Sunday, July 17, 2016

Upstairs, Downstairs

There are many rites of passage in the life of a child--learning to walk alone, learning to ride a bike, walking around the block (or whatever) the first time without mom or dad. Of course, there's the really big rite of passage--learning to drive.

But perhaps one of the bigger rites of passage is joining the working world. Understandably, it is a critical step in a child's journey from childhood to adulthood. Of course, we don't encourage child labor, as such. No returning to the heartbreaking images of the 19th century where children worked in factory jobs--a practice that sadly continues too many places in the world today. But it is important for a child growing into adulthood to begin to learn responsibility through that first job.

I have worked at something a good portion of my life, since I was a teen until I was an older (ahem) person. I firmly believe that a child growing into an adult misses out on a valuable experience if she or he doesn't have a job, usually during the summer months. Frankly, I look askance at young people in our neighborhood who do not "work" during the summer, assuming of course they are old enough. We have one such young man who lives nearby. He is an only child--his parents having thought they were unable to have children. Perhaps that circumstance alone has made them not insist on his developing some maturity. He is on the brink of turning 16, and has not as yet mowed the lawn.

Ah, lawn mowing and baby sitting. Two of the first jobs available to many teens in the United States. I certainly did some baby sitting in my teen years.  Oh, I can recall the children for whom I baby-sat.  What I am trying to recall is the first long-term summer job.

I think it was the summer I spent in Canada, along Lake Erie, working for wealthy Americans with summer homes along the lake shore on the Canadian side.  I wrote more extensively about this job here, but a few details can be replayed.

The matriarch of the family I worked for assigned each of us girls--yes, there were three of us, to our own jobs. One girl baby-sat the grandchildren of the family, one girl was the cook, and then there was the girl who cleaned all the rooms, made the beds, did the laundry--that would be me.

You can read the outcome of that first job in my earlier post, linked above. Suffice it to say that, having been part of house staff (think downstairs a la Downtown Abbey) I vowed that should I ever be able to afford to have someone clean for me, I would not treat them as dismissively as my first employer treated me.

The final irony for me was this--years later, with the availability of information on the internet, I "googled" the name of that employer family. I learned that the grand dame had since died--not surprisingly given that decades had passed. I read in her obituary some of the details of her early life. She and her husband had, as very young people, eloped. So, no doubt she was recalling her own poorer childhood and now a grand dames she decided she didn't want a young, somewhat pretty teenaged girl who her son and some of his friends found attractive working for her.

I can't really say I was fired, but I was not invited to return the next summer.

There are many lessons learned in a first job. Of course, there is learning the value of work, of responsibility. There is learning the joy of being paid for doing something. And there is also the value of learning that just because you are "fired" doesn't mean that you have failed.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Vignettes of Teachers Past

Having been challenged to write about the best teacher in my life, I knew immediately who I would write about. But first...

I have many memories of teachers. Some memories are fraught with negative recollections. There was the algebra teacher who forever ruined whatever interest or capability I might have had in any math subject.  She was returning exams and took the time to bring me to the front of the class. She returned my paper (which had earned a passing grade--one of only two students who passed!). Then she proceeded to berate me saying I should have done better, that I had the ability to do better.  And that, dear reader, was it. I have never since had any confidence in doing math.

There were several high school teachers. Since I had spent the bulk of my elementary and secondary education years in schools overseas, I was somewhat at sea coming into the U.S. education system. So I particularly responded to good or commanding teachers. There was the high school history teacher who had this habit of repeating a phrase--we students began to call him Mr. B, Mr. B, imitating his repetitive style. But I wrote a research paper for his class on medicine in the Civil War and still remember the interest he generated in me for history. Or the advanced biology teacher who was so engaging that when he died recently, I joined other students in an outpouring of memories of his excellence as a teacher.

Of course, there was my first ever teacher--my mother. Since we were living on a mission station away from any town, my mother taught me for kindergarten and first grade. Long before home schooling was possible, my mother was my teacher.

And now, to my favorite teacher ever. When I entered college, I had thoughts of becoming a physician. I don't know how I thought I would accomplish that without any interest or ability in math. It was chemistry that ended any thought of becoming a physician--chemistry, of course, requires some math ability.

I wasn't at loose ends about choosing a major, however. I redirected my academic goal into English literature. And that's when Dr. S became my favorite teacher.  The college I attended had a small student body and a correspondingly small faculty. That meant that many of the various courses I needed to take as an English major were taught by Dr. S. Interestingly, he had a brother who also taught at the college--so there were two Drs. S. And the brother was a history professor, so I took English history courses from him.

From Dr. S, I learned critical thinking. I was encouraged to approach information curiously. All things were open to discovery. And that trait remains with me to this day.

When I graduated from college, I went off to graduate school.  During that year, I was moved to write a letter of thanks to Dr. S. His response was most unexpected and surprising. He asked--did I want to return to my alma mater to teach for a year, filling in for a professor on sabbatical leave. Of course, I said yes. That year turned in eight. And my career was thus begun.

A memorable teacher, indeed. Not long after I returned to teach, Dr. S. moved on to other academic institutions. I have lost contact him. But the memory of his excellence remains.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Thus It Ever Was

It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair.
Perhaps it is inevitable that every generation views its own time as "the best and the worst" of times.
Dickens wrote this opening sentence for his classic A Tale of Two Cities--a novel set during the French Revolution.  The dichotomous structure of the sentence perfectly captures the thrill and the terror of tumultuous times.
I was born just before World War II ended. I have occasionally thought about my parents--getting married in 1942, having their first child in 1945, going to Africa as missionaries in 1946 (flying there because shipping was still not without danger from all the mines that had been placed in the oceans during the war).  There must have been an element of "the worst of times" sense for them. Those were tumultuous years indeed.
And, yet, it must have also been "the best of times." Beginning a life together, welcoming a baby, embarking on a life calling.
As I contemplate the present world, so many examples of "the worst" leap out at me. Bombings in Baghdad  or Brussels (or any other city), non-stop rapid gunfire in Orlando, Newtown, Charleston, San Bernadino, wildfires up and down the western U.S., flooding in West Virginia, Houston, Paris, Pakistan., political upheaval in the United Kingdom, in the United States, in Brazil, in Bangladesh.
The list seems endless. The worst of times.
But for every "worst" there is a "best". These stories do not as readily grab the headlines. After all, we seem to prefer blood and guts more than human kindness. At least, the news moguls seem to think so. 

What strikes me is the way in which generation after generation has experienced this dichotomy. We think our times are the hardest, the worst, perhaps the best. We view our existence as the pinnacle of human history ( Lord, help us all).
So, is it the best of times? the worst of times?
Two thoughts remain with me--first, there is balance. First, just as those in medieval times focused on the great wheel of fortune--what is cast down will be thrust up, what is thrust up will be cast down--we do well to remember that. And second, thus it ever was.

"What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done;
    there is nothing new under the sun."
Ecclesiastes 1:9 (NRSV)
Illustration from a manuscript of a work by Boccaccio

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Redux--Summertime. . .and the livin’ is easy

Recall a summer time memory from your youth--I confess that I suggested that prompt to Comeback Bloggers, having previously posted about one of my summertime memories--the swimming hole.

It is interesting to me is that I share, along with Ginger and Ruth, recollections of scrambled seasons.  Having grown up in southern Africa,  as a child I experienced "reversed seasons"--that is, summer in November, December and January, and winter in June, July, August.  Combine with that the schedule the school system followed--a calendar based school year beginning in January with holidays spaced throughout the year. We had a six week break at Christmas, and two 3 week breaks in the year between terms.  

So my earliest summertime memories are intermingled with Christmas holidays, definitely not the usual memory that a child in North America might have.

But, my parents did return to the U.S. when I was a teen--and I had several wonderful summers full of "typical" memories.

Here are two of the most vivid. I have written about them before, but the memories are still fresh and when I think my youthful summer times, these are what I recollect.

I can recall two idyllic summers when I lived with my uncle and aunt near the village of Grantham, PA. Too young to work (by the standards then), I had to find things to fill my summers. And I filled them very well, thank you.

What did we do? Well, we could walk to the little IGA grocer in the middle of the village. By today’s standards, this grocery would be a convenience store, but then it served to provide all the food goods we might need. And it had a soda cooler right inside the door. We would pad down the hill to the IGA, go inside in the relative cool, fish around for the right soda, then sucking our bottles, walk back home.


Or we would go to the local swimming hole. Do they even have swimming holes anymore? The one near Grantham was called the Riffles, and to get there you had to walk along the railroad tracks. The swimming hole was formed by an abandoned dam, which had fallen mostly into disrepair, but the remnants of a deep water reservoir remained. There was a nearby tree with the proverbial swing on which braver souls than I could swing far out over the swimming hole then drop in. We could sit on the remnants of the dam, sunning, talking, (if old enough) with a boy.

Soon enough, I no longer had time to fill my summers with such idol activities. Instead, at age 18 I went to Canada, along the shores of Lake Erie, to work for "rich" people--U.S. residents who worked in Buffalo, NY, but had summer homes on the Canadian side of Lake Erie. I did that for 3 summers.  No more swimming in swimming holes, no more leisurely walks to the corner grocery store.

Ah, summer. A time of leisure, a time for building memories, a time--at least when you are young--"the living' is easy."

Photo credit: 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Music Hath Such Power

Well, despite the title, the real quote is "Music has charms to soothe the savage beast..." (from William Congreve's drama The Mourning Bride).
I specifically altered that quote because it is the POWER of music on which I want to focus. 

It is hard to express how much music is infused through almost all the facets of my life. Some of my earliest memories are of my father singing to me--nonsense songs that even to this day I can recall.

  • "Mairzy doats and dozy doats"  
  • "Kentucky Babe" 
  • "I'm A Lonely Little Petunia in an Onion Patch"

As I was growing up, my father gave me free access to play his 45 rpms. I could play Beethoven string quartets, Mozart symphonies, Verdi operas. To this day, I love classical music.

I sang in school chorus, in college choir, in church and community music groups. 

Among the most joyous associations I have with music are the various choral pieces I have sung. Understand, I am no soloist--I am a solid alto. It is the CHORAL experience that I enjoy. I sang Bach's choral music, Beethoven's "Choral Fantasy," Handel's "Messiah," Haydn masses and requiems.  Maybe you notice that (at least) one great composer name is missing: Mozart.

For all the choral pieces I had participated in singing, I had never sung Mozart's tour de force choral piece--his Requiem.

Until--until one year after the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001.  Someone got the idea to have Mozart's Requiem sung all over the world. Singing the requiem would begin at  9 a.m. and be sung all over the world on September 11, 2002.

I joined with collective choral groups that united in the area where I live to participate in singing the Requiem. We sang  inside the Rotunda in our state capitol building.

Here is the genius of that idea--every time zone around the world assembled at least ONE choir and began singing the Requiem at 9 a.m. in THAT time zone. Thus the rolling Requiem. All around the world, people singing and instrumentalists accompanying in that glorious Requiem mass.

It was perhaps the most perfect way to memorialize all those who died on September 11, 2001.  And to remind us of our connectedness.  

That's why I say--music hath such power.  Power to fill and restore our souls.  Music to remind us of our common humanness. 

If you have the time, you can listen to the entire Requiem Mass here.  

It lasts just under an hour.  Think of it--24 time zones* around the world sharing in this powerful piece--each lasting an hour for a whole day.  If people in the world can come together for one day to all sing the same choral piece, what else might we be able to do?

*There are actually more than 24 time zones (it's complicated--you can look it up).

Sunday, June 12, 2016

“Wear the old coat and buy the new book.”

The title of this blog is a quote from Austin Phelps, 
an American minister and an educator living in the 19th century.

If you have been a long time reader of this blog, you will not be surprised to read that I LOVE BOOKS.  After all, I did major in English literature in college, and in graduate school. And I spent the first eight years of my working career teaching literature (at my college alma mater) and the last eight years of my working career teaching writing (and the occasional literature course) at the local community college.

So, when I think about summer, I think about reading. Truth be told, when I think about spring, autumn and winter, I think about reading.

You should see the nightstand next to my side of the bed. Yup--a book holder with 10 or so book "waiting to be read."  And on top of those book is my Kindle reader with a whole bunch more books to be read.

So when someone asks me for a recommendation of a good book that I read (recently), it is really difficult for me to choose.

Understand--it is not that my selections are always faultless.  I have occasionally picked a book that "looked good" only to learn that it was a complete dud. A waste of my time and money. I resent such an encounter with a book. And I really resent the promoting of such a book which a certain online website where one can buy books did--and that's why I bought the awful book that I resented. No, I won't tell you the name of the book.

But, but, but...this blog is supposed to be about a really good book that I have read. (Can you tell that I am is so hard to choose?) I am going to cheat--and pick TWO: one fiction, one non-fiction. Both are from several years ago. If you haven't read them, do. If you have, re-read them.

Three years ago, a book discussion group I was in selected the novel The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway. From the title, you can figure out something about the book. The structure of the novel is focused on three main characters--and the cellist. As the chapters alternate among these characters, you experience the horror of the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war.  Soon, you too become caught up in the recurring question--will the cellist of Sarajevo live another day to play Albinoni's Adagio on the exact spot where a deadly mortar fell.

Non-fiction? I try to read interspersing books--fiction/non-fiction. Repeat.

The same book discussion group introduced me to the wonderful book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman. Through the story of a Hmong child with epileptic seizures, the book brings into stark contrast two approaches to health and healing. Unexpectedly, both approaches are correct but they are on a collision course. Contrast the Hmong culture with the mindset of American clinical health care--and you get the basic sense of  the content of the book. What you can't get unless you read it is the agonizing direction the story takes you.

I was so taken with this book that for months afterwards I would tell ANY health care provider I met that they really "had" to read this book. I finally stopped when one of these providers said--"I already have." 

So, those are my choices. And as Austin Phelps advised--wear the old coat and buy the new book. The book will wear much longer and better than the coat!

Monday, June 06, 2016

This Above All...

If you studied Hamlet in high school (or wherever) you can finish the quote: "to thine own self be true."

Sounds like great advice, doesn't it? What is ironic, however, is that the character who speaks these lines is Polonius, who is--to put it rather bluntly--a big windbag. He is constantly interfering with affairs that he should leave alone.

So, how does this connect to the writing challenge of the week--what advice would I give my younger self? Well, I suppose just this: advice is not always helpful.

As I get older, I find myself doing the reminiscing bit. You know, going over events from the past, wondering what would have happened had I...fill in the blank with a "this" or "that."

But I always come back to one conclusion: while I am well aware that things in my life aren't perfect, and I certainly am not perfect, in the main--I like the way my life has turned out and I like myself.

So for fear of altering the course of my life in some unforeseen way, if given the chance, I would most certainly decline to tell my younger self anything.


There are a few dumb things I did. Perhaps if I had been forewarned, I might have done better.  Such as:

--remember the time I stopped going to movies? Well, that was dumb. Plain and simple. I love movies and I made no great moral point by avoiding them.

--then there was the time that because I had a migraine, I decided not to go to a concert. My husband had gotten tickets for us to go to an Eagles concert--I am a big fan of that group. Turned out the concert was superb--part of their comeback tour.  To this day, my husband has the tickets tucked away. And every so often he mentions it. Wish I had told myself--go to the concert. The headache won't last; the experience of a great concert will.

--swimming. Yup, just that. I wish I had learned to swim properly when I was a child. I had lessons, and regularly went to the public pool (in Bulawayo) where we had instructions. But I just couldn't get the hang of it. I loathed diving--putting my head underwater. I never mastered breathing. I can't float. Seriously--I just sink. So I wish...

--And one thing I most certainly would have told my younger self--take advantage of the places where you live and absorb as much as you can. For example. having grown up in southern Africa, I never even tried to learn any of the languages. I missed out on the experience of a lifetime simply because I couldn't be bothered.

That's it, folks.

Perhaps, as Polonius advised, I was being true to myself. Too impatient, too distracted, too young and immature. But, isn't that what it means to be young? Even if I had been able to advise my younger self, I doubt if I would have paid attention.