Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Season of Reunions

October is (almost) here--one of my favorite months of the year. I love the changing seasons, and autumn shows us such a bright and colorful face. Add to the lush color the bite in the air, and a touch of wood smoke, and I am in heaven.

I signed up to teach a late start class this fall--and class started yesterday. We are a month behind all the other classes, but end at the same time. Consequently, course content is greatly compressed. Each class is 2 hours long, and obviously we are moving at a breakneck speed to cover all the material.

I always use a portion of the first class to cover the contents of the syllabus. I point out those things that I think are most critical for students to know about the class. I also confess to being as tough sounding as possible--that way the hangers-on (and there are always some) will shake lose and decide not to return. Partly to engage the students, and partly to keep them attending to the task at hand, I ask them what questions THEY have about the course. After I gather about a half a dozen questions, I then hand out the syllabus and tell them to start looking for answers.

Yesterday, one student asked one of the predictable questions. She asked--will there be a lot of reading. Another confession here--I wait for such questions. So, then I can stop, peer over my glasses and scrunch up my face and say --This is a reading and writing class, what do you think? OF COURSE we will do a lot of reading.

I have actually had students ask--will we have to write a lot in this class. Much hangs on the definition of "a lot." To me, writing four papers, each 4 pages in length, and one research paper of 10 pages is NOT a lot of writing. To students, that is the equivalent of having been sentenced to Siberia to work in the salt mines for the rest of their lives. They invariable groan and squirm.

The other favorite interaction for me is when I ask them to write on the spot an initial essay--that way, I have in hand an example of their writing without any assistance from any outside source. Not always, but frequently, a student will look around and say--does anyone have a pen or a pencil I can borrow. Another pause from me--and then I saw, this is a WRITING class and you came without a pen or a pencil.

I have just too much fun.

Anyway, the start of class reminds me that this is also the time of year that colleges begin to send out notices for homecomings and class reunions. My own alma mater is actually celebrating its 100th year of existence this fall.

Several years ago, I attended my college class 40th reunion. Thinking that 40 plus years has passed since I graduated from college always makes me feel--well, old. After that reunion, I came back home and sat down and penned a poem.


Class Reunion

At the fortieth gathering of the class of ‘66
The talk is less of remembering
Than it is of surviving.
We are done with warmed over reprises
Of night raids,
Of whatever happened to. . .
Our conversation now turns somber
As round we go with a catching up.

—Two years ago I suffered a cerebral
Hemorrhage, bleeding out in my brain
Relieved only by the surgeon’s skill
Drilling to relieve the pressure
I’m OK now but I have returned
To the church and God—

—I found out last summer that
I had colon cancer. I am
Done with chemo now and the doctors
Say I have a good chance of
Living five more years—

We all sit there stunned into
Silence—afraid to speak lest
We too be struck by malady.
We drift away with vague murmurs
To come back in five years.

The next day word comes that the
Class president who walked us
Through our survivor stories
Suffered a coronary and
Required quadruple bypass surgery.

Five years? I’ll be glad to live
Until tomorrow.

By Donna F. W. © 2008

Anyone out there attending a class reunion this fall? 'Tis the season.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

God's creature?

...or invasive species? More on this later.

Several days ago, as my husband and I were busily working outside--getting outdoor things ready for winter--we heard a thump, and then watched our dog, who was inside, go ballistic. My husband investigated, and then came to get me.

--There's a bird lying on its back on the patio, apparently having hit the window. And Tipper is going crazy. Can you come help?

So, with my gardening gloves already on, I went to see what had hit the window. Herewith.

A very stunned bird, lying on her back, little feet curled and in the air. She looked for all the world as though she were dead--or should be dead. But she was very much alive, and very stunned.

I picked her up, and held her, first on her back, and then gradually turned my hands so that she was upright. She seemed perfectly content to sit there in the warmth of my gloved hands.

As I held this bird, I kept thinking--this little sparrow is such a common bird. And it's considered to be a nuisance--an invasive species.

Yet I marveled at its unbearable lightness of being. So small, so fragile, so tough--to hit a window and survive. The bird blinked her bright eyes, turned her head this way and that--looking around. But she stayed put in my gloves. And I stayed put, holding her.

What makes something an
invasive species? Understandably, it depends why you ask. Here's one definition you will find in the referenced Wikipedia article: "a non-indigenous species (e.g. plants or animals) that adversely affect the habitats they invade economically, environmentally or ecologically."

Well, now.

By that definition, humans are an invasive species. This thought is not original with me. But, we sure do fit the definition. Non-indigenous species--yup. Adversely affect the habitats they invade economically--yup. Environmentally--oh, yup yup. Or ecologically--triple yup.

So, here we sit, judge and jury pronouncing other species as invasive.

We would do well to recall the words of the psalmist--Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts. (Psalm 84:3).

After a few minutes, I walked up into our backyard where the tall evergreen trees are. Perhaps seeing that greenery was inviting enough--suddenly, the little bird was stunned no more. Off she flew. God's creature.


UPDATE: Julie Zickefoose in her recent blog entitled "We Eliminated Them" demonstrates how humans are the prime invasive species.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

She's A Lady

A few brief words to note the passing of a great lady. Mary Travers died yesterday.

She was the M of P, P & M--Peter, Paul and Mary. Striking with her long blond hair that hung like corn silk down her back, Mary had the most wonderful throaty alto voice. I am partial to altos of any kind, since that's my natural voice range-- ;-)

I credit Mary with helping my husband and me fall in love. When we first met, we were counselors together at a church camp. The whole story is here, so I won't repeat it. But it was her song "There is a Ship" that I sang to the young man, who became my husband. Maybe my singing was siren-like (as in Odysseus, not police car...) because he claimed to have thus been ensnared.


Today I received an email from a long-time dear friend. We share many things--politics, an interest in women's issues, and a love of people who have fought to expand human rights.

My friend wrote, in part, that "a huge chunk of my personal heart died last night with the passing of Mary Travers...Their (i.e. Peter, Paul & Mary's) continued commitment to and involvement in issues of social justice all these years, as well as their music, have been such a boon and inspiration during dark times..."

To which I can only add--me, too.

Sweet dreams--Mary. Sleep well.


Photo from

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Ghost of John Peter Zenger

I have had this idea kicking around in my head for a couple of days, and just haven't sat down to get it out on paper...make that on screen. Then this evening, my husband remarked that this is the longest I have gone without blogging for a while. True.

news of yesterday helped encapsulate what I have been thinking. It all began when the Coast Guard held one of its routine training exercises with speed boats on the Potomac. They were practicing how they would conduct high speed chases and interdiction of suspicious watercraft. The exercise was so low key they did not think other agencies--e.g. the FBI--needed to be given advance warning.

For whatever reasons, they were using open channels of communication, and that's how the brouhaha unfolded. Here's the opening of the Washington Post story:

"SUSPICIOUS VESSEL IN DC/Coast Guard fires on boat on Potomac River," said CNN's "breaking news" headline at 10:05 a.m. Friday.

Six minutes later, an "URGENT" bulletin flashed from Reuters, which attributed the information to CNN.

That prompted Fox News to report that shots had been fired, citing Reuters as its source. "Report: Coast Guard Fires on Suspicious Boat in Potomac," Fox News's headline said.

In other words--CNN picked up from a police scanner a report that they then repeated on the air, without any other confirmation, that suspicious boats were spotted on the Potomac (get it...near the Capitol including the White House). Then Fox News picked up CNN's story, and repeated it. And so on...the game was on.

Here's what has been buzzing around in my head. We have gone from having a free and unfettered press reporting on news to having a free and financially fettered press reporting on the STORIES of news that they hear. Less and less ground work is being done, and subsequently fewer facts are being gathered and reported.

Tune in to the 24 hour cable "news" cycle and what you are most likely to get is unbridled opinion being passed off as news. We don't hear what is happening; we hear what people THINK about what they THINK is happening. So if they are wrong, no matter--they still have an opinion.

More than two years ago, I wrote here
in praise of John Peter Zenger. He would be appalled. When he was tried back in 1735 for the charge of libel, he is reported to have said "No nation, ancient or modern, ever lost the liberty of speaking freely, writing, or publishing their sentiments, but forthwith lost their liberty in general and became slaves."

To which, I can only add--well said. But the irony is not so much that the freedom to express ourselves is being taken away, as we are giving up on it. Around the country, newspapers are dying, not because of censorship, but because of falling readership, and the inability to make ends meet.

We have more access to news channels via cable and satellite, and less actual information being imparted. Is there anyone out there who really wants to read more about Michael Jackson's strange life and even stranger death? Is there anyone who doesn't know who Jon and Kate are?

But if I were to run down some of the stories covered on BBC news over this week, I would venture that most Americans have no idea about these stories. Yet, they reveal far more human need. Test yourself--here's the
cover page for the BBC Africa stories.

Or, if you prefer, here's the
cover page for the Asia-Pacific stories.

My point is that what we are fed as news in the U.S. leaves us woefully under-informed. We are hyper-aware of threats to our country--after all, the Coast Guard exercise occurred on September 11, no doubt a factor on CNN's jumping to pick up the story. And we are lulled into paying way too much attention to stories that should NEVER be on the news--e.g. Jon and Kate. We have little if any awareness of the larger world. And we have come to mistake opinion for fact.

The on-going health debate sadly illustrates that. There are no death panels in the proposed bill. But ask the average person on the street and you may get a yes, no or maybe answer. Then your local news will report that people are still confused about this issue. WHAT ISSUE, I feel like screaming.

Thinkers far more capable of addressing this issue than I have written about this phenomena. While I pride myself on being well-informed, I am not sure I have the stomach to read their analyses. I will, however, keep my subscription to the New York Times; I will listen to NPR for decent news coverage; I will read BBC on-line; and I will NEVER EVER watch national "news" coverage on FoxNews.

Thursday, September 03, 2009, make that Reading

I have been known to cheat. In fact, this tendency is somewhat of a joke within my family--because the subject on which I am cheating is reading. Many times, when I first begin a book and have met the characters, I am overwhelmed with a curiosity--will this character still be here at the end of the book?

So, I cheat--I skip to the end and read a page or two. Not a pretty habit, but there you have it--one of my weaknesses. In no way does this habit ruin books for me. I keep reading through to the end to see HOW the ending comes about.

Now, with the Kindle, my habit has been reined in. Tough to skip to the end when you are reading a book on an electronic reader. Add to that the fact that Kindle does NOT use page numbers, and I am really foiled.

No matter--I love reading so much I keep reading whether I know the ending or not.

I have just finished, in relatively short order, three books--all of which I commend to you. I will not award my label of "terrific reads" to all, but maybe to one. Herewith the three.

I first read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. The literary device that tells the story in this book is a series of letters between Juliet Ashton, an author who was writing light literature during World War II, and her publisher and also various friends. The novel is set in London and on Guernsey immediately following World War II. England is emerging from the ravages of war, as are the Channel Islands--English possessions dating back to the time of William the Conqueror. The Channel Islands, of which Guernsey is one, were the only "English soil" occupied by Hitler's troops.

As you read the work, you learn of the great deprivation people on Guernsey suffered. That is what I enjoyed most about the book. I found it a bit difficult to keep track of all the characters--most of them letter writers. I also was not as invested in them as people as I sometimes am. But I loved the historical aspects, and kept running to the Internet to look up this or that item.

The next book I read was one I downloaded on to my Kindle--hence the inability to thumb through to the end to "see how it turns out." Probably a good thing--this books is a definite page turner (er, page clicker). Titled People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks, this novel creates a fictional back story for a real object--the Sarajevo Haggadah.

A Haggadah is "...a book that Jews read on the first night of Passover - and on the first two nights outside of Israel. It tells about our slavery in Egypt and the miracles God did for us when freeing us. The word haggadah means "telling," which comes from the Biblical command: "And you shall tell your child on that day, saying: 'God did (miracles) for me when I left Egypt so that I would fulfill the Torah's commandment." (Exodus 13:8 and Rashi)" (from Ask the Rabbi).

When the Germans marched into Sarajevo in 1941, German officials visited the museum there and demanded the Sarajevo Haggadah be turned over to them. What makes it so unusual is that it is a 14th century document written in Hebrew and illustrated with marvelous lush jewel-like illustrations. Quick thinking on the part of museum officials saved the document--I will let you read how. One of the wondrous things is that along the way, Muslims and Christians played a part in helping to keep this Jewish book from the flames of the Inquisition and from the covetous hands of the Nazis.

The novel tells the story of Hanna Heath--a rare book expert--who is invited to examine the book in the mid-1990s when it came to light, after having been "missing" for decades following World War II. Rumors were flying that the Nazis had spirited it away, or that it had been destroyed. In her examination, Hanna finds various small items within the book that help to tell its history and its long journey from 14th century Spain to modern Sarajevo.

Geraldine Brooks is a marvelous writer--and I had previously read her books Nine Part of Desire, The Year of Wonder, and March. I loved these three books and entirely expected to love People of the Book. I was not disappointed. An extra plus is that this book has been picked for our church book club, and also for a two county wide event where I live--One Book, Two Counties.
And, I simply can't resist a book that features a map like this on the inside cover--remember, I read the Kindle version. I found the map on the Internet and saved it. I also liked the double play on words in the title--the novel tells about the people of THE book, i.e. the Haggadah, and it interweaves characters from the three religions generally called the people of the book--Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

The final book I read I just finished today. I have picked this book up on a whim from the Costco book table. I didn't know a thing about it, except what the cover announced--that is had been short-listed for the Booker Prize. I have previously mentioned my penchant for seeking out Booker Prize winning books, as a kind of short hand recommendation system.

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry is told first person by two people--switching back and forth between Roseanne Clear, a 100 year old patient in a mental institution that is slated for destruction, and her doctor, Dr. Grene, whose job it is to assess all the remaining patients to determine their fitness to be set "free." In assessing Rose, he slowly learns her life's story.

The book goes back and forth between the past--Ireland in the years around the world wars--and the present. Roseanne, despite her symbolic last name, is anything but forthcoming in telling her tale. She hides her history, so that the good doctor has to extract it slowly and lovingly. His name--Grene--takes on significance by the time the reader reaches the end of the book. You learn that his greenness--naivete--has kept him from understanding a critical piece of information.

Oh, for the record--I was absolutely good and did not cheat on reading this book. So the ending, when I got there, came as a complete surprise to me.

Would I give any of these book my "terrific read" award. Yes, People of the Book. The Secret Scripture is close, but not quite--rather like the Booker Prize panel which twice has bypassed Sebastian Barry.

I know summer is almost over, but do add any or all of these books to your reading list.