Stickers

By Maarten van Swaay

More and more the world tries to leave me out of breath.  First it was
cursive writing, then keyboards. Now even words appear in danger of being
‘thrown under the bus’ – a graphic metaphor that seems to have displaced
mere description.  On June 12, the Wall Street Journal ran an ‘a-hed’ piece
on the popularity of ‘stickers’ - not merely the sticky things one used to
find on the work of grade-schoolers, but now also little images that have
found their way onto smart phones.

The a-hed is a long-running feature of WSJ that flies in the face of
its reputation as a stodgy business publication.  It has always been
on the front page, where it got its name from its heading that was offset
by a pattern that could be read as an ‘A’.  On most days the topic is
a bit whimsical, including such things as traffic signs for frog crossings.

Not long ago I wrote about an ‘app’ – ‘application’ apparently is too long
a word for today’s time-pressed thumbers – that attempts to replace an
entire keyboard with just four pads on the screen.  Now even those four
pads may be pushed aside by some whimsically selected ‘sticker’, e.g.,
a wombat or a cute – or not-so-cute – bunny.  What those mean, or should
mean, is anybody’s guess;  maybe we should see them as the ultimate
inside joke.  But if the purpose of language is the sharing of thought,
then an inside joke would be a very poor substitute.  Granted, some popular
forms of ‘language’ do not carry much information either: “So I go, like,
you-know-what-I-mean”.  One would hope that the listener is gulled into
believing he knows:  if he were to ask, the speaker might quite possibly
stand mute, or sound like a howler monkey.   Duhhhh  -:)

sticker blog 2

Tagged , ,

Ditch the Keyboard?

By Maarten van Swaay

Not long ago I wrote about a trend to remove longhand writing from the curriculum in grade schools, and to replace it with ‘keyboarding’. Change now appears to come faster than I can follow:  on March 14 I came across an article under the title “Smartphones are reinventing – and ditching – the keyboard“. 

Granted, phones were initially intended for speech;  in their antique days they came with rotary dials, and later with a small set of numerical keys.  As ambitions grew, the phones had to become smaller, yet they had to provide space for a growing set of keys.  Then the phones became so ambitious that they gave rise to the joke:  “you mean it can make phone calls too?”  Today’s phones would put a computer of even a decade ago to shame, with a built-in camera, storage for address lists and pictures, games to keep their owners entertained, and access to the internet, to video, and  to email.  But we have not yet grown ‘micro-fingers’ with which to manipulate either real or simulated keyboards. 

samsung smartphone

That drives the latest developments:  attempts to shrink the traditional keyboard with its 50-odd keys into something with as few as four ‘keys’. Those of course should no longer be called keys;  one might call them ‘joy-pads’ as a takeoff from ‘joystick’.  But how could one produce ‘written’ text with so few things to touch? 

It appears that what we write is rarely as unpredictable as it seems, and some inspection confirms that written text is indeed quite redundant. How else would it be possible to detect typo’s?  Yet there is a big difference between detecting a typo, and predicting what the next letter, let alone the next word, should be.  But prediction is precisely what these ‘smart keyboards’ attempt to rely on for what they attempt to do. 

In the days when ‘the computer’ on a campus filled a large locked room and was surrounded by a priesthood of people tending to it, students complained about being forced to use a ‘student compiler’ for their work, instead of the ‘production compiler’ that the insiders could use.  As you may know, people speak a language very different from what tells computers what to do.  So programmers write in a ‘source language’ that serves human needs, and an associated compiler then translates that source language into the binary form that computers can handle.  Compilers also do much proofreading;  they verify that the source text abides by all the rules of the programming language, and they are quite unforgiving, for good reason. 

The difference between the two types of compiler does not lie in their quality; it reflects differences in what they were designed to do.  A student compiler, more properly called a development compiler, will not dismiss a submitted program on detecting the first error; it will attempt to do a ‘standard fixup’ so that it can continue to read the rest of the code, and return a list of errors, rather than just the first one. 

For a production compiler it would be anathema to attempt any ‘fixup': that would give the compiler authority to guess at the thoughts of the programmer.  A production compiler differs from a development compiler in other ways as well, but those need not concern us here.  Almost all development compilers are much faster than production compilers, to the great advantage of harried students on a deadline. 

The idea that a piece of software can anticipate what we want to type should give us pause:  who does the thinking?  Granted:  what we wish to type may often be predictable, but only when we are typing something prosaic.  A deep and informative thought must by its very nature be unexpected and therefore unpredictable.  That makes the idea of ‘anticipatory keyboards’ worrisome, if not outright silly. 

Many years ago I encountered a simple example of what this anticipation can lead to.  I was writing a presentation about ‘progress’, which one hopes can be used to advantage, but which can also be subverted into mischief.  Plato’s Phaedros contains a story in which god of invention Theuth introduces king Thamus to writing.  Thamus protests, arguing that the written word may replace memory with recollection and thereby give people a false sense of knowledge. I wondered whether Encarta – the digital dictionary available from Microsoft – would have an entry for ‘Thamus’.  That proved to be revealing:  Encarta insisted that I should have asked for ‘Thames’ and proceeded to display a story about a river through London.  Encarta refused to admit that it had no entry for ‘Thamus’.  Google knows better, and does return a large number of links to ‘Thamus’ ….  One can find a short vignette of the encounter in the book “Technopoly” by Neil Postman. 

Far more recently I received an email message from one of my grandchildren with a glaring hiccup in the form of “it’s” that should have been “its”. I stood ready to have some fun with this teacher of English, until I learned that many ‘smart-phones’ are conceited enough to mishandle the apostrophe on a grand scale, and are quite resistant to correction. 

So much about the vaunted ‘smart keyboards’!  As long as I can think my own words, I also want to write them as I want them.

Tagged , , , , , ,

Longhand Lament…

By Maarten van Swaay 

On January 31 a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal addressed a growing trend to dispense with the teaching of cursive script in grade schools.  Not surprisingly, many students were found to be in favor of the idea.  One might ask whether those students are qualified to make the assessment.  After all, they are in the early stage of what is still an established tradition:  a dozen years of education and training that is part of ‘growing up’. 

cursive-vs-keyboarding

Those who can write in both cursive and block letters will readily confirm that cursive writing is much faster than block printing; maybe as much as three times as fast.  Depriving children of the skill of cursive writing will confine them to a life of low-speed writing.  Or will it?  The ‘experts’ advocating removal of cursive writing propose to replace it with keyboard competence.  There is little doubt that keyboards have become essential tools in today’s culture; without them books and newspapers would become prohibitively expensive to produce.  Competence on a keyboard does not take more than maybe 20 hours of practice, and it hardly requires any explanation at all.  Why then should ‘keyboarding’ become a required part of a school curriculum?  Do schools need to teach how teeth are brushed? 

Yet even keyboards appear to become an endangered species.  Not so long ago, the Apple iPad, and then other tablet computers, spread over the world like a tsunami, and understandably so:  they offer most of the functions of the ubiquitous personal computer in a compact and lightweight package.  But anybody who ever tried to type more than an address line or brief email on a touch screen will admit that he would never write a novel on it.  Its simulated keyboard does allow selection – ‘input’ – of the signals associated with keystrokes, but it is a very unfriendly interface for human fingers.  Does the popularity of tablet computers reflect the vanishing need – and skill – of writing? 

We have long acquiesced to the idea that activities such as the design and production of cars, computers and airplanes are delegated to a small subset of people who use tools that are not even known to most of us.  But communication without writing is unthinkable, and quite possibly so is thinking without writing.  How might one evaluate whether some thought stands up to scrutiny, if not by first capturing that thought in words, and then staring at those words as they are written on paper?  It is ironic that in our ‘age of communication’ we now appear ready to dismiss one of the most fundamental tools of communication as archaic. 

Thoughts do not come on schedule, nor only when a keyboard – or its awkward virtual equivalent – is at hand.  Should we then declare thought off-limits at other times?  It smacks of the grade-schooler who explains that he cannot brush his teeth because the power is off. 

The proposed dismissal of cursive writing will not eliminate all hand-writing. But it will deprive future generations of the skill to produce ‘running script’ – and its associated ‘flowing thought’.  We should be careful about what we ask:  our wish may be granted … to our chagrin.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Growing up on skates

By Maarten van Swaay 

The Netherlands offers an opportunity found in few other places:  much of the country can be reached and traversed on water.  That invites barge traffic, and in earlier days public transport by ‘trekschuit’ – horse-drawn boat, and it is appealing for water sports in the summer and skating in the winter.  One can sail for weeks, and skate for a day and more, without coming to any place twice.  Along some of the smaller waterways one can still find a ‘jaagpad’ – tow path – that served as a trail for horses, or even men, to tow boats along the waterway.  Such a waterway might also be called a ‘trekvaart’ – towing canal.  On a much larger scale one can still find this mechanism in use in, e.g., the Panama Canal. 

From our house in Scheveningen I could skate to school more than once.  When winter weather allows it, barge traffic in Holland may sometimes be curtailed to allow canals to freeze smoothly, and skating tours are organized in many places.  Those range from as little as 10 miles to maybe 60 miles, with the ‘Elf-Steden Tocht’ of 120 miles by far the most famous. 

No surprise, then, that I grew up in intimate contact with water, as did our children later on. 

Our oldest daughter Aagje made friends with skates well before she was old enough for kindergarten.  Close by our house in Oegstgeest was a small pond where we would feed the ducks in summer, and where children would slide on the ice in winter.  The Dutch have long used wooden skates; of course those do have steel blades, but they are mounted on a very simple wooden platform that can be strapped to almost any shoe.  That makes them ideal for children:  they are low on the ice, and can be used far longer than the shoes that children outgrow in months. 

Dutch wooden ice skates

Dutch wooden ice skates

When Aagje got her first pair of skates she was still much attached to a doll, which she would take everywhere in a toy carriage. Just what she could use to venture out on the ice:  the doll drew her attention, and the carriage gave some small but essential support.  Off she went, walking her doll on the ice … As the oldest one, Aagje had no example to follow.  But the others did. After watching Aagje conquer her fist scooter – with anxious help from running parents – Marianne one day just grabbed Aagje’s scooter and rode off on it.  That is also how Marianne learned to skate. 

Our two boys were not quite that lucky; by the time Hein was ready for skates we had moved to Aalst (NB), in a drier part of the country. Jouke was not yet one year old when we moved to Manhattan, KS. 

Manhattan has two nice and tempting lakes nearby: Pottowatomy State Lake is sheltered and relatively small, and most years it would have enough ice to skate on.  Much larger Tuttle Creek Lake is more challenging; its shape is open to winter’s North winds.  But some of its coves would freeze up more often, in particular the Spillway Cove that was also home to the Blue Valley Yacht Club where we did our summer sailing.  That Club has since moved across the lake to Tuttle Cove. 

Aagje with au-pair Marleen Kwant Spillway Cove, winter 1964/5

When we arrived in Manhattan in 1963, Tuttle Creek Lake had just been completed, and the Army Corps of Engineers was much concerned about liability for accidents on the lake.  For maybe as long as a decade, the local newspaper would have scare stories every winter about the dangers of ice on the lake. That may have been understandable:  the Corps had little say over what one might do on the ice, but could well be exposed to claims from people who caused their own mishaps.  State Lake appeared to escape those politics; I don’t recall stories about that lake. 

Having grown up on water and on ice I felt at home on it; for many years I would explore the ice on State Lake, and when it had thickened to about three inches I would skate around to find and mark thin areas.  After that came the fun of ice parties and miles of skating.  The Frisian skates do not lend themselves to such things as ice hockey or ice dancing; they are designed for distance.  One turn around State Lake would be about a mile, and we would often do more than a few of those in an afternoon. Dutch skates – all with wooden frames – come in several types, named by the region in which they are popular.  Those from Friesland – the Frisian skates – have blades that resemble those of racing skates. 

Skates do lose their edge; when they do, they are worse than a walk on ball bearings.  In Holland, bicycle shops would sharpen skates, or at least claim that they could.  But often it was a crude job that left the skates with a burr that caused a major drag.  One would have to endure the agony of ‘skating the burr off';  it could take as long as a day. 

Skates in a sharpening jig

With many pairs of skates to maintain I learned to sharpen them myself, and without leaving any burrs.  Distance skates have to be almost straight, with only a slight curvature of not more than 1/32 inch over the length of the skate.  And that curve has to be smooth:  the skates must not ‘rattle’ when they are rocked against each other.  When sharpened properly, they make strokes of 100 ft. and more possible. 

The allure of intimate State Lake could not compete against the temptation of Tuttle Creek, with its 12-mile stretch of mile-wide ice.  It would not be every year, but in the years Tuttle Creek froze and stayed free of snow, its ice was irresistible.  Word of its glory spread, and pretty soon we started getting questions about Frisian skates.  Over the years, we probably imported 50 or more pairs for our friends, often with requests to have them shipped by airmail.  Eventually we had enough skates from our own needs to pass one pair to each of our 10 grandchildren, with several pairs left over.  Admittedly, those are more likely to hang on a chimney than to glide on ice; our grandchildren did not grow up near water. 

At the time, there were no cell phones, and no phone booths near the ice either.  It took some cleverness to get to Tuttle Creek at one end, and arrange for pickup some hours later at the other end.  Somehow, it always seemed to work.  Making a round trip on ice was not so easy; it would entail a head wind for one leg.  But I did it at least once, with our two boys, who cannot have been older than 10 at the time.  One-way trips came more often, usually with a handful of friends who were curious about the experience, and ambitious to try.  The experience is indeed impressive, especially in an area that has no waterways.  Toward sundown the lake becomes awesome, not only for the gorgeous light, but for the booming of the ice.  As the temperature falls, the ice begins to shrink, and the large expanse of a lake will force the ice to crack.  Once such a crack forms, it may travel for a mile or more at very high speed, producing a boom as loud as heavy artillery, and reverberating over the surface of the ice.  That may sound scary, but it reveals that the ice is strong and safe. 

At Tuttle Creek the cracks tended to run across the lake, and we would have to cross them on a trip from dam to bridge.  Not surprisingly, those cracks had a tendency to widen as their edges rubbed and crashed into each other.We would look for a place where the floes had refrozen together, and usually found such places without much trouble.  But we did always carry a rescue rope, as well as repair parts for the skates.  None of the children ever got even as much as a wet foot on a crack, but I did – once.  It was a cold skate for a few miles to our pickup point…  Our youngest son Jouke was with me at the time; he quite laconically noted that he ‘should find a better spot to cross’.  And he did. 

One winter we had a half-grown Labrador Retriever, and took him with us on the ice.  Upwind he had no trouble keeping up with us, but downwind we outskated him.  Rather than waiting for him I tried whether he would ride in my backpack.  It must have made an interesting sight, with the face of 40 lbs of dog sticking out above my head.  He did have the ride of his life, but made it quite clear that in his mind humans had no business walking on water.  On later skating trips he usually chose to stay on shore; to show his disapproval he took my shoes and skate protectors off the ice on one occasion, and parked them underneath our car. 

Well before the lake itself had enough ice, various coves would freeze thick enough to allow more casual parties.  Spillway Cove with the docks of the yacht club was a popular place.  We established a Dutch tradition there:  pea soup on the ice.  Farmers in Holland would often put up small wind shelters where they offered hot chocolate, hot aniseed milk, pea soup, and a traditional ‘gevulde koek’ – filled with almond paste – that they would peddle to skaters coming by.  We set out to do something like it at Spillway Cove, with a large pot of pea soup that can almost be eaten with a fork.  But access to the yacht club dock ran via a long set of stairs, awkward to negotiate – several times – with a kettle of soup and lots of other things to go with it.  I drove our VW bus off the ramp and across the ice to the yacht club dock.  Skaters scattered like rabbits from a coyote.  But the smell of the soup brought them all back. 

By the time Jouke had his 10th birthday our ambitions had grown, and we bought a house in Breckenridge, CO.  With that, our ‘winter fix’ changed from skating to skiing.  But after we sold that house some 25 years later we went back to skating, not as fanatically as before, but still with much pleasure and satisfaction, almost to the time when we moved to Village Shalom.  I did give my skates away at that time.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Celebrating Millie

On November 15 Millie Reichelt reached an important and notable milestone in her life when she celebrated her 100th birthday.  When asked how old she was going to be, Millie displayed her wonderful sense of humor when she replied “Sweet Sixteen!”  She considers herself blessed, having enjoyed a good and healthy life. 

She has borne her years gracefully, continuing to pursue an active lifestyle.  Any activity will find Millie ready to participate.  She especially enjoys bingo and pokeno, and is an accomplished artist. Shabbat services, excursions to places like the Johnson County Arboretum, happy hours, movies, cooking, exercise sessions — they all find her an active participant. 

Millie was born and raised in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn.  She has an older sister who lives in California, and had two brothers.  Her parents owned and operated a laundry business which specialized in linens and draperies — all done meticulously by hand.  At a young age, Millie showed her natural talent for numbers when she served as bookkeeper for her parents.  She also enjoyed helping her father deliver their customers’ laundry. 

After graduating from high school, where she was an honor student, Millie attended business school, learning typing and shorthand.  She loved to dance, and went every Saturday and Sunday to Danceland.

She especially liked the waltz, fox trot and Charleston.  She also enjoyed going to famous theatres, such as the Roxy and Paramount, where she saw performances by some of the biggest names of the day: Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra and Milton Berle. 

Millie worked as a cashier in a restaurant where she met and dated her future husband, Ben Zedek.  They lived next to Prospect Park where she was a full-time Mother to their son Michael, whom she said was a very good boy and easy to raise.  Millie was a good cook and loved to read. She learned to drive in her late 40s.  In 1964, while Michael was in college, Millie’s husband Ben passed away.  Afterwards, she was hired as a cashier at National Commercial Bank.  She was very conscientious, always making sure that all the numbers were correct. Sometime after her first husband passed away, Millie was remarried to Herman Reichelt and they lived in Albany, New York. 

Millie celebrating her son Michael’s (center) bar mitzvah with her first husband Ben Zedek (left)

In Albany, Millie was very involved in the sisterhood at her Synagogue.  She was an active volunteer, and was an especially proficient fund-raiser.  She ran bingo games and was active in the production of the annual sisterhood musical production.  She also volunteered at a nursing home in Troy, New York where her mother-in-law lived.  One of the residents was the mother of Kirk Douglas.  He used to visit her there and built a wing onto the nursing home. 

Millie’s son, Michael, became a Rabbi and was chosen Senior Rabbi at Temple Congregation B’nai Jehudah in 1974.  After Herman Reichelt died, Millie moved to Overland Park where she lived at The Atriums.  In 2001, she moved to Village Shalom.  Millie is especially proud of her family, her son, Michael, and his wife, Karen, her two granddaughters, Betsy (her husband Jeremy) and Susan (husband Joe and two great grandchildren, Sam and Julia). 

This blog was written with the help of Betty Stern and Mary Anne Reardon

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Moonlighting as the Hat-Check Girl at Yankee Stadium

By Mary Anne Reardon

Growing up in Indiana I somehow became an avid fan of the New York Yankees.  Upon graduation from college my immediate goal was to become a working girl in New York.  By mid-June I had stashed everything I thought I couldn’t live without into an overseas trunk and boarded a train eastward.  The previous summer I had gone to summer school at Fordham University, so I already had arranged a place to live – convenient to Yankee Stadium, of course.
 
By pure luck I was hired by  the New York Life Insurance Co.  There I got to know a woman whose husband was an usher at Yankee Stadium.  Better yet – he worked in the mezzanine box seats section located behind the Yankee broadcasters, Mel Allen and Phil Rizzuto. In those days ushers not only showed season ticket holders to their seats – they cleaned them as well. My friend told her husband about the Hoosier Yankee fan who attended all the home games.  At every game there were always a few season ticket holders whose seats were not used and I was told that they would be happy to let me use one of these choice seats. 
 
Mel Allen, the renowned Yankee broadcaster, had a secretary, Tilly.  By the 5th inning she had finished her work and came out to see the rest of the game.  I was introduced to her and she invited me to join her in the Yankee box which hung down from the mezzanine at 3rd base.  From this excellent vantage point one got a whole new perspective on the game.  As a result of this remarkable string of fortuitous circumstances I enjoyed a fantastic summer.
 
Come September it was time for the World Series.  Play-off games didn’t begin until 1969. This year the Yankees would be playing the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Tilly introduced me to Mel Allen who graciously gave me a pair of tickets for each game.  I could hardly believe my good luck.  The seats were excellent – in the lower deck between home plate and 3rd base.
 

The 1960 World Series at Yankee Stadium. The bottom arrow points to the seats given to me by Mel Allen. The top arrow points to the Yankee box where I watched many games with Mel’s secretary, Tilly.

I will never forget the excitement of this World Series, heightened by sitting so close to the action.  Unfortunately the Pirates won the Series, 4 games to 3. 
 
The Yankees had a Stadium Club for season ticket holders.  At that time there there were still venerable fans who came to the game in somewhat formal wear including hats – something now long in the past. Back then day games and Sunday double headers were the norm.  Many season ticket holders would have lunch in the Stadium Club before the game.
 
On Opening Day of the next season the girl who checked hats in the Stadium Club was ill and I was asked to take her place.  It sounded easy enough – take someone’s hat and give them a claim check.  So I agreed to do it.  Opening day brought the season ticket holders to the Club in force – most with hats to check. Quickly I found out that the job wasn’t as simple as it had seemed. Overwhelmed by the number of hats to be checked, I tried not to look at the growing crowd, all of whom probably wondered why I was so slow. 
 
The really serious problem began when it was almost time for the game to begin and everyone seemed to want their hats at once.  Trying to match several claim checks at a time with hats on three walls completely defeated me. The frustrated owners of the hats kept trying to point them  out.  Finally losing patience, a few of them burst into the room and did my job for me.  I was quite surprised and rather embarrassed when, after retrieving their own hats, they left a tip. When the majority of the hats had been claimed I regained control of the situation and hoped that those in charge of the Club were too busy to notice the fiasco I had created. 
 
Apparently no one complained.  During the following months I was asked to fill in a few more times – luckily on days when far fewer season ticket holders came to the Club.  Although never proficient, I managed to do the job with a reasonable degree of efficiency.
 
After going to most home games over the greater part of two seasons, the initial excitement wore off. New York offered so many exciting things to do that I soon found myself discovering places I would rather go.  The area of the Bronx where I lived was deteriorating so I decided to move to Queens where a World’s Fair was held in 1962.  Access to Yankee Stadium was not so easy from there and I went to few games. By 1964 I tired of living in New York and moved to Washington D.C.
 
This year, when the Yankees are playing Baltimore in the post season, I find myself rooting for Baltimore.  I suppose I should have labeled myself a rather fickle avid fan.
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

My Life

By Lois Singer

My early childhood was uneventful.  As the middle child in a typical American urban family, I was pretty much left on my own to play (outdoors or indoors) as the weather dictated. My sister was five years older and my brother was six years younger, so there was no common meeting ground.  Later, as adults, we grew to be best friends.

When I was six years old my father, who was 35 at the time, had a fatal heart attack.  The year was 1936.  In those days there was very little help (actually almost none) for widows to earn a living.  We were in the middle of a depression and it was before most women were working outside of the home. My mother, who had only a sixth grade education, had to be the wage earner for a family that consisted of her elderly parents, her cousin (whose parents were deaf-mutes), her three children and herself. She managed to get hired at a ladies store at 12th and Walnut at the enormous salary of $19.00 a week.  Somehow we managed.  To this day I don’t know how.

World War II broke out on December 7, 1941, and men were drafted or enlisted in one of the armies.  This resulted in women beginning to enter the job market as jobs opened up to do what the men had been doing.  My mother was able to get a better job making a halfway decent salary.  Wages for women were much less than for men, but at least it was better than what she had been making. Even I was able to get a job at Parkview Drugstore as a part time cashier.  My sister had graduated from high school and had left home to pursue a higher education, so she was unable to help.  My brother had reached the grand old age of six years and was unable to help.

We did very well during the war years, but when the war ended things changed.  Fortunately my mother had made many contacts over the years and was finally able to get a reasonable job with a livable wage.

My sister had graduated from college, married her childhood sweetheart, and the two of them had moved to Chicago to continue their higher educations. I had finished elementary school, then high school. I graduated from Kansas City Missouri Junior College, followed by business school where I learned to type and take shorthand.

During that time I met a young fellow just out of the service on a blind date.  His name was Meyer Singer.  He proposed on the first date.  Naturally I turned him down.  By our third date he had become so insistent I agreed.  To satisfy both mothers, we agreed to wait six months before tying the knot.

Meyer and Lois Singer on their wedding day.

We didn’t have a dime between us, but we both had jobs and managed to save up enough money to buy a couch and a bed — what more did we need?  The early years were tough.  We had a third floor walkup.   At least it was in a reasonably nice neighborhood.  Our first child, Mark, was born two and a half years later, followed by Joel two and a half years after that.  Dana came along four years after and then, Mara six years later.  We bought a small house on a G.I. Loan and lived there for ten years.  But when Mara came along we had to move to make room for her.  We had no idea what lay ahead for us.  Meyer had changed jobs and was now working as a manufacturers’ representative which meant traveling a fair amount of time.

About that time we discovered that Mara was developmentally delayed and had NO language ability.  That was the start of six years of doctors and therapists and anyone else I could find to help her.  One doctor even told me to put her in an institution because she NEVER would be able to function.  We got rid of him fast.  Many years later he apologized to us.  All anyone had to do was tell me she couldn’t do something and I immediately found someone who could either work with her or teach me how to work with her.  I dropped out of circulation for five years to work with her.  IT WAS WORTH IT!  Today she lives in her own apartment, uses public transportation, reads and writes and shops for herself.  She swims, knows how to ride a bike, cooks easy things and can do her own laundry — PLUS, she has had jobs until recently when the place she was working went out of business.  Somehow there WILL be another job in her future.

Our other children may have felt a little left out of things over those years, but I did manage to give them a semblance of normalcy – – baseball, bowling, piano lessons, dancing lessons , Hebrew School and some kind of dinner on the table every evening.  Meyer was still traveling.  The day Mark started driving was one of the happiest I have ever known.  All of my children and their spouses managed to turn out to be decent, wonderful human beings of whom I am very proud.

Joel lost his wife of 30 plus years to pancreatic cancer in January of 2008.   It was a great loss for all of us.  We still miss her. Fortunately, after an extended mourning period, he found another wonderful person to marry and we love her very much.  He also inherited three grown children with spouses and young children.

Dana married in June of 2007 and inherited a ready-made family of three children. Two are still in school, and one graduated from veterinary school and is getting married in 2013.

Mark and Debby recently celebrated 40 years of married life and have two children and one spouse, plus two grandsons who brighten all our lives.

My adult life has been full of lots of good things and some bad ones.  The good things far outweigh the bad.  I have been blessed with wonderful children, grandchildren and great grandchildren plus a husband who was the most honest, hard-working man I’ve ever known.

Ten years ago my heart stopped beating.  Med-Act was called and they were able to resuscitate me and get me to the hospital where I underwent open heart surgery.  I was quite ill for an extended period of time.  For more than a year we had full-time help in the house.  Meyer had Alzheimer’s and couldn’t take care of me, and I couldn’t take care of myself, let alone do anything for him.

Eventually an apartment opened up in Village Shalom and we moved in about four years ago.  My health has been very erratic.  I thank God every morning I awaken and am able to get out of bed.  Meyer died of kidney cancer in May of 2011.  His last year was miserable.  He was being treated for pneumonia and not responding.  Eventually it was discovered that he had cancer that had metastasized throughout his body and he was in a great deal of pain.  The children and I made the decision to take him off of everything and put him on morphine.  Hospice was called in.  He died in May of 2011.  It had been a really hard year but somehow we all got through it.  Both of our sons have stepped into the void and have taken over where Meyer left off, and life is fairly manageable these days.

God has a very funny way of turning things upside down when you least expect it — but life does go on.

Tagged , , ,

The Hunger Games: parts 2 and 3

By Maarten van Swaay

Earlier I commented on the Hunger Games – volume 1 of a trilogy by Ms. Suzanne Collins.  The book left me disturbed by the absence of a clear recognition of evil for what it is.  The book leaves little doubt about the evil nature of ‘the Capital’, but seems to accept it almost casually.  After I wrote about it I learned that the second and third volumes do make a clearer distinction. There is good evidence that those volumes are as popular as the first; the Leawood library has more than 100 copies of each, yet still maintains a waiting list of more than 300 requests for at least one of the books. Fortunately I could borrow the books from another resident on the Village Shalom campus. 

The second and third volumes – ‘Catching Fire’ and ‘Mockingjay’ – do indeed let the ‘white hats’ win, in John Wayne terms.  But they do not offer much clarity why the white hats are white.  The entire trilogy is set well into the future, and must therefore be classified as fantasy.  Nothing wrong with that;  it places Ms. Collins in the good company of writers such as H.G. Wells (Time Machine),  Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), George Orwell (1984), Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451), Jonathan Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), and Isaac Asimov.  But all those authors placed their stories in societies whose morals have a sense of internal consistency, which may then be inspected and evaluated for propriety.  Yes:  some of those societies might fail today’s test of propriety, loose as that may be.  But I could not find any clues in the Hunger Games trilogy for a societal context that might at least put the fast pace of the books in a context that makes the actions cohesive. 

The chief malefactor, President Snow, makes several appearances in the second and third volumes, but one cannot really get to know him;  he remains more a cardboard cutout than a real creature – one would hesitate to call him human.  But that hesitation does not come from any details about the man himself, more from the implicit ugliness of the tyranny he must have built up. And the books do not offer any clues how that build-up might have happened, let alone how it might have been allowed to happen;  it is presented as nothing more than a given that neither has nor needs explanation.  Yet without the pervasive evil of the Capital the books would almost certainly unravel into a collection of unrelated and gratuitous episodes of violence.  It makes one wonder whether President Stone’s oppression and depravity were dragged in merely as glue to hold the episodes of violence together. 

Predictably, President Snow comes to his end eventually.  But not from a well-placed arrow.  That arrow finds its mark elsewhere, dispatching a person who for several chapters appears to be an ally in the war to dismantle the Capital.  Why?  The books left me with a vague suspicion that this ending also has little connection with any grand scheme of things. 

Granted:  all three books provide addictive reading.  But an ambition to summarize their meaning in the form of an overarching message left me disappointed and disturbed:  the questions still remain what generates the large popularity of the books, and what influence they may have on their intended audience of young adults.  They do not offer any guidance how people might find their path in a society that appears to have removed many, if not most of the guardrails that probably helped people to keep their bearings in earlier days.  The books do not even offer any indication that such guardrails could or should exist.  And that sets them apart from the examples I alluded to earlier;  it is not a compliment to the Hunger Games.

Reading the books prompted me to reread an editorial that appeared almost twenty years ago in the Wall Street Journal, under the title “No Guardrails”. It ascribed a crumbling of what one might call cultural conscience to the protests and riots during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in August 1968.  Not to the riots themselves, nor to the turbulence around the Vietnam War, but to the various elites who excoriated not the mobsters but the surrounding ‘culture’ that was alleged to have produced them.  In other words, the rioters were no longer held responsible for their actions; they were effectively exonerated by explanation of their mayhem as a consequence of some undefined and undefinable ‘context’.  The article was reprinted on April 18, 2007, in reaction to the massacre at Virginia Tech. It might be appropriate to reprint it again in reaction to the massacre in a movie theater in Aurora, CO. 

Today such logic has been not merely turned on its head but twisted into a pretzel.  On the one hand we hear loud protests that popular offerings such as violent movies and games must not be held responsible for real-life violence.  But we also read about enormous sums and effort spent on advertising, often with an accusing undertone that such advertising will skew and twist the behavior of customers.  One cannot have it both ways, just as one cannot simultaneously demand tolerance and applaud zero-tolerance. 

My earlier question remains unanswered, and disturbing:  should one applaud a book because it succeeds in making lots of people want to read it, or deplore its content for its failure to acknowledge the existence of, and need for, moral guardrails?  I would prefer the latter. 

As the story of the Hunger Games progresses, one district is effectively annihilated, and a brutal attempt is made to annihilate another district that had already been driven underground at some unspecified earlier time.  In today’s perspective both actions could be, and probably should be classified as genocide.  But in the Hunger Games trilogy they are treated almost casually. Where is the outrage?

Tagged , , , , ,

TIBET AS IT WAS – BEFORE CHINESE RULE

By Mary Anne Reardon

Since March, 2011, at least 33 Tibetans have set themselves on fire.  More than 24 have died.  This extreme form of protest against Chinese rule is an attempt to bring the world’s attention to their plight.  Over six decades have passed since the first Chinese troops invaded the realm of the Dalai Lama.  This article, the first of two, describes life in Tibet when the Chinese onslaught began, October 7, 1950.  The next article will describe Tibet under Chinese rule. 

In 1958 this Buddhist country was a blank spot on the globe, little known or understood.  In many ways it was a place that time forgot, with a traditional culture completely untouched by modern society.  The area occupied by Tibetans comprised about a fourth of China’s land mass as it is today.  This included eastern Tibet, known as Kham, and northern areas known as Amdo. Much of Tibet is a high altitude plateau.  It is one of the most mountainous countries on earth and nearly the most sparsely populated.  Never properly tabulated, the population was estimated to be about six million. Habitable land lies between 10,000 and 15,000 feet altitude with passes rising to 18,000 feet. As it had for thousands of years, in 1950 the yak’s pace dictated the tempo of life.  Farmers still used wood plows with iron shares.  The real Tibetan world existed in the grasslands among the nomads with their yaks, goats and sheep, their yak-skin tents and their Buddhist faith. 

The grasslands of the northern Tibet area of Ambo (now Gansu Province)

Tibet was a land of mysticism.  Governed by a feudal system, the ancient structure of its society was not without flaws. Men, land, animals – all belonged to the Dalai Lama, whose orders were the law of the land.  Since the 14th Dalai Lama was 15 in 1950 this authority was exercised by regents. Most arable land was divided into large estates, of which monasteries controlled a third while the 200 noble families controlled the rest.  Below the nobles were farmers, herdsmen, other commoners and serfs.  Peasants on landed estates were bound to the soil and paid taxes in labor, crops, and cash.  They were allotted small plots to cultivate and were free to sell what they grew. 

Religion came first; it inspired the culture and was the center of the Tibetan’s life.  Lhasa means “The Place of the Gods”.  Buddhism came to Tibet in the 8th century.  It incorporated many aspects of the pagan Bon religion which worshiped nature, as well as Hinduism with its gods, goddesses and charms.  All life, even that of the tiniest gnat, was considered sacred.  Any activity that involved digging was a slow process because each living creature had to be rescued from a shovel full of dirt and moved to safety. 

Buddhists believe in reincarnation; their lives are devoted to seeking a higher rebirth.  From the poorest serf to the richest noble the best room in their home was a shrine or chapel.  Every nomad’s tent had a shrine.  Religious festivals were frequent.  Pilgrimages to sacred places were an important religious duty.  Pilgrims would finger a rosary of 108 beads with one hand while with the other spinning a prayer wheel filled with sacred writings and prayers written on strips of paper. 

Pilgrim from Tibetan village in Lhasa

Superstition played an important role in determining one’s actions. There were auspicious days, weeks, even years.  Extreme measures were taken to avoid evil spirits and appease demons.  Illness was attributed to evil spirits and a priest, rather than a doctor, consulted for a cure. 

Tibetans believe that the Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of Chenrizi, the lord of mercy and the patron deity of Tibet.  The Dalai Lama is considered all powerful, the possessor of all knowledge.  All religious and secular power were vested in him.  He was advised by a cabinet of three lay persons and one monk, and a legislature called into session only infrequently.  Before any important decision was made the State Oracle was consulted for advice, which was invariably followed. 

Every family had a son or at least one relative who was a monk.  Monks constituted a fourth of the male population.  In 1950 Tibet had 6,000 monasteries, temples and shrines.  Every village had a monastery.  Some monasteries had more than 5,000 monks.  Every government position was held by one monk and one lay person.  The monks were very conservative – a powerful force opposed to change, and thus largely responsible for the backwardness of the country. 

Monasteries were quite wealthy.  In addition to the estates they owned, each monastery had a large store of silks and brocades from China.  From time to time conflicts broke out between monasteries.  Monks murdered monks causing turmoil in the government. 

The entire population was brought up to be hostile to foreigners who were kept miles away from Lhasa.  The monks feared any sort of foreign influence that might undermine their authority.  In 1950 only eight foreigners were known to reside in Tibet. 

Lhasa had a population of about 10,000 with 17,000 monks in nearby monasteries. A majority of the 200 noble families lived in or near the city.

Two mothers of noble families. From: Resistance and Reform in Tibet by Robert Barnett. Indiana University Press. 1994.

The wealthy built elegant houses with glass windows.  Glass was a real luxury as it had to be imported at great expense.  Most homes covered their windows with white or ecru cloth or paper.  The poor had no windows, only a hole in the ceiling to allow smoke to escape.  Electricity on a limited basis was available exclusively to the homes of the affluent and to the mint.

A few schools provided only the most basic education.  Children of the wealthy were sent to India or were educated in monasteries.  The vast majority of Tibetans were illiterate and most believed that the world was flat.  Few Tibetan books other than scripture existed. Printing books was a laborious process because each letter was carved into a separate block of wood.  This work was done in the monasteries.  Paper was locally made.  A one-page weekly newspaper was printed in India. 

In 1950 there were two radio transmitters and six radios in the country.  In January, 1950, Tibet broadcast to the world for the first time.  The United States sent several radio sets, but no one could figure out how to assemble them.

On religious grounds, the wheel was banned from everyday life.  It was a religious symbol – the Wheel of Dharma (Buddhist law and theology).

Wheel of Dharma. Two deer atop Jokhang Temple Lhasa.

Goods were carried on the backs of men and animals – not in carts.

The Laden Yak. From: Portrait of the Dalai Lama by Sir Charles Bell. Publisher – Collins. 1946.

Unpaved lanes could be found in towns but throughout the countryside travelers used animal tracks as paths.  These sufficed for the large trading caravans, so vital to the economic life of the country.  Tibetans were great traders; each year they traveled to Mongolia, Nepal and India, and some years to China. 

The 13th Dalai Lama was eager to modernize the country and improve the small outdated army, but he was vigorously opposed by the monks.

Tibetan Soldier with old-style gun. From: Portrait of the Dalai Lama.

He did import three automobiles in 1904.  Since fuel had to be brought from India on the backs of mules his cars seldom left the garage.  The present Dalai Lama was mechanically inclined and at the age of 14 enjoyed taking them apart and reassembling them. 

A medical school offered a ten-year course.  Medicines were predominately herbs, gathered each spring by the students in the nearby hills.  In the practice of medicine Buddhist doctrines were strictly adhered to.  The only surgery was bloodletting; the only inoculations for smallpox. Although sanitary conditions were very poor and sewage disposal nonexistent, most serious diseases and epidemics were avoided by virtue of the cool climate and pure air. 

Overall, the Tibetans were a quite happy and contented people, with ready smiles. They loved to laugh and were kind and generous to friends and strangers alike.  Their lives revolved around their Buddhist religion and they cherished the Dalai Lama.  Even serfs were content; Buddhism taught them that their lot in life was the result of their previous existence.  Therefore they strove to earn a higher reincarnation by prayer and good deeds. 

In 1950, when Chinese troops threatened, Tibetans called on their gods for protection and they were confident that their religion would suffice to preserve their independence.  The outcome will be discussed in my next article.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

The Playhouse

By Maarten van Swaay 

Our oldest daughter Aagje was almost a year old when we returned in 1956 from Princeton to the Netherlands.  She took her first steps at sea, holding on to her doll’s carriage as it rolled with the swell on the Atlantic.  Housing in Holland at that time was in short supply;  the war had seen no building and much destruction.  A well-intentioned policy of rent control did not improve matters, it held back new construction and modernization.  Fortunately we could stay with my parents in Scheveningen for the first winter. They then helped us buy a house in Oegstgeest that was still under construction and did not fall under the rules of price control. 

Our house in Oegstgeest, taken in 2009

The house had two floors, and two rooms under the roof on a third floor. One of those became Aagje’s bedroom;  a room on the second floor was reserved for Marianna, who would arrive before long.  The stairwell had a large window facing South.  As I carried Aagje up one evening she let out a cry of dismay:  “the moon is broken!”  She was right: it was a quarter moon.  We watched for the next few days as the moon repaired itself, much to Aagje’s reassurance. 

Nearby was a small retirement community, with a pond with ducks, and houses that all had red doors with an upper and lower half.  The pond and the ducks were inviting for daily walks, but the red doors provided its name for Aagje:  “walk to the red doors.” 

Then came Sinterklaas day;  the first in our own house, in 1957.  Saint Nicolaas shares his name with Santa Claus, but that is where the similarity ends.  His day is December 5, and has no connection with Christmas.  One can trace the origin of the good Saint to Asia Minor, but in the Dutch tradition he arrives by ship from Spain, accompanied by his white horse and a retinue of one or more Moors who serve as his often somewhat unruly aides.  He serves as the patron saint for sailors, but presents himself as an imposing stately and benevolent figure for Dutch children. 

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, 1958

The prominent role of ‘the red doors’ in Aagje’s life led to an ambition to build a playhouse – with a split red door of course – for Sinterklaas. A simple enough plan, but our house had no space for a workshop, and the detached single-car garage was not inviting in the wet and windy weather of Dutch autumn.  First things first:  placing a small pot-bellied stove required chiseling a neat hole for a chimney pipe through the brick wall of the garage. Of course the playhouse had to stay out of Aagje’s view:  Sinterklaas would be bringing it from Spain. 

It all worked as planned;  the red door proved to be the jewel in the crown. A major event was a visit by Aagje’s Grandfather to the playhouse;  he did settle for visiting outside the playhouse, for quite visible reasons. 

Aagje and her Grandfather, 1957

Since then the playhouse has traveled much, first to the three places where we lived in Holland, and then to Manhattan, Kansas.  A neighbor with a family of growing children designed and built a top part that converted the playhouse into a stage for a puppet show.  After our children had grown up we loaned it to friends in Manhattan, who had adopted a daughter from Korea.  After she outgrew it, we were disturbed to find that the playhouse had been banished to the back of the garage.  We had a better place for it, and a much better use:  our growing circle of grandchildren.  It became one of the main attractions for them, with a fixed ritual for which Christina would stock its shelves with ‘aapjes’ – little monkeys.  The Dutch use the term for little presents such as pencils, erasers, sweets, and such. 

The ‘Stuff Shoppe’ always had tightly controlled opening hours, and no grandchild ever tried to sneak in outside hours, even though that would have been very easy to do. 

One of our grandchildren did not take it lightly when we visited his family in Overland Park:  ‘why did you not bring the house?’.  Because it would not fit in the car ….  But you could have put it on a trailer!  We lost that argument. 

Of course our grandchildren grew up too, and the playhouse slept quietly for many years in our house in Manhattan, KS.  But not in the garage…. When we left that house after 40 years to come to Village Shalom, the playhouse went home with Aagje, for whom it had been built.  And now it stands, lovingly restored and repainted, ready for the third generation. Aagje’s granddaughter is expected early this summer, and Marianna’s year-old grandson will discover it at a family reunion we hope to have this Fall.

The playhouse restored and in place, 2012

Tagged , , , , , ,
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: