Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Art of Giving

The saying goes—it is more blessed to give than to receive. Here’s a quick quiz—is this statement a Biblical one? Or one of Ben Franklin’s pithy sayings? If it is from the Bible, does Jesus say it? (You can skip to the bottom to get the answer at the **.)

I suppose the thinking behind this statement is that the giver benefits more than the receiver. And I can attest to the statement’s veracity. It is wondrous fun to watch someone open a specially wrapped gift. You know what’s inside—he doesn’t. You have a couple moments of savoring this anticipatory pleasure.

But there are times when it is most decidedly more blessed to receive. I got to thinking the other day about the five best gifts I have ever received.

In true David Letterman fashion, I will start with # 5.

# 5—when my husband and I got married, the gift that we received from my (favorite) aunt was a Le Creuset casserole in flame orange. I had not heard of Le Creuset, but I loved the color because my one-time color scheme for my kitchen included orange. We are now coming up on our 40th wedding anniversary, and the Le Creuset is still serving up chili or stew, or whatever else I cook in it.

# 4—in 1960 my parents returned to Africa for their 3rd term as missionaries. I was staying behind, here in the U.S., so I could finish high school and enter college. My parents were leaving in January, and my birthday was in February. So, right before they left, they gave me my birthday present—a portable Smith-Corona typewriter. This little typewriter was all mine! I was thrilled. I used that typewriter all through college, and all through grad school. In fact, one time when I had procrastinated just a tad too long, I was actually typing the last several pages as my friend was driving us to campus! The resulting final pages, wherein I condensed 5 or so pages into 2 not well worded ones, ruined the paper. The professor gave me an F, told me to rewrite it—which I did. Subsequently, he gave me a B+ and told me, point blank, that I would have had an A on the paper, but for my procrastination. This is a story that I tell students to let them know that I know full well the dangers of procrastination. But, I am digressing from my little Smith-Corona. I still have it; it sits in the basement, no longer used, but still cherished.

# 3—recently, as a gift-giving occasion approached (either birthday or Christmas; I can’t remember which), my son asked what I might like. He had introduced me to the wonderfully quirky website
Think Geek, and I had spotted something there that I thought just looked so cool. It was a Victorinox Swiss army knife (I love these little pocket knives with all their gizmos). But this one had a little extra item—a flash drive! So I sort of suggested that. It seemed a bit weird, but my son knows me well. And he got it for me. While it wasn’t exactly a surprise, I was tickled. I use the knife all the time, and I use the flash drive to store all my teaching material on. It goes back and forth to college with me, and gets plugged in every teaching day.

# 2—Christmas a year ago, as we were exchanging gifts with our daughter, she put a small package with my pile of presents. Our family tradition is that the givers get to suggest the order for opening presents. That way, if one item matches up with an item in another package, they are opened in a way that makes sense. Example—we are crazy enough to wrap batteries, so the item that the batteries go with gets opened before the batteries do. Understand? Anyway, this little package was held back, until finally I was allowed to open it. The box said Tiffany. Now, understand, I have never received anything from Tiffany in my life. Clearly, our daughter, who was living in Manhattan at the time, had done some shopping. Inside the box was a lovely silver cross. While I am not ordinarily given to wearing a cross necklace (while I am a Christian, the metonymy of the cross is something I am a bit hesitant to display), this one has special significance, so I wear it frequently. The artful design of the cross is a wonderful "extra".

# 1—when my husband and I first met, our romance began to bloom after
I sang to him around a camp fire. The song I sang was “There is a Ship” which I had heard on a record album that was popular around that time. The inimitable trio of Peter, Paul and Mary had released a two record set album called “Peter, Paul and Mary in Concert.” Obviously, I told my future husband where I had learned the song I sang. At the end of the week of camp, he returned home, having signed on to be a counselor for only a week, and I stayed behind at camp—I was the craft teacher for the whole summer. Sunday was a day of free time, and I was moping around, thinking I was never going to see this young man again. In fact, each of us was dating someone else at the time. So, imagine my surprise when he showed up Sunday afternoon. His first question—what would your boyfriend say if I asked you out on a date? My answer—why don’t you ask me what I would say. Well, I said YES, of course. And then came his surprise—he had bought me a gift: the 2 record set of Peter, Paul and Mary in Concert. Music lives forever in the heart!

Five gifts, five wonderful memories, five examples of the blessedness of giving (and of receiving).

**Acts 20:35, It is more blessed to give than to receive—this statement occurs in the context of Paul’s speech before the elders at Ephesus. Paul says, "Remembering the words of the Lord Jesus. . .It is more blessed to give than to receive.

So my question is a bit of a trick question. According to Paul, the words are Jesus', but, curiously, none of the four gospels chose to use those words of Jesus. I won’t even say—hmmmm.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Going Cold Turkey

Lately, I have embarked on an experiment of sorts. This semester, I am teaching a Tuesday/Thursday schedule. Since my first class begins at 8 a.m., I try to arrive on campus no later than 7:30 a.m. That means I get up around 6 a.m. (I know that is not all that early, but you need to understand that I am basically more of a late night person.)

I have had some trouble hitting my stride this semester, getting into the routine of going to bed on time to be able to bounce out of bed early. My recalcitrance in heading to bed has been exacerbated by recurring insomnia. Once I get to bed, and finally turn out the lights, I simply don’t go to sleep. Some nights, even with my eyes shut, I have vivid images flashing with full color. It is rather like watching one of those compressed images videos, where photographs flash by with just a brief moment for you to recognize what you are seeing.

There have been nights when I would glance at the clock, and see the time slip from 1 a.m. to 2 a.m. and even later, before I finally fall asleep. I am not attempting to garner your sympathy. For, you see, I think I have solved my problem.

No hot bath before bedtime for me, no warmed milk. No sleeping pills, nor even a dose of Benadryl (which is what my doctor suggested when I declined her offer to write a prescription).

I have gone cold turkey—no caffeinated coffee in the evening. You have no idea how painful this decision has been. Not because of my experiencing any withdrawal, but from sheer enjoyment of drinking coffee. This particular trait is one I believe I inherited from my mother (as did my sister—not sure about my brother. . .). One of my dearest memories is of sharing a cup of coffee with my mother.

And the outcome of this momentous decision? For the last several nights, I have gone to sleep like a “normal” person, sans flashing images, and grinning clocks.

The things I give up to teach!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Dies Irae

The Archangel Michael from "The Altarpiece of the Last Judgement"
Rogier Van der Weyden
One of my favorite choral piece's is Mozart's Requiem. In it, there is a marvelous stirring and quite daunting chorus called Dies Irae. Every time, I hear it, I get chills. Here's the Latin and a translation.

Pay special attention to "Day of wrath and terror looming!" That was today. Students who were given the opportunity to rewrite papers had to turn them in today. My policy, on the first paper, is to give students who get a D or who are totally off-prompt a chance to rewrite. Their papers are due one week from when I gave them that opportunity.

And today was the day--well, papers came rolling in and along with them excuses. I had no grade recorded for two students. So I discreetly went and asked them--are you planning to write a paper? Well, one stuttered, I just can't seem to get going. (I am thinking--you think you might get going some time before the end of the semester?) Another student said--no she hadn't written her first paper--did she have to write one?

And then I had these excuses:

1. My computer has Microsoft 7 and the college printers wouldn't work. My response? That's why I show you how to save a document in Rich Text Format.

2. My paper was two days late because I had to have emergency meetings with my lawyers. So I said--well, you could have written me an email beforehand. No, this student replied, I am not allowed to use the Internet, for reasons I can't go into. My response--hands held up--that's OK, please don't explain.

3. And last, but not least, Miss Mac Cheese brought in her re-written paper--all ONE page of it. And then she proceeded to tell me that she only wrote one page (for a 4 page requirement) because she went to the writing center for help and the tutor there said "I don't see how you can write 4 pages on that prompt"--so she didn't. I told her my paper requirements TRUMP the writing center's tutor's opinion, any day.


Friday, September 21, 2007

TERRIFIC READS--Water for Elephants

It's been a while since I wrote a blog on terrific reads, but I have a book to recommend now which I just loved. I had been reading Christopher Hitchen's book God is Not Great--and while he makes many interesting points, it took me a long time to plow through it. Furthermore I was totally frustrated while reading it--he makes some errors in logic that drove me nuts.

At any rate, by the time I finished that book I was ready for a truly enjoyable read--and I found one. A friend of mine had told me that she recently read Water for Elephants and "just loved it." So, I bought it on her say-so alone. (I had a bit of fun buying the book--while my daughter was here visiting, we went to a bookstore one day, and this book was one I wanted to buy. But I couldn't remember the author's name. So I went to the help desk and said Water for Elephants, but I don't know who wrote it. Oh, the help desk woman said, Sara Gruen--only the woman's accent was a very thick German accent, so the R in Sara was swallowed, and Gruen came out like, well, Gruen--only said in the back of her mouth. But she immediately knew where the book was!)


Let's see--from the opening scene, where the reader meets the main character, Jacob, and learns that a catastrophe has just occurred in the Big Top (there is an animal stampede) to the very closing scene, where this catastrophic scene is reprised, this book is a charmer.

Told in first person narrative, the novel alternates sections in the voice of Jacob, who shares the narration with himself. The reader hears the voice of young Jacob (during the Depression) interspersed with the voice of 90 + year old Jacob (in current time). Young Jacob is a student at Cornell who, for reasons the reader learns, has to leave school suddenly. Since he has nowhere to go, he wanders disconsolately and, on a whim, hops aboard a passing train. Much to his surprise, the train turns out to be a circus train.

Eventually, he gets a job as the circus vet--he had been in the vet training program at Cornell. And from there, his life takes off.

The characters are vividly, lovingly and convincingly drawn. The dialogue crackles with authenticity of real people speaking. Some of the most poignant scenes are with old Jacob, now in a nursing home, longing for authentic experiences in life--including real food.
Along the way, the reader learns all sorts of inside information on life within the travelling circuses of the Depression era. And, one of the central characters is an elephant named Rosie.

The book simply flies by--it is such an easy enjoyable read. In fact, I made myself slow down a bit to savor the enjoyment a bit.

All in all--another TERRIFIC READ.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Mac & Cheese

Ask college students what they love to eat, and, among the answers, you will likely get “Mac & Cheese.”

The reader textbook that I use for English 101, which is the introductory writing course at the community college where I teach, begins with a unit on foods. I suspect the editors know that most students will pay attention to food. During a class discussion on the subject, I asked what favorite foods the students have. And one of the first answers was macaroni and cheese.

Yesterday, when I entered the classroom for my 8 a.m. class, I was greeted by the sight of a small table set up with a large baking dish filled to the brim with newly baked home-made macaroni and cheese. Next to it was a stack of paper plates and plastic forks.

Sitting in the front row in her usual seat sat the beaming cook—a somewhat older student than the typical college freshman. She had decided to make a huge batch of macaroni and cheese, because of the students’ discussion.

Well, let me tell you, folks—macaroni and cheese at 8 a.m. is not what most people want to eat. BUT to be polite, I took a very small helping, and invited the students to help themselves. Only one or two students did.

Other than the humor of an unusual food being introduced into an early morning class, what’s the point of this story? The cook seems to have very little sense of what is going on in class. That’s what. I have all students write an essay the first day of class, for diagnostic purposes. After I read her diagnostic essay, I had a sinking feeling that here was not a potential college student. She did not have the rudiments of college writing, and I told her so. Well, she informed me that she was very persistent; she said she will stick with the class. And, she informed me, even though she had trouble with her introductory reading course, “the dean” assured her she can write. (Lord only knows what that means.)

Now we come to the real nub of the issue. In addition to bringing mac & cheese to class, she also handed in her first paper. The problem is—the paper was due last week, not this week. When I informed her that I would take the paper, but that it was late—she told me she didn’t know it was due last week. Well, I said, the due date is in the syllabus. She then said—I never got one of those. I was so flabbergasted that I didn’t think quickly enough.

Afterwards I thought—wait a minute. Didn’t she wonder when I said to the students, pass your papers forward? Didn’t she hear when I kept reminding students—now your papers are due. . .? Harrumph—no syllabus, indeed!

Well, guess what—tonight, as I sat down to grade her paper, I note that it is not even the correct assignment. In fact, she is so far off topic that I can’t even imagine what she thought she was writing about.

(Can you see my finger wagging back and forth?) Tomorrow, when class convenes, I will tell her—don’t go trying to bribe me with mac & cheese. It isn’t going to work. Only good writing counts for anything in this class.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Return of the Green Pen

Every semester, I look forward with a mixture of dread and curiosity to the first set of essays I get from my students. Particularly in Eng Comp 101, the essays can reveal personal tidbits about the students’ lives. I am frequently saddened, and sometimes even shocked, by some of the circumstances these young people are dealing with.

So, I have now finished grading the first essay for the semester. I always use writing prompts—for several reasons. First, if I do a good job crafting the prompt, it makes it far less likely that the student can find a ready made essay to hand in as his own. Second, if all the students are writing about generally the same topic, I have a greater opportunity to evaluate them fairly in comparison to their peers.

The first writing prompt was to write a NARRATIVE or a DESCRIPTIVE paper on one of two topics: personal body modifications OR fasting for a personal reason.

Once I get this first set of papers, I brace myself. What odd word errors am I going to read? And how tainted will my own writing be after reading these freshmen essays? On this second issue, I frequently find myself making simple elementary errors after I grade a set of essays. An example would be confusing where to place an apostrophe to make a noun possessive. Students ALWAYS have trouble with making nouns plural, and then making plural nouns possessive. Is it the students’ papers or the student’s papers? Well, of course, you know it depends on context—did you mean the papers of all the students? Or all the papers of the student.

Perhaps the most common error I come upon is confusion in homophones. You know what a homophone is even if you don’t know the term. Simply, “Homophones are words of the same language that are pronounced alike even if they differ in spelling, meaning”

I do get some very amusing homophones. The most common ones are words like NO and KNOW. Or THEIR, THERE, and THEY’RE.

Here are a few of my favorites.

This isn’t exactly a homophone, but it was a near one.
So students writing about body alterations were actually using the word “altercation.” A bit of a different meaning.

In addition to bracing myself for these word confusions, I always steel myself for some of the more problematic details I will encounter. Clearly, eighteen year olds today view body modifications as very much the norm. They write about multiple piercings, or getting a second or third tattoo. I really cringe when a student writes about tongue-splitting. (I do get a small modicum of revenge when we start a discussion unit of clothing and body adornments around the world. I use photographs of some of the examples of stretched necks, or plate-sized lips, or ear-lobes elongated down to the shoulders. Students are always stunned to see photos of foot-binding. Then I innocently ask—well, what’s the difference between that and some of the body modifications you make?)

Occasionally, I have a student who sees beyond the obvious on this topic, and writes refreshingly on his experience. One student wrote about trying to decide what to do about premature balding. I loved the essay. Another student wrote about getting a military haircut upon enlisting in the Army. He understood that the haircut symbolized all that joining the military entails.

For the first time with these papers, I had a fair number of students selecting the fasting topic. In the past, I have had one or two students a semester use this topic. This set of essays there were about a dozen, including one student who is a Jain and talked about the Paryshuna Festival, which includes fasting, meditation and prayer. Considering I live in central Pennsylvania which is a fairly conservative area, I was pleased to have a student who provided an informative well-thought essay from a different perspective.

Tomorrow will be the weeping day. I return the essays with all my green marks (I eschew using a red pen, and choose a green one instead). I also include a grading matrix. But, no matter how objectively I might have tried to be in relaying the issues with a student’s writing, students who expected higher grades are dashed. I find returning these first essays as the watershed mark—students will either hang in with me, trying to improve their writing, or they will blow off the whole course.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Dove at First Sight!

Ok, OK--full disclosure here. The story below is not original to me. In fact, I didn't even find it on the Internet--my daughter did. But it is TOO CUTE for words. In fact, it's a world class AWWWWWW!


It's a tale straight out of Disney – an abandoned baby monkey, close to death, is revived by the love of a bird.

The 12-week-old macaque was rescued on Neilingding Island, in Goangdong Province, China, after being abandoned by his mother.

Taken to an animal hospital, he was weaned back to physical health but still showed little appetite for life.

It was not until a fellow patient, a white pigeon, took him under her wing and showed him love and affection that he perked up.

Now the two are inseparable, say staff.

Story and photo from

Monday, September 10, 2007

Wee Sing

I apologize for what I am about to do—I am going to write the words of a song, and I can almost guarantee that, if you know the song, it will get stuck in your head for a while.

It's a world of laughter
A world of tears
It's a world of hopes
And a world of fears
There's so much that we share
That it's time we're aware
It's a small world after all

Not “ringing any bells” yet? Well, here’s the chorus.

It's a small world after all
It's a small world after all
It's a small world after all
It's a small, small world.

If you click on the link, you will be able to listen to the music. And then? And then, it will be S-T-U-C-K in your head all day. I can think of no other song that so insinuates itself into our minds!

Music has such power. It charms us when we are young and it stays with us as we grow old.

When our children were small, I sang lots of little ditties to them. In fact, when our daughter was little, we got a series of tapes called
Wee Sing. There were Wee Sing Camp Fire Songs, Nursery Rhymes, Christmas Songs, Bible Songs—and on and on. The songs were such fun.

We found one particular song our daughter really liked. It’s the song “A-Hunting We Will Go.” The chorus included these lines:
“We’ll catch a little fox and put him in a box, and then we’ll let him go.” She loved that line. She’d sit up in her chair, animatedly sing “Catch a little fox” and then relax. I confess, we backed the tape up multiple times just to see her spring to life singing about the little fox.

Children’s songs that include animation have always been a favorite for me. I sang “The Grand Old Duke of York” to my children and their friends, especially if they were outside playing. I marched the kids up to the top of the hill, down the hill, and half way in between. If you want more
Kids songs just click on the link.

We also had a softer side to singing. I always sang my children a bedtime lullaby—either Edelweiss (from The Sound of Music) or the lovely old Welsh melody
All through the night. I still think the words to this lovely folk song are so appropriate to falling asleep.

Sleep my child and peace attend thee,
All through the night
Guardian angels God will send thee,
All through the night
Soft the drowsy hours are creeping
Hill and vale in slumber sleeping,
I my loving vigil keeping
All through the night.

In fact, singing is what sparked the romance between me and my husband. We met at a church camp, where we were both staff. But our immediate reaction to each other was. . .less than positive. As the camp week passed, though, we began to talk. And then we began to like each other. Then there was the final night when campers camp out overnight. My husband was a counselor, so he was going to be sleeping out with the kids. I was a crafts teacher, so I was supposed to go back to the main cabin. But, I stayed and we kept talking. And then, I sang to him a folk song (made popular by Peter, Paul and Mary) to the melody of
O Waly Waly—“There is a ship.” Thus began our romance.

Well, I don’t know if music really has the power to start a romance, but once imprinted in our brains, music stays there long after other memories fade. When my mother-in-law, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, had lost her ability to speak, she could still sing songs. I was amazed when the nursing home staff told us she had taken part in Christmas carol sing.

So how am I going to get “It’s a Small Small World” unstuck from your brain? Well the only thing that I know that works is to watch the
Knut polar bear video. The song featured on that video will replace the Disney song easily!

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Clap Your Hands

Remember the children's song "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands"? CLAP CLAP (I'll bet I have the tune going in your head now--that is, if you know the song.)

Anyway, this post is to talk about two things that make me very happy.

First, some months back, I wrote an entry on The Green Green Grass of Home. Well, one of the folks out in the blogosphere, who saw it, wrote me an email. Turns out she edits a journal called Among Worlds, which focuses on adult TCKs (third culture kids). She asked--was I interested in writing an article for the September issue of the magazine.

Why sure! I am always interested in new opportunities to write. So I polished up my musings on the green grass of home, and sent it off. And yesterday, the new magazine came in the mail--with my article right there on page 20. Can you see me smiling? Can you hear me clapping?

Second, my daughter's fiancé (or my son-in-law-to-be) sent me an invitation to join Kiva. Here's what their website says to explain their purpose: "Kiva lets you connect with and loan money to unique small businesses in the developing world." This is microcredit at work. (Maybe you recall, this concept is what Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize for in 2006.)

It is a simple concept. Find people anywhere in the world who need small loans to help them get a business started. Set up a repayment means. Find potential donors who are willing to make small loans (as small as $25) and let them agree to loan the funds.

The utter simplicity of the needs of these "entrepreneurs" absolutely overwhelms me. Here's an example: Mrs. V is 50 years old and her husband has been dead for 10 years ago. She lives (in Vietnam) with a son and a daughter. She has a small plot of land for growing sweet potato, plus she raises pigs. Her family income is $11 per person/month. She needs to get a loan of $75 to purchase feed for pigs and fertilizer for the sweet potato field. She will repay the loan monthly.

That almost makes me cry--$75 for a widow to make a better life for herself and her children? Needless to say, I signed up to Kiva right away, and made my first loan today. Tonight I signed on and got this message: We've funded EVERY business on the site!! So now they have to go out and find more people around the world who need a modest financial loan to make their lives a little better.

Can you see me smiling? Can you hear me clapping?
UPDATE: Signing on to Kiva this morning, I find there are 4 new entrepreneurs (this is the term Kiva uses) who need assistance. So, I made my second loan--to a woman in Kenya who "earns her living by selling re-tailored second-hand clothes." She needs $700 to buy a new sewing machine.
More smiling; more clapping.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

I went to the Fair. . .

. . .and I bought.

Remember that child's game--it's really a memory game. The leader says "I went to the fair, and I bought -- a lovely sparkling necklace."

Then the next child says, "I went to the fair and I bought -- a cute little garden ornament, and a lovely sparkling necklace."

Then, the next child says "I went to the fair and I bought -- a cherry wooden backscratcher, a cute little garden ornament, and a lovely sparkling necklace."

Our game stops there, unless you want to continue with "And I bought Asian chicken on a stick, and fried rice." And my husband would say "And I bought a pulled pork sandwich and old-fashioned french fries."

Yum, yum.

Too full to play the game anymore; must go home and nap.

(This little post is just to assuage the curiosity of all those who wondered what I bought!)

Monday, September 03, 2007

Farewell to Summer

Every year, Harrisburg ends the summer season with a festival along the Susquehanna River--the festival is called Kipona. The story goes that Kipona means "sparkling water" and was the name used by the Susquehannock Indians for the river. Not sure about that--but the name evokes a festive mood in all.
The festival draws people.
And some musicians.

And people, people, people.

The older crowd.

And the younger crowd.

Artisans--here operating a treadle jig-saw.

Artists--and art admirers.

Colorful stained glass.

Recycling old glass.

And recycling old silver!

Wooden spoons waving in the gentle breeze.

Meat roasting on a spit.

And served up ready to eat.

Everything you could possibly want to eat.

Some people bring their pets--this guy's snake was named Jawz.
His girlfriend told me his other snake was named Fluffy!

This little vole scuttled around, unbidden, and mostly unseen--hope the snake doesn't see him.

Signs everywhere. This sign struck me funny because McCormick Island has just been bought by Central Pennsylvania Conservancy (it is a rookery for egrets and other river birds)--BUT this weekend, there was a
big unsanctioned party there that the police broke up.

I read this sign all the way through before I realized it was a joke.

And finally, what is a river festival without canoeing?

Farewell to summer.