Friday, July 27, 2012


Prejudices. We’ve all got them. Can’t NOT have them, for the very way we take in data precludes us to prejudice. We have two eyes and two ears and one body all receiving the limited amount of information we can handle. And we grow up in a particular culture in specific settings. We are who we are and it behooves us to know that. That knowledge in and of itself is freeing. But the prejudices are not.
            When we’re born there’s no way we can let all the impressions in. The data overload would kill us. And so we create filters so we can handle the input. And in building those filters, we create camps—GOOD camps and BAD ones. Babies are born knowing that falling is in the BAD camp. And from then on we make judgments and set our standards. GOOD. BAD. We tick them off.
            But occasionally we need to check them out. Crossing the street alone at age two is definitely in the BAD camp. But after some years, for most, that activity could be put into a GOOD camp. It’s always a personal issue, dependent upon the person and the situation. Doesn’t mean that when I realize a prejudice, it automatically goes from BAD camp to GOOD. No. I have free agency and must consciously free myself. Not always easy. I have a friend who recently freed herself from one. She was looking to buy a house. She realized one day that no matter what city she was in, she knew everything “south” was BAD. She still bought a house in the northern area of her town, but not because she had to. It made sense to do so as it was close to where she worked.
            That’s why it’s so freeing to check out our prejudices every once in a while. Some times they are so silly. Some times they’re deadly.
            My father’s boss Don was a second generation Scot. I remember one dinner when Don related this story. His uncle had gone back to Scotland to clear up the family estate. There was little left, an old scantily furnished stone cottage and an ancient family Bible. Don told us his uncle said the Bible had all the family names going back a long way. “But,” his uncle said, “Ach, they were terrible spellers. There was a Peggy Murky but they spelled it M-U-R-P-H-Y.” Silly indeed. We all laughed. I wonder if Peggy did?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Friday, July 13, 2012

Learning English

Children are the best at learning a language. They’re actually born with a “grammar grid” already laid down. They are very clear that if one little long-tailed creature is a mouse, two are mouses. Just ask them. And it doesn't matter what the language is, they’ll learn it without any effort.
            My friends in Turkey have two daughters. Sofia, their mother speaks Flemish to them, Aydin, their father speaks Turkish. The girls are fluent in both languages. However, when the parents want to speak privately, they use English. One afternoon, when Aksel was bout four, they were driving home after a day of picnicking and having fun. Sofia peeked into the back seat and then whispered in English to Aydin, “I think Aksel is falling asleep.”
            A small voice from the back seat piped up, “I am not falling asleep.” Children. Little language-learning sponges. 
But English is a complicated language, and not easy to learn. It’s a polyglot with rules from many different countries. And pronunciation can be a real problem. One of the tutors I hired at my learning center was a young doctoral candidate at Fuller Seminary. He’d grown up in the heart of Africa, the son of missionary doctors and all of his schooling had been by correspondence. When he finally got to the states, a freshman at Princeton, he took his first psychology course. He was delighted, for he’d been reading the subject for years. He told me that in his first psych class, in answering a question, he said, “Dr. Frude,” much to the delight of the professor and entire class. He’d never heard the namc Freud pronounced. I empathized, for I’d had a similar experience. My word was “scintillating.” I’d read it and loved it. It so perfectly sounded like what it felt like. I was in college when I finally had a chance to use it. “It was ‘skintilating’,” I said. My friends thought I was being funny and imitated me. Months later, I found out the truth and I blush to this day with embarrassment.  
           Some years ago, I spent ten days on a Turkish gulet ( sailing the Mediterranean. The word "turquoise" comes to mind when I think of that sea. There were twelve of us, including the guide, captain and crew. My guide Jimmie was fluent in English. It was the idioms that gave him trouble. We were discussing possible plans for the afternoon. Finally, he sighed. “We will have to play it by the ears.”
            But my favorite learning English comes from our friend Arthur’s father. He was a successful music-loving attorney in Germany. His wife had a Ph.D. in psychology. His father taught ancient Greek and Latin at a prestigious university. They all spoke several languages, but not English.
            The Nazis had taken hold and Jews were being rounded up. Arthur knew they were on the list and so one evening he gathered his family and they began their escape. After a number of harrowing episodes, with only the clothes they wore, they ended up in New York. And that’s where my husband Dick met Arthur. No longer practicing law, Arthur was working as a DJ for the classical radio station. Dick and Arthur became fast friends. Arthur and his family had adjusted quite nicely, but still Arthur was often depressed over what was happening in his homeland. Whenever that dark funk descended, Dick took Arthur out for an expensive lunch. Over exquisitely prepared dishes and relaxed conversations, Arthur’s good humor always returned.
            Arthur and his wife became proficient in English. Not so Arthur’s father. He studied faithfully, but never was able to get out of his dictionary. One lunch day, Arthur brought a slip of paper to show Dick. It seems that the custom in their family was to place clothes that needed to be dry cleaned on a chair in the kitchen. Arthur slid the note across the table to Dick. It had been pinned to his father’s clothes. “Please constipate the hole in the trousers.” English! What a bother!

Friday, July 6, 2012

Keeping Your Word

            In the 1930s, my father bought property on a beautiful lake in central Wisconsin. His plan was to have a home built for us, a white clapboard house we eventually called White Caps.
            In the meantime, we would live in a near-by town. The Great Depression was full blown and people were scrambling to survive. The Fennesseys were one couple devastated by the financial crash. They were an impressive pair. You could tell they had been through difficulties, but had kept their dignity and sense of purpose, their heads still unbowed. To this day I can recall a steely strength in them, especially Mrs. F. Mr. Fennessey had retired from his executive position with a well-known tire manufacturer. He’d actually invented a pneumatic tire, but had lost the race in the patent office and now his invention was collecting dust in the attic. Mrs. F had shown it to me along with the stacks of drawings and papers. She said not to say anything to Mr. Fennessey as it was a source of pain for him. I never did.
            There was no Social Security then, stock prices had dropped to mere pennies, and the banks had closed, wiping out hard earned savings. So now, in their seventies and rattling about in a spacious house, the Fennesseys had their upstairs converted into a roomy apartment. Just perfect for my family while our house was being built. And so we moved from a small town in Minnesota into the Fennessey’s apartment.
            The house was an old Victorian, built of wood with extensive ornamentation. Huge trees surrounded the large lot. Eight steps led to a porch, which covered the front of the building. It had a swing that seated two comfortably. Two battered rocking chairs sat side by side. A large front door led to a spacious entry hall. To the left was the door to the Fennessey’s living space. To the right was a solid wooden stairway with a carved balustrade that led to the second floor and our apartment. The upper hallway curved around to a door that opened to the attic stairs.  Although the door to our quarters had a lock, I never had a key. In fact, I don’t believe any of the doors were ever locked. It was a more innocent time.
            When you entered our living room the first thing you noticed were tall narrow windows (there were 12-foot ceilings). Second were the sliding wooden doors, which led to my parent’s bedroom at the front of the house. The doors slid smoothly but never quite closed. A faded carpet covered the floor. Mother placed overstuffed chairs on either side of the radio as it held a central spot in the room. The radio was new, encased in a fancy wooden cabinet. I’m sure mother listened during the day when my sister and I were at school. Every weekday, after dinner, Mary Ann and I listened to “Annie,” “The Lone Ranger,” and scariest of all, “The Shadow.” Sunday evenings were almost sacred as we sat around the radio and listened to Eddie Cantor and Rudy Vallee (my father’s favorite. “Now there’s a voice!” he said as he sang along with his wobbly tenor).  The dining room was narrow. Mother placed the table so it abutted the window making room for the five of us. We were five as we had Mary Jane, a “hired girl,” who lived with us. She was Sister Mary Kathleen’s niece. (Sister Mary Kathleen was my piano teacher. She’d asked Mother to take the girl in as she was bound to get into trouble if she stayed at home. Mother tried, but that’s another story.)
            The bathroom was ancient; the faucet in the tub made loud gurgling sounds before water burst forth. Everything was a bit worn but it all worked. The kitchen was awkward. Mother was a wonderful cook and I’m sure she sputtered as she made our meals. Mary Jane slept in a tiny room off the kitchen and there was a screened-in porch you could use as a second refrigerator during the winter months.
            The best room of all was the bedroom I shared with my sister. It was huge (to this nine-year old). The wallpaper was a dusty pink silk fabric with garlands of flowers woven throughout. Recessed into one wall was a basin with an elaborate brass dolphin spigot with large white handles surrounded by pink marble and mirrors. At the far side of the room were four tall slim windows that looked out over the roof of the sunroom below.
            But the hero of this story is not the house. It’s Mrs. Fennessey. She had lost everything that had once filled her life, all her worldly goods, and they had been plentiful, but she never complained. I often wondered where her strength and good humor came from. For me, she was a perfect model of honor and dignity. One afternoon, she called on mother and invited her to join a bridge group. Mother was pleased and offered Mrs. Fennessey a cup of coffee and piece of chocolate cake. Mrs. Fennessey refused politely, and then explained. When their only child was very small, she became ill—so sick the doctors feared she would die. Mrs. Fennessy, a devout Catholic, promised that if God would spare her daughter, she’d give up the two things she loved most in the world—coffee and chocolate. The child lived.  And Mrs. Fennessy, some 30 plus years later, was still keeping her promise.