Friday, October 31, 2008


Last night, the township where we live had the annual Hallowe'en . . .well, what exactly does one call it? The annual gathering of the candy? The annual emptying out of nearby apartments with parents slowly driving through our neighborhood and children maniacally running from house to house getting as much candy loot as they can?

Of course, there are the dozen or so children who live near us, and it is always fun to see them.

When our children were small, we made costumes for them as they joined the roving bands of children. I still have several costumes I made for our daughter stored in a drawer somewhere--let's see--there is the gypsy dancer costume, the Little House on the Prairie pioneer girl, and (my best ever, if I do say so) the Spanish dancer dress in black brocade complete with a red mantilla!

But, how exactly did we arrive at the place that this "holiday" is now one of the most popular, in terms of decorating, and in items sold--costumes, decorations, and candy?

There should be no surprise that the original concept of Hallowe'en (my daughter points out to me that I am the only one she knows who insists on the apostrophe--but, it does after all stand for the missing V) came from the ancients--in this case the Celtic Druids. Their celebration corresponded with the end of the year, as they counted it. October 31 was when the final harvest was gathered, the fires of the old year extinguished, and the marking of winter began. They called their festival Samhain (pronounced Sow-in). Understandably, the beginning of the long dark winter signified death to them. The ancients believed this time between life and death gave rise to a blurring of the two worlds--the dead could roam on this night.

The ancients built huge bonfires, and wore costumes, frequently from animal skins. Upon the conclusion of their celebrating the passing of the old year and the start of the new, they took embers from the dying bonfire, and relit their own hearth fires.

The Romans get into this history as well, because having conquered Celtic lands in the expansion of the Roman empire, the Romans appropriated much of the Celtic Druid traditions. The Romans also had a day for remembering the dead, so they elided that holiday with the Celtic Samhain.

With the rise of Christianity, which was greatly aided by the degree to which the Roman empire had expanded, the orthodoxy of the church sought to co-opt previously "heathen" celebrations. Pope Boniface decreed that the celebration of All Saints, which had been on May 13, would now be November 1. That in turn made October 31 All Hallow's Eve, or Halloweven--Hallowe'en.

Of course, we have long ago forgotten any religious association--whether Druid, Roman or Christian. Children dress in costumes because. . .everyone does. The costumes tend sometimes toward the gruesome, which is entirely in keeping with the Celtic Druid tradition of trying to fool the ghosts who come back to haunt the earth. The bonfires, and even carved pumpkins--also trying to fool the ghosts--all fit into an ancient tradition.

So, how was your participation in the ancient ritual--saying goodbye to the old year, welcoming the new year?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Caveat creditor*

*My loose translation. . .let the lender beware (using caveat emptor as my guide).

Herewith the text of an email I received today:

How are you doing? hope all is well with you ,i am sorry that i did not inform you about my traveling to England for a program called empowering youth to fight racism,Hiv/Aids,and lack of education.

I need a favor from you as soon as you receive this e-mail because i misplaced my wallet on my way to the hotel where my money, and other valuable things were kept i will like you to assist me with a soft loan of $2,500 US Dollars urgently to sort-out my hotel bills and get myself back home.

I will appreciate whatever you can afford to loan me now, i'll pay you back as soon as i return,Kindly let me know if you can be of help? so that i will send you the details to use when sending the money through western union.

I await to read from you.

Best of regards,

Since the title of the email was I NEED YOUR HELP ASAP, I was immediately on alert. My friend Louisa Mae (please note that while I have changed my friend's name to protect her, she always used her given first and middle name) was in trouble? She needed money? From me?

Wait. . .a. . .minute. First, what about her somewhat well-to-do mother? Would she not have helped her daughter?

Second, what about all those grammatical errors--my friend is meticulous to a fault. She would never have sent such a sloppily written email. She even capitalizes all her initial letters, always. No lower case "i" for her. And "I await to read from you"?

Third, "Best of regards"? Who signs anything that way?

And fourth, Louisa? She always goes by Louisa Mae. So, just who was Louisa really?

I picked up the phone, and called the office where my friend works. A pleasant voice answered--is Louisa Mae there, I asked? Well, she is, but she's on the other line. Oh, I said, she's not out of the country? Not in England? No, came the answer, but I can put you into her voice mail.

I sensed an old email scam--maybe even originating in Nigeria. So I hit "reply all" and sent out a cautionary note--DO NOT ANSWER THAT EMAIL. It's a scam.

So, let the lender (would-be, of course) beware.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Vast Wasteland

In 1961, Newton Minow, who was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission at the time, delivered one of the most famous speeches on the state of television. The speech was entitled “Television and the Public Interest” and it included the famous verdict on the state of television at the time, that it could be “a vast wasteland.”

Here’s the entire section in which that pronouncement occurs:

When television is good, nothing -- not the theater, not the magazines or
newspapers -- nothing is better.

But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally
unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder,
western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and
cartoons. And endlessly commercials -- many screaming, cajoling, and offending.
And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they
will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try

WOW! Can you imagine what Newton Minow would say were he to return to his day-long sit in front of a television. Perhaps he would be astounded at the sheer variety of all the offerings, through cable and satellite. But I seriously doubt that he would find more quality programming than what was available when he decried the state of television broadcasting.

What would he think?

In the 1960s television had shows such as—Playhouse 90 and Studio One. They had hard-hitting news shows such as CBS Reports. They had variety shows such as “The Fred Astaire Show,” and “The Bing Crosby Special.”

What didn’t they have? Well, they didn’t have the umpteenth iteration of the Survivor series. Instead of hard-hitting news shows, now we have Dateline NBC, wherein NBC entraps men who are seeking sex with underage girls (or sometimes boys). I find such shows down-right creepy. Please understand, I don’t condone the behavior of the men caught, but there is something so off-putting at how the show goes about its “catches.” We have truly informative (ahem, not) shows such as Wife Swap, which is not what you might think. And, we have all of these great show offerings on many many many more channels than you could ever watch.

There was a time when I thought of history as linear—that things progressed, and in general improved over time. Well, television show offerings help me to adopt a more realistic approach. History is not linear; it is circular, or even spiral, and the direction is downward.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Ring of Fire

If ever there were a woman who steps right out of the proverbial Garrison Keillor place "where all the women are strong" it was this woman. Her name is Kristen, an attestation to her Swedish background.

Her place was the last stop in our fire "tour." When we arrived at her place, we were greeted by the resident small herd of goats. They came ambling out, all full of curiosity.

We gathered in the shade of a large tree, and sat down to hear Kristen's story. She lives near Ramona, CA, with her husband, who is completely an invalid, having been rendered wheel-chair bound by severe arthritis.

She began to recount the events of a year ago--the fires struck their place on a Sunday. Her husband had wanted to go to church, but Kristen was uneasy, so they stayed home. As the fires pressed closer to their place--surrounding them in a ring of fire--she first got her husband into the van, along with their dogs and cats. Once she had driven him to safety, she returned to their place. She let the goats out, and they scattered. Then she released a pot-belly pig they had. She returned to her house, trying to get two remaining cats out.

She saw the wind driven embers fall on a wooden deck on the back of the house. Frantically, she tried to beat the flames back with a shovel.

All the while she recounted her story, she was somewhat matter of fact. But when Kristen got to part of the story about beating back the flames, her voice caught. She stood there for a moment, and then apologized.

She continued--she went down to the main road, close by, to try to hail some passing motorist to help her. A van came by with county prisoners who had shovels to help beat out the small fires flaring up. She persuaded the county official with them to let them come help her. As they pulled into her driveway, her house went up in flames.

Too late, the county official said. There's nothing we can do.

After hearing this heart-rending story, we sat quiet--what is there to say.

Once the fires had burned out, the goats returned. One of them had severe burns on her face and ears, but they all survived. Now, a year later, the goats continue their main task--eating the brush around Kristen's place.

Kristen and her husband have had a new house built--this time they were able to have it constructed to be handicapped accessible. Amazingly, Kristen said--that's a blessing.

As with Tom and Diane, Kristen also said--I just didn't think the fires would get us. Their place had been cleared of brush--thanks to the goats. But once the Santa Ana winds begin to blow, pieces of burning ember are picked up and can strike with great ferocity, even impaling glass windows. A house built with non-combustible materials can still burn once a burning ember comes flying through a window.

Her story told, Kristen went to her house and got her husband, bringing him down to see us--driving him in the van. We lingered a bit in this lovely spot--eating our box lunches. We even had brought several box lunches along for Kristen and her husband. The goats offered to help us with our lunches!

At each of the places we went to, we brought a small gift for the people who told us their stories. We had a silk scarf for each family--the scarves were made by survivors of the December 2004 tsunami. There is something wonderfully symbolic about these silk scarves--they embody the possibility of recovery. Life does go on, people who survive such great tragedy can regain their lives. It takes time--but with the help of work done by PDA (and many other fine organizations) the recovery will happen.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Smile When Your Heart is Aching

It has been my experience that some people in life are just determined to be miserable no matter what. And some people are upbeat even in the face of the worst adversity.

The second family that we met, as we surveyed recovery work being done by Presbyterian churches in the San Diego area, consisted of Diane, her son Mark and the dog Max. Diane's place is called Leaning Oak Ranch--it is really an 11 acre enclosed area. The leaning oak was a once tall lovely tree that burned to the ground in the fires.

As with the other people whose stories we heard, Diane said she was watching the fires as they raged around where she lived. Her house was down in a somewhat sheltered ravine, so she thought the fires would pass her by. Her neighbor whose house was a quarter of a mile away had external propane tanks. When the fires hit the neighbor's house, the tanks exploded, spewing burning fuel everywhere. Diane's house caught fire, and everything went.

Diane exuded a life affirming aura. Even though her place was gone, and the recovery efforts treated her as though she were a human pinball, she bubbled with affirmation. She immediately set up hummingbird feeders. She also planted flowers, and vegetables. Even the burned down oak is beginning to sprout new leaves.

To help her, the church built her a shed. She lives on the property, in a small motor home. She is afraid to leave the place, because looters have hit her place, stealing the few possessions she has left. As if life had not already dealt her a bad hand, her mother is in a hospital miles away

It is amazing that someone who has gone through the fires around San Diego last year could still be smiling after having lost everything, but Diane is still smiling.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Where There's Smoke. . .

One of the advantages of my being a member of the national advisory committee for PDA is that I get to see various parts of the country. True, where we tend to go are those places where disaster has struck.

I have spent the last several days in San Diego, California. Exactly this time last year, they suffered devastating fires, and we were here to see the recovery efforts that have been taken by local Presbyterian churches. It is truly heartening to see how many just plain good folk there are out and about.

Just as with my visit to New Orleans last October, I was not on a trip to be a tourist. So, I by-passed many of the sights to see in San Diego. Oh, sure--we traveled around the area, but in each case we were going to see people whose lives had been devastated by the fires.

Today I will tell you Tom's story. He was born in Japan, but came to the U.S. decades ago. Just 2 years ago, his daughter and her family came to live with him. Last year's fire destroyed Tom's American dream. He lives in the environs of Ramona, CA. When the fires started, he kept watching and thinking--it won't come here, it won't come here. His house had a commanding view overlooking a valley.

With his daughter and her family safely away, he watched to see where the fires would go. Just as with each of the people we went to see, Tom said--suddenly the fire was there, virtually all around. He jumped in his vehicle and drove for safety. When he was able to return, everything was gone.

In helping him recover, the local church built a garage for him. Tom works as a handy-man repairing various machines. So, he not only needed a place to continue his work, but also to store his tools. The church also built him a tool shed--in fact, a shed is the first thing they build anywhere. A shed is small enough it doesn't require a building permit; it can be locked, and thus provides a place to store property. Sadly, looting is a post-fire problem.

Tom was so moved by the help of the church that he now goes along with them, volunteering and rebuilding other people's lives.

Tom's house has not yet been rebuilt--he hopes that will happen soon. Meanwhile, he has been living in this RV home, while his daughter and her family live elsewhere.

More stories in future posts.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Red Sequin Sneakers

Every year, the local news does the predictable story on college openings, and all the parents moving their student children into residence dorms. I must say I have no regrets about leaving those years behind, but occasionally I do have a flash of memory.

I like strong women—I have celebrated them
here before. In fact, I descend from a line of strong women. And, if there’s one thing that really bugs me it’s a woman who flutters and flits about helpless in the face of a task to be done.

The minute I saw the red sequin sneakers, I should have known. My husband and I had just taken our son to college for his freshman year—that leap into the great unknown. For many young people, attending a college represents a time to test living semi-independently from parents.

Part of the unknown is who a student will room with. The college our son attended did the roommate matching by means of a questionnaire. When it came to the question about neatness, we mistakenly pushed our son to respond that he was not that neat. BIG MISTAKE. Maybe by our home standards he wasn’t neat, but by male college freshmen standards, he was meticulous.

His roommate was a young man from New England whose dad was a doctor and whose mother was. . .the wearer of the red sequin sneakers.

Upon arriving at the college, we went into our son’s assigned room, and began to help him decide how to arrange it. The furniture was stackable, so pieces could be moved around, and even elevated. That required some heavy lifting. Our son pitched in, my husband pitched in, I pitched in. The new roommate and his father pitched in, and the roommate’s mother stood there—fluttering and flitting.

I do confess to being annoyed. As I recall, the only thing she did was say to her son—here’s your pillow from home. A pillow? That’s all she could carry? A pillow? Oh please.

Perhaps the red sequin sneakers should have been seen as a harbinger of the roommate arrangement not working out. When we went to see our son on Parent’s weekend, about two months into the fall semester, the dorm room was somehow different. There was a clear line of demarcation down the center of the room. Our son’s side was remarkably neat; the other side was a disaster zone. And it smelled.

When our daughter began to look at a soft drink can sitting there, our son practically yelled at her—DON’T TOUCH IT! Turns out, the roommate chewed tobacco and any can sitting around was used for. . .—you can figure it out! That partly accounted for the smell. The other contributor to the smell?—used gym clothes dropped haphazardly wherever.

Our poor son! He survived the first year—even exercising grace in the face of such a mismatched roommate environment. Oh, there were other fiascos along the way which do not bear repeating.

Let’s just say that if I ever see red sequin sneakers again—I will turn about face and head the other direction, but fast!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

Now, you have to be a Monty Pyton fan to recognize the title of this post. I love Monty Python. This particular title comes from the wonderfully inane song that caps the movie "The Life of Brian."

The opening verse and chorus of this song seems so appropriate these days:

Some things in life are bad
They can really make you mad
Other things just make you swear and curse.
When you're chewing on life's gristle
Don't grumble, give a whistle
And this'll help things turn out for the best...

And...always look on the bright side of life...
Always look on the light side of life...

The rest of the song is here. Or you can go to YouTube and find the musical version.

So, why would this song be running through my head--other than the obvious: it's such a delicious song fraught with incredible irony in the context of the film? Easy--this has been a r-e-a-l-l-y bad week in the financial world. Yet, what am I thinking? Always look on the bright side of life.

I was musing this week about what impact the tumbling financial system will have on my family. Of course it will have an impact--I am not naive. But, then I think--my parents lived through the Depression. My mother and father were both born in 1919, so they were approaching their teens in 1930. They grew up through the height of depression years. My dad's family even moved from Oklahoma to California in 1933--no, they were not part of the great migration caused by the Dust Bowl, but they were called "Okies" nevertheless. But they survived. My mother told me about making dresses from the flour sacks--many people did in those days. People also grew their food--and sometimes had single dish meals of whatever vegetable was available.

Perhaps it was having those remembrances in mind that caused me to announce to my husband the other evening--if I have to, I'll grow my own vegetables. We certainly got far away from a simpler approach to living.

At the same time I was contemplating taking up vegetable gardening once more, I also spent time thinking about whatever things are true.

These things are true:

Chardonnay autumn light


Late summer flowers in a fling of last blooming


Autumn flowers in bright array

Small birds, hidden, teasing with a chip, chip--then suddenly appearing to eat


Cats in windows coveting same birds. . .

So, even as you watch the news--take a deep breath and repeat a portion of a prayer by Julian of Norwich: all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Ah! Sweet Mystery. . .

Remember the errant suitcase that sat in the hallway, that caused me to conjure up visions of mischief? Or worse--bombs? Read the back story here.

I feared this mystery would never be solved, that I would have to live out my life not knowing what was in the suitcase. Time was--I only wanted to live long enough to know who Deep Throat was. Now we know---and I am amazed to find new mysteries to consume me.

Anyway, enough teasing--mystery revealed. Today, the bay secretary (that's the term given to the person who works to support all those of us whose offices are arranged around a common bay of printers and copiers) came into my office and said, sotte voce, a name. I looked up, puzzled and said--huh?

So and so, she repeated. Seeing my furrowed brow, she added--that's who left the suitcase in the hall. Ah! The name she had said was of a long-time professor here--in fact, he was the example number two in this previous post. It seems he likes to store things in the suitcase. . .for his Saturday class. Huh? I saw it in the hall on a Tuesday, and it had been sitting there all day.

How, you might wonder, did his ownership finally become clear? Even though he had left it in the hallway all day, he apparently went to look for it late in the day, and upon discovering it missing, called Lost and Found. Someone, he said, seems to have stolen my suitcase. Since Security is the department that removed it, it took a while for Lost and Found and Security to make the connection.

So, now I have a new mystery--why on the earth would a grown man, who has his own office--that he shares with NO ONE--need to carry around his "things"--whatever that may include--throughout the week, until his Saturday class? Hmmmm? Why indeed!

Monday, October 06, 2008

Tears Rolling Down My Cheeks. . .

No, dear reader, I am not crying as in crying. I am crying as in laughing.

You see, I have a new collection of goofs, and whilst searching for some on-line help in explaining similes and metaphors to students, I came upon this site--go there, and laugh, laugh, laugh. Then cry.

OK--the newest batch.

What the student said----------What the student meant
a custom-----------accustomed
straggles of being a woman---------struggles of being a woman
less it all be lost--------lest it all be lost

And--this sentence: How does glamour mean to you?

Well, I ask, how does it?

And we wonder why a certain governor from Alaska mangles the English language?

Kudos to all of you who bravely wove the last set of mangled English into wonderful sentences, some even in verse form. Check comments here if you missed them.

Your only assignment this time? Just read the hysterically funny metaphors here.
*Obviously, a spelling error, but included because it was just so funny--a combination of reverently with fervently! I confess, there are times that I struggle (or is it straggle) long and hard to figure out what the student means.

Friday, October 03, 2008

You gonna eat that?

Food is a marvelous teaching device. I have three specific examples to illustrate this point. All three come from my church involvement.

When our daughter was in her middle school years, my husband and I agreed to teach Sunday School. No other teachers came forward, and since we wanted our daughter to have a good experience in Sunday School, we volunteered. So for two entire years, we taught every single Sunday. I took the lead in teaching, and my husband was the disciplinarian. Keeping 5th, 6th and 7th graders in line was far more challenging than teaching them.

I learned quickly that they respond well to food. I remember two wonderfully successful classes where the means to communicating the lesson involved food. On a particular Sunday, the basic lesson had to do with "gifts of the Spirit": see 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 for the full text.

I wanted to convey to each child that no matter what he or she might excel in, all their gifts blend together to the greater good. So, I passed around a bag of fruit. In the bag were individual pieces of fruit--apple, banana, grapes, peach, pear, orange, and lemon--only ONE of each. The bag passed from student to student around the circle. Predictably the lemon was left to last.

After each child had a piece of fruit, I asked what they could do with their fruit. Well, eat them, they all said, except the kid with the lemon. So, I then suggested we could do something for everyone if they would let me work with the fruit. I then began to peel and cut up the fruit, saving the lemon for last. I took the lemon, cut it in half then squeezed the juice over the entire cut-up fruit, now in a large bowl. Of course, I mixed it all together--and pronounced it FRUIT SALAD. Then, we all had a good size helping. I think the "different gifts" got through.

Another time, the message was focused on how important it is for us to care for the poor. That Sunday, we brought all the items for breakfast along: small cereal boxes, milk, orange juice, and bananas. Then we gave each child an envelope containing play money. We had divided the class into a mini-world. Arbitrarily, we had one child be rich, several children be "middle-class" and one child be poor.

We had put prices on each of the food items. The "rich" child could buy ALL the items, the "middle-class" children could buy one or another of the items. The "poor" child did not have enough to buy anything. He was crushed. So, with a little prompting, the children figured out that if they redistributed their money, even the "poor" child could buy breakfast.

The final food lesson came out of a different setting. I was the stewardship chair for our church's annual giving program. Now, if there's one thing I HATE to do it's ask for money. I just have a really hard time. But I did light upon a way to illustrate the need to give. When I gave my main stewardship talk from the pulpit, I had ten apples lined up. I said--God gave me ten apples to use as I needed, and only asked that I return one apple to God--a tithe. So, I put 4 apples aside to pay for my house, I put one aside to buy a car, I put another 2 aside to buy clothing, I put 2 aside for food. Then I looked at the remaining apple. It was a beautiful nice shiny red apple. I turned it around in my hand, and then said--I will just take a small bite out of this apple. So I took one, then another, then another. Finally, I was left with just the apple core. Then I said--I don't have one apple left to give to God, so I will just give God this apple CORE. And then I sat down and stopped talking.

No other words were needed to convey the point.

Food--it's a great way to communicate a message.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Vacation's Over

Well, we drove our daughter to the airport yesterday for her return to the UK. We had a lovely visit--lots of family time, a quick trip to see Grandpa and Grandma, shopping, eating out. But mostly we were beginning plans for a wedding--next fall.

I may even do a future post on a bit of planning.

I continued classes through this hiatus, so I have a new set of English language goofs. See the first set here.

What the student said----------What the student meant
say your fair-wells-----------say your farewells
beet (an opponent)-----------beat
the Virgin Island------------the Virgin Islands
some up a thought-----------sum up
armor personal----------armored personnel
Olympic meTal----------Olympic meDal
boarders of America------borders of America
The last one really had me stumped at first. The student was writing about her father doing scuba diving in a query. And I thought--is this some technical term I don't know? I finally (or maybe finely) figured it out: quarry.
Now, your assignment--write a paragraph using all the erroneous words when you really mean the correct words. Just kidding. . .