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Friday, April 30, 2010

David McCullough Lecture

I went to a lecture given by David McCullough last night. It was terrific! I'm putting my notes in here so I can keep a record of what I remember about what he said.

He said his books have been a joy, a journey, and a detective story to him. Someone asked him once, "What presidents of the United States besides John Adams and Harry S. Truman have you interviewed?" The audience roared with laughter. Appearances notwithstanding, he said, he has never met Mr. Truman nor Mr. Adams, and in fact, he has never known much of anything about the subjects of his books before beginning work on them.

He was an English major in college (hurrah! I can take heart from this). He had no experience in historical research. He went to his university library and asked for information on a subject. The reference librarian said, "Of course you have consulted the DAB." He said, oh of course, and went back to his table and sat down. What in the world was the DAB and why was he supposed to already know about it? He swallowed his pride and went back to the reference librarian. The DAB is the Dictionary of American Biography.

Journals and diaries are very important. Read them in the original if you can. You may find things in the original that aren't in the transcriptions, no matter how good the transcriptions are. He tells his students that if they ever have any flitting wish for immortality, start keeping a diary (on paper). When you feel it's time for the curtain to come down, donate it to the Library of Congress or somewhere that scholars will use it, and it will be quoted for hundreds of years because it will be the only diary in existence from our time period. Nobody keeps a diary anymore. [People write blogs, like this one, huh?]

Several platitudes that do not exist:
  • The self-made man or woman. No such thing. We are all products of the influence of others.
  • The foreseeable future. No such thing! Nobody can see the future. If you guess right, you guess right.
  • The past. No such thing. People always live in the present, their own present. To understand those who have lived before, you must understand the present they knew. You must read the books they read, know the politics they knew, understand the world they lived in. In the 18th Century, everybody knew and quoted Alexander Pope (especially the Essay on Man, with the quote "Act well your part; therein honor lies"), Samuel Johnson, John Dryden, Addison, Steele, Swift, and others.
  • Gone but not forgotten. If someone is not forgotten, that person is not really gone. If we talk about and quote and keep remembering people, they are still with us, and we should thank God for those to whom we are indebted.

We must not let a creeping amnesia take over our country regarding the great leaders and lessons of our history. The fault begins at home. We must teach our history through conversation and by example. Dinner time conversation is a great place to begin.

David McCullough's father voted for Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 and afterward came to think that FDR was the worst thing that ever happened to the country. His grandmother, on the other hand, thought that next to Jesus Christ, FDR was the greatest person who ever lived. Every night at the dinner table they discussed their opinions. Both were growing deaf. The children around the table never forgot a point in the two opinions.

The great educator/psychologist (who influenced Fred Rogers) Margaret MacFarland said attitude was the most important element of teaching, and that attitude is caught, not taught. So share what you love. And treat teachers better.

He talked about John Adams, about Charles Sumner, and about Elihu Washburn, and about one or two individual events of their youth or young adulthood that shaped their careers and lives. Charles Sumner, studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, observed black students and realized that the distance between free blacks and whites in the United States was artificial, created by education, and not the natural order of things. He became the leading abolitionist in the United States Senate and was almost beaten to death on the Senate floor by the senator from North Carolina after one of his speeches in 1856.

Elihu Washburn served 16 years in Congress and was appointed the U.S. Ambassador to France on the eve of the Franco-Prussian war, which was a fiasco for the French. He stayed in Paris after thousands of Americans left, because he felt it was his duty to look after the 150 or so U.S. citizens who were left there, and even after they were surrounded, he looked after not only his own citizens, but those of other countries, almost single-handedly preventing further bloodshed and earning the description of being the greatest ambassador the U.S. ever had. His diary is preserved in the Library of Congress.

Nobody in public life these days dare keep a diary.

It's sad that nobody seems to write personal letters any more. Nobody seems to work things out on paper the way the great letter-writers of the past did. These things are priceless, and they are preserved in our public libraries for our perusal.

Take heart for the state of culture in the United States today: there are more public libraries in the country than there are MacDonalds drive-thru restaurants.

Mr. McCullough describes himself as a short-range pessimist and a long-range optimist. Through our studies of our history, we stay in touch with who we are as a people; we discover why we are the way we are. There are so many more stories to learn, so many more stories to tell. We will never get bored. Let's be involved.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Identity Questions

This week a friend and I needed a day out and went to one of the local museums of art where an exhibit explored the expression of identity in different artistic media. We saw our own faces in a mirror; we saw the words to explain our reflections written backwards and reflected upon how our familiarity with our own looks was fundamentally flawed for being always the reverse of reality.

How reversed is my perception of myself in other ways? How flawed is my perception of other people’s faces?

We saw faces in video, in structured and unstructured activity, during moments of insignificance and during times of great stress. We pondered who these people were and how they defined themselves in the shifting circumstances of their video capture.

It never occurred to me, until the Mormon missionaries asked me, that the question “Who am I?” was one of the fundamental ideas of existence. I had never wondered, had never asked that question. Now I wonder all the time: my life has become a quest for the complete answer. The simple line, “I am a child of God,” provides bedrock for all the rest of the answers to be built upon.

My friends often tell me they look in their mirrors these days and wonder who the person is staring back—who hijacked the youthful good looks, the smooth skin, the thick hair, the toned muscles that they feel should still be reflected there, no matter how many years have passed. I learned early not to depend too much on what I saw in my mirror; as backwards as the mirror’s reality is, I looked in it not to approve but to reject. By the time I learned that my perception of my reflection (the backwards reality) was distorted, it was too late to learn to approve—it was time instead to learn the ephemeral nature of identity bound up in physical appearance.

Maybe that was a blessing: I don’t mind the lines and the white hairs; I do mind some things I see in the mirror and think I shouldn’t be seeing because what I see is not supposed to be me.

From the mirror in the museum I turned to my camera. Photographs are supposed to capture people’s identities in some way. We posed for each other in various attitudes of “Day Out at the Museum”-ness. Were our poses anything to do with our real identities? Poses by definition are something artificial. How possible is it to be natural when a camera is pointing at you? I took one picture of my friend trying to avoid the camera. She thought I was taking a picture of the scenery. Was that her “real” identity? We ended by not trying to be natural, which is paradoxically the more natural reaction to the camera.

Our day out has given me lots more questions about identity and ideas to ponder. All this reflecting should make me reevaluate my response to my reflection, if nothing more.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Being Blithe, If Not Bonny

Even though a Pacific storm is roaring our way tonight with threats of more snow, I feel the air full of spring. Thus I had to change my picture and title on this blog last week. When I started it, I had that picture of an Oregon coast sunset and the title from a melancholy-sounding Shakespearean sonnet, which perfectly fit my mood at the end of winter. Now things look better, and my blog has to reflect my feelings.

My daughter has struggled to find happiness. Today she phoned, having just come home from a short trip to a far-away place, and she sounded completely happy. I asked about her trip. She met Someone. You could hear the glow in her voice. I was happy for her.

The serendipitous happiness is not the kind I wish for her though. I want her to have the kind that lasts, that peeks out from behind your troubles and assures you it'll be back in a minute or three, as soon as you take care of the things that are incompatible with it.

My theory is that true happiness is a choice, not a surprise. You obtain it by living according to principles that produce more and more of it, and then you start to understand how life works to bring you that wonderful feeling whenever you want to feel it. I find it in obeying the eternal principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I know that not everybody believes the same way I do, and they can find happiness by obeying the principles that inside them they know to be right. It is only by obeying eternal principles that the greatest happiness is in store. That's what heaven will be: the greatest happiness. (Don't get me started on boring eternities of harp-playing; music is great, but I do believe in variety.)

Having to choose happiness doesn't mean you don't get the sudden bursts from the lovely surprises too. They are the icing on the cake.

When Shakespeare wrote that song in Much Ado About Nothing with the line "Be you blithe and bonny"--he was telling us to do something about happiness, not to just wait around hoping to feel it. Be it.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Singing

This has been a great day. I got to do things I like, eat things I like, and now I am listening to Susan Boyle sing. I love her voice and her story.

I have always loved to sing, but I don't have a good singing voice. Nevertheless, I have inflicted my voice on a lot of people, from family to roommates to boyfriends to other friends and fellow choir members. I twice sang duets in church services. The first time was a total disaster as I forgot every note and cannot read music. It says a lot about my friend's loyalty that she still liked me after I ruined her beautiful number. The second time was ok, but only barely. I was so scared I quavered my way through my part. I'm glad it was not the main part.

My friends and I sang and sang as children. The grownups around us thought it was cute to teach us torchy songs to sing. I remember the little boy next door, when he was about five, belting out a song about sleeping in prison on a pillow of stone and "through these prison bars I shall fly straight to the arms of my darling, and there I'd be willing to die." I have no idea what song that was. I should Google it sometime.

I love to sing along with my favorite recordings. I've used various singers as my mentors, first Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady, later Ella Fitzgerald and all of her songbooks of famous jazz composers, then Kiri te Kanawa and her folk songs album and that wonderful Gershwin album she did. I did my best to match their voices. I think my range is getting lower as I get older though. I have no idea how I sound, just that I've heard I don't sound so good!

So I sing in the car when I'm commuting somewhere. And my son makes me sing in the choir these days because he wants to, and he won't do it unless I do. In my subversive way, I have a good time in choir by singing different parts, not just soprano or alto, but tenor and bass too, seeing if I can push my range low enough to match most of their notes. I could sing a pretty good tenor if my voice weren't so harsh. Bass gets too low. I used to be a soprano. Now I try to sing softly so that nobody has to hear the tones. I got caught once when somebody was sitting nearer to me than I realized and I wasn't being careful.

Where Susan Boyle suddenly achieved fame and fortune with her voice, I figure I'm going to go silent. Almost.

I'll stop here and hum things under my breath.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Artichokes

I bought artichokes at the store today, a sure sign for me that spring has come. I buy them every year and eat them as a main dish. I wish I could grow them.

In the yard of the house I grew up in, we had an artichoke plant. I can't remember ever actually harvesting artichokes from it, but it did produce giant "fairy dust" as we called the thistle blossoms. We would try to make them float away on the wind, sometimes the wind being only what we could produce by huffing and puffing and dashing about trying to keep the thing in the air by blowing on it from beneath. The Santa Clara Valley in those days had lots of hot, still days.

I wish before we had moved away from California that we had visited the great fields of artichokes down by Castroville on the Monterey Bay coast.

Anyway, we grew up knowing how to eat artichokes. I savored each bite, from the outer, tougher leaves that gave up only a little meat, to the heart, I ate everything possible, and our family's way to eat artichokes was to dip them in melted butter. It was the only way, I thought.

When I was a teenager I went to girls' camp in the summer, and when we arrived, I happened to be in the right place to watch the unloading of the food for the week. Artichokes! The kitchen staff were unloading boxes and boxes of artichokes! Yum! I eagerly anticipated the night when they would be served, with dishes of melted butter on the side. They were served the very first night, much to my satisfaction. But no butter! They had little dishes of mayonnaise. What were they thinking? Not having developed the finer skills of etiquette, I protested loudly and asked for butter. It seemed as if all the girls at my table "knew" that you were supposed to use mayonnaise on artichokes instead of butter. Butter! They had never heard of such a thing!

Well, I couldn't eat my artichoke plain, so I tried the mayonnaise. It was better than I had expected.

I have since moved to where there are artichokes in the stores in the springtime, but not as good as the ones I remember having in California. And when I first served artichokes to my college roommates, they didn't even know how to eat them. When I demonstrated and encouraged, they tried, but they didn't like the work it took to get such a little return, or so they thought. I happily ate all their artichokes. With butter, although I offered mayonnaise too.

Then later still in my family I tried to get them to enjoy artichokes the way I do. They don't like them. My husband was a lost cause for many years, but lately he has been persevering to the heart and finding it worth the labor. These people astonish me. How people near and dear to me could be so cavalier about leaving an artichoke half finished is beyond me. Now that my mother lives with us, I have an ally in artichoke-eating-to-the-end enjoyment.

But even my mother disappoints me now and then, having lost most of her appetite with a serious illness a couple years ago, and she hasn't rediscovered the joys of eating yet. (Sometimes I make her eat her vegetables. She tells me she was a very picky eater when she was young and her mother never made her eat her vegetables, so why should her daughter get to bully her this way? I tell her she needs vegetables anyway, as a good example to grandchildren if nothing else. She eats what she likes and leaves the rest.)

Tomorrow night's artichokes are going to be gently boiled until perfectly done all the way through. I'll melt the butter AND put out the herbed spread--in my health conscious middle age, I have developed a taste for artichokes with fat-free spreads--and the mayonnaise.

It will still be no contest at all as to who enjoys the treat the most.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Funerals, Again

I have to go to a funeral this coming Friday. There seem to have been a lot of funerals in my life, more friends than family. When I was only nineteen, a middle-aged woman I worked with said to me that being my friend was not a good thing because it seemed like all my friends die. I protest. This is not true--most of my friends are still alive!

I know what I like in a funeral and what I dread. The funerals for younger people are usually the dreadful ones. The speeches are often full of grief and shock, not comfort, and there's a tendency to emphasize the sadness expressed by the phrase "life cut short"---even when the survivors profess to believe in the Christian Resurrection and eternal life. I experience a cognitive disconnect when I hear those kinds of funeral addresses and come away sad, not for the death, but for the lack of faith and hope.

The funerals I've been to where the people have no belief at all for a life beyond the grave are the hardest, for the grief-stricken have no hope of reunion and seem sometimes to be unable to move on. It is painful to watch them struggle afterwards, feeling that there is a remedy, but the times I offered it, it was rejected.

In funerals, I like hearing all about the life of the deceased person, whether I knew him or her well or not. I want to hear about personality traits, quirks, achievements, triumphs, and how the person coped with failure or disaster. I want to hear what was funny and good and positive about the person. I know we are in an age where truth is supposed to trump tact, but I would rather not hear anything ill of the dead, at the funeral.

Next I want to hear, especially at a religious funeral, the story of that person's faith and testimony of the gospel. I want to know what he or she knew. I want an affirmation of the spirit.

I like great music. In lots of Mormon funerals for elderly people, you hear a group of the grandchildren singing "I Am a Child of God," sometimes surprisingly beautifully, sometimes indifferently, and sometimes downright dreadfully. I do love that song, but I wish it wouldn't be presented that way. However, that's probably where I'm over the line, in wishing for aesthetics over the bereaved family's desire to have what they feel would be comforting to them.

It's my problem that I'm logical, not emotional. I dislike sentimentality most of the time. I like reason and facts. I acknowledge the role of emotion in people's decisions, but that doesn't always make me like the result.

I should limit this whole discussion to what I would like if I were to plan a funeral for myself. I liked what my parents did with my brother's funeral. It had most all the elements I liked, and the open microphone at the end was great, because it gave me the pleasant surprise of hearing how he helped other people, far beyond what I knew already, and I always did think he was a caring person who always had been happy to help others. I just never knew how much until that day. I love that memory, sort of the capstone to the great memories I have of him in life.

I liked my dad's funeral for the feeling of happiness that he was now where he was supposed to be--with his son and parents and granddaughter and aunt and all those he loved and missed. There have been so many times since that I have seemed to feel his presence, helping me out with things, that I haven't grieved more than to miss him now and then. The missing is always followed by the feeling of rightness and "presence."

My husband once said he wants his niece to sing "The Holy City" at his funeral, and I think he also wants our neighbor Kevin to sing "How Great Thou Art." I guess I'd better find out! I like my husband's taste so much that I think I'll just copy him.

I want someone to give a great sermon on faith and hope at my funeral. I once went to hear my grandpa preach a sermon in the Disciples of Christ church about faith, and it was a wonderful sermon. I want someone to share how much I loved the teachings of Jesus, especially the ones about loving others and being doers of the word (and they better not say how far short I fell in measuring up to those teachings or I will come and haunt them for sure).

I don't want an open casket. I hate that part. I avoid looking at the body if I can, but if I can't avoid it, it feels rather rude, like looking when someone would not want you to see them. As my friend Karen once described it, it's the empty shell. It seems meaningless without the soul, and the soul is what I miss, what I mourn if we were close. If my casket is open, I'll really be mad! (I know how to circumvent that: I'll specify no embalming. Then they'll have to bury me by the next day, and they can hold the funeral or memorial service later, with pictures of me that look halfway decent. So really, it comes down to vanity, huh?)

Whoever gives my life sketch, I hope they make it halfway interesting. I feel that my life has so far been a great adventure; I wouldn't like to listen in and find myself being described in a boring, overly sentimental way. Yuck. I am sure I would find a way to protest.

My good friend Vickie who died years ago wrote a file on what she wanted her family to do in the event of her death. She wrote it a few years before she died, but her death was very sudden and unexpected, so the file has taken on an aura of presentiment that we really don't know that she felt at all. I hope nobody will find this blog entry to be anything of a portent, because it isn't. Everybody who knows me well knows that I have been writing funeral plans for myself since I was a teenager, decades ago. How much of an omen could all these plans be? I'm sure I'll die sometime, and then I can be said to be very prophetic and prepared!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dishwashing

My friend Penny just wrote a blog entry with dishwashing in it. I cannot resist! I have to write about dishwashing! Please forgive the exclamation points. I like washing dishes; I always have.

We always had an electric dishwasher, as long as I can remember. The first one I remember seemed huge. I had to climb up on a chair to see inside it. Its top opened up something like a top-loading clothes washer, and it was on wheels. It had hoses that hooked up to the kitchen faucet. My mother taught all us kids to load it in turn as we grew big enough. My sister and I shared a night for doing dishes. One of us cleared the table and stacked the dishes next to the sink while the other stood on a chair and rinsed and loaded them in the washer. We also had to wash all the counters and stove, and end by sweeping the floor. Naturally we argued over who was doing more, or who was getting an unfair deal by something the other one did.

Fast forward to college days. My sister and I lived together most years, sharing an apartment with other young women. I had discovered somewhere in life that it was fun to play in the bubbly water for washing the pots and pans that hadn't fit into the dishwasher, and that by making a circle of the forefinger and thumb, I could blow remarkably big soap bubbles and watch them drift toward the kitchen window. At college nobody had dishwashers. I found that dishwashing was remarkably therapeutic for all the ills of the college day--too many papers due at once, course material I couldn't understand, roommates who objected to anyone making any noise at all in the morning when I had awoken feeling happy and ready to share, roommates who had all sorts of other rules than the ones I had grown up with, young men who simply would not take totally obvious hints.

I found out that some of the young men sharing apartments across the way didn't like doing dishes at all. I liked doing them, so Sunday afternoons I was often found in one or another boys' apartment, doing all their dishes with them all gathered around talking to me. Now that was therapeutic . . .

The Thanksgiving that I met my husband, we ended up doing dishes together. We started a conversation while doing dishes that we haven't quite finished yet. We will never be finished. We still do dishes every time we use the good china, which we find lots and lots of occasions to use. The dishwasher machine is efficient but boring, so even though it's supposed to handle good china, we wash it by hand. I always claim the washing role. He can rinse and wipe. I like the bubbles.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Royal Rascals and Rogues

Still pursuing genealogy . . . tonight my son wanted to know if we had any ancestors from Wales at all. I didn’t know of any; we have English, Irish, Scottish, a drop or two of French blood, a quarter cup of German, but the best I could tell him was that our Read ancestry was said to be Welsh, with no proof.

So we logged in and started searching our known Read ancestors, back to the earliest colonials we knew of, in 1640 or thereabouts, in Massachusetts. I thought of the show Who Do You Think You Are and Sarah Jessica Parker’s horror at finding one of her ancestors accused as a witch in Salem. I hoped the Reads weren’t in Salem—there were two major Read lines, one in Salem and one in Boston. Whew! Ours turned out to be Boston.

We got a breakthrough, finding the ancestor in England, and then of all the luck, linking him to a noble line. It’s always great to link to the nobility, because nearly all the work is already done from there. For fun we started clicking back on the tree, just to see how far we could go. We picked random branches when the Reads ran out in 1388 A.D. in Wales (so there was our Welsh connection), and—drum roll here—we hit a Plantagenet line! Royalty, oh boy!

Isabel Plantagenet was the granddaughter of the Empress Maud who fought that medieval war with her cousin King Stephan that gives all the political background to Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael medieval mystery series that I loved to read and my son loves to watch the DVDs starring Derek Jacobi.

Maud is the daughter of King Henry I of England, who is the son of William of Normandy, Conqueror of England in 1066. Hey, we studied him. We had to memorize that date. This is getting wild.

We kept clicking back through all these kings and queens of all the little regions around Europe that are now parts of France, Belgium, Germany, Norway, Austria, and Italy. We started feeling more and more royal. More drum rolls! Charlemagne! Wooo hooo! We’re in the Big Leagues now, the Holy Roman Empire!

Keep going, keep going, back to . . . wait for it . . . Tiberias Claudius Caesar, emperor of Rome itself! Wow. He died in 54 A.D. His father was Nero. His grandfather was Augustus, the first Roman Emperor.

Now wait. We’ve studied these people. They aren’t nice. They aren’t people we would want to invite over for dinner. We aren’t sure we want to be related to them.

Still. We’re building a moat and installing a drawbridge here at home. Be sure you bow when we open the front door.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Happy Ending, I Hope

I have been on the trail of Mary Malinda Hill's family in 19th century Ohio and Missouri for about 35 years. Have I mentioned that I've been very interested in genealogy for over 40 years? It will become obvious.

Mary Hill married Daniel Robertson in Missouri in the 1860s. She told her family a few things about her parents, but it must have gotten pretty garbled by the time it came down to me, because I've found the facts are different from what I was told, and yet the facts also are closely related to the fables. For example, I was told her father came from Germany. It turns out her grandparents were born in Prussia and came to Ohio where her father was born. I was told her mother's name was Mary Stewart; her mother's surname does turn out to be Stewart, but the first name is Rhoda, a name Mary gave to one of her own daughters.

Mary had interesting siblings. Her older sister had eleven children, three of whom died in one week in June 1880--I wonder what disease ripped through the family and took the 11-year-old, the 8-year-old, and the 5-year-old? How poor Barbara must have grieved! Mary also had a twin sister named Pauline whose husband died rather young and left her to support the three living children (the fourth had died as a baby). Mary named another of her daughters after her two sisters: Pauline Jane (Barbara's middle name was Jane). She had another sister who sometimes went by Louisa and sometimes by Mariam, so I don't know which way around her name was supposed to be. I do know Mary named one of her daughters Louisa Mary, presumably after this sister and herself.

Mary's only brother, Joseph, was a carpenter. When he was twenty-one, he married a neighbor girl who was just 15 years old. Ella bore him five children, four of whom are definitely daughters, but I haven't been able to find the fifth to know its gender. One of these children died young; I don't know which one except that it wasn't Josie. Joseph and Ella divorced sometime after 1883. In 1900 I found Joseph living alone in Kansas City, still working as a carpenter. I imagine him bitter and lonely, maybe regretting ever marrying someone so young as Ella was. I found her living still in their family home in Trenton, her occupation listed as "land lord." Hm! Maybe she outgrew Joseph? But then in 1902, to my surprise I ran across a marriage certificate for the two of them, remarrying each other!

Did they have a happy ending? I cannot tell! I cannot find them in any record after that remarriage. So maybe they killed each other after all? I hope it was the happy ending. I'll keep looking.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Honey, Rust, and Allergies

My great-grandfather kept bees. He loved them and they loved him. He sold his farm to my grandparents when he felt he was too old to take care of it anymore. My grandmother kept bees too, and my mother says that Grammy was never stung by her bees. She never wore protective clothing of any kind either, that my mother remembers. She never allowed the kids to play anywhere near the bees on the farm. She didn't want the bees getting upset. Fortunately it was a large farm, and with the River running nearby, the kids were far more interested in playing in the forbidden areas of the water, like where the logs were being floated downstream to the sawmill, you know, the best place to get yourself killed if you weren't careful or if you were just thinking you were invincible, which apparently most kids in the 1930s in the Willamette Valley thought. Not that their parents didn't care, but they certainly seemed to have a lot more freedom and responsibility than kids do today. But I digress. The bees on that farm produced wonderful honey, my mom says.

I've been thinking about honey and bees and related things like What Sort of Container should I buy now that my honey can's finish is gone and the honey has to be moved, and is it even safe anymore? My brother-in-law gave us the honey about five years ago, and we just opened the can last week. It's a very weird can to be using for a food product, just like a gallon paint can with that lid you have to pry off with a screwdriver and pound back down with a hammer. But the honey clinging to the can lid was black and tar-like, and when I washed it off, off came the finish from the can too. Not a good sign. (The honey down in the can seems fine.)

I was thinking whom I should call about this honey can business. I have a good friend on the next block who keeps bees; I could try her and it would give me a great excuse to satisfy my curiosity about her foray into beekeeping.

Then I will probably call my sister, who helpfully has almost a doctorate in toxicology (she was supposed to write one more short paper to finish, but she was in the Army and they transferred her before she could do it, so she left with a sort of deluxe master's degree). I always call her to ask about dented cans and outdated or smelly or discolored foods. She knows everything about what poisons can be brewing in my cupboard or refrigerator.

I was reading something the other day that said you could alleviate your spring fever troubles by eating a spoonful of locally-produced honey every day. The thinking is that the bees are producing this honey by using the same pollens that are causing you much misery, and so if you eat a little every day, you might build up a resistance to being allergic to those pollens. Even if it turns out to be untrue, how can I resist being given a good reason to eat a spoonful of honey every day? Mmmmmm.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Daffodils

Springtime is when I reread poetry of William Wordsworth. It always starts with daffodils. We have more daffodils in our yard this year than last because my sister-in-law got seriously ill last fall and was in the hospital for three months; consequently, something had to be done with the big box of bulbs she had bought. Her neighbors planted as many as they could, and then I took the box home and put the rest in our yard. I would have put them in her yard, but I was already spending most of every day with her in the hospital, and I needed to spend what other time I had with my own family, so the daffodil and crocus bulbs are here, and she does get to enjoy them, because she comes every Friday to visit us. Anyway, after that little digression, the thing is, I look at all the daffodils and naturally think of this:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
that floats on high o’er dales and hills,
when all at once I saw a crowd,
a host, of golden daffodils,
beside the lake, beneath the trees,
fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
and twinkle on the milky way,
they stretched in never-ending line
along the margin of a bay:
ten thousand saw I at a glance,
tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
a poet could not but be gay,
in such a jocund company.
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
what wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
in vacant or in pensive mood,
they flash upon that inward eye
which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
and dances with the daffodils.
(1804)

From there my thoughts turn to Grasmere and the summers with my friends and colleagues at the Wordsworth Summer Conference. Every morning Richard Wordsworth would collect everybody interested in walking before breakfast, and we would go around the lake, three miles, through litch-gates and over stiles, on gravel and sand, through bogs and along hillsides and a couple short stretches of road. I always wanted to simply listen and fill up on the heady conversations around me. There were no daffodils in July and August, but it was easy to imagine them crowding the shores under the trees along the more mountainous side of the lake.

One Sunday morning we went down to that side of the lake and sat upon rocks and logs, attending the Mass celebrated by Father Robert Barth (SJ). It was a beautiful morning and a beautifully spiritual service. If I weren't a Mormon I'd be a Catholic.

In the forenoons we discussed poetry in small tutorial groups. In the late afternoons we gathered for the reading of a scholarly paper by one of our colleagues. Our heads and hearts were full of the poetry of Wordsworth and the Romantics. Between those times we usually joined one of the three offered excursions, and most of the time we picked the most physically challenging one, trying to copy the exertions of the poet who was easily climbing around the steep crags, ghylls, becks, and fells of the Lake District until he was in his 70s.

I would love to go back, but in the springtime, and see the daffodils crowding along Grasmere Lake and Rydal Water. In the meantime, I look out my window at the daffodils in the garden and dream about past days.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Fairy Tales and Writing Ideas

My son is working on something his creative writing teacher calls a “seed journal.” He’s supposed to write in it ideas, snippets of overheard conversations, observations, descriptions, dreams, pieces of letters or emails, and anything else that could spark an idea for an addition to his creative writing portfolio.

My friend who inspired me to begin writing this blog has just written an entry in hers that refers to a fairy tale character, which gives me a writing idea. When I first read Robin McKinley’s retelling of the Beauty and the Beast tale, a novel entitled Beauty, I was so enchanted by it that I tried to start my own retelling of Cinderella with a similar competent, intelligent, resourceful, and reliable narrator. It proved impossible, probably because at the time I didn’t realize how Cinderella’s reliance on the fairy godmother and her otherwise utter helplessness would not lend themselves to the kind of narrator I wanted to create, and I didn’t put in any work on reimagining the story elements that could have been changed.

Are there any other fairy tales with heroines who could be smart, funny, and competent?

How about Rapunzel, trapped up there in her tower and unable to get out? Perhaps she was put there by a trick that shouldn’t have worked but did, and perhaps that prince isn’t so much deus ex machina as a well-known comrade who matches her in wits, and the hair ladder is something they equally invented, as well as the escape.

Maybe the Sleeping Beauty princess doesn’t have to just lie there helpless after all. Perhaps she gets tricked as in the original tale so that she gets a sleeping sickness or something that keeps knocking her flat, but when she’s awake, she and her friends exert all their powers to find an antidote, and the trial causes significant character growth and the development of the romance.

Or in the Goldilocks tale, the three bears aren’t actual bears, but people with certain antisocial tendencies who could use some rehabilitation at the same time as they teach her compassion, understanding, and better manners. . .

Red Riding Hood might meet the wolf in the shape of a man and be unable at first to distinguish between a good man and a bad one until the threats to her person and then family become clearer. The sexual element could be there, but it doesn’t have to be explicit as modern storytellers tend to think is necessary.

Lots of people before me have retold fairy tales, changing elements to suit their views, from Disney to other filmmakers to literary authors and so on. I like endings that are happy, but not quite Disneyesque where nobody suffers. I don’t mind showing the reality of tragic endings when the choices dictate it. I like romances that end happily, again, if the choices lead to that reward. I don’t think explicit sex works in a romance, because it shifts the focus to the body and makes the story degenerate into mere titillation, which ends up degrading the spiritual aspects of romance. I do like to reimagine old tales. I wish I could think up my very own story lines, but Iʼve never been much good at plotting. I’m basically a parasitic writer.

If I ever actually finish writing a story, I’ll be a happy parasite.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Dog Pill

My dog likes to take pills. He not only likes them, he starts jumping up and down and racing back and forth when it’s time. All anybody has to do is to rattle a pill bottle, and he perks up, hoping it means he gets one.

We never before this had a dog that liked pills. You always had to hide the medicine in a rolled-up slice of meat or a bit of cheese, and even then they’d somehow gulp the good part and spit out the pill. Our previous dogs weren’t as bad as the cats about pills, but they never thought of a pill as a treat.

We got this dog as a seven-pound ball of fuzz from the Humane Society. We went there to get an older, already-housetrained dog. Somehow all the grown dogs in the place were scary. Then there was a room of puppies in cages. We went in. Suckers.

A bunch of the puppies were Border Collie-Labrador Retriever mixes. We thought that would mean they wouldn’t get quite as big as Labs usually are. He came home with us and grew to be 65 to 70 pounds. He looks like a Labrador with longish hair and a thinner face than normal. He has the worst traits of the two breeds. He chewed things up until he was three. He was murderously hard to train, despite training class after training class. We ended up hiring private trainers when he developed terrible biting habits, just out of excitement, not specific aggression. The trainers, who advertised that they specialized in aggressive dogs, told us they had never seen a dog with as much nervous energy as our dog has. They gave us strict rules for how to behave with our dog, and they trained the whole family. They saved the dog’s life for that—I was going to have him put down after the last biting episode did damage to a family member.

Years later, the dog has become a mostly calm, obedient, loving pet to us, but I still will never trust him the way we used to be able to trust our past dogs. For example I will never allow the neighbor kids to take care of him. I have one neighbor whose children have taken care of him, but they were teenagers, not youngsters, and we had training sessions with them before we left the dog in their care while we were away. Our new neighbors have a dog sort of like him, but theirs is trustworthy, and none of the children are teenagers yet. The oldest boy wants to walk our dog as a summer job, but I can’t let him.

Our dog is developing arthritis. My sister, a veterinarian, told me to give the dog the same glucosamine tablets that people take. So the dog takes his pill every night, and he is ecstatic about it. He also has a prescription pill, and now he can again jump into the car to go for a ride, and he can run up the stairs again. He doesn’t slip and slide much anymore on our floors because of weak hip joints, but he also has learned to slow way down when he’s on bare floors.

My mom thinks he’s hilarious. She likes to be upstairs in the kitchen when it's Pill Time so she can laugh. I no longer take him for granted; my mother has taught me one more thing to laugh about in life.

Silly dog. ;-D

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Photography

I have been trying to learn about photography. I started my personal photography with a camera that I got through the mail, having carefully printed the address on the envelope enclosing the cardboard order form cut from the back of a food box, together with the required six Sugar Daddy candy wrappers and 25¢. The camera that was mailed to me was all plastic, black, and very small, but it used real spools of film that I could just afford out of my allowance. I took pictures of my cat, our dog, my sister’s guinea pig, my brother’s squirrels, our tortoise, our cockatiel bird, and my sister, over and over, my sister. She was a willing model for every silly pose we could think of. The pictures had to be taken outside in good light. Most cameras I knew about still didn’t have flash attachments. Kodak started advertising a camera that had interchangeable “flash cubes” that you stuck on top of your camera for indoor pictures. I couldn’t afford a camera like that. I loved my little camera. I grieved when the kind of film it used was discontinued.

After awhile, I wanted a better camera. I saved and saved until I could buy a Kodak Instamatic camera. It took me a long time. I took so many pictures with it that my family and friends all knew they weren’t safe from permanent records with me around. They called me the “creepy camera nut.” While I was working for the Oregon Department of Transportation, I got to know the guys who went around the state taking the official photographs. I learned a lot about photography from them, and I bought an SLR camera. I took a photography class in college. I made myself a little darkroom. My habit got somewhat serious, and the Boy Scouts made me a photography merit badge counselor.

I finally burned myself out when I was in Europe one time and figured out that I wasn’t actually seeing anything, just framing everything through the camera lens. I felt actually removed one degree from living life; I was in the business of recording it, not participating in it. I threw my old SLR away and didn’t take any pictures for years. When I was ready to take some photos again, one of my friends revealed that she had rescued the camera and had kept it for my future. I was happy to take it back, but I had a shock when I couldn’t focus it. My eyes had finally changed so that I needed glasses, and whatever correction I needed, I couldn’t use the camera with or without the glasses.

My photography went back to fixed focus “idiot” cameras. I didn’t take a lot of pictures; the results were too disappointing. But “idiot” cameras improved and I began to take more pictures.

I hated my first digital camera because of the delay between pressing the button and the camera actually opening and closing the shutter. No more action pictures. No more candid shots. No way to take a shot from a moving vehicle, unless you liked the surprise of what you actually got. I got this camera the day before we left for a trip to Israel, having dropped and broken my good camera that same day as we were packing. I had a lot of surprises, most of them unpleasant, in learning to use this camera, the worst of which were the battery problems and the uselessness of the view screen in strong sunlight, of which there is a lot in Israel in June. Fortunately, our tour group got together later and traded CDs of photographs. People with the nicer SLR digital cameras had taken hundreds of photographs, and we were happy they shared them all with us!

A few years ago my husband surprised me with the gift of a new digital SLR camera, the kind with a smart focus that lets you first adjust the camera to your eyesight, and then it allows you to focus. I love taking hundreds of pictures and not worrying about developing. I love that it doesn’t eat batteries. I love the zoom, the wide angle lens, the ability to adjust everything manually or let everything be automatic. I love trying new effects. It doesn’t have a view-finder screen; it has a viewfinder like the cameras of old, but then you can see your picture on its screen instantly. I love this camera!

I think back to the plastic candy-wrapper camera. I think I like my present camera just as much as I did that one. When I learn more about this blogging business, I will put some pictures on it from my different cameras and see if I’ve learned anything about photography.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Good Memories

One of my favorite college roommates died of skin cancer a couple of years ago, and last night her husband came over to talk to me about writing her biography. He said his first fantasy was to simply hire me and make it my full-time job to do the whole thing, but he had fortunately discarded that idea before I had to tell him no. However, I do want to be in on the creation of this biography, and I’m flattered that he asked me to help write and edit it. She was someone I always tried to be a little more like.

She was highly organized. She arose every morning at five, exercised, and wrote in her journal before breakfast. When we were at school, she then would get ready and go to classes or work, always on time, and she’d have all her homework done days ahead. I can’t remember her getting straight A grades or anything like that, but I was always aware that she was fully competent in everything she did. I do remember she typed very, very fast!

I liked to dance in those days. I had taken several ballroom dance classes and was on the “bronze” ballroom dance team (the team that did NOT perform, which was the sort of training team for people to get to the performance level). My partner and I used to organize impromptu dance parties in my apartment lots of week nights, where we’d put on records and start teaching everybody the dances we had to practice for our class. When this roommate moved in to my apartment and into our lives, she was a natural dancer. My partner fell for her, hard! I was all sympathy, but unluckily for him, my roommate couldn’t return any similar feelings for him—they just weren’t there. She was kind to him, however, not wanting him to keep hanging on to hope but not wanting to be too brutal either. A few years later he told me hers was the “best” breakup he’d ever experienced, which he knew was a sort of sad comment, but it was also a reflection of her good character. He later married and was very happy last I knew of him.

One time this roommate and I went to a dress shop when the fashion for old lace and floor-length dresses (maxi skirts, we called them, and Jessica McClintock was a well-known label around town) was current. We took my camera—I was taking a photography class—and tried on everything in the shop, photographing each other posing in the dresses. The store owner got in the spirit of the thing and I sent her copies of all the pictures with old-fashioned sepia-toned finishing, but I don’t think she ever used any. There went my modeling career. What a fun day.

This is the roommate who got me jogging. She decided she needed to take up jogging, and she wanted me to come with her. I discovered I really, really liked running. I ran for years and years. One of my great regrets is that I no longer run. I need to walk more, too. My roommate was a slender woman always, and she kept herself fit.

I wish we had never laid out in the sun, trying for suntans. I don’t know if that’s why she got skin cancer in her early 50s, but I still wish it. She warned me, “Never put off getting skin problems checked out!” She had stage 4 cancer because she had put off getting the problem area seen by a doctor. Had she been seen earlier, she might have been able to beat it. Who knows. I went with her to chemo treatments and to group therapy to talk about it.

For a number of years, she had organized getting together with me and another of our roommates for dinner every six months. We loved those times. She was the really entertaining one of our threesome. She would bring pictures and talk about her family, and we would listen, enthralled with all that she was learning and doing.

I miss her. The memories I have of her make me smile. It will be good to delve into her life and refresh a lot of memories that have faded.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Funerals and Faith

Yesterday, my husband and I went to a funeral. A childhood buddy of his had died, sitting at his computer, mouse in hand. He looked, his son told us, like he had simply fallen asleep sitting there. We sat with one of my husband’s cousins and his wife. We love being with these people. They are easy people, kind and interested in everything we do or say or think. They always have interesting things to say in return. We went to lunch afterward, lingering two hours to talk over everything since last time we were together, last summer.

Funerals always make me grateful for my husband. This friend of his seems to have accomplished remarkable things in his life, even allowing for the usual hyperbole heard at funerals. My husband always compares himself unfavorably to people who seem to have accomplished a lot. In my opinion, unbiased of course, he has nothing to fear. His greatest accomplishment is a happy family life. Naturally, I get to claim some of the credit, but not as much as he gets.

I’ve come across too many couples that I think are just enduring each other, hoping for better times to come, or using some other strategy to get themselves to settle for what they have rather than what they had hoped. I, on the other hand, am surprised at how much better my life is than I thought it would be when I married. I thought I was being realistic and avoiding wearing the rose-colored glasses of many engaged couples. However, I find instead I was overly pessimistic, which has worked in my favor since I have been waaay better off than I could have dreamed. The reason I suppose that funerals make me think of these things is that my husband is almost a generation older than I am, so I am likely to be alone a long time between our passings, if we live average life spans. I’m happy to be still in the time of being together here.

I believe in an afterlife, and I believe in eternal marriage. This gives me the comfort of not having to fear a time when I “lose” my husband forever. I saw the widow at this funeral buoyed up by this same hope and faith. She was strong and sad at the same time, with an assurance that the sadness would fade and that hope and faith would continue. This was the second marriage for both my husband’s friend and his wife. They had endured miserable marriages before, and then they had the great good fortune to find each other after their others ended. It sounds from the funeral talks as if they had a wonderful time together. I am my husband’s second wife, the first marriage having been a disaster, and I end up being compared favorably. I am determined that I shall not be a disaster!

My mom lives with us, and since she has been widowed just under two years, I am watching the grieving process she has gone through and continues to feel. We used to say about her and my dad that they lived in each other’s back pockets, they were so close. They absolutely loved being together, doing everything together. Now she is very lonely, even with us around. She has the same faith I do, but it doesn’t erase grief. I miss my dad, but nothing compared to how my mother feels. Still, she enjoys things. Grief hasn’t changed her fundamentally; she’s always been a strong person and still is.

I know that I am very, very fortunate. I know that life has not been fair to some of my friends and family, and that one of the unfairnesses is that I should have this great reward for nothing I ever did to deserve it. However, together with my faith in having my husband in the eternities, I have faith that God makes everything fair in the end. He knows better than we do what unfairness might be necessary here on earth for our ultimate good, and being perfect, He’ll make everything come out right in the end. My simple logic says that if He didn’t, He wouldn’t be God.

When the time comes that my husband and I are parted for a time, I’ll have to reread this and remember it. Someone should read it to me after the funeral.