Saturday, February 09, 2019

The Year in Books

You may recall that one of my New Year's resolutions was to read more. And to help keep me motivated, I vowed to reprise them as I go. So here are the first four.

EDUCATED by Tara Westover--
I am a bit cautious in rating this book. First, on one hand the story is stunning--painful, extraordinary, a testament to the human spirit and the will to survive, and in the end triumphant. On the other hand, the story is deeply troubling--the power of brainwashing, the dangers of extremism, the sheer lunacy of the family's story.
My caution is also fueled by having read past books that were so breathtaking enthralling me with the story, that I was crushed when the story turned out to have been ... not true? Made up? Understand, I am NOT saying that is what this book is. It is just that the events are so alien to my existence, so astounding, that it is hard for me to imagine their veracity much less believe it.
I will forgo the details of the story--many reviewers describe them.
Eventually, I just got tired of reading of the lunacy of Westover's parents and the ways they subjected their children to what would be called child abuse. I applaud her surviving. And her triumph in pursuing education as a pathway to a new life.

THE SYMPATHIZER by Viet Thanh Nguyen--
The Sympathizer is a very challenging read. At times brutally violent, at times almost humorous, at times satiric. All the while, the book is infused with the love of one's country. The reader gets a mix of history, political conflicts, personal insight--and a deeply moving story about BOTH sides in the Vietnam war. Both north and south are portrayed. And, not surprisingly, the U.S. as well--when the war ended many Vietnamese came to the U.S. as refugees. 
So the narrator's observations about life in the U.S. give the reader an insight into the experience of those who fled Vietnam. Another way the reader gets an insight into the U.S. is through the telling of the narrator's work as an advisor when a famous Hollywood (clearly Coppola) makes a movie about the Vietnam war (clearly "Apocalypse Now".  It is not an insight the reader expects--instead of making an authentic representation of the war, the director makes a HOLLYWOOD acceptable portrayal of that war. 
The core of the book is the narrator (unnamed), and his experiences. He is a North Vietnamese agent who has infiltrated the South Vietnam's army. He is a double agent.  When he too flees to the U.S., it is for the express purpose of being a deep agent, sending news of the potential South Vietnamese effort to retake the country. The narrator--never named--has a handler to whom he sends coded reports.
Eventually, the narrator decides to return to Vietnam--where he is still masquerading as a loyal South Vietnamese. He is captured, imprisoned, and forced to be reeducated. He has to write a confession--which he eventually re-reads, after a nervous breakdown. He has a final epiphany--and the reader is left with the understanding of the futility of the ENTIRE venture--from the Chinese dominance of Vietnam, to France, to the U.S., to the South Vietnamese who want to retake their homeland.
My epiphany as a reader is that when the narrator is rereading his 300 some page confession--it is really the book that I am reading that he means. At least, that's how I took it.

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON by Elizabeth Strout
My Name is Lucy Barton is a very low key incisive portrayal of a mother/daughter relationship. The title character--Lucy--is in the hospital following an unnamed procedure after which she acquired a bacterial infection. Her stay in the hospital is extending far beyond what she expected. She and her husband have two small daughters--that fact alone makes it difficult for her husband to visit her.
Lucy yearns for someone to talk to--so her husband calls Lucy's mother. Mother and daughter have been somewhat estranged, though still civil.
Lucy awakens to find her mother in the hospital room with her. And they begin to talk. Over the several days of the mother's visit, they talk about all manner of things. Family dynamics--with some deep issues only hinted at: poverty, abuse, a sibling who is homosexual. Additionally, they talk about former friends and neighbors. These are the "whatever happened to so-and-so" that we sometimes have with family members.
Through the course of the book, a great deal of Lucy's life is explored. She does recover and is discharged from the hospital. Her mother has returned to her home. Her husband and children reconnect in her life--this was one of the puzzling things for me, the almost complete absence of any sense of family relationships in Lucy's current family.
At the close of the book, Lucy Barton completely owns her own story, even though there is recognition that this could be so many women's stories.

I began reading this book with great enthusiasm. I am a tree lover....maybe even a tree hugger. I periodically battle, gently, with a neighbor about trees. We have many trees bounding our property. Some extend branches across the property lines. And my neighbor, whose yard is ALWAYS spotless, hates raking leaves or having to remove anything that vaguely resembles dirt. One day, a tree trimming truck rolled, and began to prune OUR tree. Well, I do understand why. But I did exchange a few words with the neighbor. I ended rather inelegantly by saying "We need trees, because they provide us with oxygen."
So, with that frame of mind, I read THE SECRET LIFE OF TREES.  In many ways, it is a scientific work written for non-scientists. At times it is circular and repetitious. Eventually, I got to the point where I was thinking "all right, already, trees are living organisms. Got it!"  
I enjoyed it, but also got tired of it.

Off to continue the reading for 2019.

Wednesday, January 09, 2019


The current seemingly unending drum beat to "build the wall" inspires me to make a few historical observations.

Walls separating peoples and countries may "work" for a time, but the historical record shows that eventually they all fail, or at the very least change and no longer serve the intended purpose.

Here are a few examples:

Border Walls through History

The walls of Jericho—a favorite Bible story from the OT.
Remember the spiritual—“Joshua fit the battle of Jericho…and the walls came tumbling down”?
Built to protect the city of Jericho, this famous wall is the one brought down by Joshua in the battle for Jericho. So, its intended purpose of protection failed.

Hadrian’s Wall—located in England along the border between England and Scotland, the wall was built by the Romans as both a barrier and a way to identify people coming into England, taxing them as a way to discourage immigration. The wall stood until the Roman Empire collapsed, and was then dismantled by “barbarians.”

Photo of Hadrian's Wall from website listed below

The Great Wall of China—which was really a series of walls built by various emporers. It was designed as protection to help China fight off various invaders. While the Wall benefited China in its growth in trade, it ultimately failed to keep invaders out when Genghis Khan led his army into China.

Wall Street—built in New York City as it was developing. It was intended to separate the native American peoples from the Dutch settlers. This wall did not last for long, and was dismantled. From the wall the name Wall Street was derived—and of course, is now a center in world trade and finance.

Berlin Wall—when World War II ended, the Allies divided up Europe--the Soviets controlling the eastern zone where Berlin was located, and the western zone with England, France and the United States each controlling an area. As the Cold War heated up, the western powers united into one zone, West Germany. Berlin remained still divided into an eastern and western sector. Because of its location in East Germany, Berlin became a place where people under Soviet rule could escape to the West. Thus, to stop people from going from east to west, in 1961 a wall was constructed virtually overnight to separate the eastern sector from the western sector. In 1989, caught up in democratic changes in Eastern Europe, the East German government suddenly eased restrictions, permitting families to cross from east into west. East German citizens took that as "permission" and began to “tear down the wall." With no military intervention stopping them, the wall came down.

More descriptions of various walls through history can be found on the Internet, including here:
This website is the source for many of the details used above.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

New Year's Resolutions

Do you make them? And do you break them?

Well, I least make them and try not to break them.

It helps to focus on things doable--as opposed to pipe dream resolutions.

You will NOT make yourself be a better person by making a resolution. You might make yourself a better person by KEEPING a resolution.
Just skip the resolution and be a better person.

Of course, the resolution is kind of like a To Do though, like a grocery list, you write it down, then go out and get it, then cross it off the list.
But most things worth doing are not a once and done. 

How many times have you made a resolution about something involving food?

  • Eat less.
  • Eat more healthily.
  • Eat more vegetables.
  • Eat only non-meats.

Or something involving body image?

  • Loss weight
  • Exercise more
  • Walk more

Or personal improvement?

  • Be more kind
  • Show more gratitute
  •

AHA! There's a resolution I can keep. I am setting my reading goal as 25 books this year. I will try to "review" each or at least reprise.

And I'm off...

Saturday, October 06, 2018


 In 1991, I was riveted with the testimony of Anita Hill during the confirmation hearings on Clarence Thomas, who had been nominated to the Supreme Court.

As Anita Hill so calmly recounted unwanted sexual advances on her by Clarence Thomas, I thought—at last. A woman who is accomplished. A woman who is well-educated. A woman who is brave enough to recount (with the whole world watching) these unwanted advances. And then, the senators—all male—began to attack the woman. As the hearings deteriorated into a side show of male chauvinism and male arrogance and male dominance, I could barely watch anymore. The committee--all men, pronouncing judgment on the woman as a liar at best and as the transgressor at worst.

At the time of those hearings, our daughter was 10 years old. As she was growing up, even as young as age 4, we had been telling her that her body belonged to her. Once, I found a child appropriate book describing “good touch” and “bad touch” that helped with my conversations for her  to understand. I recall distinctly how she turned to me and said “Mommy, why would someone want to bad touch a girl?”  Well, that was hard to explain. So at the time, I reinforced the concept that her body belongs to her and to reject “bad touch.” But, that if it happened, to trust enough to tell us, her parents.

Lest you think our educating our daughter was insufficient or singular, we had also had similar conversations with our son, who was older than our daughter, when he was growing up. Maybe not the same phrasing, but the same idea—that his body belonged to him. AND we also taught him to respect girls. As he grew into his teenage years, we made sure he understood that boys have to be asresponsible as girls as they mature, particularly where matters of sexuality are concerned. 

So when Clarence Thomas was confirmed, I felt bereft—how now to inform my daughter? How could I say—if someone does something to you that you don’t like, touches you and you don’t want that—then just tell him NO.

That same daughter is now grown, married, with daughters of her own.

AND NOTHING HAS CHANGED. In fact, if anything things are now worse. We still have brave women who are willing to testify before yet another confirmation hearing, where the woman recounts the unwanted advances of yet another Supreme Court nominee, and she too is not believed.

Not only is she not believed, but the perpetrator of the unwanted advances is painted as the victim. And, with righteous indignation, the men on the Senate Judiciary committee (some of them the SAME men who sat on the same committee 27 years ago) vilify the woman and exonerate the man. Adding insult to injury, the president of our country led the cheering against her and then pronounced that these are dangerous times "for young men." 

How could they?  How dare they?

Oh, I know there are lots of answers—but are any of them sufficient to continue to deny women the right to what happens to their own bodies?  And, now, the confirmee—presumed to be the deciding vote should the question of the legality of abortion come before the Supreme Court—will be the one to decide yay or nay. He gets a pass on assaulting a woman, attempting to rape her, then he gets to decide whether or not should she (or any other woman) can have a medically safe legal abortion.

What now do we tell our daughters?  Your body belongs to you—unless some drunken boy tries to rape you. Then, shut up. Don’t tell. It won’t do any good. What do we tell our sons? Respect the person in whom you have an interest, unless you are sexually aroused and then it’s OK to force yourself on her?

Saturday, September 08, 2018

Long Distance Family

One of my blogging friends, Julie Zickefoose, has been writing on Facebook about long distance separation from her daughter.

Which set me to thinking about some of my long distance family connection experiences. Herewith some of those thoughts.

When I was around 2 years old, my parents went to southern Africa as missionaries. Their families, who lived in Pennsylvania, had only one way of staying in touch with my parents, and me as a grandchild. LETTERS. In fact, old style aerogram letters.  Also, of course, regular mail. To keep my grandparents up to date, my parents would send photos of me to my grandparents. In turn, they sent birthday cards. It was not until 7 years later, when we returned to the United States, that I saw these grandparents again.  For my paternal grandparents, I was the first (and for a while the only) grandchild. I know how much my grandmother Emma longed to be with me.

Then, after a year, my parents, along with me and my brother, returned to southern Africa. So another several years of being absent from family relatives. When circumstances arose that caused my parents to return to the United States, I was 14. And once again, I got to see my grandparents.

Fast forward to early 1960, when I was 15, my parents once again went to southern Africa, but this time I stayed in the United States to finish my high school years, and begin college. Of course, as a 15 year old girl, I thought that was totally cool.  But it did mean returning to long distance family contact--still at that point letters. 

Of course, there were a few other means of swifter communication than letters then--cablegrams, for example. But that mechanism was laborious and brief.

One feature of letters and cablegrams is that such is asynchronous communication. Send a letter, one side of the conversation. Wait for a return. Another side of the conversation -- and so on, back and forth. Not exactly conducive to interactive communication , i.e. synchronous, that is the hallmark of good communication.

In September, 1956 the transatlantic telephone cable was laid. So, then, it became possible to make telephone calls, and have a conversation...sort of. 

I had a singular experience with a transatlantic telephone call. When I was a sophomore in college, and apparently acting quite morose, some of my dorm mates collected money for me to make a call to my parents.  It was a most cumbersome process. First, I had to submit a request to make a call, in order to be given a time when I could call. Of course, I had to factor in time differences. I recently checked to see how such a call would have been made. In 1963, the time of my call, here's how it worked --

"TAT-3 was AT&T Corporation's third transatlantic telephone cable. It was in operation from 1963 to 1986. It had 414 kHz of bandwidth, allowing it to carry 138 telephone circuits (simultaneous calls). It was 3,518 nautical miles long, connecting Widemouth Bay in Cornwall, England to Tuckerton, New Jersey in the United States". Source--Wikipedia

And that was just to get the call from the United States to England. I have no idea how the call then made its way from England to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia).

So, on the day of the call--as I recall, at a cost of $25 for 3 minutes--I called my parents. And after the various relays, I could talk with my family. Now, factor in a bit of delay for the transit of those signals, and you get the sense. I would say something...hesitation... then get a response. And so forth.

I recall my mother passed the phone to my brother, who breathlessly rushed into telling me about school, violin lessons, and playing cricket (or soccer). Then she passed the phone to my sister, then about 5 years old, and I could hear my sister saying "NO"...
Then back to my mother briefly, and the call was over.

Fast forward to the year 2000. I was now a mother, of an 18 year old daughter, who was launching out of her own to work in London, UK, for several months. By now, there were computers, and there was email. And a kind of text messaging--with AOL messenger. Again asynchronous communication. My daughter could write something, I would answer and so forth. At the time, we began signing off with "love you to the moon and back."  And, there were telephone calls--via a public telephone box. So, she would call from London, dropping coins in the phone, and we could talk. In the background I could hear the London street noise.

So, we arrive at the present. I now have my two children some 8,000 miles apart. One child in California 3,000 miles from where I am, and one child in London 5,000 miles from me.  And they in turn have children--so I now return to the long-distance grand-parenting. Only this time, I am the grandparent.

Communications, of course, has once again changed. We now have text messages instantly back and forth. Plus we have FaceTime (or Skype), and Snapchat. So now, I can see them, talk with them, watch them play. Of course, it's not the same as being together--kind of difficult to hug them). But it is far better than the old type of long distance parenting, or grand-parenting.

Looking forward to teleporting, a la Star Trek.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Indignities of Aging

Indignity # 1
For the first time in my life, I have poison ivy reaction--you know, as in "is this a bug bite?'
NO, it looks like poison ivy.
"how the heck did I get into poison ivy?"

Well, OK--I was weeding. And, yes, I do wear gloves. But I pulled out a little stalk of poison ivy, and it just happened to brush against my leg, near my ankle. Frankly, I thought nothing of it. Then a day later, I noticed a small red spot that looked like a bite. I put cortisone cream on it...but it still itched. And the next day, and the next.

Then another spot on my wrist, where I would have brushed next to the pulled out vine I also got a red spot.

DING!  Damn it! I got poison ivy. So I went to the medicine cabinet, and found the bottle of calamine  lotion. Dabbed a bit on ankle and wrist, and then checked the expiration date. HUH! 2003? Well, gotta get some new lotion.  I did ... and now I have a pink ankle and a pink wrist.

Indignity # 2
Continuing the skin theme, due to meds that I take (blood thinners), I bruise very easily. As in opening a cardboard package, the edge of which jabs my arm, which promptly begins bleeding.  All because I have "thin skin."  And the dermatologist doesn't help when he says--well, when you get older, the epidermis thins and you bruise more easily. Really? I knew that.

Add to that my rambunctiousness wherein I tear about doing chores in the house, or outside, and inadvertently bumped into something. Then later that day, I discover a WHOLE new bruise. Bleeding and bruising--what fun.

Internet websites don't help particularly. Oh, they're good at naming things--but the article title of "Weird Things That happen to Your Skin as you Age" doesn't exactly make me feel good. Thanks, WebMD...yes, I know it's being direct, but ease up, will ya?

Indignity # 3
I have developed a whole new power. I can predict the weather. With aging joints, and replaced knees, I can tell you when the weather is working up to a good rain. I feel like the Tin Man in Wizard of Oz--as in the musical rendition in The Wiz--"slide some oil to me."

Indignity # 4
Say that again?
I didn't quite catch that?
Oh, never mind.
Yup--another part conks out, slowly but steadily.
Thank goodness for shows the use subtitles.

Indignity # 5
I have developed a rabbit mind. Let me describe. I head to a room in the house, with a purpose in mind. On the way, I see something that catches my attention, so I shift my direction and chase that rabbit trail. Then I start back to the first destination, but now can't recall what I was going to do. So I track back to my first location, look around and then say "Oh, yes..." and head off again. Upon getting there (usually the basement), I see something else and take care of that--and then wonder, what was I coming to do?  Back upstairs, into the first room--look around and finally see what I wanted to do originally and do it.

Why do I say a rabbit mind? Well, have you ever watched a rabbit when you approach it. It darts off in one direction, then switches course, then doubles back, then reverses again.  That's my mind.

Well, at least I still have my sense of humor.

P.S. I forgot to mention my magical climate powers--I can go from hot to cold and back to hot again!

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Death Be Not Proud

I realize I haven't been blogging a whole lot lately, but that doesn't mean I haven't been thinking. In fact, I have..been thinking, thinking, thinking.

It is difficult for me these days to contemplate the world that is being remade. The U.S. has gone from a leader of the free world, to a near pariah. Leadership displayed as bluster, ignorance, prejudice and just plain nastiness holds the center stage. 

Of late, I find I can barely listen to the news. When I drive, I frequently have on satellite radio--NPR, or MSNBC, or CNN. But of late I can't bear to hear the drumbeat of destruction and the endless panel conversations about what it all means.  What does it mean anyway?

OK--so why the title of my post?  Death be not proud. Of course, the line is the opening for John Donne's Holy Sonnet 10.*  You can read the whole poem at the close of this entry.

So, what do I do instead of listen to the depressing news of the day?  I sometimes think about death. Lest you think me morbid or focused on a depressing subject, not so.  Every day, when I walk our dog, we go to a cemetery two blocks away from where we live. As I walk along, I frequently read the grave markers. I find myself doing the math of a lifespan in my head. Some are very short--mere weeks for babies who are born and then die. Some are several years--I do not know the circumstances, but there are possible explanations--a childhood disease, or maybe an accident.  Others that are several decades long--say in the 20s or 30s--offer another set of possibilities: killed in combat maybe.  Finally, there are the markers that denote a long life span. The common element for all, of course, is the inevitability of death.

So, why has this subject seized my mind? Well, perhaps it is because a friend of mine is dying. She is not a close friend, but a friend nevertheless.  She reached a point in her treatment for cancer when medicine could no longer "cure" her. So, she returned home and has been put on a diet which includes NO solids. Understandably, her death is imminent, even though she does not know the day.

Several days ago she posted on FaceBook "I'm still alive today... Friends visited so we have had a lovely day of conversations and a lot of puking actually. But it beats the alternative and we are laughing a lot."

Three weeks ago she posted this: "Sunday I had a very small group of close friends from church and other venues in my home for a Service of Transition, Anointing, and Healing. Padre did a service that was beautiful and so helpful for me as I was anointed like the dead are for burial and friends laid hands on me to pray. They covered me first in a funeral pall. Afterwards we celebrated the eucharist together. I wanted this particular blessing to mark that my upcoming death will be a sacred and holy transition. . .These past two weeks have been filled with notes of affirmation and wonderful shared memories helping me understand that I have lived my life as faithfully as I could, and spent myself in service to others as much as I could. I am rich in memories and friends around the world. Thanks be to God."

Clearly, this woman' approach to death is very much in keeping with the sentiment of John Donne's Holy Sonnet 10. 

And how does it connect in any way to the news of the day?  Just this. Nothing is eternal in this world. Powers and rulers and kingdoms all pass. History shows us that no human effort has lasted forever. Empires rise, empires fall. Rulers come, rulers go.  However, John Donne's assertion is that even though death rules over all, death itself cannot destroy eternity.

Heavy thoughts, indeed.  OK--time for my daily walk with our dog to the cemetery.


Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou’art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy’or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

by John Donne, 1572 - 1631