Thursday, September 29, 2011

Training Wheels

Today is my father's birthday.  He would be 94 if he were alive.  He died ten years ago.  Several years later, after my mother's death, I found the planning calendar she had used in 2001.  March 13, the day of his death was scratched out with black ink - she went over and over the March 13 square, pressing her pen down hard.  They were married for 62 years.  I wrote about my mother in May.

Using today's idiom, my father was a "hands on" guy.  He taught me ride a bike, to sail, to throw a ball and all the other things a kid needed to know. He laced my skates on the coldest days when we skated on the frozen creek by our house.  He never seemed to be cold.  He read what I wrote and improved it with his suggestions.  For thirty years we spoke on the phone each Sunday and talked about the books we had read.  He lured me to read from his library.  When he was weakened by poor lungs at the end of his life, I organized those books for him so he could look over them and recall what he could no longer read. 

Today's dads can use training wheels to help their children learn to ride.  In our day, Dad ran along side holding the seat of my bike.  He kept me balanced until he could feel that I could make it alone, and then he let go.  He was my training wheels in so many ways. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

It ain't BEGUN until the fat lady sings!

Thus spoke the Philadelphia Flyers (ice hockey team) of their adopted good luck-goddess, Kate Smith.  I write about her today because we are entering the season of baseball playoffs.  When major league baseball resumed in the week after the 9/11 attacks, teams began offering "God Bless America" as a patriotic flourish in the seventh inning stretch.  They would do well to play a recording of Smith singing "God Bless America" which was written for her by Irving Berlin in 1938.  The Flyers played it before a game in 1969.  They won.  Over the next 30 years Smith (often in person) and her song (sometimes a recording) achieved a stunning success: 94 wins, 26 losses and 4 ties.  For pure joy, watch this clip of her performance before Game 6 of the 1974 Stanley Cup finals in which the Flyers beat the Bruins and went on to win the championship.

Perhaps today's performers will channel their inner fat lady, stand and deliver in the same way. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

RIP Retired English Teachers

English is a wonderful language.  It is dynamic, changing with contemporary use.  The straightforward syntax of English allows words to tell without elaborate grammatical arrangements. Words can change class easily - a noun in one sentence, adjective in another, even a verb.  For example: George is her husband.  He did not act in a husbandly way when he flirted with the clerk.  He will husband her dowry carefully.  In each generation there are those who resist changes in grammar and usage.  They justify their view by invoking their mother or grandmother as in "my grandmother would turn over in her grave if she heard....".  But the language moves on nevertheless and accommodates change. 

I have my favorite examples.  The use of "atbat" as a noun, as in "He had a difficult atbat, striking out after four fouls".  This week I heard a popular new noun.  On the TV show "Antiques Roadshow", "yard saling" slipped from the lips of an on-air interviewee.  And I saw in print a verb coined by flight attendants telling you to "power down" your computer.  The instructions for my fancy new head lamp (used for walking dogs after dark) advised me to "power down" the light before changing the batteries.

I am a fan of these developments.  Last week I wrote about pipe organs.  It is from pipe organ performance that we have the phrase "pull out all the stops".  The stops are used to control air flow through the pipes.  Pulling out all the stops would result in maximum volume.  You can think of your own examples of our language in dynamic change.  Use a new word today.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Oh, Bach!

Josh Hunt is a nationally recognized expert on why some churches succeed and others don't.  He lectures, consults and blogs about increasing church membership.  He frequently advises churches to take out the ograns that dominate the vaulted space of the sanctuary.  "Young people today don't listen to pipe organ music on their iPod's", he says.  Pity.  Take a short break and listen to the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.  Share it with a young person.  Perhaps there is hope.

Thursday, September 8, 2011


It's time for county and state fairs.  If you're lucky there is one near you.  My favorite part of the fair is the chickens, especially the fancy ones with top-nots and fluffy feet.

Many fairs feature extreme vegetable contests.  Eighteen pound carrots and 50 pound beets are wheeled in.  But the ultimate sport in extreme vegetables is giant pumpkin growing.  Pumpkineers are a class unto themselves.  Technology, technique and seed hybridization are closely guarded secrets.  All admit that luck plays a big role.  In the last 20 years pumpkineering has grown from a casual hobby to obsession for the top growers.  Standards have changed.  "Heavy" used to be 400 pounds.  Today the heavy-weights come in over 1,500 pounds slung with hoists and pulleys from the back of big trucks.  Take a quick look on YouTube.

Why do I care?  I love the competition - but more than that I love the demonstration of the power of photosynthesis.  From seed to 3/4 ton in three months.  This is a natural process.  This is the essential building block of life on this earth.  Go green!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Who Should Help?

We are aware of natural disasters around the world.  Television brings the flood waters into our kitchens. When  the earth quakes in the United States, we are on the scene within hours, often seeing real-time video from cell phone cameras.  People are rescued from rising water.  The National Guard is on scene.

Until late in the 20th Century, the hard times brought by wind, rain and fire were endured locally without a TV reporter asking how it feels to lose your home.  The chain of responsibility ran first through the private sector and then to local and state government.  In the great Mississippi flood of 1927 President Coolidge was hesitant to make a federal commitment even when 30 feet of water covered land from Illinois to  the Gulf of Mexico.  One million were homeless.  (Read a great book about this flood by John Barry, "The Rising Tide".  Try, also "The Johnstown Flood", David McCullough's account of the 1889 flood in Pennsylvania.)

Today we have an elaborate hierarchy of  response.  First, emergency.  Second, restore public services.These are clearly the functions of government and are one of the reasons we are willing to pay taxes.   And then, after lives are saved and the immediate danger has passed the more complex challenge of compensation and restoration.  It's not clear whose responsibility it is to hold our citizens harmless against the hazards of the weather.  Some are helped and some are not.  Some built in a flood plain, or out on the beach against the better judgment of others.  Some buy insurance.  Some do not.  Some rebuild in the same place and are flooded out again.  I am not sure who should help and even less sure who should pay.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Rubus Fruticosus

The common blackberry.  Yum.  We are at the height of the season here in the Pacific Northwest.  In fact, Oregon is the leading blackberry producer in the world. But you don't need to go to Oregon to find this fruit.  Blackberries tolerate poor soil and will take over any vacant lot.  Who hasn't pushed forward into a tangled mass of prickly vines to reach the ripe fruit?  Who hasn't come home with a pail full and purple stained hands?  Good to eat, and good for you, too.  A handful of blackberries delivers 21% of recommended daily fiber, 25% of Vitamin K and a whopping 35% of Vitamin C.  People have endured the sharp barbs, and put up with the purple stains for centuries.  A woman whose well preserved body was found in a peat bog in Denmark had eaten blackberries for her last meal in the year 500 BC. 

Try Blackberry Mush:
Boil fresh, washed blackberries with just enough water to get the boiling started.  Cook only until tender (about 2 - 3 minutes).  Put the fruit through a fine sieve or cheesecloth and squeeze as much pulp through as you can.  Measure.  This recipe calls for 2 cups of juice.  Mix together in a small bowl 3 TBS cornstarch, 1/2 cup granulated sugar, pinch of salt.  Add, slowly, stirring all the time, to the cooled juice.  When thoroughly mixed in, cook over low heat, stirring all the time, until it thickens and boils.  Boil one minute and pour into a serving dish.  Chill and serve with thick cream, ice cream or sour cream..

The recipe is my mother's.  She loved it and planned an annual visit to me at this time of year to pick blackberries.  Mush is comfort food.  I will make it and think of her.