Wednesday, April 29, 2009

In Praise of Famous Men

For the longest time, I listed James Agee's and Walker Evans' seminal work Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as my favorite book. I still like it very much, though I would not be able to narrow the choice of favorite book down to ONE favorite.

But the title has such an evocative ring to it that it gets me to thinking of famous men I have known.

One such man was a friend of ours. I first met Fred Speaker--that was his name--when I worked for the state medical society. He was the legal counsel for that organization. Even though he was an attorney whose legal career was very successful, perhaps he would have preferred people to identify him as a Penn State football fan. I don't know why he was so crazy about Penn State football, but he was. In fact, he converted--an appropriate term, since it was a near religious experience--my husband and me into becoming Penn State football fans.

When Penn State was playing Notre Dame during its 10 year series in the 1980s, Fred saw to it that we got tickets to all the games Penn State played against Notre Dame, including those at Notre Dame's campus. Sometimes he used his connection with a priest friend of his, who called upon a bishop in San Fransisco (or somewhere) to get tickets. For that particular game, we sat with Father Dan, who seemingly forgot he was supposed to cheer for Penn State. When the Notre Dame band marched onto the field, Father Dan was excitedly yelling--GREAT KILTS! Not your average football cheer.

Back to Fred. Besides being a Penn State fan, Fred had two things stand out in his distinguished legal career. He was appointed by President Nixon to run to National Legal Services program, for a time. At some point while serving in that capacity, he crossed swords with Vice President Agnew, who tried to use his influence inappropriately. Rather than give in to political pressure, Fred resigned in protest.

But the pivotal event of his career was his order to dismantle the electric chair in Pennsylvania. The story of that event is told in Fred's
obituary that appeared in the New York Times. He had occasion to visit the state prison at Rockview, where the electric chair was housed. Herewith the rest of the tale from the Times:

(He entered the) state's death chamber, where he saw the big wooden electric chair sitting starkly in a room with an overhead exhaust fan to remove the stench of death and holes in the floor so the official witnesses to an execution could have a place to throw up.

As Mr. Speaker later recalled, it was all he could do to keep from throwing up himself, as he suddenly realized that for all the legal trappings and statutory authority, executions, which he had previously supported, were no more than premeditated, cold-blooded ''administrative murder.''

''All I had to do was see that electric chair,'' he said. ''I looked at the place where somebody pulls the switch and burns somebody to death. That just wiped out all the great philosophical views that I had.''

Biding his time until the day in January 1971 when Governor Shafer was replaced by a Democrat, Milton J. Shapp, Mr. Speaker, who was planning to drive to Washington with a friend, listened on the car radio until the new Governor had been sworn in.

Then, mindful that he would be Attorney General until his successor had been approved by the State Senate and sworn in, he got out of the car and mailed an official letter to the Rockville prison warden, ordering him to dismantle the electric chair and citing an accompanying legal opinion he had signed declaring the death penalty unconstitutional as ''cruel and inhuman punishment.''

This bold act was something that I always admired about him.

One time, when Fred was talking with my husband, he remarked that he didn't want only to be remembered as the person who stopped the death penalty (for a time) in Pennsylvania. My husband asked why--and Fred demurred that he hoped he would do other great things. He even ventured to say that his obituary would read--the man who ordered the dismantling of the electric chair. He was most prescient in that thought. My husband reassured him that that deed alone was great and worthy as anyone's life achievement.

Fred has been long gone, having died some 13 years ago. Hundreds of people attended his funeral, held in the local Catholic cathedral. I suspect one thing would have meant more to Fred than all the accolades spoken about him: among the floral arrangements sent to honor his memory was a wreath from Coach Joe Paterno.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Best Laid Plans

It's become something of a family tradition--every Mother's Day, my husband offers to buy me all the annual flowers I want. And, each year I go a little crazy. OK--make that a lot crazy. I have added and added and added pots until there is neither room around the house, nor energy in my bones to plant them all.

This weekend, we had a sudden dose of summer after an abnormally cool spring. The temperature jumped into the low 90s. So, naturally, I kicked into high gear where plants are concerned. So when my husband suggested getting the annual plants a weekend earlier than usual, I was set.

We ended up with six flats of various types of plants, and carefully unloaded them. My plan was to have them carried out to the area behind the house, inside the pool fence. I have all my empty pots lined up and waiting there. We also have an old decrepit picnic table that serves as a perfect potting table.

Just as we began carrying flats into the pool area, a startled bird flew past us. I didn't think much of it, until I saw it.

A nest.

In one of my waiting pots.

Oh, dear--the mourning doves are procreating again.

So, I quickly abandoned my planting location, and moved it to the other side of the house. Mama (or Papa) Dove soon returned, and resumed nesting. As soon as the chicks hatch and fledge, I will make sure the pot is moved. The nest is nothing to speak of at all--just a smattering of twigs placed on top of the soil in the pot. Sorry, doves, no more using empty pots as nests.

Thanks to Robert Burns for the post title--somehow the title seems most apt in that Burns wrote his poem that contain that line upon having plowed up a mouse's nest. He rues having disturbed her nest--"I'm truly sorry man's dominion,/ Has broken nature's social union" and he then concludes:

But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain;
The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley,
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promis'd joy!

Nature intrudes into human designs time and again. So, for today--I did just a bit of planting. I leave the nesting mourning dove undisturbed. And contemplate Robert Burns' wisdom--"The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men/Gang aft agley." Ain't it the truth.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Old (New) Swimming Hole

Unlike some of the bloggers who I read, we do not live along side a stream or a river. So, our summer swimming pleasure comes through the very suburban site of a swimming pool.

I recall fondly swimming in a genuine swimming hole in my teen years. Many such swimming holes in this part of Pennsylvania were created when creeks were dammed. The dams served a purpose in their time--they powered mills. But now, they no longer do. So a bit at a time, the dams are being disassembled, as they block the healthy flow of water.

In place of a swimming hole, suburban backyards have been dotted with swimming pools. There are some parts of the country where you can see pool after pool after pool if you view neighborhoods from the air. The neighborhood we live in has some 40 homes. We moved here almost 30 years ago in the fall, and there were NO swimming pools here. The next spring, we had a swimming pool installed. It seemed like a luxury at the time. But over the years, it has provided much entertainment, first for our son, and his friends (one of whom showed up with an inflatable row boat!), then for our daughter, who held her high school graduation party around the pool.

The pool has been the site of other parties--one celebrating a good friend's 60th birthday, one celebrating my husband's 60th birthday, and one celebrating the anticipation of my father's 90th birthday.

With our children grown and gone, I have turned the pool into a sometime summer fun site for neighborhood children.

One thing the pool does require is MAINTENANCE. And, occasionally, parts need to be replaced. We noticed several summers ago that the liner of the pool was beginning to wear out. Normally, the liner should last about 15 years. The first liner lasted about 11, and was replaced. This one had lasted 17 years--so I guess the average turned out to be what it should--a liner SHOULD last 15 years.

So, it was time to get a new liner.

Herewith, the process.
First, you drain the pool--all the way to the bottom (and hope it doesn't rain--it did!).

Then the people from the pool company come and do the rest. The old liner is cut up, and taken out--I was not there to see (or photograph) that step.

The new liner is then placed in the pool, and a pump is attached to suck out the air, which causes the liner to adhere to the sides.

Then you make sure the water truck comes to fill the pool. Yes, you COULD do it with a garden hose but it . . .takes . . . a . . . long . . . time.

Then you put all the fixtures in place--ladders, diving board, and all the chemicals to balance Ph and keep the water clean.

Almost ready--make sure the warning signs are in place.

What is there left to do? Hmmm--hope for warmer weather (we have had a very cold spring) and on a sunny Saturday, invite the neighbor children over!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


As a user of go*gle mail, I daily go into my spam folder and clean it out, deleting all the ridiculous messages there.

I know, I know--if I just leave them there, after 30 days, go*gle will clean them out. But, frankly, I am so offended by the thought of people abusing the internet this way, that I just can't help but clean out that folder. It's a bit like the feeling I get when I see trash thrown down in a public place--along a sidewalk, or at a store entrance. I just have to pick it up--it's my nest that's being fouled also.

Anyway, I must confess that I am amused at the putative subjects of some of the spam messages. From today's batch:

  • booster for your manhood

  • lift your darling sexuality with help of blue pill. salubrious effect assured

  • get matched with quality on line schools

  • ybyzef click here

  • easy process & fast decision on a new MasterCard

    My response to all of the above--yeah, right! Although, I am impressed that a spammer would use the word "salubrious."

I am most amused that go*gle uses its tracking software to insert ads along with these somewhat salacious titles. The Hormel Meat company has a permanent ad at the top of all the spam mail, so that I can always click on a link to a Spam recipe! Like savory spam crescents. Hmm--while I look to see what ridiculous spam mail I get, and then delete said mail--am I really thinking about BAKING with Spam?

Spam as a meat is a product that seems to making a comeback. In a BBC story, there is the suggestion that Spam sales can be seen as a barometer of current economic status. The economy goes down, Spam sales go up.

It's been ages since I ate Spam. My husband recalls it being served in his home when he was growing up.

We have a friend--now deceased--who was born in the Netherlands, and was about 10 years old when the Nazis occupied the country. As the war dragged on, the situation grew dire in occupied countries. People were quite literally starving. Then weather compounded the situation with a hard winter. The people called it the hunger winter. When the Allies liberated the Netherlands, and the rest of Europe, food distribution could begin. Spam was one of the products; it was also distributed in quantity to U.S. soldiers. Whether our friend got Spam from a soldier or from food distribution, it was an unspeakably welcome gift.

Our friend remembered with great fondness receiving Spam. For the rest of his life, he relished the taste of this life-saving food.

If only the current purveyors of spam to our computers had such good intentions.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Woman Makes the Clothes

You know that expression--clothes make the man? Well, I believe where Michelle Obama is concerned, the expression should be--the woman makes the clothes.

It is so incredibly refreshing to see a wonderfully self-possessed common sense intelligent woman in the White House.

Recently, Essence magazine released their latest magazine with Michelle Obama, and her mother, gracing the cover. As she has before, Michelle is wearing an off-the-rack dress--in fact, a T*lbot's dress. Here is our nation's First Lady, wearing this store's clothing, presumably of her own volition. She is not wearing high-end designer labels that are loaned for a one-time use; she is wearing the kind of clothing many of us wear. T*lbot's--a store where I have been known to shop--should be thrilled.

So, when I was in T*lbot's the other day, I spied the dress. I had no intention of buying it (not my kind of dress), but it was fun to see it in the store. I mentioned something to the sales clerk about the Essence magazine cover photo. Well, she said, here it is--as she handed the magazine to me. Then, she continued, but I don't like the sweaters Michelle Obama chose to wear with the dress. The colors are off.

WHA. . .? You are kidding me. The First Lady wears your dress. She is on the cover of a national magazine. And you don't like her color choice for the accompanying sweaters? Puh-lease.


It has been fun catching the various news stories about the Obama family settling into a living routine in the nation's home. Michelle's incredible sense of the right thing to do--inviting members of a cooking class into the White House kitchen to watch the chefs at work; planting a garden with children; praising a group of young girls at a school in London--makes me catch my breath.

Add to these stories of the obvious fun President Obama seems to be having in the lighter moments of being president--helping children roll eggs on the White House lawn, running with the new first dog, Bo--and I am left with nothing but gratitude that at this moment, Obama is our president, and Michelle is his wife.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

And They're Off !

No sooner had I spied the baby mourning doves, in the process scaring the parents out of the nest, when I discovered they are now gone. Fledged (I hope). I peeked in the nest yesterday, only to find this.

An empty nest. Note, the one forlorn feather left behind--baby fluff. I looked all around to see if there were any abandoned babies, but they appear to be gone. Just like our own children--they grow up so fast!

After a very cold spring, we have had a bit of rain, and today, lovely sunshine. Flowers have seemingly burst into bloom in a split second.

Almost 30 years ago, when we moved into our house, I spent one fall (while being 8 months pregnant) planting about 100 bulbs. The tulips and daffodils have long exhausted themselves. But the grape hyacinth bloom ferociously every spring, dividing as they go. So I dig them up, and plop them into the ground in new places.

My Easter flowers also end up gracing the grounds. Herewith some hyacinths and daffodils.

I have some indoors right now, that will be planted any day now.

And one more big spring project is underway--subject of a future post.

What's going on in your spring clean-up, blooming world?

Monday, April 13, 2009

They're Ba-a-c-c-k

Remember last year when I found a mourning dove nest in the arbor vitae tree next to our front door?

Well, the nesting pair is back. Having read that mourning doves, while they build incredibly flimsy nests, will sometimes return, I did not take down the nest over the winter. I just allowed it to sit on its precarious perch--in all its twiggy glory.

We have had several pair of mourning doves hanging around this late winter and early spring. They have patrolled the ground under our bird feeders, pecking away garnering whatever seeds may have fallen.
Even though they are rather common birds, I enjoy watching them. Their lovely pastel grey feathers that occasionally flash a spot of pink fascinate me.

A week ago, we had some workers here cleaning up the yard in readiness for spring. I was sort of patrolling the yard, watching the crew of men raking, edging, cutting grass--when I spotted a white blob in the middle of our street. It looked like a child's stuffed toy. I walked out to investigate only to discover it was a now-deceased mourning dove.

A neighbor was close by, and he said he had seen a red-tail hawk fly over about ten minutes earlier. Perhaps he startled the hawk, but for whatever reason, the hawk dropped the dove right smack in the middle of the street. Whether the hawk snatching, or the precipitous drop, the dove was most certainly dead.

All this occurred before I spotted the nesting dove in the arbor vitae. I have seen another dove nearby the nest, so I assume the dead dove was not part of the nesting pair.

I kept monitoring the nest, from a respectful distance, all week. I decided to postpone trimming the arbor vitae until the babies hatch and depart. And I sneaked my camera in from time to time to grab a quick photo.

On Easter Sunday morning, I took another peek into the nest--suddenly a startled parent dove flew out, and then the other! (Well, the red-tail didn't get half of this pair.) And, then I saw them--the chicks, two balls of grey fluff with tightly shut eyes. I grabbed a quick portrait then retreated. By the time we returned from church, a dove parent was back nesting on them.

Completely unrelated to the doves, here's the Easter present my daughter-in-law brought along. I will have to rush over to Julie Z's blog and read all about caring for orchids.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Power of One

Several years ago, I read Bryce Courtenay’s novel The Power of One. I was drawn to the book, and enjoyed it a fair bit, for its descriptions of growing up in southern Africa. I can’t say that I think the book is great literature, but it was an enjoyable read at the time.

What I especially liked about the book is its title: The Power of One. The movie version of the book played up that element a bit more than the book itself does.

I have just finished reading a non-fiction work that illustrates a true meaning of the expression “the power of one.” David Relin’s account of Greg Mortenson’s remarkable effort to build a school in rural Pakistan is the subject of the work Three Cups of Tea. If ever there were an example today of “the power of one” it would be Greg Mortenson. If you have not read Three Cups of Tea, I recommend it—I venture that he may have done more to “win hearts and minds” in the Muslim world than all the U.S. military action in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Simply—Greg Mortenson builds schools in small villages in Pakistan first, and then in Afghanistan.

Did you see the movie Charlie Wilson’s War? The movie ends with Congressman Charlie Wilson, who helped arm Afghans in their struggle against Soviet soldiers, pleading to have U.S. funds sent to Afghanistan and Pakistan to build schools. Had Congressman Wilson’s plea been heard and granted, we might not be facing the seemingly intractable problem of religious radicalization in that part of the world.

The power of one!

There are other stirring examples. Having grown up nearby South Africa, I watched that country for years, convinced that apartheid would only end badly—possibly in a civil war. Of course, we all know it didn’t. It ended bloodlessly, for the most part. Much of the peaceful end to that awful codified separation of white and black people came about because of one man:
Nelson Mandela.

I have never met Nelson Mandela, but those who have say they are immediately struck by the moral force of the man. Whether that moral force grew out of his years of
imprisonment—he spent 27 years in prison—or out of the righteousness of his position, or even out of an innate sense is hard to say. But it is clear that he has a great of morality that surpassed most of the whites in South Africa who would have seen him, by virtue of being a black man, as their lesser.

The power of one!

One more example. I just got the latest newsletter from Hawk Mountain. This is one of the organizations we proudly support. This year is the 75th anniversary of the Sanctuary at Hawk Mountain—and it is all because of the efforts of one woman that this place exists. In 1934, Rosalie Barrow Edge leased the top of Hawk Mountain to protect raptors from hunters who gathered each fall to shoot them for sport. In so doing, she created “the world’s first refuge for birds of prey” (Hawk Mountain News, Spring 2009, p. 1). September 11-13, 2009 will be the 75th Anniversary observance of Hawk Mountain. Part of the celebration includes the release this summer of a biography by Dyana Furmansky of this remarkable one woman nature activist. Rosalie Edge’s efforts, which began when she was a girl observing birds in Central Park, New York, have helped create a true raptor and other birds treasure in Pennsylvania. Each fall the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary conducts bird migration counts in part of the Appalachian Flyway. The Sanctuary has hundreds of volunteers and many young scientists who train in internship capacities.

All because of the power of one!

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

One Hit Wonders

My blogging friend Philip, knowing my love of literature, shared this interesting story with me.

It's about authors that never made it "big" as they only wrote one novel. I admit--I editorialize when I say "never made it big." The writer actually simply points out who these one hit wonders were.

Here they are, author and book:

  1. Harper Lee - To Kill a Mockingbird
  2. Margaret Mitchell - Gone With the Wind
  3. Emily Bronte - Wuthering Heights
  4. J.D.Salinger - Catcher in the Rye
  5. Oscar Wilde - The Picture of Dorian Gray
  6. John Kennedy Toole - A Confederacy of Dunces
  7. Sylvia Plath - The Bell Jar
  8. Anna Sewell - Black Beauty
  9. Boris Pasternak - Dr Zhivago
  10. Arundhati Roy - The God of Small Things
Of the books above, I have read all but A Confederacy of Dunces, so I suppose I shall have to put it on my list to read.

I find this list curiously puzzling. In many instances, the reason the second novel was not written is not for lack of inspiration. Harper Lee and Margaret Mitchell had opportunity to write another novel, although Margaret Mitchell was killed when she was struck by a car, ending any possibility of a literary come-back.

Some never had a chance to write another work. Emily Bronte died one year after her masterpiece was published, and Sylvia Plath committed suicide the year The Bell Jar was published. Anna Sewell died soon after her book came out. In each of these instances, the premature death cut short any literary career or any subsequent novel.

Of course, some of the writers moved on to other forms of expression. I would never call Oscar Wilde a novelist. He is far more famous for his wit, and his having flaunted Victorian morals, famously losing his libel trial. His literary reputation stands on several successful dramas that he wrote.

Sylvia Plath, albeit short-lived, is far more famous for her stunning poetry than her auto-biographical novel.

Perhaps the most famous writing procrastinator is J.D. Salinger who has a small body of work, some longer stories collected into novella form. So, I would hardly call him a one hit wonder. In fact, I think he is as famous for his renowned reclusiveness.

Salinger and Arundhati Roy are the only two on the list still living, so there's always time for them to write another "hit."

One novelist not on the list is Ralph Ellison whose Invisible Man made his reputation. There are stories of Ellison working and working and working on his second novel. During his life, it was never published. When he died, a manuscript was found and eventually assembled for publishing--a rambling work--it never reached the proportion of acclaim Invisible Man garnered. Another one hit wonder?

I suspect there are other novelists out there whose reputation was made on the strength of one stunning work.

After reviewing the list, I can only say--if I can fail the way these writers have failed, I will be in very good company indeed.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Generations Redux

Though the previous post did not generate as many comments as some of my posts have, we have a thoughtful conversation going on.

Climenheise commented: "As some of your post-ers have noted, there are still young people who defy this image. They go to New Orleans and help out. They spend years in the Middle East living in a conflict situation for the sake of conscience. But as a society we have spent generations creating what you describe in your classroom. I would be interested in your own further analysis of what's going on."

For the uninitiated, Climenheise is the nom-de-plume of my brother. He and I have had pieces of this conversation on generations before. He, too, is a professor--in fact, he teaches students at an advanced level in a seminary in Manitoba.

In a prior post, some time back, I wrote about making a reference (to Wayne Newton) in class and getting blank stares from my students. Always a humbling experience--that. It makes one feel. . .old. After writing that post, my brother sent me a link for the Beloit College Mindset list. For eleven years, Beloit College has been assembling a list of things the new class entering college would have as a common frame of reference. You can go here to read more about this list, and even see prior years.

This list helps me know what I can expect in terms of student reactions to events or people I may refer to in class discussion. Here's what Beloit observes about the current freshmen class--the class of 2012:

The class of 2012 has grown up in an era where computers and rapid communication are the norm, and colleges no longer trumpet the fact that residence halls are “wired” and equipped with the latest hardware. These students will hardly recognize the availability of telephones in their rooms since they have seldom utilized landlines during their adolescence. They will continue to live on their cell phones and communicate via texting. Roommates, few of whom have ever shared a bedroom, have already checked out each other on Facebook where they have shared their most personal thoughts with the whole world.

It is a multicultural, politically correct and “green” generation that has hardly noticed the threats to their privacy and has never feared the Russians and the Warsaw Pact.

Maybe that description helps to form an answer my "what generation is this" question.

I also recall reading that a generation is shaped by the events when people were coming of age--also a topic of a previous post for me. So, take the birth years, then add about 20 years and examine the events of that time span. Those are the events that will shape that generation.

That doesn't really give me an answer to "what generation is this" but it's a beginning. I agree--the selfishness that the response my students gave in class is NOT a universal trait of this generation. For example, students use their spring break weeks to work in place like the Gulf Coast striken with multiple hurricanes.

Well, for now, I will leave the rumination of generational identity aside. You all can keep answering, and giving me suggestions. Every little bit helps.

Friday, April 03, 2009

What Generation is this?

I was reading Newsweek last evening, and came upon a most disturbing article: Generation Divas it was called. The gist of the article is that we are so external beauty obsessed that a whole generation of young girls (especially) is being groomed to the hilt. The sub-title of the article says it all: how obsession with beauty is changing our kids. The article refers to a show I had never heard of—“Toddlers and Tiaras” on TLC. It is called “a reality show.” Some reality.

This article got me to thinking—what generation is this?

In my husband’s work capacity, he has participated in discussions on how to attract and retain members. One of the approaches his work place has used is to consider what appeals to the various generations, and the characteristics that typify each generation. We all know the Boomer generation (of which I am sort of a member—I was born just a tad before the official beginning in 1946). This generation followed the Greatest Generation—enshrined in Tom Brokaw’s eponymous book.

Does this symbol register with you?

If these events and names strike a familiar note with you—Vietnam, Woodstock, assassinations of JFK, Malcolm X, Martin, and Bobby, sexual revolution and drugs—chances are you are part of the Boomer generation.

After the Boomers, we had Generation X—this grouping includes those born between the years 1964-1980. This generation saw the Berlin wall come down, and the beginnings of computers. (Note—the events might not occur during the inclusive years, which are birth years, but rather occur as the generation comes of age.)

In keeping with the alphabetical appellation, Gen X was followed by Gen Y–birth years of 1981 to 1995. Tracking these cycles is the work of sociologists and observers of popular culture. Here’s a piece on the 20th and 21st century cycles.

So, why my rather lengthy journey into the characteristics of generations? Because those who study these generational cycles tend to assign behavioral attributes to the people born during the bracket years. So, I am wondering—what generation is this one? The given designation of Generation Z is not really helpful.

A discussion in class yesterday brought me up short—and did nothing to answer my wondering “what generation is this?” The final assignment that I have for students is for them to work in collaborative groups. They are to do research on a “third world” country and a problem that country has. Then, they are to propose a solution to that problem, focusing particularly on whether or not “first world” countries have an ethical obligation to help. To prime the students for this project, we had a discussion on several essays they were assigned to read. One of the discussion questions I posed was: do rich countries have an obligation to help poor countries. From my students I received an unequivocal NO. We have NO obligation to help any other country.

I confess—I shuddered. And I could not help but conjure up images of French peasants storming the Bastille, and marching on Versailles.

What generation is this, indeed?
Image of illustration on Storming the Bastille--from Encyclopedia Britannica online