Tuesday, December 6, 2011

That's all she wrote (for 2011)

  Many blessings to my friends in the blogosphere.  See you all next year!

Saturday, December 3, 2011


It is said that you can’t outgive God. Apparently you can’t outspend Him either. God spends our time, money and resources as if they were limitless. Cases in point:

When God took our dear Betty home, He gave no thought to the number of people it would take to fill her shoes.  When the coffee doesn’t get made and the flowers don’t show up on the altar on a Sunday morning, we say “I guess that must be something Betty used to do.”  Now people have to step out of their comfort zones to take over these jobs –it takes teams of people to do what Betty did. Wouldn’t it have been better if God had left Betty in good health so she could have kept on working for us? You have to wonder about God’s economy.

Monday, November 28, 2011


The guy I’m growing old with signs up for a Medicare drug coverage plan and then he leaves the house to go fly his airplane. The phone starts to ring:

Hello my name is (didn’t catch that, no matter), how are you today? I’m calling from (good grief, his drug plan has a name a paragraph long) to verify (yada yada yada, no breath) this call will take five minutes (still no breath) is now a good time for you to take this call? (Let’s get it over with, yes, YES!) You must answer yes or no to each question, can we get started? (By all means, I mean, YES!)
What follows is painful.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Stage vs. Street Performance

Public displays of strong feelings make me nervous, especially when people take to the streets.  I prefer rage delivered in short bursts from a stage. I suppose the street is a stage of sorts, but watching trained actors reveal studied emotions touches my heart. Seeing people chant on cue and shout into a camera lens, not so much.

Actors are people who understand the motives of the characters they portray. They play out their drama for calculated effect. If I am devastated, it is the contract I made when I bought my ticket. When the performance is nuanced, I will learn something new about the world and about myself. My heart will be changed.
 To effect real transformation, hearts must change. To my mind, that is more likely to happen in a theater or a house of worship than in the street.

Not that some protestors don’t have a legitimate grievance. They want a piece of an overpriced pie that some (1%) enjoy and most (99%) can no longer find on the store shelf. However, when the goons in activist’s clothing peel off to go loot and deface stores, I lose the thread of the drama and begin to worry about welfare of the people who work in those stores. When people shout into a video camera, “You have to give me money!” they don’t move me, they just scare me. When students who borrowed huge amounts of money to attend pricey four-year colleges don’t believe they should have to pay it back that just motivates me to ask: “Didn’t you do the math on that?” Even in the best economy that’s not smart.
I care deeply about people who can’t get a decent start at a job or career they prepared for, doing work that society needs. But I can’t sort them out in the street. Give me two hours in a theater to chew on a well crafted drama that helps me make sense of a situation.

 Throwing a brick through a window may be cathartic but while the bricks fly, scores of millionaires in China are making plans to emigrate, and half of them are heading our way. I seriously wonder how that will affect the pie.
The tents are starting to come down, the cameras have moved on to Black Friday, and we are left with a mandate as old as time.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Morning Rush

A CBS Sunday Morning interviewer caught actress Michelle Williams in a revealing moment of self-awareness when he essentially asked her if she was addicted to adulation. Pain and frustration clouded her blue eyes as she acknowledged her dependence on the affirmation of others. The more that people told her she was doing a good job, the more she needed to hear it. She said it was a constant struggle for her.

 As a writer, I struggle with this same issue. An Editor’s Choice placement in the bi-weekly Faithwriters’ Challenge sends my confidence soaring, but never for long. Two weeks later, when I fail to place in the top ten, the ground pulls away from under my feet. Oh let’s be honest, two hours later I’m surfing the net looking for a contest I can win so I can feel the rush all over again!

A reminder in my morning Bible study pricked my conscience. God expects me to bring the desires of my heart to Him and seek His purpose. It is difficult to ask Christ to fulfill the desire of my heart without confronting this issue: how pure are my motives?

I want to publish my book. My motives are not fortune or fame. Breaking even is desirable, but being acknowledged as a writer worthy of publication is probably closer to my true motivation.  If I am forced to state this in terms that God might approve I would say that I want to produce a work of quality that touches hearts.

Taking our eyes off our approval ratings and placing them on the One who can align our work to His purpose is probably a bigger rush, and one that lasts longer.    

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Remembering Betty Tetzlaff

When Betty was born into the Kingdom the angels congratulated her Father.

“She has your compassion. Look how the tears glisten in her eyes when she tells her friends about the babies in your orphanage in Ethiopia.”
The Father smiled.
“She has your smile too.” The angels gathered around Betty and delighted to watch her read scripture in Sunday morning service, lead the choir in a worship song, bustle in the kitchen before service making coffee for the fellowship time or freshen her flower arrangement on the altar with a new blossom.
 “Yes,” the Father acknowledged, “She has continual praise on her lips.”
“Well she certainly has your energy!”  It was a sweet sound in Heaven as one angel after another chimed in with a story:
Every month she fills her car with bags of groceries from the Food Closet and delivers them to her neighbors who don’t have transportation.
She packs boxes full of diapers and formula and mails them to that orphanage.
She rides the mountain roads with the county sheriff, responding to calls for help.
“And talent, don’t forget that.”  The angels sang softly as one of the saints joined them: I don’t believe there is a person in Betty’s town that doesn’t have a framed card with the spiritual meaning of their name written in her beautiful calligraphy.
“Or their children,’’ added an angel.
“Or their grandchildren!” another one said.
The group began to gather at the gate, joining a party of Betty’s friends, relatives and her beloved Ted. A buzz went through the crowd: The Father has called His daughter Betty home. Look, here she comes!
As Betty entered Heaven, an angel whispered, “Today there is a hole in the heart of her community.” Rising from Earth, the angel heard a sweet Amen.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Birds of Prey

Late morning, a hawk’s shrill victorious shriek slices through the quiet Sierra sky.  Fair warning furry creatures that forage in the field or run on the road. This day your life will be taken from you. From the sky above a quick pounce will stun you. You will be lifted up and split open, your vital organs pecked from the glistening cavity where they nest.

Late evening, an owl’s incessant call strums the moonlit sky like a rhythm guitar. Flurries of bug-inhaling bats escort her down an unmarked aisle. Earthcrawlers cringe under the shadow of her wings.

I love birds of prey! While it is proper for man to control his bloodlust, raptors get a free ticket to indulge their bloody appetites. It’s the balance of nature.

photo by Steve Ryan
Our political landscape changes. The furry animal that is fair game for the carnivore once kept people warm. Sensibilities changed, perhaps around the time that options for keeping warm expanded. Still, no one is likely to suggest a synthetic diet to an owl or an eagle.

These birds command airspace without regulation. They don’t go rogue, they do exactly what’s expected of them -- provide shelter, feed and raise their young. They revel in the updrafts that lift their wings. They take their posts and focus merciless eyes on territory they claim as their own. They are fearless. They are magnificent.

In these confusing times, it lifts my heart to know that there is a creature who knows what its mission is and executes it flawlessly.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Intimate Details

Corruption, depravity, desperation, sex, medical emergency – is this not the stuff of great stories? Intimacy is the common element that creates a heartwarming or chilling tale.

Today I am pondering the connections between two writers’ explanations of what inspires readers.

Roger Rosenblatt concludes in Unless it Moves the Human Heart: “The heart that you must move is corrupt, depraved and desperate for your love.”

In The Daily Writer Fred White maintains:  “Human intimacy lies at the heart of human nature.” He gives as examples of intimacy medical, sexual and spiritual experiences.

This tells me why so many of the stories that move us involve crime, life threatening medical conditions and romance.

My 1970s edition of The American Heritage Dictionary omits spiritual experiences in its list of intimacies, but in the 1930s edition of the Dictionary of the English Language(Oxford University) editor Henry Cecil Wyld defines intimacy as something that is knit together in close physical or spiritual relationship.

Intimacy is expressed in details that are private and personal.  Our favorite detective stories, murder mysteries and medical dramas are loaded with intimate details. Examples: The murderer who strong arms a victim and plunges a knife into a vital organ; the doctor who dives his hand into a patient’s chest cavity. We get involved with the intimate details of the crime or the surgery.

Stories about love, sex and revenge penetrate the essence of our human nature. They reveal intimate knowledge. Example: The shamed child who grew up with malice in her heart and enough familiarity with her antagonist to know exactly how to hurt him.

Some of the most inspiring stories are found in the Bible, the best selling, least-read book of all time. Stories like Sampson and Delilah and Abraham and Isaac knit together the physical and the spiritual and draw connections between desperation and love.  We are moved by these stories.

Perhaps God is the greatest storyteller of all time and we are His story.  

Friday, October 28, 2011

Working it out

Step aerobics before dawn does more than wake up my muscles, it plays with my mind. I step out of the car and the cold morning air slaps a washrag in my face.  I was too sleepy to care how close I came to hitting a deer crossing the road in the dark, but I’m awake now!  

In the weight room, the boom box is pounding out the lyrics to “Highway to Hell” and I know what I’m in for – an hour of heart pumping agony. I have choices. I can grumble, but then I engage the wrong muscles. As I punch and kick the air I can visualize the faceless fund manager who lost a chunk of my money, but that’s probably a misdirection of adrenalin as well. Self-talk sometimes carries me through a session.

This morning I looked down at my step askew on the floor and thought about the four countries of the heart that people live in. Maria told me about a personality model that divides people into quadrants. According to this model, the perfectionist would kick the step into place repeatedly until it squared with the tiles on the floor.  The person who lives in the country of control would divert her attention to figuring out the proper way to get the step to adhere to the floor.  Then she would inform the rest of us how it should be done. The peaceful person would align the angle of her body to the angle of her step and breathe. Then there’s me. I’ll look at it, see the irony and go home and write about it. Yup, I live in the fun country.

So why am I up at six AM doing curls and crunches? Because it feels so fun when I stop!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Joining the Party

Heading out to a Zumba class I threw a backward glance at the laundry piled on the chair in my bedroom waiting to be folded. As I pushed myself forward past my writing studio I felt a strong desire to make a detour. I really wanted to get back to work on a ghost story I’d been writing. I turned back and wailed in the direction of my spouse.

 “I wish I could clone myself!” 
He looked up from the book he was reading as I continued my rant. “I would like to be three people. One of me would work out, one of me would write and one of me would put the house in order.”
“What do you want to do?”
“I want to do all three at once! But I want to be one person experiencing all three activities at the same time.”
I entertained that idea all the way down the stairs.  “Maybe my clones have different personalities,” I shouted up to him from the bottom of the stairs.  “Hey, maybe that’s what God did – cloned himself to form the Trinity!”
I’m not suggesting that is actually what happened, but it does give me a different slant on Christ’s role experiencing life as a human to edify the Godhead. Perhaps the esoteric Spirit who hovered over the waters is the celebrant of the secretive, mysterious nature of God. Maybe God is a party of One, attended by three guests of honor and we are on the invitation list because we live in Christ’s heart rent-free.
Does God entertain Himself with us, in the broader sense of the word – holding, possessing, preserving and cherishing? That’s a party I’d like to attend.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


We smuggled the contraband out in a tote bag filled with voltmeters. The stuff is easy to get in our county. You can buy it at Walmart but as it happened, I had some hidden in a cupboard in the garage.  It was part of our plan to get kids hooked.

In Santa Cruz, you can’t buy this stuff!  We were careful about how we distributed it, placing it in front of the children only after a detailed explanation.  Mr. A. assured the children that what they were about to do would not give them a jolt. “It will be fun,” he promised, “although if you aren’t careful you could get burned.”
Parents gathered around their children as they began to experiment. When Mr. A. felt they were ready, he signaled to his helpers to pass out the stuff. They controlled it carefully to make sure there would be enough for everyone.

The children maneuvered tinfoil wrapped sticks, wire and batteries with awkward fingers and intense concentration.  “Oohhh,” one said, “I can smell it burning!” Finally they began to cut the stuff. They were hooked.
“Awesome!” said one boy. 
“Can I keep mine?” I want to go home and burn something!” a girl said.
The helpers gathered up what was left of the illicit goods. One of the parents jumped at the opportunity to take the remaining stuff home, saying “I’ll stash it where I hide my plastic bags.”
From the get go, Mr. A had these kids – voltmeter probe, nickel chromium wire and D-cell battery. When they sliced the hot wire foam cutter they made through a Styrofoam cup to test Ohm’s Law that defines the relationship between (P) power, (E) voltage, (I) current, and (R) resistance they got their first lesson in circuitry at Fun Science Night at school* and some lucky parent scored some plastic foam to keep for posterity.

*The name of the school has been withheld to protect the innocent. The school is not responsible for the reprobate behavior of volunteer Mr A. in importing illegal Styrofoam into Santa Cruz County.
For a copy of Mr. A's Basic Electric Circuit slides, click here.

Monday, October 17, 2011


The economy hasn’t affected the California sea bird population.  They dine on a bounty of shellfish delivered in waves by attentive Neptune. Like revelers at a melodrama downing sudsy brews and tossing peanut shells on a plank floor, sabre-beaked sandpipers long step through foamy surf to catch up fresh crabs and toss them down.

The wasteful Pacific Ocean piles up the leavings on the beach, shells of former selves who have moved into larger quarters or been sucked from their habitation by greed.  Up the beach a lone cormorant unable to fly waddles into the surf and bobs like a cork out to the sea and certain death, enjoying the fine day as the tide carries it away.

Waste and greed, reviled by Take Back Wall Street, are celebrated on Sunset Beach.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

And the Oscar goes to...

Have you noticed the new set of characters popping up in stories? People who used to interact with each other now spend a fair amount of screen time interacting with digital media. What a challenge for a writer.
Writers employ exciting events to move plot lines – explosions and car chases, dialogue that reveals ulterior motives or murderous intents, scenes that employ people and nature to depict conflict. In today’s world, human characters must also interact with digital devices because they are, well, interactive.
Instead of the detectives circling the body and discussing the crime with each other, I’ve seen them turn a shoulder to the action in front of them to glue an ear to an electronic device. They talk to their partner back at the office, their mole in crime lab or the principal of their kid’s school (secondary plot line).

Do drama teachers assign students scenes to perform with in-your-face props?  

Teacher: Your cell is playing “who let the dogs out” so you know it’s your sister calling from the hospital. A tweet is coming in from your campaign manager about a big announcement and your iPad is signaling a Skype call from a name you don’t recognize – GO!
In The Elegance of the Hedgehog the annoying little French girl remarks that watching action on TV fires the same neurons in the brain of the viewer as are triggered in the actor -- our bodies actually feel what the actor feels. I feel my ear getting hot and my neck developing a crick when I see a detective on a mobile phone. When I see crowds of people walking heads down, paying no heed to the world around them I feel alone in the universe.

What would make me feel better?  I love the moment in the story when the main character gets fed up and flings his cell phone into the river.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

World Views

Small town gals with big city aspirations need to push their boundaries if they want to live in a bigger world.  Technology makes it possible for us to live in rural landscapes and still find ourselves at the table with the movers and shakers.

Last week I got an email invitation to join the Associate Publisher of World Magazine and other subscribers for lunch in San Francisco.  Let me digress: When I moved to the top of the mountain I invested in subscriptions to two publications I consider journalistic epitomes, the Wall Street Journal and World Magazine, to help me stay up to date on world events.  So when I got an email invitation from Warren Cole Smith I dialed Chili’s in Millbrae into my GPS and pointed my Buick West.

Only in the Age of Technology could I enter a room full of strangers and be greeted by Michelle with these words: Cherie says to tell you “hi.”  Cherie is my sister.  She and Michelle have never met face to face but they know each other through WorldMag.com forums. Small world, isn’t it?

I sat with Michelle from Santa Rosa, CA on my left, the CEO of God’s World Publishing Company from North Carolina across the table, and a homeschooling mom of four who lives on a ranch in Dixon, CA on my right. As it turns out, Michelle works for a literary agency. She has written her spiritual memoir and published a book, A Log Cabin Christmas. It made the New York Times Bestsellers List in September.  As it happens, I am circulating the manuscript of my first novel, The Sheepwalker. She graciously gave me her card.

So, who are the World Magazine subscribers? By in large they aren’t Northern Californians. World represents a conservative Christian viewpoint.  Now I’m a Christian with conservative leanings and a U.C. Berkeley education. Go Bears! I majored in English and muddied the waters with Master’s level education in Mass Communications.  If I were forced to express my philosophy of life in one word, it would be “balance.”
So I asked World Magazine CEO Kevin Martin how he would characterize the magazine’s editorial style. He thought a moment and said, “thoughtful and reasonable.” He offered this illustration.  A faction of his readers were upset that World did not cover the brouhaha over Obama’s citizenship.  There is no reasonable evidence to suggest our President is not a U.S. citizen. It is not news.

This is what I love about Christianity. Regardless of how we might like to think the world works, there are principles at play that are unaffected by our desire to see things our way. I think Kevin’s words, thoughtful and reasonable, are the fulcrum that balance opposing world views.  If we present our viewpoints in thoughtful, reasonable ways we can hear and be heard.  God will sort out the truth.

Push your boundaries.  Give an ear to what is thoughtful and reasonable and I don’t think you can go wrong.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Traveling Solo

An invitation to have lunch with the associate publisher of World Magazine was ultimately too good to pass up so I drove down the mountain to the Bay Area, a three hour trek.  I couldn’t think of a friend quite as enamored with getting the scoop on the future of publishing a news magazine with a Christian world view as myself so I made the trip alone.

When I was working my travel arrangements were no brainers.  We traveled in packs and stayed in corporate approved hotels.  Traveling solo, I find I make decisions differently.  I nixed an airport hotel near San Francisco in favor of the Best Western “boutique” hotel on the Alameda in Santa Clara. It was half the price and twice the charm.  Santa Clara has aged well. It feels like anycollegetown, USA.  It feels like being back in the ‘hood.

A quick OnStar search turned up Antonella’s Ristorante on Park and Naglee in San Jose, 0.7 miles from my hotel.  It’s a great little neighborhood restaurant where you can get a cup of homemade minestrone, a caprese salad and a nice glass of Sangiovese for under $25.  I read a Ray Bradbury short story about a house that survives without its people while I ate. I people-watched  the neighbors in this wonderfully cosmopolitan city come and go.

Tomorrow I’ll head to San Francisco to join Warren Cole Smith and other World Magazine subscribers who have decided this is worth their time.  I wonder what we will have in common, other than an interest in quality journalism that provides in depth coverage of world events.

It pushes me outside my comfort zone to travel alone, but not that far out. Funny how you can make yourself feel at home by choosing what feels like a familiar corner in a large landscape. I’m intrigued with the thought that I might be able to make myself feel at home anywhere in the world.  

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Old Family Bibles

BiblesDo you have a collection of old family Bibles?  Leaf through them and see what falls out.  Sadly, I did not pay attention to the roads my musty Bibles traveled before they checked themselves into odd spaces on my bookshelves.

I will never know which relative slipped a 4-page leaflet titled “Two died for me” into a 1913 New York American Bible Society translation. I surmise from a Google search that the tract that presents the story of Jim, who went to a watery grave to save the life of a shipmate, was published in the 1930s and is part of the Adventist archives.

This put me in mind of other flotsam that has floated from the pages of my old Bibles – a favorite poem, a rose-bordered memorial card, yellowed clippings of obituaries, the cryptic scribble of a graveyard row and lot number where an ancestor might be found if the scribbler had thought to include the name of the cemetery. There are more stories in an old family Bible than the parables these pages produce.

My favorite story is not my own, but my friend Barbara’s. After her mother died Barbara found a note in her mother’s handwriting tucked between the pages of her Bible.  The note was not addressed to anyone particular, it simply said “Do not worry.  I am just fine.”

We often think about family history.  We record the dates of births, marriages and deaths in family Bibles, or we used to before the advent of Ancestry.com. These records don’t say much about our spiritual history though.  The clues we find or leave, the passages we underline, the notes we take tell a bit more.
There is an advertisement that suggests that our success in life can be determined by an answer to the question, “what’s in your wallet?” Perhaps our hearts are revealed by the answer to a different question.  What’s in your Bible?  

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Because we can

This morning I read in my morning devotional that our souls are preserved by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the pungent fragrance of strawberry jam bubbling on the stove filled the air around me. Perhaps a reason we have trouble making our faith real is because so few of us can anymore. We’ve traded long hours in front of the stove for long hours bent over a computer.  What we’ve gained in mental stimulation we’ve lost in the sensory input that is our soul’s nerve endings.

Strawberries are like people, beautiful for a season and then they die unless they are preserved. Preserving strawberries is a process much like the work of the Holy Spirit. Years ago I took my young daughter out into a field in Watsonville and we picked strawberries. Some fell easily into our hands.  Some had to be tugged. We left the ones with a hard green side to ripen in the sun. We mourned those bloated with rot, left them on the ground to feed the soil for next year’s crop.

Back in the kitchen, our work began.  We prepared the fruit: culling, washing, removing stems and imperfections. Strawberry juice ran down our arms, dripped onto the floor and we barefooted through the mess, moving from counter to sink to stove. The linoleum floor got sticky. The air got hot as summer poured in through the open patio door and steam rose from the Revereware pot full of fruit simmering on the stove.

We added sugar to intensify the flavor, tasted and it was good. We sterilized glass jars to protect the fruit, ladled in the sweet steamy stuff, screwed down the lids and popped a batch into the canner for processing.  Our fingers burned touching the hot glass.

Was it precious little yield for so much work? Perhaps, but seeing the pints and quarts of gleaming fruit lined up on the kitchen counter like victorious soldiers on parade in smart dress uniforms, smelling the nectar-soaked air in the kitchen, cradling a softened whole berry in the curve of our tongues while warm fruity sauce filled our mouths, it was heaven!

Preserving fruit is a meditation on the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s a long, messy,  painful, engaging, exhilarating experience. There are steps and sequences, waiting periods and celebration times.

“O taste and see that the Lord is good.” Psalm 34:8

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Prophets, Playwrights and Shepherds

Don’t these times just cry out for a Jeremiah, a man with God’s words in his mouth? Wouldn’t we welcome a Shakespeare with the wit and wisdom to fence with human foible? How about a Moses with a mandate to move his people to a place of prosperity?

 I’m looking for prophets who can state clearly, “this is what you are doing wrong and this is what you need to do to turn it around.” I’m watching for playwrights who can do justice to the world stage. I’m waiting for that shepherd who can part the seas that rage before us.

I’m listening for their voices, and I’m hearing a few.

When violence reminiscent of the sixties sci-fi novella A Clockwork Orange raged in London,  Britain’s chief rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks laid the blame squarely at the feet of moral decline (See the Wall Street Journal 09/20-21/2011). He finds it indefensible that we have placed the entire child-rearing burden on mostly single mothers. “By the time boys are in their early teens they are physically stronger than their mothers. Having no fathers, they are socialized in gangs. No one can control them.”  Sacks concludes that governments can’t change lives, only religion can do that – “not as doctrine but as a shaper of behavior, a tutor in morality, an ongoing seminar in self-restraint and pursuit of the common good.” Sacks calls us to return to our Judeo-Christian heritage.

In Oregon, Ashland Shakespeare Festival director Amanda Dehnert examines the sin of pride in human behavior.  She has staged Julius Caesar with a chilling urban guerilla force that drives a dagger into the heart of the audience. When Vilma Silva in the role of Caesar demonstrates the power of an actor to both summon and suppress audience response, we come face to face with how easily people are manipulated for political ends.

I thought about this edgy production when I watched our local production Annie, a delightful, feel-good romp. Who would dare bring Annie into the 21st century?  Instead of the work house, today’s Annie might have a short life at the intersection of child trafficking and the sex trade.  I don’t think it would sell many tickets. Still, there is hope for true grit in some recent stage plays that pack a power punch. Two Pulitzer winners, August: Osage County by Tracy Letts and Next to Normal by Brain Yorkey and Tom Kitt come to mind. The first laughs at family dysfunction and then parades the terrible wounds. The second dramatizes the devastation of mental illness. Perhaps it takes a dramatist to help us seriously consider the pain of what we normally treat as sitcom fodder.

Shepherds are more difficult to identify. Certainly some leaders are surfacing, people who have pledged to spend their vast fortunes down to the last penny to solve world problems. Bill Gates is tackling hunger. Warren Buffet is making strategic investments in the stalled U.S. economy hoping the right jumpstart will get the engine going again.  There are others, but none who can roust the oppressors with convincing plagues on their houses or offer heart transplants to the oppressed who want for faith, hope and courage. Only the Good Shepherd can do that. We may find ourselves with an enemy at our backs and a seawall in our face before we recognize him.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The High Road

When I chose to major in English at U.C. Berkeley my reasons were simple and self-serving.  I got my best grades in English and I loved to read. Times were turbulent (it was the 1960s) as they are now and the future was uncertain.  Most women I knew were on autopilot. We set our course to include an education and possibly a job before we married and started raising kids. It was not at all certain that a career would figure into the equation.

I just finished reading Joseph Epstein’s review of The Cambridge History of the American Novel (WSJ August 27-28, 2011), a 1,244 page tome that rates American literature on a scale of how the classics treat our narrow agendas on gender, race and class. Says Epstein:
Multiculturalism, which assigned an equivalence of value to the works of all cultures, irrespective of the quality of those works, finished off the distinction between high and low culture, a distinction whose linchpin was seriousness.

In simpler terms, Epstein is taking lit professors to task for teaching books of questionable quality to study that speak to their own biases  instead of encouraging students to cull the classics for timeless truth. The result is that even fewer people major in English now and serious readers are on their own in their quest for good books. Epstein characterizes the modern English department as an intellectual nursing home where old ideas go to die.

I was mighty depressed to read this, but the second to last paragraph perked me right up. Epstein explained that English majors of old were always “a slightly odd and happily non-conformist group.”
 He nailed it when he said we didn’t major in English with any thought to being able to work for a living. 
One was an English major because one was intoxicated by literature – its beauty, its force, above all its high truth quotient. 
Be still my heart if that isn’t the honest to God reason why I majored in English. Sadly, there are fewer of us oddball non-conformists besotted with the notion of truth these days.

So here’s the point.  Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be English majors.  Let them be business and economic majors instead. But don’t send them to University without a good grounding in the classics first.

Thursday, September 1, 2011


My manicurist squinted at the color of shellac she was applying to my nails.  “That looks like the color of bubblegum,” she said.

“I hate bubblegum!”  My fingers stiffened.
“I’m sorry! Do you want me to change the color?”

“Eeeuuuww!  Now I can taste that nasty stuff in my mouth. It reminds me of the gum dream.”  I turned to the woman sitting in the chair next to me who regarded me wide-eyed. “Didn’t you ever have the gum dream, where your wad of chewing gum takes on a life of its own? You try to pull it out but it sticks to your teeth. The more you pull out, the bigger it gets and the nastier it tastes?”

“Where do you come up with this stuff?”  She asked, staring at me as if I were an exotic bird that might bite.

I thought the gum dream was universal – like flying dreams, naked dreams and not remembering your high school locker combination dreams – apparently not though, because I didn’t find it in my Mystical Magical Marvelous World of Dreams book.

My manicurist took another look.  “Actually, it’s more the color of Pepto-Bismol.”

I yanked my hand from her grasp and glared at her.  “Two strikes,” I said.
She recoiled and went into deep thought mode. “It’s princess pink.” She smiled like a mom trying to get her kid to take a bitter pill disguised as candy.

“Three strikes.” I’m a hard customer.

Across the room the salon owner was doing a comb out. In a gracious, tip-saving gesture she suggested that my now humbled nail girl look at the bottle to see what they named the color.
Nail girl flipped over the bottle.  Everyone in the salon held their breath. “Pink Dawn?”

“Lovely.” I offered her my hand. The salon breathed a sigh of relief.
In fact, I’m doing a puzzle of the Grand Canyon that has exactly that shade of pink. Now my nails match my jigsaw puzzle and my manicure reminds me of an Arizona sunrise.

 I’m still wondering what the gum dream means.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A Puzzlement

When I tell people I write a blog, they inevitably ask, “what is your blog about?” I suppose the answer is that Riddles on the Harp is about anything I find puzzling.  For that reason, I will never run out of things to blog about.

To my mind, a blog is a form of personal essay. Essayist Dinty W. Moore stews on this in Crafting the Personal Essay. He calls essay writing a gentle art where writers explore a topic from their own unique perspective.  They begin with questions rather than answers.

In an essay in the Atlantic’s 2011 special fiction issue, Bret Anthony Johnston says writers may enter stories through literal experience but that that fiction transcends the limitations of fact and history. “What matters is our characters, those constructions of imagination that can transcend our biases and agendas... “

Johnston is speaking of the characters we create in our writing, but this is also true of our moral character.  We reach greater heights when we approach a topic from a platform of integrity, courage, fortitude honesty and loyalty instead of an agenda that boxes us in with people who agree with us and shuts everyone else out.

 The joy of placing a riddle on your harp is in the process of discovery. In the course of forming words into patterns on a page, the writer listens for what rings true and hopes others will also hear a pleasing melody.

Riddles are often amusing and always engaging. That the image of a riddle on a harp comes from the Bible is not surprising.  The Bible is riddled with word play. What is a parable but a metaphor or allegory to ponder or a conundrum to try to resolve? The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:36) works on many levels.  When Jesus poses the question, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” he expands the meaning of the word neighbor just by asking the question.

That God chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise (1Cor:27) has always been a puzzle for me. What holds meaning for God’s people is undecipherable when we rely on our own resources of intelligence, wealth and power. Why, then, is my first instinct to reason, spend or manipulate my way out of a problem rather than to pray?  I have to ask myself.  

Monday, August 22, 2011

Of rhino pairs & bipolar bears

On a manmade field of ice, a bipolar bear takes three steps forward, three steps backward, bobbles her head to the left and to the right and repeats the process. She resembles a windup toy with a weak battery that is compelled to move in place, never forward.

Across campus, rooms with bulky equipment designed to entice a rhinoceros to charge large objects sit idle. The resident rhinos are napping near a pond out in front. It appears they are no more interested in staying fit than most of us. A sign cautions that rhinos have been overhunted and are now an endangered species.
Nearby, an expanse of grass labeled Bison Environs appears to be an exhibit of where bison would live if any inhabited this zoo.  At this moment, the Detroit zoo appears to be fresh out of buffalo.  Happily though, this regal animal has made a comeback since it flirted with extinction in the 1800s. (The food industry will dispute that buffalo were ever endangered. Perhaps that’s because they were part of the drive to replenish the American herds.)

The Detroit Zoo in Royal Oak provides luxury accommodations for damaged animals. It is evident that patient rights come first here, but visitors aren’t complaining about how few animals are actually in view today. Peacocks roam zoo paths looking like docents and that is what we are here to do this hot summer day just outside the motor city. We are just out for a walk in the most diverting of landscapes.
About the time that we think all the animals have gone to lunch, we spot a trio of giraffe strolling across the grass in front of a reproduction of an Egyptian palace.  Egypt was one of the first cultures to keep wild animals on display in royal compounds, a human docent tells us.

When you don’t demand to be entertained by nature, the simple curve of a giraffe’s neck is grace. The tiger’s repose is refreshment. Like so many regional zoos, the Detroit Zoo provides a safety net for God’s creatures. We exercise a God given right (Genesis 1:28) when we care for animals.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Platforms, personas and publishing

Devout Stout
 by Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing
To distill what I learned at the FaithWriters conference is a challenge similar to describing the complex elements of a zesty brew.  To extend the metaphor, drawing an audience and attracting a publisher is an exacting process -- like pouring a Guinness with slow patience to preserve its head.  Appealing to particular tastes (bold flavor, coffee aroma, chocolate notes) requires knowing your audience and giving them what they expect. It also requires understanding the bitter reality of today’s publishing world. Determine if you can pass the acid test of excellence or be prepared to spend a lot of money for a disappointing harvest.

All writers want readers.  If you don’t know that you are expected to build your own audience you haven’t been paying attention.  Patty Wysong did a great job of connecting the dots on blogs, Facebook, and a myriad of ways to build a community of people (your platform) who might be willing to buy your book, a data point that will be of high interest to any publisher you approach.
Many writers are shy. In a brilliant display of “show, don’t tell,” self-described wallflower Patty shared how she overcame extreme shyness to offer value to the audience she built for her blog, and then for her business (helping others build blogs). She described how she created an alter-ego she could step into when she needed to step out of her comfort zone and speak before an audience.

Some of her tricks:  
  1. Try out what works for others
  2. Cultivate inner resources that are there but need encouragement to blossom
  3. Present yourself as the person you want to be
Most writers want to be published. Deb Porter, who runs the FaithWriters Weekly Word Challenge, shared the sobering statistics that the numbers of book titles in print have jumped about 4,000 percent recently! This is not good news.  It means readers have to wade through a lot of bad writing to find good stuff and writers are rushing to print with stuff that’s not ready.
 I’d summarize Deb’s perspective this way: 
  1. You can lead the market if you start from the platform of celebrity or have that rare combination of talent, timing and luck;
  2. You can follow the herd and pay someone to publish your book;
  3. Or, you can enter through the narrow gate. 
This third path requires writers to work really hard to hone their craft. Follow the process that leads to excellence. Seek feedback from people who will be honest with you and make the changes you need to make. Look for an agent who believes in your project and will take it to a small press when it is ready. The writer's life is for the stout of heart!
Thank you to all the wonderful presenters at this year's conference.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Dao of Connections

I look up to the mountains. Where can I find my help? Psalm 121 Song of Ascents

Worldviews collide and the Dow disapproves. Some media dub the U.S. drubbing as historic and others label it not unexpected, but a yawn. Whichever way you see it, living with the consequences will not be boring.

For that matter, spectrum itself is subject to argument – a utility that can remain regulated and underused or freed up for innovative uses that might create jobs and turn a profit. While we are mulling this over, I am reminded of a blue screen we recently experienced.

Popped a DVD into the blu-ray recorder and got the dreaded blue screen.  Uh oh.

“Didn’t we just retune the receiver to pick up some signals that were dropping?” says I.

“This is the recorder. We need to do a firmware update,” says he.

And, isn’t that just like life? I thought about that in Sunday service when pastor, preaching on Exodus, asked the question, “Who do you want to be influenced by?” Well, good question. The next question is, “And what am I doing to put myself in the sphere of influence of those people?”

From time to time, I also need a firmware update. What is fixed in my brain needs to be reset so I better understand. I need to retune my heart to pick up signals I’m missing.

I suspect the powers that govern our country are missing some signals.  As a result, we may be facing an economic blue screen.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Zen of Wii Bowling

One of my favorite quotes is from Thomas a Kempis.

The more a man is united within himself, and becomes inwardly simple, the more and higher things he understands without labor, for he receives intellectual light from above.

To put it simply, don’t work too hard.

The more I apply the principle of not over thinking or overdoing a situation, the more I find myself “in the zone.” It’s exhilarating, it’s magic, and it has improved my Wii bowling score.

I belong to a Wii bowling league that involves sixteen people who bowl three sets in two shifts with a break for pizza and chit chat.  The logistics of scheduling, handicapping and scoring the bowlers is one of those high things I can’t understand without labor, so I don’t try. I just show up and try to break 100.

We’ve been at this for a couple of years and like baseball players, each bowler has developed a liturgy of tics that works for them. Wina hops up in the air on her left foot, swings her right foot ballet-like across her meridian and lets ‘er fly. Mike sits in a chair with his shoulder braced against the wall and flicks his wrist at the screen. They both get amazing results.

Paul bowls an S curve that is truly impressive and Agnes basks in the intellectual light from above, swinging her arm with a mathematical precision that causes the pins to fall all over themselves in awe.

Cheryl positions the controller, pulls her arm back, does a three step run- up, lunges, pulls her right foot behind her left heel like a pro and releases the ball. Score! Ron dispenses with the drama and goes for the hard and fast hook. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.

Then there is me.  Traditionally, I bowl like I walk. I start out knowing where I’m headed and then veer off into the gutter. It’s a pretty sharp turn to the dark side. But tonight, I channeled the Zen master and it worked!  I squared my feet, pressed A, lifted a wine glass in my right hand, and floated my left hand forward without effort. The pins were mesmerized. They swooned at the sight of my ball spinning slowly toward them.

I think the wine glass gave me the balance I needed to correct my wicked curve ball, which I suspect mirrors the scoliosis in my spine. But, I don’t want to over think this.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The resort of my dreams

We are planning a December getaway. In the planning stage it is useful to know what you are trying to get away from. Expectations, holiday stress and worn out routines top my list.

We begin our trip in Barbados, sweep through seven islands on a sailing ship, come back through Orlando and end up Bentonville, Arkansas. I imagine that moving from the trade winds that cool Bathsheba on the east shore – where green monkeys play in palm trees above our hammock pillowed heads below – to wintry Arkansas will be a trip in itself. But we want to take grandma on a holiday, so we are taking her to see the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
After we set the dates and made the airline reservations I had an “uh –oh” moment. We had decided hang out in Barbados for a few days after our cruise.  I researched hotels, inns, guest houses and resorts, avoiding phrases such as raucous night life, good place to shop for trinkets or beach activity (euphemism for crowded). The west shore seemed ideal. When you visit Barbados, don’t you owe it to yourself to check out the resorts?

That’s when I discovered that Yuletide rates would be in effect.  We are talking $1,500 a night, at the low end! Despite those lovely beaches, do we really want to be in surroundings that make us blink twice in the morning before we remember where we are -- and what we spent?

If I read People magazine at the beauty shop instead of short stories by Raymond Carver, I would know that this is where the rich and famous spend their holidays. Will sighting celebrities enhance my island experience? More likely it will focus my attention on where I can find a knock off of that darling resort wear thingy some Sex in the City sultress is wearing.

Loathe to letting go of the idea of staying at a resort, I want more to rub elbows with history, smell the rainforest and experience the real instead of the real estate.  

This morning I read in my devotions:
“Where he is to be found, there make thy resort.”
If I look for a place where I can open my heart to God, I will find the resort of my dreams.

I powered up my computer, looked on the more remote Atlantic side of the island and discovered the Sea-U Guest House.  It features charming colonial style rooms, reasonable rates, rocky tide pools where we can wade with brilliantly colored fish, porches high above the ocean where we will sit, sip our rum punches and watch the local surfers.  Ah, yes.
Quote by Charles Spurgeon

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sunday in the park

If you are ever at a National Park on a Sunday, take a little time to attend a worship service conducted by ACMNP (A Christian Ministry in the National Parks). These inter-denominational services are led by seminarians and college students honing their abilities to lead worship.  They get a lot of help from nature’s most impressive object lessons. 

“No one ever stands in front of Lake McDonald and says ‘Wow, I am awesome,’” Paul from Georgia concluded in his homily. Still waters and green pastures are God’s therapy for us who are over involved with our own needs.
If the heavens declare the glory of God in a national park, then the stand of fire-ravaged tree trunks that circle the lake have a message as well. I regenerate. At water’s edge the forest is greening. A shadow of green pushes its way back into the forest like a watercolorist bringing a sketch to life by adding subtle hues.

 Lightning, the world’s most careless and uncontrollable arsonist, has burned away the pine and cedar duff along with the trees. Now, new light shines in an old dark forest. In the transitional habitat, lodge pole pines that required heat to burst their pods are gaining ground. Song birds increase 200 percent after a forest fire.
Nature gives the best sermons.

Saturday, July 30, 2011


I am blessed to live in a mountain town with the peaks of Yosemite in my backyard. When I go to the Farmer’s Market at funky Mountain Sage – part nursery, part coffee house, part art gallery, occasional music venue for amazing talent – I may not have a choice of vendors of  a vast array of designer vegetables, but I know the back story of most everyone I encounter.

And yet…

I miss access to a state-of-the-art fitness center, easy walking distance to boutiques and museums, the availability of a nearby college or university that hosts artists and writers (no disrespect meant to Columbia College, which turns out firefighters who keep us safe and chefs who tempt our palates at local restaurants).

Closed in by oaks and pines, I yearn for open pastures. Up here on my mountain I long to be gazing across a glacial lake or skimming my eyes over gray coastal tides to lose myself in a horizon that pulls the sky down into Poseidon’s fathomless depth.  I want to light incense in my living room that smells like Montana.
No matter how good it is to be home, I’m always looking forward to the next adventure.   

Monday, July 25, 2011


It’s time for some irreverent musings on travel accommodations. 

Chico Hot Springs
Resorting to an international hotspot

When we first considered vacationing where the buffalo roam, what better place to begin than Chico Hot Springs?  Our “suite” was so named for the prominence of a huge Jacuzzi tub in the center of the bedroom.  Resorts typically offer romantic décor but impractical furnishings.  I couldn’t fit a book on the night table, but as the light was too poor to read by it didn’t matter. A full sound system took up all the space on a counter by the tub. At night, the CD slot cast a bright neon blue light in the room suggestive of pole dancing.  As we had ridden horses, rafted the Yellowstone River and toured the park all in one day, I was too tired for any more activity.

Offerings from Grandma’s organic garden found their way to our table. We loved that.

Olive Branch Inn
Inn consideration of meeting every need

Three generations of our family descended on the Olive Branch Inn in Bozeman and there was room for all, from a closet in which to tuck a tiny pack ‘n player for his nap to a suite retreat for the seniors.  In this case, I could spread a library of books and papers, glasses and small electronics, tea and fruit on the night table.  Small cousins played secret agent, hiding under beds on three levels of the historic home.  Big cousins adopted a rhythm of cooking, cleaning up and storytelling on the patio or around the big dining room table, lazy walks to Front Page for coffee, and field trips to the local attractions. The seniors flitted about like honeybees on the flowers of youth, enjoying the energy.

In Montana, fresh clean water is on tap everywhere you go.  That and clean air are  rights guaranteed in the state constitution, I'm told.

Lake MacDonald
A view with a room

Not an original saying, but appropriate to our fifties-style rooms at the Village Inn at Apgar at the panoramic lakeshore edge of breathtaking Lake MacDonald. Our suite accommodated two couples in a clean, comfortable, scout lodge-like fashion.  Built for easy maintenance with no perceived need to indulge users of modern electronics, all communication with the outside world ceased when we entered Glacier National Park. But who cared?  We were stunned into submission by beauty.

It’s not pretty but it’s clean
Our final night we are hanging out at the Royal 7 Motel on the highway praying for good weather for take-off tomorrow. We dined around the corner at hole-in-the-wall Fresco Café whose chef makes pasta sing opera.

Moving experiences
Now for the irreverent part – our family curse is the stubborn bowel. Sis offered up her remedy – five dried figs a day. Good, but I like my son’s cure better.  He said his poopologist (too funny) prescribes a shot of Jameson’s.  It works!!

some of the clan