Friday, January 30, 2009

Post-Inaugural Art: Hallelujah & Happiness

This is beautiful. Tells a story. Shows art that honors words and ideas.

What do you think about the question: Why is the Presidential oath of office taken on the Bible and not on the Constitution?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Seeing the movie Defiance refreshed memories of a trip to Belarus where the dramatic account of this true story takes place. In 1993, my husband and I traveled with a group that took medical supplies to hospitals in Minsk, visited children's camps and distributed Bibles to individuals throughout the region.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 led nation states to open borders to Westerners, Belarus in 1991. We had the privilege of seeing people and places the Cold War had kept isolated from the rest of the world for seventy years.

As the movie seeks to portray, hundreds of villages in then Byleorussia were destroyed. Taken by bus to the village Khatyn, we saw a geographical site where every man, woman and child was shot by the Nazis, the bodies piled in the houses and then burned.

Within the memorial at Khatyn, stones on the ground mark the perimeter of houses with gravel streets where footpaths led to front doors which would have opened to friends.

Seeing the village platted took me back to childhood innocence when friends and I scratched the floor plan of our houses in the dirt, gathered stones to mark walls, fences and property. We created a neighborhood. 

War memorials, interpreters told us, remind their people of the over 2.2 million Belarussians who died in WWII, one in four. Statues, monuments and coins like the one pictured––which another bus driver gave us––attest to the cost, misery and waste of war.

Defiance against evil that would deprive ordinary people of life, we in America need to remember too. 

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Frankly, My Dear, I DO Give a …

A political cartoon in today’s Dallas Morning News illustrated President Barak Obama in a rollercoaster car at the top of the first hill with twists and turns receding in the background. The caption posted at the peak read “The Presidency.”

This caught my eye because someone had said after watching the President take the oath of office and give his speech, “He’s already begun to disappoint.”

During the clack-click ascent of that first and highest hill, anticipation as well as anxiety builds. Then there’s that gulp—maybe eyes closed—just as the chain releases the car to the forces of gravity. Wheeee.

Facing the inevitable rise and fall once the ride begins, President Obama sits in the front car fixed on the twin rails of hope and change while the nation behind him holds on for a nail-biting ride. Breathe or cry. 

Think of Moses at a similar historic juncture leading millions of people from Egypt to the Promised Land. Barely out of the city limits, ardent supporters lost confidence in his leadership. Others thought they had better ideas to promote. All but two ended up in desert graves. Murmur, murmur, grumble, grumble. Whine.

Leaders. You gotta love their aplomb.

I hope President Obama surprises critics and somehow exceeds the enormous expectations. At the end of his term, I hope he pulls into the platform, the sound of the brake run hissing to a stop whereupon he safely disembarks.

Because history teaches that as the leader goes, so goes the nation. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

"He became what his language made him"

Guaging from this NYT article, 
"From Books, New President Found Voice,"
I have more in common with Barak Obama than with George W. Bush. At least in reading tastes.

"He became what his language made him" refers to Abraham Lincoln, a biographer's ascription to the man whose statue towers over Washington, D.C.'s changing guard. Would that any leader could emulate the man who knew the Bible so well as to seamlessly incorporate its words into his Second Inaugural Address. A nation divided by slavery and salvo, Lincoln refused to cut the baby in half.

Pity that reading material alone cannot produce results or transmit character. But the love of books, therefore of words and ideas, elevates even the most pedestrian among us. 

Blessings and prayers for the man who will lead us as a nation (Romans 13:1–2, 1 Timothy 2:1–2), who has already inspired individuals to hope for a future free from tyranny, terror and corruption. 
That's what I hope for: a lot less venom and corruption spewing from both sides of the political aisle. Mote and beam, you know. 

And may the reading President lean as Lincoln did on the everlasting arms. 

Monday, January 19, 2009

Ten Words

Two things caught my attention on the NBC News last night. One, the news anchor referred to the Inauguration of “the 43rd President.” The story’s reporter said the 44th. So I looked it up.

Barack Obama becomes the 44th President of the United States tomorrow, an historic occasion no matter who takes the oath of office, but in his case monumental. 

Channeling Reagan, Kennedy and FDR, President-elect Obama will swear his oath on Abraham Lincoln’s Bible. Does he know what he has gotten himself into? I doubt it not.

Well, the second and lesser story on the news asked and answered the question Does the presidency accelerate the aging process of those who occupy the Oval Office?

Yes. At the rate of two years for one, according to experts. I can see their pain. Can’t you?

How we spend or invest our lives does take its toll over time. Even those who can afford to cosmetically alter their appearance cannot hide forever the ravages of sun and wind, guilt and anxiety, good food and bad scales. Some people in their efforts to appease the celebrity gods—ahem, Joan Rivers and Michael Jackson come to mind—end up looking worse. 

The older I get, the more I admire those individuals who cease sooner rather than later to strive with their Maker. More than a battle of the bulge, it’s a battle of the vanities—egos and pocketbooks, waging a war that convinces people that looking good can be had for a price. Whether a person pays that price at the gym or the health food store or foots the bill in the plastic surgeon’s office, all flesh is on its way out of style.

Still investing in relationships, experiences and yes, teetering on the balance beam of good health has its rewards. I have it on good authority that bodily exercise profits a little.

The news broadcast referred to Obama as a “gym rat” and President Bush got tagged for his daily runs and early to bed routine. Guess Bush channeled Benjamin Franklin.

Imagine how much older they might look without their workouts. Is that so wrong?

Saturday I attended my second Yoga class with 47 people, up from the previous week’s record 43. The instructor harked dismay, apologized that strangers found themselves uncomfortably close to their neighbor. I just didn’t want to smell anyone, BIF and all.

When the instructor came by me, attempting my Downward-Facing Dog pose, she said, “Can you straighten your back through here?” She drew back her hand when I grunted, “No.”

“Good answer,” she said. “We should all honor what our body can do today.”

She concluded the class with ten words. That’s how I memorized what she said during the relaxation phase of the hour-long class. 

“At the end of your practice, everything wants to rest.” AAAHHHHHH.

Everything except my brain, I thought. It still wants to know, How old am I? Can I keep this up? Will I ever do a Downward-Facing Dog?

And I’d also like to know how many Presidents will take office in my lifetime?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

American Idol: Cultural Phenomenon and Personal Commentary

If you or I were a contestant on American Idol, would it surprise you more to hear Simon Cowell pronounce in front of the millions-peopled audience that “I don’t think you’re as good as you think you are” or “That was a terrible song-choice” or “I think you need more confidence”? The response to that question would reveal as much about you or me as it does any judge’s subjective opinion.

While America has crowned the Brit, Cowell, the critic people love to hate, his friends Randy Jackson and Paula Abduhl often disagree. Like the nose on their face, people bring their opinions with them wherever they go. A balance of power teetering on a panel of judges.

Now in its eighth season, American Idol has added a fourth judge, Kara DioGuardi. Yet Simon Cowell sets the gold-standard for on-the-air, recording industry criticism by telling the truth—as he sees it—which is what he gets paid to do. Simon says, “Do you want to get better or do you want to whine?”

That’s entertainment.

The producers of American Idol confer positional authority to these judges —the power both to select and to reject—which makes the judges’ opinions more influential than yours or mine. 

The audience gets glimpses but never really knows the person behind the façade, contestants or judges. We see what the camera wants us to see. The producers, directors, cameramen, writers, editors et al piece together an emotional collage to promote a following, attract sponsors while the show’s viewers hold the wild card.

The whole celebrity phenomenon boils down to what Ted Koppell termed, “Vanna-tized,” a play on the name, Vanna White—card-turning face on the long-playing TV game show, Wheel of Fortune. People see what they project onto the celebrity, not the person who exists in real life.

Idol’s popularity derives from viewers’ fascination with the contestants who dress up, dress down or flip out to vie for national attention. A chance for Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame or as it turns out 15 seconds of face time on network television baits a tantalizing hook.

All contestants have convinced themselves they can sing while those who cannot sing don’t even know how to blush. People who presume they have talent continue to fill stadiums, vying for a chance to audition. 

Who hasn’t told these people the truth before now?

Astonished audiences feel embarrassed for deluded people. Some watchers delight to have a laugh. Judges let the ax fall where it must. 

A cultural phenomenon gives way to personal commentary: “Do you want to get better or do you want to whine?”

Maybe I’m not as good as I think I am. Maybe at a moment of extraordinary opportunity I will make the wrong choice. Or maybe I lack the confidence to risk challenging people’s opinions. Only when the TV gets turned off can I see my own reflection.

American Idol succeeds though because it gives the audience a stake in the outcome, harnesses the audience’s imagination, and somehow manages to make the contestant’s goal seem worthwhile. 

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Zumba with a twist

Not the entry I had expected to make after my first Zumba class. I had hoped to come back to the YMCA with verve—energy and enthusiasm oozing from every pore. Instead, fifteen minutes into the workout I felt like I would throw up.

Talking myself out of making a scene, glancing at the heart monitor registering 157–158, I kept thinking about what I had written in my journal earlier that morning about mountain climbers––most die during their descent. Oh, how I have presumed upon my body’s goodness.

I came back to the aerobic studio after a few minutes in the bathroom where I had leaned over the sink, head resting on my forearms; then with my pants pulled up, I sat on a toilet for less than a minute. Visualizing myself on the floor, I knew to keep moving.

I resumed the workout maintaining my heart rate at 120–130 and felt I could keep up. The ball of my right foot hurt, but that’s a chronic problem whether exercising or not. Sweat continued to bead around my hairline. I used the towel. I moved under the fan. I drank more water.

In a subdued mood after the class, I ran errands. When I called my daughter from Michael’s to ask about knitting needles, I told her about my scare, the proverbial wake-up call.

“I’m glad you didn’t die,” she said.

“I wasn’t the heaviest, most out of shape looking persons in the class,” I said, a faint protest, admitting how looks can deceive. I wanted to shriek when a woman across the room requested, “Let’s do something we did last January.” 

I thought, these women have done Zumba for a whole year and they look like this? E-gads.

“I could do the steps because I’m coordinated and I have rhythm,” I said.

“You have musicality,” my daughter said without a hint of sarcasm. Reassuring in light of my performance in our family talent show at Christmas. In a ridiculous costume, I danced to Shakira. I blackened my front tooth. I got lots of laughs.

Continuing to explain myself, “I didn’t really watch anyone but the instructor. I consciously tried not to push myself. I wasn’t comparing myself to anyone or even trying to impress myself.”

Back in my writing cocoon, I too give thanks that I didn’t die or have a heart attack or keep pushing until I collapsed. I sometimes feel that same pressure to keep pushing when I sit at the computer for hours on end. Same principles apply.

And this year the YMCA gave out T-shirts to remind people of the inextricable connection between spirit, mind and body. Yes, I am fearfully and wonderfully made. 

My favorite professor said, “You do nothing without your body.”

Now for the gumption to go back to the Y, the commitment to keep Zumba-ing to regain whatever fitness my neglected body can sustain, and to keep writing till I’m gone. 

Monday, January 5, 2009

Toothpaste Wars

I took some time yesterday to write myself a letter as Buechner suggested (in the book mentioned in yesterday's post). Said letter is preserved in the handwritten journal where most of what I write these days gets recorded. 
Here goes the edited baring of my soul.
  1. I hope that in fifteen years I’m still having toothpaste wars with my husband. Do you envision two nuts with loose bolts squeezing toothpaste on each other, making a mess that I would have to clean up? Wrong. Toothpaste wars is what we call the contest where the person who fails to squeeze out enough paste for one teeth-washing and therefore must throw the empty tube in the trash and open a new one, that person loses. Born of the “waste not, want not” of my upbringing, this contest showed my husband there was much more in the flattened tube than he realized. Now he’s a believer. And I hope we still like each other in fifteen years, that we continue to derive pleasure from the ridiculous.
  2. I hope that no matter how much water goes under whatever bridges crossed that I’m still good friends with everyone who considers me their friend now. I hope not to have lost anyone–oh no, not one–through neglect or misunderstanding or putting a project or a principle before the person. I could say more, but it would get icky like toothpaste.
  3. I hope that in fifteen years I’m not worried about my weight, my age, my skin or my hair color, that I have made peace with the person who occupies this transient vehicle, marvel that it is.
  4. I hope to have shed personal ambition while maintaining the motivation to be involved with others building something instead of merely critiquing what others have built.
  5. I hope I will still want to write and take pictures, to communicate through words and images something worth noticing, admiring or remembering. I hope I still have faith in people despite disappointments with individuals and more importantly, disappointments in myself. Forgiveness and moving beyond hurts to healing should characterize my nature.
I know I want to turn out to be softer and to live more simply, to shed the acquisitive instinct in favor of realizing life “every, every minute,” as Emily said in Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town.
In the meantime, I will keep squeezing all that I can get out of this toothpaste tube we call life

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Looking for Buechner

The first Buechner book I read, Secrets in the Dark, went with me in 2007 on a trip to France. Since then I have quoted Frederick Buechner's writings, referred to his insights and embraced his Christian testimony for its wisdom, honesty about doubts and emotional transparency. 

In the course of time since then, the word Buechner has turned into a refrain, a word my husband echoes whenever I say it aloud. Pronounced Beek-ner, we exaggerate the "k" and repeat the name: BeeK-ner, BeeK-ner, BeeK-ner. Saying the word and then hearing the sound brings to mind the Muppets, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker.

But a reunion with my best friend from high school added great joy to my New Year’s celebration and sent me looking for Buechner, not Beaker.

In a chapter titled, "The Newness of Things," Frederick Buechner talked about “what unlikely new candidate for friendship may turn out to be the Hardy to your Laurel, or the other way around.” Stay open to possibilities he insists. The old could become the new, I think.

He said friends can come from different worlds with different views and interests, “But you never know when one of them may turn out to be somebody you’ll hang on to for the rest of your life.”

No miles or years or tears or differences because as Buechner noted, Laurel and Hardy “are direct opposites in almost every way and that is of course what makes them such a great comic team as they squabble and bungle their way through the world creating mayhem wherever they go.”

“But what makes Laurel and Hardy so much more than just funny,” Buechner says, “and what has kept their movies alive all these years is the sense they somehow manage to convey that underneath all the differences between them they love each other.” Bonded for life. 

In this essay Buechner wrote in 1997–1998, he suggested that at the end of the old year and the beginning of a new one "writing a letter to the person you will have turned into fifteen years from now, and in that letter jog your memory about at least a few of the important things … Write to yourself what you hope you’ll be doing with your life fifteen years from now and also the kind of thing you hope you won’t be doing.” A kind of reverse resolution, I suppose.

“Some people say there is a God and some people say there isn’t; set down in your letter which side you would put your money on today and why.” Good thinking. Good timing. Great prompt.

“Set down the last thing that made you cry, and the most beautiful place you’ve ever seen up to now, and the nicest thing anybody has ever done for you,” which is where my friend comes into the story. Back then we were best friends, and it was her mom, her dad, two younger brothers and a younger sister who gave me a place in their home so that I could finish high school in Dallas, a kindness that makes it impossible for me to imagine where I would have ended up without them.

Yesterday I spent New Year's Eve with my friend and her family awakening dormant memories–"Veta Louise Simmons, I thought you were dead"–and making a few new ones. 

I had found Buechner whose words reminded me how much we need each other, and yes, the importance of footnotes to stories.