Saturday, December 31, 2011

Is it better to Give, or to Receive?

Photo by LillyMarlene (flickr), Giving and Receiving Gifts.
This is my last Blog post of 2011.

My family used to go to church regularly when I was a young girl.  It was the Calvary Baptist Church in Rochester, NY, where my Dad was friends with the pastor and a dedicated church Deacon and my mom sang in the choir.  So did my sister and I for a while, in the Junior Choir under the intrepid Nancy Young.  She led from the piano and swung her arms around, and we followed dutifully. We had some great concerts, especially the humongous Christmas concert at the Eastman theater every year.

We  spent Saturday nights in our cozy house on New York Street, before we moved to 301 Landing Road South, cutting Wonder bread into small cubes for the monthly communion service and pouring grape juice into tiny glasses, the body and blood of Jesus.  How many people have this kind of memory, I wonder now! 

I was baptized when I was 12 years old, dunked in water in the sacred Baptismal in front of the church, as was the tradition in Northern Baptist churches, along with my Dad, a critical thinker who became a believer later in life.  It was a special time, father and daughter baptized together. Oh how the congregation rejoiced! I promised God I would be good forever. I haven’t always kept that promise, but I never forget making it, or the circumstances surrounding it.  And I always loved the music, the blasts from the organ which scared my brother Loren to death but sent me soaring.  I sang my heart out.

I also faithfully, reverently, attended Sunday school classes every week, where the teacher, some fervent young leader, would help us interpret the Bible and the lessons of Jesus.  "Jesus loves us, this I know, for the Bible tells us so."  We always ended our lessons with that song.  "Little ones to him belong, we are weak and He is strong."

A big question around Christmas was: “Is it better to give, or to receive?” 

I spoke up without hesitation.  “It’s better to give, to give to poor people and to give to others.”  Turns out that wasn't the answer the teacher was looking for. "It is even better to receive,” she said.  Hmm, maybe I shouldn't have spoken up at all.  I realized I had walked into a trap of sorts.  The teacher smiled and explained:  “It is most important to receive the word of the Lord, to listen to the words of Jesus, to receive them.”  

Okay.  That was the nature of my religious training at the time. How embedded the lessons, how deep the memories.  But, I have strayed. I have since wandered all over the theological map. I have listened to other voices, read other texts, from Ghandi to Carl Sagan to Mother Theresa to Christopher Hitchens, from Pope John 23 to Hindi, Muslim, and Hebrew believers, from the poets and the mythic gods of Joseph Campbell to the Goddesses, under the influence of my brother.

Now I have come to believe we all worship the same God/Goddess, just in different ways.  I believe it doesn’t matter how you believe, or the details of belief.  I believe it’s the large question of being good and kind, doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, having a good heart and compassionate soul, like my brother Loren. I now believe it is equally important to give AND to receive, and to find joy in both. 

That’s the spirit of Christmas to me, and that’s how I spent Christmas with my kids and grandkids this year.  After two years in Ukraine and Christmases around the world it was a warm and comforting feeling of giving and receiving presents, giving and receiving love, enveloped in the simple truth that, indeed, God is love.   Happy New Year everyone! 


Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"A Pale Blue Dot"

Hard to see, but this is the NASA/JPL photo taken from Voyager 1
 that inspired Carl Sagan's view of  planet earth as "a pale blue dot" in a vast universe. 
Sometimes we need to put things in perspective. 

Carl Sagan (1934-1996), the brilliant astronomer, astrophysicist, scientific popularizer,  NASA advisor, and founder of The Planetary Society, did that when he looked at an image of the earth floating in space and fully comprehended that it was only “a pale blue dot.” 

The image was beamed back to earth from Voyager 1 on 14 February 1990 as the spacecraft left our planetary neighborhood for the fringes of the solar system.  Voyager 1 was about 4 billion miles away when it captured this portrait of our world, where earth appears as a tiny point of light, a crescent only 0.12 pixel in size. 

“Look again at that dot,” Sagan writes in his 1994 essay. “That’s home.  That’s us.”  Everyone and everything we know “on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam....The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.” 

How insignificant all the wars,  battles, conflicts and cruelties seem, how pointless.  “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.“  

My brother Loren loved Carl Sagan and uttered the phrase “a pale blue dot” everytime we looked at the sky together.  Loren was an avid advocate for the space program, for the explorations undertaken by Voyager.  Perhaps now he has an even better view, an even clearer perspective, and might be having some extraordinary conversations with Sagan himself.  Wouldn’t that be a wondrous miracle.

Carl Sagan combined skepticism and wonder, discovery and clarity.  He made us think.  He helped us put our life on planet Earth in perspective.  

"It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience," Sagan concluded his essay. "There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.  To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known." 

Monday, December 26, 2011

Defiance in the Age of Information Democracy image, an
Information Technology Consulting service

I think this kind of defiance in the face of unprecedented public outrage is going to backfire, and more so now than in the past.   If not soon, eventually.

You just can’t keep a lid on dissatisfaction forever, not in the age we live in, the Age of Information Democracy.   

Dictators, elected or not, are notoriously “defiant,” like those in Syria, Libya, eastern Europe, some nations in Africa and Latin America.  The Papa Doc, once absolute dictator of Haiti, syndrome.  The Mubarek of Egypt syndrome.   Sometimes US foreign policy makes it worse.  Usually it just prolongs, even exascerbates, the inevitable internal struggle for self-determination, as in Iraq. It will all shake out in spite of us.  It's a matter of time, and a painful process. 

Defiance on the part of the ruling elite used to work for a long time, decades even.  Not now.

Now, everything is known or can be discovered, found out, googled, out of the closet, open, accessible.  There’s no hiding the truth now, no hiding information.  No hiding facts, ideas, secrets.  No hiding правда.  

It’s the Age of Information Democracy, the age of the internet and social media, with online access for all.  Information of, by and for the people.  You can run, but you cannot hide.

So deception and defiance won’t work for long as a strategy against protest and expressions of the people’s will.  That’s how it’s looking in Russia today. Putin's outdated. Nor is the USA immune from this age-old syndrome.  We don’t always practice what we preach.

Better to listen to the people’s voices. Nations, their governments, their economic and political elites, need to change strategy. Develop a new paradigm of communication and change.  Is this possible?   It's the Age of Information Democracy.  A new generation, the internet generation, has emerged.   Something’s gotta give.  Something new is evolving.  A new age is dawning. 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmases Past

Photos: Christmas tree in Starobelsk; with Jason in the heart of Istanbul, Christmas 2009; in the Luxor desert, New Year's Eve, 2010. 

In the desert outside of Luxor, Egypt, January 1, 2010.

Last year at this time, in Ukraine, I bought a few holiday trinkets at the Bookstore in downtown Starobelsk and a few ornaments at the Bazaar and decorated my room at Natalia’s on Kyrova, as I had done the year before when I lived with Luba on Panfelova. 

I had to work at getting the Christmas spirit, because nothing really happens there until after December 25;  the orthodox Christmas is celebrated on January 7, but it is not such a huge holiday as it is here.  

I walked around town looking for signs of the season.  I took photos of a little decorated tree in front of the Children’s House of Culture on one of my walks through the University to the center of town. We spent English Club meetings talking about the meaning of Christmas and made trinkets for a  tree made out of branches I had collected on my walks.  I watched workmen put up the large tree in front of the main Cultural Center, awhich took weeks of labor, nd went with my friend Nicolai on a cold winter’s night at the end of December to watch the lighting of the giant tree and to join happy people dancing around it.   The global village alight.

In 2009 I celebrated Christmas in Istanbul with PCV friends Jud and Jason.   I remember walking in Sultanabat, around the Blue Mosque and St. Sophia’s, in the heart of the old city, marveling at the dazzling blue and white lights and the ancient and present beauty.  Breathtaking.  The whole city sparkled, and best of all, we got to stroll along the colorful main street  to the very Church where Pope John 23 preached.  It was a holy night in Istanbul.

Last year, I was in Egypt with Jud, Cairo then onto Luxor by train. One of the most memorable trips I've ever taken.  In Cairo we stayed at a hostel, Egyptian Nights, right across from the Egyptian museum, where a few weeks later protests erupted and tanks filled the street.  We spent New Year's eve in the moonscape desert outside of Luxor, savoring the stunning night sky, a fantastic traditional meal, and good cheer with people from around the world.   

Of course there were lots of  Christmases here in the States, with kids in Toledo, with my parents in Rochester, with friends in Washington  and in balmy Florida, where houses and boats are lavishly decorated,. 

Now, here in Sylvania, a whole new set of traditions is growing out of the fertile soil of old traditions.

The memories evolve like a string of lights around all the places I have been.

They float over Christmases past and present. 

They decorate trees, windows, and wreaths.  The lights of memory, stretching on forever, expanding the tapestry of Christmases past into the now and the unknown future.  

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night! 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Channeling Loren

flickr photo by 'developmentcorporate' (only name given), which I used in my Hitchens blog for several symbolic reasons, including that the windmill looks almost like a cross, plus Loren after a hike by his friend Linda with Florida Trails Association.

I must be channeling my dearly beloved brother Loren, or is it Christopher Hitchens?  My rants are becoming more acerbic, strident, defiant.  When I read my blogs I am almost surprised at the outrage they express.  I never thought I’d be so openly critical of Obama, for example. The state of the economy, fine. The end of the "NOTHING ACCOMPLISHED" war in Iraq, okay.  But Obama's been kind of off-limits, and my friends remind me when they defend against my attacks.  As one wrote in  response to one of my blogs, “Lots of truth there, Fran, but kind of harsh!” 

Yeah. Wow. But you know what?  I think this is the first time I am hearing from my brother since he died too fast, too early on his last hike along the Aucilla River in northern Florida.  All of a sudden he was gone, and I am still unbelieving. I look for him. I look for any signs.

Loren wasn’t one to screen his thoughts and ideas.  I seem to be following in his footsteps lately.  I certainly wasn’t so critical during my Peace Corps years in Ukraine. I kept my thoughts to myself and went with the flow.  Except when Loren and I emailed.

Now I seem to be ranting against injustice and inequality like an occupied Wallstreeter. It’s not always the best thing to do, or perhaps I should say the best way to do it.  Maybe this is an excuse, but somehow I feel Loren’s spirit when I rant about things I know he cared about, and I am moved.  I cry for my brother, whose insights and honesty, and outrage and anger, were unsullied.     

Unsullied. That's the key.  I don't think I can match that.  I could tone down the rhetoric, as we used to advice Loren from time to time.  But then it wouldn’t be Loren, or me, and I’d be channeling someone else.    Maybe it's Christopher Hitchens, but not as eloquent!  

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Life After Peace Corps: Unhitching Hitchens

Life After Peace Corps: Unhitching Hitchens

Unhitching Hitchens

Don Quixote goes at a Windmill, art by GA Haqher,
flickr photo by DevelopmentCorporate

I have friends who admired Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) for his acerbic wit and fearless views about everything from religion to culture to politics.  He was a master of the English language and he wielded it like Don Quixote  attacking the windmills of injustice wherever he found them.  I didn’t follow Hitchens closely, but I did read some of his rather outrageous, in the broadest meaning of that word, essays on Mother Theresa. Gutsy irreverence, for sure, which he carried even to the hallowed walls of the Vatican.  No one was sparred.  Few took freedom of speech and religion as seriously as Hitchens.   He devoted his too-short life and unmatched talent to them until the very end.  He died of cancer last week, writing and unbelieving unto death, believing only, and as strongly as ever, in his own beliefs.  

Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten put his sentiments into a poem for Hitchens for ArtsPost (quoted in Cara Kelly, “Remembering an Icon,” Washington Post, 19 December 2011):
Christopher Hitchens ceases to be;
A remarkable life he led.
He isn’t in heaven; he isn’t in hell — 
He is simply, emphatically, dead.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Secret Speech

Former Communist Secret Police Headquarters, now The Terror Museum, Buadpest,
a few blocks from the magnificent Opera House, and below, book cover (yahoo image).
I finished reading Tom Rob Smith’s The Secret Speech (2010), and sent it on to my RPCV friend Jud.  It was slow going.  A sad book. This painful story, about the unraveling of Soviet Stalinist society, went on and on, endlessly, without pause, without respite. Relentless agony to the very end.

The novel, the second in a planned trilogy, is based on the titanic social, political, and  personal  impact of the Stalin years and their aftermath.  Its symbolic force is the speech Nikita Kruschev gave to the 20th Communist Party Congress in 1960 exposing and condemning the “Cult of Stalin” and its “perversion” of Communist principles.  That's when all hell broke lose, when Soviet society started to crumble, leaving no one unscathed, an unstoppable blood-letting.

Kruschev’s speech didn’t remain secret for long, and that's the heart of Smith's story.   Its message spread immediately throughout every level of Soviet society, from the cities to the farms, from the schools to the gulags, from the highest ranks of Soviet society to the lowest, like wildfire on dry timber.  The speech ignited the long, fiery road to “perestroika” and the dissolution of the USSR, but along the way, along the tumultuous path, a whole society twisted in the wind, blowing people apart, literally and figuratively.

This is a story of revenge, self-loathing, guilt, betrayal, murder.  It's about the enduring effects of vicious totalitarianism on the human spirit: a whole society in the throes of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. 

A NYT review of the book was titled “Inner Gulag,” an appropriate image for this story about the inner turmoil and shame that afflicted Soviet citizens who were either former participants in Stalin's  reign of terror or its victims.  The main characters, Fraera and Leo embody both.  Forged in tragedy, these characters survive to get revenge or redemption against the black and bleak backdrops of a painfully changing Moscow, the gulags, and Budapest, Hungary during the Revolution.  The birth of freedom there was as tortured as the birth of freedom anywhere in the world, in any country, in all forms, throughout the ages. 

I can’t help but think of Ukraine, and the pain, and the lingering effects, and of Buda and Pest, the scenes of unbelievable misery and destruction.  I visited the Terror Museum, the former home of the Communist Secret Service, full of painful stories, and walked the whole area around the Opera House, once so murderous, now so beautiful. I  wasn’t aware of the depth of despair these streets witnessed, the struggle, the raw scabs opened and bleeding from every pore. The beautiful city of Budapest blown apart, before it was rebuilt in freedom.

Former secret police like the main character Leo, who routinely betrayed family and friends, are raked with guilt, their psyche’s permanently damaged. One character, shameful of his part in the purges. says what haunts him is “the blood.  My arms are covered to my elbows in blood.  That is the most terrible thing that lies in my soul.”   Survivers become reformers, like Leo, or criminals, like Fraera, but their wounds are the same.  The victims themselves grow twisted and unforgiving, giving rise to the vory, a gang whose members are as ruthless as their betrayers, maybe the birth of the Russian Mafia, using the survival skills they learned in the gulags to exact revenge. No one is more unforgiving, more treacherous than Fraera, who lost her soul and sane sensibilities when she lost her priest husband and her former life to betrayal and terror. 

Tom Smith’s book is in a formidable tradition that includes Alexander Solshenitsyn’s “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denicovich” and “The Gulag Archipeligo,“ which won the Nobel prize in literature in 1970.    Since then an extensive body of scholarship and literature have emerged on the Gulags and their tragic impact, and documentation about the horror's of the Stalin era continue to be unearthed and, sometimes reluctantly, made public.

My daughter’s friend Laura Kline, who teaches Russian language and literature at Wayne State University in Detroit, is one such scholar.  Laura’s research focused on Varlama Shalamov, who, along with Andrei Platonev, was an early anti-Gulag exposer and writer. Shalamov died in poverty and obscurity in 1951, his work eventually translated by Robert Chandler and his story retold through Laura's study.    

The repugnant stories these writers and scholars uncover are not make-believe; they are grounded in the monstrous realities of an injured society and the broken spirits of ordinary and extraordinary people, like Tom Rob Smith's novel.  The saddest part is that the demons are not yet fully exorcised. They live in the present, in Russia, in the former Soviet republics, in the complex mosaic of modern post-Soviet life.  The struggle continues.   

Thursday, December 15, 2011


So we are out of Iraq? So what? It's been a hopeless, helpless cause since day one, the people's voice muted by the war machine and the corporations who profited from it. NOTHING ACCOMPLISHED.

So over ten years later, and the loss of thousands of American lives and many thousands of innocent civilians, and the wounding and maiming of thousands more, theAmerican flag is down.  So what?  What is there to celebrate?

It doesn't feel like a victory.  Far from it.  What did we accomplish? What was it about? This Bush-Cheney-Halliburton war that a few got rich off of, and Obama continued.  Same with Afghanistan. But for the valiant efforts of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to maintain our integrity, we'd be bombed out all over the world, our reputation in tatters, like the flag just lowered in Iraq.   The end of the war? So what?  NOTHING ACCOMPLISHED.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"мы требуем честных еревыбров!!!"

The People's Will: "мы требуем честных еревыбров!!!"

Amazing how a simple issue like "We demand fair elections" (from a Russian protester's sign, above)  can ignite a conflagration of protest, like a match thrown in dry timber.     

Pent-up frustration and discontent, building up over years and years, are now erupting at the slightest nudge, worldwide.   TIME magazine's new 2011 "Man of the Year" issue confirms the phenomenon.  

"The Protestor."  Everywhere in the world, protestors are having their say.  From Tunisia to Egypt to Russia to Europe to America, like rolling thunder.  The message: We want to be heard; we want to have some control over how we are governed; we want change.    

It's almost like the 1960s, when the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam war movements in the US erupted from the grassroots level, from the farms and fields of Mississippi, from the towns and cities of North and South, and gave hope for social change.  

It's happening again, and this time it's happening around the globe, in every region of the earth. 

It's time.  It's time for economic and political ruling elites worldwide to pay attention.  It's time for Obama to listen too.  America is not immune to the global outpouring of protests.

"The Protestors" will hold their title and claims into the new year.  Maybe the "Man of the Year" in 2012 will be "the Reformers," the rulers who listen to the protestors, bring them into the process and lead the charge for the end of poverty and for economic opportunity and justice for all.   

Monday, December 12, 2011

The People's Will: "мы требуем честных еревыбров!!!"

Above flickr photo by I.P75 (no other name given) and
below a yahoo image of teachers (unhappy with pay cuts)
joining the protest. 
"We demand a fair election," this sign says, one of many that floated above the tens of thousands of people who protested the recent fraudulent parliamentary elections in Russia that qualified Vladimir Putin to run for president again.  Street protests in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and other Russian cities exposed "an unexpected public fury."  The sheer numbers astonish.

That’s why Putin’s strategy of blaming Hillary Clinton, who questioned election procedures along with other electoral observers, sounded hallow.  Her comments, indeed,  simply echoed those of former president Mikhail Gorbachev, who lamented widespread fraud and called for new elections. “The results do not reflect the people’s will," he said (BBC news report on yahoo, 7 December 2011).  

"The people's will."  It is showing itself around the world, an unprecedented outpouring of discontent with political and economic ruling elites, wherever they are. 

"The Tunisia effect."  The Arab spring.  Rage finding its voice. Spreading like wild fire. It toppled Mubarek in Egypt. It's overtaking Europe.  It's come to America through the "Occupy Wall Street" movement.  It's everywhere.  A rolling chorus of thunderous voices, fueled further by the power of the internet and the ubiquitous social media, calling for change from the bottom up.  The technological revolution has spawned social and political revolutions around the global village.

Will Putin pay attention? Or is he, like other old guard leaders, totally out of touch with the people? Lilya Shevtsova, a noted Russian political analyst, said that Putin "can crush the protests, but that can't save him in the historical perspective: recent events have delegitimized his power...We are witnessing the decline of Putin's epoch." (quoted in Timothy Heritage, "Protests Open Pandora's Box for Putin," Reuter's article, yahoo news, 8 Dec. 2011).  Actually we are witnessing the delegitimization and decline of old-fashioned political rulers everywhere in the world.

Certainly Putin, a former KGB spy and president for over 12 years before he had to give up the office to the current "puppet" president Medvedev, still has lots of power, over the media, the armed forces and the state apparatus including the  the police.  It's scary.  But journalist Jim Heintz made a good point:  "Hopefully he'll have much to lose if he goes for the usual strategy of repressing the opposition."

The Russian people are showing tremendous courage in the face of formidable odds. But Russia's ruling elites, like ruling elites everywhere, are on the way out.  A new order is emerging, a new paradigm of social change. It's just a matter of time. Who knows where it will lead?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Magic Years

Meeting Santa, in awe! 
Make believe, with Gran E, at Toledo Botonical Gardens.

What do I want for Christmas?  
“Why did God make us?’’ That’s our four-year-old Philip asking his mom, my granddaughter Julia, a profound question.  He asks lots of questions, all the time, but this one, the biggest question of all, stumps his mom for a second.   “Uhm, so we can take care of all of the animals and water and plants,” she says.   He nods. That makes sense, he seems to concur.

He asks his Gran E, my daughter Elissa, the same question.  “So I would have someone special to love forever,” she answers.  He smiles at the thought; that makes sense too.

He didn’t ask me but I would probably have said something philosophical, like “So we can discover the world and ourselves and who we are and what we want to be.”  That would have no doubt left him with more questions! 

The pre-school years: full of discovery, adventure, questions, imagination, drama, awe.  The Magic Years: that's what Selma Fraiberg, in her classic book of that title, called this remarkable developmental stage. There are tons of such books on the subject now, as I discovered through a Google search, but The Magic Years remains as relevant today as when it was published in 1959. I remember it on one of my reading lists at Wheaton! Fraiberg describes a world of both wonder and fear, a world of magic and monsters, a world most of us have forgotten even though it shapes our vision of self and others for a lifetime. 

I love these years and remember wishing, when my kids were that young, that the magic could continue into adulthood, at least the love of discovery, imagination, exploring.  Perhaps I let them linger too long in those magic years.  I don't know.

I used to think that the schools knocked it out of kids.  Their natural-born curiosity. Send them to school, and imagination flies out the window.  But most child development experts say it’s a natural evolution from a magic world to a more rational, logical world.  The schools are doing their job.

Okay, so the “magic” part can’t go on forever, but what about the “natural curiosity” part?  The sense of adventure and discovery?   Maybe I’m too unrealistic, romantic even, still processing my own unconscious “magic” years, which Fraiberg, in true Freudian spirit, believed all humans do unto death.    

But magical thinking would bring my brother back. It would color the world in peace and harmony.  It would keep us traveling on the winding road to adventure and discovery.  It would make our wishes real, our dreams come true.

Philip watching his favorite program with his cousin Kyle.
Well, maybe. The realistic part of my brain is taking over.  Magic doesn't exist.   For some questions there are no answers.  For some hopes, no hope.

But the magic years are real enough.  And so for now, we're enjoying our family’s four-year-old whirlwind of activity and imagination, his sense of wonder.  The way he loves life. "Is there a Santa Claus?"  Sure there’s a Santa Claus, and sure he brings presents, with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer leading the sleigh through the white and drifting snow . Anything’s possible at four. What precious, wonder-filled years.     
Philip loves the program "Peep and the Whole Wide World," which he watches on the computer. Here he is at his Nana's house (holiday lights reflected around him), with his "peep" friends. I think there are two angry birds and two peaceful pigs, but they all seem lovable and  hugable to me, like Philip.

Monday, December 5, 2011

If Only....

If my brother Loren were here, he’d be spending the holidays with us in Sylvania.  I’d make sure of it.  He’d be happy to drive down to St. Petersburg, stop at some of his favorite nature preserves, spend a few days visiting with our friend Sandie, and take that great Allegiant Air flight direct to Toledo.  He’d still have his cranberry red Kia.  I’d be overjoyed to see him, to hug him, to hear him.  We’d talk about things that mattered, about politics, the economy, the environment, patriarchy, Voyager, family stories, sports, his book and new books.

If my brother Loren were here, I think he would seriously consider moving up to Ohio.  As much as he had grown to love Florida, especially its natural environment, its parks and rivers, its flora and fauna, he always said he wanted to return “home to Rochester.” I think he would have considered Ohio,  too, because we are all here, my kids and grandkids and great grandson Philip.  He would help them put up his old train set, and he would love being a kid again with them. He'd love experiencing the four seasons again.

If Loren were here, I wouldn’t feel such loss.  Life is not the same without my brother in it.  I am missing him more than ever.  I go to bed thinking about him and wake up thinking about him.  It’s the holidays, I guess.   He is a memory, a spirit somewhere, but we will never see each other again.  I can’t seem to believe what he believed, that when you die it’s a new beginning, that you are one with the goddess, reborn forever into a peaceful beautiful world.   If only Christmas wishes  came true.  If only…

Saturday, December 3, 2011

My Christmas Tree: Decorated with Memories

I bought and decorated a Christmas tree for the first time in many years.  Didn’t have one in Florida usually, unless it was a palm tree, and not in Ukraine either. Holiday decorations but no pine trees. Elissa helped me get the sweet tree up and straight in the stand, a challenge I had forgotten. More blasts from the past. 

I can’t do much of anything nowadays without jogging memories.  A senior’s prerogative.  I understand more than ever how my grandparents felt and thought.  The minds of the aging.  The ignorance and naivte of the young. Wish I knew then what I know now.   

My "now" tree is sitting nicely on the window seat in my living room window, facing Main Street, Sylvania, which is aglow with lights.  My tree is also covered in lights, blue lights, as well as a  few favorite ornaments from Christmases past. I put up white lights around the bay window and unpacked some other decorations.  ”It looks warm and cozy in here, mom, beautiful, like home,” Michelle said with a smile.  She liked my Christmas wreath, too.  I don’t know if she remembers it, but it’s the old pine cone wreath I bought at a Unitarian Church bazaar many years ago, when we were living on Robinwood Avenue. I changed its decorations every year.   This year it's traditional.  Next year I'm going mod!

This is how it was when Elissa and Michelle were growing up, and when my sister, brother and I were growing up.  Putting up the tree, getting out the ornaments, filling the house with lights, music, and joy. My dad's Christmas music. Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby and church choirs.  Christmas traditions passed down from generation to generation.  My Christmas tree is decorated with memories.   

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Learning How to Play Bridge, Again

I’m trying to learn how to play bridge. Again.   It’s not coming easy.  I actually played long ago, when I was at Wheaton College (near Boston, Mass), and I was pretty good. But I haven’t played since then, and now it seems very complicated.  

A friend from my Toledo years, the indefatigable Phyllis Dessner, reignited the old interest, inviting me to consider 
her bridge club and offering to give me some lessons.  Okay, sure.  Always ready to try something.  My first lesson was after a delicious lunch at 
The book Phyllis lent me, the very same one  my dad gave me.
And of course TIME celebratng the old standard, Charles Goren. 
her beautiful Old Orchard home.  It was nice to catch up with her and husband Larry, who were old friends and colleagues from our University of Toledo days.  Their creative daughter Sue and my daughter Elissa played together then, and are still friends to this day.    

The bridge lesson brought back lots of memories, mostly of my parents, who loved the game.  It was my dad who taught me to play.  He gave me a great book one Christmas, which I cherished, in fact the very same one Phyllis gave me to review! Not Charles Goren, which  I followed along with dad,  but Shirley Silverman.  Now I’m looking for Dad's gift, and can’t find it.  I know it’s around here somewhere, maybe in one of my still-packed boxes? 

My dad and mom played quite a bit.  What I remember most about those times was my mom’s total frustration at the way my father bid, which was irreverent at best.  Phyllis would have had a fit.  So did my mom.   “Frank how could you go to 3 non-trump with that hand?”  The thing was, my dad usually made the tricks he needed, “God knows how,” as my mom would say.    

Bridge and memories of growing up on Landing Road South in Rochester, New York.  High school days.  College days.   Now if only I could reconnect with the skill I once had.  Until then, I’ll keep studying Silverman, but I am reluctant to play a real game and leave serious players, esteemed old hands, as they say,  feeling like my mom after one of dad’s bids.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

First Snowfall

Photo: Had to wipe off my car before I went to the gym this morning.

We had our first snowfall last night.  I awoke to sun glistening on snow.  

Sylvania rooftops and trees were dressed in a light dusting of white.  A very pretty sight.  

I remember feeling like this during the first snow in Ukraine.  Coming from Florida, it was a thrill to see snow falling on cedar.  It made me realize I missed the four seasons.   I think it inspired my move from the Tampa Bay area to Ohio

So I checked the weather in Ukraine. Temperatures there are about the same, weather about the same, but so far no snow.    

When I lived in Starobelsk, in far-eastern Ukraine, our cold fronts came from Russia and Belarus.   Now they come from Canada.   

No matter how the wind blows,  I’m relishing the advent of winter amid the holiday season.  Will I feel this way in March?

Ukraine's climate
The climate of most of Ukraine is temperate continental with adequate amounts of precipitation to support grasslands with increasing amounts of woodlands towards the northwest border of the country. It is not bitterly cold like Siberia, but can best be compared to the U.S. state of Iowa. Exceptions are the damp Carpathian Mountains of southwest Ukraine (similar to the northern Appalachians), the rocky coast and mountains of Crimea, (similar to sunny mountainous regions along the Mediterranean coast, but colder in winter), and the moist Shatsk Lake region in northwest Ukraine (similar to lake regions in the Midwest). During your travels around Ukraine, be prepared for heat, thunderstorms, and brief downpours from June to August, frequent rains in October and November, snow December through March, and changeable weather all year round.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thanksgiving Blues

“This is the fourth Thanksgiving of economic hardship.” a CNN reporter lamented.  “Where’s the leadership coming from the White House?”

Workers especially, blue collar and white collar workers, the base of Obama’s support, core Democrats usually, have had it.  They are anxious and fearful; jobs are scarce, the future looks bleak.  

The president is sliding in the polls, now down to a 44% approval rating. His economic advisors are nowhere.  Are they all in the pockets of the wealthy corporations?

Obama’s foreign policy is all bombast and bombing, all war, no peace. What a sad spectacle.

After the disappointment of Hillary’s loss, I supported Obama. Wholeheartedly.  It was a historic election and I had lots of hope. 

Those hopes have been shattered.  Obama thinks the Occupy movement is like the Tea Party. He acts as if it’s okay to compromise the interests of the majority for the 1% who control most of the country’s wealth and power, and that the anger this causes ordinary Americans will dissipate before the next elections.  He seems to think that fighting multiple wars that are not in America’s self-interest is okay, that spending money on foreign wars is better than spending money at home.  He thinks that the US can go into many different countries, Iran, Syria, Pakistan, all of them, to tell them how to behave, bombing whatever targets we want, whenever we want.

Americans do have short memories, like forgetting that the Reagan and Bush administrations began this downward economic spiral through their embrace of  “deficit spending,” decreasing taxes for the rich, and creating and enforcing wars and federal policies supporting wealthy  corporations like Halliburton, banks and Wall Street financial mega-institutions.   

These institutions profited from government welfare for the rich, as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  These are the same folks who literally sold Americans down the river, got government bail-out money (OUR money), then used it to enrich themselves at the expense of working Americans.  Many of us are reeling from the results and effects of these policies.

The anger is real, widespread, and deep. The sense of injustice and unfairness that inspires the Occupy movement is one symptom, the sliding polls another, the dissatisfaction of workers another, the disappointment of loyal Dems another.

Worse of all, the Obama administration has created an audience ripe for the Republicans’ multi-billion dollar PR machine, now gearing up to blame it all on Obama, to get Obama.     

But if Americans turn against the Democrats in 2012, it won’t be because of the Rove, Cheney, Halliburton PR machine, which will be formidable.

It will be because after four years of the Obama administration Americans are not better off.  America is at war, not peace; we are in economic crisis, not economic prosperity, not even close.  The Obama that once meant hope, now means despair.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Comfort Zone in Troubled Times

Photo collage: Alli and Chase;  a happy grandmother on Halloween night with grandsons Josh the monster, Kyle the soldier,  Philip the transformer and Chase the pumpkin; Josh and Philip, Philip next to Chase, holding Tony's leg, with flowers for his mom;  exploring on Main Street: "What is this?" falling off my couch, in fun; and Elissa's kids Julia and Tony.  
When the news gets bad, like it is now, and the world seems to be falling apart, I find comfort in the closeness of my family. We are close geographically for the first time in years, Elissa and Michelle and their kids, all happy to be almost next door to one another, and we are close emotionally and socially. We share daily life; we share Chase; we share stories; we share time and events; and we share gratitude.

For me the surrealistic political drama now playing out with the so-called Super Committee, in which we are merely pawns, is on my mind.  The committee charged with reducing the national debt, a debt that grew under the Bush presidency along with the gap in wealth and income, is super deadlocked.  Maybe that's good. Maybe the committee's failure might be better than "deals" and "compromises" that send the 99%--ordinary Americans, workers, and seniors--down the river without tax increases for the super rich, the 1% .    

But Thanksgiving is here, a time to give thanks for what we have: a roof over our  heads, food on the table, health, and family.  It's a time to pray for those less fortunate, and for a government that helps the poor and powerless, listens to the majority and restores the American dream.  For now, I'm a happy grandma, and I am grateful for that.        

Saturday, November 19, 2011

ALERT: Will Supercommittee THUD

Matson's World, flikr photo. 
“I don’t  think I've ever seen Washington more out of touch with the mood of the country. America is talking about how to make the economy work for the 99%. But in Washington, Democrats on the supercommittee are offering "deals" that contain huge cuts to Medicare and Social Security while doing little to make millionaires pay their fair share.1 If we do nothing, these cuts could be agreed to next week."  Daniel Mintz

This is an ask letter from moveon, but it is also an ALERT.  The so-called "supercommittee" of 12 Republicans and 12 Democrats is about to make "compromises" that will hurt average Americans, the majority of Americans.  The leaks, the articles and media news have not been good for "the 99%." I think the "Occupy" movement, an urgently needed public education campaign (that's how i see it), has the right analysis, but who's listening?  Not Washington, as Mintz said.  Maybe a call to Committee members and members of Congress will at least make you feel like you are doing something.  So I made the calls.  Do I feel hopeful? Not really.

It's gets back to a matter of values and one's view about the role of government in leveling the economic playing field and restoring the American dream for the majority of Americans.  It's not about big government or little government.  The government is already way overloaded with privileges and welfare for the super rich, not the poor, not working Americans, not seniors, but for the mighty corporations and Wall Street financial institutions. The ones who got us into this mess.  The ones we bailed out.  The ones giving themselves huge bonuses, as if to flaunt their wealth and power in our faces.  I understand the outrage.

Optimism is fading. I feel like a Ukrainian. Pessimistic and powerless. It just seems hopeless.    

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Food and Friends

Jud and me with Bob and Joanne.  And below, Ukrainian best borsch (yahoo photo).

My friend Jud Dolphin, a RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer) whom I met in Ukraine when we were in training in Chernigov, is a great cook, and he loves sharing this skill, actually all of his skills, like watercolor painting, with his many friends.

He cooked a fantastic Ukrainian meal of Russian bread, borsch and varenyky for our RPCV friend Elizabeth, now a graduate student at Loyola (see 11/11/11 blog).  He made lemon chicken with summer squash and apples for a delicious and delightful meal with his friends Bob and Joanne, whom he has known since his seminary days more than 30 years ago.

Bob is an assistant pastor at the historic 15th Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, founded by a former slave, John F. Cook, in 1841, the first black Presbyterian minister in DC.  Joanne is a substitute teacher, Cape Cod lover, and enthusiastic Baptist, which added spice to our wide-ranging conversation. 

As a former DC resident and historian I was especially mindful of the 15th Street Presbyterian's illustrious history.  The Rev. John Cook was an early freedom fighter who never gave up.  His aunt, Althea Browning Turner, purchased his freedom from the proceeds of the sale of her vegetables at Lafayette Square.  Imagine! A fascinating story, one of many that define Washington's African-American history.  And the 15th Street Presbyterian has witnessed it all, from slavery and the Civil War to the long struggle for freedom and Civil Rights.  The church has moved around a bit--it's now on 15th and R, NW--but it's still there, carrying on the legacy of the Cook family, Rev. Henry Garnet, and the renowned Francis Grimke, a Civil Rights pioneer.   

Friends and food, history and stories.  What could be better?   It made my recent Washington, DC visit a trip down memory lane and an adventure in friendship.  Jud even encouraged me to try my hand at watercolor. He's a good teacher and he has a special talent for making and keeping friends. I'm glad to be one of them!  

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Politics and Prose

Most independent bookstore in DC, like elsewhere, have closed, but one of my favorites, Politics and Prose, is still around; it seems to be thriving, even in this age of e-books, kindles and online resources of all sorts. Jud and I walked up Connecticut Avenue toward Chevy Chase Circle on another blue-sky fall day to visit the iconic bookstore and immerse ourselves in books.

This bookstore, whose intrepid co-founder Carla Cohen sold the bookstore to two reporters before her recent death, initiated authors' talks and signings, book discussions, book clubs, writers’ support groups, and wonderful book events and networks from its early days in the 1980s. It linked the world of prose and the world of politics in unique ways, appropriate for its location in the nation's capital. It remains a book lovers’ haven and social network.

I browsed the various sections: fiction, non-fiction, mysteries, children’s books, DC history, biographies and, of course, politics. Jud and I had a cup of coffee at the nice cafe.   I remember how many hours I had spent there, the people I had met, the booksigning I had for my book Urban Odyssey, essays exploring DC’s migrant and immigrant history.

I could easily have purchased more books than I could possibly carry back to Sylvania with me.  It's a blessing when noted institutions that help define a city hang on for years. Politics and Prose is one of them, and DC is lucky to have it.  Maybe books will survive afterall.  

Sunday, November 13, 2011

DC Scenes: Threads of Time

Photo collage above: RPCV Elizabeth with Jud and me at our "Ukrainian" dinner; Dupont Circle and the ever-popular Farmers' market; Howard and Don; Rock Creek Park from Taft bridge on the way to Woodley Park and Van Ness; orchids at the market. Top left: Jud and Suz in Adams Morgan. Top right: iconic image of Marilyn identifying the Woodley Park neighborhood (yahoo photo); below, with Suzanne in Adams Morgan after dinner at Meskerem, an Ethiopian restaurant (photo by Jud).

I lived in Washington, DC for almost 15 years so I had made many friends and have lots of memories. Many people I knew from my neighborhood, the ANC, work, the larger community, the cultural community, are gone now, retired, moved, in other realms. The memories are

good, bad and mixed. Still, I love being here, walking the streets, seeing the sights. Fifteen years is a long time for memory-making, and being in DC taps into all of them.

That’s why it was special to have brunch with Howard and Don, dinner with Suz, lunch with Sharon. Jud and I shared a meal with PCV friend Elizabeth, who is living in Towson, MD and attending Loyola, majoring in psychology. For that dinner, Jud, with a little help from me, prepared a full-scale Ukrainian meal: borsch, varenyky, cucumber and tomato salad, and fresh-made Russian bread. We toasted with wine rather than vodka, and in English rather than Russian, but the memories flooded back, weaving in and out of our conversation like a Ukrainian embroidery. The threads of memory.

The threads of memory from the complex quilt of my days in DC were as wonderful: Dupont Circle, my home place; the architecture and gardens; the restaurants and shops; the Farmers' market, still going strong after all these years with a cornucopia of colorful and healthy produce, apples, flowers, and people buying and selling.

Jud and I walked up Connecticut Avenue from Dupont Cirle to Woodley Park, a grand walk and as glorious as I remember it--solid, historic, elegant. We crossed over the Howard Taft bridge, guarded by those four large black concrete lions and stopped to admire the natural glories of Rock Creek Park below us, ablaze in ultra-colorful fall dress at its peak. DC beyond the mall is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, a great place to live, and a great place to return to again and again.

But wait, Jud's calling me: "Redskins are playing Miami Fran!" Okay. Gotta go!

Friday, November 11, 2011

DC Creative: Watercolor, Bread-making, and All that Jazz

Photos: Millenium Stage at the Kennedy Center alive with jazz band and dancing, and a few nature photos taken from Jud's patio, including those golden leaves and the last rose of summer. Right, my fall leaves watercolor with the help of Jud; our yummy Russian bread.

Jud led his last watercolor class a few nights ago. I was happy to be part of it. He offers the classes for members of his Coop building in DC, sharing his talent and experience. He is creating a nice group of new artists. Nancy worked on a lovely tree, and Bo a scene of fishes.

I focused on turning the fall leaves I had collected on our walk from Van Ness to Tenleytown into little paintings, of sorts. I don't consider myself very creative, and not at all in the medium of painting. I guess you could say Jud plays with watercolors the way I play with words. But painting feels so much more emotive and visual. Jud showed me how to outline the leaves in a combination of watercolors and cornstarch, press them on a paper washed in yellows, and let the “water do its work."
That was a whole new concept. Now I have a few little creations to bring home with me. Autumn momentos.

Jud also loves to cook, and so one day we baked Russian bread together. It’s a great, even a physical, labor of love. The recipe calls for a surprising mix of flours, spices and ingredients. I had no idea. Chocolate, vinegar and molasses? Really? Yes! Like a Mexican mole'. Now I'll be able to sample the bread like we sample a glass of wine, swirling, sniffing and sipping, trying to identify the taste and the bouquet. My kids will be amazed at my breadmaking skills, with Jud’s expert instructions in my ear of course!

But that's not all that's in my ears! This is "DC Creative" afterall. Friday night we went to the Kennedy Center and heard a wonderful jazz concert on the Millennium stage, free and open to the public. The place was jammed. The Eric Felton Orchestra turned out to be a fantastic "swing" band playing the old favorites from Duke Ellington on up to Irving Berlin and Frank Sinatra. Singer and trombonist Felton has a clear, warm voice and the musicians were fantastic. The dance floor was also hopping, literally, beginning with free lessons and transforming into glorious swing dancing, cha cha and jitterbug, to the big band sound. People of all backgrounds, ages and ability having a good time. Even Jud and I took a turn on the dance floor. "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing!" How uplifting and joyous that music.

Next to us, an elderly woman, slight, spry, with a twinkle in her eye, moved to the music. "Tomorrow's her 98th birthday," her daughter leaned over to tell me. An inspiration. Her son took her on the dance floor several times. It was magical. You could see the age melting away. A beautiful young woman emerged, graceful on her feet, full of energy, blue eyes sparkling, dancing the night away.

On the other end of the age spectrum I met a young couple who noticed my Ukraine Peace Corps pin and asked, "Oh, were you in the Peace Corps?" Yep, I told them. "So were we," they marveled. They had served in Mozambique, learned Portuguese, worked in a small village. We had a wonderful chat, talking about our adventures, swing music in the background, the dance floor alight with swaying figures in lavender and gold. What a lovely night, followed by a great Thai dinner under an almost full moon!

Now, with these songs in our heads, and hope in our heart, big band sounds in the background, here is Jud's bread recipe:

Russian Bread ala Jud Dolphin
3 cups rye flour
4 cups unbleached white flour (can substitute up to 2 cups whole wheat)
3 cups bran flakes crushed to 2 cups +/-
2 scant tsp of salt

2 tbls caraway seeds crushed
1 tbls fennel seeds crushed
2 tsp of instant coffee
1 ½ tbls cocoa powder
1tsp onion powder

Combine all of above in large bowl and then combine the following in a small bowl

2 ¾ cups very warm water (like a baby bottle)
¼ cup + 1 tbls margarine
¼ cup molasses
2 packets of yeast (yeast should get bubbly after 4 minutes)
Combine wet ingredients into dry and add ¼ cup vinegar

Mixture should be pliable and a little sticky…so add more water if needed or more flour if too sticky.

Knead for 10 minutes until mixture is elastic and like the bottom of a baby.

Warm oven to 200F and turn off.

Place dough into large greased bowl, turn over and let rise for about 60 min. in the warm oven that has been turned off. Preheat oven to 350F and divide dough into two lightly greased loaf pans.

Bake for 50 – 60 min. or until the loaves sound hallow when thumped and edges are brown like toast.

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