Tuesday, July 29, 2008

'Tis a Puzzlement

I suppose I am like many bloggers--I am curious to know who reads my blog. When I first began writing it, I intended to record observations, musing, even mumblings on various subjects. I expected that my family might be the readers--although there is no requirement that they read it. I also began reading other blogs, and commented on some. These people were kind enough to return the favor, and so began the creation of a small corner in the cyber community.

I deeply appreciate all those who read my blog, and even comment from time to time. I find blogging has forced me to hone my writing skills, which is an all together good thing when you teach English!

Perhaps in a stroke of vanity, or just plain curiosity, after a bit of time blogging, I added a site meter. I check it from time to time, mostly out of curiosity. But lately I have been noticing something totally strange. I first caught on to my observation when I clicked on the "world map" feature. I thought it would be fun to see where those who read my blog live. What I found really surprised me. I had readers in U.S. and Canada--no surprise there. I have one faithful reader in England. And then I noticed--I have a reader in Indonesia, in Singapore, in Taiwan, in China, in India, in Iran, in Ukraine, in Germany, in Italy. What on the earth is going on?

Since I just can't imagine that I have attracted readers in all these countries, I next clicked on "views by entry pages." And, while that gave me more information, it deepened the mystery. Out of the last 100 people to visit my blog, almost 50 have looked at one page:
The Mouth of the Lion.

Well, I can't figure it out. Why on the earth would people around the world be looking at that entry. They are looking at the images there. So I scratch my head and try to figure it out. Are people consumed with curiosity over what a lion's mouth might look like? Do they all want to see dandelions (dent de lion, French for tooth of the lion)? Or is it some weird code for who knows what?

As I said, 'tis a puzzlement.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

It's Not the Journey, but the Destination

I am reversing the traditional maxim--it's not the destination; it's the journey--as a lead in to my thoughts on The Odyssey. I finally finished it--thank goodness, it took me less than the 20 years it took Odysseus to get home.

Having read this work (many) years ago, I was most surprised by how much I had forgotten. For example--I had completely forgotten that the work begins with Telemachus (Odysseus' son) who has grown into a fine young man. I had also forgotten that much of the action of Odysseus' journey is told to you in a kind of flashback. And finally, I had forgotten how vengeful the ending is.

A quick reprise of the main story line. The Odyssey recounts the efforts of Odysseus to return home after the end of the Trojan War. Homer, the blind poet who is credited as the author of both the Iliad (which tells about the Trojan War) and the Odyssey, no doubt was capitalizing on the success of The Iliad. In an era when literature was dependent on an oral tradition, Homer collected these hero stories, wove them together, nuanced and polished them to a fine sheen, and then sang his bardic heart out around dining halls of ancient Greece. At least, that's how I picture it.

Back to the main story line. The Trojan War was fought over a woman--Helen. She is called Helen of Troy, but she was really Helen of Sparta, the wife of King Menelaus. She was the prize in a contest that Paris, a prince from Troy, won by choosing Aphrodite as the most beautiful goddess. (I am sorry--but like all Greek myths, this story gets complicated.) He whisked her off to Troy, and Menelaus, in outrage, gathers his fellow Greek warriors, and off they go to Troy to get her back. Hence, the Trojan War.

When the war is finally over (please note I am skipping the part about the Trojan horse--whereby the Greeks WON), with the Greeks triumphant and Helen returned to Sparta with Menelaus, the warriors begin to disperse. Some are dead--such as Achilles--and some are just trying to get home. Odysseus, who had the idea to use the Trojan horse, had the bad misfortune to anger Poseidon--oh, it's too complicated to tell you why--so on his way home, Poseidon manages to blow Odysseus and all his ships off course. It's not nice to fool Father Poseidon--he will try to get you.

The sad thing is, Odysseus was ALMOST home--he was off the coast of Ithaca, his home, and could see the green hills. Then, BAM, Poseidon strikes.

Anyway, that is the beginning of a 10 year journey. Since the war lasted 10 years, and his return trip lasted 10 years--Odysseus has been gone for 20 years. And of course, Telemachus, his son who was a babe in arms when his father left, has grown up.

So here we have some of the themes of this classic work emerging:

--what does it take to become a man, i.e. the coming of age theme

--what drives a person to seek home, the longing for place

--what is the nature of constancy, Penelope the faithful wife waiting at home for her husband.

--what things are within our control as humans, and what things are imposed upon us by the capricious will of the gods.

I was most intrigued with the characters of Telemachus and Penelope. They are far more interesting, to me, than Odysseus--and in some ways contemporary. Telemachus boldly strives to be a man, in his own right, out from under the domination of his father's memory, separate from his mother. He battles the pesky suitors--those carrion people who have gathered in Odysseus' palace, eating from the stores of meat and wine, all pressing for Penelope's hand in marriage.

Penelope is the very portrait of marital constancy. She waits patiently for Odysseus hoping that he is still alive. Year in, year out she waits. She hatches a scheme to postpone a decision on which suitor to pick--on the presumption that she must be a widow, since her husband has not returned. She says--when I finish weaving this shroud, I will decide who to marry. She weaves by day, and unweaves by night.

Meanwhile Odysseus is fighting for his very life, and (ironically) having the time of his life. Of the 10 years that he struggles to return home, seven are spent with him in the thrall of Calypso. The book is quite clear that Odysseus shares Calypso's bed--so much for marital constancy on his part. But all the while he longs to return home to Ithaca and Penelope.

I found myself much less interested in the actual trials and tribulations of Odysseus. These are the details that no doubt delighted his original audiences. The heroic battles against one-eyed monsters, encounters with the gods, shipwrecks, the whole lot!
I was drawn to the little details. For example, when Odysseus returns to his palace, in disguise, it is his old dog who recognizes him, then promptly dies.

In addition to the themes that I list above, I also found fascinating the cultural values that must have been so critical to the times. For example, hospitality rules. Time and again, it is made quite clear that you NEVER turn a visitor away. You wine them, and dine them. True--you might end up fighting them, but first you play the good host.

Another cultural value was how important it was to share news. As Telemachus goes seeking his father, he is really trying to find NEWS about him. At each stop, he asks what people have heard. That entree provides the occasion to tell and retell stories. Stories must have been so central to their lives. Of course, stories were central to Homer's life--in gathering the stories that gave rise to The Iliad and The Odyssey, Homer wrote the first and second extant works in western writing.

Back to "it's not the journey, but the destination."

Here is a poem by K.P Kavafis (a Greek poet 1863-1933). This poem suggests that, had it not been for the desire to return to Ithaca, all the experiences along the way would have been missed. So, it is the journey AND the destination.


When you start on your journey to Ithaca,
then pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
Do not fear the Lestrygonians
and the Cyclopes and the angry Poseidon.
You will never meet such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your body and your spirit.
You will never meet the Lestrygonians,
the Cyclopes and the fierce Poseidon,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not raise them up before you.

Then pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many,
that you will enter ports seen for the first time
with such pleasure, with such joy!
Stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and corals, amber and ebony,
and pleasurable perfumes of all kinds,
buy as many pleasurable perfumes as you can;
visit hosts of Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from those who have knowledge.

Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for long years;
and even to anchor at the isle when you are old,
rich with all that you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would never have taken the road.
But she has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not defrauded you.
With the great wisdom you have gained, with so much experience,
you must surely have understood by then what Ithacas mean.

-K. P. Kavafis (C. P. Cavafy), translation by Rae Dalven

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Proto Duck

We have two great cats. Both came from the Humane Society and are each unique. The female cat--Allie--is a real character. She loves to go outside, so I let her out in our fenced in yard where the pool is. No further.

This morning, I went to retrieve her, and heard this HUGE commotion of squawking chirping birds--robins. So, I scooped up Allie, and then I saw it.

There in the pool was a baby robin. No doubt, in its efforts to fledge, it had flown and landed in the pool area. And I assume Allie thought--AHA--I am a bird charmer--they come to me. My suspicion is that to escape her, the baby bird flapped into the pool.

So there it was--floating, with its light little body--flapping its wings, but unable to extricate itself from the pool.

I put Allie inside quickly, then with the skimmer net rescued the baby robin. Then I ran inside, got some paper towels, scooped it up, drying it all the while, and walked it outside the pool area into our yard. Oh, did I get a round sound scolding from the mama.

I was amused--and then I thought--hmmmm--I wonder if some time in the dawn of bird existence some poor bird flapping to escape a large predator landed in the water--proto duck!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Go Directly to Jail

I have commented here before about my book-ended career--teaching college English at the start of my career, and then again at the conclusion of my career. In between those two book-ends lie volumes. Most of them have HEALTH CARE written on the spine.

One of the most interesting projects that I was involved with relating to health care was improving health care in county jails in Pennsylvania. Funded by one of the federal programs that REALLY worked (the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration under President Carter), this program was sponsored by the American Medical Association. The project team there developed standards for county jails that would be applied to those county that WISHED to be certified. In other words, it was not a mandatory program.

At the time, there had been a spate of lawsuits under the Eighth Amendment. Here is what that amendment says:

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

County jails had been sued for cruel and unusual punishment for denying or providing inadequate health care to inmates. So, to protect themselves, some county jails were anxious to demonstrate their compliance with voluntary standards.

Whether denial of health care, or inadequate health care, constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment"--I will let you decide. Suffice it to say, the U.S. has a distinctly vindictive bent where incarceration is concerned. The current statistics tell part of the story. A
recent article in the Boston Review provides these numbers: the U.S. has 5 % of the world's population, yet has 25 % of the world's inmates. Read the following passage from that article.

"Our incarceration rate (714 per 100,000 residents) is almost 40 percent greater than those of our nearest competitors (the Bahamas, Belarus, and Russia). Other industrial democracies, even those with significant crime problems of their own, are much less punitive: our incarceration rate is 6.2 times that of Canada, 7.8 times that of France, and 12.3 times that of Japan."

But I digress. Back to visiting county jails.

As I began to go around to visit Pennsylvania's county jails, I noticed something unusual about the appearance of these old county jails. See if you notice anything--here are three such jails.

What do you notice about them? They look alike, you say? Well, I made the same observation. In fact, I said--on one visit--these jails look like they were all designed by the same architect. BINGO! I was right--some architect developed this quasi-castle look, and went around to counties in the late 1800s building jails. Many of these jails are no longer occupied as jails, but that's what I was visiting when this program was running.

To test the standards, we had to interview many people in a county jail--from the warden, through the intake personnel, to the correctional officers (COs), to the doctor and nurses in the jail, to the inmates. We would pick a random sample of inmates and ask them things like: when you came into jail, did you get something in writing telling you how to get health care? how do you get health care? have you ever had a health care request denied. Etc.

We were trained NOT to make any promise to an inmate--no taking messages out, or doing any favors. I also decided I would never ask an inmate why he (usually he, but sometimes she) was in "there." I encountered one young inmate who scoffed when I asked if he got something in writing--nah, he sneered, I can't read. And he said it with pride. Oh, my.

I broke my rule on not asking why an inmate was in only once. Usually inmates were younger men, but this one black man was in his mid 50s. And he quoted poetry and was very urbane. I was curious and asked. Well, he said, I was "Chesterized." What? Turns out, there was a murder in a known bad section of a Pennsylvania county, and the police grabbed the first black man they found. Was he guilty? I don't know, although I am sure he was not innocent.

I made several special trips during this project. One was for the U.S. Marshall Service--when I was asked to go to a county jail that housed federal prisoners in transit. The county in question had a horrible jail where inmate health records were kept on 3 by 5 cards, where meds from inmates long gone were piled up in the warden's safe, and where psychiatric cases were put naked into cells with nothing but a bare foam rubber mattress. Needless to say, that county jail was roundly castigated in my report.

I also visited several other state prisons, including Graterford the year before they had massive riots.

Finally, when I had left working for our state medical society, and had gone to work for the state health department, I had one more occasion to examine prison health. An inmate had died in a state prison, and the superintendent didn't know what kind of investigation to conduct. So he asked the Secretary of Health for help. Since I had done jail health surveys in my prior job, the Secretary asked me to investigate.

What I found was that the inmate had gone on a hunger strike. And he had stopped drinking. Rather than order a psychiatric evaluation, or order the inmate be intubated, the doctor prescribed showers. Showers? Yes. The doctor reasoned that if the inmate had to shower several times a day, he would have to drink water. It turns out the reason the inmate died was due to dehydration. In my report, I indicated the doctor had exercised poor judgement--I don't know about you, but I never DRINK the water I am showering in! I couldn't imagine that an inmate bent on refusing food and water would suddenly start drinking in the shower.

A book-ended career, indeed. The volumes in between--well, sometimes it's fun to take one off the shelf and browse a little.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Huh? Wha. . .?

Our photos from Greece arrived yesterday. Between my husband and me, we took almost 800 photos of our trip to Greece. I had downloaded them all, done some cropping--you know, getting rid of that awkward head that popped into the photo at the last minute--and then uploaded the best of the best (from both of our photo sets) to Kodak Gallery. I can't say enough nice things about this website and its service. I have stored many galleries of photos there, sent emails to family members and friends, and shared our vacation over the years. I have also taken to ordering the ones I want reproduced in living Kodak color, at very reasonable prices.

That's what arrived yesterday. So, today, I thought I'd head over to a nearby craft store and buy some small photo albums to store them in.

Once filled, the new albums would take their places along with the existing array of albums, each color indicating a different trip.

I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a hand-made sign in the store. Woo hooo--a sweet little sale. So, I picked up 6 new albums, two of each color and headed for the check-out counter.

Now the fun began.

First, the young sales clerk rang them up at $1 each, for $6 (actually $6.36 when you add in our state sales tax). I had purchased two other items, so when I looked at the bill, I puzzled a bit--then said--the sign says these are on sale. Oh, she said--the $1 is the sale price. I frowned, and said--no, the sale price is 40% off. Yes, she said (brightly), the $1 is 40% off the regular price. Hmmmm--I said--OK, I will pay, but I will go back and check the sign.

So I did. AHA! I was right. So, I took the sign down (yup, I did) and walked back to the check out counter, waited in line until my turn, and then showed her the sign.

Oh, she said, I think that means they are NOW $ 1. No, I persisted (believe me, by now I was PERSISTING). I said--the sign clearly says WAS $1, now $0.60. So, she called in the manager and asked her to check the ticket price. The manager came back and said--the ticket price is $1.99, so the sale is $1.

No, I said--40% off $1.99 does not make $1. Look--I pointed out--the tag on the one album. It says $1.99 value, A.C. M**re price $1.

The manager sighed and said--well, that's the old price. Huh? Wha. . .? Then she said to the clerk--go ahead and ring them up for her at $0.60 an album. Oh yeah, right--that's the sale price. YOUR OWN SIGN SAYS SO.

So, the clerk said--this is going to get complicated. Going to??? I thought. So she asked for my name, my address--which I gave. I had already decided I was NOT going to give my SS # nor my first born. Then she rang out $6.36, gave that to me, and then she rang up 6 albums at $.060 each. In other words, she couldn't just refund me the difference. She had to cancel the first sale, refund me, then ring a new sale at the CORRECT price.

Well, I'll tell you--it may have been a measly $2.40 (plus sales tax, of course) but I got the albums at the advertised price.

Of course, had I not been such a pain, the store would have had an advertised sale price that they would NOT have been giving to their customers. Huh? Wha. . .?

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Sweet Music

We were visiting Boothbay Harbor in Maine, exploring a little shop when we first heard it. This was more than 10 years ago (before we began going to Europe for vacations). Maine is a great state to visit (and I even harbor the occasional thought of retiring there). But that's not what this story is about.

Stepping into this little shop, I heard the most perfect melody playing over the store's sound system. It was an instrumental number, something I had never heard before. I was so taken with the melody that I asked the store clerk what tape they had on--she told me, and I looked up the name of the particular number playing. It was from Andrew Lloyd Weber's newly composed Requiem, the Pie Jesu portion of the mass. Only later did I hear it again, and realize that in fact it was a choral number.

I was reminded of this first hearing when my husband and I attended church today--the Pie Jesu was one of the featured pieces of special music. It always brings a tear to my eye--it is just so exquisitely written. If you don't know it, here is Sarah Brightman singing it (it was for her as original featured soloist that Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the piece):

There have been other pieces of perfect music that have captured me from the first hearing. I loved the series on the Civil War directed by Ken Burns, and fell in love with the one piece they used repeatedly throughout that series: Ashokan Farewell, written by Jay Unger.

Music, of course, has this incredible ability to insinuate itself into the very fiber of our beings. Years ago, when I was invited to go and see a stage version of "Amadeus" I warned my theater companion that I was likely to cry, if I heard any of Mozart's music. Sure enough--the opening strains of one of Mozart's pieces began, and I dissolved into tears.

One of my favorite movie scenes comes from "The Shawshank Redemption" when Andy Dufresne locks himself in the office, and plays an aria from "The Marriage of Figaro" over the prison loudspeaker system. If you've never seen it, go here.

Sweet music.

Shakespeare makes multiple references to music in his poems and plays. This quatrain sums up the power of music:

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.

Merchant of Venice Act V, scene i

Let the sounds of music creep in our ears. Ah, sweet music.

Any favorite piece of sweet music that moves you?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

It's Beginning to Look. . .

. . .a lot like an office!

Remember several months back, when I wrote about the grumbling rumble around the office that professors were going to be forced to GET NEW FURNITURE? Oh, the howls and gnashing of teeth. What about academic freedom? We need our space to be. . .ours. We want to live the way we want to live. Et cetera, et cetera, and so on and so forth.

You can refresh your memory here, and also see the photos of how things looked.

Last week, I went to campus and unpacked my moving boxes and generally arranged things. At that point, I was the first one in our three person office to get my work done. I think the results look just fine.

Today, I checked back to do a little finishing up. One of my office mates has unpacked her items. Not bad.

The other office mate plans to go in next week and unpack hers. I hope so; some of her boxes were sitting on my desk. Truth be told--I am not using the desk during the summer, so no harm.

Now the real coup was the senior professor who grumbled the most. His space was the one featured in the first photo in my previous post.

Here's the scene when the professor was half-way done. I asked if I could take a photo--and he protested--I am NOT done. Well, I said--I will take another one when you are done.

So, first you have the absolute BEFORE photo, then the midway photo, then finally the TADA all done photo.

While I can chuckle at all the fuss--I do understand it. After all, my colleagues who work full time spend a LOT of time in their office spaces, so appearances and comfort matter a great deal.

We are all defined by our space--we define it, it defines us. It's a symbiotic relationship.

Monday, July 07, 2008


No, no--you're quite right. The fact that it is raining here in central PA is NOT news-worthy. And, please understand, I don't claim that it is. It is ONLY note-worthy. You see, a bit more than a week ago, I washed ALL the windows in the house, inside and out. See how clearly you can look through the front window?

Since then, we have had rain almost every day. Not all day, mind. But showers on most days. Today's rain is actually heavier than some days. Heavy enough for this stream to emerge from my neighbor's downspout.

My flowers along our front sidewalk look bedraggled, barely able to lift their heads.

This is NOT a stream--but the walkway to our pool area.

This poor bird--one of the ubiquitous house finches that we have all around here--hangs on to the shutter under the eave of my neighbor's house.

A few more sit on the down-spout.
And yet one more bird sits on our copper feeder, with its small roof overhang.
The picnic table and plants are drenched.
And the bird bath gets a free refill.

I should have known that we would have several days of rain--after all, I washed all the house windows. The other surefire way, it seems, to attract rain is to wax the family cars. With my powers, I had best head out to California and help the folks there.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Romance at Twin Pines

If this were a movie, or maybe even a Nancy Drew book (not a Hardy Boys), it would be titled "Romance at Twin Pines."

Since I promised, in my last blog, here's the story of how my husband and I met.

It was the summer of 1965. I had just completed my junior year in college; my parents had returned from Africa--having been gone for 5 years. And I was looking for a summer job. My parents were planning to go around the U.S. giving missionary talks at churches. So I needed a job where I would be able to live and work. I am not sure exactly how I learned about this job, but I heard that a local church camp needed a craft teacher. Well, I can do that--I thought. So I applied.

As it happens, this church camp had been founded, in part, by my husband's grandfather, and father, and was sponsored by the church my husband attended as a youth. And, as it happens, he was a counselor for the first week of boys' camp. So that is how we met.

Oh, but there's so much more to this story. You see, even though we knew each other's names--after all, we were co-workers, we really didn't click. In addition to being the craft teacher, I also helped lead the singing at the chapel services. The camp had a lovely outdoor chapel, so all the morning worship times were held outdoors. I had picked a song that involved some motions--singers standing when it was their turn. I divided the group into two segments--and when it came time for the side where the counselors were sitting to sing--they produced a paltry sound. I mentioned that--maybe, if the counselors would sing up, that side would do better.

S-l-o-w burn. The counselors, led by my husband, decided to get even with me. He went out to a local store, and bought a cardboard plaque. This isn't the same plaque--but the words are EXACTLY what that one said.


I was incensed, non-plused, and speechless. Fume, fume. I don't know if the battle escalated, but I was really mad. So, we had this low-grade rivalry going.

Then came game night--Thursday night. We were playing Cabin Hunt--the point of the game was for one cabin to hide, the other to hunt. But this time, it was counselors against campers, and that's how my husband and I ended up on the same team. And, for some unknown reason, we decided to hide so well that the campers wouldn't find us. A particular detail my husband recalls is that we decided to wear dark clothing, but I didn't have a suitable dark shirt, so he loaned me one of his. This detail will become important later in the story. On the camp grounds were many lovely tall pine trees, including twin pines, their branches within ten feet of each other, reaching majestically toward the sky. Up we climbed. All the way to the top. Each in our own tree. Completely out of sight of campers below.

We watched the campers scamper back and forth, unable to find us. And, after a bit, we got to talking. We talked, and talked. Finally, by game's end--we had not been found, climbed down, raced to the base victoriously. And we had ended our rivalry.

The next night was Sleep Out. Campers and counselors trooped out to the ball field with their sleeping bags. First, there was a campfire service, and then the non-counselor staff was to return to the main camp. I stayed behind, sitting with my former rival, talking some more. And, after campers had fallen asleep, I sang to him--the song "There is a Ship" which was popular at the time, sung by Mary of Peter, Paul and Mary. (And that's why he gave me the first gift he ever gave me--the album by Peter, Paul and Mary which included that song.)

Finally, one of the adults--I mean a real adult--came out and shooed me back to my cabin.

The next morning, Saturday, campers and counselors left for home, including my new found love. I got in the shower that morning, and stood there and bawled my eyes out, convinced I would never see him again. And then on Saturday evening, the one free time before new campers came in, he showed up. He asked me--what would your boyfriend say if I asked you out. (At the time, I was "dating"--nothing serious--someone else.) My answer--why don't you ask me what I would say?

I said YES. We went to Twin Kiss and got icecream sundaes.

The next date we went to Mt. Gretna and saw a performance of "The Sound of Music."

And, as they say, the rest is history!

Oh, the shirt? Well, I was wearing the perfume I wore at the time--"Blue Grass"--and the scent lingered on it. That particular detail my husband remembered--and had to remind me of, as I tell this story.