Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Year in Review

I love watching the news--actually, all the time. But at this time of year, I particularly enjoy the bitter sweet quality of news. Assuming there are no really big stories--other than snow storms causing havoc hither and thither in the U.S. and Canada, or errant misguided radicalized youth donning various articles of clothing rigged to blow up planes--most news channels begin the year in review process.

As the year draws to a close, the news focuses on what happened in the past year, who died during the past year, etc. These stories always give me the chance to say--oh yeah, I remember that. Or, oh, she just died? I thought she died years ago.

Well, this approach to news gave me the inspiration to do a "year in review" post from KGMom's life.

(Hmmm--tapping finger lightly on lips. Should I do the biggest story first? Or should I go chronologically?) Chronologically, I think.

We began the year full of hope and expectation as we watched a new President sworn into office.

Mid-2009, we celebrated my father's 90th birthday. Amazing, isn't it. And the best part of his reaching 90 is that, other than being 90, he is in good health--sound in mind and body. He notes that his mind no longer pulls words out at lightening speed, and of course his muscles are more frail, but that's about it. We held a celebratory party for him at the retirement village where he and my step-mother live. At least 90 people came--fittingly, one for every year of his life.

In July, my nephew got married. Family weddings are always the best way for families to gather. We had a great time--although I didn't get as many photos as I wanted.

Several times through 2009, our daughter visited. We were working on a project.

Oh, yes--in October, our daughter got married. My brother had wondered why we were so busy with all the planning, as he allowed how when his son got married (see two paragraphs above), he--my brother--didn't have all that much to do. Harrumph.

Our daughter got married--everything was perfect. The wedding was lovely. The reception was a grand party in complete grand party style.

Then, just to show we weren't totally tired out by the wedding, we had our kitchen redone. In fact, we packed up the kitchen one day after the wedding, and two days later, the workers came in and began demolishing.

October was a full month, as in addition to our daughter's wedding, and the kitchen project, my husband retired. Completely, fully retired.

As we look ahead to 2010, I think we'll try to take things a bit easy.

Here's to a happy prosperous New Year for all.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Telling the Story

In our house, we have a small nativity scene. The figurines are made of bisque and are painted in soft pastels. Everyone looks perfect--Mary, hands slightly raised. Joseph, attentively leaning in. The wise men--lined up as three sumptuously dressed kings bearing gifts. A shepherd boy, sheep slung over his shoulder. A sheep turns to look at a baby in a manger, while a donkey waits patiently.

This scene is so familiar to those of us who celebrate Christmas.

I would venture to say that few of us stop to think--wait. They couldn't all be there at once. What we have done with our imagined Christmas scene is place all the participants in one space at one time.

A number of years ago, I read a marvelous book by the Catholic theologian Raymond Brown, entitled The Birth of The Messiah. He explained as lucidly as anything I have ever read WHY the various aspects of the birth story were included by the Gospel writers.

Stop to consider for a moment several things about the birth of Jesus stories. First, only Matthew and Luke tell us anything about his birth. Mark is too rushed, plunging headlong into the "good news" account that he completely omits any reference to the birth. John is too poetic to deal with mundane details liking someone being born. So, it is up to the writers of the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke to tell us any birth stories.

Second, these accounts were written long after the events of Jesus' life. One implication of that timing is that it is unlikely that these stories were to be considered eyewitness accounts, as we might think today of a newspaper story. They were written by writers living within early church communities, and they were intended to appeal to that community. The symbolism selected for inclusion in the story had a very specific purpose. So, for example, Matthew's gospel emphasizes the Jewish tradition. Luke was written by someone attuned to Gentile sensibilities. It is Matthew who tells of the wise men; Luke tells of the shepherds. Neither gospel tells of both simultaneously. So, the combined crowded manger scene is a convenience we have constructed.

Third, Brown argues that the gathering of materials that formed all the gospels likely followed this sequence. Immediately after Jesus' death, which would have been a stunningly catastrophic event for those who witnessed it first-hand, his followers would have recalled his death. So the death stories were the first to be gathered. Then, his followers would have recalled events from Jesus' life and ministry. You can almost hear them saying--remember when he . . . So the works and words were gathered next. Finally, as their understanding grew, they would have asked--was not this Messiah known from the moment of his birth. Was his birth not marked by special events. And so, they gathered the birth stories, emphasizing NOT eye-witness history, but emphasizing all the important signs and symbols that said--this is the Messiah.

In some ways, we have corrupted these marvelous accounts. By lumping them all together, we lose the singularity of a baby being born; of an unmarried young woman--a teen--discovering she is pregnant; of an honorable older man defying convention and deciding to marry his pregnant (by someone else) fiance anyway; of wise men from other countries, studying religion and seeking in the stars some sign marking a new revelation; of shepherds who were tending their flocks at night, simple folk engaged in an age-old occupation.

We have even added some of our own symbolism, that has formed part of our vision of the Bethlehem scene. We imagine snow on the ground, and a hard cold night. The image in our mind's eye is more attuned to the visions implanted by Charles Dickens and his wonderful evocative A Christmas Carol than of first century dusty Palestine.

As someone who loves to write, I can really appreciate the skill of telling a story--and a good one at that. A story can convey the truth, without every detail having to be true.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Cycle of Reading

For several years, before her death, I visited my step-grandmother in the nursing home where she lived. She and my grandfather had married a few years after my grandmother had died. Grandma Mary, as we all called her, had never been married before she married my grandfather. She had been the one designated in her family to care for her aging blind father. When her father died, she had worked as an practical nurse, which is how she met my grandfather. He, too, was blind, which I am sure made my step-grandmother more understanding of him.

After he died, she continued to live in the nursing home where they had lived together. The nursing home location was moved, and she along with it. I continued to visit her. As she grew quite infirm, suffering a stroke that took most of her spirit, she had little interaction with those who stopped to see her.

A typical conversation with her went like this.
Me: Hi, Grandma Mary. How are you doing?
She: Fine.
Me: What are you doing with your time?
She: Reading the Bible. (She said this, as she looked up briefly from the open Bible on her lap.)

And read she did. She read it through, Genesis to Revelation, and then started all over again. I couldn't help but wonder if she was studying for a final exam. She read, seemingly without really engaging with the text. Just a rote kind of reading.

I confess, I have never read the Bible through, cover to cover. True, I have read great portions of it. In fact, I had sufficient Bible knowledge that when I was a freshman at the college I attended--where Bible 101 was a required course--I tested sufficiently high to be able to opt out of the freshman course. Among other things, I knew who Abishag was.

Perhaps to remedy the lack of reading, I signed up to receive the daily lectionary readings. So every day, I get an email with the lectionary readings for the day. The idea is that with lectionary readings, over a three year cycle, a person can read the Bible through.

Well, I am not the most faithful reader. Some days, I read the entire set--usually two morning Psalms, an Old Testament selection, a double New Testament selection (one from the Gospels, one from the epistles), and two evening Psalms. A lot of reading.

But, I have benefited from this cycle of reading. I have rediscovered the Psalms. The entire array of human emotions is captured withing these 150 chapters. There are outbursts of absolute despair (Psalm 22 or 42), expressions of exuberance, praise for creation (Psalm 19) and unadulterated wonder (Psalm 8). All the Psalms are wonderful poetry--with lilting repetition, strong images, poetic cadences.

This reading of the Psalms reminds me of an episode in my life. Some 30 plus years ago, my father-in-law died suddenly. The whole family was gathered at the hospital where he had been taken. All except his mother--my husband's grandmother. Through a family discussion, we decided I should go to where she was and stay with her until someone could come and tell her that her eldest son had died. I drove the 22 miles from the hospital to the house where she was staying. No sooner had I gotten in the house than she began to pepper me with questions. When I temporized a bit, she burst out--he's dead, isn't he? Well, I decided the truth then was better than waiting for someone else to tell her the same news. So I said yes. Then I asked--do you want me to read something to you from the Bible. Yes, she said, and she named a favorite Psalm. I wish I could remember which one, but I can't--I only know it was not Psalm 23. In fact, it was a Psalm that seemingly did not speak of death, or suffering through adversity. Whatever it was, it spoke comfort to her in such a trying hour.

So, while I may not make it from Genesis to Revelation, if I stay stuck in the Psalms, I can't go wrong.

The photo is of a Tiffany window in the church we attend.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Winding Down

I have officially requested to take the coming semester off. I think I might have mentioned this passingly before. I had a brief talk with the writing coordinator and asked to have no assignment in the spring. Besides, she had already suggested maybe I wanted to teach the same course (introductory writing) instead of argumentative writing, which is what I usually teach in spring. I don't think she knew this was a change--she is somewhat new at the coordinating and not always attentive. Beyond that, she suggested a Monday/ Wednesday/ Friday schedule. Nothing worse than driving to campus THREE days a week for one hour long class. Waste of gas, and almost a waste of time.

I have graded all but one remaining laggard research paper, and have only the final exam to give. Could it be I am actually winding down my teaching career? Too soon to know, but it just might be.

This possibility calls to mind one of my personal favorite symbols--the last robin of summer. We all mark the arrival of the first robin in spring. But who among us notes the last robin? I used this concept once before in writing. Of course, we all do have a time when we do something for the last time: the last time we speak with someone, or see someone; the last of time we go to a business place before it closes. The point is we don't know it's the last time because we lack foreknowledge of what will come.

However, since I have broached the subject of not teaching in the spring, I know this may be my last semester in the classroom. I think I will save for future musings reflections on this portion of my career.

Suffice it for today to reflect on winding down a semester. In many ways, this particular group of students is one of the liveliest I had teaching at the community college. There were days I almost could not get them to stop general talking to focus on the content at hand. This group had the usual array of varying student types you encounter in a community college class.

One startling example of varying student types was the young man who gave a never before given answer. We were talking about the differences between men and women (for compare/ contrast). He offered that women have one more rib than men. I looked at him, and said--NO. He look positively startled. Why, it's in the Bible, he said. The metaphoric nature of the creation story simply eluded him. I almost challenged him to count the number of ribs. But I figured even that would not convince him.

There were non-traditional students--usually somewhat older, heading back to school because life circumstances have changed (lost jobs, failed marriages, whatever)--always scared of wading back into the academic pool. There were students who have gone off to a four year residential campus and bombed. Frequently these students had difficulty balancing the total freedom of being in a four year college WITHOUT THE PARENTS and they simply failed academically. Too much beer? Too many parties? Too little time management? Too bad grades? Whatever the reason, they often do not know how to study. There were also one or two international students.

And, as always, as the semester went along, the ranks dwindled. I sometimes think before a semester gets underway, that I should look at the class the first day and set up a betting pool (with myself only, of course) as to who will be there at the end of the semester. The first semester I taught at the community college, I was stunned at how many students just quit attending class. The earliest a student stops is day two. Yes, I have had some students attend day one, and then never show up again. The students who really puzzle me are those who do almost all the work, almost all semester--and then, within a week or two of the semester's end, stop attending. I always send such students an email reminding them that they MUST inform me if they are dropping the course. Otherwise, I will keep them on the roll, and calculate a final grade--which will be a failing grade.

The highest dropout rate in any semester I taught was 50%. With the class registration capped at 26, one semester I ended with 13 students who completed the course. This semester, the combined drop-out/ stopped attending number is 6. I had one student over-enrollment, so 6 out of 27 isn't that bad. But among the students who dropped, I had some interesting variations.

I had one of those one day attendees--what was unusual about him is an email I got from his MOTHER several weeks into the semester. She was inquiring about his attendance. I thought to myself--WHAT attendance? But I responded that, because the relationship is between ME and the student, I am not permitted (by law) to reveal to her his attendance. I suggested she ask HIM.

Then there was a student who was about 3 years older than the average 18 year old in class. I don't know if she had previously tried college somewhere else. She wrote in her first paper about being the youngest in a four child family, and about her father being the head of a very large worldwide known corporation. So, I checked out that fact--turns out she was telling the truth. She attended spottily for about a month, and then at mid-semester just dropped off the class radar screen. Disappeared from class. Not a word. I confess to wondering if this approach to education is a pattern for her. And I wonder if she was a bit spoiled, a bit coddled.

Finally, there was a young man who seemed quite bright. He was totally silent in class--I am sure he would rather have been somewhere with computer games or computer generated music. He indicated a high interest in these subjects. On paper number two, I caught him plagiarizing. On the off chance he really didn't understand that one does NOT do that, I gave him the chance to rewrite the paper. Of course, I carefully checked each succeeding paper as he turned it in. Everything was fine--original even--until the research paper. I had required they use primarily print sources (the Internet being too great a temptation). As I read his paper, I thought--hmmmm. I wonder. So I used Google books, and voilà--plagiarized again. I was all set to give him a big F on his paper, when he appeared in class, drop slip in hand. I signed it, then said--let's talk out in the hall. I told him that I had caught him again. I also told him to knock it off--stop messing up your life by cheating. I also said--you're a bright guy. Don't do this to yourself. (Just now, with NPR on in the background, I hear an announcement about Tiger Woods. . .wonder if anyone gave HIM that advice?)

What always makes a semester worthwhile is this kind of comment: a student sent me this email--thank you very much. This is my first time back in class in almost 8 years and you have made it a great experience. It is a comment such as this one that has given me far more satisfaction than any paycheck ever could.

Well, for winding down, this has been a rather long post. And to think, I intended to post a Saturday soup. Huh! Well, next week.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Takes My Breath Away

Every now and then, I read something on the Writer's Almanac that just takes my breath away. This site is Garrison Keillor's daily offering of "it happened on this day" accompanied by a poem. Just the fact that someone reads a poem daily on the radio is worth the listen.

But it is also good to be reminded of events that have occurred on the day we are about to live. Of course, December 7 is remembered in the United States as "the day that will live in infamy." Sixty-eight years ago, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt uttered that memorable phrase as he conveyed the news to the nation that the United States would be entering World War II.

Now, here we are 68 years later, entering--no, make that continuing--another war, this one in Afghanistan.

So one of the other things that occurred this day takes my breath away.

Let the Writer's Almanac tell you:

"It was on this day in 1972 that astronauts on the Apollo 17 spacecraft took a famous photograph of the Earth, a photo that came to be known as "The Blue Marble." Photographs of the Earth from space were relatively new at this time.

(Previously) on Christmas Eve of 1968, the astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission, orbiting the moon, took a photo with the gray, craggy surface of the moon in the foreground and the bright blue Earth coming up behind, only half of it visible. That photo was called "Earthrise," and it really shook people up because it made the Earth look so fragile, and because the photo was taken by actual people, not just a satellite."
Here is that famous wonderful photo of "The Blue Marble".

I had initially posted another photo from space of the "blue marble" taken in the year 2002. My nephew pointed out that the photo above, showing the continent of Africa, is the original.

Take a look at the photo below for a minute. Stop what you are doing, center your mind, and just look at it. Long. Hard. Thoughtfully.

Do you see what portion of the earth we see? It is the subcontinent of India portion, with Afghanistan at the left.

From space, could you see Taliban? Warring tribal factions? Could you see religious strife and divisions? What could you see from this distance that shows the hand of humanity? Maybe, just maybe the effects of environmental destruction, but other than that--nothing. Not one thing that humanity has done would be visible.

Yet this "blue marble" is our mother. Our father. Our vessel as we travel through the vastness of space. Why do we despoil it? Why do we turn against ourselves? Why do we not simply cherish and nurture and protect this lovely lovely shining blue marble without which we would simply vanish?

Maybe you remember the public television show "Big Blue Marble"? Our son watched it daily. It had a wonderful sweet theme song, the words of which capture in a simple way this sentiment:

The earth's a Big Blue Marble
When you see it from out there
The sun and moon declare
Our beauty's very rare

Folks are folks and kids are kids
We share a common name
We speak a different way
But work and play the same

We sing pretty much alike
Enjoy spring pretty much alike
Peace and love we all understand
And laughter, we use the very same brand

Our differences, our problems
From out there there's not much trace
Our friendships they can place
While looking at the face
Of the Big Blue Marble in space

Couldn't have said it better myself.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Return of Saturday Soups...and More!

My husband and I began decorating for Christmas right around Thanksgiving. We are not really trying to rush the season--it's just that with us both (mostly) retired, we can do things on our own schedule.

Today, we finished up with the last touches on the Christmas tree. It began snowing in the morning, and all day a light gentle snow fell--not enough to accumulate, but enough to give a cheery Christmas look to the outdoors. Trees both indoor and out are decorated.

So, herewith, the pics, and then soup--I promise.

Now to soup. Tomorrow is our church's annual Soup Bistro. I have written about this topic before, explaining that everything is donated--the supplies, and the volunteer time. The beneficiary is a local organization that helps people in need.

We made the New England Fish Chowder--yum. Lots of chunky vegetables, and fish (of course) along with whole milk and cream. Oh, oh, oh. . .

Tomorrow we will be tired--but tonight we are happy.



8 bacon slices, chopped
2 large onions, chopped
1 Tbsp. dried thyme
2 bay leaves
4 cups seafood stock or clam juice
1 tsp. saffron threads **
2 cups diced peeled white potatoes (1/2 inch dice)
3 cups diced peeled butternut squash (1/2 inch dice)
1 lb. chopped frozen kale
5 cups whole milk
1 cup half and half
2 tsps. salt
3 lbs. mixed fresh white fish, cut into ¾-inch pieces.


Saute chopped bacon in heavy soup pot until fully cooked and all fat is rendered. Remove bacon from pot and discard bacon fat, leaving only a small amount of fat for sautéing onions.

Add onions to the pot and sauté til soft, about 5 minutes. Add thyme and bay leaf and stir over low heat. Add seafood stock and saffron and bring to a simmer.

Carefully place potatoes and butternut squash cubes into the hot broth. Bring the broth just back to a simmer. Add chopped frozen kale. Immediately add the milk, the half and half, and the salt. Add bacon back into the soup. Bring to a low simmer.

Add fish pieces to soup and turn off heat immediately. Simmer until all the ingredients are cooked through.

** On the off chance you don't buy saffron threads every week, I would suggest you can skip these. A small portion--a teeny tiny amount in a regular spice bottle--cost us about $15 in a local grocery store. I gulped, but bought it anyway. Since it adds just a touch of flavor, and mostly is used for the yellow color--I would say. . .skip it. Really.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Three Strikes and...

With great regret, I am putting word verification for comments on my blog.

In the past week, I have gotten three different sets of comments on very old blogs. Curious, I checked the first one out--nothing but hyper-links to who knows what. I did not click on any.

Then, yesterday, I got 5 separate comments on old blogs all from the same source, all identical.

And today, I got a comment on an old blog that looks like it has pornography or information on prostitution--if the names in the comment are a true reflection.

Sorry, but I don't support either. So, I will not do anything that facilitates the same. Too many lives have been ruined, and too many people hurt. So, no--I will do what I can to prevent using my blog for any such activity.