Thursday, May 30, 2013


May's gone! Well, almost, but close enough to count.
Our Great-grandson Caleb graduated from High School this month.  He was in the first class to graduate from a spankin' new high school and the powers that be pulled out all the stops.  Normally, graduation ceremonies are held out on some kind of field, with family sitting on wooden benches (rarely bleachers), which means you can't see anything.  Normally they are held in the afternoon in the full sun and are beastly hot.  Normally the PA system doesn't do a very good job and it's hard to hear anything.  Normally the delivery of the certificates and introduction of each grad goes on for hours and hours.  And normally there is a four to five block walk from where you park your car to the ceremony site. 
But Caleb's graduation ceremony was different, I think, because it was the first one for that school.  It was held in an enclosed, air-conditioned sports arena with seating for maybe 10,000.  This meant first of all that with a graduating class of about 350, there were more than enough seats for everyone and parking was a snap!  The funniest part was that the snack bars were open and the hawkers were going up and down the aisles selling hot dogs, nachos, cotton candy and cokes, although they certainly were doing it respectfully, i.e., no loud "hawking!"  Because it is a new state-of-the-art area, there were big screens up everywhere and you could actually SEE the graduates get their diploma.  And best of all is that the ceremony, thanks to some wise arrangers, only took an hour from start to finish. 
After the last one we went to a year or so ago, Jer and I had pretty much decided that we were getting too old to handle the run-of-the-mill graduation ceremonies.  They were more tiring than taking an airplane from LA to DENVER with a stopover in Dallas!  As far as we know, our next grad will be Caleb's sister in 4 years.  If hers is held in the same place, assuming we are still among the living we'll be there!
Jer and I had a funny experience a few days ago.  I had read an article in the newspaper about the necessity for people to have some actual cash stored in a place that is handy for retrieval in the event of a systems crash due to terrorism or natural disaster.  As we were driving out on an errand, I told Jer about this article, suggesting that we might want to consider doing something like this.  As I was talking a funny little feeling arose in my brain that maybe we had already done this.  I asked Jerry if we had, and he assured me we had not, but even as I was speaking, little "bytes" of specific details began marching through my brain.  I got to the part where the article's author had given some suggestions of hiding places....and I blurted out that maybe I had just dreamed that we had put some cash away and named where I thought we might have put it.  All the time I was talking, Jerry was shaking his head "no."  I tend to think Jerry mostly knows what he is talking about.
But when we got home, I asked him to humor me and check in the secret spot.  He did....and found $200 cash in a zip-lock bag in a place where no one would ever think to look.  Not even us.  So much for failing memories!  We haven't stopped laughing yet.
The newspaper today tells the story of a Chinese newborn baby who was delivered while mom was using a "squat" toilet and the baby was wedged in a sewer pipe 3" in diameter.  The upshot of the story was that the mother was unwed, she said it was an accidental slip and the baby was rescued.  The latest word is that the grandparents have the baby and all is well.
I was shocked when I read a Chinese sociologist's take on it: The only mistake by the woman was not to immediately admit the baby was hers.  "I don't think that's a big deal.  After all, the child is safe, and it has a happy ending.  The chinese people still lean heavily on the human considerations.  Let it be bygones if there's no serious crime."
My, my, my!
I've just had another reading of Toibin's book "The Testament of Mary."  I took a slower reading this time, and it is truly a gripping book.  His writing is truly amazing. 
It is a very small book.  And in thinking about it, although I absolutely love to plow into a 600 page book, relishing the idea that I'll be with it a long time, it occurred to me that I have a few tiny books that I'm just crazy about too.
Besides Toibin's book, a recent re-read of Alice Walker's Chicken Chronicles puts it right up there with my favorites.  An older smallish book that I've read several times and loved at each reading is "Esperanza's Box of Saints" by Maria Amparo Escandon.  And moving backwards in time, I am grateful to my last boss for giving me his copy of "Spoon River Anthology" by Edgar Lee Masters.  I treasure all these books -- small things in size and words but big, big, big in meaning, beauty and ideas.
I'm giving a genealogical talk in June on paper trails that can be found in and around the end times of ancestors' lives.  To clear up a few things I didn't quite understand, I had an appointment with a local mortician, who was very forthcoming with helpful hints and ideas.  I had assured him that I did not want to talk about his customers, but that I wanted to make sure I understood what paper trails were available to the researcher.  I think both of us had great fun "digging and delving" into possibly unusual ways to find more details about our ancestors.  I asked him about something I had read in the past that at least in California pets could not be buried with their owners in a human cemetery but humans could be buried with their pets in a pet cemetery.  He smiled and said that was so.  It was a very enigmatic smile.   

Sunday, May 19, 2013


I just don't get it.

A male student in one of the local high schools gets mad at his teacher during the class period, refusing to do what she asked of him.  He then interrupts the class by "cussing her out." (His words).  He is suspended for willful defiance.  Later he says, "Getting suspended doesn't solve anything.  It just ruins the rest of the day and keeps you behind."

Right here I start being confused.

Interestingly, he then says he likes chemistry and wants to become a doctor.  He also has been a problem student since his first year in junior high school.

Now it appears that a new method of choice for handling such issues has been approved in this school district.  It is a process called "restorative justice" which aims to keep the child in school, and it involves the teacher, the student, some letter writing back and forth, some apologies from both teacher and student, and a sharing of letters with the class.  This "restorative justice" can be done immediately after the outburst (no sending to the office to have the problem ironed out) and overall takes about 45 minutes of time to accomplish.

One student's remark afterwards was "Me and the teacher were friends by the end of the day."

That may be, but the other 30 kids in the classroom lost learning time.  And, I might remind everyone that the real working world into which the mouthy student is going to find himself does not operate on "restorative justice."  You mouth off at your boss, you're history!  Who is learning about authority and respect?

I have read the pros and the cons on this.  Hanging over the problem and any answer is a "civil rights" issue, which is certainly complicating any solution.  But yesterday I read the decision has been made to toss out suspension for willful defiance and replace it with the "restorative justice" program.  Here's the way I see: teachers must be trained now on behavior modification, a psychological treatment approach, based on the principles of operant conditioning, that replaces undesirable behaviors with more desirable ones.  Ahhhh. 

Today's schools are finding that teaching one's ABC's is second fiddle.  That respect for teachers and/or authority is passe'.  Let's face it: Kids Rule!

I still don't get it!

Thursday, May 9, 2013


In the manner of recent catch phrases where someone won’t “confirm or deny” something, today I am neither recommending nor not recommending that you read Colm Toibin’s novella “The Testament of Mary” that I recently obtained from the library and read in one sitting. But if you choose to read it, you may love it or hate it.  You may think it is blasphemous or a great piece of fiction.  You may embrace the totality of it or think it should be at a minimum tossed in the trash, and that only because we don’t burn books.  I guarantee you that regardless of how you react to it, you will spend a lot of time thinking about it after you put it down.  Under certain circumstances in your background, you may need to be brave to read it.
I came to read this book because of a review in the L.A. Times on April 22, not about the book, which was published last year, but about the Broadway stage play, which incidentally closed after 16 performances.  I was intrigued with what I read about the how this author presents Mary.  And with my bringing to the book a fairly traditional religious but non-Catholic acquaintance with the New Testament Mary, the Mary that is the mother of Jesus, I wondered if I could even be objective to begin with.  Since most of you know that I do enjoy books with a religious bent to them, and since I figured I’d never get to the Broadway production of it, I’d better read the book.

To start with, Toibin’s Mary is the mother of Jesus but not because of a virgin birth.  She states that her son is a mere man, not the Son of God.  Toibin begins his story with Mary in her old age, living in Ephesus and having some contact with what the reader assumes are the “Disciples” as we know them from the New Testament, but she indicates they really want her cooperation in documenting him as the Son of God and she says in so many words that she can’t do it because it isn’t true.
It is Mary’s voice that Toibin writes in.  In a short 70-some pages, the reader hears Mary as she describes things like the resurrecting of Lazarus, the Cana wedding’s miraculous “changing of water to wine”, other familiar New Testament happenings and of course, the crucifixion.  I must admit that as simple and beautiful as Toibin's writing is, it is very difficult to read.  What I found surprising is that regardless of my own position at this time, I found myself holding my breath as I read powerful words that fly in the face of what I have heard and understood my entire life. 

In November of last year, Mary Gordon, herself a powerful and poignant writer, ended her review of this book as follows:
For “The Testament of Mary” is a beautiful and daring work. Originally performed as a one-woman show in Dublin, it takes its power from the surprises of its language, its almost shocking characterization, its austere refusal of consolation. The source of this mother’s grief is as much the nature of humankind as the cruel fate of her own son. Her prayers are directed not to Yahweh but to Artemis, Greek not Jewish, chaste goddess of the hunt and of fertility, but no one’s mother. Mary’s final word on her son’s life and death is the bleak declaration:….”  I leave it to you to pursue Gordon’s full commentary on this amazing book.

Interestingly, the Broadway show closed long before it was scheduled to end.  The day that it announced it was closing early was also the day it received 3 Tony nominations.  The closure was not that there were nightly protests outside the theatre because of what the protesters called blasphemy, but because the nominations were not for any of the biggies (show, lead, etc.).  They were for minor technical things – a real snub, according to some.  I imagine one can read into that a whole bunch of things, maybe true and maybe not.

At any rate, the play is not the book.  The book is out to be read, if you are interested -- and if you are willing to appreciate a writer’s creativity and his amazing piece of writing.  And brave.

Sunday, May 5, 2013



The other day my daughter brought her grandson (and my great grandson) Tyler over to the house to “interview” me – as the oldest living person in the family.  This was not a totally unexpected happening because as each of my many grandkids came to third grade, he or she was always brought to me to answer questions like what I studied in school, what kinds of games we played on the playground, what kind of clothes we wore, and how we learned without having a computer!  Along with this was a chart of some sort they needed to make that showed four generations of their ancestors, which of course was right up my alley.
I am usually not surprised at the things that they ask.  His first question was “What is your name?”  At that very moment Erin and I realized that little Tyler didn’t know my name.  He knew me as “Noni”, which is what our family uses to refer to great-grandmothers.  Erin, of course, is his Grandma, and I am his “Noni.” 

I’m sure that if Tyler lived next door to us and interacted with us on a daily basis that somewhere along the line he would have understood I was called “Bobby” by friends and non-relatives and my real name was Barbara.  But Tyler has only known Jerry and me as “Noni” and “Gompers.”  My given names have just never come up. 
Erin has two much older grandchildren, one graduating from high school this year and one graduating from middle school.  I am also “Noni” to them, but I suppose by now they know Noni is not my given name.  I should ask Erin to find out.  I would be really surprised to learn they too don’t know that.

It is funny how we assume children in our family absorb things by osmosis. 
When Jerry and I married in 1975 we bought a house with a swimming pool.  Our children were mostly married and starting their families, and between then and when we sold our house in 1991, our summers were full of swimmers….little ones, medium sized one, big ones.  The little ones sat around the pool in shallow pans of water.  The medium sized kids went in with water wings on their arms.  The biggest ones were the idols that the younger ones aspired to be like – “Look ma, no water wings!”   Those 16 summers were glorious, for the kids and for us.  I was sure the kids would never forget those days.

And for the most part they haven’t.  But they have forgotten some specifics.  Some time back I asked our now 30-year-old grandson Chris what he remembered about those summers at our house.  He recalled the hours in the pool without batting an eye.  I then asked, ‘What do you remember about the house itself?”  He thought for a few minutes and then said, “I remember that when you opened the back door to go into the bathroom, you had to be careful not to trip over the cat potty box!”
He was right.  But that was ALL he remembered about the house.  To me it was the most wonderful house in the whole world.  For him, it was just a house with a cat potty box in it.  So much for how much a child absorbs!

Getting back to Tyler and his questions, he also asked me what we studied in school.  I told him we studied the same kinds of things that he is studying – reading, spelling, math.  In third grade they are pretty much still in basics.  But later I thought that really wasn’t entirely correct.  We spent lots of time studying and practicing handwriting.  Probably until the time came to start cursive writing, the difference between then and now wasn’t all that much.  But if what I observe on my grandkids’ papers today and what I read about the future of cursive writing is any indication, there is a vast difference in the amount of time they spend on this subject.  For us back in the 1940s, it was practice, practice, practice.  I hear now that good handwriting is on a par with good spelling – not all that necessary any more.  Imagine!
Another thing that Tyler is yet too young to experience is that beginning in seventh grade we had a lot of memorization required of us.   Oh, the poetry that is stored in my brain:  “In Flander’s Field,” “Abou Ben Adhem,” “Daffodils” and the like;  I still to this day can recite a couple of historical documents: the Preamble to the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address.  In our Sunday School classes we learned to recite the Books of the Bible, (a big help to Jerry in his crossword puzzle working),  the names of the disciples, The Ten Commandments, The Beatitudes and a bizillion Psalms! 

Then somewhere along the way, perhaps even in a high school English class, we had to memorize the helping verbs:  is, be, been, am, are, was, were, have, has, had, do, did, does, may, can, might, must, shall, will, could, would, and shouldI have the feeling that teaching today isn’t all that keen on memorization, either. 
In thinking back on what all I told Tyler, it is just possible that the only thing I told him that was actually correct is that my name is Barbara but my nickname is Bobby.