Christmas Greetings from Charles Dickens

Monday, December 27, 2010

It's been a busy Christmas season, so I decided to let someone else do the writing this time. Charles Dickens volunteered, but I agreed to introduce his passages.

Near the beginning of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge's nephew visits Scrooge's office to invite him over for Christmas. The conversation ends this way.
"Nephew!" returned the uncle, sternly, "keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine!"
"Keep it!" repeated Scrooge's nephew. "But you don't keep it."
"Let me leave it alone, then," said Scrooge. "Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you!
"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say," returned the nephew: "Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round--apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that--as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creature bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!"
In this scene, Marley's ghost has come to visit Scrooge, and Marley is grieving over his lost opportunities.
"At this time of the rolling year," the spectre said, "I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode?"
After returning from church on Christmas Day, Bob Cratchit reports on Tiny Tim's behavior during the service.
"As good as gold," said Bob, "and better. Somehow he gets thoughtful sitting by himself so much, and thinks the strangest things you ever heard. He told me, coming home, that he hoped the people saw him in the church, because he was a cripple, and it might be pleasant to them to remember upon Christmas Day, who made lame beggars walk, and blind men see."
And the book ends with Dickens' (and my) wish for you.
[Scrooge] knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that truly be said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God Bless Us, Every One!
* * * * *

The drawing at the head of this post is "Mr. Fezziwig's Ball" by John Leech. It was one of the original illustrations for A Christmas Carol.

No Room in the Inn

Monday, December 20, 2010

"While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she
gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in strips of cloth and placed
him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn." Luke 2:6-7 (NIV)

The trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have taken several days, and Mary must have been exhausted by the time she reached Bethlehem. Surely she longed to rest and to give birth in private. But there was no room in the inn.

On December 24, 1957, I traveled to Bethlehem from Amman, Jordan with my parents and my two brothers. We did not have reservations for the night, and the hostel we usually stayed at in Jerusalem had been booked up for months. But my father must have been confident that he could find something after we got to Bethlehem.

It was raining when we arrived in Bethlehem, and we were wet and cold by the time we reached the Church of the Nativity, the traditional site of Jesus' birth. (That's the Church of the Nativity at the head of this post.) Although we were out of the rain inside the unheated church, the cold and damp penetrated its walls, and we could not get warm.

Then we went down into the crypt--the cave where Jesus is said to have been born. And down in that small cave, with lamps burning brightly and a continuous stream of people walking through, the warmth was all around us.

No one knows what the weather was like when Mary and Joseph arrived at the stable, but any woman who has carried a baby into the third trimester can tell you that Mary would have been very tired. The stable may not have seemed like much, but she was probably grateful for it. The stable would have given Mary a place to rest and to give birth in private, and the animals would have provided warmth with their body heat.

Jesus came to that humble stable to give us salvation through his death on the cross. But he also came to give us rest from our burdens and to surround us with the warmth of his love.

On December 24, 1957, there were so many people wanting to see the crypt that the caretakers had to tell them to keep moving. Yet they let us stay in the crypt, sitting on a ledge out of the way of the crowd, while my father went to find a room for the night. The caretakers had compassion for a mother with three children between the ages of four and eight.

The innkeeper did not have an empty room, but he allowed Mary and Joseph to stay in his stable. The innkeeper had compassion for an obviously pregnant Mary.

Jesus had compassion on us all when he came to earth as a baby so he could suffer and die a cruel death on the cross. He gave up a heavenly throne to be born in the humblest circumstances imaginable. And he did it all for us.

To my tired six-year-old mind, it seemed like we stayed in the crypt all night waiting for my father. According to my parents, however, it was only one or two hours before my father returned with news that he had found a hotel room in Beit Jala, several miles away.

The hotel room in Beit Jala gave us a place to stay for the rest of the night, but we were not comfortable there. The room was damp and cold, with no heat, and we slept with our clothes on.

This world gives us a temporary place to stay, but we should not get too comfortable here. One day God will give us an eternal home if we believe in him through faith. In our Father's house we will never be tired or damp or cold, and we will find a room already waiting for us.

Have a blessed Christmas.

* * * * *

I previously published this article in The Lutheran Witness, Vol. 123 (December 2004).

Santa Worships Him

Monday, December 13, 2010

When my children were young, I bought a book about the kneeling Santa. I no longer have the book and don't remember the entire story, but it ends with Santa on his knees at the manger, worshiping Jesus.

Even though it's just a story, it isn't far from the truth. That's because Santa Claus is modeled after St. Nicholas of Bari, who was a dedicated follower of Christ.

St. Nicholas was the Mother Theresa of his day. Born in the third century, he had wealthy parents who were devout Christians and raised their son to be one, too. Nicholas inherited their wealth after they died in an epidemic, and he used his inheritance to help the needy. Apparently he gave most of his money away anonymously, showing that he wasn't motivated by a desire for fame or adulation. No, he simply wanted to follow Christ's admonition to take care of the poor.

There is a great story about him that may even be true. It goes something like this.
A poor man had three daughters of marriageable age. Since he had no money for dowries to buy husbands with, the girls' future looked bleak--either sold as slaves or turned out to walk the streets in a different kind of slavery.
Hearing of their plight, Nicholas snuck up to the house one night and tossed a bag of gold through the open window. Legend says the gold landed in a stocking drying by the fire or in a shoe. Now that the man had enough money for one dowry, the first daughter married.
Nicholas appeared under cover of darkness a second time, found the window open again, and threw in another bag of gold. And a second daughter wed.
By now, the father had a clue that it might happen again, so he waited up to find out who was helping them. When Nicholas threw the third bag of gold into the house, the father chased after him and caught him. Nicholas asked the father to keep his identity a secret, but somebody told, or how would we know the story?
St. Nicholas was more than just a generous man, however. He was a great Christian as well.

Nicholas was one of the few people who became a bishop without first being a priest. Living in a time of persecution, he was imprisoned for standing up for his faith. And Bishop Nicholas must have been well-respected within the Christian community, because he attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. (For those of you who aren't up on church history, that was where they adopted the Nicene Creed. That creed is still widely accepted and used by Christians all over the world.)

So if Santa Claus visits your house this year, remember that he worshiped Jesus, too.

* * * * *

The painting at the beginning of this post is "Saint Nicholas of Bari" by Gherardo Stamina, circa 1422. The physical painting is in the El Paso Museum of Art in El Paso, Texas.

Oh Tannenbaum

Monday, December 6, 2010

The U.S. Supreme Court treats the Christmas tree as a secular symbol,* and that's what it is to many people. I'm certainly not going to take the opposite legal position: better to retain the "secular" Christmas tree than to have no Christmas symbols at all.

But we know better.

Although the Christmas tree has pagen roots, it has been a symbol of Christianity since at least the 1500s. The tradition appears to have gotten its start in or around Germany and was brought to the United States by German immigrants in the 1800s. (Some sources place its U.S. debut even earlier, crediting Hessian soldiers with introducing the Christmas tree during the American Revolution.)

So what is the religious symbolism?
  • Using a tree to celebrate Jesus' birth reminds us of this death on another tree.
  • Choosing a plant that is ever green reminds us that Christ lives eternally, and so will we if we believe in Him.
  • The top of the evergreen tree points toward heaven.
The lights on the tree also have Christian implications.
  • They shine like the star that shown over Bethlehem on the first Christmas.
  • And they honor Christ, who is the light of the world.
Is the Christmas tree a secular symbol? For some. But as you decorate your tree this year, I pray you will celebrate the One who is the reason for the season.

* County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573 (1989).

Smile Your Way Through Christmas

Monday, November 29, 2010

I've had several Christmas books on my shelf since September, but I didn't want to read them until after Thanksgiving. Come Friday, however, I gobbled one up as if it were the traditional fare that graced my sister-in-law's table on Thursday. Both the meal and the book were satisfying to the palate.

A Door County Christmas is a collection of four novellas published by Barbour. I don't normally write book reviews, and romances aren't at the top of my reading list most days, but I figured this one would be fun because I know one of the authors and have read something by another. And all of us need a break from serious now and then.

Rachael Phillips' distinctive voice is distinctively humorous. This is her fiction debut, but when she takes her turn posting at the Hoosier Ink blog (, I can tell who is writing even before I scroll to the bottom and see her name. So I knew that reading Rachael's selection, Ride With Me Into Christmas, would keep me laughing, and I wasn't disappointed.

This is Cynthia Ruchti's second fiction book. Her debut novel, They Almost Always Come Home, kept me up late while I was attending a writers' conference in June. That book would probably be classified as Christian women's fiction (although some men might enjoy it, too), and it is a page-turner that I thoroughly enjoyed. The Heart's Harbor, Cynthia's light-hearted contribution to this collection, is very different and, in my opinion, not as good, but it was still a pleasant read.

Prior to this, I knew nothing about either of the other two authors. Their contributions to this collection (My Heart Still Beats by Eileen Key and Christmas Crazy by Becky Melby) were also fun to read. In fact, the quirky but lovable characters in Christmas Crazy made it my favorite of the four novellas.

This book is overtly Christian, and you should know that going in. If you're male or don't like to smile, this book probably isn't for you. But if you're a woman looking for something light-hearted to read in December, you can't go wrong with A Door County Christmas. 

You Had to be There

Monday, November 22, 2010

I knew I should go, and I was one of the first people to sign up, but I wasn't excited about it.

My church invited Dr. Paul Maier, a well-known Christian author, to present a seminar this past Saturday. I had read one of his novels and enjoyed it, but I was lukewarm about devoting all morning and most of the afternoon to lectures that promised to make extensive use of archaeological finds and manuscripts by ancient historians. Not my idea of an interesting day.

But I was wrong. Instead of dry facts and boring academic analysis, I heard a  riveting speaker whose entertaining and informative presentation created a verbal mural worthy of Michelangelo. Okay, so nobody can compare with Michelangelo, but you get the idea.

Or maybe not. I went straight from church to my writers' critique group, where I tried to explain the experience I had just been through. The members of the group listened to me with yawns in their eyes and "whatever" in their body language. They didn't catch the fever at all.

I guess you had to have been there.

It's like that with the first Thanksgiving, too. These days, Thanksgiving is simply one more holiday. Although most of us remember to thank God for our blessings, Thanksgiving is often just another chance to get together with family and eat the table bare.

When the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth in December 1620, there were 102 of them. When they held their harvest festival in November 1621, there were only 53 left. Those 53 had survived a hard winter filled with hunger, cold, and diseases such as pneumonia and scurvy. They finally had sturdy homes and a plentiful harvest, but they must have grieved for the 26 men, 14 women, and 9 children who weren't there to share the celebration with them.

I can't know either the depth of their grief or the height of their joy as they contemplated a more promising future. I do know that my Thanksgiving celebrations are just a shadow of the harvest festival that we recognize as the first Thanksgiving. With a comfortable home and very little true sorrow in my life, I haven't experienced what the Pilgrims did.

You had to be there.

What Time Is It?

Monday, November 15, 2010

Saturday morning I left home at 7:00 a.m. for the almost three-hour drive to Fort Wayne and an 11:00 a.m. meeting. Traffic was good, and I didn't hit any major road construction along the way. So did I arrive an hour early? Or is my math wrong?


Indiana is one of several states that is in two time zones. Most of the state (including Fort Wayne) is in the Eastern Time Zone. The red counties are in the Central Time Zone. And no, they don't match the political map where red is Republican and blue is Democrat.

The red counties weren't the ones that changed. The entire state was originally in the Central Time Zone. According to Wikipedia, prior to 1883 towns in the U.S. set their time to noon when the sun was at its peak in that particular location, so the time was different even among neighboring towns. No big deal when people rarely traveled, but the advent of the railroads changed that and made the constantly changing time confusing. So in 1883 the major railroads decided to create four time zones in the U.S., and they placed Indiana in the Central Time Zone. When the U.S. Congress adopted official time zones in 1918, it kept Indiana in the Central Time Zone. In the years since then, however, most of Indiana crept into the Eastern Time Zone to have an extra hour of daylight in the evening.

Northwest Indiana will never join them. We have stronger ties to Chicago than to the rest of the state (at least in terms of where we work and play), and Chicago is on Central time. Being in a different time zone from Fort Wayne and Indianapolis is inconvenient, but being in a different time zone from Chicago would be much worse.

At least things aren't as bad as they used to be when most of the blue counties stayed on Standard Time all year long. In those days, we matched the rest of the state during the summer but were still off an hour in the winter, and I had trouble remembering when we matched and when we didn't. At least now I always know I have to leave an hour early if I'm going to Fort Wayne or Indianapolis.

But why should I be the one who has to adjust? Everything would have been just fine if the blue counties had stayed where the railroads and Congress put them.

Until they see the light, I guess I'll just have to get up an hour early.

The Customer is Always Wrong

Monday, November 8, 2010

"Wait," you say, "don't you mean 'the customer is always right'?" No, I don't.

Thursday evening I kicked off my slippers and sat back in my recliner to watch new episodes of "Househunters" and "Househunters International" on HGTV, which was part of our AT&T U-verse subscription. When they were over, I went to bed happy.

Friday morning I wanted something to watch while exercising, so I turned on HGTV. Did I get it? No. I got TLC instead. I like some TLC shows, but others are rubbish, and this was one of the latter. (I think the title was, "I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant.") A news feed scrolling across the bottom stated that Scripps (the owner of the HGTV channel) was denying us our HGTV. The news feed also provided information on contacting Scripps through AT&T U-verse.

I don't know who's at fault, and I don't care. I realize there are more important things in life than TV, but HGTV and some of the other Scripps channels involved in the dispute (including DIY Network, Food Network, and the Cooking Channel) are among the few wholesome offerings out there.

Unlike the news feed suggested, I didn't want to contact Scripps. Nor did I want to use a cookie-cutter complaint. I wanted to send AT&T an individual message that said something like, "If you think Scripps is engaging in unfair practices, file a complaint with the FCC. If you think Scripps' conduct is anti-competitive, file a complaint with the FTC. But if you want to keep me as a customer, get HGTV back."

The problem? No matter how much I searched the AT&T website, I couldn't find an e-mail address. I couldn't even find a contact form or an online chat room. When I thought I was filling out a contact form or an online chat inquiry, I received an automated response that no FAQs matched my search. Even my computer-savvy son couldn't find what I wanted.

Yes, I know that AT&T is running a business and times are tough. I understand that customer service representatives cost money and that many questions can be answered as FAQs. I also understand the efficiency in making customers check online FAQs before sending an unnecessary e-mail that someone must sort through and respond to. But AT&T seems to have forgotten who's generating the company's income. If it can't keep its customers happy, it won't have a business to worry about.

AT&T does provide a telephone number to call, and the number does reach a real person eventually. And maybe a customer service representative could have provided me with an e-mail address. But why should I have to go through all that trouble? Especially since the frustrating process could (and surely often does) lead callers to take out their frustration on a customer service representative who is doing the best he or she can.

I sympathize with the people who answer customer service calls, and my complaint isn't about them. Once I reach a live customer service representative (at AT&T and most places), I'm usually satisfied with the response. No, my argument is with the companies that think efficiency and cost-savings are more important than customer service.

If customers are even sometimes right, companies should want to hear from them. The men and women who panned for gold in California and Alaska were willing to sift through tons of gravel and sand and pyrite to find an ounce of gold because they knew the result was worth the effort. By making it so hard to contact them, companies like AT&T are saying all customer input is fool's gold. Or, to phrase it differently, their actions have coined a new slogan: The customer is always wrong.

Someday they'll discover how short-sighted that is.

Postscript: Sometimes companies do get it right. I use Verizon Wireless for my family's cell phone service, and my husband and I recently upgraded our phones. Each phone was supposed to come with a $50 rebate, which I sent in right away. One of the rebates went smoothly, but today I got a card in the mail saying there was a problem with the other one. The card gave me a telephone number to call, and although I had to go through a menu to get there, it did give me the option of talking to a real person. The wait time was just a minute or two, and the person looked up my file, put me on hold for another minute or two, and returned to tell me the problem had been fixed and I would receive the rebate in the mail in about 15 days. I wish I could remember the woman's name (she did give it), but Verizon gets five stars for its customer service.

Ewoks and Cowboys

Monday, November 1, 2010

Halloween costumes are getting more elaborate. No, they're getting more expensive. More expensive and less creative.

Some of the children who came to our door this year wore costumes they (or their parents) put together. But many wore something their parents purchased off the rack. And where is the fun in that?

When I was a child, my brothers and I always dressed up and went trick-or-treating, but spending money on a costume was never an option. Instead, we looked at what we had lying around to see what we could create.

That's what my children experienced, too. Caroline was four months old on her first Halloween, so we passed that one up. But when she was a year old, she went as an Ewok from one of the Star Wars movies. The costume was very simple. Caroline had a stuffed Ewok toy, and we simply took the hood from the animal and put it on her. I made ears out of cardboard, and we dressed her in tan and brown clothing. That's my charming Ewok in the first picture.

The next year Caroline went as a policewoman. Wearing blue clothes, we decked her out with a whistle and handcuffs we already had, a cheap hat (probably cardboard) that we got from somewhere, and a tin sheriff's star.

Then there were two. Kids, I mean. Unlike Caroline, John "dressed up" and went trick-or-treating his first year. He got the short end of the deal, however, as we simply put him in a blue outfit and called him a sailor. (And no candy went into his toothless mouth.) I put most of my effort into Caroline's red hood, which I made from material I already had. Add a dress and an Easter basket, and she was the perfect Little Red Ridinghood.

Okay, I admit it. I did spend a little money on occasion. The last picture shows Caroline in a dragon costume I bought. But it wasn't a plastic costume off the rack. I went to a fabric store and purchased material with the pattern stamped on it. I still had to cut it out and sew it, though. And John's cowboy costume was our typical use-what-you-already-have-type, taking advantage of accessories (the horse and the hat) that we already owned.

I guess I can understand busy parents who rush out and buy something at the store, but half of the fun of Halloween is coming up with an idea and making it work. Creating a costume is a lot more time-consuming, but it's also a lot more fun (not to mention cheaper).

Don't you agree?

Light Bulb Successes

Monday, October 25, 2010

The waiting is killing me. The waiting for acceptances (or rejections) for two books I am currently circulating among publishers and agents.

Not that waiting is anything new. Or rejections, either. Both are normal parts of writing for publication.

According to Jack Canfield in Snoopy's Guide to the Writing Life:
Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind and Dr. Seuss's first children's book were each rejected at least 25 times before they found a publisher. 
Louis L'Amour received 350 rejections before he made his first sale; and
Jack London had it even worse, receiving 600 rejection slips before selling his first story.
I've sold over a dozen articles and devotions and one non-fiction book, so I'm doing better than many at this stage in my writing career. Still, waiting is hard, and rejections can be crushing. So to keep things in perspective, I think of each rejection as a light bulb success.

Thomas Edison did not invent the light bulb, but he did make it practical. He tried thousands of filaments before he found one that burned long enough to be commercially viable. He could have given up at number 10, or 100, or 1000, but he didn't see those tests as failures. He saw them as successes because each "failure" ruled out another filament that didn't work and moved him that much closer to the one that would.

I want that attitude. Each rejection is a success rather than a failure. By ruling out another publisher that isn't perfect for my book, the rejection gets me one submission closer to the publisher that is.

These two quotes attributed to Thomas Edison explain why I refuse to give up.
Many of life's failures are experienced by people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.
Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.
And this doesn't just apply to inventors and writers. It can work for you, too.

Yes, waiting is hard. But I'm continuing to write while I wait for that e-mail or telephone call offering me the contract that will make me the next J.K. Rowling. Because all my rejections are light bulb successes.

God's Tapestry

Monday, October 18, 2010

I love Autumn in the Midwest, but words can't explain why. So I'll try pictures, instead.
© 2008 by Kathryn Page Camp
© 2010 by Kathryn Page Camp
© 2010 by Kathryn Page Camp
© 2010 by Kathryn Page Camp
© 2009 by Kathryn Page Camp
© 2009 by Kathryn Page Camp
© 2009 by Kathryn Page Camp
© 2010 by Kathryn Page Camp

Summer's Over

Monday, October 11, 2010

After school let out on Friday, Roland met me at the marina for our last sail of the season. Fortunately, the weather cooperated. It was also beautiful on Sunday, as we gazed with longing at the sailboats out on the water while we were stuck at the dock taking our sails off. But Freizeit is scheduled to move to her winter home (in the marina parking lot) on Saturday, and, since only one of us is "retired," we have to get things done when we can.

It was a disappointing sailing season in some ways, primarily because the month-long cruise we had planned refused to fit itself into our busy schedule. Then there were the always-to-be-expected days when the weather didn't cooperate or we had other commitments. Still, it was a fun summer.

And I don't mind that it's over for this year. Putting the boat to bed is a sign of the changing seasons, and the variety that comes with those seasons is one of the things I love about living in the Midwest. In fact, Fall may be my favorite season (at least while I'm in it).

More about that next week.

Dancing at Work

Monday, October 4, 2010

One of AOL's teasers linked to videos of people caught by security cameras while they were dancing. The first man was at work, and he appeared to be enjoying himself immensely. Since dancing can be a great stress reliever and people who are stressed out are less productive, I approve of dancing at work.

For reasons that will become clear later, the clips reminded me of a fairy tale I heard as a child. Here is a blog-length version.

* * *

Once upon a time, a king lived in a castle with his wife and three daughters. After his wife died without bearing him a son, he decided to choose someone to succeed him. He told his three daughters that he would give his kingdom to the one who loved him most. Then he asked each to describe how much she loved him.

"I love you like diamonds," said the eldest.

"That's pretty good," thought the king.

"I love you like pearls," said the second.

Now the king had a dilemma, because how do you choose between diamonds and pearls? But maybe he wouldn't have to.

He turned to his youngest, and favorite, daughter. "How much do you love me?"

She threw her arms around his neck and said, "I love you like meat loves salt."

"WHAT?" he roared as he flung her away from him. "How dare you. Leave my kingdom right now and never return."

She tried to explain, but he wouldn't let her. Knights dragged her away and left her outside a hut in a neighboring kingdom.

Fortunately, the family who lived there took her in. After a while, she met and married the prince of that kingdom. When his father died, the girl, who was now a wife and mother, became queen. She had everything she wanted, except . . .

Except her father's love.

Then one day her father came to visit the neighboring kingdom. He didn't know his daughter was queen, and she wouldn't let her husband tell him.

The queen threw a feast for her father and his companions but begged off from attending, claiming that she was dealing with a great sorrow.

At the meal, a heavily veiled servant put a bowl of soup in front of the older king. Taking a bite, he nearly spit it out. "This is terrible," he thought. But he ate it so he wouldn't offend his host and hostess.

Then the main course arrived, and the same servant gave him a platter of meat cooked until it had only a hint of red left in it. Since that was just the way he liked it, he dug in eagerly. And gagged.

"Is something wrong?" his host asked.

"I'm sorry," said the guest, "but something seems to be missing from my meal."

"Yes," said the younger man. "My cook received instructions to serve your food without salt."

At first the older king looked puzzled. Then his face turned pale.

"What's wrong now?" asked the host.

Tears ran down the visiting king's cheeks. "I sent my youngest daughter into exile because I thought she didn't love me. Now I realize she loved me most of all." He moaned. "But it's too late. I don't even know where she is to tell her how sorry I am."

The serving woman threw off her veils. "Here I am, Father."

They hugged for a long time before father released daughter. "I wish I could make it up to you, but I already divided my kingdom in two and gave it to your sisters. I have nothing left to give."

"I already have a kingdom. I am queen of this land, with a husband and children I love dearly. I have everything I want except . . ."


"Your love."

The old man's tears started flowing again. "That I can give you."

* * *

This fairy tale reminds me that it isn't only the big or expensive things that add flavor to our lives. It can be something as simple as dancing at work.

So keep on dancing.

Keep on Learning

Monday, September 27, 2010

"The self taught man seldom knows anything accurately, and he does not know a tenth as much as he could have known if he had worked under teachers; and, besides, he brags, and is the means of fooling other thoughtless people into going and doing as he himself has done." Mark Twain (from "Taming the Bicycle")
I believe in education. I must, since I have THREE post-graduate degrees. But although I mostly agree with the Mark Twain quote, I also respect the self-taught person. (I bet Samuel Clemens did, too.)

Recently, I purchased Mark Twain's entire collection for my Kindle, and last week I started reading his compiled letters. The compilation includes a biography and running commentary written by his friend Albert Bigelow Paine. While reading the biography, I learned that Samuel Clemens was forced to leave school at age 13, when his father died, to become a printer's apprentice. This icon of wit and wisdom had little formal education. And as noted in last week's post, the same is true of Abraham Lincoln.

I come from a well-educated family, and by the time I met my husband through a dating service I already had a Master of Science in psychology and was working on my law degree. (My third post-graduate degree, an LLM in Financial Services Law, came later on.) When I found out that I had been matched with a man who had dropped out of college, I was skeptical.

We've been married for 31 years. If Roland had been satisfied with what he knew, our relationship would have ended after a few dates. But he was well-read and eager to keep learning, and I discovered that is more important than a formal education.

Still, I'm glad Roland went back to school several years into our marriage and got his college degree. Followed by a Master of Arts in history. Followed by 31 hours beyond that. The college degree enabled him to become a high school teacher, and the MA and Plus 30 increase his paycheck, but I'd like to think he enjoyed the learning, too.

The point is that a formal education is a good thing, but if something deflects you from that path, don't stop learning. Because even the self-taught individual can do great things.

By the way, when Albert Bigelow Paine wrote about his friend in 1917, he predicted that Mark Twain's greatest success--the book that would survive the longest--would be Personal Reflections of Joan of Arc. So much for predictions.

But Paine was right about one thing--Mark Twain lives. If Samuel Clemens had been content with his printer's training, "mark twain" would be no more than a nautical term for marking depth.

So keep on learning.

A Failure's Tale

Monday, September 20, 2010

Abraham Lincoln was a failure.

Actually, that statement is misleading. As we all know, Abraham Lincoln was a true success story. Furthermore, his failures have been greatly exaggerated, as I discovered after visiting the Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois at the end of our vacation. (That's where President Lincoln and his family obligingly posed for the picture at the beginning of this post.)

Still, Honest Abe did have his share of setbacks.

He failed in business when the general store he bought with a partner couldn't compete with another store in town. (Legend says he failed twice, but he was only an employee of the first failed store.)

Instead of giving up, he changed careers and became a successful and well-respected lawyer.

He lost his first election for a seat in the Illinois legislature. (And won the next four.)

He won the race for the U.S. House of Representatives the only time he ran.

He lost his two bids to the U.S. Senate. Being a Senator must have been one of his ambitions, because he gave up a fifth term in the Illinois legislature (right after he was elected) to run for the Senate his first time.

Instead of giving up, he moved up, winning the election for U.S. President--twice.

Abraham Lincoln used his "failures" to achieve greater successes. Yes, his store failed, but he kept plugging along until he got the career he really wanted--law.

Yes, he never became a U.S. Senator, but his debates with Stephen A. Douglas brought him into the national spotlight and netted him an even greater prize.

So what was the secret to his success? A number of sources say it was his perseverance.

But I'm not convinced. I credit his thirst for knowledge instead. Lincoln had few opportunities to attend school, but he went when he could. He borrowed as many books as he could get his hands on and devoured them whenever he could find a spare minute. Like most lawyers of his day, he read law books on his own time and earned his license without a formal legal education.

And it wasn't his silver tongue that won people over. It was his understanding and logic and wit. Those are by-products of a good education (formal or informal), and he gained his through persistence.

So maybe it was his perseverance after all.


Monday, September 13, 2010

Most of us know where we were and what we were doing on September 11, 2001. At least most Americans do.

I was at work in Chicago. More specifically, I was in a managers' meeting with a video-conference hook-up to our New York office, located two blocks from the World Trade Center. As we were getting ready to start the meeting, the manager of the New York office asked if we heard the news reports that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers. Then a few minutes later he told us that his building was being evacuated, and he left abruptly.

All of our New York employees escaped physical injury, although it was months before the space was usable again. One of our board members was among the casualties, as was Windows on the World--at the top of one of the towers--where we held our New York board meetings. (I got stuck in an elevator on the way up there once.) But in spite of all the human casualties, it could have been a lot worse. It is truly amazing how many people got out safely.

Why was 9/11 such an emotional event? Yes, we lost approximately 3,000 lives (including the deaths at the Pentagon and on the four airplanes), and that is indeed a tragedy.* But everyone dies, and many deaths are unexpected. According to the Department of Transportation, 37,261 people died in traffic accidents in 2008. That's over 100 deaths EVERY DAY. And be grateful you don't live in Iraq or Afghanistan, where death is a way of life.

So why was 9/11 such an emotional event? Because we lost our sense of security. We thought we were invincible within our own borders. We hadn't seen such aggression on U.S. land since Pearl Harbor, which had the same emotional impact because we had been sitting in our own territory and minding our own business.

It wasn't always that way.

On our vacation, Roland and I visited three forts on the Mississippi River. We started at Fort D, located in downtown Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Fort D is one of four Union forts built to protect the city during the Civil War. The biggest enemy its opponents fought was boredom because the only battle in the area occurred west of the city. But the country knew that it was vulnerable within its borders, and it was prepared.

Fort Kaskaskia is one of two forts near Chester, Illinois on the other side of the river. The fort was made of earthworks and wood, so all that is left are mounds where earthen walls used to be. Fort Kaskaskia was occupied from 1703-1763 by the French, then by the British until the Revolutionaries captured it in 1778, and it was last used in the War of 1812 (by the Americans).

Our final stop was Fort de Chartres, pictured above. This fort had a long history of French occupation during the days when France claimed the territory, but the French surrendered the fort (and the Illinois territory) to Great Britain in the mid 1760s. Great Britain abandoned the fort in 1771, and the Americans never used it.

As the very existence of these forts shows, Americans (and their predecessors in this land) have not always felt invincible. Once upon a time, we realized that we were in danger from all sides, and we learned to prepare for it and deal with it when it came. Yes, there were surprises, but they did not affect us as Pearl Harbor or 9/11 did.

My point?

America's greatest vulnerability is its conviction that it is not vulnerable.

* According to the 9/11 Commission Report, more than 2,600 people died at the World Trade Center, 125 died at the Pentagon, and 256 died on the four airplanes.

Just a Bit Player?

Monday, September 6, 2010

My daughter and son-in-law recently moved to Chester, Illinois, so of course we spent some of our vacation time there. And what do you do in Chester? Visit Popeye. That's because Chester bills itself as the home of Popeye.

Actually, Chester was the home of Popeye's creator, Elzie Segar. Segar was born and grew up there and got his start as a projectionist in the local movie theater. As he rewound the tape reels, he would draw pictures of locals and project them onto the screen. Then he would go home and work on his mail-order cartooning lessons.

Popeye is a big deal in Chester. It even has a Popeye festival (called the Popeye Picnic) every September. The weekend includes a parade and the unveiling of a statue with one or more of Elzie Segar's characters. (And yes, we did stop and take a picture of each of the existing statues during our visit.) This year's festival is September 10-12.

I first knew Popeye as a Saturday morning cartoon character who downed a can of spinach every time he needed strength to save Olive Oyl or perform some other heroic act. By that time, he was definitely the star of the show.

But it wasn't always that way. Popeye started as a bit player in the Thimble Theatre comic strip, which starred Olive Oyl and her brother, Castor Oyl. (Both Olive and Castor already have statues in Chester.) When Castor needed a ship for a trip to Dice Island, he hired Popeye as one of the crew. The trip lasted a number of weeks, but when it was over, so was Popeye's role in the strip.

That was Segar's intention, anyway. His readers had a different idea.

In the end, Popeye took over the strip. And many years later, it was renamed for him.

Although Popeye was a fictional character, his rise from supporting player to star is not unusual in real life. And even if Popeye had stayed in the background, he would still have played an important role in getting Castor Oyl where he wanted to go.

In the real world, we all have something important to do, even if it is "just" swabbing down the decks so those around us can live in a clean and healthy environment. If it weren't for the farmer and the grocery clerk, I would probably starve. (Well, I'd figure something else out before it got that bad, but I'm grateful I don't have to.) And where would I be without the people who plow the streets in winter and collect the trash all year round? Stuck in my house surrounded by garbage.

Don't ever think that what you do isn't important.

Because there are no bit parts in life.

We Need Each Other

Monday, August 30, 2010

I grew up in the United Presbyterian Church, but I've belonged to an LCMS (Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod) congregation since I got married, and I've been married longer than I was single. That's the same LCMS congregation my husband has belonged to his entire life.

So when we heard that LCMS began near where our daughter now lives, we added it to our vacation itinerary.

Our first Lutheran heritage stop was at Altenburg, Missouri, in the southeastern part of the state. Altenburg is one of several settlements founded in 1839 by a group of Lutherans from Saxony. Altenburg has a Lutheran Heritage Center and Museum, and the grounds include the first permanent church building in Altenburg. That's it in the picture, although it is now part of the museum. It was replaced in 1867 by a larger church building still in use.

The grounds at the Lutheran Heritage Center also include the Log Cabin College, which trained new pastors for 10 years before its functions were transferred to Concordia Seminary in St. Louis in 1849.

The Lutherans' first two years were tough ones. Most of the settlers had been tradesmen in Saxony, but upon arrival in America they became farmers, learning as they went. They also faced disease and discouragement.

A group of Presbyterians had settled in the area twenty years earlier, and now they proved their Christian kinship with the Lutherans by helping them through those tough times. (I particularly appreciate this connection between my childhood denomination and my current one.)

Back in the present, after leaving Altenburg, Roland and I drove about five miles to Frohna, Missouri, which is another of the settlements from the same immigration. There we visited the Saxon Lutheran Memorial: a farm once owned by two brothers who came over with the other Saxons in 1839. The brothers bought it as a working farm from one of the Presbyterian families already established in the area.

Which gets me to the point of this post. Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, Roman Catholics: we are all part of the same Christian family and should help each other the way healthy biological families do. Nor should it stop there. We are all connected in the "family of man." To quote someone from my family tree: "No man is an island entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." (John Donne, 1623)

So let's follow the example the Presbyterians set at Altenburg.

Lest We Forget

Monday, August 23, 2010

Here's another idyllic sight that isn't as idyllic when you know the story.

The year was 1830, and the place was Georgia. The Cherokees lived in log houses and farmed their land. Many Cherokees spoke both English and Cherokee, and they even had their own alphabet and newspaper. And they wanted to live in peace with their white neighbors.

But some of their white neighbors didn't see it that way. As more settlers poured into Georgia, they wanted the prime farmland that belonged to the Cherokees. The white man's greed increased when gold was discovered on Cherokee land.

The State of Georgia tried to force the Cherokees out, but these Native Americans didn't put on their war paint. Instead, they took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court--and won.

An illusory victory. White men wanted the Cherokees off that land, and the white man in the White House held the power. As President Jackson is reported to have said, "Marshall made his decision, now let him enforce it."

When the U.S. government offered to relocate the Cherokees to Oklahoma, some thought it better to give in and move out peacefully, while others wanted to stay and resist. So the first group left "voluntarily," if not happily, and the second group stayed until 1938, when soldiers came and forced out the more than 16,000 who remained. Most of these Native Americans were interred in a stockade for the winter, where approximately 500 died from illness. Then the soldiers forced the survivors to march 800 miles under harsh conditions, losing another 4,000 people before reaching Oklahoma.

I took the picture at Missouri's Trail of Tears State Park, which is located where most of the Cherokees crossed the Mississippi River on their forced march from Georgia to Oklahoma. Majestic and peaceful as the site is now, it nonetheless reminds us that white Americans are no better than anyone else. The number of deaths from the Trail of Tears may not come anywhere near the number from the Holocaust, but the prejudice and greed that caused them are the same.

And it could happen again, especially if we forget and grow complacent.

As George Santayana said over 100 years ago, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

I shudder at the thought.

The Good Old Days

Monday, August 16, 2010

Idyllic, isn't it.

Our vacation included a stop at Bollinger Mill State Historic Site in Burfordville, Missouri. The picture shows Bollinger Mill and Burfordville Covered Bridge, which provided access to the mill for people coming from the east.

The setting is idyllic, but the life wasn't.

When we were there in early August, the temperature was in the upper 90s and the heat index was over 100. It was even hotter inside the mill, which has too many cracks and openings for air conditioning even today. And, of course, air conditioning as we know it didn't exist in the 1800s, when mill employees worked from dawn to dusk.

But it was a party for the farmers who brought their grain to be ground into meal and flour. Farm families camped near the mill and used the occasion as a social gathering. A much needed social gathering, because the farmers and their families worked from dawn to dusk when they were back on the farm.

They also lived in houses without indoor plumbing. Imagine the smell and the flies in the outhouse. Then think about getting up in the middle of the night during a thunderstorm and having to go to the bathroom! Some people used chamber pots in bad weather, but imagine the smell in the room until they had a chance to empty and wash them out. (I'd be just my luck to be assigned that chore.)

Okay, you say, so maybe the living conditions weren't that great in the old days, but there were fewer divorces and a stronger values system.

I'll give you the fewer divorces. The conditions probably encouraged more couples to work out their differences. But there were also many dysfunctional marriages.

And crime, and wars, and envy, and greed, and hatred. Those things don't change with the times.

So who's longing for the good old days?

Not I.

Following the Call

Monday, August 9, 2010

A week ago I watched my son-in-law become an ordained minister. The service included many reminders that God's call is the beginning rather than the end of the process. Although Pete has completed his four years of seminary, he will grown in his faith and continue learning to follow Christ until he dies. Or at least that's how it's supposed to work (and how I pray it will actually work for Pete).

But this life-long learning is not just for ministers.

All Christians are called to grow in faith and to continue learning to follow Christ. That's true in our personal lives as well as in our vocations.

Even if you aren't a Christian, you never stop learning. You either learn to be a better lawyer or writer or teacher or secretary or janitor or spouse or parent, or you learn to become a second or third-rate one. You either learn to enjoy your life, or you learn to curl up and die inside. But you don't stop learning.

Learning isn't a choice, but what you learn is. So choose wisely.

Yellow Kitchens and Pink Bathrooms

Monday, August 2, 2010

I admit it. I'm an HGTV junkie. "Househunters" and "Househunters International" are among my favorite shows.

But while I love to look at the houses on TV and decide which I like best, I'm often puzzled by the things that matter to other people. Granite counter tops look nice, but laminate is more cost-effective and durable.

Then there are those stainless steel appliances. White ones are just as functional and cheaper.

And why would you want a cathedral ceiling in your entryway or a bathroom you can waltz in? Lowering the ceiling would create another usable room on the second floor, and who dances in their bathroom? To me, that's just wasted space.

If you haven't figured it out by now, I'm all about function, although comfort is important, too. Yes, I want my house to look nice, but I'd rather live in a box that works than a palace that doesn't.

When Roland and I bought our house, it had a hot-pink bathroom. Not my style, and definitely not his. But we were looking for a place where I could have an attached law office while the children were small, and this was it. So we lived with the pink bathroom for six or seven years until we could afford to redo it.

The "need" for top-of-the-line, expensive things in a home is one thing that fueled the recession. People bought what they couldn't afford and then complained when they couldn't make the mortgage payments. It's one thing to buy nice things if you can afford them, but they are luxuries. When they become necessities, they are just another symptom of our materialistic society.

I'm proud of my daughter and son-in-law. When they went house-hunting in May, they put function first. They enjoy cooking, so they wanted lots of cupboards and counter space and were willing to put up with ugly to get size. (That's their "new" kitchen in the picture. Actually, "ugly" is their word. It isn't my style, but I don't hate it. And the yellow probably wouldn't stand out so much if it weren't for the dark cabinets and brick backsplash.) They bought the house even though they knew that only cosmetic changes were in their budget.

Because yellow kitchens and pink bathrooms are still functional.

Safety First

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Chicago to Mackinac Island sailboat race officially kicked off on Saturday. It sounds like fun, and after we bought our current boat in 2002, we checked into it. And quickly ruled it out.

The Chicago-Mac race is by invitation only, and that probably means credentials we don't have. It also requires experienced crew and some off-shore sailing equipment we couldn't afford to buy at the time.

These requirements make a lot of sense. The race covers 333 miles, and during part of the course the boats may be as much as 40 miles from the nearest shore. Storms can pop up quickly over one part of the lake while the sun shines brightly just a few miles away. In fact, one boat was hit by lightening this year. (The crew was safe but the boat was damaged and had to leave the race.) So I don't blame the race organizers for putting safety first.

If we spent a lot of time in the middle of Lake Michigan or sailed the ocean, we'd buy that extra safety gear. But we usually sail in sight of land, and even when it disappears it is rarely more than fifteen miles away. And we're cowards who stay at home if the weather looks threatening. So we can get away without a life raft or an EPIRB (which broadcasts it's location in an emergency).

Not that we ignore safety. Life jackets, safety harnesses, and tethers have always been standard equipment on our boats. Since I can't swim, I wear my life jacket whenever we are on the water, and children must wear them or the boat won't leave the dock.

But there is some safety gear we learned about the hard way.

The first time we tried to sail the North Channel, we never reached Lake Huron. At the time we had a trailerable 23' sailboat, and we put it in the water at DeTour Village, Michigan. My brother joined us with his 18-footer, making two boats, three adults, and two children (ages 12 and 8) in our party.

It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon and perfect sailing weather when we left DeTour. (That's DeTour Lighthouse in the picture.) We had been out about an hour and were sailing in moderate winds when... Crack! Suddenly the upper part of our mast was lying on the cabin roof and the sails were in the water. The mast had snapped just below the spreaders without giving us any warning. (For the non-sailors out there, the spreaders are the part of the mast that spreads out like arms on each side.) We were proud of our calmness and quick action, but we never did find out why the mast broke.

We motored back to the marina at DeTour and docked there for several days as we called the insurance company and did some sightseeing on land. But when the week-end rolled around again, we decided to use our sailboat as a motorboat and cruise up to Canada.

Everything went fine--until our return trip.

I was navigating (by sight) and was sure we weren't anywhere near the reef that showed up on the charts. Unfortunately, I was wrong.

With a crunch, the rudder struck an underwater boulder. Although we didn't take on any water, we couldn't steer the boat. We were stranded, and we couldn't use the radio to call for help because the antenna was at the top of the mast and the mast was tied to the trailer back at the marina.

(In my defense, I was used to sailing on Lake Michigan, where the water is at least 25 feet deep and there is nothing to run into except the shore and a few man-made structures clearly visible above the water.)

My brother and daughter were sailing on his boat, but we had left them far behind. When they eventually came by, they called someone to tow us off the rocks. It makes a good story, and my children will never forget that vacation.

The point? We bought a handheld radio as soon as we got back home, and our current boat has a depth finder. We also bought a GPS to help us pinpoint our location (and keep us away from reefs) before we attempted (successfully) to sail the North Channel again.

Because safety is important, even if you have to learn it the hard way.

Not a Lonely Job

Monday, July 19, 2010

Back when I was earning my living as a lawyer, I attended a hearing where a witness was asked why she wanted to work on the exchange floor when she was trading successfully from home. Her answer? "Trading is a lonely job."

That's what they say about writing, too. And it is partly true. I don't have colleagues occupying offices next door or meeting in conference rooms down the hall. When I sit down to put words on paper, I'm the only one in the room.

But I'm not alone.

No, I'm not referring to God. Yes, He is with me, but that's not what this post is about.

A truly solitary job is one that no one else understands well enough to provide encouragement and where no one else has input into the final product. I don't know if there are any truly solitary jobs out there, but neither writers nor traders qualify.

Writers are part of a broader writing community, and traders are part of a broader trading community. Both writers and traders can find others who have dealt with the same issues to provide encouragement.

Good writers seek input from critique partners, editors, and others to improve their manuscripts. Good traders read financial newsletters and study other traders' opinions and methods to improve their own performance.

I belong to a number of local, regional, and national writers' groups, and I am active in several. These include a local critique group (the Highland Writers' Group), a non-profit group formed to encourage Indiana's creative writers (the Indiana Writers' Consortium), and the Indiana chapter of the American Christian Fiction Writers. Each of these groups meets several times throughout the year, and HWG meets weekly. They all provide excellent opportunities to interact with other people who understand the writing life.

Saturday was a good example.

That's when IWG held its second annual networking picnic. Although there were a couple of fundraising activities, the day was primarily about the fellowship and the food and the fun. And I enjoyed creating a literary scavenger hunt using books as clues to things people could find in or near the picnic location.

You may have a job that requires some alone time, but you aren't alone.

And writing is definitely not a lonely job.

Teamwork Gone Wrong

Monday, July 12, 2010

Camels are herd animals. These camels are in perfect harmony as they pose for the tourists at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.

Why can't we all be like that?

Back in college, I took "Introduction to Sociology." The only way to get an A was to do a project, but it didn't have to be done well. Just done.

The teacher divided us into project teams, and we set to work. One member of my team was very outspoken, and his ideas were awful. Unfortunately, no one was willing to stand up to him. An awful idea carried through would still have gotten me an A, but my work ethic wouldn't accept anything less than my best. And this wasn't it.

Those of you who know me today may find it hard to believe, but at that point in my life I was a timid person who never stood up for myself. So it took extreme frustration to make me crack.

But crack I did. I asked the teacher if I could do an individual project (in a class involving the study of groups, no less). She said I could, so I told the team that I wasn't going to participate any more. I could tell the other members were shocked, but I didn't care. I simply couldn't handle the person who tried to dominate the group.

Today, I'm that person.

Well, not completely. I do try to listen to other people's opinions, and I often use their suggestions because I know they are better than my own. But I still can't stand incompetence.

Or people who always have to have their own way.

I have learned something over the years, though. Sometimes quitting isn't an option. Disagreeable people are a fact of life, and it is impossible to avoid them. Better to stick with it, give in graciously on the little things, and fight for the big ones. Because when I walk away, I silence my voice. And what if it is the only voice of reason?

Imagine how much I would have learned about groups if I'd stuck with the sociology team. I thought walking away took courage, but it was really the coward's way out.

So if you are discouraged and ready to quit, think about the void you'll create.

(A personal message to the person who inspired this post: please don't quit. We need your voice to keep us on track.)

Because every voice counts.

Our Politically Incorrect Heritage

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Nina and the Pinta sailed into our marina last week. Okay, so they are just replicas, but they were interesting all the same.

They also got me thinking about Christopher Columbus and other men and women who put their mark on this country. And about how different it would have been if those men and women had been politically correct.

Before I go there, I'd better define what I mean by "politically correct." I found dozens of definitions on the web, and they differ substantially. The one I'm using is from Encarta's online dictionary:
deliberately avoiding offense: relating to or supporting the use of language or conduct that deliberately avoids giving offense, e.g., on the basis of ethnic origin or sexual orientation.
Notice that the reference to ethnic origin or sexual orientation is just an example. The definition itself is much broader than those two contexts.

Under this definition, our nation's heroes were not politically correct. They knew they couldn't change the world without offending someone in the process, but they went ahead anyway.

Although born in Genoa (now a part of Italy), the adult Columbus lived and worked in Portugal, which was a bitter rival of Spain. So it wasn't politically correct for Columbus to sail under Spain's flag and claim the New World for Spain. But Portugal wouldn't fund the voyage and Spain would, so what was he to do? Give up? Someone else would have made the trip eventually, but it would have changed the course of history.

It wasn't politically correct for the founding fathers to sign the Declaration of Independence and participate in a revolt against the country that ruled the colonies. The loyalists in the colonies and many people in England must have been greatly offended. But the founding fathers thought the existing government was tyrannical, so they made a conscious choice to do something they knew would offend. If they had been unwilling to make that choice, we might be living in a monarchy.

It wasn't politically correct (at least among the Southern slave holders) for a woman named Harriett Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom's Cabin. In spite of the current controversy over stereotyping, the novel was meant to help black people by depicting the horrors of slavery, and it fueled abolitionist sentiment. We'll never know for sure, but slavery might not have ended as quickly if Stowe had worried about offending members of her own race.

It wasn't politically correct for Susan B. Anthony to organize women to fight for the right to vote. Some members of both sexes were offended at the time. Anthony died before her dream became a reality, but if she hadn't been willing to offend those who favored the status quo, would my mother have been able to vote when she came of age? And would the U.S. Supreme Court have any female members today?

It wasn't politically correct for Martin Luther King, Jr. to march through the streets and protest laws that treated blacks as second-class citizens. He offended many whites and even broke some laws in the process. Yet, looking back, how many of my readers wish he had been politically correct? Probably not many.

It is impossible to live a life that offends no one, and the person who tries will never be an agent of social change. I'm not advocating prejudice or speaking without thinking or insensitivity to other people's feelings. Those things have always been wrong and always will be. (See Titus 3:2, for example.) But given the choice between being politically correct or changing the world, I know which one I'd choose.

How about you?

Love is Saying You're Sorry

Monday, June 28, 2010

I attended a wedding on Friday. Gordon and Heather are members of the writer's critique group I belong to, so I got to watch their friendship blossom into love and engagement and, finally, marriage. But "finally" isn't the right word, because marriage is a new beginning rather than an end.

Although I don't consider myself an expert on marriage, I have been married for 31 years, so that's a good start. (The picture is Roland and me in 1979. How we've changed since then!) I've learned a few things in that time, so I'm passing on some words of wisdom to Heather and Gordon and all the other married couples out there.

First, be realistic. Marriage isn't nirvana. Even the best marriages have times when the spouses don't like each other much. (Yes, mine too.) Marriage requires hard work and compromise, but it's worth it.

How many of you remember the movie Love Story from the late 60s or early 70s? It's most famous line was, "Love means never having to say you're sorry." I completely disagree. We all disappoint each other at times, and the strongest marriages have two partners who are willing to say both "I'm sorry" and "I forgive you."

Second, remember that marriage is a partnership. That doesn't mean losing your individual identities, but it does mean working together to satisfy each other's needs.

There is one more key ingredient--and the main one. Roland and I are both committed to God, and He guides our lives and our marriage.

So here's my advice to Gordon and Heather. Put God at the center of your marriage and keep Him there.

And don't hesitate to say, "I'm sorry."

Dreams Take Work

Monday, June 21, 2010

Sleeping in the dorm. Eating in the dining hall. Walking across campus to attend class.

My college days? Well, that too. But I'm talking about a writers' conference I attended earlier this month.

The Write-to-Publish Conference is held annually at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. (I don't want anyone to confuse it with Wheaton College in Massachusetts. Write-to-Publish is held at the one that Billy Graham actually attended.) It is a four-day Christian conference that offers multiple opportunities for writers to improve their craft and make contact with editors and agents.

What did I get out of it? New friends. The joy that comes from worshiping with other Christian writers. Lots of good information on marketing my book and expanding my speaking ministry. The opportunity to submit my novel to a publishing house that doesn't take unsolicited submissions. Another lead for my children's book. (And yes, I submitted both the novel and the children's book two days after returning home.)

I try to attend one major writers' conference a year. This year is an exception: I'll be attending two. That's because I had already planned to attend Write-to-Publish when I discovered that American Christian Fiction Writers is holding its annual conference in my backyard this year. Or maybe not quite my backyard, but 2 and 1/2 driving hours away isn't bad. So I'll be going there in September.

Many of you don't see yourselves as writers, but all of you have dreams. We all benefit from time away to develop our skills and re-energize those dreams, whatever they may be.

So take some time to follow yours.

A Perfect Day

Monday, June 14, 2010

On the shores of Lake Michigan, a buttercup cocks its head and listens to the whispering wind.

High on the Indiana dunes, dry sand skips merrily along, looking for a place to rest.

The flag at the Munster Town Hall lifts halfway and stays there.

At Wrigley Field, the wind nudges a ball into the bleachers. Then the camera pulls back and shows white sails showcased against blue water.

And at the Hammond Marina, I am getting ready to join them.

Flinging the rope off the post, I give Freizeit her freedom. She backs out of her berth and heads for the marina entrance.

Freizeit means "free time" in German, and she is built for enjoyment. Sleek and white with dark green accents, she is rigged with one mast and two sails.

After we clear the marina entrance, Roland turns the bow into the wind. I raise the main sail and cleat it off, then raise the head sail.

"Let's go toward Chicago," Roland says as he turns off the engine and lets the wind take over.

We relax in our seats, soaking in the silence. Well, not complete silence. We hear a gentle "plash" as the waves caress the boat, and a soft "whoo" as the wind plays among the sails.

I watch contentedly as the Museum of Science and Industry grows larger and then smaller and the Chicago skyline becomes more pronounced.

All too soon, Roland glances at his watch and says, "We'd better head back now." Working in perfect harmony with the boat, we swing 180 degrees. Then we settle into our seats and let the wind take us home.

The azure water laps against the side of the boat, and the sun smiles down on us.

Soon the marina looms ahead. Roland turns the bow into the wind, and I take the sails down.

As we pull into our berth to tie up, the wind dies.

The camera panning the lake near Wrigley Field shows sails flapping. But the baseball fans are on their way home after a Cubs win.

The flag at the Munster Town Hall hangs limp.

High on the Indiana dunes, the grains of sand settle to rest.

And on the shores of Lake Michigan, the buttercup straightens its head.

The wind has retired at the end of a perfect day.

My Hero

Monday, June 7, 2010

My father would have been 100 on June 2nd.

Daddy married later in life, and I was only nine when I started telling my friends that my father was half a century old. (Yes, that gives you enough information to calculate my current age.) Daddy was 73 when he became a grandfather and a few months shy of 89 when he died.

The picture shows Daddy with his first grandchild (my daughter, Caroline), and it is one of the few pictures that shows him smiling. But this one is closer to real life, because Daddy smiled and laughed a lot.

My father was scholarly and strict and he watched every penny. He was also the kindest and most generous man I know.

Daddy valued education. He dropped out of high school but eventually worked his way through college and seminary. He also made sure that his children had the means to go to college. In fact, his example inspired each of us to get at least one postgraduate degree.

Growing up, I didn't appreciate Daddy enough. Yes, I loved and respected him, but I sometimes wished that he was rich, indulgent, and anything but a minister. Looking back, I can see how much he sacrificed for his family and what a rich legacy he left us, but I didn't see it at the time.

Do you appreciate your father the way you should? If he is still around, make sure you honor him this Father's Day (June 20).

On the Road With Laura Ingalls Wilder--Part III

Monday, May 31, 2010

Since Mama and I didn't want to backtrack, we vistited the Indian Territory site (Little House on the Prairie) outside Independence, Kansas near the end of our trip rather than near the beginning. In the books, Laura moved from the big woods in Wisconsin to Indian Territory and then to Plum Creek in Minnesota. In real life, the Ingalls family moved back to Wisconsin and stayed there for several years before moving to Plum Creek.

The place designated as the Kansas site for Laura's cabin contains a replica of the cabin; an old post office and an old one-room schoolhouse that are both original but were moved to this site and have nothing to do with Laura; and a hand-dug well. Mama saw most of it but decided not to walk the few extra steps to see the well.

At the cabin, a string fed through a hole in the door to open the inside latch. In Little House on the Prairie, Laura describes her father fixing up the string so he could pull it through the hole at night to "lock" the door from the inside.

I'm not sure if this is the real site, or if somebody just decided to call it that. Laura describes their homestead as being 40 miles from Independence and this place is only 13 miles away. But Laura did change the facts for drama sometimes, or her young memory may have gotten it wrong.

Our last Laura Ingalls Wilder stop was also her last. Laura and Almanzo moved to Mansfield, Missouri, while their daughter, Rose, was still young (On the Way Home), and they spent the rest of their lives there. Rose moved to California and eventually to Connecticut, but she is buried next to her parents in the Mansfield cemetery. That's the first place we went when we arrived. Unfortunately, the engraving on Laura and Almanzo's grave is almost the same color as the tombstone, so the writing doesn't show up very well in a photo.

From there, we went to Rocky Ridge Farm to see the house and museum. The museum contains lots of original Ingalls and Wilder items, including Pa's fiddle.

Our admission fee included guided tours of two houses. The farm house is still furnished with Laura's furniture and is pretty much as she left it when she died. The picture at the beginning of this post shows the house from the side. Almanzo built the part on the left first, and he added the part on the right later.

Rose had her own fame as an author (before her mother even wrote the Little House books) and as a newspaper correspondent, and she must have done okay financially. She wanted to give her parents a more modern house, so they let her build them a stone house (called "the rock house"). Laura wrote her first four books while living in the rock house.

After settling her parents in the rock house, Rose moved into the farm house. Eight years later, she decided she'd had enough of small town life and left. As soon as she vacated the premises, Laura and Almanzo moved back to the farm house, where they felt more at home. Laura wrote her other books there.

When we first arrived at Rocky Ridge Farm, I noticed that the parking lot was on the other side of the road and was worried that Mama wouldn't be able to walk that far. Then I saw a sign indicating that there was handicapped parking at the museum/farm house, so we went ahead and turned in there. We also drove past the regular parking at the rock house and parked much closer. The walk wouldn't have bothered most people, but we were glad for the handicapped parking (and yes, we did have a permit).

It was a good trip, and I recommend it for any Laura Ingalls Wilder fan. (And if you aren't one yet, get the books and read them.) But I'm grateful I could travel by car instead of covered wagon.

On the Road With Laura Ingalls Wilder--Part II

Monday, May 24, 2010

From Plum Creek, Mama and I traveled to De Smet, South Dakota, where we did our most extensive sightseeing. We started with a tour that took us inside two houses. The first was the Surveyors' House, where the Ingalls lived their first winter in De Smet (By the Shores of Silver Lake). That house (shown in the picture) is the actual house and has been restored to its original condition, although it is no longer in the same location. They don't let anyone upstairs, but they have it set up the way it would have been in Laura's time, and mirrors at the top of the stairs reflect the way the attic would have looked with the girls' beds in it.

The site also contained the school Laura attended (The Long Winter and Little Town on the Prairie) and a replica of the first school where Laura taught (These Happy Golden Years).

We then got in our car and followed the guide (in her car) to the Ingalls' house in town. This is where Pa and Ma and Mary lived until they died. Laura was already married by the time Pa built the town house, so she never lived there.

The town house is about seven blocks from the Surveyors' House, so I'm not sure if driving is the normal procedure or if they usually walk and were just accommodating Mama's 90-year-old legs.

The guide took us through the first floor, and I went upstairs as well. Mama couldn't climb the stairs, so the guide showed her a book with pictures of the second floor.

Next, we drove to the cemetery and saw the family graves (all in a row) for Pa, Ma, Laura's son (who died when he was just a few days old), Mary, and Carrie. We forgot to walk a few feet farther on to see the grave where Grace is buried with her husband, but it is there, too.

After that, we took another road to the site where Laura and Almanzo homesteaded after they got married (The First Four Years). All you can see now is a sign marking the spot. Actually, the sign says more about Rose being born there than it does about Laura and Almanzo. But it was close by and worth the short drive.

Finally, we drove to the Ingalls' homestead, where Laura lived in the summers until she got married. While at the homestead, I walked out to a replica of the Ingall's claim shanty, but Mama went no farther than the gift shop. The walking was easy for me, but it was over a gentle hill, and the claim shanty wasn't close to the parking lot. Then, as we left the homestead, we stopped and saw some cottonwood trees that Pa had planted.

Mama and I spent the next day in the car on our way to Burr Oak, Iowa. That's the one place Laura never wrote about. Her stay in Burr Oak came in the middle of the Ingalls' years at Walnut Grove. If you are interested in learning more about that time, I recommend Laura Ingalls Wilder: The Iowa Story, by William Anderson.

Friends bought the Master's Hotel in Burr Oak and asked Pa and Ma to help them run it. Since the crops had failed again, they agreed, but the Ingalls stayed only a little over a year before returning to Walnut Grove.

We took a tour through the original (restored) hotel and heard about Laura's time there. After seeing the main floor, we went outside and entered the lower level through a back door. (Everyone else on the tour went down the interior stairs, but the outside route allowed Mama to take a path with a gentle slope rather than worrying about stairs.) Mama wasn't able to climb to the top floor but did see pictures of it.

"But," you ask, "didn't Laura live in Indian Territory when she was young? And did she ever settle down for good?"

I'll answer those questions in next week's final installment.