Thursday, December 20, 2007

Gone to the dogs

One of the things I have always loved about being a journalist is the opportunity to learn new things. This week's lesson: canine couture. Who knew? Well-heeled dogs, and their owners, everywhere, but not this cat person. In the course of work for the Fox Valley Park District at a dog obedience class, I met two Maltese, one of whom was distinctly mini-Maltese, being a puppy. Each was wearing an Oscar Newman sweater -- the seasonal variety, of course, for December. (Oscar is being a little possessive about images of his upscale sweaters, but click on the link above for a peek.) Modern Dog magazine chronicles the lifestyle of the urban dog, and Paris Hilton did something useful in this world in designing dogwear .

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

What I'm reading
The Amber Spyglass. By Phillip Pullman.

This made me want to re-open my Milton, and nothing has ever made me want to reopen Milton after studying him out of (self-imposed) obligation in graduate school. I don't generally like darkly lit dystopian works, but this one is less dark, curiously enough, even if the principal characters do go to the land of the dead. This was the first of the trilogy I actually liked, perhaps because I finally grew to like Will and Lyra. And I really liked the Gallivespians (is he nodding to Swift there? probably). The scope of the series is so apparent here -- its ambitious character that borrows from so much of literature to ask again some of the great, timeless questions. Pullman is clearly an excellent student of literature, which he evidently concentrated on at the expense of keeping up with theology. In some ways his is a very old-fashioned view of the superiority of Enlightenment rationalism, though with souped-up contemporary physics. The controversy over Pullman's atheism is well-covered at Idol Chatter by Donna Freitas, who told me when I interviewed her about Killing the Imposter God, her book on Pullman, that she envied my encounter with it for the first time. I'm curious enough to dip back into Milton and, even more so, Blake.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Existential question of the day

I dropped in today to the local senior center, which is cheerfully called The Friendly Center. I played two hands of bridge (lost one, darn it) and heard some stories. Having recently been with a group of Presbyterian women who wanted to learn more about telling their own stories to their families, and also because I was there prospecting for local history, I was conscious of how many years of personal history were in the room in the lives of those 135 people. Bernice, who will be 98 in January and looks like she's in her 80s, shared some of her history with me, including having a grandfather who was a lamplighter in Chicago's Marquette Park. She was aboard TWA flight 847 when it was hijacked by two Lebanese gunmen in June 1985. She was among the first group of people let off the plane because the hijackers had decided "to let the old ladies go," she said. She was 75. She remembered the name of the heroic flight attendant who spoke German and could communicate with one of the hijackers, the captain's name, the name of the Navy diver who was the single fatality during the protracted ordeal. (There were 152 people on the plane.) People remember little pieces of history, which is a much bigger story. A propos of something else (the game trophies bagged by her late husband, a hunter) Bernice's friend Viola asked, "What are you supposed to do with your memories?" I hope I learn the answer.

Monday, October 29, 2007

I've been made an honorary Presbyterian

I spoke about Oprah Winfrey and writing to a gathering of the Presbyterian Women in the Synod of the Southwest this past weekend. I certainly had fun. It was great to be with so many women of energy, discipline and commitment. These are the folks out there providing for less resourced congregations, many of them on Arizona reservations. The theme was "We love to tell the Story," and I heard some interesting stories from women I met, stories of travel, family, widowhood, divorce. The energy was especially remarkable because many of the women were in their 60s and 70s, some in their 80s. In the bathroom, one woman was flossing her teeth. Flossing is a great habit, someone said. Supposed to be one of the secrets of longevity, I added. Huh, said another woman. I'm 84 and I guess I've got that figured out. I was delighted to be made an honorary Presbyterian. They gave me a wooden pin with the PW symbol.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

What I'm reading

The Golden Compass. By Philip Pullman.

It took me forever to get into this and I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's because I don't much like the heroine, Lyra Belacqua; she comes across as somewhat sullen. And goodness, this world is dark, dark, the Aurora Borealis notwithstanding. Given the Miltonic echo of the trilogy, this darkness is appropriate. It's certainly deeply and quirkily imaginative. I adore the daemons and love the panserbjorn. The animals are at least as human as the people, some nobler. Do you want Iorek Byrnison or Lord Asriel as your ally? But I am on to The Subtle Knife, number two in the series.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Cultural religion

The French are supposed to be a secular culture -- it's in their constitution . So I was surprised to discover when we arrived in the city of Lyon on Aug. 15 that the town was pretty much closed down, because it was the Feast of the Assumption. Not only that, the basilica -- Notre Dame de Fourviere -- was packed. We could hear the sermon amplified outside. French historian Nathalie Caron notes the paradox of a secular state with a Catholic culture that celebrates a significant number of religious holidays. But cultural practices don't offer evidence of active belief. France is historically Catholic; hence its beautiful cathedrals. In the U.S., scholars refer to our "civil religion" -- which has been misinterpreted to mean that America is (and was) an actively practicing Christian nation, as opposed to one with historic ties to a large number of Christian denominations.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Step class as spiritual discipline, continued

People have regularly asked me how I found the people I wrote about in my first book, The God of Second Chances. How did I find people with amazing life-changing experiences? Research and radar, the last part meaning that maybe they find me because I'm in the right place. Today my step instructor mentioned in passing that she was in a coma 10 years ago. Ten years ago she had a seizure and aneurysms, and was about to have her plug pulled. The day the plug was to be pulled, she woke up. Then came the work of learning to walk, talk, eat again. Ten years later she's a fitness instructor. Just in case you think that things will never change. I tend to forget that everybody has a story, and some of those stories are pretty compelling.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Pushing the daisy envelope

The critics are rooting for Pushing Daisies as one of the most creative entries in the fall TV line-up. Hoping spiritual significance would flower in a show about a piemaker who can bring dead people back to life, I tuned in. Last night's premiere had a lot of visual fun, very 60s-mod looking colors. There was less verbal fun, altho parts of the script crackled more than others. I loved the deadpan of Chi McBride, who plays Emerson Cod, Ned's private investigator partner. It reminded me overwhelmingly of the film Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, with visual exaggeration and above all a narrator, whose ubiquitous drone annoyed me. Ned the baker's Pie Hole restaurant also reminded me strongly of the bakery in the whimsy-romance film Stranger than Fiction. Leftover set? I prefer whimsy to fantasy, because the latter can easily shade over to allegorical. And I love it that weird stories can ask large questions and be quite disarming about it. At the moment I prefer Stranger than Fiction; its conceits and concerns with love and imagination were familiar and yet quite fresh. By comparison, Pushing Daisies is pretty far out there, certainly for mainstream TV. Usually cable TV is the home of metaphysics.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Step class as spiritual discipline

Somebody asked me last week at the Religion Newswriters conference in San Antonio if I blogged about religion. Not really, I said. I don't blog about religion news, I should have said. Lots of others do that quite well -- I enjoy Bible Belt Blogger , and the reliably fine work by the team at the Dallas Morning News , among others. But you couldn't pay me enough money to write about the travails of the Episcopal Church over gay marriage. I would much rather write about spiritual discipline in all its modern varieties, and step aerobics is a new and demanding one to me, not terribly trendy, but heck, I'm in the Midwest. Exercise works by faithfulness: you show up, and keep showing up, with consistency. That's the only secret: show up. My Catholic upbringing, with daily Mass attendance, really laid down the tracks for that. By this kind of faith and works are you saved, so tap it out, one-two-three.

Monday, October 01, 2007

New acquaintance

How lucky am I? Last week I returned to the hood and the past, and this week I did San Antonio for the Religion Newswriters Association annual meeting, definitely my present occupation. Former president Jeff Sheler said a few years ago that this group is his peeps, and this year I finally get what he means. I spent less time in panel sessions taking notes that won't yield stories and more time chatting and taking cards of freelance colleagues, since this subgroup is growing in numbers. If religion writers are the weird uncles of the newsroom (thanks to whomever said that), then freelance religion writers are weird uncles, and aunts, at home alone writing to themselves (like now!). How great to be in a roomful of people who read newspapers, have wry senses of humor and can use "premillenial dispensationalist" correctly in a sentence. (I missed that panel, but I can figure out someone to check with.) Free food helps, too.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Old acquaintance

I attended my 40th grammar school reunion last weekend. What fun to see people become themselves. A couple of us definitely resembled our younger selves. I made the short list of "people who closely resemble their 8th grade selves," though didn't win despite staunch support from old friends. It was certainly gratifying to be greeted as the class brain. I'll think about that whenever I feel bad ... . It was especially striking to see how the men have changed -- how solid adults have grown from relatively slight and skinny roots, although a few are far from skinny now. (In fairness I am among the women who have also grown more solid.) The more things change, the more they stay the same. All the nuns are gone, though their reputations live on. (Sister Clara! Sister Sponsa!) The outgoing are still outgoing, the low-profile still quiet, and the class president still confidently exhibits leadership. But everything that was SO important then is long since forgotten, along with a few names of people in the class kindergarten picture. Most amazing is the loyalty; so many people married so many years, so many people showing up for a grammar school reunion, though the fact that most people haven't moved far also has something to do with it. With people inquiring about my siblings and catching up on whose parents were still around, it felt powerfully like extended family from the old neighborhood, where virtually everybody lived in a six-block radius. We used to stand outside a friend's house and holler them out: yo Charlene!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Oprah. Obama. Obama. Oprah.

(to echo a long-ago comment by David Letterman, Oprah's guest on her season premiere this morning)

There's a lot of speculation about how influential Oprah's backing of Obama will be, given the $3-plus million dollar fundraiser she held for him this weekend at her California compound, right before her TV season began. Impeccable timing for her. One poll even shows that 31 percent of people think people they know will be more likely to vote for Obama because of O's backing. I find the wording of the question interesting. The poll doesn't ask if respondents would themselves be more likely to vote for Obama. Instead, they're guessing whether their friends might. Ergo, not a meaningful measure, even though CBS is puffing its own poll. Rita Cosby asked me about this last year (when she was still on MSNBC) when Oprah and Larry King were chatting and Oprah said "He's my guy" about Obama. I said at the time that books and brownies were easier to recommend than political candidates. I still think that's true, mostly. Oprah has never really ventured into highly contentious realms with her recommendations. When she examines Iraq, for example, she will focus on soldiers' families, or interview experts. She does well by playing to people's sympathies, and in order to do so presents situations in a sympathetic light (women in Africa, education, children and predators). Politics is a different realm; many have opinions to begin with, and so she can't give them the edited situation she usually presents when she's trying to get people to care and move them to action. Obama said her backing might give him a hearing in certain quarters. That could translate into, say, 5 percent. And it would come from Hillary backers.

What I'm reading

The Memory Keeper's Daughter. By Kim Edwards.
I put off reading this for a few months, since someone told me that it starts off with a depressing opening: man gives away infant daughter, one of a set of twins, because she has Down syndrome. Well, I figured I was in for a bummer. But it sat on my shelf long enough to make me feel slightly guilty. I picked it up and boy, was I wrong. It took me a bit of time to get used to all the adjectives, since one of the first events is the snowstorm -- rather elaborately described -- in which the main character, David the doctor, delivers his twins. But the characterization is extremely powerful, and I like the structure of dropping in on events as time passes. I also love the symbolic play with photography, light, time, memory. It's a novel that explores choice and consequence, and how much I prefer the novel rather than nonfiction as a vehicle for such exploration. There is no sparing us the grief of loss, the novel says in a clear-eyed way. Ain't that the truth. David's secrecy about his past also resonated for me, having just come back from meeting a heretofore unknown branch of my family in Poland. Branches grow from roots. I loved this book.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A passel of witnesses

We saw so many churches in Europe that I finally lost track of their names. In Poland they all seemed to be either St. Peter & Paul or Our Lady of Something. This one was one of many in Krakow centrum, with saints standing guard.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Access helps

If one intends to blog about one's vacation, it helps during said vacation to have internet access. On the other hand, the whole time I was in Europe (8/6-17), I didn't have a single conversation with anyone about blogging. And I had lots of conversations, most of them not in English. We spent time talking with one another, as well as floating down the Dunajec River and experiencing world-class traffic jams in Krakow. I was too busy doing things to have time to write about the things I was doing.

For me Poland was the Garden of Eden. Verdant and right scale. Nein to Vienna, unless you are fond of the extravagant, baroque, massive and imperial. More later.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Oliver Cromwell on a stick

On the grounds of the Houses of Parliament in London is a statue of Oliver Cromwell, the only non-royal to run the show in England for 8 years or so before he died in 1658. Cromwell's forces won the civil war. (I think those were the roundheads.) The royals took it pretty hard that here was a commoner running the country, and so shortly after the restoration of Charles II, they dug up Oliver Cromwell from where he had been interred in Westminster Abbey and chopped off his dead head and put it up on a pike somewhere over the Parliament, where it sat for 20 years or so. Talk about vindictive. They absconded with the rest of him, and today nobody knows where his remains are, though some have made claims, of course. (Cromwell an early Elvis, perhaps?) Now Cromwell's statue and a relief of Charles II's head (which the king kept even after his death) glare at one another across a street on the grounds of the Westminster complex. History comes alive here. It helps that rotty old bricks and stones are visible. Tomorrow all this Anglophilia vanishes along with familiarity with history and language as we set off for Tarnow, my father's childhood home in Poland. Today, however, I was once again the English lit major.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Off we go

Meg's and my plane to London leaves at 5:40 this afternoon, or 17:40. I have to unplug from this computer (off it goes to the computer hospital) and this culture and on Aug. 8 this language to go to England Poland Austria Switzerland France England. If it's Tuesday it must be somewhere. I've left off the passage between Poland and Austria because I don't know know whether we'll traverse the Czech Republic or Slovakia. Times have changed since I was in Europe (1975) and since I collected stamps (early 60s) and learned geography that way. (Maybe we'll pass through Liechtenstein.) Nevers: never met my Polish family. Never been away from my husband for this long. I've actually been to Austria and Switzerland and have very faint memories from my high school trip there. I make good a promise I made to myself in 1975 to return to England, tho we can't quite fit in a side trip to Oxford. So I'll have to defer taking my daughter to the Nosebag for tea until she does her Oxford year while at college.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Children of the lightning bugs

I have returned from four days of annual sessions of Illinois Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. We meet in an un-air-conditioned historic meetinghouse in the middle of cornfields. That makes it hot and green. The corn was very high this year. I drove back roads between the meetinghouse and my air-conditioned hotel, seeing few vehicles. I did see a bright red-headed pheasant in the middle of the road who certainly took his time yielding to my moving vehicle. Perhaps he had the right of way. I timed my daily departure as the twilight faded and the lightning bugs started their light show. Hundreds of little buggers gave their phosphorescent winks as I traveled their turf. Quakers are historically called Children of the Light. Illinois Yearly Meeting ought to be known as Children of the Lightning Bugs.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Definitely Christian

I came back from fictive England after a 12-hour stay, which is how long it took me to finish Harry Potter VII. Three of us have finished 700-plus pages since 12:50 am Saturday morning. (I was the slow reader.) I had to sleep on it because I felt a little disoriented after closing the book. Today I really like it, although it sure does seem like a book for grown-ups with this volume, which has so many sad things in it that my son doesn't like it. He rightly called some of the character deaths overkill. To me they make literary sense and moral sense. JK Rowling is deservedly enriched by the fruit of her literary and moral sensibility. Hard to see what Christians can complain about after all this is said and done. But some of them do love complaining. Myself, I love having a book the four of us will be talking about at tonight's dinner table, and with lots of others in the weeks to come. I also love that it is good and accessible. Those two qualities don't necessarily go together in contemporary literature. It's positively operatic.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Taking umbrage

My kids and I will be at the bookstore at midnight tonight for Harry VII. Meg is making radish earrings and a necklace of bottle caps for her costume as Luna Lovegood. I am not crafty but do own a good deal of pink, so I am practicing vocalizations for Dolores Umbridge. Ahem ahem.

Friday, July 13, 2007


I'm on #6 on the Rereading Express, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. This time through I particularly like numbers 3 (Prisoner of Azkaban) and 5 (Order of the Phoenix). Azkaban is wonderfully layered, with lots of character development and interest. Phoenix is one heck of a complex book, with all kinds of stories and details eddying around. I find myself looking for clues: why is this character here and is he or she coming back? Kreacher, for example. Fleur de la Cour from 4 (Goblet of Fire) is back in 6 (Prince). How tightly will Rowling finally weave it all together?

We have a betting pool in the family. I have bet that Harry lives, which I wasn't as sure of until I re-read. If he dies, Voldemort lives, right? Whose will be the sacrifice, since Rowling has hinted there is/will be one? Is it Dumbledore's?

Harry will live
Snape will save Harry and die
Voldemort will die

That makes the two dead major characters we have been told to expect.

So why isn't the Bible as interesting as this? Same theme: good and evil.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Cashing in

This morning I went to the bank to cash in savings bonds from my dad's estate to pay for our trip to Poland in August. Naturally the transaction took some time. (I was glad I wasn't behind myself in line.) Purchased by my dad in the early 1980s, the bonds earned 7.5 percent interest. They were worth not quite twice their face value; my dad had paid half the face value. He bought them for his retirement. I think he was 65; he died at age 69. So they now send his granddaughter, whom he missed meeting by three weeks, and me to Poland to see where he grew up and to meet my ciocia Helen, his only remaining sister.

He went back once to visit, in 1966. I remember the cheeses he brought back, which were confiscated at customs. I remember them, however, because they made his suitcase smell horrible. Dad's stinky cheeses passed into family lore. The following year he had another of his episodic breakdowns. That, too, I remember. I fantasize that I will understand his illness better when I go to Poland.

The return on the bonds makes me, for the purpose of this trip anyway, a rich American. I won't have to worry about money. I thought that time and interest had done the work of giving the bonds value. But it was my dad who did the work. I have received a gift from him, long after he died.

Monday, July 02, 2007

My brother-in-law's wife's 92-year-old uncle

had an "Obama 2008" bumper sticker on his car, which I noticed at a family wedding this weekend. There was a "US out of Iraq" sticker, and a few others too. At 92, he's seen a lot of elections, as well as a lot of wars. Late in life, vote early.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Ordinary cruelties

Yesterday I had the unexpected job of telling a friend's sibling that their mother had died. My friend is caught in the middle of her family's warring factions; one side didn't want to tell the other that their mother had died. This to me was a few steps beyond the pale of ordinary cruelties; it is positively Shakespearean in the depths of its painful hostility. Well, good thing we all get along, I remarked to my daughter. Then she reminded me about the family member we don't speak to. Let him without sin cast the first stone.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The hawk and the vulture: a correction

Last week on vacation I learned a lot. I learned that Arkansas is beautiful. In spots, anyway. I learned the difference between a great spangled fritillary and Diana fritillary butterfly. I learned the correct pronunciation of fritillary. And I learned the difference between a turkey vulture and a hawk. (All those big ole birds look alike on the wing to the untutored eye.) We saw a hawk come careering by us and watched it land in a tree. It was close enough for us to see that predatory head and beak shape. It looked at me. Its head swiveled as I walked. Good thing I was bigger than it, since it was dinner time.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Who knew

that the Garden of Eden is in Arkansas? I can see a hawk -- two, actually -- in my back yard circling on the thermals atop the Petit Jean River valley. On top of Arkansas at Mt. Magazine State Park, I can see for miles across, and half a mile down, since the elevation is 2,700 feet. I don't believe I have ever seen this many butterflies in my life. The Diana fritillary is the state butterfly, but it looks a lot like the great spangled fritillary, at least when the novice butterfly watcher sees the orange and black mid-sized butterflies on the wing rather than feeding on, what else, butterfly weed. Or coreopsis. Or coneflowers. Butterflies in paradise. Or maybe it's the hot tub that clinches it. I haven't died and gone to heaven -- just Arkansas. We walked for miles.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Cloud of witnesses

Last week I went to a book show (Religious Booksellers Trade Exhibit) and I remembered why I wrote a poem in 7th grade called Books Are Our Friends, for which I won, of course, a book, called Clare Goes to Holland. There's something reassuring and inviting about a large area filled with books. Experience or knowledge take on a certain orderliness when compressed into book form. As I grew and read and learned I knew for certain that books enlarged my experience. How strange that people don't read. What a loss for them. It's such a cheap vacation getaway. People in religion sometimes use the phrase "cloud of witnesses" (Heb. 12:1), a lovely Pauline figure of speech that describes a sense of blessed company. Saint Dostoevsky, pray for us. Saint Tolstoy, pray for us.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

What I'm reading

A Patchwork Planet. By Anne Tyler.

Every time someone asks me who my favorite writer is, I always forget my answer: Anne Tyler. (I usually say Shakespeare, but that's somehow different.) I love that she is right next door to realism -- not magical realism like Garcia Marquez, but quirky-fabulous, as in fable. As in storytelling. As in made up. The jobs her characters have, like Barnaby's handyman-odd job gig in this book, is realistic yet such a company could never exist. I never want to finish her books, but I also can't wait to find out what happens. I think of her as a Quakerly writer, ultimately very kind to her deeply flawed characters. She captures how we muddle through life. Her writing gives fiction a good name.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Small potatoes

Today I found the rest of my family.

I got a letter from my Aunt Helen, my father's youngest sister. She lives in Tarnow, in southern Poland. She doesn't speak English. I don't speak Polish. I sent a snail-mail letter in English and Polish. She responded via email (wow, they have computers in what I called "the old country" growing up) in Polish. Her niece's daughter says -- in English -- they do want to meet me. I translated the letter using one of those online translators. It says something about small potatoes, apparently. Feels like big ziemniaki to me.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


When I came home from New York this weekend to temperatures in the mid-70s, my new tulips had opened with a spring splash. They stood (well, some of them leaned) in bunches scattered in the garden. Some of the colors are astonishing. One is a pearlescent pink with a soft yellow wash. Another is cherry pink flecked with white. Another is light lemon. Their cups hide dark hearts. Not only are they different colors, they are different heights and shapes. Some are almond-shaped as they wait to open; others are open classic Us. I looked up Sylvia Plath's poem Tulips. Gorgeous poem. Here's my take: These garden sentinels produce oxygen; they cheer me.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Breaking the spell

Two recent Oprah shows -- on autism and addictions -- have disappointed me. Both borrowed heavily from cable-television documentaries, which is a cheap way to find your subjects. Both spent a great deal of time on a number of individual subjects but didn't necessarily give varied experiences. That was obvious to me with the autism show, since I know something about the subject. The spectrum of autism disorders -- and it is a spectrum -- wasn't represented; there was nothing about Asperger's syndrome. On the addiction show, it bothered me a lot that Oprah kept asking questions and cutting people off at a certain point in their answers. Sure, she's not Bill O'Reilly, but I wasn't feeling the love. I was feeling the lecture as she quizzed five case studies.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The shallow and the deep end

I haven't watched Oprah in a while, having felt a little jaded by the linkage between her and The Secret, which I regard as a pretty shallow rendering of a human impulse. (though no more crass than The Prayer of Jabez.) I got tired of having to translate Oprah's interest in it as "positive thinking" rather than "material acquisition." It is New Thought, which holds that the material world can be affected by thinking. That's not hard to agree with. Whether you can produce a Mercedes-Benz or a cure for breast cancer simply by visualizing is more arguable. But I don't want to argue. I'd rather be inspired by generosity, which Oprah does so very well -- both inspire and give away. Today's show was on "finding your calling." Don't do things until they hurt. Do things because that is what you are supposed to be doing, and the "supposed to be" represents your recognition and acceptance of God's will (though nobody used the G-word) -- the intention for your life. Nothing is forced. Psychologists call this flow. Generosity is the deep end of religion. Thanks, O.

Monday, April 02, 2007

What I'm reading

A Thousand Names For Joy. By Byron Katie.

I got the book while working on a Publishers Weekly story about Buddhist books. Katie strikes me as one of those very compelling people whom you admire but don't want to live with, like Gandhi. The promise of a little joy pick-me-up is why I picked up the title. Yet I also can't help but wonder if the enlightened, don't-know mind resembles the mind with Alzheimer's. All is equal and new.

How my garden grows

Slowly. Every tomato tells a story, since each one has a name. Boxcar Willie. Lillian. Old Flame. Brandywine. Black from Tula. Quimbaya. Green Grape. Amish Paste. Mrs. Benson. Hard Rock. Toni's Round. Rose de Berne. Interesting how many females there are. Hard to pick between Lillian and Mrs. Benson as my favorite. The yellow Lillians strongly remind me of my mother. The little gals have popped up in their seedling beds with ferocity and multiplicity -- admirable germination rates. I haven't visted them today, but they have basil for company. Let us now praise heirloom tomatoes, though maybe we should hold the praise, and the pasta, for August.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Buddha meets the Chicago Bears

Watching football is an exercise in observing desire (tanha). How attached am I to the outcome of this play? How much do I care if Rex Grossman throws an interception? What am I doing here, flipping the TV on and off because I can't bear to see a Bear error? There is an end to suffering, according to the Four Noble Truths. It's a Super Bowl victory for the Chicago Bears.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

You could look it up

Oprah Winfrey does not need me to defend her. Nor does she pay me to say nice things about her. She has well-compensated people to do that. My point about the recent criticism of her for spending $40 million on a school for South African girls is that much of the criticism is unjustified because it’s underinformed. She should spend money on schools here? In 2000 she gave $10 million to A Better Chance , a Boston organization for gifted high school students of color, and has served as spokesperson for the organization. And that’s just one of her million-dollar size checks. Teachers are her favorite people. She said that at least as early as 1987. In early 2006, she did a special report on education in America. Did you see it? If not, you could look it up.

She should fund AIDS clinics? She has. Check the tax filing for her Oprah Winfrey Foundation . She got Brad Pitt interested in Africa before Angelina Jolie did. Watch the show. She has spent a lot of time in Africa focusing on a variety of conditions on that needy continent – women raped in Rwanda, civil war in Darfur, AIDS orphans. How many other people can you think of offhand who have spent TV airtime explaining to people what a fistula is – you could look it up -- and how a dedicated doctor is working to help Ethiopian women who suffer from incontinence and social ostracism because of this condition?

We need money here? Oprah pledged $10 million to Hurricane Katrina relief and made it the subject of extensive coverage on her show, seen around the world. She got a lot of celebrities – people like Jamie Foxx -- to pitch in with relief, so that she could leverage the valuable currency of celebrity and grab more spotlight for more of the hundreds of thousands of people affected by this catastrophe. She’s spearheaded a drive to build houses for those displaced. You could look it up at her website.

There’s a whole portion of Oprah’s website devoted to her philanthropy. It’s not hidden. That, too, you can look up. In 2006, Business Week estimated her lifetime giving at $303 million. On the magazine’s top 50 philanthropists list , she’s #32. I just looked it up. Education is freedom, she told Business Week in 2004. She really does like education. It’s been a pattern and intention in her giving.

So: How much is enough dollars or attention? Or too much? People have different opinions on that. But please, before you express your opinion, do a little homework. Look it up. It would be educational.

Monday, January 08, 2007

What I'm reading
Friendship: An Expose. By Joseph Epstein.

I would not normally be reading this. I tried Epstein's Fabulous Small Jews and didn't like his characters. But this book was given to me in exchange for some volunteer work I had done with a good friend. Epstein's style is classy and classical; he writes for people who will not be puzzled by words like "inanition" (I paused) and references to La Rochefoucauld. He reminds me of 18th century English essayists, mulling the next phrase, quill poised over parchment. It takes me back to graduate school. Maybe a cocktail party on the North Shore. It's growing on me, except for the cover.