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Monday, September 07, 2015


The beauty of David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers emanates from McCullough's ability to flesh out these two men, showing them as more than cardboard figures in ancient photo stills or early 1900 stereotypes in antique movies getting their airplane off the ground at Kitty Hawk and launching us into an entirely new age.  In McCullough’s book, these are real men, challenging themselves to do something no man has ever done before.  We know what happens, but traveling on their journey is quite a trip.

As usual, McCullough’s meticulous research gives us much more than an historical moment; it gives us a feeling for the period in history when men in several countries of the world knew they were on the brink of being able to finally and confidently move into another realm—the air.  The race began on the ground, but the finish line was in the air.  Wilbur and Orville Wright’s story is timeless.  And it’s fascinating reading.

McCullough doesn’t begin with their airplane.  He begins by allowing his reader to observe Wilbur and Orville, their relationship with one another and with other members of their family, their personal characteristics which seem to complement each other, their family history of the early loss of their mother, the steadfast values of their traveling Bishop father, and their extraordinary dedication to making something worthwhile of their lives.  That last quality was virtually in their DNA and led them to work tirelessly to fulfill a life-long dream to fly.  Theirs becomes a story not only of early 20th-century discovery but also a lesson for every dreamer today.  
No one needs to be reminded of man’s quest to fly.  Through the ages, stories abound: in Greek mythology’s Icarus, in ancient drawings, in Da Vinci’s flying machine drawings, and in numerous documented failed attempts.  Always interested in the mechanical nature of how machines work, the Wright brothers were explorers and inventors—printing and publishing their own newspaper, getting in on the bicycle craze and then becoming bicycle builders who develop and patent their own popular brand of bicycles. They continued that business to earn a living as they also worked on their airplane.

Absorbed with watching the way birds use their wings—not by flapping so much as by riding the currents of air—they left the prevalent aeronautical culture and worked on developing a wing shape that enabled them to do the same thing.  But before they even tried to build, they studied everyone who had ever made attempts at building a flying machine.  They had immense help from the Smithsonian Institution, for instance.  They also intuitively knew to keep their cards close to their chests as others around the world were attempting to fly as well.

By the time the brothers brought their machine to the primitive beaches of Kitty Hawk, they understood they were close to realizing their dream.  They returned seasonally over several years before they actually performed that first flight.  It’s difficult to imagine that even after their theories worked, the brothers still had to learn to fly—and they had no teachers.  It was a matter of getting into the air and through trial and error without killing themselves that they learned to ride the currents and soar like the birds.

Amazingly, the exciting prospect of flight did not, at first, have Americans anxiously on the edges of their seats.  The French and Germans were most enthusiastic, and, indeed, the initial financing and fame the Wright brothers gained came from Europe rather than from America.  In pursuing the important business aspect, Wilber Wright spent a great deal of time in Europe, eventually bringing over his brother and, ultimately, his sister and father.  

As fame and competition impacted their work, Wilbur remained the businessman in the flying enterprise, and Orville became the flier, recovering from a tragic flying accident where he was seriously injured and his passenger was killed.  In fact, lawsuits concerning patents as well as the business aspect of their enterprise occupied so much of Wilbur’s time that he was forced to give up flying in order to attend to business.  Orville continued to fly and break records.

Reading about these pioneers is fascinating.  Though two of the most important men of the 20th century, they never became arrogant or changed by their celebrity.  The money and fame that accompanied their work were not the goals, and those who knew them often mentioned their basic humility. 

Orville lived to a ripe old age, but Wilbur died in his mid-40s.  Their far-reaching successes came early.  

I was fascinated by the book.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and learning about these two very important men and their accomplishments as well as their bumpy road to success.  They exemplify the American dream, working tirelessly to achieve their goals and finally reaching them through their hard, dangerous, and sometimes exhausting efforts.  I just flew cross-country from Seattle, and I tried to imagine how they would react to the hustle and bustle of SEATAC or Newark airports.  I wonder what they would say if they could see their invention today as a mode of travel for even the ordinary person.  I wonder what they would have said to the men and women who took the idea of flying and sent us to the moon and beyond!

Other David McCullough books I’ve read, enjoyed, and highly recommend are Truman, John Adams, 1776, The Path Between the Seas (about the building of the Panama Canal), The Great Bridge (about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge), The Johnstown Flood, and Mornings on Horseback (about Theodore Roosevelt).  I haven’t had a moment of boredom.  I’ve enjoyed every one.  This is history that reads as a novel, revealing the people and time as well as discussing the event.  It doesn’t get much better than this.

Thursday, August 27, 2015


Don't they look juicy?
Despite the organizing still to do at our new house in North Carolina, Rob and I got into the car to explore what will soon be our new surroundings.  Country roads lined with working farms are extraordinarily beautiful and relaxing, and that’s exactly what the doctor ordered.

It is early August, and peaches are hanging ripe for the picking.  All around the area are peach festivals, but these festivals will have to wait until next year.  But we have to eat, don’t we?  So we head to Buttermilk Creek Farm, a family-owned business.  The farm grows and sells blackberries, blueberries, and peaches.  You’ll soon hear why knowing all three is important.

Today Rob and I are there for the peaches.  In Warwick, we also go to the orchards, and we buy our peaches from Pennings on the outskirts of the village.  The hardest part is deciding whether to go for the yellow or the white peaches.  They’re both delicious.

If you’re used to supermarket peaches, you’ve never had the almost unearthly delight of having to bend forward as you bite into a ripe peach you’ve simply twisted off the stem into your hand.  You bend in order to keep that sweet-smelling, peachy juice from running down your chin and on to your shirt.  That’s the way it is when you twist a peach from its branch and bite past the tickling fuzz into the heart of it.  You can see why it was impossible not to go peach picking when we had the chance.

Being new-comers to the area, we take Pat and Tom’s sage advice and head to Buttermilk Creek Farm, a family owned, pick your own fruit farm in Burlington, North Carolina, and conveniently near us. 

To get there, we drive past tobacco fields and farms, across bridges spanning Lake Cammack where we hope to sail and fish very soon.  We probably take the long way as we are just getting the lay of the land, and early August is so pretty.  There’s a wonderful serenity in driving country roads. I don’t think I have ever seen tobacco growing before, and on one farm, men were in the fields snipping the flowers from the leafy plants. 
These plants are tobacco.  Quite beautiful, aren't they?

Buttermilk farm grows blackberries, blueberries, and peaches, and we picked a few peaches—we haven’t moved in yet, so there is little more we can do than eat them fresh.  Just wait until next year.

It is just nice walking up and down the rows, squeezing a peach here and there until we find one that is just right.  We actually pick peaches that will sit on our counter for a day or two before being perfectly ready.  That is the advice from the man in charge whom we meet there.  

When I looked for some online information on Buttermilk Creek Farm, there was a uTube video. I believe I found the same friendly man, Steve Smith, who owns the farm and, if you watch the video, you’ll learn more about it.   Here is the link to the video:  Buttermilk Creek Farm

But we feel very welcomed here, and before we leave with the few peaches for which Steve refused payment, by the way, we did have a chat and learned a little of his impression of the people who come to pick—particularly his berries. 

He told us that it appears that transplanted Northerners go wild over the blueberries while Southerners seem to prefer the blackberries.  We guaranteed that we would be back for both.  I started making jams last year, and I think it will be wonderful.  By the way, this past season peaches were $1.50 a pound and berries were $3.75 a pound.  I think I shall be very busy.

He was so nice and friendly, just as everyone we’ve met has been.  And Pat and Tom treated us to some brandied peaches over vanilla ice cream.  Yes, my friends, we will be back.

Friday, August 21, 2015

This is the entrance to the Monastery at Glendalough, founded by St. Kevin in the 6th Century.
The main entrance wall which separated the monks from the outside world
was accessed through this double-arched gateway.
It was probably built between 900 and 1200.
Here's the amazing part--
There is no mortar to support the arches in this gateway.

Monday, August 17, 2015


Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.  Hmmm.  I held back from reading any reviews or analyzes of the novel I pre-ordered and waited for with bated breath.  I had already read the various stories about this book's history, and I wanted to put that aside as much as I could just as I wanted to put To Kill a Mockingbird aside as much as I could.

But as I read Go Set a Watchman, I could not see Atticus as anyone other than Gregory Peck nor Jean Louise as anyone other than a grown-up Mary Badham.  Nor could I ignore that, at the very least, Go Set a Watchman may have been "touched up" by persons unknown from Harper Lee's original rejected draft form and that the characters I would come to love in To Kill a Mockingbird, including Tom Robinson, as well as the sub-plot of his trial, would have their seeds planted, to some degree, in this earlier book. The absence of Boo Radley was very obvious.  It wasn't until I finished reading that I looked at some of the reviews to see how others reacted not only to this book but also to the bits and pieces inserted or missing from To Kill a Mockingbird.

I did not finish Go Set a Watchman with the negative reactions I’ve read in the press and in magazines.  I thought the grace of language and the feelings of small-town Southern life that speak primarily of a past era were here, and the soft fluidity of expression that Harper Lee exhibits in a supremely more polished manner in To Kill a Mockingbird is evident here.  The tone, despite Jean Louise’s rambunctious and iconoclastic rebellion, is calm and consistent on the parts of the older Finches and troubled on Jean Louise's part.  One can see how Atticus’ approach to his daughter when she was six has not changed much now that she is 26.  Nor can one see any inconsistency in Atticus’ earlier defense of Tom Robinson or of his present defense of Calpurnia's son.  Held in higher regard than personal feelings is the law.  

While it is distressing to be reminded that the council’s feelings and even Atticus’ reasoning were so much a part of the pre-1960s South (and unfortunately even later), those feelings were real and to deny them is to re-write history.  I abhor re-writing history.  But this novel, if printed in its own time, would have died a natural death and gone the way of other dated and/or unacceptable works.

Go Set a Watchman is a rite of passage novel, and it's interesting because our protagonist is already 26 years old, far older than usual. She has to move out of the old ways and into the new, and she has to experience how different life is in a place like New York before she can make that move.  When she left Maycomb, she was searching for something she could not identify.  This trip home helps her move closer to the road she will follow in life.  It's not her Daddy's world anymore even if he doesn't know it yet.  That's a universal truth most adults have a tough time accepting, and Atticus is no exception.

I wonder where Harper Lee’s real feelings lie in these matters.  She said she wanted to write a "race book." There's no question that she sides with Jean Louise.  Was she trying to make that transition from the world in which she grew up into the new world just being born when she wrote this book?  Had this book been published in its time, I wonder if To Kill a Mockingbird would have followed.  I doubt it.  But if it had, would it have ever gotten to the pinnacle of American Classics?  I doubt that too, for we would never have forgiven the older Atticus Finch who is so much a part of the old order.  Jean Louise revolts against Atticus’ ideas, but she comes to understand them.  She is just past them.  She is actually asked to come back to Maycomb and exert some positive influence on these too-long-held ideas.

What is interesting about Jean Louise is that even as she is repelled by the people she loves, she sees how she accepted many of the same behaviors.  When she visits Calpurnia and asks if Calpurnia hated the family she faithfully served, Jean Louise awakens to the stark, hard realization of how different and how difficult their worlds were.  But it is not as if she had never been to Calpurnia's home or known Calpurnia's family.  She was brought up blinded to the injustices of the times.

Jean Louise realizes that accepting the way she is raised is the basis of racism and other types of prejudice.  Attitudes and behaviors that appear to be the natural scheme of things are never questioned, but they are subtly taught and passed down generation after generation.  Change is right, but change is a huge challenge.  When Jean Louise leaves Maycomb, she still has a long way to go.  But she is willing--and anxious--to work at it.  There's the key to moving in the right direction--it takes conscious work and effort.  It can be achieved.

The character of Henry becomes important in light of Jean Louise's awakening.  She already revolted against some of the hometown characteristics, and she continues to take stronger and stronger stances.  Henry, however, comes from a different background, will remain in Maycomb, and despite his feelings that some of what he sees is wrong, he is concerned with his own acceptance, and so he approaches problems from an entirely different standpoint.  Isn't that the way the world works?  In Jean Louise's case, it is Uncle Jack who lectures her about the way their world works and how she fits into that world--or doesn't.  I found it all interesting and with a great deal of truth.  Sometimes the truth hurts, as Jean Louise discovers.

The Boo Radley sub-plot of To Kill a Mockingbird is not hinted at in Go Set a Watchman.  What that does to To Kill a Mockingbird is broaden the definitions and demonstrate another type of prejudice.  It fills out this second book and adds to its richness. It reminds me that Go Set a Watchman is a rejected first draft.

I liked the title of this novel as well.

According to the website Bible Hub, the title is from Isaiah 21:6 about the prophecy concerning the ruin of Babylon. Jean Louise symbolizes that watchman, and she reports what she sees in the land that must change.  As in the Bible, the event is not to happen immediately, but will in due time.

In the novel itself, it is suggested that the watchman is one's conscience.  We know right from wrong, and we should be able to choose right for ourselves as we grow up and begin to individually evaluate the world around us.  We need a watchman to alert us to dangers.

No matter how one approaches Go Set a Watchman, first reactions will be visceral.  This novel, still a monumental best seller, hits us with a flurry of punches that knock the wind out of us because Atticus Finch is not the man we thought him to be--as Uncle Jack tells Jean Louise--or because the South was just beginning to be forced to change in many ways after WWII and was still filled with seething animosity.   We don't want to hear that.

But I recommend this book.  I see the seeds of Harper Lee's greatness. I'd like to hear your reactions to it in the comments section.

Friday, July 24, 2015


When I think of Aruba, I think of its warmth and its vibrancy--its colors being a feast for the senses.
The red boat is the Bon Bini -- Welcome in Papiamento

Tuesday, July 21, 2015


Slate Valley Museum, Granville, NY
Imagine this sign today
It’s always nice to visit a new and beautiful place and allow that WOW factor to sweep over you like a gentle wave touching every one of your senses.  Sometimes, however, the joy of travel is the surprise.  That’s precisely what I experienced when my sister, Robyn, and I visited the Slate Valley Museum in Granville, New York.  The WOW factor came from stepping into a loving view of Americana.

Robyn lives in Granville, a small town in the shadows of the majestic Adirondack Mountains, a place to visit and to marvel at nature with each turn of the head and in whatever season you are lucky enough to enjoy there.  She loves it in Granville, and she loves the small-town living that is so different from the way we grew up in New York City.

Granville’s claim to worldwide fame is its slate deposits which were discovered in the mid-1800s and became its chief industry.  The industry remains active today, but, of course, industrial methods have changed.  Granville has the only working red slate quarries in the world, and the slate is shipped all over the globe.  My sister’s driveway is composed of crushed red slate, and when you drive its distance, especially in summer when it is red against the green, green, grass, you can appreciate the slate’s unique qualities. 

Some descendants of the original workers still live in the area, still own or work at the quarries, and still proudly carry on the tradition that gave people looking for a new life a reason to settle in Granville and its environs.

The Slate Museum is located in downtown Granville, and in addition to the expected exhibits on the geology, the development of machinery to better access and move the slate, and photographs of the people who worked and who still work at the quarries, there is an exhibit which includes a history of the people who came to Granville to find a new and better life working in the town and in the slate quarries.  I read every piece about these people and looked at the marvelous photographs beautifully preserved.  This, to me, was the WOW factor, a trip back in time moving forward toward today.

The exhibit entitled The Dream and the Reality  looks at the five major immigrant groups that came to Granville, each seeking a way to make a living in a new land.  Italian, Welsh, Jewish, Slovak, and Irish.  They created a thriving community, and they left their permanent mark on the area.  But theirs is also the story of America.

Slate Valley Museum, Granville, NY

When slate was discovered in the area just prior to the Civil War, needed laborers had to be recruited.  Many of these men developed their skills in Wales where some of the largest slate quarries existed.   These people came in large numbers. Welsh immigrants formed a tight-knit community, first seeking a way to secure themselves financially and then maintaining their cultural heritage.  No fewer than twelve Welsh chapels of various denominations existed, and there was a Men’s Welsh Choir as well.  Welsh poets published in Welsh-language magazines, Welsh was spoken, and the cultural institutions of the old country continued well into the early part of the 20th century. 

Slate Valley Museum, Granville, NY

As many immigrant groups did, they pushed their children to educate themselves and escape the hard and dangerous life of the quarries.  As those American-born children grabbed the chance of an education, they left the area to pursue different careers, and while today’s Welsh presence is just a drop of what it once was, the Welsh impact is definitely still a part of Granville.

The Irish, too, had a background in the slate quarries of Ireland.  Though never as numerous as the Welsh, they came for many of the same reasons.  As Catholics, they built their churches and carried on their traditions.  They, too, took advantage of educational opportunities, and their children went to Fordham and Holy Cross.  By the turn of the 20th century, many of the local teachers were Irish.  They became prominent local businessmen or they moved to cities for better opportunities.  

Slate Valley Museum, Granville, NY

Later, eastern Europeans, the Slovaks, came.  They were unskilled laborers who bore the brunt of the most difficult and dangerous mining jobs.  The boys left school early to work in the mines.  The women ran boarding houses for the often young and single immigrants.  They worked to bring their families over and developed their own cultural community.  As they became educated, they, too, left the area, but those who stayed endured the hard times and the Great Depression.  After World War II, they bought 17 of the remaining 30 quarries and have maintained the quarry business right up until today.

Slate Valley Museum, Granville, NY

Later Italians fleeing Italy's endemic poverty in the early 20th century settled to work in the slate industry.  As with other groups, they kept their culture and language through the generations, but by the third or fourth generation, they, too, struck out to live different lives from their parents through the educational opportunities offered them to help make the American Dream a reality.  

Slate Valley Museum, Granville, NY

The Jewish population presents a slightly different story.  As elsewhere in America, the Jewish people came in two waves and from two different backgrounds.  The German Jews and then the Eastern Europeans.  Quite different in many ways, they all experienced European bigotry where, among other restrictions, they were not allowed to own land.  They came, therefore, as tradesmen and began as peddlers, working themselves up to be storeowners and tradesmen.  They were the merchants in the small town and thrived in the early part of the 20th century, but as many small town businesses were decimated by the advent of shopping malls, Granville’s merchants moved on as well.  As the other foreign settlers, they strove to maintain their religion and culture, but as the younger generations became more educated, they, too, left to find their lives in the cities.  Today there is barely a Jewish presence in Granville, but they left their marks as civic leaders and builders in a world that offered them opportunities they could never find in their native lands.

Slate Valley Museum, Granville, NY

The ways of each immigrant group, however diverse, reflect what is best in America.  At first they maintained their languages and cultures at home, but as the years passed, the adults advised their children to become “Americans” and to pursue the possibilities that their adopted country offered.  And they did.

I was so impressed by this exhibit, and I learned a great deal.  It touched my heart.  Then, as I moved on to the museum's anniversary exhibition, 20 Objects, 20 Years of Sharing Slate Valley Stories, I saw these 20 objects, hopefully, in an enlightened way.

Slate Valley Museum, Granville, NY
This trunk deeply moved me.  It contained the sum of John and Mary Davies’ life when they came from Wales in 1904.  After supporting a quarry strike there, he was not rehired once the strike was settled, so they had to begin life anew.

Slate Valley Museum, Granville, NY
In the Welsh churches, the spoken language was Welsh, and this beautiful pulpit of marbleized slate speaks beautifully of the art and industriousness of the congregants.

Slate Valley Museum, Granville, NY
This 2005 slate carving by Kerri O. Furlani commemorates the sighting of a male ivory-billed woodpecker, proof that the bird still survives.
Slate Valley Museum, Granville, NY
The museum also contains a slate tile recovered from the Pentagon roof after the 9/11 bombing.
Slate Valley Museum, Granville, NY
In the late 1800s, David Williams crafted this bank for his son, Francis.
Aren't these things wonderful?  I never thought of slate in quite these ways before.  My imagination, I guess, was a blank slate.

While we were at the museum, I also had a chance to meet the President of the Board of Trustees, Molly Biggs Celani, and another trustee, Heather Thomas. It was truly a lovely and educational visit.

I add that if you want to know more about the hard lives  of Welsh miners in Wales, read How Green was My Valley by Richard LLewellyn or watch the movie starring Maureen O'Hara and Walter Pidgeon.  As I was reading the information at the Slate Valley Museum, I thought of the characters in this story, although it concerns coal rather than slate mining.

If you are anywhere near the NY/Vermont border, this impressive museum should be on your list of things to see.   

Tuesday, June 30, 2015


It’s the end of June, and during this past week, at least in my corner of the world, high schools celebrate the jubilant passing of students moving from one stage of their lives to the next.  Most graduating seniors throw up their caps, make or listen to speeches urging them forward, and seem in the midst of graduation euphoria.  For a moment, at least, the world looks bright to many of them.  In fact, for many, this is a brief period of time when the tensions of the last few months ease, and the future, seen through tearfully blurred vision, seems set.  Not so for others. 

It is the last three months of Senior Year that John McCormack captures in his novel, Jamaal’s Journey. Throughout that short period of time, McCormack’s perceptive book delves into the growing pains, questions, happinesses and sorrows that face a primarily minority group of students.  At best the teenage years are not easy ones, but for Jamaal and his friends, the struggle is a constant.

Jamaal, an African American HS senior, is trying to find his way, and as we travel with him on his journey, he deals with all the teenage trials—how to win the girl of his dreams, how not to break a heart or to have his own heart broken, how to move ahead in a world where even his language has to be altered to avoid ostracism by his friends or ostracism by the wider world he will enter as a college freshman.  It’s a thin tightrope to walk where reaching the goal of getting to the opposite landing is fraught with anxiety and questions that are sometimes unanswerable.  Jamaal relies on his friends, many of whom cannot travel the same path as he.

Despite the underlying seriousness of his novel, John McCormack packs Jamaal’s Journey  full of humor, irony, and typical teenage gaffes.  Jamaal and his friends make real life choices, overcome obstacles, sometimes are beaten into defeat, and sometimes display strength of character and mind in admirable ways.  It’s so real that you wish you could intercede and make the road a bit smoother.  The reader cannot help but recall the universal problems teenagers face and cheers these young people on throughout the story. 

Don't think for a moment that this is a dark, dour book.  McCormack captures the cadence of  language and weaves it into Jamaal’s story, sometimes narrated by Jamaal and sometimes by someone more omniscient.  The book is full of the ironic consequences of youthful decisions and the yearnings and laughter at parties where teenagers work on perfecting their coolness in front of others.  It’s about friendship, loyalty, and resilience among peers.  It’s about love of family and friends as well as the realization that after high school, things will never be quite the way it is in this point of time. Jamaal’s Journey reflects life, and life is never all good or all bad.

Real life is full of choices, and Jamaal’s choices set him on a journey he can barely envisage.  It’s more like a dream he is chasing.  He and his friends illustrate the problems in our society when socio-economic hardships so hamper children that simply getting to school each day is a problem.  Yet, they also illustrate the intrepid spirit within that helps them deal with the problems they face and overcome.

Jamaal’s Journey might be an eye-opener into teenage culture for adults, but it is also an excellent book if you are traveling with a teenager.  There are lots of lessons to be learned as he/she is being entertained by reading a good book. 

Jamaal’s Journey has already earned several awards in its category:

“Kirkus Indie Book of the Month Selection” for April, 2014
The San Francisco Book Festival Honorable Mention for YA in 2015
The National Indie Excellence Finalist Award for African-American Fiction in 2015
The Award Winning Finalist in the “Fiction: African-American” category of the 2015 International Book Awards

As a disclaimer, I should reveal that I taught at Spring Valley Senior High School with John McCormack.  But I really enjoyed reading Jamaal’s Journey, and I hope you will too.  It is available through Amazon.

Saturday, June 13, 2015


At John Wayne Airport
Orange County California

June 14th is Flag Day, a day established by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 
and becoming National Flag Day in 1949 when President Truman signed an Act of Congress making each June 14th NATIONAL FLAG DAY.  

While a new holiday in 1949, National Flag Day was inspired by more than six decades of state and local celebrations beginning with a teacher in Wisconsin, spreading to a kindergarten teacher in New York City, and growing in observance over the years. 

Why June 14th?  This is the day, in 1777, when the Flag Resolution was signed.

One of the most poignant quotations of a Flag Day address was delivered by Franklin K. Lane, Secretary of the Interior, in 1914.  In his address, he repeated what the flag had spoken to him that morning: "I am what you make me; nothing more.  I swing before your eyes as a bright gleam of color, a symbol of yourself."

Honor our flag.  Honor our country.  Make it always a symbol of how exceptional we are. 

Wednesday, June 03, 2015


Dreams of Joy is Lisa See’s sequel to Shanghai Girls, and what a sequel it is!  I didn’t even realize it was a sequel when I hastily selected the book, but I quickly caught on.  Shanghai Girls was so memorable that I was back in the story almost immediately. 

See moves us ahead many years, and the baby in Shanghai Girls is now a Los Angeles resident and a college student at the University of Chicago.  The family exists here, but China is still a part of their lives.  Much has happened in China over the years—especially the Communist Revolution led by Mao tse-tung.  The horrors caused by Japan are over, and the utopian era of communism has begun.

Or so Joy, the impressionable 19 year old college student, vaguely embarrassed by her family’s old-fashioned ways and immersed in the perfection of the communist vision through activity in the university’s Chinese Students Democratic Christian Association (and her boyfriend Joe), believes.  Additionally, as the novel opens, Joy reveals that she has just learned the truth about her mother, father, and aunt. The combination of these influences lead her to return to China—a country inviting Overseas Chinese to come back, to leave their evil capitalistic habits behind and to become a builder in the new and perfect communist world.

Every reader knows that outlook will lead to heartache, but Lisa See weaves a tale that is at once universal in nature—a young girl searching for her identity and her independence—and specific—a story that reflects the horrors of Mao’s leadership and speaks to the horrors of Mao’s Great Leap Forward where millions of Chinese starved to death.  Actual numbers of victims could not even be counted because the dead simply piled up and littered the roadsides and fields.  Cannibalism occurred especially when one family traded their baby for another.  In the end, there were simply too many to bury.  So we are also getting a chapter in China’s recent history.

With the first page of the book, Joy reveals that she has learned the truth about her lineage; her aunt is really her mother.  Her “parents” are really her aunt and her husband, Sam.  Her real father is Z.G., an artist still in China.  Sam recently committed suicide rather than face possible deportation to China.  The FBI’s interest in Sam stemmed from Joy’s involvement with the communist-leaning Chinese Students Democratic Christian Association at the University of Chicago.  Joy feels she is the cause of his death and allows the guilt to lead her back to China to try to atone.

The year is 1957.  Joy’s world is topsy turvy, and she intends to return to China to find her real father and to help build the ideal communist world—a world her American family has warned is a farce and lie time and again.

See does a wonderful job creating a narration by the two main characters, Joy and Pearl, her "mother" and original Shanghai Girl.  The reader feels the voice of each: the differences in age, experience, and aims.  Each one needs to grow in understanding not only of the world around her but also of each other.  All of that universal growth occurs within the context of a crazed, violent, repressive, and, in many cases, ignorant world that must be navigated with great care and duplicity. 

As readers, we get to see how “mother love” is not always a product of giving birth to a child, and that at its height, mother love is selfless even if the child is lost or selfish or rebellious.  We see another unfortunate example of how an entire people can be lured into submissiveness to the point of death or can be submissive enough for oppressive leadership to gain such power and control that the people lose their options and freedom. 

Dreams of Joy, obviously a title with a symbolic meaning, is rich in description of a country relatively few of us have visited and which we certainly have not seen as it is depicted here.  See’s scholarly research and journeys in today’s much more open China with people like Amy Tan give her an insider’s view that she shares with us.

Lisa See is certainly one of our great contemporary authors.  Read Shanghai Girls first, and you will want to follow up with Dreams of Joy.

Friday, May 29, 2015


This is a chameleon we met at the Greenwell Kona Coffee Farm
on the Big Island in Hawaii
Isn't he just too cute?!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


I took this on Memorial Day, 2014
All across America, small towns  commemorate Memorial Day in a way that’s impossible in the big cities.  It’s a time when people fly flags at their homes and line the parade routes in their towns to see the respectful procession of veterans and others remind us that freedom does not come without cost.

In my town of Warwick, NY, the procession begins at 11 AM, proceeds down Main Street past people holding flags or just paper cups of mid-morning coffee.  Some bring folding chairs, others sit on the curb, and others stand.  But as the veterans go by, most stand, and the spring air is filled with applause.  Some call out “Thank You” from the curb, and the veterans smile or salute or in some way say, “You’re Welcome.”  I remember when most of the veterans walked the parade route.  These days they are driven.  Time passes.  They are older. They are fewer.  

Following the veterans are some very important people who continue to serve our community: the members of the Volunteer Ambulance Corps who are always there with their time and expertise, the members of the Volunteer Fire Departments who risk their lives whenever they respond to emergencies.  Many of these people are veterans or active military, and as the Fire Departments marched this year, two members were in uniform.  They volunteered to serve their country, and they continue to serve their community.

The Warwick High School Band marches as do the Girl Scouts, from Daisys to Seniors, and the Boy Scouts march as well.  The Knights of Columbus are represented, and often other community organizations that volunteer to make all our lives a little better through their good works.  This is respect of the day and the reason for the day.

The parade moves past Main Street and up Oakland Avenue past the Lazear-Smith & Vander Plaat Memorial Home where the front lawn holds hundreds of American flags.  Past the bank, the bed and breakfasts, the beautiful large Victorian homes along the Avenue, the Dautaj restaurant, and the Warwick Valley Country Club to the Warwick Cemetery where services are held.  Then down Rt. 17A to St. Stephens Cemetery, and then back to the American Legion Hall and the Memorials erected there at the entrance to Memorial Park.

I am particularly sentimental about this Memorial Day because it is our last one in Warwick before we move.  Times have changed over the years.  Caroline Lesando, the Gold Star mother who lost her boy in Vietnam, no longer lives in Warwick.  Her courage, year after year, to participate in this parade was always a heart-breaking, unimaginable moment to me.  When, in the Warwick Cemetery, I hear the names of several young people who have been lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, I cringe.  But I also remember my children marching with the band, my marching with my Girl Scout troop with my daughter, my son marching with the Boy Scouts, and I can see in my memory my mother and father sitting and waiting for the parade to begin.

At 3 PM I paused for a minute and thought about all the men and women lost in battle over the course of our history.  Each and every one of them is a hero to me, and I owe each and every one a debt of gratitude for allowing me to live in a free society unlike any that has existed in the history of mankind.  They have allowed me to be proud to be an American.

Friday, May 22, 2015


Received this from friends Rob and I met on our Margaret Morse Tour of Israel a few years ago.  I can't say enough good things about the tour.  But put Israel in the search box of Third Age Traveler for a glimpse of how great it was.  Our friends went on the Second Timers Tour, and I want to pass on their feelings about that: 

"Just a quick note to say we have just returned from Margaret Morse’s Second Timers Tour. It was EXCEPTIONAL! Knocked the socks off the first tour and that one was wonderful. All the stars were aligned: fabulous tour guide, much improved hotels, restaurants, parties, perfect weather and outstanding itinerary. So glad we went. We highly recommend you consider it in your list of future travel experiences!"


For Memorial Day
A glimpse at the reflecting pool at the World War II Memorial in Washington DC
4,000 sculpted gold stars reflect in the water representing the 400,000 lives lost during WWII
A Gold Star represents a family's loss.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


Davie Pro Rodeo, FloridaGotta love a rodeo!  This year, we were lucky enough to get to the Davie Pro Rodeo, part of the Professional Rodeo Circuit that arrives in Davie, Florida at the Bergeron Rodeo Grounds four times a year.

Held in a covered rodeo arena, this is an exciting and exhilarating event—another sport where action is counted in seconds and winners by milliseconds.

The previous night had a sell-out crowd, so we arrived early and had the opportunity to meet some very friendly people on line and to explore the grounds and the concessions.  There was plenty of food, the usual fair fare of sausage and peppers, corn dogs, fries, cotton candy, ice cream, and a host of other tempting treats.  Beer by Budweiser.  Spirits too.  We ended up drinking Amber Bock.  Hot, sultry evening and beer is a great combo.

Plenty of cowboy and cowgirl gear for sale—from the real thing to adorable stuff for kids.  This is horse country.  It was smile-making to see the little girls in pink hats and cowgirl diamond-patterned boots with those blinking-as-you-walk LED lights.  The kids twinkled as they pranced along the edge of the arena. 

Very good country/western music before the show, so coming early was a really great idea.  Total fair atmosphere, and a kind of electricity as we waited for the hard-hitting events.

That fair atmosphere fades only slightly once the rodeo begins.  This is serious stuff. A dangerous sport.  And it happens quickly.  The chute opens, the event occurs in seconds, the cowboy is rescued; the arena is cleared; another chute opens.  This is definitely not baseball.  If you haven’t gotten your food, beer, cowboy attire and souvenirs by the time the rodeo begins, you’re going to miss some pretty exciting action.

Davie Pro Rodeo, Florida

The arena is a big oblong with chutes on either end.  A squad of security guards stands in intervals along an orange railing lined with Danger signs warning spectators to keep off the rails.  Security guards enforce that rule, and for good reasons which I learned later.

Davie Pro Rodeo, Florida

More than once during the rodeo, men working the arena leapt up those rails for safety—even the ringmaster at one point.  These are big and dangerous animals on the loose in there. 

Before the rodeo officially begins, cowgirls gallop into the arena, some holding American flags that flutter as their horses circle around the ring.  The cowgirls perform a synchronized riding dance around the ring, passing one another and criss-crossing each other and urging their horses on at full tilt.  Pretty exciting and very fast.  Flags waving in the breeze.  Costumes sparkling.  They are joined by cowboys, but the movements do not slow as the horses perform their complex ballet.

Davie Pro Rodeo, Florida

Davie Pro Rodeo, Florida

The ringmaster offers a prayer, primarily for the safety of the competitors, our military and for all those who serve their communities. A little nine year old girl in full cowgirl regalia belts out the Star Spangled Banner truer than many professionals I’ve heard.  Everyone stands, silent, many with hands over their hearts, every cowboy/girl hat removed, and frankly it is a pleasure to see no one keeping his/her seat or chatting disrespectfully.  Life is good.

Davie Pro Rodeo, Florida

But the serious mood does not last long!  In case you’re wondering if the crowd remains silent, they do not.  They cannot because danger rides in on the opening event.  Bull riding.  This is an incredible event.  Those bulls are humongous!! 

Just watching the cowboys getting ready in the chutes is exciting.  The man gently lowers himself on to the broad, muscular back of the bull.  If he is not seated properly, he rises and lowers himself again.  He fixes his hat (although it may not stay on long), makes sure his gloves are fitted properly, and he winds the thick rope around his hand.  The crowd’s anticipation is almost palpable. 

Davie Pro Rodeo, Florida
All these men are making sure that the cowboy is really set to go--
seated correctly, holding securely
Men are hanging over the sides of the chute making sure everything is ready.  Men are in the arena ready to pull open the iron door of the chute, and when they do, the behemoth slams out and the men jump up on the railings.

The bull lunges out of the chute, leaping up in the air, all four feet off the ground.  Despite his size, that muscled monster is adroit, throwing that cowboy, who is hanging on to that thick rope, around like a pesky fly.  We can see the cowboy’s head snapping back and forth.  If the cowboy stays on long enough, the bull twists his body and weight.  He makes mechanical bulls look tame.  One way or the other it is over very quickly, and the cowboy is off in a not so graceful hard landing in the dirt.  He bounces back up quickly because that bull, his head menacingly lowered, goes right for him.  Cowboys need to scurry quickly and nimbly!  Two wranglers quickly ride to cut off the bull’s path, and the cowboy swings up behind one and is taken to safety while the other gets the bull to enter another chute.  When the cowboy jumps off the back of the horse, he retrieves his hat and slaps it against his body, raising a dirty cloud.   Usually he’s shaking his head.

Davie Pro Rodeo, Florida
The bull lunges forward, and the men in the arena
leap for safety
Davie Pro Rodeo, Florida
Wouldn't guess this animal could act like a kangaroo!
Davie Pro Rodeo, Florida
Must be a bull's version of Twist & Shout
Most of the cowboys wear cowboy hats, but some of the contestants wear crash helmets.  They can take some mighty dangerous falls.
Davie Pro Rodeo, Florida
Look at the helmet this bull rider is wearing.
He also has a protective vest.
This is not a sport for the faint-at-heart.
If the cowboy lasts on board that monster for the requisite number of seconds, the two riders come alongside, and the cowboy slips behind one and is taken to safety. 

Sometimes that bull is an angry, moving mountain of muscle and not amenable to being coaxed into the exit chute, or he might really get dangerously close to the cowboy.  It’s then that the rodeo clowns come to the rescue.  Those guys move like greased lightning, and we see bulls chase them right up and over the railings—you remember with the signs warning against climbing! 

Davie Pro Rodeo, Florida
A helmet and a protective vest, but it's the rodeo clown who is the
real savior.  And look at the guy with the brace on the knee.
Wonder what the story is there.
It’s a tough way to make a living.  And it must be a “late-bloomer” sport as four of the top bull riders in the entire country’s rodeo circuit are in their 40’s.  What happened to the rest of them????

Each of the events has its own kind of excitement, but always, always, the event is fast.  Single and double rider calf roping takes place in under six seconds.  What is amazing is the way the horse and cowboy work together to keep the rope taut.  The horse is an equal part of the team whether it’s a one man event or a two-cowboy event.

Davie Pro Rodeo, Florida
Once lassoed, the cowboy jumps down while the horse keeps
a taut rope, and the cowboy ties the calf's legs together.
Imagine doing this all day to brand the new calves in the herd.
Davie Pro Rodeo, Florida
In the 2-man, one cowboy lassos, and the other ties.  If the first man
misses, the game is over for them.
Bucking broncos---just a few seconds.  Those horses leave the ground and leap to incredible heights, backs bowed and cowboys flapping like paper cut-out dolls.  Tremendous strength and over 1,000 pounds of propelling muscle beneath each leap.  Add the twisting, and you can see how skillful these cowboys are. 

Davie Pro Rodeo, Florida

Davie Pro Rodeo, Florida

Davie Pro Rodeo, Florida
The your usual find for a trail ride, huh?
The cowgirls competing in barrel racing show just how communication between horse and rider is tantamount.  Look at the lean in that horse as he rounds the barrel.  They come out of the chute full speed, round the barrels in a pattern, and race back to the exit chute. Every one of the competitors finishes the course in less than 15 seconds.  It’s an event made of superior horsewomanship and unbridled fearlessness and trust. 

Davie Pro Rodeo, Florida

If you are anywhere near Davie, Florida, check out the schedule to see if the rodeo is coming to town.  Get there early and enjoy the leisure before the events because once it starts, things happen very quickly!!!

Friday, May 15, 2015


Here I am in the courtyard of Doris Day's beautiful Cypress Inn
in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.  Beautiful boutique hotel.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015


by Stuart Mills
Getting through airport hassle may make flying a chore, but nothing can rob me of the slightly nerve-wracking thrill of speeding down the runway guessing when lift off will occur and when we will swiftly rise to places man has only been reaching for a bit more than a century.  The Wright brothers flew in 1903, and the first commercial flight was in 1914.  It's only 2015 now. That’s not a lot of time to accomplish so much.  I don’t want to miss that tremendous sense of history and wonder each time I board. 

In my favorite classic movies like the seasonal joy White Christmas, travel is by train.  So many of the 1940s and 1950s movie intrigues begin on trains or ocean liners—meeting strangers, witnessing murders, falling in love.  And then travel began to change.

My grandmother was an old lady wintering in Florida before she ever flew.  My mother didn’t leave the ground until she was middle-aged.  I boarded for the first time at 16, and as the plane made that tilted turn above La Guardia Airport in Queens, I saw the wing dip, dip, dip over the water, and my nails dug into my friend Edith’s hand leaving deep, red scratch marks.  My daughter, Allison, flew to at age 6 to Disneyworld, and my grand nephew, Theo, arrived in New York from Los Angeles when he was barely more than a month old.

What grand and wonderful changes these are.  We must remember to think of them.  We might complain of a bumpy ride, but just visit the Boeing Museum of Flight in Seattle, and you will learn that those in-pocket bags were not there for decoration.

photo attribution in corner

But back to my excitement.  Once airborne, I don’t ever want to get over my amazement of clouds.

As we leave Boston’s Logan Airport on this trip, we rise into high cloud cover.  Total white out.  Thick and blinding.  White—all the colors combined so that we see no color.  Nothing. 

Then suddenly without warning, we break through the blanket of cloud.  We are above it. The man in the seat in front of me quickly pulls down his shade because the sun is so bright it hurts his eyes, blinding him for the moment.  I squint a bit at the reflection of light off the brilliantly white clouds, but I don’t want to miss anything.  On the horizon, if there is such a thing in the sky, at what appears to be the end of the clouds’ flatness there is a brilliant cerulean blue area, straight across with a fairly even width, and above that oasis of blue, the whitest clouds surround.  It’s quite a fantasyland up here.

On this JetBlue flight to Cancun, a 4.5 hour flight from Boston, I have to marvel at our speed as we quickly cross thousands of miles.  I think of pioneers in Conestoga wagons or frontiersmen on foot.  How far we’ve come in our ability to wander the world.

I love the live map on my seatback screen tracing our plane’s progress.  Talk about a shrinking world right before my eyes.  We are at an altitude of 34,453 feet, flying at 423 miles per hour.  It feels as if we are barely moving.  Think of that and how 55 mph is the speed limit on many roads—70 mph if you’re lucky. 

Sometimes it might seem easier to gripe about a hassle in the airport, a late flight or a bumpy but safe descent and landing, but if you can use your imagination and think of how amazing the trip is and even how in a few years this might seem primitive, you might end up with a lighter heart and a smile.