Monday, December 21, 2015

Home for the Holidays

This year, my husband and I will be doing something different for Christmas...we will be staying home for the holidays.  Alone.

For many years, now, we have either traveled to be with one of our children--or we have stayed home and the children have come to us.

But this year is different--as a family, we gathered at Thanksgiving at our son's and our daughter-in-law's home in San Diego. And, after braving a 12 hour flight directly from London, our daughter and our son-in-law along with their two little ones joined the gathering.  We were all there to witness and celebrate the baptism of our son and daughter-in-law's little girl. 

With that momentous a gathering, which was really like a Christmas--complete with gifts for the three little ones--we decided that we would stay in Pennsylvania, our son and family in California, and our daughter and family in England.

But, simply because we are "home alone" does not mean we forgo decorating, baking and celebrating.  To the contrary. We got our usual live tree--and had it fully installed and decorated by the first weekend of December.  I have baked--at least four batches of shortbread by now--and mailed tins of shortbread to various family members.

I even got out the Advent calendar...though I confess I keep forgetting to update it.  

As for gifts--thank goodness for Amazon--wish lists and packages!

So, Christmas day will be quiet--we will roast a chicken (better size for a smaller feast) and make all the trimmings. If we are fortunate, we will see our children via the wonder of Face Time. And all will be merry.


Sunday, November 08, 2015

Stories in Stone

Nearby where we live there is a cemetery. With an atmosphere that is park-like it has become a favorite go-to walking place for me and our dog.

Years ago, two dogs back I used to walk our dog there.  That dog--an English setter (show not hunting) loved to see the squirrels there. One day, she spotted a squirrel who had not seen her, and for at least 15 minutes she inched up on that squirrel. Our dog's muscles were all aquiver as she silently inched one paw in front of the other. I think the squirrel must have had a near-heart attack when our dog suddenly pounced...but the squirrel got away.

Anyway, after a time, there came a day when the cemetery posted a big prominent sign you could not miss:  NO DOGS ALLOWED.  I was annoyed, and bemused. I thought--ok, no dogs. But squirrels, chipmunks, Canada geese, and foxes all running amok.  But, no dogs.

About a year ago, I decided to see if the dreaded NO DOGS sign was still now, we had another dog, a lab mix--our sweet Ziva.  She gets many daily walks, so adding the cemetery aka park
would be an asset.  Sure enough, the sign was gone. So our walks there have commenced.

Since dogs like to take their time--sniffing every tree, or blade of grass, or whatever--we spend some time there. And I have taken to reading cemetery plaques.  These plaques or stones are flat on the ground, some made of marble and some of brass.  Whatever their composition, they all tell a story.

Herewith some examples:

--A name with a birthdate in the late 1890s, but death date. Someone was forgotten? Or didn't die (unlikely). Or the family either did not know or had not recalled where that burial plot was.

--Many graves with death dates in the late 1960s, most of them of young men in their early 20s.  Most likely killed in Vietnam--my generation's war.

--Two names side by side--or actually a double stone but with a name removed from its prior place. The one side has birth and death date, the other...blank. No doubt, the surviving spouse found someone new, remarried and decided to be buried elsewhere.

--several small stones with birthdate and death date the same day.

--finally, a stone with four names on it, all one family: mother, father, daughter, son.  What happened? Some tragedy. But what? An accident? or some other untimely end?

Whatever the circumstances, every stone a story.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Autumnal Musings

As the growing season draws to a close, I am often drawn to thoughts about growth. Growth in the plant kingdom is something I observe every year--I love to plant annual flowers and then revel in their blooming glory all summer long. Growth abounds in the summer, but growth is not an ever outward process--the end of summer comes.

Of course, then comes autumn. Much as I love autumn, I always rue to impending death of the flowers I have enjoyed. Of course, as I garden I observe, and muse, and draw conclusions about life...about living.

Much of my time of late has been taken up in continuing to help my father and step-mother as they age and transition. In many ways, it is like the life cycle I observe in the flowers.  (Before anyone takes offense, I am not suggesting that people aging is the same as plants aging,  but as in everything nature has much to teach humanity.)

Since my parents live in a retirement village, and are now in sheltered care, transitioning to nursing care, I observe many facets of what it means to age.  Frequently, when I am visiting I encounter other elderly people--people I don't know. But I always try to be cheery, to be helpful, to say a kindly word. And it is the reactions that amaze and baffle me. 

A few people simply don't/can't hear me, and so my cheery comments fall on "deaf" ears. A few reciprocate--smiling and responding, even if briefly.  It is the other portion of responses that always surprise--the people who harrumph, and complain and are downright unpleasant.  One day, as I was exiting the elevator, I caught and held the door for an elderly man on a motorized scooter who was entering the elevator.  Rather than say "thank you" to me for holding the door, he snarled I CAN DO IT FOR MYSELF.  OK, then. So much for being nice.

While that example is somewhat extreme, it is not an isolated example.  And what it has made me do is examine my own aging process and the way I respond to people.  Of late, I find myself very intentionally cultivating an attitude of being grateful, of expressing thanks.  

In every encounter I have at this retirement village, especially with staff, I try to say--THANK YOU. Thank you for the work you do, for the care you give, for the thorough professionalism you display while you are also showing great care and compassion.  Maybe my efforts of overdone--but given that I have observed so much ingratitude I feel my verbal affirmation is the least I can do.

As I deliberately try to show gratitude, I am hoping that it is also cultivating in me a growth tendency--as the twig is bent, so the tree's inclined.  If the day comes that I am a resident in such a facility, I hope the attitude I display will not be curmudgeonly and grudging. 

Maybe by now you are scratching your head and thinking--wasn't she talking about fall flowers.  Well, yes I was.  The way a flower grows, even as it draws near the end of its season, is greatly influenced by the encounters along the way.  I know, I know--the analogy is imperfect. A flower can't decide to water itself to enhance its growth and beauty. But it can make the most use of the water and sunshine it receives.

Where does that take me? What I have determined for myself is that I will cultivate gratitude and thankfulness. I do not want to be the person who pushes away help with a curt--I CAN DO IT FOR MYSELF.  I want to be more like a flower that blooms in its time, in response to water and sun. The beauty of that flower remains long after the petals have fallen.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Pussy Cat Pussy Cat, where have you been?

Why, yes, that is me riding a carousel with a special girl.

Remember that children’s rhyme?  The next line was “I’ve been to London to see the Queen.”

Well, yes—we’ve been away. 

Hence no blog for…oh, awhile.  
And, like Pussy Cat, we’ve been to
London.  We didn’t see the Queen, though  last summer we did actually see the Queen’s “house” when we toured Buckingham Palace and saw the Royal Collection—an amazing collection of paintings.

So, here’s what we saw on this trip: 

Some things are still there

Something else we saw, but...didn’t see exactly.

As we passed Lord's Cricket Ground, on our way to St. John's Wood, where we attended church in a lovely Church of England church--I noted this poster.

Advertising the second test of the Ashes. OK—if you have to ask, you don’t know what it is.  Cricket. Enough said.

The second test was played at Lord's Cricket Ground--sort of the Holy Grail of cricket. But, already I've exhausted my knowledge of this sport.  

(The fourth test of the Ashes has now been played elsewhere, and England did rather well.)

The St. John's Wood church is one of my favorite churches in the world. Now, I have not been in that many...considering how many there must be worldwide.  But I've been a few and I love the classic interior of this church, with its fantastic acoustics.  The church has an 8 member choir--that's all. And yet they sing beautifully, full voiced and thrilling to hear.

The remaining sights were personal and familial.

Such as...
A little girl who likes to jump in muddy puddles
a little girl showing Papa the ropes!

Two little girls with crash helmets...which they need when they ride their scooters!
Nearby where we were visiting is a large recreation area--lots of excitement there, including a local fair. See the photo at the top of this blog.

Also various types of transportation.
A tractor picking up trash in the park

An air ambulance picking up a patient 

Two dear people riding a teacup! 

BUT, BEST OF ALL, WE SAW THESE PEOPLE! (and one is brand new)

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Ash Tree

This is a story about a tree--not a grove (as in the lovely Welsh song The Ash Grove)--but just one tree.

When we moved to the house we live in--some 30 plus years ago--it was a barren place. No trees, just mounds of dirt from dug-out basements and other construction detritus.

The wind would blow out of the northwest--sometimes quite fiercely, making the master bedroom the coldest room in the house.  So we set about to plant trees.

We planted bare-root stock 18 inch high evergreens, various types. And we planted an oak tree, a blue atlas cedar, two dogwoods, and a Japanese maple.

We also planted a green ash tree, known for its hardiness and ability to withstand wind. That tree was planted on the northwest corner.

All the trees grew robustly. With the evergreens--so much so that we had to take out every other tree.  When trees are 18 inches tall they look mighty puny, so we got them too close together. 
All was well...until this year.

This year, the tree did not come into to full leaf--parts looked downright sparse.

We called our tree guy. and he took one look and said--emerald ash borer beetle.  Oh, no!

He cut away some branches, and said we might get this year out of the tree.  It has provided such wonderful shade over our sunporch. Plus it is the place we put squirrel whirl-a-gigs on which to put corncobs for squirrels to eat...and entertain us.

This is not the sign of a healthy tree--see how frantically it is trying to stay alive by putting out enormous leaves along the side of the trunk.

Come fall, we will have to say goodbye to the ash tree. There is little likelihood that we can replace it with a tree large enough to provide all the shade the ash tree did.

Farewell, ash tree.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Portrait of a Man

In recognition of Father's Day--I offer this brief portrait of the life of a man--he is my father, David.

David was born in 1919, and is the baby in this photo. While he was born in Pennsylvania, when he was less than 2 years old, his parents, along with him and his older brother, went as missionaries to southern Africa.

The family lived there for 10 years, returning to the United States in 1929.  While they were there, the third son was born, as you can see in the photo below--the three sons: Arthur, David, and Joel.

Since the formative years of his growing up were spent in a place with a sub-tropical climate, he felt somewhat out of place in the eastern United States. Maybe the clothing in the photo--which was taken in southern Africa before they returned to the U.S.-- also helps explain why he felt out of place.  The life he was accustomed to was not what he experienced upon the family's return. Not until his family moved to southern California in 1933 did he feel connected to where he lived. He loved southern California which reminded him of the climate and scenery in southern Africa.

The next photo shows my father as a young man--he is 18 years old. It was the summer of 1937, and he had just finished high school. Since his family was not rich, and since after returning to the U.S. his parents had two more children, daughters, they informed him that he needed to make his own way in the world.

It was a hard decision--but he did it--found work, saved money, and made plans to go to college .  And then he met my mother at a church revival meeting in Pennsylvania.

Of course, the tidy way in which I present this information lacks nuance and detail--of which there is much nuance and many details. These few details are only to give you a sense of a young man growing up.

Once my father had sufficient funds to go to college, he chose a college in California. My mother, soon after they became engaged, joined him there. And in October, 1942 they were married.

When my father graduated from college, he got a job teaching in central California. Because of that, he had a deferment from military service.  I was born in 1945, just before the end of World War II.  

Although my father was teaching, he had a sense of calling to be a missionary, as his parents had been.  Happily, my mother had the same sense.  When they were accepted by the mission board of their church, they were sent to what was then Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia).

At the very young age of 27 my father was assigned as superintendent of a mission station near the Zambezi River in southern Zambia.  The conditions then were somewhat primitive--no electricity, no indoor plumbing for example. 

Over the next 19 years, my parents served in various capacities in both Northern and Southern Rhodesia.  He was superintendent of another mission station, this time in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and eventually bishop of all the mission work for his church in southern Africa.  During those years, my parents also had an infant daughter die (of malaria), had a son born and another daughter born.  

In 1965, my parents returned to the U.S. for good. I had been in the U.S. from 1960 to 1965, and through the generosity of a benefactor was able to meet my parents after that 5 year absence in London. 

My father, who is now 96, has a prodigious memory and from reading his autobiography, which he has worked on for some 20 plus years, I have learned many tales about his time in mission and church work.

Of course, I have my own stories to tell about my father.  But I would rather turn your attention to a post I wrote on a prior Father's Day--here are the things I learned from my father.


Wednesday, June 17, 2015


OK I have to say it...I don't get it.

My Vanity Fair magazine arrived today complete with Caitlyn Jenner on the cover. And that got  me to thinking...just what is a woman?

Are you a woman because you think like a woman? More on that in a bit.
Because you look like a woman?
Or have a body like a woman?

Thinking like  woman?
Well, what is that?

An article by Elinor Burkett in June 6  NY Times nails it. In responding to the interview question about recognition of being transgender, Jenner had responded “My brain is much more female than it is male.”  Burkett asserts that “People who haven’t lived their whole lives as women, whether Ms. Jenner or Mr. Summers*, shouldn’t get to define us…” Jenner has not had a lifetime of being defined as a woman and THEREFORE shaped by those presumptions. I commend the rest of the article for you to read -- here.

Another recent story is also informative.  Earlier this month, Nobel prize winning scientist Tim Hunt remarked at the World Conference of Science Journalists explaining why he couldn’t work with women scientists. His reason? He said, “Three things happen when they are in the lab.... You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry." What an appalling view of women.

Thankfully many women scientists displayed far more intelligence, sense and humor by their responses.  Perhaps that is thinking like a woman.

It’s one of the oldest excuses in the book—when men get into trouble—quick, blame a woman.  Ahem, does the name Eve come to mind?

So, back to the subject of what is a woman. It is understandable that the thinking displayed in the Tim Hunt story, replicated many times over in thousands of other examples, unavoidably shapes women.  Girls who are pampered, protected, diminished, demeaned can’t help but experience life differently—think like a woman—than boys who have been encouraged to be assertive, be bold, be strong.  That does NOT, of course, mean that girls can’t assert themselves and find their own identities.  But it is much easier to do that when girls are encouraged to be assertive, be bold, and be strong.

One more observation on the Caitlyn Jenner transformation. As the Vanity Fair story reveals, Jenner had two years of treatment to remove facial hair (I can think of many post-menopausal women who would envy the chance to undergo such treatments).  Further, she had 10 hours of surgery to help “feminize” her face. She had body sculpting, including—obviously—breast augmentation. And, lastly, that waist!  As the cover photo reveals, the body constructed is quite stunning.  It is a body that many many women do NOT have, and yet they are most decidedly women.  The irony is that in order to be a woman, Caitlyn Jenner opted for a physical, visual approach—yet again defining how society too often defines women.

What I find so very sad is that these stereotypical ways of thinking about what it means to be a woman—looking great, “thinking” like a woman—miss the mark and what I think is the most important attribute of being a woman.  When our daughter was a little girl, like many little girls she would say she wanted to be pretty. I used to tell her—I don’t want you to just be pretty, I want you to be intelligent.  And then I would add—pretty can fade, but intelligence doesn’t.

That’s what I wish people meant when they say—just like a woman.
* Lawrence Summers--former president of Harvard, among other accomplishments. He "famously" stated that there aren't many women in math and science because of "biological differences."

Monday, May 25, 2015

My Country, 'Tis of Thee

I am sitting in a movie theater in Bulawayo, Rhodesia*. It is 1958. I am a student at Eveline Girls High School in Bulawayo, and along with other boarding students, we are waiting for the movie to begin.  I have no recollection whatever of which movie it was. But certainly it was made in Hollywood and was therefore an American movie.  As movies did years ago, this one began with several short films—maybe news reels. I don’t recall.  But what I do most vividly recall is that when the opening credits of the feature film were about to roll, the screen suddenly filled with a flag of the United States of America, in lovely vivid color. As it waved in the breeze, I felt my whole being swell with pride. Here was the flag of MY country. The image was accompanied by the strains of the national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner.

I suspect I was alone in my patriotic fervor. I was no doubt the only American girl in the group. Most of the other students attending the boarding school were Rhodesian girls—white, in those days of apartheid—daughters of farmers and businessmen in the country. While there were other American girls attending Eveline—daughters of missionaries, as I was—I lived in the house closest to the actual school buildings, a consequence of my having had rheumatic fever which meant I was not meant to be subjected to too much physical strain, such as walking a distance to classes.  And when it came to movie going outings, we went by house**.

Fast forward several decades, and I am sitting in a football stadium attending a Penn State football game. As does every athletic event in the U.S.A., this one began with the band striking up the opening strains of the Star Spangled Banner and the entire crowd joining in.  Except me.  I found it hard to sing joyfully the words I knew by heart, and happily sang in the movie theater in Bulawayo.

When my parents, brother, sister and I returned to the U.S. in 1960, the United States was as shining an example of democracy as one could imagine.  We had helped win World War II, we had saved Europe and perhaps western civilization. We embodied the Yank can-do spirit. Give us a problem, and we could solve it, fix it, rescue it, save it.

Sure, we had divisions—some more painful and vivid than others. Blacks in America were living under continued white domination, even though slavery and the Civil War had ended. But blacks also migrated north in astonishing numbers and helped drive the great explosion of American manufacturing. 

Political parties existed, but Republicans and Democrats tolerated each other, and even worked together.  Where politics took on a very sharp turn was when Senator McCarthy began spotting “Communists” under every stone.  The McCarthy hearings devolved into some of the worst political persecution the United States had seen in its history.

And then came a decade of unraveling.  Like many Americans, I was entranced with the bright new president John Kennedy.  His assassination, while not the first of a sitting president, seems so much like turning out a light and plunging the nation into a kind of darkness.  Other political assassinations followed in stunningly swift succession — Malcolm X; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Robert Francis Kennedy.

The unraveling was also evidenced by the U.S. becoming mired in a winless war in Vietnam.  This is my generation’s war. Like any war, it took too many young lives. Classmates, friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, sons, brothers, fathers.  We mourned deeply, as we do today, Memorial Day. 

News trickled out of the horrific wholesale slaughter of villagers in Vietnam. We heard names like My Lai—places we never knew existed much less had an idea what they looked like. We only knew that the U.S. had lost its innocence. We weren’t the good guys anymore. The flag of the United States no longer symbolized something heroic.

There were other ways we lost our innocence. We learned how many countries had leaders overthrown by the CIA, in our name. Chile, Iran, Guatemala, Congo, Brazil, Dominican Republic, and even South Vietnam—ironically, President Kennedy authorized the assassination of President Diem in August, 1963.

What amazes and heartens me is that even with all this—the ways in which political leaders have deceived and failed us—we still have young men and women who are motivated by patriotism. Who see beyond the cynicism and respond to the call of duty. Young men and women who firmly believe that they can make the world a better place.

So on this day, Memorial Day, I say thank you to Larry and to Jay (friends who died in Vietnam), to all the young men and women who lost their lives in Vietnam, in Lebanon, in Kosovo, in Bosnia, in Iraq, in Afghanistan.

I love my country—I love the potential for which it stands.  I love the good it has accomplished in the world. And I love that it continues to beckon people all around the world to come here.  Yes, I will sing the Star Spangled Banner again—I just wish the “rocket's red glare and bombs bursting in air” was a less frequent occurrence. Along with the national anthem, I would love to sing heartily the words of some of our other unofficial national anthems—"God Bless America," "This Land is Your Land," and "My Country, 'Tis of Thee."

 Childe Hassam's painting Flags, Fifth Avenue

*In 1980, Rhodesia was renamed Zimbabwe.
** Think Harry Potter, where students are sorted into different houses, both for lodging and for academic competition.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Too soon old; too late schmart!

Confessions of a 70 year old.

Today is SΓΈren Kierkegaard's birthday. That is note-worthy for this blog as it was Kierkegaard who noted that “life must be understood backwards. But then one forgets the other principle: that is must be lived forwards.” 

To put that philosophic thought another way, we have the Pennsylvania Dutch expression: we grow too soon old, and too late schmart.


This year, I celebrated my 70th birthday. I was born in February, just months before the close of World War II. Of course, I don't remember that event, but the proximity of my birth to the end of the last world war helps frame the span of my life.  It also means that I was on the cusp of the Boomer generation.

So by now, I should have the “understanding life” part down.  I do have a few confessions that perhaps have come with looking back over life and understanding it:

1. I don’t feel 70.  While I have no desire to be a 20 or 30 year old again, and while I have certainly matured, my inner sense is not all that different from what it was decades ago.
2. I don’t look 70. I recently had a conversation with someone who had come to do some work at our house. In the course of the conversation, I noted that my husband and I have lived in our house for 35 years--whereupon the worker asked how old I was. I replied--70. In response to my reply, the worker burst out--NO WAY. Then he asked how I managed to not look 70. The answer is:  good genes; good luck; and no smoking.  Of course, I could be like a well-preserved antique car that, suddenly one day, has all its wheels fall off.
3. And I feel 70.  OK, so this contradicts # 1 above.  Let's just say my MIND feels young, while my body throws in an occasional creak and moan to say "Not so fast."
OK—enough of confessions.

Here’s another part of growing older.  There is a somewhat tired joke that the first thing one does in the morning is read the obituaries—if your name isn’t there, go ahead and make a cup of coffee.  Well, I do confess to reading the obituaries. Having lived in one place for 50 of these 70 years, there are many names I recognize.  And occasionally, someone’s death is recorded and I write a note to the ones who remain behind.

It isn’t so much that growing old makes you think more often of death—although of course you do because—well, because it’s inevitable. That’s one of the understanding life insights.  What I do think of is that the passing of a person from this life leaves behind a void. And for a time, loved ones and acquaintances remember. And then we fade from view.

I want to note in particular a recent death of a blogging friend—Philip Robinson. I never met Philip in person, but through his blog I learned to value this singular person. His blog—entitled Tossing Pebbles (which is still available to read) reveals a man with a wide array of interests. Through his blog I learned that he was a father who raised a son virtually alone; that he was a very proud grandfather to three accomplished grandchildren. I learned that he was interested in and dedicated to subsistence living—I shuddered every year when I read his blog about chopping enough wood to see him through a northern Canadian winter. He was passionate about history and about politics. It was always a delight to read his thoughts in any given blog post.

Now, he has died. He learned in January that he had pancreatic cancer, and even though he had surgery and received good medical care, this aggressive disease overwhelmed the best efforts. 

Living life forward, understanding life backwards. Thus it ever was. Or as my Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors might say “too soon old, too late schmart."

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

For the Birds

The Writer’s Almanac for April 26, 2015, included these sentences:

(April 26) is the birthday of the man who once wrote, "I feel I am strange to all but the birds of America": ornithologist and artist John James Audubon born (on April 25) in Les Cayes in what is now Haiti (1785). Audubon grew up in France, and when he was 18 years old, his father managed to get him a false passport to escape the Napoleonic Wars, and he headed to America. Fascinated by all the new American birds he saw, he began to study them more closely. . .
Audubon fell in love with a woman named Lucy Bakewell. Her father objected to Audubon's lack of career goals and insisted that he find a solid trade before marriage. So, he opened a general store in Kentucky on the Ohio River, and soon after, John and Lucy were married. Audubon was a terrible business owner, and eventually he realized that his best chance for success lay in his birds after all. Lucy took on the main breadwinner duties by teaching children in their home, while her husband traveled all over the continent collecting specimens for his masterpiece, Birds of America (1838). 

Which immediately sent me tumbling back in memory to 4th grade, at the Shepherdstown school. 

In 2007, I posted a recollection of my 4th grade experience in grade school in the United States. Most of my elementary education was in (then) Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia), and later in (then) Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). But for a little over a year, my parents were in the U.S. on furlough.  So, I went to American schools for part of 3rd and 4th grade.

So what does this have to do with James Audubon? Well, I remember little from those two grade school classes, except this. We did a play in class—all about James Audubon and his beloved Lucy. I have no idea which students played what parts. I just remember being enthralled with such a sweet love story.

Trust a nudge from the Writer’s Almanac to set my memories aflutter.  The things we remember… Sometimes those thoughts are "for the birds."

James Audubon print--Baltimore orioles

Monday, March 23, 2015

Mmmmm...that was tasty!

If you are a long time reader, you know I have an on-going love of movies. True, there was a time when I eschewed going to movies in a misguided belief that movies were inherently immoral.  But, once I recovered, I returned to seeing movies, and have discovered many ways of viewing them.

I finished several recent posts on movies that had been nominated for the Academy Award in a particular category, with the winners being awarded a golden statuette nick-named "Oscar."

Since Oscar season is over for a year, I am ruminating on other ways of enjoying movies than just whether or not they are winners.  I got to thinking about all the ways that eating, or food scenes, play an important part in movies. Such scenes are frequently symbolic and in a brief scene will convey something very telling about the characters.

So, herewith a few memorable eating/food scenes from movies.

One of the earliest movies that I remember being enthralled with was Tom Jones (1963), the adaptation of Henry Fielding's novel from the mid-1700s. It is in fact one of the earliest novels that we have in English literature. The plot was basically structured around a series of encounters that the titular character Tom Jones has. I can't attest to whether or not the movie was a faithful adaption. But I do recall one singular eating scene. Tom has met a lusty woman named Jenny Jones. And there then ensues a marvelous scene where the two dine in a roadside, eating crab legs, chicken legs, turkey legs, oysters and so forth. It is a most seductive scene ending, predictably, with them rushing to bed.

Another favorite eating scene comes from Mel Brooks' splendid Young Doctor Frankenstein (1974). Peter Boyle plays Frankenstein's monster; he has broken free of his creator and is now being chased by angry fearful townspeople. The monster seeks refuge, and happens into the humble hut of a blind priest, played by Gene Hackman. The monster is virtually mute, and can only grunt. The priest cannot see, but offers the runaway monster some food--soup. As the monster sits waiting at the table, the monk comes to him and proceeds to ladle out the soup...predictably missing the bowl. It lands on the monster's lap, burning him. He cries out--HMMMMM.  Of course, the monk takes that to be his appreciation for the food...and the scene goes from one misunderstanding to another.

And the final scene which involves food (believe me, I could go on...but I don't want to lose the reader) comes from the movie Five Easy Pieces (1970). The movie stars a very young Jack Nicholson, and while I can't the plot of the movie, or even the point, I certainly recall Jack Nicholson ordering toast.  And, no, I can't describe it.  You will just have to watch it--it's a classic.

Could I go on? Oh, you bet.  But now, I have to go get dinner ready.  We are NOT having any of the aforementioned featured foods.

Do you have a favorite food scene from a movie?  Do tell!

Sunday, March 08, 2015

The Eye of the Beholder

Now that the Academy Awards for 2015 have come and gone, it's time for a little reflection.  Time was that the standard announcement for those handing out the Oscar statue was something like this: ...and the winner for the BEST (fill in the blank) is ...

No more.  Now the announcement is--and the Oscar goes to (fill in the blank.) 

There's a reason for that change. Oh, I don't know if it was mandated or not. But the reason is that the Academy must have come to realize that not always did the best in whatever category win.  Or it depended very much on the standard by which someone was judging whether or not the winner was in fact THE BEST. 

There have been some atrocious choices as "the best" in the history of the Academy Awards. Let's see how you do selecting the winner in some of these match-ups. Pick YOUR winner. (In each case, I list the films as not to give away the answer.*

1. Brokeback Mountain OR Capote OR Crash

2. Saving Private Ryan OR Shakespeare in Love

3. As Good As It Gets OR Good Will Hunting OR  L.A. Confidential OR Titanic

4. Forrest Gump OR Shawshank Redemption

5. Apocalypse Now OR Kramer Vs. Kramer

6. Bonnie & Clyde OR  In The Heat of The Night OR The Graduate

7. It's A Wonderful Life OR The Best Years of Our Lives

7. Citizen Kane OR How Green Was My Valley

OK . . . I could go on. In fact, many websites DO go on and on and on about the snubs the Academy has inflicted on nominees.  Of course, there are many excellent and beloved actors who never won an Oscar (outright) for a particular performance.  In recent Oscar times here are some of those who have not won: Leonardo DiCaprio (nominated 5 times); Tom Cruise (nominated 3 times...and, yes, he CAN act -- Born on the Fourth of July -- when he wants to); Glenn Close (nominated 6 times); Sigourney Weaver (nominated 3 times); Amy Adams (nominated 5 times).  

What the Academy tends to do is, after years of being snubbed, the excellent non-winners win a special "lifetime achievement" award. Luminaries such as Cary Grant, Bob Hope, Laurence Olivier, Greta Garbo, and Lauren Bacall

The eye of the beholder is the only explanation I have for some of the movies and actors over-looked in this annual celebration of movies.  And also the only explanation for some of those picked as winners.

So here are the ANSWERS: The Oscar went to...
1. Crash;  2. Shakespeare in Love;  3. Titanic;  4. Forrest Gump;  5. Kramer Vs. Kramer;  6. In The Heat of the Night;  7.  The Best Years of Our Lives;  7. How Green Was My Valley.

In looking at these head to head competitors, in virtually EVERY instance, I remember the movie or movies that did NOT win, and those movies are also the ones that movie history has proclaimed.  Look at almost any list of the top 100 Best Movies and you will see Citizen Kane at the top of that list.  And yet it did not win "best picture" in 1941.  

Maybe winning the All Time Best award is better than getting that little gold statue.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Going to the Movies Part 3

Tonight's the night!  So I had better get a move on...

The last two movies that are subjects for my Oscar preparation (and anticipation) are Selma and Unbroken. Now, I hasten to point out that Unbroken is not one of those nominated for Best Picture, or best director, or best actor, etc.  In fact, it was only nominated for cinematography, sound mixing and sound editing. Of course those categories are very important for the people who work in those fields, but--frankly--I don't stay tuned for the winners.

So, why did I pick this pair to compare and contrast. Well, there are quite a few similarities. Both both are about real men, based in 20th century American history; both deal with men of uncommon valor, who have to deal with a presumption of racial superiority.

Unbroken focuses on the life of Louis Zamperini,  Now, were it not for a best-selling book by author Laura Hillenbrand, Zamperini's life, beyond his youth, might have passed relatively unnoticed.  Hillenbrand*, you may recall, is the author who wrote another story of resilience and triumph--Seabiscuit.  Just as Seabiscuit was seen as fertile ground for making a movie, so was her book Unbroken.   Even though the idea of making a movie about Zamperini's life had been kicking around Hollywood for decades, it was mostly likely Hillenbrand's book that jump-started it.  Angelina Jolie, who directed it, had to fight--not to get the movie made, but to be selected to direct it.

After a childhood during which Zamperini was a bit of a miscreant, he discovered he had a talent for running. In fact, he became so accomplished that he was selected for the U.S. track team which went to the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin, the ones infamous for Hitler's domination of the spectacle--and for Jesse Owens' amazing accomplishments as a track star that buried Hitler's notion of racial superiority. Owens won four gold medals--3 in sprint, and one in long jump. Zamperini was a distance runner participating in the 5,000 meter race. He didn't win any medal, but acquitted himself well with running the final lap in record time.

The connection that Zamperini has to 20th century American history was his service during World War II.  He was a bombardier on the somewhat notorious B-24 bombers. These planes were known to be difficult to fly. In fact, the plane he was on was hit by gunfire during an aerial battle and badly damaged. Because of that, he and other crew members were sent to Hawaii to be reassigned. While they were waiting, a call came in to go on a rescue mission for another downed bomber. A crew of 11 was assembled and flew off in another B-24. During that mission, the plane he was on developed mechanical problems and went down in the Pacific near Palmyra Island. Thus began another great adventure of his life. He and his surviving crew mates lashed together several rafts and began drifting across the Pacific Ocean.  

After 47 days of drifting in the Pacific, the raft washed up on Marshall Islands, then under control of the Japanese, some 1837 miles (2956 km,). The two remaining survivors were promptly captured by Japanese soldiers, thus beginning another "adventure." While the movie shows his early life, the youthful troubles he encountered, and his running triumphs, it concentrates on the drama of being adrift and the subsequent imprisonment in Japanese POW camps. During this time--about two years--he and other Allies were cruelly mistreated by prison guards, some of whom were particularly sadistic. One stand-out example, which the movie portrays very convincingly, was a guard the POWs called "The Bird."  He took a particular dislike for Zamperini and never missed a chance to punish him.  It is during these moments in the movie that the viewer experiences full force one of the elements that was evidenced in World War II.  Just as the Germans presumed their superiority due to their "Aryan purity," Japanese soldiers felt superior to their captives whom they degraded and looked down on.

Zamperini's very survival is an indication of his uncommon valor. The movie ends before the final difficulty of his life; Zamperini experienced one other challenge that threatened his survival. Upon his return home after the war, he began to drink heavily.  His life was turned around after his wife begged him to go hear the evangelist Billy Graham.  Based on the message Zamperini heard, he realized he needed to change his life--and he did. Beyond that, he absorbed a central element of Christian thinking--that of the need for forgiveness, even of one's enemies. Zamperini eventually returned to Japan, and sought out his former captors with the specific intent to forgive them.

Martin Luther King, Jr., the subject of the movie Selma, is far better known to most Americans than is Zamperini. Given that familiarity, there is less need to underscore the initially stated similarities: the two stories are about real men, are based on 20th century American history, both deal with men of uncommon valor, and both deal with a presumption of racial superiority. We know many of the basics of Dr. King's life--his rise to leadership in the infancy of the civil rights movement.  In fact, the movie Selma distills many of the details in a single event--the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

Following the Civil War, African-Americans were systematically and routinely deprived of many of the rights the Civil War was intended to help them gain. Chief among those was the foundational right of our democracy: the right to vote. African-Americans were required to register to vote--as we all are today--but for them, the finish line was a moving target. The movie powerfully portrays this in an event involving Annie Lee Cooper (played by Oprah Winfrey). She tries to register to vote, only to be asked a series of questions which she admirably and confidently answers. Then one last question is thrown at her, one so trivial as to be absurd. Not surprisingly she cannot answer, so her application is stamped DENIED.

To redress this and other grievances, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Dr. King are brought in to Selma to try to galvanize action. Part of the drama of the movie also focuses on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which included John Lewis, which had been trying for three years to move voter registration forward.  The means to move voter registration rights forward was to organize a march from Selma to Montgomery, the capital of Alabama, which begins by crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge. 

(credit for photo of the Pettus bridge-- "Edmund Pettus Bridge 03" by Carol M. Highsmith)

The history of this time is fresh to many of us who were adults--albeit young adults--during the 1960s.  Its retelling is essential for younger generations to know that the right to vote was hard won for African Americans.

Other elements of Dr. King's life are woven into the movie--not always in full detail, but enough to give a sense of the man's life, including some of the sadder aspects.  We know that the FBI maintained a file on him, that the then director J. Edgar Hoover seemed to make a special point of spying on Dr. King.  We also know that Dr. King was unfaithful to his wife in a way that very nearly destroyed his marriage.  All these elements are in the movie.

What we see is only a glimpse of is his uncommon valor. We don't see much of time spent in jail--where Dr. King was too often sentenced for his pursuit of basic rights for Americans.  We don't see many of his speeches where the possibility of rioting and destruction was all too present. We don't see his death at the hands of a white assassin.

What we do see graphically portrayed is the visceral deep-seated hatred that too many whites displayed against Africa-Americans. There are very few examples in the movie of whites who were moved to join this basic civil rights fight. But there some.

So, where do the movies differ? Apart from the understandable differences of stories being told about two different men being portrayed, perhaps the singular difference is in the length of their lives. Louis Zamperini, born in 1917, died very recently in mid-2014. Dr. King who was born in 1929 was assassinated in 1968.  And, of course, neither of the deaths feature in the movies.

The movies share one more common aspect--both have been controversial in that challenges were raised to the ways in which the stories were told, and how faithfully history was represented. Some evangelical Christians were upset that Unbroken ended before Zamperini's life-changing encounter with Christianity. And Selma has been controversial in the elements of history either omitted, or recast. There were many more nuances to the civil rights campaign--and at times the movie truncated those events. What has received more press has been the way President Lyndon Johnson was portrayed--as reluctant to get into the civil rights campaign.

A far better treatment of the way these two movies tell history is dealt with by my fellow blogger (and longtime friend) in her blog post: "Pondering History, Torture and Violence."  I commend it to you.

OK--now, off you go. Watch the Academy Awards. And afterwards I just might tell you if I picked any winners.

*Laura Hillenbrand has her own story of struggle and resilience. While she was a student in college, she experienced a sudden debilitating weakness that was eventually diagnosed as being caused by chronic fatigue syndrome. Her life has been marked by her ups and downs with this disease. But despite the severe limitations it places on her life, she has managed to become a successful author.