Cranking up the Crankiness

There’s a few of us curmudgeons who are flexing our hyper-critical, crotchety cantankerous tendencies these days. The need to spout off opinions at the drop of a dime, a pence, a peso, a frank, a centime or nowadays the universal euro, has definitely escalated. I mean citizens of Autumnal years have always had the proverbial right to complain about this and that. It’s rather a well-earned spot in society, gained only through accumulated years of experience, toil and adventure. But, we have every right to be so! I mean, just think about the state of affairs in the last two years! It has kind of been quite similar to a speeding solo railway car, unhitched, gaining momentum down the hill of disaster…

You see, we bearing wisened wrinkles in place of youthful smooth complexion, have witnessed a plethora of changes. They began a decade or or two, ago. Subtle tweaking of givens, norms and reliable conditions began ruffling a few of our feathers. And with each passing year, the number of alterations, substitutions and God-forbid– omissions, increased. The list first comprised little things. Nothing really earth-shattering, but definitely noticeable. Eventually, the changes somehow became more significant. They no longer ruffled, they confounded!

I first noted one day, that the long-standing use of milk cartons in school cafeterias was suddenly replaced with the provision of plastic bags resembling breast implants. Now think about it, maybe it’s logical to have milk served to childen in wiggily plastic bags which makes stabbing them open with a straw a potentially humorous, wet and sticky situation! And my, they are! Oh, how I miss the waxed cardboard milk cartons and all the school art projects that can be created using them.

Another change was the sudden loss of gas station attendants. It seems one day we had them, the next day they were gone! Now, when in heels and stockings, manicured nails, all powdered and perfumed for work, an event, church or a date, women have to now pump their own gas. Our hands wreak of gasoline and our clothing gets an extra wrinkle or two in the process. How I long for the camaraderie between energetic, conversational gas station guys, often adorable to behold as they windexed my windshield. Alas.

Not too long ago, a not so subtle change came about in the market. We started noticing the boxes of cereal, crackers, cookies, rice, pasta, etc., were suddenly less ounces and clearly smaller in size. We thought, oh they are saving on cardboard, but I think it was more than that. One day I noticed my toilet paper roll was smaller in width. More room to slide around on that toilet paper holder. They saved on paper by cutting the squares at shorter dimensions. Bizarre. In addition, the same thing applied to tape and candy bars. One would think there was a robbing of the masses sort of conspiracy going on! Yet, these “adjustments” were quite subtle.

I wonder who decided these things? What more could change? Will fabric become rougher? Books less wordy? Soap bars smaller? Only eight songs on an album vs. the standard ten? Less stationary in the box one buys? Less juice? Smaller raisins? Blander soups? Watered-down soft drinks? Anything could be diminished.

If I didn’t know better, there seems to be a vast trickery taking place. I realize portion size is a factor in losing weight for people. But, do I need “Mother Manufacturing” to decide for me how much I can have? For years our food has been “messed with”: oil and water in bread, fruit picked unripe and stored too far in advance, dented cans stocked on shelves, savory salt restricted from saltines, or replaced with chili powder instead. I’m sorry, I don’t want chili spice in my gravy. Are these decisions supposed to be an improvement? Who says so?

Up until about ten years ago, I used to feel I was an independent American, able to commandeer most aspects of my life. Then things just started morphing all around.

Is there at least one clerk available to man one of the six cash registers on this department store floor? It’s always a woman or man hunt!

Courtesy wrap means you are given a bag and tissue or a fold it yourself flimsy box, with a skimpy ribbon for a bow–a do it yourself deal. A “curt”easy alright! I long for the skilled, nimble handiwork of the backroom gift-wrapping artist, disguised as clerk. So….economically, on what exactly is the business saving? Oh, right, employees. Jobs. Opportunities. Plus, the stripping down of our zeal, the zeal we enjoyed when we saw a present we just bought wrapped with finesse beyond common ability. Oh well…they seem to think we will keep our patronage going. Will we?

Each purchase is preferred paid via plastic, and then you get a “gift” back of the receipt in your email. Instead of remarking about the moon last night or the latest designer line heeding plus sizes, we are forced to speak only of how we want to pay and in what form we would like our receipt. Do we even want a receipt? Is that a trick question? But I want to know if someone else saw the ring around the moon that I saw…

I suppose we ought to be glad actual brick and mortar buildings still house shops and restaurants. The powers that be, seem to relish the idea of everything being purchased online and sent via courier. No more supporting Ma and Pa establishments, unfortunately, unless they are part of a chain of businesses. This is a sad thing to my generation. We understand what it takes to start those small shops from scratch and maintain them in the midst of Mega-Store monopoly.

No, I’m afraid there are just too many things to get up my gander over. As long as no gag order has been ordained by the governor, I’ll just list several random modifications, deletions, and switcheroos.:

Polite persons holding doors open are now passee, Heavens, they might insult the person going through the door!

The use of gender titles are beyond being frowned upon; they are no longer being used in formal communication! We address everyone by their name only, and can only assume what “Leslie”, “Adrian”, “Frances”, “Casey”, “Madison”and “Taylor” look like when calling or writing to them.

Change in coins and cash from the register is dumped into one’s palm, the till door is slammed shut, and a call out of “Next”, is pretty much the norm these days. Abrupt and devoid of civil connection.

Too many corporate persons unable to answer questions that veer from memorized expected inquiries. Happenstance conversation is equally difficult to navigate – a single adverb or adjective seemingly enough to send comprehension into a nosedive…

Sturdy brown paper grocery bags have been taken over by plastic bags that are flimsy and hurt marine life. Actually, Trader Joe’s not only sends you home carrying your goods packed in thick brown sacks, but they also are double-bagged with sturdy handles! However, the majority of grocery stores hide their own brown bags. Why???

Batteries are not energized “forever” like they used to be.

Lightbulbs flicker-out way too soon than expected. Who knew “Energy Saver’ meant less use?

Need to call a company? Better have an arsenal comprised of cell phone, doodling pad, pencil, paper, calculator, munchies, beverage, pillow to scream into or punch, whatever quells your temper and either a cup of coffee or a good stiff drink. You’ll be pressing this number and that, and wait “on hold” throughout the entire length of all the “Bee Gees” career– heard in fine listening music. And a real option to choose “O” for operator rarely exists anymore…much like the gas station guys and store clerks. Is this modus operandi?

Parking spaces in parking lots are far narrower than ever before. As the SUVs started kicking out the compacts, ironically, the spaces seem to have shrunk!

Books often have incomplete edging, so now and then, you come across two pages still fused at the corner…very annoying.

Because water is a commodity, storefront sidewalks are no longer hosed down. Definitely not swept, either. Where did the kid with the long apron disappear to?

Where’s the cobblers? I used to love watching my worn-out shoes revived back to polished splendor by these industrious, elfin-like craftsmen!

Gone are the soothing plots of green in the planter beds of concrete medians dividing boulevards. The emerald green was hopeful, happy and eased our worries just a tad. Instead these eyesores are painted cement, “carpeted” in bark, or filled in with whitewashed stones. Come on…we want to see trees, shrubbery, or flowers planted in those medians! This is Southern California for goodness sakes. We are supposed to shine color like a rainbow!

You have to beg for dinner rolls at restaurants, now. Same thing with water.

The gentile art of making proper introductions is definitely lost.

Our towns are all cities and they are polluted with sirens, police helicopter night beams, and ensnaring traffic jams.

All fireworks shows are forbidden. Our patriotic tradition fizzled out like a sparkler that was a dud. Why? Oh that’s right…not enough brainiacs around to ensure water and fire safety is in place. Oh brother!

Outdoor concerts on the green, no longer part of our scene. And why? Oh that’s right, not enough decency in people to have consideration and respect for others. No “Sunday Afternoons” like in Seurat’s famous painting.

There’s a multitude of complaints to record. But, as I have typed my list of grievances, I actually can’t type anything super serious. I know they exist. I’m not an ostrich. I know healthcare, economy, environment and social welfare are all teeming with tribulation. But, it’s the little things that worry me most. How can that be? Am I Winnie of very little Brain? No. Well, maybe I am. That is, I am Winnie of very big Heart. I want to have those little things stay, in my heart.

I love my pot of honey, must it drip dry?

I cherish my friends. I want us to sit and bounce and play with balloons.

I want to see, smell and hear the blustery days.

I want to take care of Piglet and have Christopher Robin at my side.

I never want to get lost in the 100 Acre Wood.

I believe we crabby codgers have become choleric over a slow spanse of time. We have come to realize our fondness for the simple good in life is the treasure of all treasures. We want to get back to being Pooh Bear. We adore our once untainted innocence. We know what a prize it is! We want to skip along hum-humming our songs, and catch hold of our bumbershoots in the windy rain. We would like to taste sweetness in the company of our dearest ally. All these things are achieved in the “Kingdom of Nicety.” We remember when a customer was a customer, not simply a walking wallet. We know very, very long before our time, when met with a new acquaintance, it was customary to claim, “At your service”, followed by a reverent bow. This translated to: “I realize our paths have crossed, and your need to travel must be just as important as mine, thus how can I help you, just as much as perhaps one day, you might help me?” Hence, the consideration of other human beings.

Pooh Bear pinned Eeyore’s lost tail onto his backside. He hugged, and loved and fixed. He went out of his way to try. He gave his best effort because he focused on the importance of the gestures he made. These are the things we spot missing from society’s landscape. We notice the paintbrush is a bit dry. The richness of color gone. The blustery blue has turned gray. Worst of it, we know why. Common decency is missing. Something so simple as thinking of others besides yourself.

The next time you hear an irascible grouch grumble, consider perhaps why. It could be crickety old bones is to blame. It might be there are some things gravely wrong. But when deciphered deeply, that old coot may be channeling his desire to be a happy go-lucky Winnie the Pooh. Living a life of simple kindness and serendipity.

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.

Ode to a Fine Teacher

How blessed are we who hold fond memories of teachers who due to their excellence, left us with indelible impressions. One such teacher, was Mr. White. He is now gone into the pages of pedagogic history. He passed away without my being able to tell him how grand it was to have been his student. I hope he can see my writing from way up in heaven…

It was the first day of 6th grade, at Cullen Elementary. It was a typically hot early September morning, with all the children adorned in their newly bought school clothes. Mine were from Buffum’s Department Store and my shoes were from Bullock’s Pasadena. Apparently, I had “outgrown” the Hartzler’s Shoe Store experience, and had “moved up” to the more “mature” location to buy my patent leathers. I remember we even topped off that particular excursion with a treat in the Bullock’s Tearoom over puffed pastries which resembled a chef’s hat and were filled with heavenly cream. Fortification for the future ladies of America, I suppose. Indeed, it was another form of learning for observant, young eyes….

That cusp of autumn morn, looking down at my shiny shoes and all decked out to meet my new teacher, I felt it was an exciting, auspicious occasion. I was standing in line amongst my new classmates outside on the blacktop. We were waiting the arrival of the very person who would guide us through our pivotally important last preteen grade. One of my classmates I knew from the year before, whispered over her shoulder to say, “Why doesn’t he just open up our classroom?” I responded, “Beats me! He is the first male teacher I have ever had! I’m a little scared, aren’t you?” That was the moment when a very tall personage strode past me coming up from the rear of our line. He stopped, turned around after hearing my remark, and with an oh so subtle smirk, said, “Oh, you’ll find I’m not so bad, as long as you try your best!” That did it. I was hooked. Starry-eyed the rest of the day, and every single day to the end of the year, I was in awe of Mr. Wonderful,  formally known as Mr. White.

What a classroom we had! Our view of the mountains was caught in the north facing wall of windows. We looked out onto the playground, just past it was the baseball diamond, and that was followed by a sweeping upward carpet of verdant grass stretching the distance to the chainlink fence which hemmed in our campus. Bordering our school, just beyond the fence, were widely spaced apart palm trees whose frond configuration looked as if they were women who had just unraveled their curls from the overnight rollers in their hair. Then you would see across the street, a church on the corner, followed by a few homes. The lots were generous in size so no more than three could be viewed from our classroom, though the entire street continued east and westward with homes aplenty.  If your gaze continued upward, it would be awash in the majestic presence of our foothills. Beautiful and reverent to me.

Inside, running the length of our windows was a counter. On top of it were enticements for the budding mind: a telescope, microscopes, a world globe, an SRA Reading kit and a basket full of multicultural and organic realia…shells, pine cones, various rock specimens, castanets, a rudimentary tambourine, maracas, and Hawaiian palm fans. In the far corner of the counter up near the blackboard, was a standing human torso anatomy model, a record player and an autoharp. All the trappings of a teacher poised to inspire. And that he did! Decades later, I realized so much of what comprised this man and his self-made world defined me as a person and a teacher.

Under the counter along the wall, were scores upon scores of books. Each and every one was labeled by color-tape coding. He had used the SRA Reading system as his guide and supplemented a library’s worth of books. This collection ran along the windows’ counter as well as the south wall, starting where his desk was located. The incentive was to work your way around the room by reading all the colors necessary to you and your level of ability. Everyone wanted to reach purple or maroon, which were the highest levels. I remember reading was an emphasis, but, not the only one. Reading was the anchor for all the other subjects. If we were investigating micro-organisms, writing research papers about other nations of the world, exploring outer-space, delving into the merits of National Parks, we had a veritable treasure trove of books to pull from, including several encyclopedia collections. This was my “candy store “. Being a voracious reader, I loved reading to find out, to learn, to deduce. I still enjoy that type of reading the most. We did read fiction, but, I recall historical fiction, such as Pearl S. Buck’s “The Good Earth” being one novel that stood out that particular year.

Our clearly well- planned instructor instituted a practice of having us present a current event to the class once a week. We had to locate an article from the newspaper, read it aloud to our classmates and offer our own commentary on the piece. That year Walt Disney died. I remember presenting an article all about his life and his passing. Now, being a Southern California kid, I felt this was indeed devastating news. After my reading, we engaged in a whole class discussion about the famed innovator who was a mover and shaker. Mr. White then had everyone write down their feelings they wanted to express about Mr. Disney, since so many children exhibited sorrow and even shed some tears. It was the prevalent “buzz” all that week, and as we purged our feelings onto paper, we all had more than enough knowledge to expound on the subject. I recall this experience as very emotional. I think it also kick-started my love of reading about people contributing greatly to our world- artists, botanists, musicians, scientists, architects, inventors, etc. To this day, biographies are my first choice in reading.

Not only under the excellence of this educator did my reading flourish, from the story of Luther Burbank to the tantalizing short mysteries of Alfred Hitchcock, but so did my writing. Mr. Wonderful seems to be the first teacher who really took notice of my zest to write. I hold a happy memory of Mr. White replacing his afternoon read-aloud to the class, with his surprising request for me to come to the front of the room, take his honorable seat on the stool behind his overhead projector, and read something he thought was worth listening to. Perplexed, I looked up at him with an “Okay….uh…sure!” He handed me my own story I had written called “The Buccaneer”. You see, being somewhat of a tomboy, I had a robust interest in the adventurous escapades of pirates. I must say, Hollywood helped a great deal in that department, too. (I’m certain some of my story development must have been infiltrated by a few details from several pirate themed movies I had seen on television). it was a privilege to write, then read one’s own ideas. He could not have done anything more special if he had handed me a golden pen. His blanket approval of my writing beyond the letter grade, was a magical gift that served me for life.

Amongst the daily activities in our 6th grade oasis, we were engaged in many “hands on learning” enterprises. I recall enjoying all of them, from the perfunctory to the intensely skill summoning. I recall loving our California spelling books, and the fact that the lessons unlocked “key patterns”. The joy was in memorizing how to spell them as well as write them over and over to imprint exactitude. It was empowering to know the rules and be able to utilize them whenever in doubt. I especially loved putting each word into a sentence. (Actually, my third grade teacher lit the fire on that one). That normally boring exercise to some pupils, enabled me to tap into and voice my imagination. But, our teacher allowed us to study our spelling lists together and test each other in any way we seemed fit. The camaraderie was helpful and manifest widespread cheerfulness.

That year we had a plethora of group assignments. I remember working up at the front of the room with a partner or two on coloring in a giant map that the overhead projector had enlarged onto paper taped to the blackboard. We were big kids, so we used colored pencils. It was really fun, and had everything to do with what we were learning in Social Studies. We must have been studying Hawaii at length, and one morning we all sat up erect in our seats because Mr. W had promised us something that would keep us “on our toes”. The night before we had all put our heads to our pillows; racking our brains for what we thought that might be! Turns out, he brought out two very long wooden poles and plunked a grass hat atop his head. He then passed out leis and turned on some Hawaiian music. After that, the actual teaching of how to do the indigenous people’s pole dance is a bit murky in my memory. All I know was, I didn’t want the two poles to slam up against my foot as I hopped and danced across and through them to the island beat. I think the best fun was being one of the pole holders at either end. The two poles were held parallel to one another. You would simply hold the same end of both poles, while kneeling on the floor, and lift slightly to tap the floor twice with both poles spread apart. Then you were to tap the still parallel poles together a little higher up in the air. Your opposite pole holder did this in sync with you on the other end holding the same poles. The dancers would usually be one or two at a time and have to deftly hop in and out of the spaces between the poles, being cognizant of the rhythm and timing. It was a mixed bag of nervousness, anticipation, and explosive laughter. This dance became a fixation for our class the rest of the year and I still fondly think back on the hours of glee we all shared.

Art was definitely encouraged. We made geometric string art based on math and graph paper, encapsulated dead June bugs into hardening resin paperweights, and wove God’s eyes around small sticks with thick, colorful roving. I think we even made decorative stamped copper medallion plates. This was the era when Peter Max and Joseph Stella art was becoming popular to mimic. Mr. White allowed us free time to draw intersecting lines and swirls on blank paper in spontaneous fashion, and then color in the fields. I still have a jolly time doing that on a rainy day. Encouragement of creativity was no stranger in his classroom.

Conversely, lessons were learned, too. I still kind of mourn receiving a minus on what would have been my A+ country report about Argentina. I had slaved over that project for weeks on end, compiling graphs, drawings, photographs, maps, information and refining the writing. We were told the cover creativity would yield great weight to the overall grade. Our cover must ingeniously reflect the subject in some way. I don’t know anymore what my cover looked like, but I was darn proud of it. Trouble was, I either was late arriving to school, or I stayed home the day it was due to be turned in. I pressed on to put the final touches on my “masterpiece”. Well, needless to say, I was docked for it, and it irked me to no end. But, I learned a valuable lesson about punctuality. By the way, I still grapple with it…sometimes I am insanely perfectionist about being prompt, and other times recklessly indolent. But, it’s selective. I did learn and never forgot, the ramifications may not be so sweet. I thank Mr. White for teaching me an important thing about life.

Perhaps the most remarkable gesture our esteemed educator ever did was to show he valued his students’ hearts. He knew a group of friends and I one early morning had discovered much to our dismay and sorrow, a wounded bird on the grass field just beyond the baseball diamond. We ran to tell him, and he cautioned us with how to touch it safely. Where most teachers might have said, “Go inform the school custodian”, he dealt with it personally. Mr. Wonderful gave us a shoebox from within his cupboard, and in it we placed soft leaves, grass and some cotton for buffering. We thought we were going to nurture our fallen bird back to health, but unfortunately it died that day. He allowed us to take the bird back up to the farthest end of the field near the fence on the east, under a row of bordering eucalyptus trees providing shade and a heavenly haven for our pitiful little creature. We were told to go ahead and dig a hole and just bury it. Then, with permission, we gave it a proper funeral punctuated with prayers and poetry. It was just myself and a cluster of friends, but it was quite meaningful to each of us. I always thought that was a very good way to handle the situation. After all, we were either 11 or 12, and had pretty sound heads on our shoulders. I think promoting compassion is a mighty powerful gift to children. I believe affording us the chance to institute reverent custom is equally empowering. He was much more than a 3 Rs teacher. He exhibited omniscience in my twelve year old eyes.

I am so grateful for that 6th grade year. It was a year for me, filled with a couple personally made baseball homerun hits over that chainlink fence, the year I vexed the haughtiest of kids at dodgeball and long ball by being victorious more than once, and the year I suffered bullying in the northwest corner of the schoolyard by a kick to my tailbone for reasons I still do not know. It was the year I learned about parameciums and amoebas, and delved into what the human body was all about via encyclopedias and their fascinating transparent cellophane sheets depicting musculature and the the network of veins. This was the year I fashioned an exploding volcano much to the wide eyes of my fellow classmates. I’m pretty sure Mr. White gave me that task to do for a science project. It was the year I became the Christmas play director and co-writer, the year I learned to count and speak a little in Spanish via the watching of an LA school teacher on the wheeled in television set once a week in our classroom. It was the year I joined the choir and stood under the hot lights above the stage, trying my best to contribute to the beauty of song. It was the year we voted for or against capital punishment and participated in written essays and verbal debates over that subject. It was the year I took Iowa State tests and had the gall to question why we were taking an Iowa test, if we lived in California. It was the year I grew bold enough to participate with peers in tossing wet paper towel balls up onto the ceiling of the girls’ bathroom, and the year I was a “good enough” kid to be hall monitor and take messages to other teachers and to the office. But, perhaps even more defining, this was the year I was entrusted to go down to the kindergarten classrooms and be a teacher’s aide. It soon became my job, and it wasn’t a rarity that I was in charge of the entire group, by myself, whilst the teacher was on break in the office. This is where I learned about preparation and motivation, more than a decade before I became an actual, professional teacher. I thank Mr. White, allowing me that opportunity was by far the most influential decision.

The decisions of a teacher are tantamount to the development of our youth. Mr. White made his with much consideration and scope of wisdom. We never suffered pat disapproval. He always seemed to ruminate on the merits of both sides of the coin, over the outcome of the yeas and nays. But, teachers today have practically been stripped to the bone of their ability to make autonomous decisions. This is truly tragic. Becoming a pedagogue in public school still is no easy feat and must be even harder than decades before. I know there is a whole new host of hurdles to hurl oneself over in order to attain that appointment and certification. Having children taught by those who have not been trained to teach is an ignorant, risky mistake in my opinion. I am sad for the children who may never get to feel the kind and firm care of their teacher, as my generation and I were able to. However, as pointed out on the onset of this essay, Mr. White was a wonderful teacher. He went beyond expectation. Most obvious, is his planning for the whole child: heart, mind, soul and physical. How long will distance learning deprive children from a real relationship between pupil and pedagogue? It seems to me, the time for an instructor to build specified and individualized communication is becoming harder and harder to make possible. I know our teachers will do their utmost to interject lessons geared to individual students, because most teachers really do care. They are committed to making learning quality. I just hope it won’t be too long before kids can return back to the brick and mortar classrooms and to the comfort of knowing their fearless leader is there to listen, suggest, contest, and inspire…like my Mr. White did. My Wonderful Mr. White.  

Patriotism: Are We So Proud?

Very true about pictures. There seems to always be a story right there for the grabbing, if you are so inclined. Today, I was in my car going through the “In n Out Burger” Drive Thru line. Just to the north of the restaurant is a car dealership. All over its premises is a battalion of flags, standing proud, flapping in the breeze. But this area is so heavily trafficked and nearly impossible to snap a photo without endangering one’s life and limb near the whizzing-by, fast cars.

While in this wait line, though, I found myself peering through my front windshield. I saw a “plain as can be”, wrought-iron fence, made up of only black vertical bars. It definitely looked like a jail cell. At not too far of a distance, behind those bars were three American flags, all actively pronouncing their presence and meaning. I sat just low enough as a driver, to see those flags through the bars. They barely scaled the top lateral bar by about a foot, though. Had I the guts to get out of my vehicle, then crouch down to look directly through the bars; those flags standing for patriotism and freedom would have made an awesome picture of controversy on camera! The message would say: Is our freedom, in truth, restricted? compromised? Are we so proud? In view of the present day political climate, is Patriotism being caged?

A wave of thoughts could be equated with this scene… Maybe, if I drove there before the store opens, early, I could get those flags – through those bars – into quite the snapshot! There’s a story. What might it say a hundred years from now?

Big Sisters Are Just That Way

Impressionable people come and go in our lives, but their mark is everlasting. To have a relative who is impressionable is a gift. Each time I speak of my older sister, it is like unwrapping that present all over again. This is a collection of remembrances about her. Granted, she is still quite alive and not even retired. But, while I still have my faculties about me, I thought it was high time I expound on this very special individual.

 

It seems to me my earliest memory of my big sister was that of her playing with her dancing doll. Santa had given her a doll which was made of cloth limbs that niftily bent at the knees and elbows. A cloth torso anchored the doll’s neck and face. Thus, it was one giant piece – a very versatile rag doll. Just like my sister, the doll had yellow hair (which was probably made of yarn, bright blue eyes and a very sweet smile. The doll wore a long ballet tutu around it’s waist and a pastel pink and white horizontally striped leotard-type top. At least that is how my memory has recorded the visual.  The best part of the doll was the fact that her cloth feet at the end of its legs had not only ballet-like shoes, but an elastic strap that my sister could slip her own feet into, thus connecting the doll to her every step. The doll could dance anything my big sis could conjure up herself. Her moves were her dolly’s moves. With ease and exuberance, she could dance with her doll hand in hand, toe to toe and cheek to cheek. Whatever was on the “Lawrence Welk Show” became their song; the pair of them sidestepping and sashaying any kind of dance she desired. They would waltz to country, swing to jazz, or be-bop to early rock n roll. My sister and her partner would spontaneously create their own style in response to what was being heard in our living room from the television or the radio. I thought it was a genius toy and was envious of how much fun my sister had dancing with it. Years later, when my sibling was entrenched in ballet classes, I tried to be like that doll and mimic my big sister’s every move. I took ballet, as well…though the talent must not have been there. I think I only lasted one year. Her doll and my memories of her dancing have endured for more decades than I’d like to admit!

 

Without sounding too redundant, let’s call my sister “C”. As in most families, the children in ours, had blissful moments and other times not quite so amiable. C was very efficient. I have two recountings, each one describing the opposite end of the spectrum of sibling decorum. Our parents could rely on her to watch over the younger ones which included me. One outing, we found ourselves at the beach and my father insisted everyone line-up in front of him for the customary Sea ‘n’ Ski slathering of our nose, cheeks, tips of our ears and across our shoulders. Mind you, he never brought us to the coast until after 3pm when the sun was less intense. Well, after we all received our suntan-lotion anointing, we were all free to go play. Parameters were stated as to how far to wander down the shoreline. Sand pails and shovels were distributed and sunhats adjusted to provide the maximum protection. Adventures commenced.

C knew I enjoyed viewing the frolic of the sand beetles, and combing for shells hither and thither. One particular beach day, we had been collecting treasures when my sister decided to try something different. Being 6 years older than me, and myself barely past being a toddler, she could not have been much older than 10 or 11. Yet, she was a clever one. She wanted to break me of my fear of the water. At this point I had only stood on wet sand with the tide tickling my toes as it surrounded them and drew away. But, to actually go IN the water? I had not ever done that.  This time she encouraged me to hold her hand and leave the bucket perched on our little mound. Then we started walking down to the seaspray and foam. The closer we got to being actually in the ocean, the more I hesitated, eventually coming to an abrupt stop. C bent down and stared her beautiful blue eyes into mine and said, “If you keep holding my hand I’ll keep you safe. Let’s try to walk into a wave….” Naturally, I strongly protested and resisted such an endeavor. She then countered with: “If you walk into a wave, they say you can see the mermaids inside it. You want to see the mermaids, don’t you?” I had to ponder that one. It didn’t take long for curiosity and imagination to win  over cold fear. We did walk into a wave holding hands…and as a youngster, that wave seemed extremely high. It probably was only a 3 to 4 foot wave, though. I don’t recall thinking I saw the mermaids and sea nymphs, but I did come out of the experience invigorated with glee. The wave had gone right over my head, and I saw lots of swirling colors so they must have been mermaids! I jumped and squealed with excitement, only to ask for a command performance again and again and again. I have to thank my Big Sister for promoting my bravery. From that day onward, I was in love with the sea…still am.

 

Occasionally, C was not the best babysitter for all of her siblings. Sometimes she had her own plans and it did not include the presence of us underlings. On this day, our folks had an appointment and C was left in charge. I seem to recall playing with my next in line sibling, my brother #3. We had a terrific time recreating a circus show using the Fisher-Price Circus set. I still remember the thick hard-pressed cardboard animals with their white plastic movable arms and legs. The Master of Ceremonies, and the various performers were made the same way. We would play tirelessly, having them climb up the white rungs of red wooden ladders, which would reach the “High-top’s” tallest podium. There were also, wooden red and white cages for animals, all part of the circus train kit. Many details remain vivid enough to recall after all these years. Perhaps the invaluable aspect was how our imagination ran freely and it was quite the creative escape into whatever childhood could dream.

 

While merrily at play, we suddenly were being told by the “Authority in Charge” that it was officially nap time. Yes, in my generation of rearing, everyone took naps in the afternoon, up to late years in grade school. Same time, every day, time to recharge the batteries of youth. Well, naturally being embroiled in some escapade taking place within the main circus ring, my brother and I profusely protested, and tried to negotiate extra play time. C flatly said no, and determined that the circus would still be there when we woke up and the SOONER we fell asleep, the SOONER we would wake up again to continue our fun. She shooed us off to our beds and sternly told us to not get up until she came in to wake us.

 

Resigned to nap time, I found myself for some particular reason, having a most difficult time falling asleep. I remember getting out of bed and lying under the sewing machine desk. Suspended upside down was the Singer machine, and all the gizmos and gadgets required to make it work. Lying on my back, peering upwards, it resembled my idea of what a factory must look like on the inside. I don’t know how long I laid there, but it did pass the time a bit for this far from sleepy child. After a good while, I grew tired of waiting and left my bedroom to look for my big sister and the clock. She took her two hands and turned my shoulders back to the hallway and reminded me to go finish my nap. She said it simply wasn’t long enough. Well this same chain of events happened again a bit later, and Cs reaction was now annoyance. I told her I just could not sleep, and couldn’t I just read? “No” was my answer. The third time I left my room was instrumental in making her very mad at me. She demonstratively said, “I don’t want to hear your complaints. Go to bed!” C then proceeded to stuff my mouth with kleenex and I proceeded to cry. She walked me back to my room and gave me some ultimatum -I know not what. This time, I cried myself to sleep. When she did wake me up, it was much later. In fact, our parents were arriving back home. They saw how “rested” my brother and I looked. That was when C said she had put us down for a nap 5 hours ago! I don’t remember anything after those details, but it was definitely an abuse of power, don’t you think?

 

Since C was the first-born child, our parents’ rules were more stringent than some of the children born much later. My big sister went to high school in an era when girls could not wear jeans or slacks, but only skirts and dresses. The wearing of lipstick to school was just starting to be allowed. Even still, high school girls were being carefully monitored in what they wore to class. I remember C begged and begged our father for permission to not only wear lipstick, but to be able to wear knit stockings or nylons with flats. He was of the “everything meaningful is no fuss” kind of midwestern mentality, and he emphatically denied her requests. Then one day, when visiting the high school with the town’s Rotary Club, which is a businessman’s club, he noticed that his daughter was practically the only girl still wearing bobby socks and saddle shoes. When our dad returned home and was surrounded with family at the dinner table, he announced that my sibling ought to go with the flow and wear what everyone else wears. I remember in the following days, she had her pink Yardley lipstick and mary janes on. I remember her riding her bike down the driveway with her skirt billowing voluminous puffs on each side, looking much like one of the suffragettes of yore. Yet, she had on her make-up and her footwear in keeping with the trend. She was very happy! Heck, I Was glad she was happy, because it meant she was paving the way for me.

 

Out of a lifetime with my older sister, the five hour nap incident is the ONLY negative memory I have. That is saying a lot. Truth is, C has always been a figure of wonder and respect. Her scholarly ways amazed me. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that she was an A student. Books in tow, and always about to, or finishing up her studying, she was the perfect consumer of information. Before she moved away to college, our sewing room was her study. It was at the top of the stairs, and one of the walls was the slant of the roof, with a dormer window flooding in light. Being very narrow, it was almost cocoon-like; a nest for knowledge if you will. Time and time again she was locked up in her study refining her education. In high school, Mom would let her take cups of coffee up there so she could burn the candle into the wee hours of the night. She would only emerge from her inner sanctum when it was mealtime. We used to laugh about her at dinner because invariably, one of her knees was in hyper-mode, bobbing up and down under the table. She really wasn’t too conversational; probably because she was still thinking about what she had been reading or writing about. All we knew as a family was that this devotion to learning could only lead to lofty places.

 

How true this was and is! In high school, she was honored as being designated one of the California’s Scholastic Federation scholars, wearing her golden stole around her neck for for graduation ceremony. When she completed her studies at California Western University she graduated Magna Cum Laude. What amazed me the most was that she was superb in both Math and in English. I was so proud of her. I aspired to be close to the same, if I could. Years later, she instilled in her own children the same forthright attitude when it comes to academic achievement.

 

After college, my sister made a bold move. She sought out a position in sales for the company Proctor & Gamble. She practically lived in her car, making it her office as she drove from retailer to retailer, engaged in selling products and monitoring their means of display in stores. I remember one family holiday, she was home and busier than ever. She had on stiletto heels and a long business dress. Out in our backyard on the cement walking path, I remember her excitedly spinning around with notepad and pen armed for self-checking. She must’ve been going over a presentation. The rest of the family was inside getting the meal on the table and she was out there in a a different universe, breaking that glass ceiling for young women of the 70s in business. Not soon after that day, I heard the company was sending her to Wall Street to learn all about the Stock Market. What a perfect blend of her two talents: Math and Language! The rest is history. She has been a stockbroker for probably 45 years now, and presently advises those clients involved in high finance.

 

Throughout her life, C has had many interests. Ballet was likely her earliest. She studied ballet for six years. Her favorite music to dance to was Swan Lake. One time she had a dance solo portraying a puppeteer’s doll in the Nutcracker. It seems Santa’s “dance along with doll” was a meaningful present. I honestly was either too little or too much in my own imaginative world to recall C practicing ballet at home. I certainly do not even recall any recital I might have attended. Back in those days, parents didn’t really fawn all over their kids. They funded and supported their children’s interests, but not anything equal to today’s full-blown everyone in the family will go to recitals and performances. Even sports was a bit like that as well. However,  I do remember her practicing the marionette dance…and I also remember my mom was very enthused over how well she did.

 

But, C also was excellent at swimming and diving, she totally enjoyed being a statistician in high school where she could flex her mental muscle, and also in high school, she was made co-captain for the drill team. She was a great leader and looked very polished in all her parades and field-shows. I have wonderful visions of her in salute pose, wearing the tall black shako on her head, buckled under her chin, her back angled at a near 45 degree slant, her one knee up and her opposite hand, white gloved with fingertips aside of her eyebrow. To me, she was a grand figure exuding grace, confidence, and power. In this leadership role, she probably developed her verbal skills…which with all that ballet, swimming and drill team taught her to do, served her well in her adult life and in her line of work. Success comes to those who know both competitive determination and self-controlled aplomb. She was masterful at these. We are lucky in our family, because both our parents were trained to be educators, and were terrific communicators. Our dad was a top-notch salesman and our mother had boundless gift of gab. So, C like all of us, had good examples to pattern after, and she did. Thus, what she learned for the ballet stage, the swimming pool, the street marching parades and leadership amongst peers, were fine character-strengthening activities.

 

When I think of my sister, I think of a person who as I was growing up, was just a bit too old for me to have had her as a confidant. Yet, she was simply that amazing and mystifying Big Sister. What is dear to my heart though, is how later in our adulthood, we came to really understand one another. We have always known we were cut from different cloths. But, as years move on, we learn to appreciate our differences. In recent years, my sister has proven to be the one beacon of hope and resolve that has guided me through turbulent waters. When my premature son was born she was the first and only person who behaved as if he would most certainly survive. She was his first visitor at home and the first to allay my fears. When my other son graduated from high school, she wrote him a beautiful letter of encouragement- a class act if there ever was one. When it came time for me to stand up for myself in divorce court, she was there- with contacts, advice and a plan. Finally, she has been the salient voice that has told me how deserving I am of what I earned in my profession and that what is due me is worth fighting for. Again, the contacts, the advice and the plan were freely given. Not t mention the countless hours of effort involved in research.

 

There is nothing better in this world than having a person in your life that truly respects and realizes our true worth. They become cheerleaders for you, and they do not waste time with words. Instead, they DO supportive deeds. My big sister has bolstered me up through the toughest of times. She has been my rock in many ways. Perhaps, the sweetest part is having been the recipient of her generous invitations to hear the philharmonic. On such occasions we have conversed over fine meals and shared the same quietly born, music-induced,  emotional tears. Life really doesn’t get more poignant than this. Well, she does know my love for my sons as she has the same for her daughters and grandkids. As women, perhaps that is the creme de la creme of all that can be understood and shared. Yes, she is definitely a super business-woman, but moreover, a super person. She has earned the “Rhodes Scholar” standing in life- being the best a daughter, sister, and mother could be. No wonder she has such a wonderful husband as well.

 

This brings me to one of the absolute most dear memories I have ever had regarding my sister. One summer, which I believe was the summer after her first year in college, I walked with her from our house way up at the top of our very long lane, down the long drive past two avocado groves and two neighboring homes, to our mailbox. It was fixed to a post alongside the neighbor’s box who lived in front of us, I remember having a good talk with her as we walked in our play clothes in the beating sun.  I sensed something different about her. I didn’t really know what, but it was a bit tantalizing to feel. When we got to our mailbox, she dug inside to retrieve the contents within. Then, she stopped, pulled out one more thing in a whisk of wild surprise! It was a postcard and she dropped half of the letters onto the ground as she voraciously read the card with those lovely Czech, wide-blue eyes of hers. “What is it? Who is it to? Who is it from? What does it say!”….”It’s from a boy I know from school…and it seems he does keep his promises. He said he would write me on his family trip to Hawaii” “Really? A boy? How exciting!” “Can I see?” “Please, can I read it?” …With the most solidly flattening “No”, she drew the line. But, she peered down at me, and smiled, then proceeded to skip all the way back up our driveway lane to home. That “boy” became her lifelong husband and to this very day they are still madly in love.

Yes, sisters are like that. Age differences can be difficult, but the sisterly bonds of love are clasped with ease. I love my Big Sis. I am in awe. And I am in her debt for all the kindnesses she has done for me.

 

Happy Birthday to her!

 

 

 

 

Ladies’ Hats and Lace-trimmed Gloves

“1-2-3-4-…no… one more- 5!” This was my little sister’s ritual countdown in church before we were shuffled off to our Sunday School classrooms. She always sat next to me, her knobby knees swiveling in position as her ever active legs swung up and down. Her lacy white ankle socks were always a constant flash complimenting her patent leather good shoes. My spunky sibling simply could not sit still for very long. She knew I was much the wiser and older by five years…probably too serious for her temperament. This was the impetus for her finding ways to distract me and attempt to get me to giggle in church. Sometimes it worked and totally blew my quest for being devout on Sundays. The worst timing of said ritual would be when she instigated these shenanigans during a somber hymn solo. We were supposed to sit quietly and stoically, displaying reverence for word and song. As kids, we could only take so much seriousness, and then we just had to explode in some way. If the hat counting didn’t work, then she would try fidgeting with her little purse. She would pose it on her lap and make little movements with the bows or the flowers as if they were animated in some way. Other times she would purposely slide her bum-dee-ay into mine to jolt me out of my mesmeric stupor. But the worst to control would be my sister’s pretending to cough or sneeze. Of course I knew they weren’t authentic! I just could not get past the silliness of it, because without turning my head, I could see and feel her hot red-cheeked, blue-eyed, freckled-nose face crowned in strawberry blonde locks. She was the epitome of effervescence in both visual and deed. Half a century later, I can report that my appreciation for her “apple-cart upsetting demeanor” remains strong and sweet.

 

Almost everybody attended church in our community. At one point we had 14 different denominations calling their flock to their pews. It is what you did on Sunday. Then you’d come home to have lunch or once in awhile go out to eat with family. Following that, depending on how the week had gone, the goals still to be reached, and the health status of everyone; whole families would be commanded by their dad to pile into the car to get going on a “Sunday Drive”. This could mean EVERYONE, from the tiniest baby to the visiting grandparents. It was a way to be entertained together. Once home, mothers would stir the stew or baste the roast, maybe even bake a pie. After dinner had been consumed, the entire clan would converge on the one television in the living room to watch either “Wonderful World of Disney”, “Bonanza”, or the “Ed Sullivan Show”. Sometimes it was the “Jackie Gleason Show” reiterating “How Sweet it is!” But, this piece is not about after church, it is about going to and being IN church.

 

They say church attendance is way, way down in the United States. Lots of reasons are given. Nowadays, with both parents working, children involved in multiple hobbies, clubs, sports and interests; the ritual of going to church at the end of a week seems an exhausting task. Additionally, the time-stealing homework loads coupled with heightened use of social media are also likely culprits. In other words–a lot of competition for one’s weekend time. But, back when I was a youngster we had our own relative “busy-ness.” However, come Saturday night, we laid out our Sunday best ready to wear the next morning. My mom or dad would give me a bath with either my brother or my sister-and wash my very long hair. Afterwards, once I had survived the near violent head shaking from my dad’s expert towel drying of my hair, my mom would proceed to tackle combing it out. Next, she’d roll my long tresses into clean socks from the “socks without partners” sock drawer. I would go to bed wearing probably ten socks all wound up in dampness, which by morning would be dry. Once they were unraveled, the curls would not disappoint. I would skip out the door in a fancy frock, shiny shoes, lace-trimmed white gloves or ones loosely knit, and a ribbon in my hair. Oh I loved those ribbons! Sunday School hats would come out of the mothballs in time for Easter, and were helpful the whole hot summer.  When I was a tad bit older, I graduated from bobby socks to lace stockings. It was the trend for girls and I sported a Twiggy haircut and mini-A-line shift instead of a frilly sundress from younger days. The point here is: one would not dare go to church without being “dressed to the nines”. It simply wasn’t done. This was how to show our respect to God. We displayed our very best! With our behavior, too! (Now you know why it irked me so– to be instigated to laugh whilst being seated in presumed reverence).

 

I wasn’t always a “goodie two shoes”. There are famous reports of me making dramatic demonstrations outside the Church entrance when I was barely old enough  to read. I remember throwing my Bible down on the pavement in order to get the “giants” surrounding me to pay attention. One girl who was about four years older,  had a crush on my big brother so she hung around us all the time. She would warn me not to do it again. Then I would! Much to the reactions of the taken aghast masses, this flagrant impudence of mine became evermore enjoyable. I have been told and also recall vividly, only singing the one hymn I approved of: “Onward Christian Soldiers”. It did not matter what the rest of the congregation was singing. I would still sing THAT one. Again, the stares of shock, query and disapproval were high entertainment for this little manipulator. I’m sorry….I think I just liked the marching rhythm of the song…what kid doesn’t love a good march? At least I didn’t venture out of my seat and start marching up and down the aisle!

 

In defense of my reputation, I must uphold the fact that once I was seated in my little circle corner, I was most pious and well-behaved. Now, I did often stare at the paintings on the wall. My first Sunday School classroom was in the church which was no bigger than a minute on a street in our town’s historic district. The rooms were very small, and this is the church where my Bible-throw-downs took place. But, my Sunday School room had windows framed in dark brown wood and white-washed walls. I always liked sitting in the seat facing our teacher directly. She thought it was because I wanted to really be attentive to her, but in actuality, I loved gazing at the painting that hung on the wall behind her. It depicted a youthful Jesus amongst a flock of lambs in a pastoral setting. One lamb was in his arms, his face peering lovingly down at the gentle creature. This painting is the origin of my affection for laemmles I have felt all my life. So if anyone ever says paintings are unnecessary, just don’t believe it.

 

My little sister and I weren’t the only rebel children in our family when it came to church-going dos and don’ts. In my preteens, my older brother now had his “Green Bomb” 56 Chevy. My father would ask him to take one of us kids to church with him in his car. Big bro liked taking me. I think it’s because I never argued with any of his ulterior motives. I seem to recall several Sundays where we completely never even made it to church. He would turn around after the family was down the driveway, and say, “Wouldn’t you rather stay home and make Bisquick biscuits with me? We’ll eat them up all ourselves!” Of course I’d comply. Biscuits hot from the oven, with slathered butter and dribbled jam? Holy Moley they were good! We did this naughty detour, time and time again, and this might be where I further cemented my often times obdurate behavior. But, I must admit I took my “just desserts”. One of the reasons he liked staying home was for the express purpose of watching “Chiller” or “The Twilight Zone”. He seemed obsessed wth scary stuff. (Yet, he would insist I sit right next to him). He was the one with whom I watched “Hound of the Baskervilles” and a most memorable Hitchcock thriller,”The Birds”. I believe he is the one who forced me to endure “Psycho”. I close my eyes and tremble just conjuring up the look that kills made by those Anthony Perkins’s eyes. Well, truth be told, I to this day do not like watching fright movies. They flood my visual way too impressively and the sounds can be even scarier. If I read something terrifying, I can have control. I can snap the book shut and regroup. Sitting in front of a screen I can’t. Forever paying the price, unfortunately. Should have gone to church in the car with Dad!

 

I too am to blame for at least trying to play hooky from church. Our esteemed patriarch always came in our room early Sunday morning and would wake us in a sudden swish of movement. He did not beat around the bush. He would throw off our covers, blankets, sheet and all. Simultaneously he’d chime loudly: “Up and at ’em!” One time I would not budge, I kept grabbing for the blanket. I tried telling him my outfit had holes in it. He countered with: It’s good to be holy on Sunday!”. Of course he won dominion over that protest.

 

Our father was reared in the Midwest. He raised us exactly how his parents did. He knew having church in one’s life was wholesome and character building. But, I think he was even more attuned to his Bible teachings than our mom. Granted, she knew her Beatitudes as well. But, my father was the one who would ask if we had read our Bible this week. I might go looking for him in the evening and he would be upstairs in his bedroom chair under a lamp reading and studying. I know it was important to him because his pat answer to almost everything was: “If you can follow all of the 10 commandments, you are doing better than most people.” So, I studied those 10 commandments a lot. And even though much of the Bible is meant to be interpreted, I grew up and still take the Ten Commandments literally. How did I come to be so permanently affixed to this line of faith?

 

My dad. For a good many years, he was MY Sunday School teacher. I was assigned TO HIM. Just as if I were any child in my little class, he expected me to memorize and learn verses straight from the King James Bible and to learn what they meant. I did. I was scared to not do well for him. I knew it was very close to his heart. Dad would also invite us to take turns reading aloud. I learned a lot from performing my best for him. My father also was great at answering questions we would have and they were usually straightforward. From him, I learned the essentials and they still stick with me today.

 

It bothers me that Sunday School is not a huge thing anymore. When my own kids attended Sunday school, the simplicity had already changed. In present times, children might learn part of a verse or one message and then recreate an art project to remember it by- merely duplicating the teacher’s example.  Over time, will they remember that watered-down message? Sure, my sons loved learning this way and  were proud of their little masterpieces, but, it was a lot like regular school. If Sunday School remained focused on memorizing, reading and discussing the Bible, it might have brought better results than we witness today.  These adults now, most likely don’t have the verses safely tucked in their mental pocket. I do, and will pull them out to bring comfort and clarification whenever necessary. It just seems that my own children’s era of church going was less entrenched in the actual study of the Bible. Maybe this is where the fraying has begun. If you don’t have the words held in your heart, then how can you have an affinity for church? A recipe of duty, devotion, compliance, study, toil, angst and glee with a stirred-in sense of honor for something omniscient and loving is what worked for my generation. We need to somehow circle round back to how it was. If nothing else, the community felt safer because most youngsters knew right from wrong.

 

I am very grateful for the times in which I grew up. I thank my parents for accompanying us to church and being good examples themselves. I thank my public schools who thought nothing wrong of putting on Christmas Pageants and calling Spring Break Easter Break. Even in public classrooms our teachers let us have moments of silence when we could pray. The stories we read might have characters who went to church, because these stories were a mirrored reflection of what society was doing. I always knew there were many different faiths. I knew some peers who attended church on Saturdays not Sundays. I knew some churches varied in their idea of what God is. Never once did I feel it was inappropriate to talk about going to church. Never once did I think my church was better than another. We went because we were obedient. Our elders knew better. They had lived longer.

 

It is quite sad that the modern world has quite saliently advertised the ills of some of those who are in religious power. The result is widespread skepticism and utter dismay to the point that going to church must mean you are a “radical”. You must be close-minded. Worse yet, you must be gullible. You must be oblivious to the fact that churches are institutions who are siphoning your money and brainwashing your mental state. Ironically, churches that take on a psychological focus are more and more popular. Less and less God is in the sermon and more and more “taking care of Me”. These churches are usually immersed in contemporary music which easily draws the public in. Attendees may come in whatever garb they wish. Play clothes, jeans, t-shirts, sneakers, rumply just rolled out of bed looks does not matter. Attendance is all that matters. Is it? Really? I thought learning, giving and pushing oneself to know and do more is what’s important. I thought thanking God with respect-yes- in how to dress and act, I thought those things were paramount.

 

In a world where we have poverty and homelessness I believe we need a resurgence of teaching those same lessons taught in my youth. We need those Bible verses to remind us of what to do and think. We don’t really learn these things from feel-good it’s all about Me “sermons”. We improve the world by remembering to say and follow “The Golden Rule.”

 

I thank my parents for every Sunday they overlooked their stressful lives and took us without fail, to church. I thank my grandma for teaching me to wrap and twist-tie my tithe coins in a hanky. Every time we opened them up and meted out our coins in our Sunday School circle, it felt like we were truly giving to something. I thank my Grandma, too, for “showing us off” at her church, holding us with her suede-soft gloved hands and later driving us in our “Sunday Best” to her local grocery store. She always made certain that we all went to church and loved God.

 

Sunday School.

Where I first defied.

Then tested.

Then listened.

Then spoke. Then memorized, recited and read.

Then ruminated and spoke again, on a higher level.

 

Church, where I came to love God and pay tribute through not only proverb and verse, but also music and song. The enveloping organ chords and music literally shook my soul.  The meaningful lyrics were sung again and again, punctuated by gulps of emotion and are imprinted in my brain…even five decades later.

 

I wish we were still counting old lady hats and fondling our own lace gloves. I wish our legs were still dangling in chairs and pews, as our eyes catch the subtle yet wondrous spectacle before them–the dazzling sheen on our shiny shoes.

 

I hope more “lambs” come back to the fold and smile inwardly,

as they turn the rice paper paged Bible before them,

ready to make real the printed word.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walt Disney Hall Concert

 

I am no stranger to the Walt Disney Music Hall.

One of its fine features is the focal point in the main concert hall: the Pipe Organ. It looks like no other, and seems to resemble a splaying upwards of wooden French fries. They are the pipes and behind them are shuttered slats that are a system of horizontal and vertical valves that open and close, releasing magnificent sound. Only maestros should have the privilege of performing on this one of a kind organ. Today, Cameron Carpenter joined the ranks of esteemed organists who got the chance to fire-up the artistically designed bad boy brute of an organ….
The concert was set for 2 pm on Sunday and it was marvelous! It exceeded my expectations. It began with a composition by Christopher Cerrone, called: “The Insects Become Magnetic”. Evidently, it was the world premiere of this particular piece of music, which sounded very avant- garde to me. I did observe my sister’s knee was bouncing up and down about 55 beats per minute, just like she would do under the dining table when she wished she could be excused to go upstairs to study. My son, sitting on my right, slid into that “Hmm, cool,… something to dissect and categorize and analyze on various strata and levels. Yay! Caviar for my brain!” I couldn’t see my brother in law. He was sitting on the other side of my sister. But, I know he appreciates all kinds of music, too. We, the four of us were there, dutifully and anxiously taking in an afternoon of tantalization in tone and timbre.
First of all, I noticed the percussionists did many weird and wonderful things…I could have sworn there was a saw (hand saw for cutting down trees), only deduced by the sound that was presented. All the performers were doing things to their instruments in an unconventional way.. Most of the time. Very bizarre. The harpist’s harmonics could easily be seen being executed  and heard above the sometimes “brilliant din”, which is how I’d describe the encompassing symphonic sound. How busy and industrious the timpanist and the whole orchestra were! I whispered an aside to my son, saying, “I bet the musicians, including that timpanist, are having fun playing this composition!”  The bold bowing of the bass viols marched a demonstrative legion in unison and strength. (Locusts, perhaps?) The violas kind of mirrored them.(high pitched droning cicadas?) The violins used the tips of their bows a lot; creating a strangely at odds calm vs tedium mood. The cellos were the “meadow” of this musical depiction, providing a groundwork from which delightful, auditory discoveries would spring via the array of brass using giant mutes. (I was afraid someone would drop one of those silvery mutes, as they slid them into the bell of their tuba, baritone, or horn) and eventually slide them out again.) Lest I forget, I must mention those sneaky, persnickety oboes needling their way into this musical foray. Decidedly, I need to hear this composition again, because I spent the first half of the piece trying to figure out where the different sounds came from! As an overall afterthought I’d say the world premiere was rather fraught with frenzied alliteration, if that is possible in music… As I described, different groupings of instruments would echo the outcries of others. Most assuredly, it was a near visual of frenetic wings in flight, incessant buzzing, hovering notes that truly had no real melody line, only redundant intonation; which almost became too much to bear! I did like it, but I was hopeful for relief in sight toward the end. A truly modern expression, this is for sure!
Then, Mr. Carpenter stepped out all tall and young and rather a mystery. He received applause, and my expectation hung suspended for a moment because I was miffed that Carpenter did not play on the Disney Hall organ for the Poulenc composition. Instead, the stage hands rolled out his Traveling Digital Organ, which I read, has had additional, unique sounds built into it per his request. It was brought out and placed in front of the violas, a little to the left side of the stage.  We could see his footwork and all the fingering and action with his hands. Quite striking! My sister later commented that she was impressed by the pedal footwork Carpenter did. His agility and command rather boggled her mind…and of course she would notice this, being a ballerina herself, for 12 years. Cameron Carpenter and the Philharmonic were performing Poulenc’s “Concerto in G for Organ, Strings, and Timpani”. It was a resolution for our ears, to hear something that “spoke in sentences with anticipated conclusion.” I did especially enjoy the “andante” part of the Poulenc piece. The rousing last movement was also deserving of a very grateful, GREAT applause. Mr. Carpenter returned for two deep bows in his midnight blue suit that made him look debonaire and quite slender. As the applause resounded, he humbly put his palms together as if he were in prayer, and gave a very generous, slow and low bow. 
 
After receiving his thunderous applause, he came back to play a piece not on the program. It sounded like “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”, but, I wasn’t sure. It seemed not as long as the “Toccata” I knew. Possibly, it was, and he just cut out some of the variations. I remember thinking, “Can one DO that to Bach? Oh my!”. In any case, I’d stake my last meal it was a Bach piece. Later, I learned it was Bach’s “Little Fugue in G”. Well, it showed off his flying fingers which at one point I thought flew off his wrists and tumbled onto the floor. His roaming feet however remained intact. From that display of showmanship he earned a three times call back for another bow-seeking standing ovation. You really have to see him in person. Have you? 
 
After the necessary intermission, came the Saint-Saens.The Philharmonic performed “Symphony No.3 in C minor, Op. 78.”  Well, I LOVED this piece! I can’t say anything specific other than when the patrons returned to their seats, the digital organ of Carpenter’s was gone from the stage. Up above the trombones and to the right of the timpanist was an organ console that manipulated the pipes and their valve slats of the famed Disney organ! At first CC was just sitting quietly content as “a peach in a basket”, and I didn’t even know what the wooden console was, because this time he was facing the main audience. Mind you, in the hall there is seating right under the pipe organ facing from above and behind the orchestra. I don’t think I would enjoy those seats. Half of the experience for me, is watching the performers show off their talent. Though, I suppose placing the console in this position gave that audience on the opposite end of the hall under the hall’s pipe organ, a chance to look down and see Carpenter do his magnificent keyboarding and pedal work.
 
I did not even realize the pipe organ was going to play, but, as Cameron Carpenter sat there so still, along with his comrades primed and ready for creative purpose, slowly an ever subtle organ line thread itself to the surface of the music. This went on for quite awhile, and then it seemed the strings and brass had their limelight in the telling of story. While being lulled by their gentle, quieted message, I felt a vibration in my seat. At first I thought, “Oh no, not an earthquake!” My sister didn’t flinch. Nor my son. He was hunkered down in pensive perusal of the music, and she was sitting leaning onto her husband’s shoulder with her knee still trembling now and then. She looked calm though. I decided to “let it go.”
 
Surprisingly, there was that vibration again! Next thing I knew, as the music played on, the vibration was manifest with a very baritone note that increased in decibels until OBVIOUSLY the pipe organ had “woken up!”. Now, I saw the valves open like shuttered slats horizontal and vertical, and the teal blue glow from behind was quite dramatic. I looked at the console and saw that Carpenter was indeed playing: I only knew by the sway of his shoulder from side to side in expression with the melody. Awesome!!! WOW, this was thrilling! More bold vibrating notes that your body didn’t just hear but FELT through to the bone. I thought bagpipes could stir the soul…well, no, not even in the same “vicinity” as the pipe organ! Now granted, I have heard many a pipe organ, but THIS was a pipe organ! No— it was like a mighty BEAST! Even though CC wasn’t situated up inside it, as Disney designed the organ seat to be, his console had to be connected to it and it just was an experience, I can tell you! The music was unique and riveting. Two good words: I believe. 
 
Finally, after I knew who was doing what, and my ear noted a closer to more conventional notation  start to emerge out of the behemoth beastly led first movement, I figuratively “leaned back” to match my actual sitting. Allowing the music to flow, I didn’t take stock any longer in who was doing what. I honestly don’t remember the main motif at this moment, however, I did know (I remembered) how it went when the theme first started to be introduced in the symphonic work. Excitedly, I mentally sailed back through time to Pepperdine University, to my little soundproof room in the Payson Library listening to a classical piece on the tape recorder. If only that professor knew how invaluable it was to teach us to recognize such things by ear as it was one of the greatest gifts I received in my collegiate education. Well, I “knew it” and it felt as familiar as a beloved sweater in which to envelope myself. I truly smiled inside as each movement was told via my much beloved chromaticism, especially dark, rich, depth reaching chromaticism. I am a sucker for that! How come? Do you think because my Uncle started me on the family organ when I was a youngster? Perhaps.
There were strains ethereal as well; so much so, that my eyes felt compelled to open and gaze upward at the curved beams covering the ceiling overhead. For the first time after all my many visits, I decided they looked like ruffling pages of music notation. This is because the warm colored wood has little round holes in it housing lights shining down to iluminate the floor. You mostly don’t see the bulbs, just the black round music note-like holes sporadically carved into the “bulging aloft on a breeze” bent wood beams. When I had that epiphany of what they looked like, tears effusive, came to awash me in sheer happiness and peace…it indeed felt as if I were sailing on an ocean. Quite serene, I tell you. Quite serene. Heaven bound, for sure. 
 
Well, the symphony ended quite dramatically, and the conductor, Roderick Cox had had his dance on the podium. He wasn’t “my Dudamel”, but that’s okay, he engaged the musicians with similar gusto and fearless frenzy even…but uniquely him, quite proper, too! I believe this was his Southern California debut. I was impressed. Most salient learned thing about him? He undoubtedly LOVES music. Ka Ching! High Marks from Julianne!
 
Thus, that was the 2 pm concert in Los Angeles at the Disney Hall, November 18, 2018. I shall not forget.
 

Sonny and Cher & “I’ve Got You Babe”

One day, while scrolling through Facebook’s newsfeed, I came across a very vintage video, all black and white, of Cher and her trusty companion, Sonny. She is wearing a sparkly pantsuit, silhouetted with bell bottoms, and a simple sleeveless shift top. One half of her outfit is black, and the other half is white. To top off the interesting “look”, she is wearing bauble earrings of generous size, that are plain half black and half white globes, split horizontally right around the middle. Her signature sleek, long black hair with bangs mirrors her signature sway in time to the rhythm of the song. Sonny, steps up onto the small platform stage beside her, in blatant black and white checkered pants, wide leather belt, and a funky floral black and white shirt. The presumed odd contrast of design works surprisingly well to pull off a “nerdy-cool” ensemble for him. He of course, has his bowl haircut without one piece of hair out of place. In fact, he looks adoringly into Cher’s eyes and notices one teensy hair caught in her thick eyelashes. With a loving boyfriend-like sweep of his fingers, he brushes it away, she not flinching for one second. The song they are singing is “I’ve Got You Babe”.

Indeed he does. She does too.

The simplicity of this song video actually speaks volumes. It tells me, that the two of them know who they are. A duo. A team. A union. And each one is unique to the other. I think the wearing of black and white reiterated this fact. Not because one is female and the other male. No, its because Cher was and still is, the epitome of svelte, chic and cool all in one. Being very statuesque, with elegant, elongated features, her hair, her bangs, her eyelashes, her nose, her long torso on a set of “must be a mile long” legs. And as she sings, her body is a modest, yet totally engaged continuance of movement, flowing and accentuating the drive of the beat. She even improvises an “air tambourine” with her slender, long fingered hand. Sonny, on the other hand, is shorter, maybe somewhat stocky, perhaps not, it is hard to tell by the voluminous pants and shirt. Making out any kind of physique is impossible, so what one learns to visually cherish are his expressive eyes, sly smirk and exuberant body language. Clearly he loves this woman beside him, and looks up to her, figuratively and realistically. Where she is somewhat reserved in her singing at first, he comes on strong and nearly boastful. His demeanor is without thought to pose or style, he just portrays himself, in the now, being in love. Hence the black and white. Two very different auras, but both a fine melding at the seam or line of meeting.

What I become enamored with, is the chemistry that flows across that line of demarcation. As they sing their loving song to one another, messages volly back and forth, telling of complete respect, gratitude and promise. That’s right, as their modern-day (1960’s) musical sonnet spills spontaneously; its apparent they are obviously making overtures to one another. It is a blatant, unabashed pledge to give, to care for and never take for granted the other partner in this fantastic twosome. They are singing a ballad, each the minstrel and the recipient. It’s a genuine, beautiful thing to hear and behold.

It is also atypical.

Today’s music seems rife with so many negatives. When did disgruntlement become cool? Lyric after lyric is a pondering of the unsavories in life. The words of today seem hell-bent on parlaying what is discordant. I suppose composers feel if they are in a state of angst, they must be intellectual. Thus, all we tend to hear is accounting after accounting of what brings dismay, shame, worry, failure, trouble, poverty, contamination, distress, ill-will, ignorance, thoughtlessness, irresponsibility, fretfulness, disease, crime, irony, and ill-fated outcome. Of course these things do exist, and ever so more today than before, perhaps. But, is it the answer to have music become the posterboard for pessimistic opinion and incendiary activism?

I suppose if some of the music out there waved these banners, that is alright; after all art is meant to reflect life. But, in truth, today’s world does have some pretty fine things to sing about! Beauty does abound! Love can be found down every corridor and in every niche on this earth. Why not allow the music industry the opportunity to capitalize on optimism? We know when thinking positively, circumstances do proceed better. I don’t quite know how, but they do. Why not send a salient shout out to the composers of our time, that we are ready to see the light, the sweet, and the pure; for indeed, they do exist!

The love ballad of Sonny and Cher, proclaiming their lucky stars they have each other is a far more wholesome way to deal with being human, in my opinion. It’s not because they both donned rose-colored glasses. It’s because they made their choice to focus on good. Youth take the meaning of lyrics seriously. They hang onto every word. If all that they read is an overwhelming truckload of doom and gloom, then is it any wonder that we have children bullying their peers, feeling suicidal or teenagers shooting children in their schools? I believe the time is now to switch gears and change the degradation and the proclaiming of ruination. Do not most of us still have our spiritual belief systems and our Higher Power to whom we intrinsically entrust our lives daily? Are there not such things as dreams, wishes and hope? Why do the lyrics of today dash these to the side as if they are no longer important?

This is critical.

Once and for all, only “seeing” the downfallen and writing of how the world is full of suffering is not in any way, shape or form a productive approach to bringing music to our planet. Our continued widespread use of music for politically charged or extremely morose themes could prove to be dangerous, and even frighteningly cataclysmic. People need to be reminded where there is yin there is yang! Each coin has a flip side. Behind the dark cloud there is the Sun. Why constantly dwell on what is wrong, when indeed, there is a Wealth of Wonderful out there, right now, needing to be expounded upon? People need peace in their pockets and hope in their heart. There’s a lovely, grand world out there to discover and explore musically.

Sonny and Cher sang of appreciation for another human being. What might happen to this rather “insecure at the moment” realm in which we live, if it were to mostly hear songs of the kind-hearted, uplifting theme? I would like to think it could change lives. It could save lives. It could even save our society.

What else would be more “cool” than that?

To all the songwriters and musicians out there. Don’t stop championing your causes. They are significant. They are dire. Of course. But, please, find it within the deepest recesses of your soul, to extrapolate the impetus to also write of what is truly fine. Please be a beacon of all that deserves to be lauded, praised, detailed, treasured and esteemed. There’s plenty of material to write about. It’s all around, we just have gotten so used to zooming in on the bad. Songwriters, your pen is definitely a mighty sword. Your choice of words can instigate sharing, applauding, encouraging, and expanding positivity in our midst. Grab a “brush” and “paint” your lyrical canvas with words that generate warmth, healing, love and enlightenment. Free yourselves from the tyranny of the downtrodden. There are far more inspiring sagas to tell in song. Be a modern-day balladeer! Write odes to Love, for Love is everywhere. Find it, and write about it. We know there are beautiful moments happening every day. Make them known! Change the destructive attitude with your intuitive, written voice. You will be heard, and life will gradually become a better, happier place. We need you, the time is now. Sonny had Cher, and Cher had Sonny.

Who will you be there for?