considered to be her Jewish cultural heritage. The emotions that were eventually released in this powerful series of evocative faces existed only in her imagination, but many viewers remarked that they sparked intense feelings and evoked memories of those who had been there. She displayed this works in a series of temples, synagogues and community centers in Dallas, Temple, Austin and Houston. Eventually she donated the series to the Holocaust Museum in Atlanta Georgia, where she attended a seminar some years earlier.

Although the 'Voices' were her most public pieces during this very prolific period, she continued to paint large-scale acrylic canvases that were literally filled, corner to corner, with color and vibrant forms. These works formed a sharp contrast, which she loved to bring attention to, between the intense, almost violent visual nature of her paintings and her mild 'little-old-lady-in-tennis-shoes' outward physical appearance.

She was indeed a little old lady, and often wore canvas shoes, but in no way was she a mild person, in her youth or in her old age. The color and shapes in her paintings were expressions of the person that Lynda was, while the mild little old lady image she carried was what she somehow thought she must be. Her southern upbringing clashed sharply with the intellectualism she had come to idealize.

Somehow, however, as an artist, she managed to create paintings that expressed her inner anger while as a woman, she simultaneously created a persona that expressed both her intelligence and her civility. Those who knew both sides of her personality were not surprised by the seeming contradiction. Like subjects of the paintings that covered the walls of her studio and were stacked like so many cards in an open rack that filled the back wall of her cramped quarters, she was always something of an enigma.

Always in search of intellectual companions and fellow readers, she joined, at the request of Valery's mother, Billie Clark, a reading group of ladies called "The Purples". Here, she instantly formed another circle of friends who came to know her extensive knowledge and sharp wit quite well. The group would select and read a book for discussion over tea, but it was anything but a gossip group. The members of the group were all very intelligent and well-read, and the subjects of their reading were always contemporary. Lynda was always the only person who read every book, cover to cover.

This is because, in fact, books and reading were, after her family and art, the most important part of Lynda's life. Denied the education she craved in her youth, she became an autodidact, teaching herself diligently over the years so well that one could not tell that she was not formally educated. She was, in some ways, proud of the fact that she was self-taught and such a voracious reader. She read every night of her life, if and when she could. She would keep at least three or four books by her bedside and would read in bed for at least an hour before sleep. Her interests centered mostly on history and politics, but she read everything but fiction. She said she didn't have time for 'made-up' stories; the 'real ones' were 'better'. She read books with print so tiny that it seemed like it would take a magnifier to read them, yet she managed with the same set of bifocals for twenty years or more. It was only in her eighties that her eyesight began to fail, but she nonetheless continued to read right up until her death.

In 2003, she traveled again for the first time in a quite a while. She went with Phillip to Italy, for a ten-day visit to an old friend with a house in a village perched on a hillside above the Lake of Como. At age 86, it was not easy for her to travel, but she was energized by the prospect of eating some good Italian food and seeing a lot of small Romanesque churches. With the aid of her cane and the steady arm of her son and their friend Francesca, she realized both of those important goals and returned to Austin full of ideas for the canvas and paper.

Although she continued to produce art in the new millenium, her pace began to slow. Her son Phillip convinced her that 2003 was the year to collect and hold a retrospective exhibition of her work, spanning the 40 years from 1965 onward. This Retrospective was indeed held on January 6, 2004, at the Dougherty Arts Center in Austin, and it was a well-attended success. It was held in conjunction with a family reunion, so members of her extended family came from all over to join her friends and fellow artists in acknowledging the deep and lasting impression she had made on their lives.

Though her trip to Italy at age 86 might easily have been most people's last trip abroad, Lynda was not most people, and in October 2004, now 88, she set out for Europe once again. This time, she went to Paris with her son and grandson Pierre, who was 17 at the time. She felt that travel was more educational than school, so it was no trouble to take him out for the two weeks that they spent in France. While in the past she had been the one leading the way, this time it was up to Phillip to take charge, since he had lived in Paris while attending college and could still speak enough French to get them around. The trip was indeed educational for Pierre and Lynda reveled in this connection between generations. Her mobility was limited, however, by an increasingly painful arthritic knee, so many of the museums that the trio visited required a wheelchair for Lynda to get around. Despite this difficulty, she managed to see the City of Light one last time.

On returning to Austin, in 2005, Lynda's life slowly began to unravel. First came the January fire at the ArtPlex, which destroyed many of the studios but spared hers save for extensive water and soot damage. Lynda was too devastated by the loss to return to the burned out building, but Phillip and Stephen, who was now living in Austin to be near Lynda, salvaged 90% of her paintings and drawings Many of her books and art supplies were too damaged to be recovered.

Diligently over the next six months, Phillip and Lynda cleaned each of the paintings and as many of the drawings as could be saved. The work was relegated to a storage unit, and her 'studio' had now shrunk to one bedroom of her small two bedroom frame house. Much of her work was actually saved and many art supplies were re-purchased, but Lynda was bereft of the many social connections she had at the studio and ceased to paint. Because she had always struggled with the vagaries of depression and anxiety, this reduction in her world was naturally taken with some difficulty. She continued to draw, however, though not as frequently nor with the same passion as before.

Health concerns began to intrude into her life in these final years. In May of 2005 Lynda had surgery to replace her arthritic right knee. Knowing that this surgery can be hard on a person of forty, she was nervous about going under the knife, particularly about the pain of recovery. Although she hesitated until it was clear that the options were limited, she undertook the operation and subsequent rehabilitation with a good attitude. It took about six months for her to recover and walk again on the new knee, but the absence of pain made it worth the effort. Her gait, which had always had a little 'roll' to it now became more reliable but she still kept her cane firmly in hand.

Sadly, 2006 was not a good year for Lynda. Though she was still in relatively good health early in the year, when her best friend Dorothy Saxe had to move away to be with her family in May, Lynda was naturally saddened by the loss. Then, in October of 2006, she was diagnosed with advanced bladder cancer. Though relatively hopeful at first, the two immediate operations to remove or forestall it were unsuccessful. Faced with the knowledge of the inevitable, her strength of will, long the anchor to her life and those around her, began to fade. Insensitive to the real-world consequences of a protracted battle with her disease and encouraged by family members who were unwilling to let her die quickly, her doctors prescribed a vain and excruciatingly debilitating course of radiation treatment in early 2007. In a weakened state as a result of this 'treatment', she fell and broke her hip in May.

After a series of struggles--surgery, rehabilitation and nursing care--to overcome this final physical setback were unsuccessful, Lynda moved to a private care hospice, An Angel's Place, where she succumbed to her illness on November 22, 2007.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Lynda's Memorial



Two days ago, after more than six months of delays and serious setbacks, we held a memorial for Lynda here in Austin. I spent the better part of of the last month preparing for the event, and it seems that the effort was well worth it. I certainly felt Mom's presence, not just in the room as we stood and offered our tributes to her, but as I ran through each of the tasks on my final to-do list for this, her final show, I could feel and hear her at my side. This is a good thing, too, for without her unseen hand holding me up, I don't think I would have had the strength to pull it off.

The memorial was set up as an art opening, or 'closing' if you will. This was to be a final display of Lynda's work, set up to provide the backdrop for her friends and family to say goodbye. It was also a symbolic gesture to recognize the importance that art played in Lynda's life.

At first, I had no idea where to hold this 'closing' but soon remembered that Lynda had been most active in the Austin Visual Arts Association. It was the AVAA who operated the gallery on the ground floor in the ArtPlex, and it was there that Lynda spent many an hour, watching the door and engaging anyone who wandered in in a lively conversation. If they could take it, that is.

So with that in mind, I emailed the AVAA and asked if they had a space where we might put up Lynda's work for her memorial. Of course, Kelli remembered Lynda quite well, (as does anyone who ever met her for more than a minute, I suspect)and she was most generous in offering up the AVAA gallery space for our use. Not only that, but she emailed the members of the group to inform them of the event, from which I got a lot of interesting and uplifting stories about her many interactions with people in and around the ArtPlex in its golden moment.

Having established a place to hold the event, I had to take care of a few details to make it happen, but these details took far longer than I anticipated. Collecting the art, for example, meant retrieving it from storage and cleaning each painting yet again. Though Lynda and I already spent six months cleaning each and every painting, many of them are still stained with the insidious soot, and it fell to Valery to clean them yet again before we could put them up. Valery also took care of all the food, shopping and laying out the spread on a table in the gallery.

For the event, I put together a memorial photo album. I went through all my old photographs and Anne and Stephen did the same. I collected as many pictures of her as I could find, beginning with her high school graduation photo and ending with the group picture we took with her niece Lynda Sue and her two children the day before Lynda was diagnosed with cancer in October of 2006. It is a fabulous collection of imagery, reminding me of how long and diverse and interesting her life really was. Of course, there were many more moments left out of a collection like this than were included, but it does give one the sense that this woman lived a very long and full life. She was a real beauty when she was younger, and, as most of us know, a very distinguished and admirable woman when she was older.

Of course, this was just the physical transformation that she underwent over the course of her life; it's what we can see from one photo to the next. To know the mental and philosophical transformations that she underwent in her life, one had to have been near enough to hear the anger, pain and anxiety in her voice as she spoke about her past, or to see the pleasure and freedom in the movement of her hands as she painted or drew. These two elements of her life --pain of the past and pleasure of the moment-- were so intimately intertwined in Lynda's being that it would be impossible to define her existence otherwise. No less than the rest of us, she was a walking contradiction, but, unlike so many of the rest of us, she had the courage to express that contradiction in her art. No wonder then, that so many people had to ask her, "But, what does it mean?"

Most of those in attendance at the memorial had no need to ask this question, for their presence quite simply was evidence that they already knew and understood how determining the meaning of Lynda's art was up to them. In this way, those gathered also created meaning from her passing. So many of the folks who stood up to talk made mention of the way Lynda had opened their eyes and mind to a new awareness of the world that it soon became clear that we had all, in one way or another, somehow 'gotten' it over the years.

Our individual way of expressing our loss and the influence that Lynda had been in our lives took on widely varying forms as we came up to the front of the group to speak. Interestingly, it seemed to me that each person had as much to say about themselves as Lynda, for it was our interaction that we came to relate to the others present, and in that, to tell them what kind of a relationship we had had with her.

Since I organized the event, I had the privilege of going first. My own little speech was remarkably selfish, for I couldn't help but telling a couple of stories about growing up with Lynda. These stories were meant to reveal a side of her that I particularly admired, so I told the stories about "A Penny's Worth of Beans" and "We Don't Serve Poison in This House" (both related elsewhere in this journal).

The former story was meant as an example of how difficult her childhood had been and I told it to show, I guess, how, though I did not know it at the time, I had been a beneficiary of her having lived through the Great Depression. The effect it had on her life was quite different than the effect it had on mine, of course, but there is no forgetting how much she had to endure as compared with how little hardships I actually faced in my life.

The latter story was meant to be humorous, of course, but also to show how devoted she was as a mother and a cook. Not only did she never intentionally poison me(and she might have liked to, especially on those days when I would torture David:) but she fed us very well indeed, in spite of working full time and caring for an ill husband.

Unfortunately, I engaged in a little unconscious revisionism, getting the details of the "Penny's Worth" story wrong. Also as I look back on that moment, I see that by talking about so much myself, I actually failed to acknowledge just how much I loved her and respected her. Ah hindsight.

Anne spoke next. Although she did indeed "almost lose [her] Mommy without ever getting to say goodbye," in December of 2006, she took pride in having helped Lynda 'rally' for "one more year". Alas, to say that this year could have been better for Lynda, both physically and mentally, is something of an understatement but Anne was pleased that she had come to understand and got to know more about her mother at the very end.

Stephen was next to speak, and curiously, he had very little to say. I say curiously because although he is a seasoned teacher and speaker, always so very rational and calm, in front of this group, he was very emotional. In fact, he was obviously near the tears as I thought I would or should have been shedding. The acute sense of loss made manifest in his speech came from his long history with her, of course, but also because he had spent so much time caring for her in the past three years. In spite of what had come before, he had come to a resolution with Lynda when he came to live in Austin to help care for her. He had come to know her again as a new and different person than the Mother who raised him. This meant that he could not escape the the welling up of pain that her loss brought to him, and it showed.

David spoke after Stephen, referring to himself as the "last grape on the vine". He spoke tenderly of how her energy and enthusiasm for life were an example to him. He too told a humorous story about the time that he, Lynda and Bill spent a Christmas together in Rome. He made note of the fact that while there are at least 10,000 churches in Rome, Lynda had only obliged he and my father to visit on 9,999 of them, allowing them to skip the last one because it was being renovated! This was a particularly good way of saying that, no less that the rest of us, David recalled how being forced to learn about art and music and literature had been good for him, despite his notions to the contrary at the time.

This way that Lynda obliterated preconceived notions, about art or herself, was a common theme among those who got up to praise her. Leonard Radoff, who, with his wife Lisel were Lynda's best friends for more than forty years, also spoke of how Lynda had encouraged him, when he saw a work of art that he particularly didn't like, not to rush to judgment. She urged him to give the artist the benefit of the doubt and to take some time to understand what they might have been or were doing. "What's your hurry?" she asked of him. He readily acknowledged that he had too often been too eager to dismiss a work of art when a moment or two of contemplation might have been in order. Who knows what could happen in that moment?

Lisel spoke of the same sensibility. She admitted, however, to often having slipped away to a more classical gallery next door while Lynda was strolling through the modern art museum in Houston. Disagreements about the value of modern art notwithstanding, Lisel, Len and Lynda shared a love of 'high' art. Lynda would take the bus to Houston for a weekend and together, they attended many performances of the opera, ballet and symphony. And though neither Lisel nor her husband even gained the affinity Lynda had for Wagner and/or Mahler, she did realize that Lynda's passion for the music was both genuine and not to be ignored. So, they went with her despite not loving it as much as she and, as a result, learned to like it more. Lisel was good to share her husband with Lynda, for often while she prepared dinner, Len and Lynda two of them would steal off the bookstore for a coffee and another long talk.

Len and Lisel's daughter, Lesley also spoke, relating her admiration and respect for the woman who had first entered her life as a small child, and who had been nearly as influential in her life as her parents, especially later in life, when Lynda would go to visit them in California. As for so many of us, Lynda was a mentor and sounding board for both Lesley and her husband Irv, whom Lynda adored as she did her own children. Their home in Palo Alto was a haven for Lynda during her visits out west, a place where she could feel comfortable talking politics, music and art.

We heard next from Lynda's friends from the Purples reading group to which Lynda belonged as well. Dale and FloAnn spoke of her engaging personality and the sharp wit with which she could skewer most any book reader/critic that she chose. The depth and breadth of Lynda's knowledge was most impressive to those folks like Dale who came to know her passion for reading and books. Many of the members of the Purples who were not able to attend wrote notes of praise and admiration for her life, spirit and intelligence.

One by one everyone whose lives had been profoundly touched by Lynda got up to speak, and each time, these same themes came up again and again. Strength, grace and intelligence, her love of life and family, her passion for art and knowledge, these were the constants that I and most of the others recalled with fondness. New friends from the nursing home spoke about the energy she brought to her new surroundings, and old friends like John Wiley who had know her in Abilene recalled how she brought light and culture to that darkest of regions. Finally, Carl Woodring, who came to know her late in life and purchased at least four of her very large paintings to display in his home got up to speak. He had tremendous respect for her as an a friend and fellow intellectual, and spoke of how the art he has in his apartment serves as a litmus test for visitors. Those who do not comment on them are not invited back!

Finally, I read to the group a statement from Valery's mother, Billie, and it was the only time I was moved to tears. Billie had a special relationship with Lynda, based not simply on familial relations, which were indeed very strong, but on mutual respect and a love of art. They shared a common language in art, and I certainly felt it most strongly when reading Billie's words of praise for Lynda.

It occurs to me, as I have gone though this, preparing the photo album, collecting the art, writing up her biography and printing up, yet again, her statement about art, how little I really knew of Lynda, in spite of having been as close to her as anyone for the past twenty years. Each person who spoke not only touched on common themes, but each brought to me a part of my mother that I did not know. In fact,I supposed that I could not have known these things without having the chance to pay tribute to her as we did. Closure, it seems, is about preparing for the future by releasing old things and breaking free from the past.

Bye Mom.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A Real Job

I have worked in restaurants pretty much my whole life.

My first job was working as a busboy in a long-gone restaurant here in Austin called The Barn, back in 1972. I was just sixteen, and had yet to get my driver's license when I got the job, and though I didn't stay there long, it was my first taste of the work I've loved since then. Of course, back then, it wasn't a 'real' job, as my mother would say, but it did pay very well, at least for a guy who'd up till then only made money with a paper route. More than that, it somehow simply felt right, like where I belonged somehow. And despite the many times that Lynda asked me over the years, "When are you going to get a real job?" I managed to make at least a part of my living from working in a restaurant ever since.

My first job after high school was in England, I worked at Sorrentino's, which was a very small Italian restaurant in Bedford England, where I went to live with my parents in 1975, just prior to going to the American College in Paris. Franco Sorrentino was the owner of this tiny two-story eatery just off the High Street in a narrow alleyway, and at the time he hired me, he wasn't much older than I was. At the time, in 1975, I was just nineteen, and he was no more than twenty-six, so he was like an older brother to me. At least, he took me under his wing because his own younger brother, Tony, who was supposed to be in line to take over the business someday, was a complete wastrel. At seventeen, he was completely spoiled by his mother, Mama Sorrentino, and not only had no intention of working in the restaurant his whole life, he had no intention of working there even a minute more than required. In fact, he actually didn't work even when required, and this even when he was physically present in the restaurant. So, by comparison with Tony, I looked like the eager young American, and since I was willing to work for tips, he was willing to take a chance on me.

After two years in Paris, I returned to Austin and went to work for a new restaurant called Gianni's. This was just being created by Mike Young and John Zapp, who had been partners since Mike built Mike & Charlies, a very popular sandwich joint off 35th street way back in the early seventies. The pair were fresh off their rather unsuccessful Tex-Mex restaurant called Los Tres Bobos, and wanted to bring some real cuisine to Austin for the first time. Though billed as "Regional Italian Cooking" Giannis was simply the first Italian restaurant in Austin to offer fresh pasta and homemade sauces. We didn't have an Italian in the kitchen, but the restaurant was a big success. We often had two and three hour waits at the door on weekends and were pretty much full every night of the week. Mike and John went on to found Chuy's which they sold last year to a corporate giant from New York:)

At first, I worked as the pasta maker, learning how to run the first pasta machine in a restaurant in Austin. It was imported from Italy and I had to learn how to make pasta without a net so to speak, but it was really easy enough. I made the pasta early in the morning with Evelyn, our sauce maker and the pastry chef. Eventually I went on to become the pasta cook on the line, working a sixty gallon vat of waters and a half a dozen wire baskets filled with various forms of pasta behind me next to the two burners I used to make the alfredo sauces from scratch.

I worked the sautee station from time to time when Tony was too fried to come in or continue, but it wasn't my forte. In fact, it was service that I was really drawn to, so eventually I made my way out to the front as a waiter. This is where I really made friends with Henry, as he was, along with Tom and other, now 'old' friends, waiting tables at the time.

I left Giannis to return to school in Paris, but after Bill died returned to Austin and ground work at the Headliner's Club, which is a private club occupying the top floor of a bank building in downtown Austin. At first, I was a waiter in the daytime, but soon moved up to be come the Banquet Captain. This was a great title and a good job, but very demanding, physically. I often worked 12 and 14 hour days, finishing at two in the morning by literally moving two dozen tables back into the dining room and re-setting them all. Of course, I didn't do it by myself, but as the leader, I was required to get right in there with everyone else. Consequently, I became very strong and remain so to this day. Hard work has paid off for me in improved strength and stamina, but those days are certainly gone. I worked at the Headliner's Club for ten years, while I went to school and got both my B.A. and M.A. in Art History from the University of Texas.

When I left Headliner's, I had every intent of getting a real job, but in the interest of putting food on the table for my now family of four, I set aside the idea of moving to France to teach English and took yet another fake job at a restaurant in Austin. This was a place called Gilligan's, and if the name wasn't enough to warn me away, surely the facts that they were off sixth street and opening six weeks late should have set off alarms bells but they did not. It was certainly the second-worst job I've ever done (the #1 worst job I ever had was cleaning toilets at the American Air Force base in Chicksands, England)and the only job I have ever actually quit, on the spot, without giving notice. It got so bad that I used to sit in my car before the shift, hoping something would happen to close it down. Finally I went in one day and when I saw Stan, the owner, I called him over and handed him the key, telling him that I wasn't even interested in working that night's shift, thank you very much.

This is the time when I went to work full time at UT. My first job was a a receptionist in the Liberal Arts Dean's office and it paid so dreadfully that I actually had to apply for and use food stamps for about six months. Eventually I managed to move up and get a few raises, but money was always tight and I started looking to get back into the restaurant business.

This turned out to be Hudsons on the Bend, where I still work. I went to work at Husdons in the fall of 1996, but that was just for a trial shift. I did well enough to get 'hired' but this actually meant that I was the 'on call' waiter on Saturday nights only and in fact, because the turnover rate was so very low (and still is) it meant that I had to call in every Saturday for six months before I actually got to work a shift. Even then it wasn't steady for about six months or so, but after that I was fortunate to be allowed to work almost every weekend. This job made the difference in our lives, literally. We went from struggling daily to finally being able to at least make ends meet, so to speak. Valery and I could even go out once in a while and I am sure this helped us keep our relationship stable during those tough times.

Nonetheless, it still wasn't, in Lynda's eye and mind, a 'real' job, as that was what I did at UT. Never mind that to me it seemed the other way around, that I was working the UT job as a way of paying the bills, while working at Hudson's was both fulfilling and well-paying. Considering that, until I moved up the ladder and became the Liberal Arts Webmaster in 2000 that I made more money at UT than I did at Hudsons, it is no wonder that for me, this was the 'real job.

Eventually, though, before she died, Lynda did come to see that restaurant business is my chosen profession. I took advantage of an opportunity to become the wine steward at Hudsons about two years ago, and now balance a half-time position there with a half-time job at UT. It is a wonderful combination because it gives me the security of UT's health insurance and the promise of a retirement annuity in a few years time as well as the chance to have a high-energy job in a first-class restaurant. She had the chance to see this transformation, and approved of it! It only took 60 years, but eventually she saw how much I enjoyed it and why it was, in fact, a 'real' job after all.

Sadly for the dining public at large, only a few of us can claim to actually enjoy working in the restaurant business. Most people do not consider it a 'real' job, just a means to an end, like finishing school or getting that acting gig. But if you've ever been waited on by a an older-than-average professional 'real' waiter or waitress, then you know that the difference they can make in your dining experience as compared with, say, a nineteen year old student who could really care less is a significant one.

And, considering what we spend for the privilege of being waited on, shouldn't we come to expect, or demand, more professionals who treat it as a 'real' job and fewer aspiring models and actors who don't care if our food is cold?

Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Power of Positive Thinking

It seems to me that while I was growing up, we used to have a book of this title on the bookshelf in the living room. It was next to Psycho Cybernetics, which was a self-help book written in the sixties that my mother read so much, she wore out her first copy and had to buy a second.

Although they did not end up on the last bookshelf of Lynda's life, I recall that both books were her 'go to' manuals during what must have been some of the darker days of her life, when she was selling encyclopedias, brushes or insurance.

The Power of Positive Thinking is a famous book, actually, by an equally famous personality of my youth, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. Today he may not be so well-known, but I recall his name because I can also remember bits and pieces of a radio program of his that my parents listened to regularly...was it on Sundays before the Opera at the Met? I never read the book, but as I contemplate writing about my own experiences with the subject, I can't help but feel that I was influenced by it, if only in dinner conversations with both Lynda and Bill.

The fact that both struggled so with depression an anxiety puts into context my own little Jacobean nightmares. I waver, as I reckon most people do, between thinking that this sort of struggle is purely my own and thinking that it is so universal as to be inescapable. So, at both ends of the spectrum, these two mindsets I know to be both unnecessarily painful and inherently false. I know, of course, that mine cannot be a unique situation, so I am comforted by the fact that I am not alone. I know, also, that not everyone is so afflicted all the time, giving rise to the hope that I will again be among them.

I believe it is an understatement when I say that now is the time when I must be resolute and strong for Valery and Maddie. We have a whirlwind couple of months, beginning with Maddie's birthday, then her Prom, Lynda's Memorial, Maddie's graduation and her move to Portland all by July 1. Whew!