Thursday, December 18, 2014

It's Christmas! And it's summer!

A recent blog by a childhood friend of mine (read it here) set me to thinking about my earliest memories of Christmas.

Long time readers of this blog will know that I grew up in southern Africa (what was Northern & Southern Rhodesia, now Zambia and Zimbabwe respectively)--so no Victorian snowy Christmas memories*.  Instead, my Christmas memories are of summertime celebrations, with Christmas and summer holidays all being wrapped into one time off from school.  School in this case also meant boarding school (as the mission station where my parents were was at least a half a day's travel from the nearest government school).  With a school year that ran from January to December, the summer break fell in December.  So of course that meant the boarding school closing, and my coming home.

It is difficult to convey to someone who has never boarded away from home for any length of time what coming home means.  Off and on, in this blog I have written about boarding school--mostly my memories are pleasant.  I recall one or two friends' names. I recall good times with school activities--participating in sports, drama productions, as well as classroom work.  But what I most remember is how Christmas festivities in the city of Bulawayo helped set the mood for Christmas.  I particularly recall the carol singing that was held in a municipal stadium--all of which helped me amass a vast repertoire of Christmas carols.  One of my favorites was "Good King Wenceslas" with  men and women singing alternate verses--men taking the parts of the king, and women the parts of the page.  Oh, my--memories flood back.  But, I digress somewhat.

When Christmas holiday and summer vacation began, all boarders returned to their homes for a 6 week vacation. That time was filled with many little bits of activity that still resonate in my mind.  I previously wrote about the Christmas picnic adventure--of course, Christmas in the summer means picnic. 

Caroling was not confined to the Bulawayo municipal carol sing.  Many missionaries were quite good singers, and of course we sang in four part harmony (still my favorite way to sing...).  I do recall getting up early in the morning, on Christmas Day, and going out caroling singing "Christians Awake! Salute the Happy Morn).   As a young adolescent, I found it highly amusing to be serenading with a Christmas hymn early on Christmas morning.

Christmas also meant that missionaries from nearby missions would gather at one of the missions.  The emphasis was not so much on exchanging gifts as enjoying time together. However, there was one year when some missionary (I don't know who, but it sounds as though my mother--who could be mischievous--had a hand in it) decided to give everyone a gag gift.  Now, I acknowledge you would need to know the missionaries in question to appreciate the humor. But here are some of the gifts given. One was a small planter with a bean plant sprouting in it, along with ceramic PIG salt and pepper shakers.  The missionary receiving this had frequently lamented the blasted pigs who always got into the garden and consumed the beans, or at least broke the budding plants. Another gift was a straw man--a shirt stuffed with straw, and trousers likewise, with a cloth head and a placard that read "a good man." That was given to an unmarried missionary woman who kept hoping--and expressing that hope--for a husband.  At least that's what my childhood memories say we did.  

This time of year does prompt us all to reflect and revel in memories.  If those memories--and certainly my hope for you is that they are--then we return to them again and again.  I am reminded of that fact when I realize how many times I have written about Christmas here, even repeating some of the same stories.  But that's what we do, isn't it? We recall and share.

*Oh, my little opening comment about no snowy Victorian memories--I have a theory that many of "our" Christmas memories are shaped by "A Christmas Carol" or by Currier and Ives prints.  We see gaily decorated Christmas trees, complete with "candles" which Prince Albert from Germany helped popularize in England.  And we talk about a white Christmas. When it snows, it immediately kicks us in celebratory gear.  But these associations do NOT happen when it's Christmas and it's summertime.

Merry Christmas to all--whether near or far, whether north, south, east or west.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

An Accidental Pet

When the neighbor boy, whose family lives in the house behind our house (our backyards meet) was just a toddler, his grandfather gave him a pet rabbit.  The boy named the rabbit Hoppy.  For years, Hoppy lived with this family--they had a small outdoor hutch with a run about 2 feet long, and a small wooden box at one end. The floor of the hutch was a heavy metal mesh, about 1/2 inch squares, so he had no place (except inside the tiny wooden box) to put his feet down without his claws going through the wire

Hoppy was occasionally let out of this small living space to hop around in their yard, but if he refused to come back to the woman of the house when she called, she claimed he had "an attitude" and would scold him.  

They fed him erratically.  Usually he had a dish of rabbit food--plain pellets--and sometimes iceberg lettuce or a carrot or two.

Then came winter.  They covered his hutch with a blue nylon cloth that sailed and billowed in the wind.  The hutch was next to their house, so that was some protection.  The next summer, they moved his hutch to the top of the hill, which was where our yard meets theirs.  That's when Hoppy and I became--shall we say--involved.  I began taking him various food treats--carrots, bits of darker green leafy vegetables, occasional Cheerios.  And I took him fresh water.  

When the next winter came, the hutch was still at the top of the hill, where lots of wind blows by.  The blue cloth was still there--but that was all.  So we (by now my husband knew of my concern) bought straw and stuffed it in the wooden box to give him some warmth.  That winter, there were days when my footprints up the hill through the snow were the only evidence that anyone bothered to feed him.  So I tried to go to Hoppy's hutch everyday to make sure he had food.

When the rabbit hutch began to fall apart, I offered our neighbor that we would buy a new rabbit hutch.  Our neighbor's response--why don't you just take the rabbit.  You pay more attention to him than we do.

That was all I needed--that evening Hoppy had a new home!  We immediately bought him a new larger hutch, and a good supply of rabbit food and timothy.  In a few days, we began assembling an outdoor play yard for him, which eventually became two circles of fencing each about 6 feet across, with an interlocking passageway--a much wider area for him to explore.  Eventually, we figured out how to rig a cover for rainy or snowy days.  Finally, we put plastic around the outside on the side where wind blew in, leaving the other side exposed.

The capstone touch was when we bought not one but TWO heating pads--one for in his hutch during winter, and one for in the play area.  The play area now had straw everywhere, clumps of timothy here and there, several overturned boxes, as well as food and water every day.  Every morning we got him out to play, and every evening we put him back in his hutch to sleep.  He also got fresh food in the evening that by now included carrots, apples, arugula (a favorite), broccoli, cauliflower, and other tidbits that I would try.

Thus Hoppy became our accidental pet.  I had no thought of ever having a rabbit, and do not plan to get another.  I certainly would have preferred that his first owners had litter trained him--but since they hadn't and had kept him outside, his entire life was lived outside.

So, why the past tense verbs you may have noticed?  About a month ago, it became clear that he was eating less. Hoppy also got very picky about food--some days eating one food enthusiastically and the next day rejecting it completely.  He stopped eating arugula quite suddenly.  He limited his fresh food choice to apples.  Then, he began to not eat much at all.  And then he stopped eating.  I knew enough that any amount of time a rabbit goes without eating is not good.  As Hoppy had never been to a vet, and was at the advanced age (for a rabbit) of 12 years, I suspected his life was nearing its end, so we chose not to try to prolong his living.

Tonight, when we went to get him from his outdoor play yard, he was lying on his side, still.  Even so, we put him in his hutch for overnight, covered him with a towel.

Good night, sweet Hoppy.  Thanks for being such a good "accidental" pet.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

We have been traveling of late.  With our two children living at geographic points some 5,500 miles apart from each other, with the California kids living 2,600 miles from us and the London kids living 3,600 miles (all distances are rounded to the nearest number), if we want to get together as a family--we travel.

And that does mean planes, trains and automobiles!  Many times over.  

We just returned from London.  And soon we will travel to San Diego.  These trips are lovely, and always anticipated.  What great places to visit: San Diego with its near perfect weather year round, with the ocean within a few miles, with charming geography, with great restaurants, with the beach to drive along or walk along...what's not to like.  And London with its not so perfect weather, with the ocean no more than a train ride or drive away, with its wondrous history, with great restaurants, and parks to walk in...what's not to like.

Of course, the real reason we go either place is to visit our children, their spouses, and our granddaughter.  That means that wherever they lived, we would travel to see them. But what a bonus having two such wonderful places to visit.

Traveling always makes me ruminate on the means of travel.  A cruise makes me think of the days of sailing--when ships were the only means to travel great distances.  Ships today which carry passengers are vastly different from ships of decades and centuries ago.  No doubt, the early European immigrants who braved ocean voyages would be gob-smacked to see the obscenely over-sized cruise ships that stuff the vessel to the gills and then stuff the passengers likewise to the gills.

Planes shoved ships out of the way as the glamorous way to travel, and have been going down hill ever since. It is quite fun to look at old ads for airlines.  The glamorous way to travel, indeed.  On our most recent flight, when my husband checked us in online he snagged the bulk-head seats for us which meant we had legroom.  One practically kills for legroom on flights these days.  If we had sat in the usual seats in steerage, oops I mean economy class, we would have had about 30 inches of "seat pitch."  That's airline speak for legroom.  And that's before the guy in front of you decides to recline his seat the full amount.  You can end up with the video monitor inches from your face.  But--I digress.

During our various visits to England, we have taken several day trips--all by train.  Now, I love trains.  They continue to be my favorite way of travel.  Having grown up in what was then Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), I with my parents traveled multiple times by train.  Of course the trains there had individual passenger cars, so we as a family had our own room--complete with fold-down bunk beds where we slept on the journey.  About a decade ago, my husband, daughter and I made a trip to Spain, and we took an overnight train from Madrid to Granada.  That trip (where I had my wallet pinched) included a small sleeping berth for my daughter and me.  Not quite the same as the family cars of my childhood, and of course my husband was left to fend for himself elsewhere.

Trains today in England as quite efficient and immensely apologetic if they get off schedule or are delayed.  Frankly, since our trips are for our own leisure, we can be a bit sanguine and not mind the delays.  Plus we have great fun with the youngest passenger in our group.

We have also used the underground trains in a number of cities we visit.  The London Tube is something I have not mastered--but thankfully we have an excellent guide in our daughter.

Which brings me to the last mode of transportation--automobiles.  The United States once had a flourishing train system, but that was pushed aside with the building of the interstate system.  Passenger trains now vie with transport trains for track use--and in fact Amtrak has no tracks of its own, so it can be pushed aside.  Interstate highways beckon--taking us where trains no longer go.

I learned to drive when I was 20 years old.  From the outset, I have loved driving.  In my career, there were times when I had to travel some distance--and driving was frequently an option.  I still enjoy driving.  However, driving in southern California has put a whole new challenge into driving.  During our first trip to San Diego (and every subsequent trip) we rented a car.  You can't get anywhere in southern California without driving.  As we left the airport, we followed the GPS instructions to get to the freeway--and then we ROLLED.  People do not drive in southern California--they roll.  You merge as quickly as you can onto the freeway and then you keep moving.  If you change lanes, you just do it.  I am sure local drivers can always spot an out-of-stater--we use turn signals.  That's a rarity in southern California.  There is one place where we out-of-staters can shine over California drivers--we know how to drive in rain.  And ice.  And snow...sometimes.

Planes, trains and automobiles.  Love them all!    (And ships...but they weren't mentioned in the title.)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Keep Calm ... and Carry On!

During World War II, the British government prepared a motivational poster designed to help the beleaguered population "keep its stiff upper lip."  The slogan it championed was--KEEP CALM and CARRY ON.  Millions of posters were printed, but they were never distributed.  The posters were rediscovered in the year 2000--and a whole new icon was born.

I humbly suggest we get some of those posters and distributed them NOW--to members of Congress, to newscasters, to local politicians, to everyone who is now freaking out about Ebola.

I am not suggesting that we take this emerging epidemic lightly.  But we really need to get a grip.  There were Congressional hearings held today, and legislators took their turns when it was their time to query--and took whacks at the head of the CDC as if he were a piñata hanging from the ceiling and they each had a brand new stick to flail away at him.  

I couldn't help but recall the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic.  And how little concern there was among politicians then.  Medical personnel knew they had a mystery disease on their hands.  Perhaps the fact the earliest people suffering, and then dying from this disease, were gay was part of the reason for the studied ignoring of the emerging epidemic.  

When AIDS first emerged as a true epidemic, I was working for the state medical society.  Part of my job was to work with scientific areas--so I helped staff committees of physicians who were trying to address the disease that was eventually called Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome--AIDS.  One day, I got a call from a public health doctor working at the state Health Department.  The Health Department had prepared an informative brochure with tips on how to prevent the spread of AIDS.  One of the precautions listed was to "wash."  When the pamphlet was sent to the governor's office for vetting, the question came back--wash what?   When they were told, they insisted that precaution be removed!  The level of ignorance--or lack of caring--was such that the governor's office then did not want to acknowledge that part of the means whereby AIDS was spread was unprotected sex.  And that knowledge, not ignorance, was one way to  help reduce transmission.

Fast forward 30 some years--and now we have legislative hysteria ruling the day.  Frankly, ignoring an emerging epidemic is NOT the way to control the disease.  But then, hysterical misguided politically-driven suggestions are ALSO NOT the way to control the disease.

In today's hearing, one of the suggestions was--REFUSE TO ALLOW ANYONE TO ENTER THE U.S. who is traveling from a west African location.  Really?  Well, people can travel from countries in west Africa to many other countries and then enter to U.S.  Only, now, public health professionals wouldn't KNOW the person had been in west Africa.  One of the biggest enemies of controlling an epidemic is ignorance.  Another enemy is fear.

We have both in abundance right now.  To hear the newscasters tell it, it's just a matter of time until everyone touches something that someone who heard about someone who had Ebola touched, and so because of that, we will all die.

Well, true--we will.  But not from Ebola.  There will be some other reason.  Many things are so much more threatening--smoking.  Handguns. Drunk drivers. Texting drivers. Lack of immunization.  Polluted drinking water. And on and on it goes.

It seems like a good time to break out the posters--KEEP CALM and CARRY ON.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Matters of the Heart

Of late, I have been ruminating on the nature of the human heart.  More about the reason in a minute.  One of the things I think about is the way in which humans are generally binary—most of us are born with two of everything: two eyes, two ears, two arms, two legs, two lungs, two kidneys, etc.  When we get to some parts of us, we are born with one—one brain, one heart, one liver.  These one of a kind parts of our bodies are, understandably, mostly indispensable.

For centuries, humans thought of the heart as the center of human life—kind of a brain, seat of wisdom and knowledge and moral judgment, as well as of all life.  Understandably, when you consider how indispensable the heart is.  Oh, I know other organs are indispensable—your brain, for example.  But there is something about how we view the heart that is just...well...different.

So, why this rumination?  Well, as I have previously written, I had experienced over the past several years bouts of atrial fibrillation.  That essentially occurs when the heart begins to put out conflicting signals as to when to beat.  The heart functions on its own electrical system—the S-A node setting the pace, and the A-V node bridging the atria and the ventricles.  In atrial fibrillation, another area sends out a rogue signal to beat, somewhere in the atrium, so the atrium beats, and then the S-A node sends out its signal, so the heart beats again.  Chaos—yup, that’s what it is.  A good description of what it feels like is a fish out of water flopping around on the deck.

And that’s what I have experienced.  The immediate correction is to shock the heart back into regular rhythm—which I have had done several times.  The first time the “cure” lasted for a year and a half.  Then the interval shortened to a year, then less, and finally to several weeks.  So it was time to consider another option, if there were one.

Well, TA DA, there was one.  It’s called cardiac ablation.  I’ll let you go here to see what that entails.  It is not a simple procedure.  The doctor advised my husband and me it could take 4 to 5 hours. Mine took a bit over 6 hours—so, I am told.  I don’t recall any of that, of course.

Before I went into the hospital, I told very few people.  No need to parade my medical history around and share it with the world.  Naturally, my husband knew, and our children with their spouses.  My father, and siblings knew.  Also a handful of friends.  That was it—no posting on Facebook or any such public place.

The day before I went into the hospital, one friend called and asked if I was nervous.  Well, I pondered a bit—and said, no, not really.  Then my dad asked how serious the procedure was—could it result in death?  Well, the answer is it could—rarely does, though.  But, the same can be said about getting in a car and driving down the highway. 

Did I think about death?  Naturally.  I think about death from time to time.  I am not immortal. The bargain of life is we are born, and we die.  I also like the opening words from my denomination’s Brief Statement of Faith:  “In life and in death we belong to God.”

So, while I think about death, it holds no fear for me. In fact, I have mused that dying during surgery would be an “easy” death compared to what some people go through.  It is for the living that death is hard.

Oh, please don’t think me morbid—this blog is, after all, about “matters of the heart”—both in the sense of what our hearts mean to us as living biologic creatures, and also what our hearts mean to us in those that we love.

Perhaps a brief poem by X. J. Kennedy (whose birthday is today, August 21, as I write this) speaks words I would say--

“In Faith of Rising”
When all my dust lies strewn
Over the roundbrinked ramparts of the world
I can be gathered , sinew and bone
Out of the past hurled
Delaylessly as I
Flick thoughts back that replace
Lash by dropped lid, lid to eye
Eye to disbanded face.
No task to His strength, for He
Is my Head—Him I trust
To stray the presence of His mind to me
Then cast down again
Or recollect my dust.

And then these words, from Sir Walter Raleigh, who penned them the night before his execution.

Even such is time, that takes on trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with earth and dust;
Who, in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days;
But from this earth, this grave, this dust
My God shall raise me up, I trust!

In matters of the heart, I trust.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Fledging Time

It's that time of year, again.  The time when the sweet young people that parents have been nurturing get ready to leave home to go to college.  Or get ready to launch out on their own, having graduated from college and now on their way to that first job.

It is indeed a bittersweet time.  That time was for us, my husband and me, some years ago.  Usually, I am not so aware of this rite of passage--buying up the supplies, figuring out how to pack and load all of it, stuffing the family car to the gills with the entire contents of a child-becoming-adult's bedroom.  But this year, I am more aware as two young people in our neighborhood are launching out.  One is on her way to college, the other on her way to her first job more than half-way across the country.

We have watched these girls grow to women, and have cheered them on their way, from a distance of course.  What we are now particularly watching is their parents as they go through all the letting-go agonies that parents before them have experienced.  The agonies that we too experienced a decade or two ago.  In talking with these parents, it is evident they are feeling those mixed emotions--pride and worry all intermingled.

I especially recall when our older child, our son, went to college that it didn't "hit" me all that much.  First, he was going to a college somewhat nearby--close enough that if either we or he needed to, we could drive to see him.  I recall that I did not cry or even tear up when we--his parents and his younger sister--got in the car and drove away leaving him to make new friends, meet new challenges, and live on his own.

I do confess that four years later, when he had graduated and was now heading to graduate school, it did "hit" me--my son was REALLY leaving home.  Graduate school was in another state, and his then girlfriend (now wife) was going along with him.  That surely meant that we had been replaced as the central figures of his life and that he really was "leaving home."  And, as they pulled out of the driveway to begin what became a life journey, I did cry.

I faced the emotion of separation with our daughter in a different way.  Her first college was further away from home, and as it turned out not the right place for her.  So, after a successful semester, she asked for and received our permission to embark on an even bigger adventure.  At age eighteen, she went to London for a half a year.  She found a job in London and found a city that she loved (and now calls home).  Of course, she returned to the U.S., transferred to the right college for her, and finished her undergraduate education with a flourish.  

This spring, a robin built a nest in our next-door neighbor's hanging flower pot.  First there were four lovely blue eggs, and then four scrawny absurd baby birds.  They turned into four constantly open mouths.  It was fun to watch the dutiful parents flying back and forth bringing beakfuls of food for these ever-hungry babies.  Then we left on vacation.  By the time we returned, the robins had fledged and were gone.  I was sorry to miss watching that wonderful transition--when the baby robin first leaves the nest, and the parents flutter around for several days watching, guarding, squawking encouragement or last minute instructions.  

While we human parents may not do so much fluttering around and squawking, we do completely share the nervous anxiety wondering and worrying--will she make it? what if she needs something and I'm not there? does she remember to....?

My blogging friend, Julie Zickefoose (who is far more eloquent than I) has her own fledgling child who heads to college this year.  Read her lovely blog post here.

And, if you are anywhere where you see a nervous set of parents fluttering around their daughter or son, send a couple of helpful thoughts and prayers their way.  It is, after all, fledging time.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

We're Number One!

The World Cup has come...and gone.  And the weeks of enjoyable watching (some of us over-dosing) have also come and gone.  And the winner is ... Germany.  They're Number One.

In our travels, there have been times when we were in some European town or another when the home team won a football match (that's soccer to those in the USA) and at the close of the game, which the whole town seemed to have watched on television, the jubilant fans poured into the streets, jumped in cars and drove around, honking and yelling.  No doubt, that same kind of celebration happened in Germany after they won the 2014 World Cup.

The USA acquitted itself rather well--better than some people thought they might.  The success of the US team helped garner new football/soccer fans for this sport that is the most popular in the world.*

I am one fan who was somewhat relieved when the US didn't advance any more than they did.  Why, you might ask?  Mostly because I find US fans insufferable when it comes to chanting "We're Number One."  Or, if you will , the variation of that which is USA USA USA USA ad nauseum.

I don't even know what it means anymore when someone chants (seemingly endlessly) USA.  Does it mean we're Number One?  In what? Does it mean we're the best?  At what?

The sad thing is that we have become a reductive nation where mindless chanting seems to have taken the place of really trying to be the best at something.  It is quite startling to me that people who would chant USA USA are also the people who seem to say--stay away stay away.

We find ourselves in the middle of an immigration crisis.  True, that statement could have been made many times during the history of our country--and even the history of before it was "our" country.  No doubt, native Americans in what is now Massachusetts, or in Virginia, could rightfully have said--we have an immigration problem.

The nightly news has been displaying agonizing scenes of children--from little ones around four years old up to teens--all without parents, the same desperate parents who sent these children on a perilous journey rather than risk having them be killed by gangs.  Frankly, these are heart-breaking scenes.  And once the children cross into the US (we're number one country) they are met with angry citizens (I always wonder how long ago these people emigrated) who try to turn them away.

Now, before I go further--I have to confess that this incredibly complex and awful situation is one which I think demands a solution.  And I don't think the solution is simply to say--oh, let endless streams of parentless children come to the US.  That is a sociological nightmare in the making.  So I am not HAPPY that the floodgates have opened.  But it is plain heartless to beat on the buses bearing these children and to scream at them in red-faced anger and naked hatred.

We might even take a step back and ask ourselves--how have we contributed to the problem.  What is the problem?  Many parents say they so fear for their children's lives in the home country, where gang violence is rampant and small children are recruited into various aspects of the ever-burgeoning (illegal) drug economy.  To whom do the drug lords sell their products?  Where do the drugs go?  To the USA.  So, we own this problem, whether we like it or not.

I wish I had as ready a solution as I have a description of the problem.  I don't.  I do know that the problem was not caused by our current President.  In fact, the reason the children crossing the border are not immediately deported is because of a law that George W. Bush signed while he was president. The intent of that law was to prevent people trafficking in children from bringing children across the border for illegal use.  Talk about unintended consequences.

Maybe we should be more welcoming of these children from Central and South America.  Who knows--maybe one of them will become a star football (soccer) player in 10 years or so, and may even play for the USA team in a future World Cup.
1. Soccer
2. Cricket
3. Basketball
4. Hockey
5. Tennis
6. Volleyball
7. Table tennis
8. Baseball
9. (Tie) American football/  Rugby
10. Golf