Thursday, February 28, 2013

Van Cliburn and the Power of Music

AP photo, Sergey Ponomorev.  We willl always have his music..
One of my favorite pianist, Van Cliburn, just died.   I remember when he won the International Tchaikovsky Piano Competition in Moscow in 1958.  I was in high school.  He was only 23 years old.  Just out of Julliard. What a star!

I was a senior at Harley School in Rochester, NY, taking piano lessons at  the Eastman School of Music. So was my sister Andy, who had real talent.

 Nikita Khrushchev was president of the Soviet Union and it was the height of the “Cold War.”  Khrushchev  was yet to give his speech  to the Communist Party congress in 1960 that denounced the legacy of Stalin, and set off an explosive whirlwind of change.  Tom Smith wrote about the horrendous consequences of that speech in his book “The Secret Speech,” a powerful story about betrayal and transformation that resonates to this day. America was on edge at the time, post-Sputnik, and remained so well into the era of Perestroika that emerged in the late 1980s.  

Van Cliburn became a sort of  poster child for rapproachment between the US and Russia. Time magazine called him "The Texan who conquered Russia."   How thrilling that he could play the Tchaikovsky like a true Russian.  In a way, you could say he was our first Peace Corps Volunteer to the Soviet Union,  before the Peace Corps existed. He grew to love the Russian people, as well as its incredibly rich culture.  And they loved him.  It opened so many doors, raised so many questions about our politics and worldview.  

That’s the time when my mom began collecting his records, beginning with the Tchaikovsky First Piano Concerto record, which I think sold millions and made Van Cliburn a cultural hero.  Some of my friends remember that album, and the ticker tape parade in New York.

I remember that our house was always filled with the sounds of classical music, including my mom practicing  arias from the Opera repertoire. I called her "My Madama Butterfly." .We had many of  Van Cliburn’s recordings. Van Cliburn playing the Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto, incredibly complex and beautiful. Van Cliburn playing Grieg, Prokofiev, Schumann and Beethovan.  All my favorites.

“Classical music was so important to our generation growing up, wasn't it?" my friend Alice, remembering Van Cliburn, posted on facebook. 

Yes, and it made our lives richer, deeper, and I think more open to universal understanding. It wasn't politics that mattered; it wasn't war that brought peace.  It was art and the humanities.  The universal language of culture.  Van Cliburn was among those who taught us that.  . . 

Saturday, February 23, 2013

When I need to rest and think

When I need to rest and think, I pick up Mary Oliver’s poems.  I love her anthropomorphic visions of nature, how she puts human feelings into the sights and sounds of birds, grasses, trees and the tiny details of wildlife.  So observant. How she weaves nature into reflections on life and death, on our journeys over hills and dales, mountain paths and valleys. 

Her poetry is magic: Walt Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau rolled into one for the 21st century.  There’s some Adrienne Rich, some Robert Frost, some Maya Angelou.  “I know why the caged bird sings.”   But it’s Mary Oliver’s distinctive voice, cadence and perspective that moves me.

In some ways, Oliver’s poetry is like the archetypal story of Perceval’s quest for the Holy Grail, really about our journeys to find ourselves, a story that friend Gordon shared recently at the last Poetry Evening at Dragonfly cafe, which is on my mind.  Dragonfly is closing because it couldn’t make it financially. Our community is losing a treasure.  I think this takes me to Mary Oliver.  So does missing my brother Loren.  Loss.  “The bloody sharps and flats of life."   

"Wild Geese," from Owls and Other Fantasies(2003)
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

"Grass" from White Pine (1994)
Those who are disappointed, betrayed, scarified! Those who would still put their hands upon me! Those who belong to the past!

How many of us have weighted the years of groaning and weeping? How many years have I done it, how many nights spent panting, hating, grieving, oh, merciless, pitiless remembrances!

I walk over the green hillsides. I lie down on the harsh, sun flavored blades and bundles of grass; the grass cares nothing about me, it doesn't want anything from me, it rises to its own purpose, and sweetly, following the single holy dictum: to be itself, to let the sky be the sky, to let a young girl be a young girl freely--to let a middle-aged woman be, comfortably, a middle-aged woman.

Those bloody sharps and flats--those endless calamities of the personal past. Bah! I disown them from the rest of my life, in which I mean to rest.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Big Banks = Big Criminals?

Campaigning for the Senate in Massachuetts,
against Republican Scott Brown..
Photo by DarrenMcCollester/Getty Images
Newly-elected Senator Elizabeth Warren’s first public hearing on the prestigious Senate Banking Committee must have sent great positive vibes to the late Senator Ted Kennedy, and also to Barney Frank. I'd be smiling, too. 

She is filling big shoes, and doing it well. She showed the same concerns for the little guys as her predecessors. And she is not afraid to take on big bullies like huge banks.

It was federal government regulators on the hot seat this time, however.  Why, Warren wondered, have none of the Wall Street financial institutions been prosecuted for their transgressions or brought to trial? Not a one since the financial crisis.  

Warren is on it, in a way that former Secretary of the Treasurer Tim Gaithner never was. It’s why so many of us questioned his effectiveness. Sure some of these big guys have been fined--they needed some token slap on the wrist--but they haven’t been brought to trial.  

"How come? Obvious question. 

Sen. Warren said that she was worried that banks are simply paying fines from the profits they earned breaking regulatory rules.  Such a simple but powerful expression of concern.  

She also wondered whether “too big to fail” might mean “too big for trial.”     

Wall Street bankers, who poured lots of money into supporting Warren's opponent Scott Brown, viewed such questions and musings as "aggressive," but to me they seemed honest and plain spoken.  

The giant Wall Street institutions, Citibank, Wells Fargo and Bank of America among them, have gouged millions from customers. They've engaged in questionable profit-making ventures here and abroad (in Greece and Italy, for instance). They have scoffed at federal regulations, paid billions to executives after being bailed out with public money, and basically have gotten away with...well, lots of stuff.  Why haven't they been tried for breaking the laws?   

Warren is asking good questions.  Americans deserve some good answers.

For more information about these financial behemoths and their quest for power and profits see the insightful, and frightening, PBS Frontline investigative story "Money, Power and Wall Street" (     

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Kyle's Science Fair

Kyle with his All You Want to Know about Heinz exhibit board,
 his teacher Mrs. Bihn, and other students at Stranahan Elementary
School in Sylvania, Ohio.  
Who invented Heinz ketchup, when and where?  Was there a real Mr. and Mrs. Heinz? When did the Superbowl begin? The NFL, soccer, baseball, ice hockey? Where did candy kisses, Hershey bars, jolly ranchers, and coke come from?  What about American Dolls?  Ball point pens? Television? Video games?  Ipods?  The history of Life Flight?

The students at Stranahan Elementary School in Sylvania, Ohio,  explored these topics and more for their annual Science Fair. They displayed the results of their research on wonderful exhibit boards showing the histories of these diverse American businesses, products, sports, and professions: when, where, how and why. .

The exhibits were proudly displayed  at the school last week, with parents, teachers and students milling about, going from table to table, admiring the students' work. The exhibits were clever, informative, creative.  Many had props along with them, candies, drinks, coupons, souvenirs, and even miniature dioramas..  .

My 10-year-old grandson Kyle, in the 5th grade, was the Heinz expert. He searched the internet for information and photos, getting better and better in using the computer for research and learning (he was instructed to cite his web references carefully, and he did). .  He told the story of the Heinz corporation, an iconic brand, which was recently bought by the famed billionaire Warren Buffet.  To augment his exhibit, Kyle handed out packets of Heinz ketchup and coupons for smoothies and french fries (very popular), kindly donated by Wendy's.  His teacher, Mrs. Bihn, was encouraging and enthusiastic.  Kudos to a great teacher!

The public schools in Sylvania are fantastic, committed to kids at all levels.  They are well-supported by a community that values education.  My grandkids are among the lucky beneficiaries of a school system that really cares about kids and motivates them to learn, stretch, and grow. The Science Fair is an example.  It also shows that learning can be fun.

.  .  

Friday, February 15, 2013

Second Amendment: Obsolete

"A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. 
Second Amendment to US Constitution

"A well regulated militia being about as necessary as having a place to tether one's horse while shopping, any right to bear arms said to flow from that need has been abridged by the inexorable forces of obsolescence."

Put the Second Amendment where it belongs: not on a pedestal, but in the dustbin of  history.   .

This is not 1776,  the year of the America Revolution and the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.  It's not 1787,  when the U.S. Constitution was adopted and sent to the states for ratification..  It’s not 1791, when the first ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights,  were adopted,

Times have changed.  The historical context  has changed.  American demographics have changed.  Weapons have changed. Slaves are free.  We elect U.S. Senators.  African-Americans can vote.  Women can vote.

The Constitution is the framework of our democratic republic, and we revere it's democratic ideals, but it’s been amended 27 times!  It’s been interpreted and re-interpreted, revised and re-revised, for over 250 years. It's a living document, subject to change, not the Dead Sea scrolls. So why  hang on to archaic interpretations without reference to present conditions, concerns, and contexts?

Could our Founding Fathers have imagined, let alone condoned in the hands of ordinary citizens, AF-15s and AK-47s?  Fully- or semi-automatic assault weapons?  Plastic guns that security Xrays cannot detect?  3D printers that will soon enable you to create a gun and download it from your laptop?   

Why do citizens NEED the right to have weapons of war?   Why do the people  need  "high-capacity magazine" weapons that can spray bullets into any crowd without reloading, 20 times and more?. The security of our nation doesn't depend on militias anymore, on vigilantes taking the law into their own hands.   For that we have the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, and federal, state and local law enforcement agencies..     .

So why such hysteria (see the NRA's new ad on high capacity magazines) over an outmoded amendment  that no longer fits  the circumstances and  needs of  modern times?  The NRA spins nightmare scenarios of  a noir America in chaos, taken over by thugs and criminals, but the nightmare scenario of  the murder of 20 children (most with multiple bullet holes in their heads) and 6 teachers does nothing for them. Not one thing. The NRA simply becomes more hysterical in the face of polls that show a  majority in favor of  a ban on weapons of war, as well as universal background checks.

Who, besides the multi-billion dollar arms manufacturing industry,  is gaining from this hysterical adherence  (to put it mildly) to an amendment that has been rendered obsolete?

For this we are supposed to stand on a powder-keg of principles that are about to explode, and that do more harm than good?

Time for common sense. Time for a change.   .


Thursday, February 14, 2013

Valentine's Day 2013: Remembering Loren

My brother Loren always longed for a special love in his life, a woman like a goddess who loved only him, unconditionally, passionately, joyfully.  He never got this, and he always felt sad about it, sometimes angry, always alone and lonely. Valentine's Day didn't help.

With my sister Andy and Loren in Amsterdam, visiting
Andy''s daughter Kaaren.. 
We used to wonder how Loren could feel this way with so many friends in his life. so many causes, so much civic engagement.  He didn't seem to know how loved he was by so many.  Maybe he didn't connect the dots, Andy would say.  "I was floored by how many people came to his memorial gathering and book signings," she said.  

But I think I understand Loren's loneliness now more than I did before.  Especially when I miss him a lot, like on Valentine's Day. His autobiography, An Asperger Journey, provides insight.  And life experience, being happy but being away from home and the people you love.   Since that day in May 2010, when I got the call from Andy and made the saddest journey of my life back home, to Tallahassee from Starobelsk, for Loren's memorial service, I have felt alone without Loren in my life.  Not lonely so much, but missing a best friend, a soulmate. 

I'm an independent cuss, like living on my own, don't know if  "true love" exists,  have a full and happy life, but grief hits me in the pit of my stomach from time to time.  It's been more than two years, almost three, and Loren is not here.  I want to howl like a wolf, howl at the moon, the moon Loren and I shared, that united us even when we were far apart geographically.  Maybe then he could hear me.   

Loren, another Valentine's day has rolled around, and we have so much to talk about, so much catching up to do.  The planet is reeling from climate change.  Unusual storms, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis are pounding us.  Revolutions are taking place all over the world. Peace is as elusive as ever.  The Middle East continues to rage.  Obama was re-elected to a second term. Hillary Clinton completed her brilliant service as Secretary of State, looking like she truly  needs a break, and some sleep.  Many of our elected officials and leaders have succumbed to temptation and betrayals of trust.   Gun violence has brought tremendous tragedy, senseless deaths.  Our economy remains precarious.”  
“Yeah, sis, I know.  I’m there.  I’m with you. I see the good and the bad. I’m moving on.”   

”But Loren, I want to tell you about what’s going on in Sylvania, too, with your nieces and the grandkids, five-year-old Philip and one-year-old Chase.   Also, I had thought we could do another trip together after Peace Corps.  I was counting on it.  A road trip to the Southwest and Northwest.  Some time in Mexico.  I wanted so much to share Mexico with you

“I hear you sis.  I’m with you, in all your hopes and dreams, on all your journeys.  I am with you, and I’m moving on.”

Okay, so I keep hearing this one message over and over: that Loren is moving on.  I hope this is not just wishful thinking.  But will I ever catch up with him?  Will I ever stop feeling alone without him?  I don’t know.  Maybe some day, in the fullness of time.  Maybe.  Meanwhile, dear brother, Happy Valentine's Day.  I  hope you have found your goddess.  

Monday, February 11, 2013

Tea for Barby

At Sweet Shalom's with Friends of Barby:  Karen, Pam,  Susan,
Chris, Sharon, Beverly, another Susan. 
Some of Barby’s friends had a “Barby High Tea” yesterday afternoon at a picturesque place called “Sweet Shalom.”  I’ve passed the yellow and white house with a white picket fence and old-fashioned gazebo porch many times since I’ve been in Sylvania, always wondering what it could be.  Such a sweet name, too.

I found out it’s a lovely tea room in an elegant old farm house built in 1868 (first owner was a farmer and Civil War veteran).  The house has been expanded several times under different owners. It’s three original rooms now serve as the tea rooms.  We sat at a table next to a lovely fireplace, with pretty table settings and tea pots to match..The almond scones, tea sandwiches and desserts were just as pretty, and delicious. The name was chosen purposefully  for its meaning by the current owners of the tea room, Sara Velasquez and Chris Kruse and their families: peace above all, and harmony, wellness, and completeness.  A perfect place to salute Barby and share memories.  

Pam organized us, “us” being a group of eclectic women (teachers, a dancer, artist, musician, storytellers, travelers, friends from church, university, and olden days) that only Barby could have gathered together.  Pam had also lovingly created wonderful momentos for each of us, from  things she found at Barby’s home, things Barby had collected, like old crocheted lace and silver ribbon.  Very special.  We didn’t remain strangers for long, as we reminisced, chatted, and enjoyed each other's company. "How did you know Barby?" was enough to get us going.   We talked about teaching, literature, collecting things. We talked about where Barby's vast collection of books, especially children's literature, had gone, all to good causes.  I told about giving her yarn (tons of it) and sewing stuff  to church women who made things for the sick, the poor and the homeless.  A few of the women had read my Ukrainian adventure blogs.  A few were with Barby at the end, like guardian angels, taking care of her, massaging her, reading to her.  They recalled that after her stroke,  physically debilitating though her mind was alert, they could tell, she was ready to go. She had seen son Marty, who lives in Toledo, and was awaiting son David from New York City.  Once David arrived, the guardian angels said, she was ready to move on,

We were kind of moving on with her in spirit.  “Let’s do it again, next time at Manhattan's downtown, for a Sunday brunch or, how about drinks. Super!  I think we could all feel Barby's spirit floating around us and through us as we remembered and laughed.    

Saturday, February 9, 2013

At the Intersection of Mental Health and Gun Control

We ‘re standing at the intersection of mental health and gun control.  How did we get here?  We have a green light.  We have to go.  But where?  In what direction?  Do we need a new  map, one that moves us onto safer terrain?  Can we take the next curve in the road?  Can we create a new traffic pattern? I think President Obama is heading in the right direction.

A young soldier with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) shoots the seemingly invincible Chris Kyle, a former Navy SEAL and expert sniper, along with a friend of his, at a shooting range in Texas.  Kyle wrote about his experiences as a Navy Seal in the book “American Sniper.”  Hard to believe, and sad, that he could be taken down so easily.   

The news stories say that Kyle and his friend had taken the accused murderer to the shooting range with them because they were helping him deal with his PTSD.  They were friends, or knew each other.  Semper FI.  Comrades-in-arms.  

But in close range of a gun in the hands of the wrong person, the expert became as helpless as the ordinary citizens who went to watch a movie in Aurora, CO, as helpless as the children and teachers at Sandy Hook school.  Innocent, unsuspecting, unprepared, killed,  out of the blue.  How in the world do you protect against something like this? 

I posted blithely on facebook that no one is invincible, a Navy SEAL taken down.  Guns 
kill, violence begets violence, I wrote.  Yes, but the questions keep coming, now more insistent than ever.    

How can mentally unstable people, troubled, deranged, delusional, go and buy weapons of war, or have such easy access to them, sometimes amass them, then take them onto our streets and into our homes, stores, and schools, shopping malls and movie theaters, and just shoot people dead?  Two or more at a time; 10 or more. 20 or more.  No re-loading necessary.  Just a spray of bullets into a room, into the crowd, murderous, deadly.  One-on-one killings. Mass killings.  With no apparent reasons.  Beyond comprehension.  On civilian territory, not in war zones. 

It really is time to act.  Background checks for all?  Why not?  No guns of war, no automatic assault weapons, in civilian hands?  Yes, time to ban them, even the Generals are telling us.  Weapons of war don't belong on our streets. Our Founding Fathers couldn't have even imagined it, let alone condoned it.  

More mental health services and professional intervention?  Yes, we  need to pay attention and put more resources into prevention and treatment.  

Do we have the courage to take on and untangle the lethal intersection of gun control and mental health? The majority of Americans think so. Will our elected representatives act accordingly?  Will they have the courage to find a new direction home that keeps us safe, and free from fear?   It's the 21st century, not 1787.   It's time to act for the good of the majority, not in the interest of the minority defenders of outmoded laws and ancient traditions.  

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


I Recently had to apologize for my impatience.  It’s a challenge.  how come i can’t be more patient in real life, like i was in ukrainE?  no matter how tough and frustrating it could bE, i took life as it came. i was patient. uNDERSTANDING. 

my peace corp personna.  

Where is it when i need it now? 

this old blog came to mind as i said i’m sorry to my daughter. lISTEN. understand. don’t judge. be patient. take life as it comes.  


Photo of Salvadore Dali's melting watches, "Persistence of Memory," by Joelk75 (Flickr photo) 

When some of my fellow PCVs get frustrated at what looks like resistance to planning and change, the slow pace of getting things done, the low regard for schedules and time discipline, the poor quality of service at train and bus stations, shops and hotels, I try to explain the difficult transition that Ukraine is now undergoing. I say that Ukraine is "in the process of becoming," a transition to a new model of democracy, caught between two worlds, the old and the new, the pre-industrial and the post-industrial. It's a matter of time, but the process itself is fascinating. It's a historical phenomenon.

"Historical phenomenon?" 
The little group of young PCVs chuckles .

“Yes, that's what it is,” I reply. 

"That's great, Fran. I'll remember that the next time I try to buy a train ticket and disturb the cashier."

"Yeah, me, too, the next time I'm alone in the office waiting for a meeting that never takes place!"

“Well, remember it when you get back to America,” I respond.

“You are witnesses to this transformation; you have a unique perspective. And if you are thinking of graduate school, you have all the material you need for a dissertation, just by having lived in post-Soviet Ukraine for two plus years.”

"I''ll keep that in mind, Fran, but right now I have to get ready for a big meeting tomorrow. My counterpart just told me about it, and asked me to give a talk, in Russian."

Friday, February 1, 2013

A library computerized, a community empowered.

Photo from PCV Sara Cooper, Starobelsk, UA
I just participated, via Skype, in the Starobelsk Library's grand celebration of getting computers from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Bibliomist project.  It was wonderful to see the library filled with friends and people from the community. A special day. I  was asked to say a few words.  Friends were waving joyously in the background.  Vera Flyat, my counterpart at the human rights NGO Victoria, poked her head in and blew kisses. People were giving the "thumbs up" sign.  I said a few words, as I was asked to do. "Ето мечта поняль. This is a dream come true!"

As I wrote in my last blog, we started in the fall of 2009, creating the library's first English club and English-language  book collection, and step by step applied to Bibliomist for the computers.  Anyone who's applied for grants from large foundations knows this is a challenging process.  Peace Corps Volunteers who came after me, Amy and Sara, moved the project along.  Amy said it took about 5 attempts.  I am so proud that the Library, director Iryna Andreenov, and friends of the library kept at it.

Now almost 4 years later, the Starobelsk Public Library has computers and online access to a whole new world of knowledge, communications and connections. . It has WiFi; it's wired!  "It shows we can work together and make good things happen.  Never give up!"  The audience cheered.

What a a huge difference this achievement will make to the library and the entire community it serves.  Natalia Dohadailo, my dear friend, English teacher and interpreter, said that already more people are using the Library and the computers are very popular.  Peace Corps makes a difference.  A library computerized.  A community empowered! .
Lugansk oblast, far-eastern UA 

The  "rayon" area of small towns and rural villages
 around  Starobelsk in far-eastern Ukraine
(Lugansk oblast) served by the Starobelsk Biblioteca.

Ukraine in white, Eastern Europe,
on Russain border



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