Friday, February 17, 2012

Taking a Moment to Celebrate

Dear Helen, Dear John,

I've signed up to participate in Cassandra's Readathon this weekend and a free U.S. Constitution Class through Hillsdale College beginning Monday. I could fret about how many things I have not done over the past few weeks, but instead I want to take a moment to celebrate some of the things that I have.

I have been able to give a few music lessons. I have been able to do my own laundry. I have been able to do exercises for one to two minutes at a time, several times a day, without making myself sick and knocking my heart out. Because of that my clothes are fitting better again, my muscles are engaged and functioning, my body hurts less, my toes don't stay blue for very long, and I even managed to be out and about for an entire day without collapsing- and on my birthday, no less!

I don't normally like to write or talk about my birthdays but this one was a particularly perfect one for me and I want to remember it. Usually I get a call from Ryan singing Happy Birthday to me with his family in Finnish. This year however, he called me up first thing to wish me Happy Birthday! Happy Valentine's Day! and Happy Single Day! in Polish (because he doesn't know how to say Happy Single Awareness Day! in Polish yet *grin*). Not many people get to wake up to someone they love calling them from Poland. Over the last week it has happened to me twice! (He called earlier in the week at 5am so that I could edit one of his college papers- not my best editing hour, but he got top marks for it, so it's good). I remember how expensive and difficult it was to make long distance phone calls from China a little over a decade ago. Talking and skyping with people all over the world with ease is a modern wonder and miracle to me.

My sister decided to send me a text message for every year of my life this far as her present to me, so I was getting texts of things she loved about me along with some of our favorite movie quotes all day long. It was good that I waited to read them in the car because with several of them, I burst out laughing. In the used bookstore especially, that would have been rather embarrassing.

My mom was able to get the day off of work so we had the chance to spend the entire day alone together. She even turned her phone off for the occasion. It was wonderful! wonderful! We drove to the little diner close to the apartment where we used to live when we first moved here and had breakfast together. It was so good to be back. I'm grateful that I realized at the time that we lived there how precious that time and place would be in my life, and actively made the most of it. I have no regrets about it, but oh how I miss it!

One remarkable thing about my birthday was how much joy my mom and I had in doing rather unremarkable things. Tasting samples as we bought a few groceries I realized what a gift it is to have a vast store of positive associations about going grocery shopping with my family, especially with my mom. Because finances were so tight most of my growing up, things like having orange juice in the fridge are still a big treat for me. That's a gift. I realize it more and more when I see friends who are unhappy and discontent with far more but who appreciate it far less. A little poverty in life can be a good thing. If you use it to become grateful, compassionate, and creative with the resources that you have, it can be downright empowering.

I came home to a few gifts with loving notes attached from friends of mine and for the first time in my life had the abundance of riches of a box of See's chocolates AND flowers, both. I should probably still have chocolates leftover today, but I don't. I savored each and every one of them- I just happened to savor them as breakfast, lunch, and dinner for two days! It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I lived it, and loved it. Hah-ha!

I realize every day that the days when I am able to use my body well are real gifts. No, I haven't been able to do much during these past few weeks. But I have been able to be. And in that being there have been some unexpected and singularly happy moments, moments that will help me to be happy, for the rest of my life.

A year older, heralded by flowers and chocolate,


Pupusas: El Salvador

Dear Helen, Dear John,

What is the first word that comes to mind when I think of El Salvador? Pupusas! One of the benefits of growing up as I did is that between our family and our friends, we've pretty much lived and eaten our way around the world. We were introduced to pupusas by Ryan's best friend in middle school. They are a special treat because, like tamales, they are on the labor-intensive, everybody-into-the-kitchen-and-make-yourself-useful side. But it can be done! as these videos below clearly demonstrate:

These are a spicier version than the ones we've typically had, but they are the real deal. Just looking at them makes me hungry and long to be in California again. (I really should just "woman up" and make them myself!)

Anyway, on a side note, do you know how you can tell this lady is a real cook (and a good one)? Watch how she measures (in case you missed that, she grabs and dumps- exactly like all the great cooks in all the cultures I've seen do it, especially the mamas!). Also, look how often she uses utensils versus her hands (hands win easily, except when the food is hot). And did you see how quickly she formed those pupusas? If I do make them you can bet that I will be making them while watching a miniseries (and who wants to bet that the miniseries will finish first?). *grin*

Ahh... good memories... a very pleasant way to spend a Friday morning.

Happily remembering,


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Prague Cello Quartet: Czech Republic

Dear Helen, Dear John,

Months ago I scoured the internet for videos of cellists in action to study how they held their cellos and bows. That's how I discovered the Prague Cello Quartet.

They epitomize what I hope to achieve with my cello someday: the ability to play music beautifully with joy and passion, at ease among friends. I've wanted to visit Prague to see them perform in person ever since.

For hours I've struggled to articulate how watching and listening to them makes me feel. It's been a constant cycle of type, erase, type, erase, type, erase. This is after weeks of contemplating what I wanted most to share with you. In some areas of my life and thought, words are awkward and entirely inadequate. Perhaps this is why I crave and need music in my life. Perhaps these particular thoughts and feelings are only fluent in the dialect of cello.

Rosining my bow,


Friday, February 10, 2012

My 2012 Olympic Challenge: Canada

Dear Helen, Dear John,

I thought it would be fun today to head up to Canada and highlight one of my favorite Canadians: Kurt Browning. And because I love Scott Hamilton (and ice skating and Gene Kelly and Stomp) and because hockey in Canada is a big deal, I thought this video would be perfect:

Are you smiling yet? 

I am. 

Grinning and giggling,


Wrapping up Shakespeare Reading Month

Dear Helen, Dear John,

I realized early on that I was unlikely to finish most of what I started reading for Shakespeare Reading Month in time- even with the deadline extension- there were just too many things that came up in my reading that I wanted to explore and think about, and I wanted to take my time with them. So I have, and I'm grateful I have.

Reading Troilus and Cressida is a good example of what typically happens: I started reading some prep material for the play and found that there are significant differences in how the characters are portrayed in the Shakespeare versus the Chaucer version. So I looked up the Chaucer version to check it out, but the English is different and being the language geek that I am, I want to know how to pronounce it correctly, so I YouTubed it and found that especially with studying German recently, a lot of the differences in pronunciation made sense to me, which is very cool. Also, it sounds pretty. Yeah, that exploration took a few hours. Then I started reading the beginning of the Chaucer version out loud, enjoying the way the words felt on my tongue and wished that they had taught Troilus and Cressida instead of The Canterbury Tales in my high school English class, and that my teacher had read it the right way, in the original form (I can hear the rest of my English class groan- but approached with enthusiasm and carried out in the right spirit, it could be a lot of fun). The language in the Chaucer version was so beautiful in the way that it sounded and flowed, that I confess I struggled a bit returning to Shakespeare, though I'm glad I did.

I had a fabulous time reading about Thomas Edison cutting up with Shakespeare in front of his fellow telegraph operators, and even quoting from Richard III in his laboratory records when success was eluding him: "Now is the winter of our discontent..." I read several articles about Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln, and Shakespeare's importance to a mountain man well known to me- Jim Bridger. My dad would have loved that and he would have loved the living history presentation of it at Fort Bridger as well. Jim Bridger went to great lengths and great expense to learn Shakespeare, memorizing his words and making them his own, even though he didn't know how to read.

I watched several Shakespeare adaptations as I was reading; Joan Plowright and Laurence Olivier in The Merchant of Venice being one of them that I enjoyed. But an especially pleasant surprise came in the form of Richard Burton and John Geilgud's Hamlet. I liked the rehearsal style set-up, it made me listen more and ended up, ironically, making the play feel more authentic to me. I also thought that using a shadow to depict Hamlet's father was particularly effective in performance. Richard Burton delivered his lines very differently than I'm used to, not necessarily my favorite way, but definitely in a way that felt fresh and made me think and consider their meaning more deeply. By far my two favorite things about this production were that, for the first time in my life, Hamlet, in parts, was funny- every other version I've seen (outside of spoof parodies) has been deathly serious- and secondly, that Hume Cronyn was absolutely brilliant as Polonius. I loved the openly affectionate dynamic between Ophelia, Polonius, and Laertes. Is Polonius long-winded, and does he not always follow the counsel he gives to his children? Yes- but name me one parent who manages to live every principle perfectly that they try to teach their children so that their children will be happier, healthier, and wiser than they themselves have been.

I have always felt that Polonius and Laertes' counsels to Ophelia were given not out of male dominance but out of love. Reading over them again I feel sure of it, and that their positions are based on realities and good sense: Hamlet, as a prince, cannot marry on emotion and personal preference alone- and what a relationship means to a guy and a girl (especially an intimate one)- can be two, drastically different things. I believe that loving family members should give warnings when they see situations where a loved one could be heading towards heartache, loss of reputation, and disaster. Take Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and look at the criticism that could reasonably be levied against Mr. Bennet for not taking a more active and fatherly role in watching out for, guiding, and disciplining his younger daughters- which did lead to unhappiness and loss of reputation among them, and jeopardized the positions and futures of them all.

I believe that Polonius clearly demonstrates that his counsel to Ophelia was given out of love and genuine concern for her well-being when he later says to her in Act II Scene 1: "That hath made him mad. I am sorry that with better heed and judgement I had not quoted him: I fear'd he did but trifle, And meant to wreck thee." He admits his own weakness to his daughter thus: "It seems it is as proper to our age / To cast beyond ourselves in our opinions / As it is common for the younger sort / To lack discretion."

Ophelia does not hide her interactions with Hamlet from her father when he asks her about them. She does not withhold the love letter Hamlet gave to her. While these revelations could have been forced to some degree by manipulation and force of an obnoxious, overbearing parent on a weak child, I do not get that impression from their interactions together. It takes a great person to admit that they were mistaken in their judgement and Polonius does this openly with his daughter. He also does something about it, putting his own reputation, which is obviously important to him, on the line when he relays his new beliefs about the source of Hamlet's madness to the king. He meddles, and he's wrong, but he acts in good faith and it seems to me, that he does so trying to secure happiness for both Hamlet and his daughter, which likely would have worked, possibly along the lines of Much Ado about Nothing, had the monarch he was trying to serve dutifully, been a good man.

In the end, Hamlet's (accidental?) slaying of Polonius puts Laertes in a similar sad state of trying to avenge the death of a beloved father. The tragic death of Ophelia's father by the hand of the man she believed to have loved her, and who had recently and rather violently rejected her, would be enough to put most grown women over the edge, let alone a young one. I don't think Ophelia's subsequent madness is necessarily a sign of inherent weakness or the oppression and hypocritical overbearance of her father and brother as is often portrayed. Grief can bring most mortals frighteningly close to the point of despair or madness. At least that's been my experience with a significant number of people both old and young, male and female, from several different cultures and backgrounds.

On a lighter note, with the help of a book called Shakespeare's Garden, I have been creating a list of plants and Shakespeare quotes about them so that I can plant a garden similar to other Shakespeare Gardens I've seen and admired, but tailored to my tastes and personality. I will likely share more of the gems I'm finding in various books about acting Shakespeare and in the plays themselves later on, but for now, my attention will be focused on reading Little Dorrit, which I began on Charles Dickens' birthday on a lark, to celebrate.

Happily yours,


Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Song of the Banana Man, Jamaica, Thoreau, and Clothes

Dear Helen, Dear John,

     George Scott is a man with a beautiful voice. I could listen to him speak sense and nonsense happily, days on end. I first encountered this video of him reading "The Song of the Banana Man" by Evan Jones months ago; and it immediately made me think, and it immediately reminded me of Henry David Thoreau:

"No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience... I sometimes try my acquaintances by such tests as this; - who could wear a patch, or two extra seams only, over the knee? Most behave as if they believed that their prospects for life would be ruined if they should do it." (Walden, "Economy")

I have a feeling Henry David Thoreau would have liked the banana man tremendously. I know I do. I admire his spirit and his dignity and that he knows who he is and that he has value whether the tourist realizes it or not. I'm not sure how the banana man would feel about Thoreau judging him by his clothes, even in a positive way, but I think they are both trying to teach people some of the same things:
'So when you see dese ol clothes brown wid stain,
An soaked right through wid de Portlan rain,
Don't cas your eye nor turn your nose,
Don't judge a man by his patchy clothes,
I'm a strong man, a proud man, an I'm free,
Free as dese mountains, free as dis sea,
I know myself, an I know my ways,
An will sing wid pride to de end o my days
Praise God an m'big right han
I will live an die a banana man.' 
As a kid who grew up wearing hand-me-down clothes and, in some places, being teased mercilessly for it, I had to come to realize that I was more than my clothes. Knowing that gave me independence. I have my own sense of style now as both of you did, and I'm grateful for it. It makes me a little sorry for the adults who, from time to time, give me grief about how I dress now: it's so unhappy-high school-ridiculous.

"... beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes... If you have any enterprise before you, try it in your old clothes. All men want, not something to do with,  but something to do, or rather something to be. Perhaps we should never procure a new suit, however ragged or dirty the old, until we have so conducted, so enterprised or sailed in some way, that we feel like new men in the old, and that to retain it would be like keeping new wine in old bottles." (Walden)

Clothes can be functional and a lot of fun when they are an outward expression of the inner person. When I started ice skating I skated in jeans and coats, gloves and sweaters. As I began learning skills that required me to move differently and with a greater range of motion and ease, I slipped into clothes and fabrics that suited my practices better- but it's like what Thoreau wrote- the clothes don't make the man, the man makes the clothes his own, by growing out of them and into them as he labours and grows. A great skater in jeans is still a great skater- watch exhibition skates after nationals and worlds. An honest, hard-working man who loves his work and his home will be that man whether he's dressed in a suit or in "patchy clothes". Either way, however, he will be happiest and most comfortable, like the banana man, when he knows and respects who he really is, in or out of them.

Enjoying the comfort of living in my own skin,


Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Greater Journey by David McCullough

Dear Helen, Dear John,

I read The Greater Journey Americans in Paris by David McCullough to complement my reading of Henry James's The American for the January Library Challenge. It also qualifies as my first chunkster of the year completed.

Thanks to a love of Baroness Orczy's The Scarlet Pimpernel, I studied the French Revolution on my own while in high school along with French (in spite of the objections of several vocal family members who were adamant that Spanish was more practical). Thanks to a bust of a man at the Huntington Library and Gardens whose expression kept drawing me back to him, along with the later release of the movie Amazing Grace, I read quite a bit about William Pitt the Younger and caught a little more French history from that. Researching WWI and WWII, the same thing occurred. There was only a one hundred years-or-so gap between these major events and it wasn't a time period referred to much in my experience (outside of a book I did not enjoy by Dumas) so I took it for granted that little of importance was happening in France at that time. WRONG!

The Greater Journey not only made Victor Hugo's exile make more sense, it also made me pay closer attention to the accounts of people connected to him who were mentioned in the book. People like his brother-in-law, Pierre-Charles-Alexandre Louis, a physician who taught and trained many American doctors before such programs existed in the United States- programs that exist now in large part because of those Americans who studied with Dr. Louis in Paris.

I had known about Buffalo Bill Cody's tour in Europe, but I didn't know about George Catlin and his Native American friends making a sensation in France decades before. I also didn't know that Victor Hugo invited an American, William Wells Brown, to speak against slavery in a meeting in Paris in 1849.

I was completely ignorant about King Louis-Philippe and his special connection to America before reading this book. I definitely want to learn more about him now.

I confess I was tickled by how many people mentioned in the book I was already familiar with, especially the more obscure ones. As soon as I saw the name Henry Bowditch I wondered, is that any relation to the Nathaniel Bowditch I've read about? It was, and it was exciting to have previous study help things I was learning now to have greater context.

As you know, I was already planning on reading James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans this year, but I never expected Cooper and his writing to be mentioned in a book focused on Paris. That was a pleasant surprise. I had thought about this book as one of many tangent reads, and felt slightly guilty about reading it before the books I had already committed to read. Instead, what I learned from it will help me to read several of the books on my list with greater appreciation and enthusiasm.

I enjoy visiting art museums and studying artists so I was familiar with many of the artists David McCullough wrote about. It was exciting when certain pieces of art were mentioned that I had actually seen in person before. It was also exciting to read the paragraph he wrote about the artists who were sent to study in Paris so that they could paint the murals in the temples being built by the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at that time. My mother taught us that getting an education and developing our talents was a commandment from God and that we should always be learning and willing to share our talents with others. A picture my great-grandfather painted of his farm in Scandinavia hangs on our wall. An oil painting my mother painted hangs in my aunt's house. My paintings and my dad's and brothers' photographs dot the walls in several homes. A cousin painted the watercolor used for my first book cover for me. It was nice to see this important aspect of our faith mentioned.

James Jackson's story made me weep, every reference to George Healy's relationship with his wife made me smile, and Elihu B. Washburne's actions left me in awe- what an extraordinary, brave, and exemplary man. It upsets me that I have never heard of him before- a lot.  

I'm glad I read this book first, even with many others waiting. I'll never look at life or history the same. It was comforting to read of the struggles and doubts that are common in people who strive for excellence. I was also reminded, again and again, how fragile and unexpected life is. It would be difficult not to live a little differently after having read this book, and I mean that in a good way.

Thoughtfully yours,


Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital: Ethiopia

Dear Helen, Dear John,

Prior to watching A Walk to Beautiful I had no idea what a fistula was or that so many women were suffering in that way. This was the first time any film I have watched has brought back the tender feelings I experienced while being treated in a burn unit, full force. The loving, compassionate care given to the women at the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia is the only place outside of the Joseph M. Still Burn Centers where I have witnessed that level of concentrated godliness in action.

Fred Rogers shared this wisdom that I have tried to pattern my life after, ever since I first encountered it:
(When I was a boy and would see scary things on the news) "My mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother's words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers- so many caring people in this world."
A Walk to Beautiful shows some of these helpers in action. It is profound and uplifting, and a documentary I will be recommending over and over from now on.

With deep gratitude for all the world's helpers,


Friday, February 3, 2012

Falajs and Frankincense: Oman

Dear Helen, Dear John,

A falaj is a canal-type irrigation system that has been used for over two thousand years in Oman. Falajs have been, and continue to be, of incredible importance to communities there. Five of them are listed as World Heritage Sites. Here is what one falaj in Oman looks like in action:

Remarkable, isn't it?

Oman is also known for something else that excites the imagination- frankincense. Alison Gardner shares pictures and a brief, alluring account of her trip to Salalah, where frankincense trees grow. Frankincense is actually dried tree sap from the genus Boswellia. The incense trade in Oman has declined over the years but that may change if researchers can isolate the component in frankincense that stops cancer without destroying healthy cells in the process.

With hope,


Thursday, February 2, 2012

Betcha You're Familiar with an Armenian Composer and Don't Know It!

Dear Helen, Dear John,

I imagine many people would be surprised to discover that they are familiar with an Armenian composer's work- a piece from a ballet, no less. I know my family was last night when I mentioned it to them at dinner, but it only took singing two bars of Aram Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance" to convince them that this was, in fact, the case.  You two are probably most familiar with the Andrews Sisters' version:

but a quick look at YouTube reveals thousands of versions of it from the original ballet orchestra setting to arrangements of it for electric guitars. This video of it being performed by preschoolers is my current favorite:

Finding that I alternately know and don't know more about the world than I think I do has been one of the joys of my Olympic Challenge. Searching until I find something about each country participating in the 2012 Olympic Games that I'm excited to share can be time-consuming and challenging, but it is also incredibly rewarding. Eyeing the list of countries participating and counting down the days until the London Olympics begin (176 days to go with 204 countries expected to participate, 146 countries qualified to, as of this morning) can make me feel slightly frantic in the same vein as portions of the Sabre Dance, but mostly I enjoy sharing and celebrating the beauty, wonders, and joy I'm finding in countries throughout the world.

Of course in Armenia's case I had another in: my favorite pharmacist of all time was originally from there. She shared her love of her culture and for my family every time we saw her, which, because of my medical issues, was often. We still have the cookbook she and her friends compiled of authentic Armenian recipes that she gave to us. Just looking at it makes me happy- very much like hearing the music of Sabre Dance by Aram Khachaturian does.

Searching, sharing, and celebrating,


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Museum of Applied Art of Uzbekistan

Dear Helen, Dear John,

If I were to tell someone how to find Uzbekistan quickly on a map I would tell them to look south of Russia, west of China, and north of Afghanistan and Iran. The people speak Uzbek there, a Turkic language that has been written in Latin, Cyrillic, and Arabic scripts at various times during the last 100 years.

The Museum of Applied Art of Uzbekistan has pictures of its collections online so you can tour the galleries and learn more about their culture and art from home. Every musical instrument in their gallery was new to me and their gold embroidery is exquisite. I love the detail and the rich colors that I imagine must be even more extraordinary when seen up close and in person. It makes me want to get daring with some needlework or a paintbrush and attempt something beautiful myself.