Friday, December 29, 2006

My War on Weather Forecasters

It was Mark Twain who said that old bromide: everybody always talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it. Reading the news lately has made me all the more determined that each of us must do something about the weather.

Among the stories that have really caught my attention are three recent ones: the
snowless Alps, polar bears and a Canadian ice-shelf breaking away. Each of these stories connects to the overall issue of global climate change, and therein lies my war.

There are many things that any one person can do about global climate change. The first, of course, is to acknowledge that the planet is warming up much faster over the last several decades than at any other point in human history. Of course, over the millions of years the earth has existed, it has gone through periods of extreme heat and extreme cold. Many causes connect to the heating and cooling of the planet. But the emerging scientific consensus is that humans are contributing greatly to the current warming trends which in turn are causing the climate changes we see.

The second thing that one person can do is change her (or his) personal habits. There is a temptation to think that since the little things are so minimal, why bother. But, do bother. For example, we have switched over to almost all fluorescent bulbs in our house. We both drive cars that are reasonably fuel efficient. We don’t yet own a hybrid, which would be even more fuel efficient.

I am trying to raise my awareness of how I consume resources so that I am less consuming and more restoring of the earth’s resources. As my family knows, I am a rabid freecycler—doing everything I can to keep things out of landfills. I have recycled cans, bottles, newspapers, and plastics since before my son was born (and he turns 35 next year!).

So what is left? Changing public attitudes. One of my current bugaboos is that local weather forecasters insist on saying how lovely and wonderful the weather is when it is warm, and how awful it is when it is cool. First of all, I love cold weather. I long for, no—yearn for, snow. This winter has been an absolute bust here in central Pennsylvania. When the temperature these days has been in the mid-50s, weather forecasters say—oh, aren’t we fortunate to have such lovely weather. I shout at the TV—NO! I hate it.

So, I have finally decided I need to take these folks on. I have a theory: when the weather is abnormally warm in the winter, and people hear the weather forecaster say how great that is, they agree and are reinforced in their habits that contribute to global warming. Maybe that’s a stretch—but doesn’t it make a bit of sense. Why change the way you live, freely consuming earth’s resources, when the result is warm weather in the winter?

And just how does one take on weather forecasters? My perhaps feeble way is to fire off emails. Every time I hear a local forecaster say how lovely and warm it is, I send an email. The gist of what I say to them is—no, it is not lovely. It is downright freakish. And long term it is really scary.

I actually had one weather forecaster write back to me. Here’s what he said:
“Because we are meteorologists and not climatologists, climate change is beyond our field of expertise. We have to therefore become journalists when talking about it and must adopt journalistic ethics. We cannot take sides in passionate issues. We are supposed to be apolitical just like news reporters and we are not here to try to sway public opinion on anything. In the realm of climate change, that is an especially good policy because regardless of what you may have read, there is still quite the heated argument in "PhD Land" going on about humanity's artificial effect on global warming (natural global warming has been going on since the last ice age). What about the climatologists who don't publish their experiments which predict global cooling because of fears they'll lose their funding? What about the fact that fuel cells on the scale of every car in the world would be much, much worse for us because water vapor eats carbon dioxide's lunch when it comes to absorbing UV radiation? Americans are not getting all angles to this story. How could we go on-air all the time without differing opinion? Meantime, general consensus is that the current weather is nice. We can sort of reflect that mood, but we cannot flat out root for or against types of weather, either.”

Mostly, the responses I get back are “thank you for contacting us.” But the above comment really struck me. On the one hand, he was saying he can’t take sides, and then on the other hand he takes sides!

So, I have declared war on the weather forecasters. I will keep writing to them, urging them to recognize the role they play in influencing people’s perceptions of the weather.

And I have decided to begin to use a new response when people say to me: isn’t this weather wonderful? I am going to say—no, it’s freakish. And do you really want to live in a world without polar bears?

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Leaving Ghana

Well, she’s home. That was one of the best gifts for Christmas—the return of our daughter from Ghana. She and her boyfriend, who went over to Ghana to spend a week with her, returned two days before Christmas, connecting flights in London, in spite of the thick fog there.

Based on her recounting their journey home, their departure from Accra, Ghana was not quite so problem-riddled as mine. I had warned them that there were several steps to leaving Ghana. The flight to London that we took leaves Accra at 11:30 p.m. assuming it’s not delayed. Their flight was on time, mine was delayed. As soon as I arrived at the airport and walked into the airport, someone caught my attention and pointed to a line, informing me I had to go through Customs first. No signs reinforced that, but I took the person who informed me at face value. (I have since learned that one can skip the customs step with no real repercussions!)

So I got in the line. After inching along for several minutes, and after inadvertently dropping my jacket earning a “tsssssssstttt!” from a passer-by (to get my attention, which it did), an official in a uniform told me “There are two lines; please step to the left and come to the head of the line.” I tend to observe what people in uniforms tell me, so I did as instructed. Immediately, the patient people waiting in the main line were incensed at me for “jumping” line. I kept explaining to them that I was following instructions. To mollify the people at the head of the line, I waited until about three or four people went ahead of me before stepping up to have my suitcase examined.

I watched as an elderly Ghanaian man in front of me opened his two suitcases. The one suitcase was so over-packed that the clothes literally popped out as he opened it. The customs official poked through all his unfolded untidy clothing, declared him free to move on. She watched as he tried to stuff the clothing back into his suitcase so he could zip it closed. Finally, he got it shut, and the customs official slapped a piece of tape on it declaring “Ghana Customs”.

The next step in leaving Ghana was for me to get in the British Airways line. But first I had to read a notice which informed me that the plane was delayed due to high winds in London which had delayed the plane’s departure. If I agreed that my connection in Heathrow would not be affected, I could get my ticket. It didn’t affect my connection, so I checked in.

Then I went to the Immigration desk, showing my passport as I readied to leave Ghana. The usual questions—how long had I been there, what was the purpose of my trip, etc. Finally I was ready to go to the departure gate and wait for the delayed plane. The gate turned out to be a cattle chute type area with insufficient seats, and almost no air conditioning on a steamy Accra night. People sat sweltering, simmering for a long time, waiting for the plane.

I watched a young Ghanaian father with two small children. The little girl rested on his chest, sleeping, while the older brother bounced around full of energy and excitement. The father’s head kept bobbing down as he clearly kept falling asleep. The little boy would tug on his father’s arm and say “Read to me” and the father patiently obliged. After watching this interaction for a bit, I said to the father that if the little boy wouldn’t mind someone who he did not know reading to him, I would be happy to do so. The little boy, who was named Kenny and turned out to be “three, almost four” presented me with a Winnie the Pooh book of nursery rhymes. As I read along, I used the technique I had used with my children—reading, pausing, pointing out items for the child to identify. Kenny got impatient and pushed me to read more expeditiously. Some of the nursery rhymes were singing rhymes. When we got to the first one, and just read it, Kenny objected—you’re supposed to sing them. So, I thought, I hope I remember all these tunes: Hickory, Dickory Dock; Three Blind Mice; Do you Know the Muffin man and so forth. I must have done well enough, because Kenny didn’t correct me.

Finally, the plane arrived, was cleaned, refueled, and ready for us all to board. And so I left Ghana.

And now our daughter is home as well—leaving Ghana.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Christmas Memories

In addition to my rumination of the spirit of Christmas (and, by the way, that is also the subject of Anna Quindlen's editorial in this week's Newsweek--although she writes far better than I), I have been recalling memories of some of the unusual Christmas celebrations I experienced as a child.

Since Zambia and Zimbabwe, where I grew up, are in the southern hemisphere, Christmas occurs in the middle of summer. So, some of my memories are intertwined with summer activities. For example, there was one Christmas in Zimbabwe where all the missionaries on the mission station where my family lived decided to hold a Christmas picnic. In fact, it may be that missionaries from nearby missions also joined in, as I remember a great many more people at this picnic than would have been on the mission where I lived.

We all set off for this picnic some miles from the mission compound. To get there, we crossed over and back again a dry river bed. Since it was dry, crossing it posed no problem at all. However, during the picnic we experienced the kind of torrential rain that was characteristic of the rainy season. It poured. And, as a consequence, the dry river bed became a raging river. What had been a dry river bed now was twenty or more feet across, and unknown depth, of roiling rushing water. We were victims of the flash flooding that follows torrential rain.

As the picnic drew to a close, the problem became how to get back to the mission. One of the missionary men hiked back. Remember, we crossed the river bed twice, so our picnic location was on the same side of the river as the mission. Since we had driven to the picnic in a series of VW buses and similar vehicles, the height of any vehicle was not enough to clear the water. Also with the engines in the rear of these vehicles, they tended to flood more easily. So the plan was the missionary who hiked back would return with a tractor and a flat bed trailer.

We all piled on the flat bed trailer, and were basically floated across the river. Then the tractor hitched VW buses one at a time and towed them across. No doubt I don't recall all the details quite as precisely as the event, but perhaps my dad (who reads this) can amend any glaring mis-statements. Even if the details are a little fuzzy, the memory is quite vivid.

Several other memories are also vivid, though not so dramatic. I remember the all-city worship service that would be held in Bulawayo on an open-air athletic field. Assembled choirs and school choruses, as well as towns people, would gather. We sang many Christmas carols, some familiar to an American audience, some not. I can still sing "See Amid the Winter's Snow" (a wonderful English carol) and "Once in Royal David's City." And, of course we sang "Good King Wenceslas" with the men singing the king's lines, boys singing the page's lines, and all voices singing the narrative.

Another Christmas memory is of caroling early Christmas morning. Various missionaries would gather, and off we would go, caroling. I don't remember to whom we sang if we were all singing. But I do remember that we sang, somewhat sadistically, "Christians, Awake Salute the Happy Morn." At the time, I thought it wonderfully ironic that we might actually be waking some people as we sang "Christians, Awake!"

Finally, I remember that when all the missionaries would gather, I and some of the other children would get together and concoct some kind of play. We would write the lines, cast the parts, and rehearse. Then, of course, we would perform the plays for all the missionaries. I have absolutely no recollection as to what the plays were about, other than (I trust) a Christmas theme. I just remember how much fun it was to perform.

The Spirit of Christmas

Once again, news stories are popping up about the war on Christmas. Now, frankly, it seems to me that the folks who trumpet this so-called war the most are the people who take umbrage at court rulings that say you can’t put a manger in front of city hall. I don’t think there has been a declaration of war, so the so-called war at times seems one-sided.

What is the spirit of Christmas and how should we mark the day? We have long forgotten the reason for the time of year on which Christmas is celebrated and how the associations we take for granted came to be. For example, close your eyes and think of a Christmas scene and you are likely to picture something with snow. Yet, the fixing of Christmas in December was as much as an attempt by early church fathers to counter the popular pagan festivals of winter solstice and Saturnalia. We have a mind’s-eye picture of a baby Jesus shivering in a straw-filled manger, of shepherds and sheep out of snow-covered hills, of the still air of a winter’s night being shattered by angels singing. But, Jesus was not born in December.

The early church in determining when to celebrate Christ’s birth settled on December 25 because on that date an important Roman festival was held. What better way to continue vanquishing the pagan customs than to appropriate their festival dates?

In our country’s early history, Christmas was not an important holiday. In fact, the Puritans eschewed Christmas outlawing its celebration in Boston from 1659 to 1681. Following the American Revolution, Christmas celebration seemed too English and was therefore avoided.

In many ways, we have Charles Dickens to thank for reviving Christmas in England. Following the Industrial Revolution which displaced so many people in England, and left them very poor, people had stopped celebrating Christmas. It was too expensive to continue the tradition of feasting. Dickens had written just
Martin Chuzzlewit which was not a success. He needed money, so he got the idea for a story which he believed would be a success. Between October and December, he wrote the work, had it published at his own expenses, and brought out A Christmas Carol in December of 1843. It immediately sold out, and has been one of the most beloved Christmas stories since then. And it has also helped solidify our mental image of Christmas.

Some of the traditions we hold most dear have no relationship at all to the brief Christmas story told in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. For example, the custom of bringing Christmas trees into our houses has nothing at all to do with the gospel accounts. This custom derives from our German ancestry—whether in the United States where German (Prussian mercenaries) soldiers introduced the custom, or in England where Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, had a tree set up in Windsor Castle. Can you imagine Christmas without a tree? But what has it to do with the story of Jesus’ birth. Yet the setting up (or not) of Christmas trees has become part of the vaunted war on Christmas.

Almost any tradition that uses Yule—such as a Yule log—has no relationship to the gospel story. And don’t even start on Santa Claus—based on various European traditions where names such as Saint Nicholas or Sinter Claus migrate into Santa Claus.

Think of the typical Christmas scene that is set up whether on a school bulletin board, or in front of City Hall, or any other public space where it becomes the subject of controversy. Now analyze that scene—likely the scene combines a Christmas tree, the manger setting in a stable where the two gospel accounts are blended into one. So you have Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the shepherds and their sheep, the wise men, camels, other assorted animals that might be in a stable, and of course angels. Off to the side, you may even have Santa Claus and his reindeer—and if it includes Rudolph, you know . . . you just know. How on earth does this scene accurately communicate anything?

We can quickly dispense with the tree and Santa Claus and his reindeer. True, they are charming. But they don’t really have anything to do with the Christmas story. Now, let’s untangle the gospel stories. Matthew tells us about the things that mattered to him. Only Matthew tells us about the wise men from the east; he tells us about Herod’s scheming and the slaughter of the innocents; he tells us of Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus’ fleeing into Egypt to escape Herod and his awful plans. Luke gives us a whole different set of particulars: he gives us the setting of the universal registration decreed by Caesar that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem; he tells us about the shepherds; and he gives us the inn-keeper who turns away the pregnant Mary and her husband Joseph. What we have done with these stories, each told for different audiences and with very specific and differing purposes in mind, is to blend them completely so they become a seamless narrative. It was not so in the New Testament telling.

Of course, Christmas is something more than a wonderful story. It is more than frantic shopping days counting down to THE DAY. It is more than the TV commentators hurling accusations against forces unknown. It is even more than Dickens’ wonderful story and Prince Albert’s German traditions. It is more than whether you say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.”

The church I belong to, a
Presbyterian church, emphasizes Advent during the approach to Christmas. So we focus on preparing for the arrival of Jesus the savior. The songs we sing are Advent hymns. Sometimes I get frustrated wanting so much to sing Christmas carols all the Sunday s leading up to Christmas. But the discipline of not singing Christmas carols until Christmas Eve has begun to insinuate itself into my consciousness. I understand that by emphasizing Advent we focus on what it means to anticipate Jesus’ birth. We don’t get caught up in things like should we say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays. Should we have a manger scene in front of City Hall or not? Should the public school bulletin board have Santa Claus on it or not? We are too busy preparing ourselves for the arrival of the Christ child to be wrapped up in the diversionary discussions that constitute the war on Christmas. We are, I would suggest, celebrating the true spirit of Christmas.

Saturday, December 16, 2006


I have one more blog inspired by my recent trip to Ghana. This one may not so much be about my trip as it will be rumination on the title subject of this blog. I write as someone with more than a passing interest in Africa. After all, I spent my childhood there, living in then Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) from age 2 to 8, and next in then Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) from age 9 to 15. Even though I left Africa a long time ago (in my life span), I still actively absorb information about things African. I continue to read news stories, particularly from BBC News, I read literature written by various African writers, and I think about the challenges and dilemmas of Africa a whole lot.

Why is this? That is something I ponder. Is it because the best scientific knowledge has established that humanity first emerged in Africa—so we can all rightly talk about Mother Africa? Or is it because as an American, I am acutely aware of one of our greatest historical challenges, slavery? Some thinkers have referred to slavery as America’s original sin—a most telling analogy in that from this sin derives the many consequences we have wrestled with nationally. And, of course, the slaves who were so horrifically ripped away from their homes were Africans, many of them from West Africa precisely where Ghana is.

One of the great mysteries is that while many countries in the world are advancing and developing, so many countries in Africa lag. Several years ago I saw portions of a series on Africa that was being aired on PBS. I have looked to find what it was called, unsuccessfully. So, I don’t remember the name of the expert who posited this theory, but he suggested that one of the reasons that Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, historically did so little advance planning was related to climate. With much of the continent experiencing a continuously warm climate, with food sources naturally growing and simply there for the taking, there was little need to build shelter, to fashion extensive warm clothing, to harvest and store crops to supply a family or clan through harsh winter months. It is an interesting theory. Some similar suggestions were explored in the Jared Diamond book,
Gun, Germs and Steel. Maybe these theories help explain the apparent chaotic approach to life one sees even today in parts of Africa.

Of course, we cannot dismiss the effects of colonialism. Africa represented many things as human history rolled on. During the age of explorers, in the 15th and 16th centuries, ships sailed around the tip of Africa and naturally established refueling and restocking outposts there. In the mid-17th century slavery, which may have long pre-existed, expanded. And for a whole host of reasons that have been explained by various historians, Africa became the source of slaves. Africans sold other Africans, trading first with Arab traders, and then to European slave traders who transported them to the so-called New World. By the 19th century Europe was busy dividing up parts of the world, and focused especially on Africa. Some of the most egregious atrocities were committed in what was called the Belgium Congo, which was really King Leopold II’s colony. This subject has been richly detailed in the fine book
King Leopold’s Ghost.

There was neither rhyme nor reason as to which European country established dominance over which part of Africa. Some of the allotments were determined by the spoils of war. After World War I, the Allies quite literally sat around and chopped up the possessions of the former Axis powers, giving pieces of Africa that had been under German control to various entities. Thus was
Rwanda handed from German control over to Belgium control. Sadly, the absurd division of native groups continued there, separating Tutsis from Hutus based in part on which group looked more European! The Tutsis were singled out for further education, for administrative position, for advancement while the Hutus were left behind. With these terrible seeds was sown the eventual genocide that played out in Rwanda during 100 days in 1994 during which almost one million Rwandans were killed by their countrymen.

Perhaps this mélange is what contributes to the chaotic state of far too many African countries today. There are African leaders who had great visions for Africa.
Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana was such a man. Despite his vision for a unified Africa, he was overthrown in a coup in 1966 and was banned from Ghana. Patrice Lumumba in the Congo was another leader who, though democratically elected, was arrested by rivals and eventually murdered. Even today his death prompts various theories as to who really ordered his death.

One of the great African leaders, who is still living, is
Nelson Mandela. As I watched the evolution of South Africa from a country with a repressive white dominated government to one under eventual democratically elected black rule, I would have been willing to wager that the transition would never be managed without significant bloodshed. I had read Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People and fully expected that fictional work to turn out to be prophetic. Happily, and to my great surprise, it was not. Through the sheer force of his moral stature, Nelson Mandela helped his country do what many other African countries have struggled to do—move from a colonial dominated country to a self-governing relatively problem free nation.

Back to Ghana. I do not know enough about the current status of Ghana to comment at all on its politics. Of course, I have read a great deal about the country in preparation for visiting there, but really know no more than what I have read. One of the greatest assets that Ghana seems to have is its people—they were welcoming, they were self-assured, they were almost relentlessly cheerful. Yes, there were aspects about the Ghanaian people that show problems. My daughter can speak much more authoritatively to this than I can, since she lived there for a while and experienced first-hand great frustrations. She pointed out the on-the-spot napping tendency that I wrote about in a prior blog. She also has written in her own blog about the mysterious tendency to do little advance planning. For example, when she and a friend took buses between cities in Ghana, the buses never ran on time—rather they waited until the bus was full before departing, even if that wait was as long as the trip to be taken.

One final story that doesn’t really illustrate any of what I have written, but certainly is not an example of the wonders of Ghana. One evening, as my daughter, a friend of hers, and I headed out for dinner, as usual we walked from the hotel up to the main road to get a taxi. Shortly, a taxi stopped, and as my daughter was negotiating destination and price, a young Ghanaian man in a security guard uniform, fully armed with a semi-automatic rifle, stepped up and spoke quickly to the taxi driver and waved him off. We were a bit nonplussed, but proceeded to hail another taxi. This time, the armed guard simply stepped up, and rode off in “our” taxi. Even more puzzled, we tried a third time. Since the guard had ridden away, we successfully negotiated destination and price, and had actually gotten in the taxi, when the guard suddenly returned. He climbed into the back of the taxi and motioned, partly with his rifle, all three of us out. All this while, he had not said anything to us. By now, my daughter and her friend were outraged. What was going on? So we walked back down to the hotel and complained to the doormen staff. Oh, they said, he is doing that for your protection. Some hotel guests were robbed by a taxi so we are not allowing anyone to take a taxi until we get the number of the car. (!) Why not tell us that before we walked up to the road in the first place? Why not explain that as we talked with the first driver? Why “threaten” or intimidate the hotel guests when presumably it is the taxi drivers who are the concern? Why indeed all of these questions? Oh Africa! Some things simply defy explanation.

Thursday, December 14, 2006


So I gave the final exam last night in the Intro to Lit course that I have been teaching this semester. I am very grateful for the 14 students who signed up for the course, because it gave me a chance to teach literature, which I love to do. I enjoy teaching generally, and some of the assignments I have in the composition course I teach are most stimulating, but for sheer continual enjoyment, give me literature.

Anyway, one of the questions that I asked—for the drama portion—was this: Identify five ways in which Oedipus Rex and Hamlet are alike. Identify five ways in which Oedipus Rex and Hamlet are different. The more specific your reference, the more likely your answer will be acceptable. E.g. do not say: “they are both plays.”

What was there about those directions that was so misleading? Some of the answers were . . .well, let’s just say they were interesting. On the off chance that you aren’t quite brushed up on the details of these two plays, I refer you to some sources.
Oedipus Rex is considered to be the greatest extant Greek tragedy. Every time I read the drama, I puzzle over precisely what it was that Oedipus did that had the gods so angry at him and hell-bent on his destruction. Hamlet has been called by some “the greatest drama in the English language.” What always strikes me is the number of bodies littering the stage at the end of the drama.

I have a suspicion that, were you to read the summaries of each of these dramas, you might be able to answer the above final exam question. Herewith are some of the answers my students gave. My comments will be in parentheses—and, please NO, I did not write those comments on their papers. . .I just thought them


1. Arrogance (OK—who is? Both? Just one? If so, where is the comparison?)
2. They both died (They didn’t; only Hamlet dies.)
3. They both talk to themselves (If by “talk to themselves” you mean soliloquy, well, that is a Shakespearean convention, not a Sophoclean one.)
4. Both protagonists are round, dynamic characters. (Well, yeah, that’s what makes them PROTAGONISTS.)
5. Both plays have scenes. (!)
6. They were both written as dramas. (HELLO! Re-read directions, please.)

Some comparisons were very good: both characters are afflicted with
hubris that leads to their downfalls; both have unhealthy relationships with women (that made me smile, as part of the irony of Oedipus is that he unknowingly marries his mother); both kill someone important.


1. Hamlet killed his father, not knowing. (Never mind that one point cannot be a contrast, but perhaps the student was thinking of Oedipus?)
2. Hamlet took his eyes out. (OK, I am pondering this one—glass eyes, perhaps? No? Well, anyway, again Oedipus.)
3. Oedipus just died. (Huh? He didn’t.)
4. Oedipus has far fewer characters. (Well, that’s true—but so?)
5. Hamlet uses comic relief, and Oedipus has ZERO comedy. (I gave credit for this one, but I was very amused at the ZERO remark. Actually, Oedipus is a grim drama.)

Interestingly, the contrast answers were better than the comparison answers. Maybe that’s because it is easier to see how things are different than how they are alike.

Art Linkletter used to have that show—Kids Say the Darnedest Things. Well, my students write the darnedest things!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Let the sounds of music creep in our ears

One of the banes of my driving existence (when I am not railing against drivers talking on cell phones—that’s a whole blog subject in itself) is to pull up next to a car that is fairly jumping off its tires with super hyped loud speakers blaring, nay thumping, rap. Blecccchhhhh!!! I feel like yelling to the driver—on the assumption that he could actually hear me—to say: Do you mind? I don’t make you listen to my music; please don’t make me listen to yours.

Well, today as I was out running errands and listening to my local NPR station, a piece of music came on that gave me the chance to pay back all the rap thumpers:
Charpentier’s marvelous affirming Prelude to Te Deum. What a joy to listen to this magnificent piece. As I pulled up to a traffic light, I cranked the sound up all the way and eased my windows down a bit. Glorious!

I do love music—and for me that means serious (so-called classical) music, some jazz, classic rock and a smattering of other music styles. I love singing. The music experiences I love best are those where music has moved me to tears. Several such occasions come to mind.

Some thirty years ago, when I was singing in our church choir, the then choir director arranged for us to perform Beethoven’s
Choral Fantasy. At that time, I had never heard the Choral Fantasy before. Many of the themes that Beethoven would later develop in the 4th movement of the 9th symphony are teased at in the Choral Fantasy. For the piano soloist, the choir director lined up Daniel Epstein, who at that time was a budding young pianist. Since our church did not have a piano worthy of being played for such a performance, the choir director went hunting for a suitable piano. I don’t remember where he found it, but the choir director located a lovely Steinway grand piano, that today is one of the church’s prized musical instruments. Soloists were secured, and the Motet Choir, as we were then called, practiced and practiced. Finally, we performed the piece and all the elements blended. To this day, I cannot hear the Choral Fantasy without my eyes filling with tears. And, yes, I crank the sound up on that piece as well.

Our choir would go on to do other wonderful choral pieces—we sang Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass that even now I can still sing almost from memory. We sang Haydn’s The Creation (the wonderful opening movement evoking “let there be light” is the best musical rendition of creation I have ever heard) and Haydn’s The Four Seasons. We sang Durufle’s Requiem and works by Langlais. But one signature choral piece that we never sang was Mozart’s Requiem.

I had listened to
Mozart’s Requiem many times. In fact, when I first went to see the play Amadeus performed, the first few opening bars of a piece of Mozart’s music set me to weeping. The Requiem is featured prominently in that play (and also in the movie adaptation). But I had never sung it. Until. . .

On the first anniversary of the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, someone had the inspiration that a fitting way to memorialize that event and those whose lives were lost would be to have Mozart’s Requiem sung in every time zone around the world. The performance would begin at the exact minute the first plane struck the South Tower. Since the piece takes an hour to perform, a choir in one time zone would be finishing as a choir in the next would be beginning its performance. When the choirs were announced for Harrisburg, PA, I signed up. Of course, we practiced; to be sure not so much as if we were performing the piece in a concert performance, but we did practice.

Then on September 11, 2002, we gathered at the Rotunda of the state capitol building in Harrisburg, and with a massed choir of several hundred, and only piano accompaniment, we sang Mozart’s Requiem. Thus I participated in what was called the
Rolling Requiem. The work begins with the somber dark tones of the Requiem itself, then moves into the Kyrie. Next comes the crashing fearful Dies Irae (Day of Wrath). My favorite is one of the more lyric portions of the Requiem, the lovely and moving Benedictus. What a thrill—what a somber moment—what an experience moving me to tears.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life

When I was thinking of a title for this (maybe final) blog on Ghana, the first line of an old hymn came to mind: Where cross the crowded ways of life. I love hymns--I love singing them, especially in four part harmony, and this particular hymn is wonderful to sing. But the phrase came to me partly because there was something about this trip to Ghana that touched a place deep in my soul.

Accra, Ghana, is by no means the most attractive or interesting place I have ever visited. Parts of it are downright squalid. But there were some experiences that were just so vital that I would not have traded this trip for any other location in the world.

Here are some of the shining experiences.

One night, my daughter suggested we go to Bywel. Bywel is a nightclub by Accra standards.

The venue is primarily outdoor, with a fenced in area, a gate/door through which one must pass and pay an entrance fee. Once inside, there are relatively crude counters with rickety chairs to sit on. Patrons can order soft drinks or beer, and sit there in the humid night air. The entertainment is the draw. The overall space is a large open square, with the seats on two sides of the square, the refreshment bar on a third side, and the band on the fourth. The band plays highlife music. As we entered, they were playing, in highlife style, "What Child is This?" Seems to be a popular in Accra.

We sat down, ordered some drinks, and then listened to the music. After a short while, some people began dancing. One woman especially wanted to dance--so she stood where she had been sitting and moved enthusiastically in time to the music. After one whole number had played, during which she stood dancing the whole time, a man came along, took her hand and led her out to the dance floor section. Into the third number, he began dancing with another woman, so the first woman hip-bumped her competition out of the way.

We didn't stay long, but the scene is quite memorable and will stay with me a long time.

On another evening, my daughter suggested we go to Alliance Francais. The French government sponsors these cultural centers in over 100 countries. The night we went there, they had a drum and dance exhibition.

The drums were playing the polyrhythmic music that I associate with Africa, and the dancers performed a variety of numbers, each of which was preceded by a costume change. My personal favorite was announced as the Monkey Dance. Just how the dance was the monkey dance eluded me, although other patrons attending may have understood perfectly.

During the time that I was in Ghana, the US celebrated Thanksgiving. In fact, the Thanksgiving break at school facilitated the timing of my trip. Obviously, Ghana does not specifically celebrate this quintessential American holiday. But, since I was with my daughter, we decided to have a Thanksgiving dinner. Along with a friend of my daughter's, we went to a local restaurant--strangely an Argentinian restaurant. For Thanksgiving dinner, my daughter and I both ordered kebabs on a hanging skewer--mine was chicken (that's close to turkey, no?) and hers was beef. A most memorable Thanksgiving dinner!

Eating out was not much different than eating out in the US. However, the first night we went to a local Ghanaian restaurant. Among the ways in which this restaurant was different were the hand washing stands dotted around the restaurant. Some typical Ghanaian food is meant to be eaten with the hand, so washing hands first is a good idea.

The overall ambience of the restaurant was lovely--on a hot evening, we sat in an open air structure, with the breeze playing on the wind chimes. All around, in the night air, you could hear the evening sounds of traffic, voices, and night creatures (small ones--nothing vicious!).

On the Sunday that I was in Accra, my daughter had discovered where the closest Presbyterian church was--it was fairly close to where she lives. As we made our way to the church, we passed several other groups of worshippers, and you could hear the singing wafting up from the open buildings. The Eben-ezer Presbyterian Church is a large brick structure. The windows were all thrown open for the 7 a.m. (!) service--the English service.

We sat in the outer area which we learned the church had built several years before to accommodate all the extra worshippers they had. They called the overflow area the shed.

The hymns were unfamiliar--but, no matter. What I found most fascinating about the service was that in the course of the 2 1/2 hour long worship, they collected not one, not two but THREE offerings. First, they collected the tithes that went in wooden boxes. The givers had to come forward in special groups--the Session members first (then those boxes were taken away), then dignitaries and other important visitors (again, those boxes were removed) and finally all the other congregants. The second offering was a Thankoffering collection, no doubt for Thanksgiving Sunday. This was collected in deep bags that looked like knitting bags, that were passed in and out of the rows of worshippers. Finally, there was an announcement that since everyone has a special day, we should give in honor of that. While it took us a minute or two to figure out what the preacher meant, it soon became evident that you were to give in honor of your day of birth.

With the first offering, the choir had sung. The second offering had a jazz band playing very lively music. Now, this third offering also had the jazz band, but this time, everyone went in to the church to give their offering. We watched as section by section went up front--and the band kept playing. By now, members of the congregation were dancing up the aisles, on their way to give. Actually, there was a passing resemblance to Bywel! Finally our section got up, and my daughter and I made our way inside. What we discovered then was 7 baskets in the front of the church--one for every day of the week! So, I being born on a Tuesday put my contribution in he Tuesday basket. What a stroke of genius--an offering that builds in competition to see which day of the week has the best givers born on it! Ideas to take home to my church in Harrisburg! Another indelible memory.

I saved the best for last--what was the absolute best part of this whole trip? Getting to see my daughter. The photo below speaks for itself!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Peregrine Postscript

(A parenthetic note before I begin this short blog--I think I have at least one more Accra, Ghana blog in me. . .but the following blog is prompted by an observation today.)

Well, our neighborhood has been visited again by the peregrine. Actually, the first time I saw the peregrine was about a year after it began nesting in the Harrisburg area. That spring, I had obsessed with the unfolding story of the peregrines choosing the Rachel Carson building that houses our state department of environmental protection. I watched the webcam daily to see the eggs being laid one at a time, and then watched it to see the eyasses hatch and . . . (as I said, I obsessed).

One day, I looked out our window to see our backyard. We had an outdoor swing on an A-frame, and there perched on top of the A-frame was a bird that was clearly a raptor. I went scurrying off to check our bird guide, and concluded that based on size and markings, it had to be the peregrine.

Today the peregrine was back. As I walked our dog around the block, I saw a group of birds dipping and wheeling low in the sky. When I looked up, I realized it was the peregrine, but this time with full escort. Three crows were flying with the peregrine--no, actually they were not flying WITH the peregrine, but AT it. The crows were clearly harassing the peregrine. They would dive at it, clearly encroaching into its air space. The peregrine kept wheeling, trying to fly away from the crows. Finally, two crows gave up, but one kept up after the peregrine until it escaped and flew away.

I have seen crows do this before--but only with hawks. It is amazing how crows band together and go after a raptor that is clearly bigger than the crows. The crows are fearless. I don't know much about crow behavior, but the little bit I do, I tend to admire them. However, harassing my peregrine--that's forbidden. So, there I am, walking the dog, yelling up at the crows to "leave my peregrine alone." Only afterwards did it occur to me how looney that must have looked--after all, who's to say crows speak "human"?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Scenes from the Accra cultural center

Ordinarily, I like to intersperse photos with text. However, Blogger was so obstinate when I was working on the post on A City of Contrast. I finally gave up trying to post some photos of the cultural center. So, this evening, I decided to try posting mostly photos, one at a time, and just waiting patiently while Blogger putzed away uploading them. Here they are. . .enjoy, as who knows when I will feel like sitting in front of a computer screen just looking at it?
Scenes from our visit to the cultural center--this first photo is taken just outside the cultural center--when you stand outside the center, you would never guess the space is filled with arts and crafts displays.

Note how the craft stalls are randomly arranged.
Behind where these stalls were meager places that presumably were homes for some of the craftspeople.

Many stalls had drums and items carved from wood, or made from animal skins. I wasn't too sure that bringing an animal skin product back through customs would be a good idea.

Understandably, the craftsmen are proud of their work. I asked before I took a photo, and always the response was positive.

This man was silently weaving kente cloth. I asked another man in the shop if it was OK to take a photo, and he readily agreed, but the weaver never broke his concentration. Note how he is anchoring one of the thread spools between his toes.

Monday, December 04, 2006

A City of Contrasts

Accra is a city of great contrasts—there are four lane highways, dirt roads, gleaming glass buildings, impromptu lean-tos, lush gorgeous flowers, open sewerage ditches. There are sections that you drive through where you could almost be in Europe, or some other developed place in the world, then other areas where you clearly are in an emerging country.

The most striking feature to me is the haphazardness of all this. Suddenly you leave the relatively nice homes section and see chickens scratching in the dirt next to roadside hovels. Right next door to the hotel was a large open field where it appeared that people lived, or at least slept, almost out in the open.

The city is a city planner’s worst nightmare. The sections of Accra have grown up seemingly unaware of other sections. So access becomes the great problem. Roads between the sections, such as the Ring Road, become very clogged. And there is no concept of air pollution control.

One of the most striking contrasts is one of the architectural features of the city. There is a large arch in Liberation Square. This whole area commemorates Ghana's 1957 independence from being a British colony. As official and celebratory as the area is, it is hardly ever used. We drove by, but there were very few people viewing the area. It is used on official or holiday occasions, but usually no one is there. Imagine such a public square in Paris or in Berlin that would be empty of people much of the time. In contrast to such an official edifice that goes largely unused, there are many half-built buildings all around Accra. Whether these are remnants of Soviet investment that dried up, or are structures designed to prove one's ownership to a piece of land is unclear. However, some of these structures clearly have people living in them. You will sometimes see a cloth draped across an open space to provide some protection.

My daughter and I visited the cultural centre (where arts and crafts are sold) on one of my last days in Accra. This section is the city in miniature. It is a low-walled in area with craft stalls—not laid out in a grid pattern, but more randomly. Some stalls are quite stable and fixed in location; others are ramshackle. Some have adobe walls; some are pole and tin-roof construction.

But everyone wants to sell. I wrote earlier about the pressure to buy, and, if not to buy, well, at least you can look. If you don't buy, no problem. Unlike Tangier, where the vendors kept dogging your every step, here people relented if you persisted and walked on by. Most everyone is amazingly friendly, and usually they ask where you come from.

There are many ways to spend money (in modest amounts). In addition to the craft stalls, and the road side hawkers, there are beggars—people who have various infirmities: a blind woman being led by a small boy, a crippled man in an improvised wheel chair—a lawn chair on wheels; a one-legged man moving swiftly on crutches. As the taxi stops at a traffic light, they approach, less insistently than the hawkers, but still asking for money. My daughter usually gives them something, noting how hard it must be to be physically disabled in a country that almost demands able-bodied ness.

One more contrast comes to me—the extreme physical labor you see people engaging in and the people taking impromptu naps seemingly at any time of day. Among examples of the physical labor, of course, are all the people, typically women, I saw carrying everything on their heads. This brought back many familiar recollections from my childhood. But people also wheeled carts down the road piled high with firewood or yams. While we were at the beach, we watched three men pushing a heavy cart filled with dirt down the beach. After a half an hour we saw them return with the cart empty, and a half an hour after that, they were back pushing the reloaded cart down the beach. I have no idea from where and to where the dirt was being moved.

The impromptu naps take the concept of siestas far beyond a mid-afternoon snooze. As we walked around the Makola Market, we passed several stalls where the supposed proprietor was stretched out, next to whatever the goods for sale were, sound asleep.

Such a city of contrasts.

Friday, December 01, 2006


Remember the recent commercial that goes through the price of various items, all leading up to what the experience itself is—and the tag line is PRICELESS. Well, I had several priceless moments during my visit to Accra.

One of the first came after my first full day in Accra. It had been a busy full day, and with the heat, returning to the hotel and its lovely pool was so welcome. After going out to dinner at a Ghanaian restaurant and then returning again poolside, my daughter and I sat sipping a drink and taking in the cooler night air. Soon a band began to play across the pool. They played music in the high life style—a soft melodic jazzy type music featuring brass. But this group was singing all sorts of pop tunes. It got to be quite funny listening to the morphed pop tunes, and given the accent of a Ghanaian singer who learned English as a second language, the words didn’t always come out just right. For example the old classic “Que Sera, Sera,” the line “the future’s not ours to see” came out “Future not ours to see.” When the main singer struck up “I Believe in Miracles” we were primed. When he sang that constant refrain, it actually came out “ I Believe in Merkel.” Sort of a theme song for the German chancellor. Priceless.

During my second day in Accra, we visited Makola Market. This is a sprawling market near the city’s center with all manner of stalls selling seemingly everything: cloth, glass beads, food, water, plastic ware from China, dishes, mattresses, shoes, dresses, open containers of various grains, little bags of spices. People were everywhere, walking, selling, shopping, some sleeping. And soon after we began walking around, we heard Christmas carols playing—What Child is This? At one point we passed two separate street preachers with their own loud speakers blaring away. Also church music blared through the speakers. I was struck with the shoppers who seemingly paid these preachers no mind, even as they hummed the Christmas carols that were playing. The entire scene—priceless.

One afternoon we planned to head out to Labadi Beach in Accra. Our plan was to watch the sun set over the Atlantic. There are several beach restaurants selling refreshments, and they have chairs and tables for patrons. We settled on one, then watched and waited for 6 p.m. Since Accra is very near the equator, the day is almost precisely 12 hours long. We sat reading our books, sipping on our drinks, snacking on plantain chips and ground nuts sold by a vendor. And watched the waves crashing in. This is not a calm beach with easy swimming. The few swimmers do not venture out more than a hundred feet or so. The undertow is extremely strong, so swimming is not recommended. Like so many places in Accra, this peaceful scene was disrupted by multiple vendors—selling jewelry or nail polish, drums, or paintings. There were also several extraordinarily athletic young men who kept kicking a soccer ball back and forth. The sunset itself was almost anti-climactic, a pale sun slipping behind the clouds. However, the priceless moment was about to come. We decided to leave a bit ahead of the quickening dark—so we asked for the bill for our drinks. The bill for 24,000 cedis, so my daughter gave the young man 30,000 cedis and asked for change. He said he didn’t have it and would have to go get it. He disappeared. Five minutes, then ten minutes went by; then fifteen. By now, waiting for change has become stand on principle. Finally the young man returns with the change—and announces to my daughter that he should keep it for his trouble of having to go get it. Priceless! Incredulous, she said NO!

The final priceless moment occurred in the Centre for National Culture. Close to the Makola Market, the Centre sells various arts and crafts of Ghana. This is a walled in section of the city with the craft stalls laid in a part grid, part random fashion. All the vendors are anxious to sell, and beseech you to come see their wares—kente cloth; all manner of jewelry, made from beads, stones, pottery, wood, silver, gold; carvings of animals, salad tongs, ingenious stools, phallic symbols, mother and child; games; basket of every shape and size. And everyone is calling—hey, stop at my shop, stop here. They call my daughter “sister”, and (I assume because of my age) they call me “mama.” In one stall, the man asks my daughter—is this your mama? She says—yes, can’t you tell? The man says—no! your mama, she is big; you small. Happily for me, I am the right size here! Priceless.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Getting around in Accra

Accra, which is the capital of Ghana, is a sprawling city of about 3 million people. Everywhere you go, there are teeming crowds of people—going here and there, working, pushing carts, riding on flatbed trucks, carrying merchandise on their heads. The scene is chaotic to my western eye. I have obviously seen large crowds before—say, in New York City when you encounter people walking en masse in Times Square, or at a college football game when fans swarm into the stadium, and then equally swarm out after the game. But the crowds in Ghana seem more random to me. That does not mean the people are purposeless—it has more to do with the open spaces, and the lack of sidewalks, and the higgledy-piggledy arrangement of streets. Look at a map of Accra, and you get the false impression of order. What I experienced was constant disorientation (although places did begin to look familiar after traveling over the same roads for several days).

While Ghanaian people seemingly walk everywhere, I was less likely to walk, not because of reluctance, but simply because where my hotel was in relation to places I wanted to see required getting transportation. Enter taxis. Taxis—taxis in Accra. Well, let’s just say that in my opinion while the Accra drivers could hold their own in New York City, the overall experience of a taxi ride is most interesting, unlike anything I have ever experienced.

First, there are the vehicles themselves. Many taxis are small cars. Most have multiple bashes and dents. (In fact on one ride, the taxi I was in got rear-ended in a minor bump, the driver got out, looked his bumper over, then drove on.) Almost all I rode in had cracked windshields (or windscreens, as the Brits would say). Many had fancy windshield wipers that at night were lit up with multiple color—sort of a neon wiper. And then there are the signs on the taxis—more on that in a bit.

Next, there is the whole ritual of getting a taxi. My daughter has mastered this routine. I wrote it down the first day and read my description to her. Her response was that while she hadn’t noted that she had such a set dialogue that I got the details right. First, as you stand along side the road and see a taxi coming you wave your hand with your arm down—almost like shushing the ground. The taxi pulls over—my daughter looks in the window saying to the driver—Hello, how are you? (Can you imagine asking that of a New York cabbie). The driver responds, I am well. Then she says—we are going to the restaurant (or wherever your destination is). The driver may look knowing or puzzled. She explains, It is near—and then gives a landmark or nearby establishment. By now the driver might say, I know where it is. He may or may not (I saw only male taxi drivers). Then she asks, How much? Remember the hyperinflation factor. So the driver might say, 40,000 cedis. To this, she says, Oh no, my friend, it is too much. It is close. I go there all the time; it is only 20,000 cedis. Once she said—you are asking obruni (white) price. Meaning, we are white and look like tourists, so presumably we wouldn’t know how much the ride should cost. If the driver persists on 40,000 cedis, she says, OK we get another car. And we walk away from the taxi. Sometimes, the driver relents, sometimes not. (No doubt, you have figured out the taxis are not metered, so the whole price interchange MUST occur before you get into the taxi.)

This entire exchange is most amicable. It is just a necessary precursor to actually taking a taxi somewhere. Once in the taxi, it is acceptable, perhaps even polite, to inquire of the driver, How are you? Or to exchange some pleasantry.

Of course, there is another form of readily available public transportation. These are the tro-tros. The best way to describe of tro-tro is to picture first a mini-van, with the usual interior seats removed, and in their place a double row of seats, very much like bus seats. Tro-tros are like miniature buses. There is even a large tro-tro station in Accra, a kind of traffic circle, where the interior of the whole circle is filled with tro-tros. Tro-tros go everywhere, both within Accra and to outer areas. They go between the towns. There is obviously a driver, but he is assisted by a mate who collects the money and who calls out the approximate stops. I did not ride in a tro-tro, so I am dependent on my daughter’s experience and the description at
this site. One of the most entertaining things to do while riding in a taxi is to read the signs on the back of the tro-tros. Seemingly every tro-tro has some sign, homemade, posted on the back. Most of the signs are religious, many are in English, and a fair few at utterly incomprehensible—example, Beware of Friends.

In fact, the religious signs are sprinkled all throughout Accra, on tro-tros, on taxis and on many business establishment and advertisement signs. The best example I have of a religious sign (having spent only a week in Accra, my experience is limited, and had I stayed longer, I am sure I would have a new “best”) was the taxi I took back to the hotel one night. The driver knew where I wanted to go, and my daughter had negotiated the price, but then the engine was reluctant to start. Finally, it sprang into life and off through the streets of Accra we went. The taxi sounded as though it would die at each intersection. Before I had gotten in the taxi, I saw the homemade sign on the back—IN GOD WE TRUST. Below it was a picture of Jesus, the shepherd holding a lamb. Of course, I got the hotel safely, asked the driver if I could take a photo of his sign. But as he pulled away, I thought—well, trust in God; yeah, that and a good mechanic!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

First Impressions

Having grown up in southern Africa, I very much looked forward to a chance to return to somewhere on the African continent. Admittedly, my husband and I were in Africa this past summer--for two days in Morocco, but that didn't feel like Africa to me. So with my daughter on a work assignment in Ghana, I took the opportunity to visit her. I realize that there will be differences between my childhood experience of quite some time ago in another part of Africa, and my adult visit to a country in west Africa.

Hence--I offer first impressions as my visit to Accra, Ghana began. I am struck by the extravagance of Africa. Riotous trees, people everywhere, cars, trucks, buses, tro-tros, a jumble of buildings, ditches along the road which are for both rain run-off and daily sewerage, women walking with all manner of goods on their heads, at every intersection where the taxi must stop, there are vendors pushing wares. Everything from air fresheners to fruit--apples, bananas, papaya--to pens to toilet paper to sun glasses to jumper cables to water in plastic bags, to maps of Ghana, maps of Africa to flags to key chains to bathroom scales!

Even the air is extravagant. As I first stepped off the plane into the night air at Accra airport, I was hit with a wave of humid air. Past 9 o'clock which made it 3 hours after sunset, the air was so moist it felt like a steambath. During the day, as we ride anywhere in taxis, the air hangs blue redolent with wood fire smoke and vehicle emissions from all manner of traffic belching unfiltered fumes. But the smell is one I remember. The pungence of wood fire smoke that bites my nose is completely reminiscent of childhood.

The monetary system is extravagant. Of course, one needs to change U.S. dollars into local currency, which was one of the first things my daughter took me to do. We tried two established banks intially. In the first, we sat for some time waiting for someone to deal with us, until finally someone said--no, they did not change money here. We could have been told that to begin with! The second bank was faster on the information, but the information was the same--only service for customers. So we went off to a local currency exchanger. He happily handled the exchange. For some $300 U.S. we get back about 3 million cedis (pronounced CDs). So, when calculating the price of anything, I simply removed 4 zeros and got the approximate U.S. price. The hyperinflation is a little disorienting, and since the largest denomination paper note is a 20,000 cedi, one walks around with a stuffed wallet.

Finally the people are extravagant. They are wonderfully friendly and welcoming. They are quick to say hello, to ask how you like Ghana, and to ask when are you coming back. Upon first encountering someone, it is expected that you will go through a brief interchange of--hello, how are you--before you get down to business. Very relational. Everyone asks your name--and if you have looked it up in advance you can tell them your name which correlates to the day you were born (more on this later). And they shake your hand--an interesting variation on which I, as an American, had to be instructed. First you shake as one would in the west, then leaving go of each other's hands by dragging the fingers apart, then finally snapping your thumb and middle finger. It takes a bit of practice, and I don't have it mastered yet.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Going, going Ghana

When our daughter, who is presently in Ghana, decided to write a blog about her experiences, she asked for name suggestions for her blog. She settled on Gone to Ghana, and has been regaling her readers since then with some of her experiences. Of the names suggested to her, one she did not pick was suggested by her brother (our son) and I have decided to use it for this entry.

I do not have much to say today, excepting that I will not be blogging for a week or so, while I take this trip. I have been busy doing all the things one does before undertaking such a trip. I previously wrote about all the immunizations I needed to get. In fact, today I begin taking my anti-malarial drug.

I have also been assembling a proverbial raft of material to take along--for myself and for our daughter. Things like computer flash drives and printer ink cartridges, mosquito nets, magazines, hard candies and soaps (for the occasional gift). I have been piling up clothing on the guest bed. Of course, a country in equatorial Africa is much hotter than central Pennsylvania, at this time of year (maybe at any time of year). So I have short sleeve cooler clothing to help, hopefully, with heat and humidity. I have swimsuits, hats and flip-flops. And I have sunscreen with as high an SPF as I can get--being a red haired, fair skinned, blue-eyed woman.

I have plane tickets, a passport, an entry visa, a yellow-fever certificate, photo-copied pages from various travel books describing Ghana, and a map of Accra.

I have reading material--oh, lots of reading material--to help get me through the layover in Heathrow going over and coming home.

Now I need to get it all into one suitcase, and hope the suitcase doesn't tip the scale at more than 50 lbs. so I stay under the limit.

And so, I must sign off and go PACK!

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Eyes Have It

From the time I have any recollection of my paternal grandfather, he was considered legally blind. He had developed both cataracts and glaucoma in a time when medical science had not sufficiently advanced to make those conditions curable. With the cataracts, his vision clouded, and with glaucoma it narrowed. Eventually he could no longer read, see to drive, or do anything which required precise vision. I distinctly remember him pulling out his pocket watch, which he always carried, flipping it open, and then carefully moving the face of the watch around until it caught in one small window of sight he had. That way, he could tell the time.

To compensate for his loss of sight, he had various capabilities and skills to fall back upon. In his youth, he had memorized a great many poems, and vast amounts of Scripture, so he could call up from memory these beloved passages. I have another vivid recollection of him—he and a friend, William Meikle (who for years taught at Messiah College and was himself a remarkable man: he lived in Harrisburg, some 15 miles from the college, and walked from his home to the college and back again!) would get together and entertain each other by reciting poetry.

My grandfather, who was a minister, also compensated for the loss of his sight by memorizing the number of steps he needed to take to get to specific places. Since he was sometimes called on to preach as a visiting minister, he memorized how many steps from the back of these churches to the pulpit in front, so that when he entered he could stride with purpose to the front. He always carried the quintessential blind person’s cane—tipped with white—and swung it back and forth in front of him, but always with purpose, never with hesistancy. When he moved to a retirement home, he and another elderly man would go for walks. My grandfather loved walking and would stride along. He compensated for his diminished vision by linking arms with this other man, who was unsteady on his feet, but clear-eyed. Thus my grandfather and his friend supported each other, together making a grand walking pair.

He was an inveterate letter writer, and continued to hand write letters to family and friends by guiding his pen along the paper with his non-writing hand, feeling where the edge of the paper was so he would stop writing. When his writing became too slanted, as he tended to write “up hill” using this method, and also began to overlap, he determined to learn how to type. So, blind and in old age, he taught himself to type. Tapping out on a manual typewriter, he resumed his letter writing. He put that typing skill to good use, as when his first wife (my grandmother) died, and he decided to “court” a woman who was a practical nurse at the nursing home where my grandfather lived, he did so in part by typing poems to her that he composed. I found some of these poems among my step-grandmother’s possessions after she died (I was the executor of her estate).

Several years ago, I wrote a biography of my paternal grandparents. In the course of doing research on them, I came upon a story about a conversation my grandfather, John, had with a brother of his, Laban. They were both in advancing years, and as they sat on a porch visiting, they had this interchange:

John: It's not so bad to be blind. I'd rather be blind than be deaf.
Laban: Oh, no! It's not so bad to be deaf. I'd much rather be deaf than blind.

What struck me about this marvelous conversation between two old men is that they had each accommodated to the infirmity they had. Neither begrudged his limitation.

I have been thinking of my grandfather lately and his ability to forge ahead in spite of diminished eyesight, partly because I recently had surgery on my eyelid. I had a small red spot that had stayed put for almost a year. After asking three doctors about it, I finally was treated by an oculo-plastic surgeon who removed the spot, had it tested by a pathologist, and determined that it was a basal cell cancer. It has all been removed, but the presence of such a growth so close to my eye freaked me.

As someone who majored in literature in college, I know that the loss of eyesight is frequently a metaphor for gaining knowledge. Take, for example,
Oedipus. He pushes and pushes for knowledge, trying to unravel the secret of his background as well as the cause of the curse that afflicts Thebes. Time and again, he is warned to cease his quest, that it could only end badly. One of the most urgent cautioners is the blind prophet Tiresias, who Oedipus accuses of lying. When Oedipus eventually discovers the truth, and learns all that he has done, albeit in ignorance, he cannot stand what he has learned, and seizing his wife/mother’s Jocasta’s brooch, he blinds himself. Once deprived of sight, he can fully see his predicament.

And, of course, there is
John Milton, the famous poet who having become blind continued to write poetry composing it in his head, and then dictating to his daughter and aides who faithfully recorded it. Thus was Paradise Lost, Milton’s great masterpiece written. Here is the sonnet he wrote when he first became blind.

Sonnet: On his blindness

When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide,
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?
I fondly ask; but Patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts, who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best, his state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.

Oh, yes, folks, the eyes have it.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Falco peregrinus

Just as I was heading out today to run some errands (with my dog in tow--she LOVES to go for rides), I caught sight of a bird soaring overhead. I stopped to watch, and to my great pleasure realized it was one of the peregrine falcons that makes Harrisburg its home. (Photo at right credit: Joe Kosack / PGC Photo)

Ever since peregrines began nesting on a ledge outside of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection building (!), I have become obsessed with peregrines. In a wonderful twist of situational irony, the name of the building where our Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is housed is the Rachel Carson Building. Had it not been for Rachel Carson, a Pennsylvanian, and her prophetic book
Silent Spring, we might not have peregrines and some other raptors around these days.

When the peregrines first began nesting on the ledge, the DEP set up a
webcam, which I now watch each spring. When the eyasses first hatch, they are lovely little fuzz balls. Miraculously, they walk back and forth on the ledge, some 15 stories above the ground without falling. Finally they fledge, and each year I hold my breath hoping that none dies in the attempt. The customary mortality rate in the wild is between 25 to 30 %, so with 4 to 5 eyasses each year, I should expect some deaths. But I always hate it.

In fact, the peregrines are the reason I no longer put out bird seed in feeders around our house. The peregrines discovered the various bird feeders in our neighborhood (and, no doubt, other neighborhoods), so they would make periodic raids swooping in for easy kills. I don't mind that they eat street pigeons in the city, but my cardinals are off limits.

Anyway, there I stood with my patient dog by my side wondering why I was gazing sky-ward. The peregrine dipped and swooped, then hung seemingly motionless on a gentle updraft. I like to think we made eye contact, and that I, being a tad too large, was bypassed as a meal, but recognized as a fan!

OK, OK--so it's a bit slurpy, I know, but I do love peregrines.

Vox populi

As I began to write this blog, the election of 2006 had concluded, but the Senate races in Virginia and Montana had still not been decided with certainty. They were leaning toward the Democratic candidates. Now that outcome is known: both seats have gone Democratic, and with that determination, the control of the Senate.

And the House of Representatives will be Democratic controlled for the first time since the so-called Republican revolution. As a registered Democrat, I am happy. But I temper my enthusiasm and remind myself of that great concept from the medieval era:
the wheel of fortune.

Tonight, in my literature class, I have asked students to bring a favorite poem, and to explain it. Also, I asked them to provide copies of the poem, or submit them to me, and I would make copies. One student has picked “O Fortuna” the marvelous text that Orff uses in his opening number in
Carmina Burana. That choice couldn’t be more apt.

The medieval concept was that fortune is determined by a great wheel that spins arbitrarily and either casts one up or down. When I was in graduate school, and studied Chaucer, each of the students in the seminar class had to select one area of concentration. I happily selected Religion and Philosophy. Consequently, I ended up reading huge swaths of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy.
Boethius devoted major portions of his work Consolation of Philosophy to the vagaries of fortune. Fittingly, he wrote the work while he was in prison awaiting execution. Boethius had been an adviser to the emperor, but was charged with treason and sentenced to die. Almost sounds like some of the political folks we just threw out. . .except for the execution part.

So, why did the people voice their displeasure and throw the Republicans out (for now)? Well, as the pundits have explained, there are many reasons. But, I have my own theory—the arrogance of power. Sadly, when our political leaders assume office, they suddenly become quasi-imperialists: they believe in the divine right of rulers. They delude themselves that they can do no wrong. All too often they become corrupted by power, and forget that the genius of our system of government is that the PEOPLE get to speak. (Never mind all those times the people have become voiceless idiots).

I recently read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s wonderful account of President Lincoln and his cabinet, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. What truly set Lincoln apart was that, once he had won the election, he set about bringing in to his cabinet the very men who had run against him for the presidency. He sought men from both parties, and included them in his team. As I read this book, I couldn’t help but wish for such political genius today, or political humility. What a welcome change that would be from all the vaunted chest beating we have witnessed over the last several years.

Of course, another result of the 2006 elections is that with the Democrats in control of the House of Representatives, we will have our first ever woman Speaker of the House. The day of the election, I had to make an emergency trip to a local garage to get a new battery in one of our vehicles. There, along with other mechanics, was a young woman mechanic. She had greasy hands, wore the heavy flannel plaid shirt that seems a virtual mechanic uniform, and looked as tough as any of the young men. I was heartened to see her, and since it was Election Day, I chatted casually about the opportunity to vote. Oh, she said, I ain’t voted; I don’t watch the news, and don’t know who’s running. Besides, she continued, I don’t care who wins.

Oh, oh, oh! Vox populi. We have the right to vote—all of us. That right was hard fought, and won by inches through the course of our history. Who is in power may change, but the right, no the responsibility, to vote does not. So, keep in mind, that great wheel of fortune! And may those who rule be guided by the genius of Lincoln.