Monday, December 18, 2017

Deck the Halls - Old Salem, Minions and Winterthur

I've already had a wonderful Christmas season, and we have a week to go!

It kicked off with a visit to the Old Salem Candle Tea in Winston-Salem, NC.  We never attended while we lived there, but this year I accompanied a friend for the tour.  Guides in period costumes led Christmas carols, made candles, explained the miniature replica of the village in the late eighteenth century and shared sugar bread and coffee. It was all beautiful and reverent. The best was last--a manger scene set which spotlighted the particular characters as they were mentioned in the Biblical account.

Later that week I celebrated the annual Christmas dinner of my North Carolina book club.  Our hostess's house is decorated so beautifully I always come home and chuckle about our mismatched ornaments and the lack of elegance on our dining table.

And last night, we walked Bo through the local bright lights and the minions! 

New experiences and old traditions add so much to the joy and wonder I find in this season. 

If you're a Christmas fanatic, this one's good enough for your bucket list. If you're within a few hours of driving time--go. 

In Wilmington, Delaware is the home of Henry Frances DuPont. It's called Winterthur. I love how grand old homes had names. It's not quite an American Downton Abbey, but it displays how one family in the top 1% lived in most of the last century. 

At Christmas time the home is lushly decorated. They use greenery and other materials from the estate. The more rustic barrel at right is filled with common eastern plants. 

This tree was my favorite, decorated with dried flowers from the summer gardens. 

cozy tree in an informal dining room

splendor in the conservatory

I wouldn't want to live in a mansion, but I  love the razzle-dazzle. 

What special Christmas traditions add to your holiday mood? 

I encourage you to share. It will enrich all of us. 

As Bo would say "Tell it!"

Monday, December 11, 2017

Stocks for Kids

I pledge to reduce Christmas gift disappointment among our family's tweens/teens by 100 % this year. No more sweaters they peel off as soon as Grandma walks out the door. No more books doomed to a shelf. Not even the gizmo that enthralls them for two whole days. 

I've got a great idea for this Christmas. But hang with me while I give you the backstory. 

I first met an investor when we were both working for Continental Airlines for a whopping $7.50 an hour. My divorced friend challenged me.  "As a woman you need to know about money."  It didn't seem either of us had money to spare. But she encouraged me, "At least invest in the 401K, and the company adds a percentage to what you put in." 

That made sense, an instant raise. I followed her advice, had a small amount deducted automatically every month. When I quit I had a hummingbird-sized nest egg I invested in a mutual fund as a retirement account. 

In the next job as a teacher, a colleague invited me to join their women's investment group. We chipped in $50 a month and learned how to read stock reports. Back then they were only available at the library.  We bought well-known boring stocks like Johnson and Johnson. We avoided "sexy" stocks like Amazon. We passed on Microsoft because it was more expensive than Apple.  

When I moved again I rolled over my school district's vested retirement account in with the mutual funds. Those two have grown 720%. I'm sure Warren Buffet could have done better, but this took NO work on my part.

The investment club eventually sold the Apple stock. As my buy-out I said, "send me shares instead of cash." I got a few shares of Disney and Microsoft. But like the big fish that got away, I've lamented that Apple stock every time it's had spectacular rises in share prices. 

I put those stock shares in a file folder hoping they'd grow to help fund the grandkids' college tuition. Well that's not gonna happen. The stocks may eventually have to be cashed in for my fun money. 

Had those women never started the financial literacy ball rolling I wouldn't even be able to fund my little trips and fiddle lessons without getting another job. Or I'd have to sell the family silver set, as one friend's husband threatens. 

Back to Christmas for the grandkids.

  Mulling all of this over, I realized I can help my grandchildren learn to handle money. I read about an app named Stockpile which trades partial shares of stock to engage young investors. You can buy Stockpile gift certificates for as little as $5.00, and the kids buy* whole or fractional shares. The website has easy buttons for categories of companies which appeal to kids such as restaurants they like, or sports equipment and toy manufacturers. It may be the perfect gift for my teens with no silver-spoon in sight.

I think this grandma's going to offer an investing-for-beginners class after New Year's so they can decide what to do with the gift cards they get in their Christmas stockings. The company has even invented a board game available on Amazon to teach the basics of investment.

Eventually I hope they'll thank me. Maybe they'll choose the next high-performer and earn their own fun money. And even if they don't, my money's not wasted on another iTunes gift card. 

When did you start to learn about handling money? What are the most valuable lessons you want to pass along? 

*Some adult does have to serve as custodian for kids under 18.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Yard Decorations: Sacred, secular and scrambled

The turkey is just a carcass and here at Western Gardens (name changed to avoid offense), the residents are decorating their buildings for the traditional contest. 

I overheard two women in the locker room talking about which company they hire to put up their lights and displays. Whoa, our one-man committee (me) put up the wreath left by the departing building representative, upgraded it with a string of lights, and plugged it in. 

Wreaths, swags and bows suit my fancy. So do giant trees wound with thousands of tiny lights. Discombobulated, include-it-all displays leave me shaking my head. Themes are more relaxing, more elegant. Unless it's my four year old grandson's vision of adding a new inflatable snowman to their yard every year.

Last Sunday, which was a pleasant 70 degrees, the serious contenders for the development's contest were busy. I passed another walker coming my direction from a building bustling with industrious volunteers. I commented, "They're working hard." 

"They're fighting about where everything goes," she said. 

Well, I could see why. Their collection of miscellany don't fit in the secular, or the sacred, or any other category. 

I took another walk today to check on the procrastinators.  Animals decked out with hats and angel wings are popular.


But so far, no red and green dragons, like this one in Home Depot. Can anyone explain its connection to Christmas, Hanukah, or Kwanzaa?


I didn't see anything I would vote for. 

Too bad we can't just project a giant video of the newest grandbaby on a wall. She's the best gift ever, and a winner!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Gratitude: Call to Action

All across America today, people have tied on aprons and are spooning up mashed potatoes and spearing slices of turkey. They serve total strangers they will never see again.

I know many of you like to volunteer lots of other days too. There are hosts of reasons. 

It makes us feel good. 

It reduces feelings of hopelessness because at least we’re doing something about homelessness or the environment.

We never outgrew being Girl Scouts. 

We are members of faith communities that teach the importance of helping others. 

Or, that’s just what citizens do.

I believe most of our service springs out of gratitude. We have discovered that gratitude is more than an adjective, it leads to action. According to the , for about five hundred years, the word gratitude has been used in such a way to go beyond a feeling about what pleases us, to making us “disposed to repay favors bestowed.” 

 I grew up free and inestimably blessed by a college education. As a teacher I chose to work with immigrant kids, many of whom who had already faced adult-sized challenges by the time I met them at age eight. Their difficulties made me more determined to do what I could to open their futures to more opportunities. 

Once retired, I kept at it as a volunteer. I met a family who wanted tutoring for their children. Bill and I spent many happy hours with the girls, helping with homework, reading to them, and introducing them to new concepts and vocabulary. 

This school year I help out in a 4/5 classroom in Denver’s international school for new arrivals. The teachers in this group have their hands full. There are at least five different native languages, probably ten different countries represented, and three kids have never been in school. Those children are not conforming to our standards of how to do school. Some afternoons my frustration is greater than the satisfaction I feel. 

The fact that the situation is not as conducive to learning as it could be makes me more grateful for the orderly schools and one really savvy principal I worked under. And in turn it makes me more determined to “manifest the feeling by acts.” 

I asked the school’s volunteer coordinator to pair me with a family. The apartment buildings across the street from where we live are home to many of the school’s families. She introduced me to Ameneh, a young woman from Iraq with two young children at the school.  Ameneh wants to give her kids every advantage she can. While her husband works, she volunteers at the school and takes their English class for parents. My extra help will move her closer to her goal to enroll in the community college. 

For our first meeting, I walked through the complex of rather shabby buildings, down the hall covered with thin, tired carpet, to their clean nicely decorated apartment. She has Iraqi touches all around the apartment, an "I love Iraq"  banner, embroidered red curtains and a lovely beaded table runner. American culture rules in the kids’ bedroom with a Cars movie bed spread for her son, some pink princess for her daughter. The bathroom is dominated by Dory

She served me ginger tea, pastries made with phyllo dough and pistachios, and dates stuffed with walnuts. She treated me like an honored guest. I was humbled and I hope I can live up to her expectations. 

Isn’t it wonderful how gratitude can lead to action, and then to more gratitude!

I hope that’s a lesson we share at our tables today. 

Happy Thanksgiving, and thank you for your acts of service to others. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Thanksgiving holds the prime spot in my heart for holidays. 

When our family was young we tried to fill the table with other transplants to Denver. I embroidered a special table cloth to fit the table with all of the leaves in it, and loved setting a pretty table. We were all young and everybody brought something to round out the meal. One bachelor brought his coffee cake and ever since we enjoy Wacker cake as we prepare the meal. 

When we moved away we became guests instead of hosts. I was grateful to  enjoy other families' traditions. It reinforced my opinion that Thanksgiving is the best holiday. Here are ten reasons why.

1)   It’s less tainted with commercialism than Christmas. I’ve never heard  grandchildren clamor for a giant inflatable turkey.

2)   It’s an important reminder of our country’s origin, the desire for religious freedom on one hand, and the conflict with Native Americans.

3)   Our communities noticeably pause their frenetic pace of life. I've actually seen adults and kids at play in their yards. Until recently, stores have had shorter hours. 

4)   The day is used to share ourselves — time, traditions, a feast.

5)   We add others' traditions, like the Wacker cake. In North Carolina women make home made macaroni and cheese to place on the side board buffet. Oh, yum. I’ll miss that this year.

6)  The traditional menu is as close to a symbolic meal as we Americans get, short of Passover. Our menu at least has roots in what we think Squanto and the ninety warriors brought to the Pilgrims: wild turkeys, pumpkins, probably corn, and mussels and lobster. Check out this Smithsonian site for more information.

7)    The day is relaxing. We don’t rush. The meal is designed for conversation. (And our TV doesn't go on until after.) And there's even time to make a craft with the kids like these turkey cookies. 

8).    Thanksgiving sets a time boundary to keep Christmas at bay until December. I savor each holiday more that way.

9).    Even if I’m in charge of the meal, it means no-cook days later. I look forward to the left-overs as much as the fresh dinner.  

10.).  Thanksgiving has fewer expectations than Christmas. We can roll with no pumpkin pie easier than the disappointment of gifts missing the mark. 

I have some holes in my arsenal of Thanksgiving foods. Please share your best pecan pie recipe, best mac and cheese, and favorite “rite”, or special observance of gratitude. 

Wacker Cake:

Cream 1/2 pound softened butter and 1 cup sugar.
Add 3 eggs and 1 tsp. vanilla
Mix together: 2 1/2 cups flour, 3 tsp baking powder and 1 tsp. baking soda. Add to the creamed sugar mix. 

Fold in the sour cream.

Put into greased and floured bundt pan.

Combine 1 cup sugar and 1 tsp. cinnamon. Sprinkle on top of cake along with chopped nuts and about 3/4-1 cup chocolate chips. 

Bake 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean. Cool before
removing from bundt pan. 


Thursday, November 9, 2017

"Ideal" Fall

Vermont in October

Thanksgiving is only two weeks away which seems too soon. 

I'm grateful for past falls, like the ones we drew with primary crayons in grade school. We enjoyed this season in Massachusetts and Vermont several years ago. The colors were vibrant, despite the dreary sky. 

Ripe pumpkins tumbled down the hill like kids pushing out doors for recess.  They were so cheery, and promised the goodness of the Thanksgiving feast coming soon. 

This lovely sundial symbolized the change in seasons to me. It's on the grounds of the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller home in the national park in Vermont. It's a beautiful estate, and worth a trip to southern Vermont.  

I'm grateful that I have memories that fill in the chinks in my present discipline towards gratitude. To have experienced quintessential autumn on the east coast makes me feel full, that I haven't missed the beautiful places that created our ideals of fall and Thanksgiving. 

 I will be with my daughter and her family for the holiday. She and the kids have never seen an eastern fall, but I hope that's the vision in their imaginations. And I hope someday they get to see the real thing. Nevertheless, our western setting will not dim our celebrating the good things in our lives this year.



Monday, October 30, 2017

Bumperstickers, Tattoos and the Repugnant Cultural Other

People use bumper stickers for their cars for the same reason others get tattoos. 

In fact, all of us seek to express our individuality in some way. And, in what seems like a contradiction, we want to be part of a group that knows and accepts us and holds some common value. We associate with people who share our interests, our particular stage in life, or some cause. 

This driver values dogs, and at least once voted Republican.  I can live with some Republicans, in fact I do. (But I wonder about people who treat their dogs as a significant other.) 

My innocuous bumpersticker proclaims my enthusiasm for Bluegrass music. Recently it prompted a brief chat with a passerby and established a quick, transitory connection with him. It cheered me up.

But I've seen some bumper stickers with which I strongly disagreed. They wouldn't invite  pleasant conversation in the parking lot. And I presuppose that I don't have anything in common with a person covered in tattoos. 

The Wall Street Journal recently introduced me to a term, the RCO, the "repugnant cultural other." The point made by the author was that sometimes we become part of a group just because we are united against those we see as objectionable. 

Hopefully an individual wouldn't get a body tattoo that says "Trump's an idiot." That's a permanent declaration about a temporary problem. And while I might agree, in the long run demeaning the RCO ends dialogue before it begins. Same with demeaning bumperstickers.

The term appeared in an article about academicians and evangelical Christians who serve on the same faculties, but disrespect one another to the point of silence. The article (hit RCO link above if you're want more information) pointed out that in many walks of life we won't talk to people with whom we know we'll disagree. Interestingly, few of the comments left on the Wall Street Journal page about the above article were respectful, proof the problem is widespread.

Well, golly, how will we ever learn to

if we don't listen and talk to each other?  And I'm not saying that we have to agree. I appreciate it when my friends hear out my opinions they don't hold. (Thanks, Lattes.) Yeah, it will probably get uncomfortable. Maybe we need to ask each other deeper questions to truly learn why somebody thinks what they do, or feels what they
do. And eventually we may have to agree to disagree. 
So whether I see a body tattoo or car "tattoos,"  I would be a better person if I were slow to disapprove and quick to listen. 

If you haven't seen the compelling Heineken ad about differences, do take time to click on this link. 

Can you relate to any of the positions held by the participants?  How do you usually handle ideological differences with a friend or stranger?

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Whimsey for the News Worn

Let's roll over recent bad news with a time out for some whimsey. And since there are snow flurries outside my window, it's fun to remember summer.

This weinermobile was parked at a Denver hotel on a day hot enough to cook their dogs on the pavement.  

Somebody else must have been hauling the grill and product. It doesn't look like there's storage for them in there. 

I imagined a bunch of ad people brainstorming around a table. “Hot dog sales are slumping in Salt Lake. They're down in Denver, Rapid City doesn't even show up on the weenie radar. We need to send somebody out and spread the mustard, so to speak."

"Whaddya have in mind?" another asks.

"We need to remind Americans how great it is to eat a grilled dog slathered in ketchup and onions."

"Make it mustard and kraut and I'm all over it." 

"Let's launch a sample and sales promotion across the central US. They're not keeping up with the coasts in eating weenies."

"Yeah, and we'll make a giant frank to drive around the country."

"That's brilliant! Nobody could ignore a beefed up sausage sittin' on a sleek chassis." 

“How big are you talkin'?" 

"Twenty six feet long, averaging 187 smiler per mile." 

Their yellow and orange marketing machine made me smile, and I drove around the block to come back and get a closer look. I wish the driver (the company calls them hot-doggers) had been on hand, but she wasn't.

Oscar Meyer has had weinermobiles hitting the road for 81 years. I'm glad it stopped here.

Next time the news makes you feel bad, cook your WEENRs and cover them with the works. Can't help but smile.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Memorials: Tangible Comfort

Last week's wanton murders in Las Vegas were quickly memorialized in words, candles and flowers . Tangible markers may give comfort to the bereft and keep the loved one's memory alive with a loving gesture.

Numerous times I've passed this light pole on a residential street in Denver. It took several trips before I realized it wasn't just an odd piece of street art. On the next trip I stopped and noted the sign on the other side "In memory of Cole Sukle."  When I googled him I read tragic newspaper stories about this cherished fourteen year old boy. 

Last summer Cole was killed by an 81 year old woman with a history of unsafe driving. I felt outraged that her family hadn't taken her privileges away months before when she was involved in a hit and run accident. It would have saved Cole's life.

I could have continued to drive by this unusual flower-wrapped totem without ever stopping to pay my own homage. 

Memorials draw us in to learn stories and sympathize with those who grieve. They help us appreciate people we never met, and thus more highly value those we know.

On a vacation to Whidbey Island I passed a bench facing Puget Sound.  
Fresh flowers tied on the bench suggested wedding left-overs.

 But the other side of the bench carried a name plate. It revealed that the tribute was for  one H. Mark Bridgeman who had died the previous year. Thanks to the internet I understood that the bench looked out on the sea because he loved to go crabbing and clamming. 

How many other stories wait to be discovered by the curious passerby? 

Would you be pleased to be remembered in some concrete way that pointed to your uniqueness? How have you commemorated a life well-lived? 

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Theology Thursday, Part Two. God: Architect or Pipe Bomb

Part Two, God is like...

In the first Theology Thursday (August 17) I argued that God might be like a shepherd, a scout master, or a bread baker. Here are two new-to-me analogies. Songwriter (24 Frames) John Isbell wrote:

"You thought God was an architect, now you know 
He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow"

It seems the narrator wants God to be in control of all, and that life-bombs are unjust. The lyricist and the theologian would differ in whether God plays both roles. 

Gaudi's "Holy Family" in Barcelona,

I can relate to God as architect. Especially if He creates places I like. On the other hand,  I've blamed Him for events that instantaneously wrecked my happy world.

Sometimes our bad choices and habits are self-destructive.  Skewed brain and body chemistry wreck both the addict and her loved ones.

It gets more complicated when the IED is a combination of natural events like hurricanes, others' poor decisions, and failing bodies. 

But wreckage has causes other than God.  Just as the London terrorist left a bomb on the tube, often chaos and pain are result of others' actions. 

 Logically, it's not fair to blame God for the fallout humans cause.

Every person who believes that God is, has a theology.  So some of us Christians-as-theologians would say that God created mankind but does not mandate every person's actions. Thus He's not responsible for life's disasters. Does God-the-architect create cancer? I don't think so. But if God is all powerful, we would like Him to be all-powerfully good  in a way that we recognize.

An account from St. John about illustrates this tension. Lazarus' family wanted Jesus to come heal Lazarus. Although He knew Lazarus and loved him, Jesus intentionally stayed away until Lazarus died. 

He confounded his disciples when He said "This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it." (This sounds like an architect, there's a plan.) Two days later He said to them "Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there so that you may believe. But let us go to him." Whoa, the detonator on the pipe bomb went off and Jesus said "I am glad for your sake." 

He went to Lazarus' sisters, made the point that He had the power of resurrection, and called Lazarus to rise up and come out of the tomb. Lazarus did.  People recognized His divine power and put their faith in Him thus Jesus was glorified. 

The next time rockets, missiles and projectiles explode in my life, I want the Architect at my side. Even if He chooses not to interrupt the explosion,  He can rebuild the rubble into something useful, maybe even beautiful.  

How do you see God? Is He both architect and bomber, or one or the other? Does that tension matter to you?

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Travel Tuesday: Private Dirt in Croatia

The Croatian people share a common trait with every other culture we've visited--even in the absence of "private dirt" they want to see something grow. 

Old cities always grew from the center out, with narrow cobblestone alleys.  Houses built next to common walls, like friends walking shoulder to shoulder. And it was cheaper to build up than to clear ground so that even buildings hundreds of years old have two, three, four stories. 

Can you see the small flower pots on the balcony?

Even though farming took place within reach of ancient city walls, some folks just crave their own little bit of dirt. As we looked down on the confines of the walled city of Dubrovnik we saw pots with herbs and flowers and small arbors covered in grapes for eating or making wine.

The first peoples learned to grow food rather than gather because it gave them a more reliable diet. But I think there's another reason agriculture developed.  Being fruitfulLatin fructus "an enjoyment, delight, satisfaction; proceeds, produce, fruit, crops,"  is innate. We are wired to choose activities, either in leisure or work, that give us something to show for our effort.

These photos show gardeners’ creativity and passion to grow something, anything!

Narrow staircase? No problem, there is room to set out planters. In this case there's a tree at the top. 

Your house is on a paved courtyard? Just set out pots. 

I like the ascending order.

Maybe your shop's exterior lacks pizzazz. This invites people to stop and look.

The restaurant needs to be set apart from all of the others in the alley.  Use plants to create outdoor "rooms" lining both sides of the walk.

These botanical examples can be a metaphor for using our limited talents to help others flourish. Don't diminish the value of your efforts. Here's proof that much can be accomplished with restricted resources. 

How are you most fruitful?