Monthly Archives: May 2013

Draw the Circle Cozy and Close

Old North Bridge, Concord, Massachusetts (Wiki Commons)

Old North Bridge, Concord, Massachusetts (Wiki Commons)

“I have traveled extensively in Concord, Massachusetts.” –Henry David Thoreau

This is the first of his birthdays since May 29, 1930 that my father will not himself be present to celebrate. We are having another memorial of sorts. How fitting that his birthday often falls on Memorial Day. Though not a Jewish family–or so we have been led to believe–we have borrowed and slightly altered a Jewish tradition: We light candles next to a photo of our family members on the days of their birth, rather than the day of their passing. We borrow, in slightly altered form, the yahrzeit candle tradition of reverence and love.

Today I lit a candle by a photo of my parents together, earnestly hoping (“very superstitious,” I know) that this would bring no harm to my healthy, youthful mother. No sooner had I left the house, than I remembered that I had turned off every light at home, but forgotten to blow out the candle. Ironically, I was with a friend who lost her home to a house fire caused by a similar seemingly harmless act. We had a quick whispered discussion, and decided that since it was a tea light in a tea light holder, my home was probably safe for a short while.

I have been sleepless and obsessed, searching through photos of my father to bring to our family dinner tonight. It hasn’t been easy. I have no photo quality printer at home, and have no printed photos from later than the year 2004. My hope was to find one of him with each of his two children and five grandchildren. Almost every photo of my father is with my mother. He was not only a faithful, but an adoring, husband. Perhaps he took his adoration to an extreme, but my mother never minded. Nor did she complain about the last six years of being homebound with him. Though exhausted and sad, she did not even complain much about the weeks in surgical suites, months visiting a rehabilitation center, and finally, long days in the hospital room. At the very end, she crept into his hospital bed and sang him to sleep.

My father was a fortunate man, who had no need to look far for happiness and pleasure. The little goslings wandering across a field were his great joy while in the rehabilitation center. At home he loved “all creatures great and small.” He was overjoyed by the sight of birds at the feeder and even the (pesky!) deer eating the farmer’s crops and my mother’s flowers.

One of his best friends took his family on a sailing trip with an unknown destination and ended up in Tahiti for seven years. My father was quite content navigating his small sailboat back and forth across the lake closest to his home town. The world around him, the people with whom he lived and worked, were sufficient. A professor by profession, a devoted reader–especially to his children when they were small–a musician in earlier years, and music aficionado later, and lover and learner of foreign languages, he was content with a drawing his circle close.

When we were small, my father read great works of poetry and literature to us. Small-minded he was not. The literary works to which he introduced us were mostly selected according to his age and gender, so I became quite familiar with Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling,and Charles Dickens as a child. My brother’s favorite was Edgar Allen Poe. But I was also treated to Alice in Wonderland and My Secret Garden. It was my pleasure, later in life, to introduce him to The Chronicles of Narnia, and his favorite, A Wrinkle in Time.

If not visionary, my father was kind. If not entirely able to understand a growing and grown daughter, he was encouraging of her endeavors. Though he did not read his mother’s Bible, I have read it “in part.” And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity (Corinthians 13:13, KJV). Though unengaged in the maneuvers of “principalities and powers” (Romans 8:38), he embodied the values of faith, hope, and charity in his actions towards those close to him.

The poems from the Wind in the Willows were among our favorites when I was little. Ratty’s “Ducks’ Ditty,”with “Ducks’ Tails, Drakes Tails, Yellow feet a-quiver” was a special favorite. Just now, I looked up to see a rabbit slowly, casually hopping by. While I am a bit concerned that Cottontail is hopping around my one unfenced garden bed, father would have been delighted to see the little creature.

Slim Pickings: No Overthinking

The solar panel is not for sale!

Yesterday, Memorial Day, those at home–two young adults and two less young adults–rolled out of bed fairly late, just before 9am. It was yard sale day and time for the gleaning of salable goods to begin. The lack of planning ahead didn’t bother me at all. Who needs over-anxious bargain hunters–known in garage sale parlance as “early birds”–pounding on the door at 6am?! It was a lovely day for their garage sale. Happy because spontaneity obviates overthinking, I got right to work helping to collect appropriate personal and household items.

This was a morning of the constantly misplaced tea cup. No easing into the day with a cup of tea and book or newspaper on the front porch. Tables on which to display items were dragged up from the basement; blankets and tablecloths on which to display other items covered tables and were spread on the lawn. The clothes line never materialized, so the clothing was not optimally displayed. It turns out that people do not look at dresses hanging from tree branches. A rejected shoe rack was a late find. The shoes might have received more attention had that been unearthed sooner. Unlike when we had garage sales in California, no one asked whether we had any swords or weapons to sell. The multi-tool offered for sale does have a small knife and was one of the first items to sell.

There was a small flurry of late morning activity, and then things slowed down. We made and served brunch al fresco. When no new customers stopped by for a fairly long stretch, the yard-salers became a bit grumpy. The parent who had discouraged this enterprise from the beginning shared the information that yard sales were best advertised in advance. The professionals would be out bright and early with a well-planned itinerary, quickly scanning each sale for collectibles & items with resale value. Then the older sibling came around to do some bike repair and to protect his property–no selling that solar panel! He also offered sage advice: garage sales should be held on Saturdays. The garage sale hosts were off on a camping trip in another part of the state on Saturday, and very vague about the date and time or their return, so I gave no thought to planning ahead. This yard sale was either going to be a last-minute affair or not take place at all. Whatever the results, I thought it would be a “learning experience” for all, and that the birthday beneficiary of its proceeds would appreciate the effort.

Fortunately a second sortie of shoppers came by. Had they attended Memorial Day ceremonies or parades earlier? Were they finally free to sort through “one man’s trash” in search of elusive treasures? The latecomers were probably adhering to a different tradition within garage sale culture: Arrive late and the sellers will be very ready to bargain. Or maybe some of the handmade signs, belatedly posted at the top of a busy through street, directed traffic their way.

While it wasn’t a huge financial success, there is enough net profit to purchase a nice birthday gift. It was gratifying to see what grew to be a group of four working hard together–not a born salesperson in the group–and achieving some success through persistence. When the action was slow, they lounged in comfortable lawn chairs, listening to the Grateful Dead. The music was played on a portable iPod player powered by older brother’s single solar panel.

It is always fun to meet and greet neighbors as well as strangers passing through at tag sales. Having sold thousands of boxes of Girl Scout cookies and lots of wrapping paper, tubs of ice cream, frozen cookie dough and pizzas, it was rewarding to finally be a minor role-player in fundraising. Maybe the time-honored lemonade stand would have been a good addition, but isn’t the unwritten upper age limit on lemonade stands middle school? And who really wants powdered lemonade? We were spoiled by years of lemonade made from freshly-picked lemons. It is unlikely that our customers followed us east, but I personally can’t work up much enthusiasm for the sugary sweet stuff. If there is a next time, I think a chai and coffee stand might be a respectable addition and traffic-stopper for this older group of kids.

I’m not convinced that more lucrative is that important to them. Staunch environmentalists all, they would have been happy to see more of their outgrown clothing reused. They have not asked for my advice, but does anyone have suggestions for their next garage sale?

Dear Resistant Gardener

Fothergilla Mt. Airy courtesty of Wiki Commons

Fothergilla Mt. Airy courtesy of Wiki Commons

What a funny banner ad in Gmail. Oh…it actually read “Deer Resistant Gardens.” So, there are simple solutions to cope with the deer, but what are we going to do about gardeners like me? There really are things growing in my garden. I catch Peter, or possibly Flopsy, Mopsy, or Cottontail with nose pressed up against the netting wound around the raised beds both morning and evening. Still, I remain convinced that this is a secret society, that everyone else is gardening the “right” way, and I am going about it all wrong.

What vegetable should I plant next? Should I pull the ferns that are growing among the hydrangea out? The hydrangea do seem to be deer and rabbit resistant, as there they are, soon ready to bloom. The ferns are pretty, but it seems to me that they are choking the hydrangea. And I am beset by bigger questions: are any of these things native plants? Shouldn’t I be planting native plants?

Yes, I am a classic overthinker (

Seeds better not be RoundUp Ready, or they are not welcome in my garden. In that case, I prefer the dandelions and clover. Isn’t there a clever scientist out there who will defeat the evil Monsanto empire by making a RoundUp ready dandelion and spreading it, helter-skelter, everywhere? That could spell the end of RoundUp! After much consternation and Googling, I have determined that Burpee is still a family owned seed company based in Philadelphia. The two pots of Burpee bell peppers purchased for planting in the garden are, therefore, “ethical” bell peppers, non-GMO, and not RoundUp ready.

The time has come to stop thinking, be happy with my spring crop, soon ready for harvest, and start planting a summer crop. Not only do we have rich compost from our own yard waste and plant matter, but compost from our town’s compost program. We give them revolting stuff, almost any conceivable organic (carbon-based) matter and we have now had rich, black compost returned to us, filling our last, waiting garden box, to the brim.

Thankfully, we have a doer as well as a thinker in the family. A Fothagilla Mt. Airy shrub now festoons the front border. The Fothagilla is a native plant–a native southeastern plant, and we are in the Mid-Atlantic region–but I am no longer resisting. The climate here is not that different from that of Georgia is it? Now I hope our Fothagilla Mt. Airy survives to show its resplendent fall foliage.

Northern Lights Blackout

Subway Station of Husby, Stockholm Suburbs, Wiki Commons

Subway Station of Husby, Stockholm Suburbs, Wiki Commons

Sweet little Sweden is showing its dark side to the world. Swedish riots are currently chaotic, destructive, but not yet deadly. According to television, radio and newspaper media sources rioters are primarily youth born themselves born abroad or to immigrant parents. (The largest immigrant populations in Sweden are from the other Nordic and European countries, but it does not appear that Danes and Norwegians are currently being held accountable.) Counter-demonstrations, against violence, are also being held.

Sweden’s inhabitants are 15% foreign-born. Whether that statistic includes those of other Nordic lands is not made explicit in news sources I consulted today. When last in Sweden, I had  conversation with a woman I will call Anna-Lisa. I was visiting Stockholm and Gothenburg, Sweden’s two largest cities, on that visit, but not Malmö, Sweden’s third largest city. Anna-Lisa informed me that I “would not recognize” Malmö because there were so many Muslims on the streets. Those who do not practice Islam, feel oppressed by being labeled and identified with oppressive regimes–in Iran and lraq among others–that they have fled.

Anna-Lisa went on to say that “these people” don’t blend in well in Swedish society. They live in the same neighborhoods and their children attend the same schools. I replied that we have similar issues in the U.S. and that areas in which most residents are of a single, minority race, and are impoverished, were formerly referred to with the harsh, pejorative terms “ghettos” or “slums.” We now use euphemisms and speak of “urban blight” and the “urban poor,” along with “urban violence.” We are no longer blaming the victims, but we are also not taking any blame upon ourselves. Anna-Lisa vehemently objected, reiterating that “these people” choose their lifestyle. I wonder whether people actively “choose” the unemployment that is far higher among immigrants to Sweden than it is among native Swedes.

Southern Sweden, close to Denmark–which has a less liberal immigration and asylum policy than does Sweden–is also the area in which the Sweden Democrats first gained traction. There is now a growing backlash against immigrants in Sweden, fomented by this single-issue anti-immigrant party ( The anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats are not to be confused with the Swedish Social Democrats, the left-of-center party which had long led the ruling coalitions in Sweden until losing power in 2006 and again in 2010. ( ).

Xenophobia is certainly not confined to Southern Sweden, nor to Sweden alone. Anti-immigrant parties exist,and are beginning to thrive, in other European countries as well. The “True Finns” are but one example. These parties seeks to propagate the myth of ethnic purity. That sounds familiar and very dangerous, does it not?

I recently visited Uppsala, which I am surprised to learn is now Sweden’s fourth largest city. Uppsala feels like the university town it is, but not like the city it has apparently grown to be since my last visit. In short, while by all accounts Swedes remain among the most contented people in the world, life in Sweden is changing.

A Luddite’s Lament: Doomsday Books

in the style of e.e. cummmings:

doomsday books

when the number 2 pencils are sharpened,

the yellow pads spring sprightly to attention

ready to receive homage in leaden latin characters,

not characters produced with digital code, but analog.

analogously, alone, the writer, typing or writing,

threading by memory that fall day when the bicycle was blue and

the boy shook his hair back out of his eyes

while the girl held on & thought, maybe,

she had discovered love.

the three-hole punch is at the ready; the swingline stapler standing by its side,

while on the turntable neil young sings songs of remorse,

remorse, regret, reform, refrain

down by the river country girl.

the library’s hints and smells of bygone years

pages crinkled



the dust

of ages, of pages, of time past, time forgotten, time imagined

time travel

time and again




(I acknowledge my debt to Connie Willis author of Doomsday Book, published in 1993, and to Jack Finney author of Time and Again, published in 1970. Also Neil Young and Crazy Horse and Crosby, Still, Nash & Young, and for Neil Young’s songs “Down by the River” on Everybody Knows this is Nowhere and “Country Girl” on CSNY’s Déjà Vu.)

Acts of God?

Wikimedia Commons Moore, OK Tornado

Wikimedia Commons Moore, OK Tornado

Why are natural disasters called “Acts of God”? Because they, like God, are beyond human comprehension and beyond human ability to effect. This phrase is not suggest that God is evil, but rather that God is the unfathomable everything of the world and universe.

This “God language” does not exclude agnostics or atheists, who stand equally helpless in the face of tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, fires, and volcanic eruptions. This language reflects that there is no one who does not experience or look upon the destruction of the unfathomably fearsome tornado that yesterday struck an elementary school and cut a path 20 miles long and remain unshaken.

We humans are small and fragile. There are actions we can take to avoid tsunamis and other disasters, but there is little warning. Seismologists cannot predict when tectonic plates will shift, and where old or new faults will break open, splitting the earth as we might break an orange into sections.

Above the howling winds and rushing waters, the voice of goodness, or of God, may be heard. The phrase “God is good” also means that God is the essence of goodness. There is no philosophical strain in this parent and writer who sees good in death and destruction. But above the howling, all-consuming ravaging, “a still, small voice” may, at times, be heard.

The voice I remember best from the tsunami 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan is the voice of a young woman. This 25-year-old woman who remained in her watchtower, ceaselessly broadcasting her warnings that people around her move to higher ground immediately. She kept on broadcasting her urgent message, knowing that she herself was unlikely to survive. That is the voice of god or good.

There was in Japan, and will also be in Oklahoma, anger directed at the government, and even victims, for decisions made under duress and in minutes. There could always be higher tsunami walls and stronger bunkers. Complacency is not the answer, as warning systems work well when there is time to respond, but that time is not always given to us.

Another day, I will write about my father’s childhood in Illinois. My father, born in 1930, believed that tornadoes were increasing in force and frequency due to the leveling of the landscape for farming. He held this belief long before most recognized the human impact on storms and weather. Whether or not he was correct is the subject of great debate.

This is not a day to be righteous and correct, but a time to recognize that we are all shaken, to mourn, and for some highly trained individuals, to rescue survivors. Will our donation of blood or money help? Or do we mean these donations as gesture of empathy and solidarity, as we stand, helpless and empty-handed.

No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service

And at last no arrest either! Women as well as men have the civil right to bare their breasts in public in New York. Why is this important? So what?

Be advised: those seeking titillation will be sorely disappointed in the content of this post about desexualizing women’s breasts.

The Memorandum, or prepublication synopsis of law defining this right is from 1992, so this should not be news, but it is ( The 1992 law grants women in New York the right to be show their breasts anywhere that men may show theirs. The language of the memorandum makes clear why this is important despite being contrary to public sentiment. Whenever an issue has to do with race, gender or other category protected by civil rights, the law may diverge from public sentiment and common social practice.

Even many of my most liberal friends think I am wrong-headed on this point. But though Ms. Van Voast is not directly doing the work of an organization like Amnesty International, her annual ritual of breast-baring and arrest is not unlike acts of protest against Jim Crow laws. She is advocating for women to have equal the same rights and privileges that men have.

As many of us read in a May 15, 2013 New York Times article by J. David Goodman, Ms. Van Voast will not be arrested this year. NYPD officers have now been trained not to arrest women merely because they are topless from the waist up.

Typically wrapped up like a mummy, this will only have an indirect effect on me. A friend at a recent gathering laughed at my son’s XL hooded Carhart coat and my Ugh boots donned on top of several other layers. I looked, she said, like the character from the movie Nanook of the North. However swathed and swaddled I may be, I applaud this step toward equal rights.

This weekend’s hate killing of a gay man in New York, and crimes committed worldwide against oppressed groups, are true tragedies. One important safeguard against tragic oppression–when upheld–are laws guaranteeing equality. Such laws are steps toward ensuring a greater measure of safety for all.

An earlier generation of women abandoned its bras. That era has passed, and we are more conventional now. However, in a limited area and arena, we have the freedom to peel off our t-shirts wherever men may legally do the same. This practice will probably remain rare, but its significance lies in its extrapolation to far more serious injustices.

Acknowledging the anatomical similarities of all human breasts must be liberating to men who have breast cancer as well as to those whose hormonal or genetic conditions cause them to grow larger-than-average male breasts. It should also serve as yet another liberating force in the LGBT community and for intersex persons.

Thank you, Ms. van Voast. My kids are grateful to you, too, as I have made idle threats of taking on such a campaign. Though suburban New Jersey does not seem ready for topless women at parks, pools, and playgrounds, hopefully fewer nursing mothers will be subjected to harassment. Then again, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not believe in waiting for the right time to fight for civil liberties.