Mercantile of Mercantiles

They say America was founded one outpost general store at time. The pioneer spirit drove settlers westward, and often, the only connection with civilization were the little “Everything Shops” out in the boondocks. Abe Lincoln figured out he’d learn about this country by working as a clerk in one. He found that the news “on wind” and “word of mouth” always made its way to an over the counter conversation in Mr. Offut’s store in New Salem, Illinois. Amongst the pickle barrels, rope and pitchforks, glad tidings mingled with idle gossip. The latest political and societal topics were debated amongst locals with the “out of towners”. Peddler, traveling salesman, settler: all brought their own colorful brand of noteworthy subjects. Indeed, these country stores bred the American spirit of adventure, inspired by tales adrift, aloft and captured over a cup of cider and conversation.

When one went to the general store it was in mind of bringing back specifics. Perhaps, some coal, coffee, an iron skillet, flour for baking, thread for sewing, seeds, bandages, quinine, whale oil, beeswax, wire, lantern, candles, French soap, feather bedding, shampoo, and, an indian rubber ball for the children, comprised the shopping list. As one packed one’s wagon, lively talk would ensue and perhaps a riddle, song or poem was shared. Then, a sarsaparilla to induce refreshment was in order, whilst picking up a post and reading its contents with clerk and fellow customers leaning on the counter, lending an ear. It would be the last visit until Spring for distanced folk, or the weekly mecca for those who lived close by. It was the supplier of chit chat, newspapers and books. Not everything bought was necessary. These stores had delights for the children as well: they sold candy and kaleidoscopes, jumpropes and tin soldiers, caps and sunbonnets, unicycles and velocipedes, even roller skates and ice-skates. For the precious littlest ones, there might be rattles and teething rings, eventually to be replaced with Porcelain dolls, wooden alphabet blocks and slates, all begotten from the American outpost general store.

In the 21st century, these stores not only have been swallowed up by two centuries of increasing urban sprawl, but the very size of these shops have expanded into what we call department stores and now superstores. The Wal-marts of today, owe their very existence to the humble beginnings of the general store. Despite the citified, modern world expanding commerce in spit-spot, quick-flash fashion, there are still some remnants of the homespun neighborliness to be found in some of the quieter-long-lasting general stores. Just such a store was still keeping its doors and heart open to its surrounding community of Glendora.

Bock’s Variety store had been frequented and truly loved by all, until the owner passed on and his son sold the business. Only less than a decade ago patrons could still walk into Bock’s and buy a last minute Father’s Day gift of Old Spice and Golf Balls or casually peruse McCall’s dress patterns. It was considered a magical oasis for anyone who could appreciate service with a smile and might overhear the next discussion about the mayor and his intentions. You heard what the Boy Scouts were doing, when the next Little League Pancake Breakfast fundraiser was, and what date in December the Town Hall Christmas Tree would be lit. If, one were lucky to have been a child of the 60s, then a trip downtown meant a step into this veritable treasure house ready at one’s disposal; shelf after shelf stocked with imagination inspiring products.

You stepped through two glass swinging open doors and were presented with numerous paralleling aisles neatly organized and thoughtfully planned display shelves. Under some of the shelves were cabinets. The cabinets held drawers full of more items for purchase. One such drawer stored the latest 45s, another drawer kept various kinds of stationary. You kind of knew what was in each but needed permission from the store clerks to open and inspect the contents. Up out of reach from curious, tiny hands was a locked glass cabinet displaying little international dolls – each in its own traditional dress. The list of purchasable goods was endless : Fenton-ware was on display in the storefront window, Big Ben alarm clocks, the sports section with mitts, bats, tennis rackets, croquet sets, the fabric & textiles department replete with corduroys and calicos, paisleys and plaids, the silk ribbons on spools, music boxes, stargazing constellations dial cards, pocket binoculars, the children’s books in the back of the store display shelf, the chemistry sets and telescopes, wooden Brio building sets, the paint by number and various card sets, Etch-a Sketch, Erector sets, Fisher-Price Circus set, jacks and marble sets, 1,000 word puzzles, Silly Puddy, hair brushes and hand mirrors, even harmonicas and castanettes! Bocks always had an ever friendly, helpful staff, the long candy aisle to occupy you while you waited in the register line with friends or siblings, Bazooka guns and Davy Crockett rifles, card sets, Chinese checkers, Ouigi Board games, paper doll booklets, plastic horses, cowboy hats, firefighter hats, doctor role-play sets and costumes,  lava lamps and hula hoops, view master slide viewers, macrame kits and knitting skeins, crochet kits and needles. You might spy Timex watches, Red Flyer Wagons, Mr. Wiggles & Slip n Slides, Slinkies, 1,000 piece puzzles, paint by number sets, art chalk, poster boards, sketch pads, colored pencils, rubber cement, sequins, glitter, Rick a rack, flashlights, cedar keepsake/ jewelry boxes, candles and pine incense to burn inside miniature wooden log cabins, kites, snow globes, leather belts, shoe polish, ties and bandannas… these were all part of the merchandise sold in this creaky wooden floored, shelved ground to ceiling, richly stocked,  mercantile of all mercantiles…the heart of town.

But a mercantile can’t exist without its merchant. If the store had heart, it was because Mr. Bock was the heartbeat behind the operation. Every youngster in Glendora knew him. And HE knew all the kids’ names. He even could associate you with your family and say, “Oh, you must be So and So’s brother”… Mr. Bock had come home from the war missing an arm. But he carried a smile all his days. He listened to the chatter of children and provided merchandise to tantalize. I remember being charmed by mood rings, and torsion pendulum clocks. I introduced my baby brother to a Lionel Train Set as it was set up and working in action on a low table up near the front window ready to snatch the glances of wide-eyed faces. He would hear us talking and the next thing you knew, he was now selling them. His store was his world. A world he shared with everyone. A world of wonder. Yes, the mercantile beyond all other mercantiles…Bocks Variety Store.

Tidbits of Affirmation

Written: September 10, 2013

I am so happy. I received my first intrinsic “gift” from my class today. I learned, even after ALLLL these years of pedagogy, something wonderful about little students. When they fall in love with something you have done, and leave a few subtle “breadcrumbs” along the way…one had better pay attention and appreciate their communicative hints. So, it goes like this. The first day of school, I presented my obligatory (my own set goal) a capella singing of “America”. I have a book that portrays the lyrics through superb photos…waving amber grain, spacious skies and shining seas—excellent for ELLs. (English Language Learners). Well, I was fortunate enough this year to actually sing on as close to “spot on key” as possible (for me): believe me, I am no singer. But, I did okay, no cracks and I somehow picked the right starting note that would allow me to reach the upper register notes and the low ones, too. The kiddos really liked it. They said “again, again!”. I did, and thus began their love affair with learning it. 

Over the next few weeks they requested I read the book and sing it each time I tried to instigate a read-aloud on the floor. No relenting. No changing of the guard, either. They’re just barely coming to accept the beginnings of the “Johnny Appleseed” song. Today, we were especially too busy for a read-aloud, and despite the fact that we got to work in our first art project tied to literacy and writing, my little scallawaggers took the proverbial “bull by the horns”, themselves. 

As is the rule. when finished with their project, all cleaned-up and fancy free, their next task was to choose a book to read independently or with a buddy. So, as I am helping mend circles that were supposed to have been made from a square, engineer a few glue bottles, and subtely advise a few logical choices, I realize most of my 23 charges are completed with their “Goodnight Owl” projects. I know this because I start to hear a wafting gentle melody…it continues on with a few more voices chiming in, oh so naturally. I don’t think my pupils even knew they were embarking on a genuine enterprise, not for show or even affirmation, but for the simple joy of singing that song. 

My one boy who has been the most enthusiastic champion for the reading of that book daily, was on the floor turning the pages as the song leader, if you will. A cluster of about four or five children had heads bent low hovering over every word, singing with complete childlike essence. Then, I noticed others still at their desks, in a non-chalant spontaneous way, were one by one joining-in by humming or singing along. I tell you, it was a magical moment. A present all wrapped in unadulterated love. Thank you class. I love America, too.

Of Scottish Things

When I think of Scotland, I think of its traditional dances. This singular nation has a mighty history that tells  of “her” bravery and emboldened causes. Thus, it clearly is signified by the fiercely executed Scottish “Sword Dance”! The dance goes back to the time of courageous warriors dancing over two crossed swords to the tune of a bagpipe. On the moors and in the highlands, the soldiers would execute their “war dance”, taking great care to not step on either sword in the process. If they did, the belief was death to them in battle.

I also think of the lively dance known as the  “Highland Fling”. Thinking of this, conjures up all of Scotland’s specific beauty~her mountain landscapes, her everflowing waters: those streams, brooks and waterfalls, and her bowers of flowers galore. My mind escapes into the enveloping rich colors of her heather and thistle, and her rainbow of hues found on hillside or deep in the glen. 

Next, my heart recalls the gentle swing one sees in the “Scottish Lilt” dance. Those swishing steps, smooth and musical, remind me its all about the piping. Stretched-out kicks and the horizontal sliding swing of the legs create a visual of church bells pealing, Thus, I cannot help but feel joy over the strathspeys, jigs, reels and even the marches of Scotland’s bagpipes. The finesse of dance with the thrill of tune create a Celtic magic. There is hopeful happiness there, and most of all, purpose. 

Finally, there is the genteel, soft-soled polite sway ‘n’ step of the country dances. Subtle, not garish, alluring, not commanding. Respectful and quaint is how these dances are. 

Perhaps, stemming from such humble dances comes the general feeling of family, honor and history. For me, they elicit the memory of one of the most ancient Scottish traditions, borne first of song, never written, and transformed into musical note. I speak of: Piobearachd, or “peebrok”. This is a genre of bagpiping that is played from a kind of mindful singing passed down, from ear to ear, generation by generation. Its pace is quite slowed down, as if the singer is lost in thought. It evokes what I believe is the core ingredient of what constitutes this thing we call “Scotland”. 

When Piobeareachd is played, one can listen and imagine a lone piper atop a cliff overlooking the turbulent sea or feel the allure in the message, calling the listener to halt and remember. And what do I remember? The wind on the moors, the stone castles of yore, and the warrior who defended them. I can stretch my imagination to envision the goat, sheep and Highland cattle. I also can’t help but remember the majestic red deer,  the bonnie Fresians, the determined falcons of flight, the glistening dragonflies and even fairy-like folk in Scottish lore. A tapestry of images abounds!

This thought rendering music often described as forlorn and plaintive-this Piobearachd-makes me also think of peat-warmed cottages, boiling porridge, bannocks and shortbread, herbs drying in dry nooks and ardent cooks brewing up their savory tastes. The enticing repetition of motif and theme in “peebrok” may supplicate ideas of whisky-induced stories and elusive-themed poetry such as that of Robert Burns; all meant to cajole and charm the listener. Still recalling this “vocal dance” (though it has not a dance-prone rhythm), sung by the lone bagpipe, my innermost depths sense the warmth of hearth in home and gentle rocking of wee bairn in cradle. I can imagine it all as a soft snow wisps at the window pane, and a weary father is making his way back to the fold.

The last conjuring “all things Scottish” is through touch. Just as all dance is a mere threading of pattern and step, so is the tweed and tartan. The warm wool is woven to provide clan identity, protection and utility; three very Scottish characteristics. Scotland is shawl, and plaid. It’s also glengarry, dun bonnet, and kilt. All from homespun origin. In addition to touch, as one’s revered remembrances are polished into a silvered sheen, one can’t help but smile over the shiny splendor of an amber-jeweled brooch. It feels smooth and important, along with its elegance. The glint from the jeweled skein dubh, the flash of a silver buckle and the preserving of things most precious in the sporran, complete the Highland attire ensemble, which is appreciated tactilely and visually.

You asked what I think of, when I think of Scotland? Well, here they are. To visit her shores will be a dream come true for me. Then, I will be able to write about her people. In the meantime, I can ponder what I am already familiar with: Scotland’s valor, her coveted history, her landscape palette, the rousing dances, the mysterious music, and her plethora of wildlife to admire. I’ll hold dear her visuals and treat them as my own. I do not come from a long line of Scots. I had married into a family that did. But, I love Scotland. I truly do.

Keep Cursive Alive

A blog I made before going off to teach summer school…

From July 11, 2012. 

No way….It is my firm belief that we should always  continue with teaching cursive in schools. I much prefer receiving a friendly note in cursive from a friend or loved one. A part of the writer is in that actual writing. Yes, it is a nicety. 

Yes, cursive writing is hard to learn. Yes, it is on snail time compared to all the flying, texting thumbs. But, there may come a time when our digital systems are down. We’ll need that pen and paper. Plus, anything sentimental comes across far-better in cursive on real paper…at least I think so. 

Granted, for the sake of firing-up the dendrites, it is important to learn to do things that also require diligence. This is something our clickety-click world seems to not portray. I don’t mean making 350 votes for an American Idol on the IPhone. That would be fixated perseverance. No, I am talking about attending to a task that has to be done with careful restraint and monitored effort. Erasing, doing over, getting it right, etc….all these are valuable, inherent lessons that translate beyond any utilitarian task of communication. Anyways, I need to shove off to teach this morning, but here is what started this heartfelt message …

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Despite Adopting Common Core, Alabama Schools To Continue Teaching Cursive.

Alabama Live (7/11, Acker) reports that “Alabama is distinguishing itself as among only a few states that will continue to keep cursive writing in its public school curriculum,” despite having adopted the Common Core Standards, which do not consider cursive to be a necessary skill. The piece notes that the state Board of Education “elected to include the writing technique within the 15 percent share of the standards dictated by each individual state. … In other states that have adopted the Common Core Curriculum, cursive writing is expected to be removed from the classroom and replaced with training in typing skills unless deemed otherwise by the state.”

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Well, everyone…it is now 2018 and California schools have gone ahead with this decision. Very sad, indeed. Beyond everything I said previously, are two further arguments for keeping cursive “alive”. 

The history of cursive writing goes back a long ways. Indeed, many cultures have their own unique signature writing and alphabet. Documents of antiquity will become completely ineligible and obsolete if nobody knows how to read them. You must know how to write cursive to really comprehend what has been recorded. Even our United States Constitution has cursive writing that in the era in which it was drafted, transforms the letter “s” into “f”, to name one example. How critical to have long into the future generations of society be able to read and interpret catalytic documents. There is even still, one more persuasive reason for continuing cursive writing…

To write using cursive means an individual has learned and is employing one of the various styles of handwriting such as Palmer, Zaner-Bloser, or Spencerian. In and of themselves, they are an art-form. It is a portrait of humankind and how we chose to convey thought. It is a beautiful thing. 

Just as hieroglyphics are studied and depended upon to gain insight, so is our penned and even chiseled cursive writing. The archived letter from citizen to mayor, to the epitaph inscribed on a tombstone…cursive writing has been an artful snapshot in time. 

Feeling Patriotic, but also Sad…

“The Battle Hymn of the Republic”

I woke up thinking of my country this morning, since “Fourth of July” is almost here. I heard this song in my head and I can only think of the Civil War and how costly such years of battle were… One can “see” the rows of canvas army tents glowing by kerosene lamplight from within, perched in gullies and glen as sunset bids farewell to another long day of battle. The American Civil War was truly a time of unparalleled clashing of opinion, each side feeling forthright and clear of conviction to the point of devastating war.

What a tremendous TREMENDOUS loss of human life in payment for those emphatic beliefs! My heart always aches over the knowledge of knowing boys even as young as nine were part of the action- often following after their fathers, uncles and older brothers, not wanting to be left behind. These young boys were the stretcher carriers, medic assistants, water distributors, and participated in the drum and bugle corps. Their spirited, youthful energy was the impetus used to rally the weary troops and press onward. Day after day, scores upon scores of human life was buried in solemnity on both sides: the despair so bleak I’m certain, by some point, tears ceased to flow.

This bloodshed is difficult to comprehend. I hope our nation never forgets the sheer devastation of what a civil war causes- the wasteful payment from the quite symbolic, tipped over and completely emptied purse. The “money” being our brave boys and men. Forever in the wake, untold numbers of families have been left bereft of patriarch and son. Women during our Civil War stood up to this reality; rustling-up their only power~~ resiliency. As the militaries marched on, so the women soldiered on; hoping, praying, defending…calming, compromising, collaborating and mustering up resolve. What a time to be a human being in America. What a time to write this song! Hard to imagine the emotional state which led

Julia Ward Howe to write these words:

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“The Battle Hymn Of The Republic”

Mine eyes have seen the glory
Of the coming of the Lord
He is trampling out the vintage
Where the grapes of wrath are stored
He has loosed the fateful lightening
Of His terrible swift sword
His truth is marching on

I have seen him in the watch-fires
Of a hundred circling camps
They have builded him an altar
In the evening dews and damps
I can read his righteous sentence
By the dim and flaring lamps
His day is marching on

I have read a fiery gospel
Writ in burnish’d rows of steel
As ye deal with my condemners
So with you my grace shall deal
Let the hero, born of woman
Crush the serpent with his heel
Since God is marching on

Glory, glory, hallelujah
Glory, glory, hallelujah
Glory, glory, hallelujah
Our God is marching on

He has sounded form the trumpet
That shall never call retreat
He is sifting out the hearts of men
Before His judgment-seat
Oh, be swift, my soul
To answer him be jubilant, my feet
Our God is marching on

Glory, glory, hallelujah
Glory, glory, hallelujah
Glory, glory, hallelujah
Our God is marching on

In the beauty of the lilies
Christ was born across the sea
With a glory in his bosom
That transfigures you and me
As he died to make men holy
Let us live to make men free
While God is marching on

Glory, glory, hallelujah
Glory, glory, hallelujah
Glory, glory, hallelujah
Our God is marching on

Lyrics by: Julia Ward Howe,

🎼Music by: William Steffe

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(This song first captivated me by its tune, and later when I taught the lyrics to a chorus of schoolkids one summer, I came to appreciate the words. Very much. I think it may be one of the most perfectly penned poems ever. Truly.