Wednesday, November 09, 2016

The Pottery Barn Rule

Remember that expression--you broke it, you bought it? Well, that's how I feel today. And who, you might say, broke it?

Well, this day after the U.S. presidential election, like many people I am scratching my head and wondering what happened. But more so, I am wondering WHY did it happen.

This is a very simplistic commentary--of course, there are many many reasons why we find ourselves where we are today. One particular reason stands out to me: people are fed up with Washington, DC and the sense that "government" is broken.

And they are right; it is broken. But it was broken intentionally.

Do you recall what Senator Mitch McConnell said in the lead-up to the mid-term elections (i.e. two years into President Obama's first term)? In response to the question what was the top job for Republicans in that mid-term election, McConnell said:
The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.
He went on to say that the objectives that the Republicans had then could not be realized as long as President Obama could veto legislative efforts.  So, he was urging Republicans to present every obstacle to any of President Obama's initiatives. (As an example, consider the 60 some times Congress tried to repeal so-called "Obamacare.")

In this election of 2016, many analysts are pointing out how disgusted people are that the government  is dysfunctional at best or broken.  When you have the leader of the U.S. Senate saying, in advance of any legislation, that Republicans should work against President Obama "if he didn't meet them half-way" how can you have a government that works?

So having sown the wind, we now inherit the whirlwind.  And that's where I get to the part of this blog that explains the title.

One of the great motivations for the choices people made in this election was broken government. When I read a statement such as Senator McConnell's, I can't help but think "you broke it; you bought it."

There's no ducking responsibility here. In one of the commentaries I heard leading up to this election, as pundits were discussing what effect a win by Hillary Clinton would have on Congress, someone said "well, Congress would have to find a way to work with her" working across party lines.  And then, in response to the query how Congress might work with Donald Trump, the commentator paused and then said--"that's going to be a lot more difficult because Trump is in their party."

Think of that--a lot harder to work with your own candidate than to work with the opposition candidate.  I can envision what the next four years will be like. More broken government? All too likely. And the American people will keep on being angry. Who knows what their next response response to broken government might be.

I just hope that, after the whirlwind, there isn't a tornado. Right now, my feelings are too raw to dismiss that dark thought.
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If you like the looks of the vase featured in the photo, you can go here.


Sunday, October 30, 2016

Going Home

I was reading a Facebook post by a cousin of mine this evening. While he lives on the East Coast, in a large city, he had returned to his home when he was a youth in a small Midwest town.  He wrote:

"The seduction of this town of my youth epitomized in that when I go out walking in it at night a startled wild rabbit runs across the lawn I am walking past and the nearest traffic I can hear is a quarter mile away."

That brief post got me to thinking about the allure of going home.

Of course, great literature has been written on this theme. One of the oldest classics is The Odyssey, which is ALL about Odysseus returning home, or trying to, after the Trojan War. That was a long trip, a very l...o...n...g trip home.

There are dramas about losing the sense of home. King Lear comes to mind. Lear is not so much trying to return to the home of his youth; he is trying to find home in his old age. In his waning years, he suffers the ravages of aging, including being outcast by his daughters one by one. He has, of course, complicated matters by promising his kingdom to his daughters if they will first say how much they love him. The two older daughters flatter him with glowing effusive declarations of love. The youngest--Cordelia--refuses to reduce her love for her father to honeyed words.  She loves him more than words can express.  Lear mistakes this refusal for her lack of love and disowns her. 

Well, I don't want to tell you the whole King Lear story--let's just say it ends badly with Lear losing everything, including his home.

Robert Frost's poem "The Death of the Hired Man" contains these haunting lines about home: "Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."  That is certainly a spare, and somewhat sad definition of home. But it does resonate.

Home is understandably a place. My husband grew up in a small town in central Pennsylvania. If he wants to, he CAN go home again. He can go right back to the town, to the street where his grandparents lived, and the street where he and his parents lived in the house his father built. Of course, all of those dear ones are no longer living, but the place can still speak their memories.



But when I think about going home, I think of the part of Africa where I grew up. In particular, the one mission station is in the country of Zimbabwe, and even though the mission still stands, everything has changed. I have seen photos of the house where we lived, and it has changed in so many ways.  (The photo above is one of the mission house as I remember it.)

I am left with a sense that I can't go home again. Not for lack of thinking about home where I grew up. But because of the vicissitudes of time having completely altered the geography of my memory.

What say you--can you go home again? 

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Precious Memories?

Last week, I selected the topic of reunions as the subject for blog writing. And, frankly, my first intent was to write about family reunions. I come from a family where reunions have been a many decade tradition--at least on my mother's side of the family.

But then, I turned my attention to a non-family reunion. See, I was about to return to my college alma mater and celebrate with fellow graduates our 50th college graduation!  Golden Grads! Yup, that's us.

Oh, there are so many advantages (disadvantages?) to returning to the college where you began your adult life. Good memories, bad memories. Recognizing college friends, not recognizing college friends. Seeing old professors, not seeing departed professors. 

Any reunion is a mixture of joy and sadness. Of sweet memories and bittersweet memories.

Our mortality is ever present--classmates who joined us for the 40th reunion now gone; classmates who were hale and hearty now wheel-chair bound, classmates who were dear friends and now barely remember you.

My recollections focus both on the personal--things we did in college--and the universal--things that happened to our country while we were in college.

So, walk down memory lane with me for a short while as I revisit a major event from the four years of my college days.

1962-63: no sooner had we begun our freshmen year than the world plunged into threats of war. It began on October 22 with the start of the Cuban Missile crisis.  What I recall is the terror we felt as we lived through during those 7 days in October, from October 22 to October 28. Frankly, we thought we were living on the brink of a nuclear war. From the beginning of the crisis when our spy satellites saw the build-up of nuclear missiles in Cuba, to the response of President Kennedy to place a blockade around Cuba, to the Soviets insistence that they would  send their ships anyway, running through the blockade to the final stand-down resolution--I can say we lived through days of terror. 

Particularly visit it the time I was riding along with some girlfriends in a car, as we listened to the radio coverage of the U.N. debate.  We waited to see if there was the launching of a nuclear war between the U.S and Russia.

I do not want to live through such an event again--the world hovering on the brink of nuclear war.

1963-64: our sophomore year began...calmly. Oh, there was the traditional reconnecting of couples or uncoupling as the case may have been.  There were higher level classes we were taking, with the attendant increase in academic rigor. But what dominated that year was the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.  The news came over the loud speakers in Old Main. I was on the college debate team and we had assembled, preparing to debate for a weekend tournament at Fordham University.  Suddenly the news "President Kennedy has died" came over the loud speakers. 

The nation plunged into mourning--a president so young, so full of bright promise, a widow only 33 years old, two photogenic children, a nation stunned.  

Some of the members of our class, particularly those who had access to cars (a rarity in those days) traveled the hundred plus miles to Washington, D.C. to attend the funeral. 

I do not want to live through the collective grief ever again--a nation mourning a leader struck down by a soul-less assassin.

1964-65: our junior year--now we were taking upper level course and choosing majors (if we hadn't already)--once again national events dominated our thinking. It was an election year. The candidates, Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson, presented two vastly different world views. Goldwater wanted to use "low-level" atomic weapons in north Vietnam. Johnson ran a political ad which showed a sweet child pulling petals off a daisy counting. Her little voice then morphed into a countdown voice--10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1.  And then a mushroom cloud. At no time was Goldwater's named used, but the implication was clear.  

I recall being on a debate team for an all-college debate: I along with a partner arguing for Johnson, and two other students arguing for Goldwater. The only other thing I remember about that election campaign is that Goldwater made a stop in Harrisburg. He came into town on a train, which stopped on a bridge over Market Street.  The crowd gathered below to hear him. At the time, I was so struck at how mob psychology worked--people who may not have been his supporters being swept up into the crowd chant. (Shades of a future campaign!) Well, we know how that race turned out: Johnson won having partly campaigned on not expanding the war in Vietnam.

I do not want to live through another populist candidate fanning the populist sentiment with dangerous and impossible ideas.

1965-66: President Johnson's promise to not expand the war in Vietnam was quickly broken. Retaliatory strikes had begun in late 1964 after reports of an attack on U.S. ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. The Congress quickly passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution which effectively gave the president authority to expand the military effort in Vietnam. And with his election secure, President Johnson did exactly that.  

When we graduated in 1966, several of our classmates were drafted or volunteered and were deployed to Vietnam. Within one year of our graduating, one of these young men--Larry Houck, who had been our class president one year--was killed. That experience of loss was repeated in town after town, in school after school, in college after college. It is something that I still grieve today, as do many of my generation who began the 1960s with such a hope of a new order--the age of Aquarius. 

I do not want to continue to see bright men and women with their lives ended prematurely because of ill-advised wars.

 Of course--if you look over all the things in this post that I said I do not want to live through again, you may note that in fact we HAVE lived through all of these again.

Reunions? A time for reconnecting, for regretting, and for remembering.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

What's the Matter with Kids Today?

Do you remember that song from the musical Bye Bye, Birdie--KIDS?

"Why can't they be like we were, perfect in every way?

What's the matter with kids today?"

It's an amusing song. And it expresses the frustration and confusion that older generations feel about the younger generation.

A great deal of the misunderstanding results because of the tribal markings* each generation uses. 

When I first returned to the United States, having been in southern Africa where my parents were missionaries, the ways in which my fellow classmates dressed was very different from what I had just experienced. I had attended boarding school, a necessity when the mission station where we were was a day trip from the nearest school for me. Boarding schools required students to wear uniforms. So everyone clearly belonged to the same "tribe" by virtue of those uniforms. And it was easy to tell when we saw other school uniforms that other "tribes" were close by.

High school in the United States did not require students to wear uniforms. And yet they did. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, I encountered girls who wore blouses with Peter Pan collars, wide skirts decorated with poodles, and crinoline slips. And I so envied that new style uniform. I never did get a poodle skirt**. Of course, now I have to laugh at
myself.

Once the 1960s moved into full swing, I was able to adopt the uniform. I had long hair, and wore long "hippie" style dresses. My husband, who I married in 1967, had shoulder length hair and a mustache. We looked like we belonged in the '60s. And, of course, there were people who shook their heads and said "Kids!"

Fast forward a couple of decades. When our daughter was a young girl, she began to bug me to let her get her ears pierced. All or almost all of her friends had their ears pierced. I resisted. After all, at the time, our daughter was pre-teen. My answer was--yes, you can get your ears pierced when I get mine pierced. NOT FAIR--of course, as I had never had mine pierced.  But I now understand her request was part of wanting to belong to the tribe.

There are many ways today to young people mark themselves as belonging to the tribe. When I taught at the local community college, at the end of my working career, I was amazed at how many students had tattoos. And then I began to note how many students had body piercings. And I am talking about more than pierced ears.  Occasionally, I would note that a student was "playing" with her tongue ball.  OK--a tribal marking, but not one I could appreciate.

Thus it ever was--adults who had their own tribal markings shake their heads and ask--"Kids, what's the matter with kids today?"
-----------------


* As I was preparing to write this, I searched my blog to see what I might have said on this subject before. (I confess, I do find myself repeating some ideas.)  Herewith is an earlier entry on the topic--written about my teaching time.

** Photo of the poodle skirt comes from a website where you can get your own pattern to make one.


What's the Matter with Kids Today?

Do you remember that song from the musical Bye Bye, Birdie--KIDS?

"Why can't they be like we were, perfect in every way?

What's the matter with kids today?"

It's an amusing song. And it expresses the frustration and confusion that older generations feel about the younger generation.

A great deal of the misunderstanding results because of the tribal markings* each generation uses. 

When I first returned to the United States, having been in southern Africa where my parents were missionaries, the ways in which my fellow classmates dressed was very different from what I had just experienced. I had attended boarding school, a necessity when the mission station where we were was a day trip from the nearest school for me. Boarding schools required students to wear uniforms. So everyone clearly belonged to the same "tribe" by virtue of those uniforms. And it was easy to tell when we saw other school uniforms that other "tribes" were close by.

High school in the United States did not require students to wear uniforms. And yet they did. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, I encountered girls who wore blouses with Peter Pan collars, wide skirts decorated with poodles, and crinoline slips. And I so envied that new style uniform. I never did get a poodle skirt**. Of course, now I have to laugh at
myself.

Once the 1960s moved into full swing, I was able to adopt the uniform. I had long hair, and wore long "hippie" style dresses. My husband, who I married in 1967, had shoulder length hair and a mustache. We looked like we belonged in the '60s. And, of course, there were people who shook their heads and said "Kids!"

Fast forward a couple of decades. When our daughter was a young girl, she began to bug me to let her get her ears pierced. All or almost all of her friends had their ears pierced. I resisted. After all, at the time, our daughter was pre-teen. My answer was--yes, you can get your ears pierced when I get mine pierced. NOT FAIR--of course, as I had never had mine pierced.  But I now understand her request was part of wanting to belong to the tribe.

There are many ways today to young people mark themselves as belonging to the tribe. When I taught at the local community college, at the end of my working career, I was amazed at how many students had tattoos. And then I began to note how many students had body piercings. And I am talking about more than pierced ears.  Occasionally, I would note that a student was "playing" with her tongue ball.  OK--a tribal marking, but not one I could appreciate.

Thus it ever was--adults who had their own tribal markings shake their heads and ask--"Kids, what's the matter with kids today?"
-----------------


* As I was preparing to write this, I searched my blog to see what I might have said on this subject before. (I confess, I do find myself repeating some ideas.)  Herewith is an earlier entry on the topic--written about my teaching time.

** Photo of the poodle skirt comes from a website where you can get your own pattern to make one.


Sunday, September 18, 2016

Thin Skinned

Some people have childhood injuries they recall, or perhaps some trauma from teen years. And me, well, a memorable injury for me occurred just last summer.

In fact, there were two injuries. And they both occurred while we were visiting our daughter and her family.  We were in London for the birth of one of our granddaughters.  Among other things, I was occasionally preparing an evening meal. One evening, as I was heating a casserole in the oven in our daughter's family flat, I  pulled the casserole out to examine how "done" it was. Unfortunately, the whole dish began to slip. Since I envisioned the entire family's dinner going on the floor, I grabbed the metal casserole dish with bare hands.  Standing right next to me was our oldest grandchild--who was 2 and 1/2 years old. I said to her--Anna, grab the hot things.  Thankfully, she was quick thinking and knew I meant the hot pad holders.

The result was that I burned all but three of my fingers on my two hands.

Of course, with time I healed. But for months that memory was seared into my granddaughter's mind. She would retell the event, or ask to see my hands, even when we were talking by Face Time.

That same summer, I sustained one other injury. Thankfully, this one, while it occurred while I was with the same granddaughter, she was unaware of it.  We had gone to a carnival in a nearby neighborhood park. And there was a carousel!  What child can resist a carousel.  So I went to the man operating the carousel, gave him the necessary tickets for my granddaughter to ride it, and proceeded to help her choose a place to ride.  OH NO, said the man--you can't just put her on the carousel; you have to ride with her.  So in a panic (the ride was ready to start) I quickly climbed up. The side of the carousel was much higher than I expected, and I scraped my leg.

I knew instantly I was injured, but I kept the news from my granddaughter. After all, she already had the searing memory of my burning my hands.  As we rode up and down on the carousel horse, the man next to us looked over. He exclaimed--you're bleeding.  I quietly replied--I know.



And, that is how I found out that I am now "thin-skinned." This is one of the less than thrilling side effects of growing older.  I now work very hard to avoid bumping my extremities--arms or legs.  And, yes, in the photo above you could see my injured leg.  But, I won't point it out.

Not very memorable injuries, except of course, I remember. More because I don't want my granddaughter to have such memories of Nana being a klutz, or being hurt.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

So, You Want to be a Doctor?

When I was 12 years old, and at boarding school in Bulawayo (now Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia), my parents came to collect me for one of the regular holiday breaks. One of the school officials took them aside, and suggested that I see a doctor. Apparently, I had been showing signs of occasional uncontrolled spasticity.  My left arm would suddenly flail out, with no warning.

Once we reached the mission station, the missionary doctor was contacted. She came from a nearby mission and examined me. The diagnosis: rheumatic fever.  And the symptom, commonly called St. Vitus Dance, was medically called Sydenham's chorea.

What causes rheumatic fever and Sydenham's chorea is a streptococcal A bacteria. The treatment then was complete bed rest and penicillin.  Thus began my six weeks stay in bed. I have written about this event before and particularly focusing on the doctor who treated me.

I so admired this doctor. She was a very good doctor, and maybe more importantly to me at the time: she was a WOMAN.  No doubt during the time I spent convalescing, I developed an idea--I could be a doctor.

So, that's where my career was headed.  I recall a conversation with my father where I told him I wanted to be a doctor. I also recall his response--he affirmed that he and Mother would help me in whatever way they could.

What they couldn't help me with was Chemistry. Once in college, I took the requisite Chemistry course and promptly began to have doubts about my future career.  I limped through the first semester of Chemistry, getting a C in the course. And then, with the second semester, I realized that my career goal of becoming a doctor was simply not going to happen. I got a D in the second semester, and immediately began to redirect my career goals.

I settled on being an English major, and not only earned my bachelor's degree in English but also a Master's degree.  And then, by a fortuitous interaction with a favorite former professor, I ended returning to my alma mater to teach English.

But this change--from pre-medical to English--was not the only career change I experienced. After I had been teaching for 8 years, I needed to seek other employment. I had been full-time, then part-time when our son was born. When I wanted to return to full-time, the college dean informed me there were no positions for an indefinite time. So I went to work in a professional association representing doctors!  Yes, I was finally working every day with doctors.

Along the way, I picked up much medical knowledge.  From that professional association, I went to work for the State Health Department, and from there to one of the Blue Cross/Blue Shield organizations in the country.

Along the way, as I have interacted with people, I am sometimes asked--are you a doctor? The question makes me smile. But I answer--no--I just work with a lot of them. I don't even bother to say--but I wanted to be a doctor.  Truth is, I am much happier having been an English major.

You see, after my sojourn in medical organizations was over, I returned to college level teaching--English.

Friday, September 09, 2016

The Fall of Icarus

Having come up with a prompt for our group of intrepid bloggers (aka Comeback Bloggers) on the seven deadly sins...I confess to a temporary bit of sloth--not getting to writing my blog. And now the next prompt has been posted.

Oh dear, oh dear.

And NO--sloth is not the sin to which I would confess.

So, here's a quick primer--in early Christian church thought, the church fathers (those jolly guys) came up with seven sins they called deadly, presumably because committing such a sin put one in mortal danger.

As a point of fact, the enumeration of seven deadly sins is extra-biblical. You will not find such a list anywhere. But, certainly there portions of the Bible which highlight some of the seven: lust, envy, greed, sloth, gluttony, anger and pride (or hubris).

While several variations of the list may be found in early church fathers' writings, it was Pope Gregory I who revised and cemented the list into seven. (Thanks, Greg.)


While I could confess to having "committed" most if not all of these, the one against which I personally guard is pride. I like the Greek word "hubris." It is a recurring theme in many of the Greek tragedies, as well as the Shakespearean tragedies. Briefly, hubris is defined as "overweening pride"--pride that goes far beyond being proud of something--your accomplishments, your family...your whatever. The qualifier "overweening" makes this pride something that goes beyond--to be SO proud that you really think you cannot be instructed, that you are far superior to many people, that you are the top, the best, the brightest...add your superlative.

I have been richly blessed in my life--good parents, happy childhood, loving spouse, the world's best children (oops--no, very good children--got to watch that "overweening" thing), and on and on. In addition to this list, I have benefited from a good education, lucky breaks in my career working life, generally good health. It becomes easy to be proud of these things--as though they have come to me because I deserve it.

Ah, ah--caution there for me.  Thankfully for me, there are some literary reminders not to allow one's pride to rise too high.

There is the wonderful Greek myth of Icarus and Daedalus.  The "sin" that dominates is the sin of pride. And the myth is an excellent example of hubris. A mere mortal thinking himself god-like rises too high, either in power, or--as with the myth--too high literally.  And the gods, wanting to remind the mere mortal that he IS mere, smack him down. (Or her... of course...though the classics usually feature men.)




Pieter Brueghel "The Fall of Icarus"

Musee des Beaux Arts
by W. H. Auden 

About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.


In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on. 

--------------------------


Are you wondering why I included the Brueghel painting, and the W. H. Auden poem "Musee des Beaux Art"? Well, they are both about the fall of Icarus. Can you find Icarus in the painting? And can you figure out why Auden says "About suffering they were never wrong/The old masters"?

When I was teaching, I used this poem and the painting. It was fun to ask the students  first what they saw in the painting. The overall scene is a bucolic one--a ploughman, a clear blue sky, a ship sailing somewhere.  But where Icarus was in the painting?

Once they found him, I would ask--why did Brueghel so place him?  

Discuss among yourselves.