Thursday, December 31, 2009

It All Fits Together Somehow

There it was lying face down in the parking lot. I was leaving work this evening and it caught my eye in the almost darkness. A single puzzle piece. I stopped to look at it. I didn't turn it over nor did I even touch it. I just looked at it.
A single puzzle piece.
Isn't that what life's all about? Don't we spend most of our time and our energy trying to find the pieces of our puzzle and place them where they fit?
I left that piece for someone in actual need of it to find and place just so in their own puzzle. Right now the pieces of my puzzle seem to be fitting together quite nicely.
As this year ends and the next begins I wish us all gentle success in our search for the pieces of our own puzzles.
Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bottom Line is -- Happy Birthday

The origins of "Happy Birthday To You" date back to the mid-nineteenth century, when two sisters, Patty and Mildred J. Hill, began singing the song "Good Morning To All" to their Kentucky kindergarten class. In 1893, they published the tune in their songbook Song Stories for the Kindergarten. However, many believe that the Hill sisters most likely copied the tune and lyrical idea from other songs from that time period. There were a number of popular and substantially similar nineteenth-century songs that predated the Hill sisters' composition, including Horace Waters' "Happy Greetings to All"; "Good Night to You All", also from 1858; "A Happy New Year to All", from 1875; and "A Happy Greeting to All", published 1885. The copyright for both the words and the music of "Good Morning to All" has since expired and both are now a part of public domain.

The Hill Sisters' students enjoyed their teachers' version of "Good Morning To All" so much that they began spontaneously singing it for birthday parties, changing the lyrics to "Happy Birthday". In 1924, Robert Coleman included "Good Morning to All" in a songbook with the birthday lyrics as a second verse. Coleman also published "Happy Birthday" in The American Hymnal in 1933. Children's Praise and Worship, edited by Andrew Byers, Bessie L. Byrum and Anna E. Koglin, published the song in 1918.

So, thanks to the Hill Sisters for giving us something to sing about.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What Decade Is It, Anyway?

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote an article in Sunday's opinion section entitled, "The Big Zero" in which he analyzes the economic history of the 2000s. It begins as follows:

"Maybe we knew, at some unconscious, instinctive level, that it would be an era best forgotten. Whatever the reason, we got through the first decade of the new millennium without ever agreeing on what to call it. The aughts? The naughties? Whatever. (Yes, I know that strictly speaking the millennium didn’t begin until 2001. Do we really care?)"

Yes, we do. I am one of the people who really cares, and if you knew me ten years ago, you heard it then; I just didn't have access to a blog at the time. The last year of the twentieth century was not 1999, it was 2000. The first year of the twenty-first century was 2001. Accordingly, the last year of whatever this decade is called will be the coming year, 2010. We will begin the teens, as I assume they will be called, in 2011, just a couple of days from a year from now.

Think about your birthday, for instance. Say you are going to be 58 tomorrow. That means you will have completed fifty eight years of life, and the day after your birthday - New Years Eve - you will begin working on year number fifty nine. So if on New Years Eve someone wishes you a happy 58th year, you should tell them that you have already completed fifty eight years in the world. If they then change the subject and opine that they are looking forward to the coming decade being better than the last, you should tell them that the decade for which they are so eager won't begin for another year. Or perhaps you should just say, "Thank you and happy new year to you", drink your champagne and shut up.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

So Many Books, So Little Time

The Other Family Human and I are both great lovers and collectors of books. When we merged households a few months ago, the bookcases which held her volumes were joined by boxes and boxes which held mine. We went out and bought more bookcases and made room for them, and not long ago, every book had a place on a shelf. But there was no order to them, and we had to go through every bookcase every time we were looking for a particular volume. So, we decided to organize them on this long holiday weekend.

Often, I walk into a library and find myself overwhelmed by how many books there are in the world and how few of them I have read. But it's even more humbling to stand in your own home and be overwhelmed by how many books you own that you haven't yet read, or read but don't remember, or would love to read again, that is if there weren't so many that you'd never read.

So now we're organizing, and before too long I'll be able to say, "oh, we've got that" and walk right to it on the shelf. In the meantime, I'm getting acquainted with the books of the Other Family Human and reacquainted with my own. We paused for a break yesterday, and opened some holiday gifts. We received some gift certificates--how nice! To Barnes and Noble. Uh-oh. More books.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Let Us Praise - Teachers

In a town where classical composers were called 'those long hairs' and where high school graduation was considered the ultimate academic achievement, Elizabeth 'Betty' Jerles ignored circumstance and possibly common sense and taught music. She taught my Uncle Collins music. She taught my mother music. She taught my brother music. She taught me music. And she was still teaching music when I returned to stand for a class picture as a teacher on the same steps and practically in the same position I stood as a first grader. Mrs. Jerles cowed her students and the school administrators and possibly the entire little Arizona town of Wickenburg into believing that a bunch of seemingly hick kids could not only attend and endure symphonies but could, with patience and frequent stern looks, appreciate pieces they would never in their wildest imaginings hear in their own homes. Through out her long career she never lost energy or focus or passion.
For example -- She provided free of charge after school private piano lessons. I studied with her even though my family had no piano. No piano? That seemed a trivial blip on the radar scope of her enthusiasm. She gave me a card board mock up of a piano keyboard and told me to sing the notes as I practiced. She then invited me to come to her home any time to practice on her piano. I became the best cardboard piano player in Arizona. I know because she told me and even though I had little competition in that particular niche, I felt accomplished and excited and special.
For example -- Each Halloween she and her elderly mother (with whom she lived during my childhood) asked every trick or treater to sign their guest book. Then both Mrs. Jerles and her mother made much of guessing what student cowered behind each mask even though they probably knew who we were before we even rang the door bell. Both she and her mother knew how to make a fuss.
For example -- Every December she mounted a Christmas production open to the community. The first half of the production was a play. One year I was an angel in Hansel and Gretel. During a final rehearsal Patty Purdy turned to say something to me and instead vomited all over my costume and most of me. After making sure Patty Purdy received appropriate medical attention, Mrs. Jerles turned to me and while wiping whatever meal had just escaped from Patty assured me that shows must always go on. And so that show went on without, for obvious reasons, Patty Purdy. The second half of the presentation was all Christmas music and featured those of us who had just performed in the play. After all, her talent pool was pretty small. Off went the wings and on went the robes. I was convinced that our little rag tag choir produced the richest, fullest music ever heard. I'm pretty sure most of the people who attended thought the same thing. Of course, the evening ended with the Hallelujah Chorus.
The moment Mrs. Jerles stood to direct her choir in that final piece, the entire audience also stood. And there, the tallest, was my father, his hat off and held to his chest and his face almost as stern as that of Mrs. Jerles. We were amazing. As a teacher I stood in the back of the auditorium and listened to a final rehearsal of the Chorus. The choir didn't sound quite as astonishing as I remembered but still and all it sounded pretty impressive.
And a final example -- I really liked Mrs. Jerles. I wanted to give her a gift to show her how much I appreciated all that she did for me. I was in the second grade when I presented her the finest gift I could imagine. We'd just finished round up on my father's ranch and with the gift already planted in my mind, I had saved all the tips of the ear marked calves. My gift to her was a bag full of those retrospectively revolting calf ear tips. I couldn't wait for her to open her gift. When she did her eyes behind her thick glasses did blink a few times and then she just looked at me, smiled, and said, "How thoughtful. Thank you so much."
Let us praise teachers. They don't come into our lives very often.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Let Us Praise

That's the meaning of the Hebrew word 'hallelu'. If you add 'yah' or more commonly in English 'jah' you've got 'Let Us Praise God'.
I knew a woman, a committed Jew, who lived her life surrounded by books and the love of art and literature and knowledge and Judaism in several different languages. She also spent her very long life not believing in the existence of a god.
I did not meet her until most of her amazing mind had betrayed her and most of her memory had abandoned her. She lived in a nursing home and said little except 'Good idea' in response to something of interest and 'Hallelu' when something really warranted her praise.
Never, though, did she say 'Halleluyah' because not even dementia could create in her a belief she did not possess.
Let us praise integrity.
Hallelu and Good idea.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Little Kindness

An agency in the area where I used to live and work hosted a holiday dinner party for a group of people who have fallen upon hard times. There are a lot of such people around these days. It was a great meal. There was fried chicken and rice, potato salad and green salad, two kinds of cake and a bowl of fruit. I was invited because I had recently done a presentation for this group. The person who invited me asked me a religious question: one of the participants is an observant Muslim. Would she be able to partake of the chicken that would be served at this meal? Maybe she would, I said, but to be sure, I would stop by a nearby Mediterranean restaurant that I knew served halal meat (meat which has been prepared in compliance with Muslim dietary laws) and pick up a portion of chicken. This simple act took about fifteen minutes and cost about seven dollars.

All those who participated were grateful for the dinner, but the person for whom I bought the chicken was overwhelmed. She could not stop marveling that her personal religious needs had been taken into consideration. Her gratitude caused me to think about how very little out of the way we need to go to make someone else's day. It makes me want to do it more often.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Shortest Day - Longest Night

Today, officially the first day of winter though family members in New York and New Jersey might have a few things to say about that, marks a turning once again toward light. Even tomorrow we will notice the days have become longer. Tonight, though, darkness will hover around our tiny flames of warmth and hope and light if only on a metaphorical plane.
In darkness we seek light and the Winter Solstice has historically created light and mystery and even magic all to get us through this oh so long night.
I don't think we are all that far removed from our bonfires and drums and primal fears. These days we tend to mask the fears and silence the drums with all the brightness electricity can offer but still at comfort's penumbra flicker the flames of our sputtering torches.
We know that darkness threatens even now.
Tomorrow, though, we will turn more toward the sun's warmth until finally in the middle of summer we will say enough of this light and heat and yearn once more for the cold, shortness of our dark December days to once again as always turn toward light.
It's a circle and a cycle. Life is like that. The light always comes. It will again. In the meantime, let's huddle together to tell tales of remembering and surviving.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Keep The Light Burning

As the last light of Channukah burns let us never forget those who -- deprived of social justice -- continue to live in darkness.
And as the festival of dedication ends let us each dedicate ourselves to keeping the light of justice so bright that it can never be ignored.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Now This Is What I'm Talkin' About

Interestingly this piece of the oratorio has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus but, instead, with his death and is based on passages from the Book of Revelation in the Christian New Testament.
Go figure.
Did the cough drop fly out of my mouth? Hang onto the visual because I'm not telling.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Lessons Learned From The Messiah

#1 - Words Matter
For example, last night we did not see the Messiah at the Disney Concert Hall. The event we attended was not a personal appearance. Had it been, they probably would have given us those nifty seats at the rear of the stage that I requested when I ordered our concert series because the place would have been full. But, no. The Messiah did not personally appear. Here's what happened. We attended a performance of The Messiah by George Frideric Handel. You see, words do matter.
#2 - Two hours and forty-five minutes is a really long time to sit listening to anything. I suspect that in 1743 people's attention spans had not been destroyed by television and twitter and, dare I say, blogs.
#3 - When sitting in the front row of the top balcony at the Disney Concert Hall it's important to try and not sneeze -- especially if you happen to have a cough drop in your mouth at the time of the sneeze. Such events really distract the guy on the stage playing the kettle drums.
#4 - It's hard to hold your cough until the short pauses between the sections of oratorio but you have to on account of the amazing acoustics at the Disney. If you can't hold the cough, trust me. Everyone in the concert hall will hear you including the counter tenor just beginning to sing about behold a virgin shall conceive.
#5 - It is possible to pull out of a deep depression and compose a chorus so moving people stand and weep when they hear it. And if you don't believe me, listen to the most famous piece in this very long composition. The Hallelujah chorus is not, I assure you, at all depressing. So one trick to managing depression, it seems, is to create. Especially if you happen to be named Handel.

Monday, December 14, 2009

I Have No Excuse

It's true. I'm reading yet another Patricia Cornwell novel in which the central character is Kay Scarpetta. I've tried to avoid these books because, well, for one thing they are so badly written I'm ashamed to admit that I read them. But come on. Kay Scarpetta needs me.
Perhaps I can find a Twelve Step group to help me move beyond this pathetic pleasure. Or if I wait awhile longer I'm sure I can take a medication to ease if not wipe out my unquenchable desire to follow the exploits of the good doctor.
In the meantime, when you speak of this -- and you will -- try to be kind.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Happy Chanukah

The brisket is in the oven, the cousins are on their way, and ten pounds of potatoes are waiting to be turned into latkes . It's cold and rainy, perfect Chanukah weather. In this moment, I am grateful for a warm home, plenty of food and loved ones to share the holiday. Wishing everyone else the same.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

G'mar Chatima Tova

The traditional Jewish greeting between Rosh HaShannah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) is G'mar Chatima Tova -- May the final writing be for good.
The day after Los Angeles Police Department Officer Kenneth Aragon -- a nineteen year department veteran -- died from injuries sustained in an early morning December third motorcycle accident, the Los Angeles Times devoted less than a dozen lines of print to his life and death. Those few words presented the barest of information about this life lost.
This morning's Los Angeles Times devoted far more space to Officer Aragon and even a bold face large type headline: Officer killed in crash had been drinking at Police Academy bar. The caption under the photograph of Officer Aragon states that his blood alcohol level was over the legal limit. Nowhere in this four column article replete with references of careless karaoke and ninety minute disappearances and drunken debauchery is there any mention of a life well lived in the service of family and community. And certainly in the few sparse words the day after his death was there any mention of Officer Aragon as former marine and constant mentor.
The day before he died, Kenneth Aragon participated in a toy drive to help children in need have holiday gifts to open. He was an integral part of the explorer program at the Northeast Police Station where he helped with events and fund raisers to benefit under privileged children. He helped children and adolescents achieve physical fitness. He coached a girls' softball team. And he adored his five children.
Was he a flawed person? Of course. But then, aren't we all flawed in one way or another? Of course.
And yet the Times made no mention of the gaping hole this death leaves in lives and communities and chose, instead, to make its final writing of him focused on a flaw. Those who never knew him will remember him not for the life he lived but for the death he died. And those who did know him must wrestle with the words the Times chose for its summation of his life.
G'mar Chatima Tova. May the final writing be for good.
Ordinarily this greeting speaks of the final writings of our own lives and our hope that the words of those writings will be if not completely positive at least fair.
The Los Angeles Times teaches us a new meaning of that ancient phrase. When we speak of our fellow travellers on this narrow bridge of life, may we speak not only of flawed moments but of lives lived remarkably and well.
That is certainly the least we can do for those who spend their lives standing between us and danger.
May the memory of Officer Kenneth Aragon be for his family, his friends, and for the community he served a blessing.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Calf Named Moses

Last week a Jersey Holstein calf with a cross shaped patch of white on it head was born on a Connecticut farm. The farmer, Brad Davis, sees this as a definite sign of something but he can't put his finger on what, exactly, that definite sign might be. At first the farmer didn't notice the unusual markings but a few hours after its birth, he saw them and decided immediately that the calf had a cross on its head. Hopefully crosses are easier to bear there. At any rate, later that same night Davis witnessed something that made him even more convinced that the calf had a thing or two to tell him.
"The moon was out that night and there was a little bit of the moonlight coming in through the windows and his cross was the only thing that showed," he said.
Until he deciphers the exact divine message, Davis hopes the calf's cross will bring attention to the plight of struggling dairy farmers.
"I think he may be here to open people's eyes and get a message across," Davis told Fox 11 News.
While Farmer Davis was scratching his head trying to conjure up cross messages and meanings, neighborhood children named the calf Moses.
The name stuck.
The kids have more problems than the calf, it seems to me.
In the JudeoChristian narrative, I just can't see Moses getting too involved with crosses and if he did I can't imagine they had much meaning for him. I mean, let's face it, crosses didn't have much meaning for anyone until Christianity came on the scene many, many years after Moses died on the wrong side of the Jordan River.
I hope once the bovine cross code is broken Farmer Davis can take a moment to consider that his cross headed calf should be named Matthew or Mark or Luke or even, God forbid, Jesus.

Imagine If We Spent The Money On Something Else

Christopher Steiner is a civil engineer and staff writer for Forbes and wonders how our lives will change when -- not if - the price of gasoline peaks at twenty dollars a gallon. His book is not intended to frighten us out of our wits but instead comforts us with the speculation that when the price of or the availability of gasoline no longer consumes much of our economy, our conversation, and indeed our lives things will become much simpler -- eventually. Of course until that simplicity arrives things will probably be pretty tense.
This is a book worth reading.
I'm a big fan of living simply, of growing food, and of going about our collective business within the resources obtainable without ruining lives or biospheres.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Cold Front Almost Threatens Southern California

Why the temperature must have dipped to forty or so last night and possibly got as low as, perhaps, sixty-five today. People are walking around wrapped in all sorts of coats and jackets and weird hats that seem normal in New York. Lips are blue and arms are covered -- where flesh has dared to be bare -- with goose bumps.
If you doubted that we here in Southern California are too precious for words look around you on days like today and then fly immediately to New York where such outfits are finally beginning to be almost needed.
No wonder people laugh at us.
Now if I could only find my hat. You know the one with the fuzzy flaps that come down around my ears. I need it. No. I really do.

Monday, December 7, 2009

I Swear Under Whatever

I've never been much of a joiner so this might not have crossed your mind anyway, but I feel compelled to state that I am not now nor have I ever been nor do I intend to ever be romantically involved with Tiger Woods.
I thought you should know.

It Generally Doesn't Rain In Southern California

But today it is. The news folk got it right. Ordinarily driving to work in the rain is an adventure in madness. This morning wasn't so bad for me. I had been dreading the experience but the 210 East was easy. The drivers maintained sane speeds and behaviors. Wait a second. Is anyone who gets into a car to drive on an oil slick, wet freeway really sane? I'm thinking not. Present company included.

Friday, December 4, 2009

I Virtually Have No Time For Reality

I recently acquired two twenty foot rows in a community garden. It's wonderful to contemplate all that I can plant in those rows. The drip irrigation is automatic three times a week. All I have to do is plant the seeds, remove the weeds, watch the garden grow and pick the plants in their time. Except that I don't have time for all of that. You see, I recently became Farm Town and Farmville farmers on Face Book. I have neighbors who depend on me to fertilize their crops and chase away their raccoons. I missed a few days tending to my gardens and my eggplant withered. I lost money getting rid of my shame. Who has time these days for life when pretend is so much fun.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Jet Blue Wisdom

After the flight attendant finished the usual safety instructions -- fasten your seat belt, reach under your seat for the life vest but don't open it in the cabin, put on your own oxygen mast first -- he told a story.
"I'm going to tell a story," he said. Generally by the time the safety instructions begin I'm finished -- ready to get off of the plane. I listened to the story, though, and I'm glad I did.
This is the Jet Blue guy's story. Realize, of course, that I've made it my own and am telling it myself with my own twists. It's his story, though.
Picture a glass container. The container is round and perhaps a foot high and maybe a foot in diameter. Imagine filling it with golf balls. When you've put all of the golf balls inside it that the container will hold, ask yourself if the container is full. It will look full but if you start dropping little pebbles into it -- pebbles like we put in fish tanks or around plants -- you'll find that when the container just held the golf balls it wasn't full at all because there's lots more room for pebbles. When the container won't hold anymore pebbles, ask yourself if it is full. It will look full but if you start pouring sand into it you will discover that even with the golf balls and pebbles, there's still a lot of room of sand. When you've put all of the sand in the container that it will hold, ask yourself if the container is full. It will look full but if you start pouring water into it, you'll discover that there's still plenty of room for water. Keep pouring until the water spills over the side of the container which is now pretty full of golf balls, pebbles, sand and water.
Would the container have held as much if you'd put the water in first? Or the sand? Or even the pebbles? Of course, the answer is no.
The passengers were then asked to consider that the golf balls represent what is most important to us in our lives -- health, family, dreams. We were then asked to consider what the pebbles, the sand, and the water represent. I chose to think that the water represents anger and bitterness and all the negative stuff we or at least I hang on to like it was worth something. I'm still thinking about the sand and the pebbles and what they represent in my life.
The flight attendant then asked us to imagine where the golf balls would be if we first filled the container with the water or the pebbles or the sand.
And then the plane took off.
I'm still thinking about that unexpected story and those amazing questions.
Your turn.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Yo, Tiger

Really, what Tiger Woods does with his life is none of my business. He can run into every tree along his drive way. He can be faithful to his wife or he can cheat on her. I don't care. But, come on, man. Common sense would whisper to any rational person to not leave a voice mail message on your girl friend's phone asking her to block her cell phone number because 'my wife' saw it. Common sense would shout to that same rational person to not leave his name attached to the message as in, "Hi, this is Tiger....". Perhaps if the caller were named Sam or Joe or Sue. But Tiger? Was he thinking that Tiger is a fairly common first name? Guess what? It is not a common first name.
Wait a second. I just remembered something.
I once had a cat named 'Tiger'. He ate my parakeet during a moment of compromised impulse control.
That moment was no feather in his cap either.

All Good Things Must End Apparently

But apparently they don't have to end well. Such is the case with 'The Associate" by John Grisham. I haven't read many of his books but I do recall that those I have read have read well. Not so, here. Well, that's not quite accurate. The fact of the matter is that I couldn't put this book down. From the first page until almost the last page it was a good read. You know the kind of read I'm talking about -- a book that makes a long plane flight seem shorter and smoother and not quite so terrifying. "The Associate" was definitely that kind of a book until fifty or so pages from the last when it definitely began to unravel. By the last page all I felt was a sense of frustration mainly because there was no ending just a gradual eroding until it was gone plot. Had I written a book with this kind of fall apart at the end ending my friends would have called me on it and said stuff like give me a break or what were you thinking. I'm no friend of John Grisham. In fact I've never met him. But, come on, John. What were you thinking?


We've been in New York and New Jersey visiting Family Humans and Family Dogs for the last week-plus, but not so many Family Computers. We're back now.

The flight from Burbank to JFK is never a trip to which I eagerly look forward, but it is a great opportunity for people-watching. We took our seats and watched a man and his three little children, all under age of five, board the plane. He asked them which toys they wanted for the flight, took them out, and then collected all their little coats and backpacks and stowed them in the overhead compartment. He spend the five-hour flight getting snacks and drinks for his kids, taking one or another to the bathroom, getting them a book or a toy they requested. On the rare occasions when he took a seat, he would look at them from across the aisle and smile. The children were very well-behaved for their ages, but by the time we reached New York, they were beginning to decompensate. As the plane arrived at the gate, one of them needed the bathroom. As her father led her up the aisle through the standing passengers (all of whom were very obliging), the other two started crying. They all went back to the bathroom together. Upon returning to their seats, the eldest, about age five, prevented her younger brother from crawling over her to look out the window, and both started to cry. The father, in a very soft voice, said to her, "That's not sharing. Let your brother look out". She obliged, and with no further fuss, the father began the task of handing out their little coats and backpacks.

We saw them again in the terminal, heading to baggage claim and this time it was the third who was crying her head off. The Other Family Human approached the father. "Do you need any help?" she asked, "I think you're fabulous". "No, I'm fine," he replied, "they're usually really easy, but it's been a long trip".

Well, no wonder they are usually really easy, with that sort of parenting. When we were telling the Next Generation Family Humans about them, it was suggested that we should all carry around some sort of award certificate to give to people we run across in life who we think are something special. If we had had one with us, this man would certainly have gotten one.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Back In The Saddle, Metaphorically

I don't own a saddle. I once did but now I don't. Nevertheless, I'm back in it. For the past several days I've been practicing what I preach and spending time recharging and reflecting and most importantly counting my blessings of which there are many.
Talk to you tomorrow.