Sunday, July 26, 2009

A Cup of Water

Every Sunday, when our pastor begins to preach, he takes a sip of water from a glass that has thoughtfully been placed on the pulpit. Last Sunday, he noticed the glass of water was missing, so he came down into the congregation, during a hymn, and asked one of the members of the congregation to get some water for him.

Thus it was that we learned that the church sexton, who was on vacation that week, had for years been unobtrusively performing a loving service.

Many years ago, the church custodian--who preferred to be called the sexton--was a somewhat elderly man named Harry. We really didn't know what he did, except look disapproving at almost everyone who entered the church. He seemed to project a sense of ownership of the entire church building, and looked as though he alone decided who entered the church and who did not.

Since Harry was so senior, he needed helped with some of the more physical tasks--and that's how Jim came to be hired. He first began on a part time basis. Thus began a long term love affair between an unassuming man and the marvelous church structure that is our church home.

Jim used to tease and joke with my husband--he would say: be careful what you wish for because you might get it. The part time job, you see, had become a full time job when Harry finally retired. Jim became the church sexton.

The decades rolled by. Jim saw pastors come and go. If there were any mystery in the church--what's behind that door? where do we store the supplies to fill the bathroom towel dispenser? how do your turn on the air conditioning in the sanctuary?--Jim knew the answer. He probably had crawled over every square inch of the structure of the church. The church structure was built in the mid-1800s and has undergone significant renovations and additions several times. So there are lots of nooks and crannies--Jim knew them all.

While we didn't panic when Jim went on vacation, there were always little things that got overlooked. His presence was so subtle that people didn't really know all he did--like placing a glass of water on the pulpit for the pastor.

Last Friday, while he was on vacation with his family in Virginia Beach, Jim--now in his mid 70s--suffered a heart attack and died.

What a huge hole this leaves in the church's life. Of all the things he did, the one church activity that gave him the greatest joy was participating in the Easter Sunday service. He would wear a white robe, and lovingly carry the cross in as part of the processional.

It is easy to imagine him now--robed in white--laying down that cross.

Farewell, Jim.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Who is my Neighbor?

So, the whole situation with Henry Louis Gates Jr. keeps perking on. I find this story a very sad one indeed. I have no doubt that there is an element of racial profiling at work--the policeman in question says that Professor Gates was unruly, but would he have thought a past middle-aged white man to be unruly if he were upset, standing on his own front porch?

In all the hullabaloo this story has generated, there is a missing piece. I have heard nothing about the anonymous neighbor who made the 911 call, saying that two BLACK men were trying to break into a nearby house.

For me, the real crux in this story is how well connected was this neighborhood that Professor Gates lived in? Did the person who made the call not know what the professor looked like? Did that person (reported to be a white woman) not know what her neighbor looked like?

Maybe I am too spoiled by my neighborhood--I know most everyone in this neighborhood. Even if I don't know their names, I know their dogs' names, their children's names. True--I might refer to the house as the place where two dogs live, or where the crazy poodle lives. But I know who lives where.

I know when people are away--not because they tell me, but because there is no activity around this house. Maybe the fact that I go for several walks a day with my dog helps.

But, I keep thinking about the professor Gates' story. How long has he lived in that part of Cambridge. Reportedly the woman who called 911 also works for Harvard. Is she so unaware that she doesn't know what a world famous scholar looks like? I have never met Professor Gates, but I know what he looks like.

In many ways, beyond the comment of what this story might say about the built-in set of assumptions almost all of us carry around about someone whose race differs from our own, there is a sad loss of community as a concept.

I appreciate that the woman made the call--it is reported that Professor Gates' house had been broken into earlier, so perhaps she was hyper-aware. But the story still speaks to a loss of community.

Maybe I should confess that I am curious (some people might say nosy) about the on-going lives in my community. I don't mean that I want the low-down and dirty on my neighbors. I just want all to be well in my small corner of the world. If a newspaper sits outside for too long, or if a trash can is not moved from the curb up to the house, I will place the newspaper on the front step or move the trash can to the garage side.

And when I see people I do not recognize in our neighborhood, I try to be cordial. We live in a very small community bounded on the east and the west by large apartment complexes. Our streets make for convenient cut-through between these points. So I frequently see young people, usually young men --some of whom are black, walking through. If I am doing something outside, I make it a point to say--Hi. I don't assume they are up to something bad.

That's the missing piece for me. Where is the sense of community in the Louis Gates' story?

Let's hope that this current news story doesn't spill over into something more toxic.

Monday, July 20, 2009

To Share or Not To Share

The title of this post is modeled on Shakespeare's most famous soliloquy--"to be or not to be."
That line alone is sufficient argument against the split infinitive. Can you imagine Hamlet saying--to be or to not be?

The recent story I shared on the near catastrophic oven fire elicited from various friends their sharing of similar experiences. That got me to thinking. When you tell people about an event in your life, do they return likewise a story from their lives? And should they?

My dad, now 90, lives in a retirement village. Obviously, in their daily lives--whether walking, or collecting mail, or just generally being out and about--they encounter their fellow villagers. Of course, the customary and expected question is--how are you? My dad has told me that he sometimes ponders--do they really want to know?

I suspect we have all had such encounters--the innocent question someone poses to us right after we have experienced some pain, whether to body or soul. Of course they don't really want to know. Our response has to be tempered. But, if you are like me, we don't want to deny what we are going through either.

To share or not to share.

There are at least three ways a person can respond.
1) Say--I'm fine. And you? Not very satisfactory, when you are really hurting.
2) Say--Oh, I've been better. At least that nudges the door of conversation open a bit. If you are asked for more details, you can elaborate.
3) Say--well, I have just had surgery, and the stitches are beginning to pull. And the doctor said. . . About then your companion's eyes begin to glaze over.

And then there is the temptation to match detail for detail.

Oh, you are still recovering from your surgery. Say, did I tell you that I had a . . .

You totaled your car? Too bad. Hey, I had a. . .

On and on. Tit for tat.

I've known people like that. No matter what you had go wrong in your life, they always have a bigger, badder, more painful, more disastrous, far worse situation, illness, insult, accident--whatever--than you have had.

I appreciate hearing how our lives have shared experiences. People who had also experienced kitchen fires made me realize how fortunate we were that nothing serious really happened. People who share their life circumstances help to reduce the sense of isolation I can feel when I may be sick, or experiencing some difficultly. We do well to remind ourselves that we are not the only ones who have ever suffered from whatever circumstance comes our way.

Well, thanks for letting me share. Any words of wisdom on how to handle this conversational dance?
Today marks the anniversary of three years of blogging. I can't think of a more fitting topic for the three year blog anniversary than sharing.
know that I posted the 400th blog about a month ago, and I don't mean to overdo the anniversary thing. But, I found this cute widget on someone else's blog, and it keeps track of blogging anniversaries.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Herewith the tale of a small adventure.

We moved into our house in 1980. The house--built in 1979--was entirely new, having had no prior resident. So all things were new to us also. The kitchen was equipped with a brand new General Electric stove with oven. The stove was/is a modest appliance. It has the basics--4 burners, an oven, a timer, self-cleaning capability and a vent hood. I bought new coil liners once. We had a repairman in once--can't remember why. All I remember is that our then dog barked crazily, and the repairman in one motion leaped on top of the stove.

Other than that, the stove has chugged along just fine. Several years ago, we thought about replacing the stove--you know, something with a bit more glitz, with more oven space for baking two things at once. The oven is quite small. So, we measure the stove--huh? Only 27 inches wide.

We trundled off to our local appliance dealer to look for a new GE stove. SHOCK--27 inch stoves, while available, are at least $300 more expensive than the standard 30 inch stove. Why the builder inserted a 27 inch stove in the kitchen mystifies me. So, we put off purchasing a new stove.

Instead, we decided to wait until we do a bit of upgrading, including a new floor, maybe a new arrangement. And, that I planned for early next year.

This past week, I was making a good old fashioned pot roast, baking it in a ceramic pot. As I stood at the stove, I noticed light inside the oven. Hmmm--I thought--I must have turned on the oven light. So, I flipped the switch. Light still visible in the oven. So, I flipped the switch the other direction. Still light.

I opened the oven door--and saw sparking on the heating coil. And then FIRE. Now, a fire in the kitchen is something no one wants. We do have a small fire extinguisher right close by. But, first, quick thinking me--I turned the oven off. No power source, no sparking, no fire.

I thought--wow--what if we had not been home? We had been running errands that day, and the meltdown could just as easily occurred while we were gone. Or what if I had not thought to turn the oven off immediately--bigger flames would most certainly spread, not so compliantly died down.

When the oven cooled down, I looked at the coil. Oh yes. It is fried.

With a kitchen renovation 6 months in the future, I thought we could just repair the oven by replacing the heating element. In fact, I looked online, typed in the model number, and--voila--a part is available for about $30.

So, I called a prominent appliance store with GE repair capability. Oh no--said the salesman--you don't want to fix that.

Well, Mr. Salesman, yes, I do. I understand he sells new stoves, but on my timetable, not his.

So I called the friendly local appliance store where we first went to buy a new stove, and asked who does their GE repair work. And by the end of this week, a repairman should appear, complete with new part.

Meanwhile, I would just have to be creative and find ways to prepare meals without the use of the oven.

And today--the electrician arrived right on time. He had in hand a new heating element for the oven. In the space of 15 minutes, he had done the entire repair. And the total bill? Less than $100, parts and labor and tax.

Perhaps the crowning moment was when I asked if he does other appliance repairs. As he ticked off the brands he repairs, he looked at our refrigerator and asked--do you clean the coils in this? (Smirk--do I clean the coils? Get real.) But I just meekly said--no. So in an instant, he popped off the face plate at the bottom of the frig, and took the vacuum, which I had brought upstairs, and proceeded to vacuum the cooling coils under the frig. All free of charge.

Now, I had already written a check for the oven repair bill, but I handed him a bill anyway. I think I have found a great appliance repair guy!

Not fried anymore.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

On The Go

Sorry for the absence from this blog. I have been on the go the last week plus.

On Saturday, my nephew (with his freshly minted undergraduate degree) got married. Weddings are such a great way for families to get together.

Our son and our daughter-in-law were there; our daughter and her fiance were there. My brother (father of the groom) and sister-in-law (mother of the groom) were there. Their non-marrying (yet) son was there, with his girlfriend. My sister was there (while my brother-in-law stayed home to work--summer being busy time for his business), as was their daughter, my niece, and her husband. And my father and step-mother were there. In all, just about the whole family that could assemble.

From Saturday on until today, our daughter has been working on more wedding details. Invitations have arrived. First dress fitting, flower arrangement revisiting, cake extra-tasting. There are many many details.

And today, when our daughter and son-in-law-to-be left, they headed toward New Jersey (his home area) for more celebration. They will be with his family for a few more days before returning to England.

So, sorry for being absent. Not only have I not had time to write--I haven't had time to read.

This upcoming week should be much less busy.

Now, I need to put up my feet, and sit a spell!

Thursday, July 09, 2009

That New Car Smell

What is it about the new car smell that is so satisfying? If you take your car to a car wash place, you can sometimes even select "new car smell" as the spray the car detailers use to spark up your car's interior**.

Well, I am smelling new car smell these days.

It's a bit of a long story, and you probably want me to cut right to the photos, right? Here's the quick version. We have had a Chrysler Town and Country van for more than 10 years. It was pushing 100,000 miles, and little things began to go wrong with it. Such as, windshield wipers needing a new motor. . .or not, depending on which dealer was repairing it. Combine with that the fact that the dealer we bought it from was decertified as a Chrysler dealer to sell new cars. The dealer will still exist, as a used car place, but it can no longer do any warranty work.

So, my husband went car-shopping, and discovered that we qualified for the "cash for clunkers" program. (Now, that's something you r-e-a-l-l-y want to hear--you are driving a clunker.) So he picked out a hybrid. That meant we would have two sedans--no vehicle for hauling our dog in her crate. Solution--I could trade in my 7 year old Mazda Protégé--which has been an all around great car, but not really suitable for hauling things such as dog crates.

I did a whole lot of comparison shopping, using
Consumer Reports, and Edmunds. We did some test driving, and then I narrowed down to the Honda CRV or the Toyota RAV-4. Finally, the RAV-4 won out. With my husband's skill at negotiating, we got a very good deal and ordered a blue RAV-4. The car came in to the dealer on Monday, and we picked it up in the evening.

First thing after we got home--I took the dog for a ride. And saw this glorious sunset.

The next day, I took the dog to the new dog park in our township. We sat in the shade, and contemplated the lovely sky.

Many more trips await the dog and me. The new car smell will fade, true. But if I enjoy the RAV-4 as much as I enjoyed the Protégé, it will be a fun car.
**NOTE: the photos of the RAV-4 are not of my specific car, but photos obtained from the Internet. The colors, however, are true--Pacific blue exterior, ash grey interior.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Channeling My Mother

Yesterday was one of those days--I felt as though I was channeling my mother. She was one of the most energetic industrious people I have ever known. And organized. She could get things done.

I awoke early, before 6 a.m. (in deference to all of you who say--PAH. Early?--understand this is REALLY early for me). Since I was awake, I decided to trim the bushes in the front of the house. Then, I mowed the grass--with all the rain this year, the grass grows quickly.

In the afternoon, I had a dentist appointment--the prior gum surgery turned out well (whew). And then I decided that it was time to round up some neighborhood kids for a summer swim.

After preparing dinner, and upon my husband's return from work (he's the one doing real work--i.e. for pay), we went to the local car dealership to pick up my new car (more on that in a subsequent post).

All in all--a good and productive day.

Now today, I can reflect. In so doing, I note that today is the anniversary of my mother's birth. Were she still alive in the flesh, (she is most certainly alive in our loving memories), she would have been 90.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Struggling Through to the End

Well, I finally finished it. It being Annette Gordon-Reed's exhaustive work The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.

First, let me say--the premise of the work is fascinating and most worthy. Using primary sources, Gordon-Reed (G-R) explores the life and times of one extended family enslaved and owned by Thomas Jefferson. G-R goes further and proves decisively that Thomas Jefferson made one member of the Hemings' family--Sally--his mistress and, with her, fathered four children who lived to become adults.

So, why my "finally finished it" comment? You need a bit of history on my reading habits. I was an English literature major in college, both undergraduate and graduate. So, that meant lots, make that LOTS, of reading. And my first job, fresh out of graduate school, was returning to my college alma mater to teach literature--more reading. When I left that job, after 8 years, I vowed that I would never again spend time reading something that I was not enjoying.

This vow was accompanied by a full measure of guilt--stop reading a book? Unthinkable. Having been schooled to read so as to a) pass the exam, or b) analyze in class, or c) write the exam, I simply felt duty bound to read every book I started. And, for the most part, even after I stopped teaching, I tended to finish books I began reading.

The day finally came when I finished a book and suddenly realized--I have been duped. I read a book the whole way through, and I simply did NOT enjoy it. I should have quit. Truth is, I kept expecting SOMETHING to happen in the book. The book in question was Helen Hooven Santmyer's And Ladies of the Club. On the off chance you might be curious and decide you want to read it--don't. I have just saved you from 1,400 pages of NOTHING.

As I said, I kept expecting something to happen--but after 1,400 pages I realized that nothing did. And I was so put out at myself for not dropping the book part way through, that I renewed my vow.

So, now The Hemingses of Monticello. I finished this book. Oh, there were times that I felt like stopping. Why didn't I? Well, I had asked for the book as a Christmas present, for one thing. And I felt as though I would be ungrateful. I also recognized the importance of the subject of the book, evaluating people who were slaves and considering them on their merits. G-R has done fantastic historical research to recreate their lives.

You just know there is a "but"--don't you?

When I was about half way through the book, I told my husband about my frustrations with the author's style. As it happened, we were out at breakfast in a local diner. Seating there is not really private, and next to us sat a man, eating breakfast by himself. He obviously overheard my description. I said that G-R was a professor at one of the Ivy League schools. . .hhmm, Yale maybe? Well, the lone diner piped up--University of Rutgers. It turns out, he also taught there--though he said he had not met G-R. Small world. I hope he didn't rush back to campus, look her up, and say--a woman in a diner doesn't like your writing style, she thinks you need an editor.

So, here's my "but." To convey the concepts of what it was like to live as slaves, deprived of freedom, subject to the whims of masters--even those who were kindly, as Jefferson was--G-R tells you what it was like. Then, on the off-chance you didn't get it, she tells you again. And, for good measure, yet again.

If I could talk to a book, and have the message transmitted magically to the author--I would have said: I get it! Slavery was terrible. It was demeaning. It was dehumanizing. It is a stain on human history. I really do get it.

There were many interesting details in the work, lest you think I didn't learn anything from it. First, Sally Hemings, the slave mistress of Thomas Jefferson, was the half sister of Jefferson's wife Martha. WOW! That means Martha's father, John Wayles, also fathered Sally. Second, Sally Hemings was sent to be with Jefferson in Paris, when at the time she was fourteen years old. Their nearly 40 year relationship began in Paris. When Jefferson was due to return home, apparently, Sally Hemings--and her brother who was also there--contemplated staying there. France did not have slavery so they could have become free people. Sally's son, years after, indicated that the reason she did return with Jefferson is that she was pregnant with her first child, and she wrung from Jefferson a promise to free their children.

Again, WOW! The crafter of our Declaration of Independence fathered children who by virtue of their births would be slaves. And, he had to be made to promise to free his own children--not upon birth, mind, but upon reaching majority.

So much for "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

OK--so, in totality, it was a good book to read. Sometimes it pays off to keep on slogging.