“Gifts from Abroad”


Although I have no desire to travel overseas, some of my friends do. Yesterday dear friends came over to share the mincemeat pie I mentioned a few posts ago. They had just returned from Israel and brought back as a gift the lovely blue and yellow scarf pictured above. As soon as I saw it I knew it would look perfect atop the dining room sideboard below our blue and yellow wallpaper. It looks as if I was made for just that spot.

I treasure friends who now me well enough to gift me with just the right things. Giving takes certain skills, most especially the ability to know not what I would like, but what would suit the other person. Near my home there are several “gift shops” which seem to fill a niche for people who want or need to give someone a present but have no idea what that might be. While I have poked around in them occasionally, I have rarely found anything that would suit any friend. I imagine that many of the items end up in closets.

I love running across things in the course of my life. Sometimes I see something, most usually a book of course, that I know would be a perfect gift. Then I have to practice the aforementioned skill. Who am I  really thinking about, me or my friend? If it is me, I buy it for myself. If for my friend I enjoy knowing the pleasure sure to come.

I hope that, as often a possible, we can gift from the heart rather than from obligation.  Despite all the advertising, there really are no “everyone wants one” presents. Don’t be suckered into buying one of those “as seen on TV.” Except maybe those copper bracelets to heal arthritis! Hint. Hint. (Just kidding.)





Over 30,000 citizens of Connecticut have died in wars over the last two hundred and forty years. Last month our Congressional representative installed  a memorial near our home to all those who perished. Called the Gold Star Memorial, its name reflects the Gold Stars that were given first to mothers and later to all family members of the casualties of war, beginning in the first World War.

The image is striking, easily viewed from the highway near by, but surrounded by a small park with benches. One can sit on a bench and be accompanied by two other bronze figures.

In the first image a bronze soldier stands in contemplation before a giant star that has fallen earth. While seemingly too literal an image, in reality it moved me greatly. So today while Americans are enjoying Thanksgiving dinner, I am thinking of those who died for this country. It gives me pause.


“Obedience School”


Grace, our Australian Shepherd, is now approaching 14. She is the third in a line of Aussies that we have raised since puppies. The breed is affectionate, loyal, alert, active, protective of  children, a hater of mailmen and an all around great family dog. Grace came from upstate New York, one of two puppies of an excellent sheep dog. We had to promise not to breed her, and sent proof of her spaying once it was done. Reputable sheep dog owners don’t want puppy mills to spring up from their offspring.

Both of our earlier dogs had flunked obedience school, preferring to do their own training. Grace has followed suit. Their own training is owner focused, that is, I, as the owner, needed to be trained. Grace has outperformed her predecessors in this endeavor. In case you are an owner in need of training, Grace suggests the following tasks to be mastered.

  1. Open the back door when your dog stands near it to go out.
  2. Open the back door when your dog who just went out wants to come in.
  3. Repeat as frequently as necessary.
  4. Leave the toilet lid up for cold drinking water. (Grace says her owners constantly fail at this.)
  5.  Step over or around your dog and never ask her to move.
  6. Feed regularly. Don’t listen to the vet’s recommended amount.
  7. Toss frequent table scraps. Ignore the vet’s directives.
  8. Keep the yard full of squirrels for endless enjoyment of your dog.
  9. Disregard the vet’s recommended immunization demands.
  10. Let the dog’s nail and hair grow to please the dog, not the owner.
  11. Never call anything a “doggy hotel.”
  12. Never leave town, especially not with the dog in a “doggy hotel.”

Grace reports that despite her constant training, we continue to fail at some key tasks she considers important. She asks why we expect her to go to obedience school. Clearly the problems lie with her owners.

“Confusing Word Pairs(or is it pears?)”


Writing my post yesterday I realized that I was confused between the words “flaunt” and “flout.” It doesn’t make much difference when speaking because the words sound so similar. I hadn’t really taken time since preparing for the SAT tests in 1964 to tell the two words apart. That was the last time I had to “flaunt” my vocabulary skills. But since I was posting on line, and since I have mentioned that I am a retired English professor, I thought I better get it right.

It made me think about all the words that confuse both me and others. “Capital” and “capitol” have been my undoing on numerous occasions. Then there is “its” and “it’s” which never confused me but seemed to be the bane of my students no matter how often I tried to explain which was which. They also regularly mixed “their,” “there,” and “they’re.” Lest you excuse their mistakes as coming from learning English as a second language, I need to stress that these students all had English as their first tongue.

I have given up on the subtle difference between “aver” and “avow,” and look for synonyms when either might do. “Accept” and “except” seem pretty distinct to me, but others mix them up sometimes.  But “affect” and “effect” can still throw me off if I am not vigilant. “Complement” is so often spelled “compliment” in print that I suspect the two spellings may be on their way to merger.

“Who’s” to blame for all this confusion? It depends on “whose” etymology (not entomology) you consult.

“Oak Park Neighbors”


While reading my latest biography, this one on Frank Lloyd Wright the architect, I kept seeing references to Oak Park, Illinois. Finally my brain cells woke up and I connected the book to my own genealogy studies. My maternal grandmother, the little girl on the left of the photo above, was born and grew up in Oak Park. She was one of four little girls and lived, I knew, on North Grove Avenue in Oak Park. Her dad was an attorney in Chicago, and Oak Park was a lovely suburb.

I looked up Wright’s house on Google Maps and learned that it was two blocks from Grannie’s. She was born in 1890, so she would have been the age of his children. She also lived a few blocks from the woman, Mrs. Cheney, that Wright ran off with, leaving his wife and five children. Apparently, before they decamped, they rode around Oak Park, a scandalous display flouting all social norms. My grandmother would have been 13 at the time, and I can imagine her talking about the outrage with her friends.

Her house, in fact, lies within what is now the Frank Lloyd Wright Historic District, the scandal having been excused I guess. But looking at the map I also saw that Ernest Hemingway’s childhood home was on the block behind Grannie’s. Suddenly I remembered a story from years ago. She said she heard Mrs. Hemingway in the back yard yelling various boys’ names until she settled on Ernest. It seems to have been possible after all since Ernest was nine years her junior.

I wish that we had lived closer to my grandparents, but they lived 3000 miles away and we saw them rarely. I never had a chance to really gather stories from them. At my last visit, however, during the Watergate inquiry, Grannie was quick to remind me that there was nothing new about government scandals. “You wouldn’t believe the Tea Pot Dome affair!” she calmly told me. I wonder what she would make of Trump, scoundrels having been around since she was a child!


“Mine Eyes Have Seen…Less These Days”


Many years ago my blue eyed grandmother had cataract surgery. She recounted the ordeal, including time spent in the hospital with her head surrounded by sand bags so she couldn’t turn it. Needless to say, I developed a deep seated fear of the operation.

Wednesday my eye doctor said that I have now passed the criteria for cataract surgery on my left eye. She used the “glare test” which measures how long it takes to see the eye chart after looking at a bright light. I passed with both eyes which was not good news. Basically it explains why I have stopped driving at night. But my right eye still functions well enough to wait for a procedure on it.

In April I meet with an ophthalmologist to explain and schedule the replacement of my own lens with a plastic one. My doctor keeps telling me that it is nothing like the process of fifty years ago. No matter how calmly she explains that today it is a quick operation, not requiring hospitalization or sand bags, my old anxiety has come back. I would love to hear from any reader about their experience with cataract surgery. No horror stories please. I have enough of them floating around in my mind already. Thanks.



I had certainly been familiar with “flakes,” people who let me down, who didn’t show up for a repair when they said they would, people who neglected to return books I had lent them, and ones who ignored social niceties. But recently, having heard people called “snowflakes,” I started to wonder what the name meant.

At first I figured that snowflakes are intricate and lovely, but that didn’t seem to go with the way the word was being used as a criticism. Then I thought that they melt easily and wondered if that was the quality alluded to. Finally I went to the internet and read up on the word. Sadly, I left somewhat confused.

Apparently one use of the word refers to the uniqueness of any given snowflake. A child can be seen by parents as incredibly special, one of a kind, and treated as royalty. Thus a spoiled child can grow into an entitled adult.

Another use seems to refer to the fragility of a snowflake. In this instance it is used in a derogatory fashion about young adults who are easily offended or triggered or demanding special treatment.

I think that if a word is this confusing perhaps people my age should avoid using it. As my grandson so pointedly told me last week “You are not up on modern culture, are you?” No, I’m not. Although I can make frequent use of 60’s slang, for me “snowflakes” will continue to refer to the stuff falling from the sky.

“Emotions and Issues”


Pictured above are some of the people hoping to gain the Democratic Party nomination for the Presidential election in November 2020. Primary elections throughout the country, followed by a national Democratic convention beginning July 13 in Wisconsin, will determine which of them actually runs against the Republican candidate. Presumably that will be Donald Trump again, but who really knows.

I read two national newspapers every day, The New York Times and the Washington Post. Each one has comprehensive coverage of the various campaigns and reserves its own positions for the editorial page. Despite being maligned as “fake news,” each adheres to what I have known throughout my life as journalistic standards. They are a refreshing change from cable news programs which are designed to entertain as much as to inform.

I have always tried to keep informed on the candidates and the issues. As a lifelong Democrat, I have much to consider. I thought I was veering towards one particular candidate. But the Washington Post ran an interesting quiz yesterday with ten questions about where I stood on issues ranging from health care to trade agreements. After answering the queries, the paper told me which candidates must closely matched my views.

And it turns out that I, like so many other Americans, had been choosing with my emotions not my positions. I have a near match with two candidates and am far removed from a couple I was leaning towards. In our very heated and partisan political scene, I had been swept along with image, photo ops and slogans. I owe it to myself and to my citizenship to pay more attention to what really matters. The issues, not the personalities.


“These Rooms”


Yesterday at church I sat behind a woman who doesn’t have a home. For a while she lived in a shelter, but she told me that she was now sleeping outdoors. I know her name and her age–early 60’s–and that she is clearly an addict. She was twitchy and shaking in the pew as Mass went on. My compassion for her was deep, but I thought about what I had learned in what those who know call “these rooms.”

Anonymous programs exist to provide people a chance to share experience, strength and hope with others. Some of these are for people who live with addicts, some for addicts themselves. I have spent hundreds of hours in such places processing and learning about the addicts I grew up among. Slogans are a key part of these rooms, and one in particular came to me as I sat behind and prayed for her. “You need to accept life on life’s terms.” It’s a counter message to the “visualize and it will come to be” so prevalent in much of the culture.

I had to accept that she was self destructing. I had to accept that her mind was consumed with needing a fix. I was careful to take my phone with me when I went up for Communion. Did that mean I didn’t trust her? Yes, it did. I care about her and I wish the best for her, but part of life on life’s terms is that in her need for a fix she might have seen my phone and taken it. Not because I wasn’t kind to her. Not because I don’t call her by her name(which I do.) No because she is an addict, kicked out of a shelter and not asking me for help beyond money. Our priest has asked us not to hand out money directly but put it into the poor box. He knows all these street people and can discern actual need.

It is extremely painful to watch people self-destruct. The only thing more painful is to mistakenly believe that I have magical powers to cure them. I didn’t have them as a kid and I don’t have them now. I learned that in “these rooms.” I am forever grateful.

“Why Read Biography?”

When I was in grade school we had to write reports on books with various topics and styles each year. Teachers were trying to make sure we didn’t stick to our preferred genres, but ventured out into other types of reading. I loved fiction and would have happily read only that, but I dutifully read from the list of other kinds of books each year. As a result, I read a biography each year as a kid. Otherwise I don’t think I would have been interested. After that required reading, I rarely ever picked up, much less read a biography.

Typical of what I read was a volume of the Landmark History Series, a story of Molly Pitcher, brave Revolutionary War heroine. (I just read about her and learned there was no such person!) Biographies for kids were, I think, meant to inspire us in the 1950’s to pursue patriotic, heroic, brave and outstanding lives. They didn’t present a rounded picture of anyone, and they seemed more propaganda than history. I made the mistake of never considering that adult biographies might be different, especially ones written in the last 40 years.

I read many autobiographies and memoirs throughout my adult years. At least they were first hand accounts, however skewed through the lens of the writer. But recently I noticed that I have read three lengthy biographies this year, the ones pictured above. What changed? I have become old and am intrigued with the long arc of another person’s life. I no longer demand simplistic accounts of people who have made a mark on their worlds. Instead I crave the complex reality of a long life with its failures and successes. A good biographer, working with countless primary sources, attempts to present such a story.

To all my friends who asked me over the years why I didn’t read biographies, this post stands as an answer. You were right. They are fascinating and I am trying to catch up with all of you. 600 pages at a time!