Thursday, September 10, 2020

Russian Lesson in the Pool

 Floating, dawdling, Russian immigrants are a regular contingent at morning swim times in our senior community.  Some speak English, but as a group they naturally revert to their first language.

One recent morning a swimmer smiled at one of the Russians and asked, "How do you say hello in Russian?" The other woman grinned and slowly said the word. The native English speaker tried it out. The Russian woman repeated, and the first woman tried it again. Apparently, from head shake by the Russian, she got close. 

The friendly woman repeated it once more, thanked the Russian speaker, and said "My grandfather came to the United States as a three year old from Russia. But he didn't remember Russian. His family were Germans working in Russia, and they left when conditions became difficult."

A second Russian woman observed the interchange, and her friend turned and translated. She beamed too.

A fourth swimmer said she'd taken Russian in high school, but didn't remember it. And I chimed in that we only remember a language if we have to use it, preferably with a native speaker, not the disembodied voice in the language lab.

Did you have lab time as part of the required foreign language requirement in secondary school or college? I hated it. The large head phones clamped too tightly and messed up my hair. I felt stupid talking to a machine, and I didn't know if I pronounced words correctly or not. 

Then one summer we hosted a foreign exchange student for a week-end. His English was better than my Spanish, but we spoke mostly Spanish. It was the first glimmer of hope I had that I could learn enough to speak with someone. 

Teaching Spanish speakers and communicating with parents, then attending a (sort-of) bilingual church kept my Spanish skills alive. A few years ago I was riding the subway in Barcelona. I got on, and a young man offered me his seat, using English. In Spanish I answered, "Thank you, but I don't want people to think I'm old." A couple about my age, sitting nearby, laughed with me. I'd been slightly funny in a foreign language. It felt great.

In all these situations, a small effort to connect with someone in their own language caused a stranger to not feel strange. Somehow, the act of humbling oneself to be bad at the language, turned an outsider into an insider. What a marvel. 

However, this strategy did not work when I learned a few phrases of Finnish off of a website. I used them at a wedding with the groom's family. They looked perlexed until one of the party unmangled my greeting, and burst into laughter, turning to fill in the rest of them. Ah well, I tried. 

Have you had a chance to "cross the aisle" linguistically, and make a stranger feel welcome?

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Bites and Peaces: When our Band Hit the Sour Notes

My weekly jam with four other musicians hit sour notes when our interpersonal dynamics got out of tune.

For three years we've met, chosen songs, worked to learn them, and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. But a month ago we went on the activities calendar for a concert at our senior living community.  We buckled down to choose a set of songs, and doubled our practice sessions to refine the arrangements.

The unexpected pressure revealed stress cracks.

Our musical perspectives vary widely over genre (folk, rock and roll, bluegrass). Sometimes our different styles of how to work together set each other on edge. The most experienced musician is a rock and roller with wide experience. He can hear a chord and it reminds him of the same chord in a different song. Next thing we know, he's zig-zagging down musical rabbit trail and I feel like Alice in confusion-land.

 It drives me crazy, because my background is the high structure of a string orchestra where everyone is on the same page at the same time.  Some of our band members are adept at improvisation, while I'm a prisoner to the notes on the page, and the same melody every time. (Thankfully, I'm learning to loosen up a LITTLE.) 

I should have recognized the fault lines in our alliance when we couldn't agree on a name for our band. Thus we're still "fill in the blank" which doesn't look good on a T-shirt. 

Ten days and (two practices) away from our concert date, we were running through a favorite, familiar bluegrass tune. Our banjo player, who never makes notes to himself about our plans,  played all over the guitar player's solo. The guitar player, used to his previous bands that kept those details straight, hit his breaking point.

"That's it. If you can't remember that ending, Dave, which we have done over and over for two years, I'm pulling the song from the concert."

It was one of Dave's favorites, and best-played.  He didn't say anything but it was evident he was unhappy.  Four minutes later he spoke up. "So it's okay if you make a mistake, but if I do, it ruins everything?"

It went from bad to worse. 

In the past I have seen all of us extend grace to each other, accommodating one another's abilities and lack of knowledge, encouraging all.

But today some important strategies for peace-keeping and harmony were missing from their skill sets, such as negotiation, or letting it go. 

I hoped their impatience and frustration with each other wouldn't over-ride the satisfaction we've had in the past. A schism would be a giant loss to all of us.

At the next practice, we held our breath when we came to the pulled number. Would the guitar player just skip it? substitute something else?

What relief when he said "We worked it out" and Dave kicked off the piece. Harmony restored, our concert went well. 

Maybe we can fill in the blank for those t-shirts with "bites and peaces."


Thursday, August 27, 2020

Blossom-end Rot spoils more than Tomatoes


This summer’s perfect tomato eludes me. A couple have come close. But 

my winter dreams of ripe red globes nurtured, ripened and delicious are 

ruined by blossom-end rot (BER). 

I dug in special tomato fertilizer to the planting mix. I switched to high calcium

 fertilizer mid-season.  I relished the smell of the growing plants. I counted the

 pearl-sized fruit. And as the tell-tale spots began, I added dried milk to my 

watering can.  As a last resort, I crushed anti-acid tablets high in calcium and 

dug them in around the plants. I hope they like the fruit flavors. 

Oh, fellow gardeners, you know the keen disappointment when you are robbed 

of the once-a-year gastronomic prize. 

Now I’m in rescue mode, picking fruit that shows signs of the rot. I let them 

ripen just a bit more, and cut off the browned portion. At least I’m getting a 

delicious sample if not the bounty.

I find that red tomatoes with flat brown bottoms make for apt analogies.

Consider these.                   


You have a wonderful friend. Then some disagreement or disappointment 

occurs to spoil it. Rather than give up, I try to put the conflict aside, and 

rescue the good that's left.


A disease in a healthy body is like a rot. Preserving life may require 

bombarding it with medication, or poisons like chemo, or cutting out the 

sickness. Thus the organism can be saved, if not restored.

cancelled vacation plans:summer::BER:tomato

We cancelled our summer plans one by one because we wanted to avoid 

possible corona-virus infection. We finally threw up our hands and declared 

we’d enjoy the pleasures at a later time. The hoped for trips are postponed, 

not eliminated. We rescued the dreams. 


On a grand scale, life has disappointments the feel like bruises and look 

like scars. But if I cut out the festering bitterness, some of the sweet 

satisfaction can be preserved. 

What analogy could you write? Add it as comment on Facebook if you can. 

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Theos Thursday: Guidebook or God's Book?

The guidebook for tourists advised it was best to ignore beggars, and warned of teams of pickpockets posing to rob do-gooders.

photo by 3centista, pixabay
photo by 3 centista, pixabay

But God’s book showed me that when Peter met a beggar he said “I don’t have any silver or gold. But I’ll give you what I do have. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, get up and walk.”      Acts 3:6, New International Reader's Version (NIRV)

While traveling in Spain I maintained my habit of daily Bible reading. The first morning in Barcelona I read the above account. Great story, but I failed to see that it applied to me.

I closed my Bible, went out sight-seeing, and passed by two beggar women without even remembering what I’d read. 

The next day I reread the passage and felt the Holy Spirit pinch. I confessed my self-centeredness and devised a simple plan for the next opportunity. 

On a street busy with foot traffic I saw a clean-cut middle aged man sitting in a doorway with a sign that said “I have problems. Help me.” He looked defeated. I stooped down to be on his level and using my barely-adequate Spanish asked him what the problems were. He said he was sick, and unemployed. I asked his name. After I dropped a few euros in his can, I told Antonio I would pray for him in Jesus’ name. 

I walked away convinced God had caused our paths to cross. 

Not ten minutes later another man, rumpled and needing a shave, approached me. He also needed help, and said his name was Antonio. Really, Lord? He looked as if drinking might be his biggest problem, and I didn’t want to be generous. I briefly pretended I didn’t speak Spanish, but the Holy Spirit prodded again. I promised to pray for him in Jesus’ name, and shared more euros.

The Antonios keep coming to mind and I have prayed for them many times. 

When I first read Acts 3:6 I was just completing an item on my do-list. When God opened my mind and heart to his word, I found I could give what I had—a little Spanish, a few euros, and faithful prayer in Jesus’ name.


Ask God to show you how he wants you to obey him today. Maybe he’ll send you an Antonio. 

This was originally published on, where you can find daily devotions.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Private Trade War with China

TikTok isn't the only nefarious plot against Americans by the Chinese. There's the less known underwear bait and switch. And it started my own private trade war with China.

I took the bait when an ad popped up for a bra that looked so comfortable I had to have it. 

I waited three weeks and contacted customer service. They assured me it had shipped, and sent the tracking number.  Uh-oh. 

First lesson learned, verify the location from which the item is being shipped.  (When I saw another interesting product online I emailed that customer service center and learned that although the company was German, the product would be shipped from China.  No thanks. )

I waited another month and then asked to have the order canceled. Too bad, so sad, it had been shipped.
I found the translate-to-English button on the original tracking order which revealed that my item was in Chengdu China, 6,287 nautical miles from here. The package had been passed off to an airline transport center on April 28th.

There it sat until May 5th when it was returned to the processing center for a security concern.  I bet my US addressed was the trigger.  A day later, it was cleared. 

Sounds like Chinese job security. Agent A says to Agent B "Ooh, look, a very tiny package. Very light.  It's going to an American. It could be something dangerous." The next day Agent A gets it back with yet another official stamp on it and it's no longer a security issue. 

June 16th it arrived in Los Angeles. Perhaps the plane island hopped? 

A week later it arrived in my mailbox. 

I opened the package carefully. I didn't want to slice the garment along with the package. I should have because there is no way a senior woman with a filled-out shape could wear that thing without cutting it open. It wouldn't fit MY body. Labeled M for medium, it looked like M for minuscule. Perhaps they measured in centimeters, not inches.  I couldn't even get it over one arm and my head at the same time. 

Whew,  Chinese women must have veeerry tiny rib cages.

Second lesson, confirm the unit of measurement and ask for the garment's circumference.

So I waited three months for an undergarment that is ridiculously small and unwearable by any adult or child I know.  

I wrote again. Asked if I could exchange it THIS SIDE OF THE PACIFIC OCEAN.  No, they said, and I would have to pay the shipping back to China. For crying out loud. Third lesson, sometimes it's just better to take the loss and move on.   

 I wish I could hover around the ARC display bin to see who takes the bait the second time.  

Complaining to a friend about the experience, she recommended a sports bra. It came fast. Once I got it on, it was comfortable. But as I've said before, a garment that requires a ladies' maid just isn't practical. Maybe the next size up will be the ticket. 

What was your worst online shopping experience? What wisdom could you share with us? 

Monday, August 3, 2020

If I Were a Plant, I'd be a Thistle

One of the great pleasures of a garden is how it ties you to the current season and the cycles of growth for each plant.  Lacking a garden, I go out of my way to stay tuned to the natural rhythms of the plants around me. 

At the end of June, I tramped around a small wetland. The overgrowth was unsightly, but I was hunting for a prize—the thistle. While many people look at them as aggressive agricultural pests, I cut freely from neglected lots as soon as the buds are plump.

I studied it carefully. The geometry of the bud compelled me to look more closely.

Note the bud, how the thin green bracts spiral around the head.   (If you like the mathematical properties of plants, enjoy close-up photos here .)

The thistle is Scotland’s national flower, and wherever it is found its nectar attracts pollinators like bees and butterflies. Painted Lady butterflies like to deposit their larvae among the prickles. Goldfinches like the seeds. And there’s even evidence it has medicinal value, as it contains anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.

The stems are edible if peeled and boiled. This speaks to the extreme and barren nature of the Scottish Isles, that prepping its spiky leaves and stem is worth the effort. Here’s a link to instructions and a recipe to prepare them. Let me know if you try.  

I enjoyed the cycle of bud and bloom in cut flowers and other years have gone back for the  dried seed head for fall flower arrangements. 

All parts of the cycle require leather gloves and sharp pruners. 

I agree with this description of the plant (from

Scottish thistles have:

  • Delicately beautiful flower heads,
  • Viciously sharp thorns,
  • A stubborn and tenacious grip on the land,
  • The defiant ability to flourish in spite of efforts to remove it 

I think it fits me, too. I recognize myself to be stubborn, and according to my family, I have a prickly personality. 

I hope I have a bit of that defiant ability to flourish in the face of adversity. 

All that from a "weed." What do you do with thistles, curse or enjoy them?

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Announcer or Friend: What’s your role on Facebook?

I don’t know which has done more damage over the last few months--social distancing or Facebook. The combination of the two have weakened my personal relationships.

I found I spend more time on Facebook, which has soured me on the medium considerably. 

Allowing for the fact that FB is basically a system to share personal announcements or push an agenda, the recent monotony of “share this” has worn me down. Folks are yelling through megaphones to let me know they're "woke."


Those posts don't feel like overtures of friendship. They don't sound like invitations to a conversation. Indeed they're no more personal than a wave from a nodding acquaintance. The writers have become epassers-by, part of the parade driving through my livingroom with signs hanging out the window.

I realize too often I am just as annoying. My posts are all about me. I want your attention, your affirmation, your agreement. I want you to listen, AND to care.

I congratulate myself that at least I'm not seeking "followers," one step down in the degeneration of electronic relationships. (Did you know followers can be purchased? But some sites sell fake followers, so beware.) It's not new. Remember the girls who passed around their high school yearbooks to get the most “Be good” notes, assuring themselves of their popularity?   

 If Facebook has made me only an attention-seeker, I AM a low quality friend. 

If I sound like a megaphone and I leave emojis instead of a personal note on one of your posts, I apologize.  

Heaven forbid that I mistake it for friendship.  Be a friend and call me on it.