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For the Love of Birds

“Everyone likes birds.  What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird?”  David Attenborough

Red Winged Blackbird

Red Winged Blackbird

Birds have always fascinated me.  When I was a kid, I included them whenever I drew a picture, and as a young teen I had one as a pet.  When I moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1980, I was introduced by a good friend to the act of bird watching. Even though I am no longer keeping an active life list, the art of birding is still part of my life, especially when I travel.

As a birder, I do not just watch for birds in the garden or along the road, but I marvel at their beauty and diversity, their colors and songs, their trust if you sit quietly enough so they come out from hiding and share energy and activity with you.  I see the birds as a reminder that life is full of wonder and should be appreciated.  That it is important to sit quietly every once in a while and just become part of nature.  That life is not about me and my to-do list but about slowing down and celebrating the wonders of life, like listening to the birds sing.




Original Angry Bird?

Original Angry Bird?

I have written about birds before whether out in the wild or on display at a zooHummingbirds are especially glorious!  But all birds—from the flamboyant peacock to the common sparrow, from the graceful swan to the chattering bluejay—are worthy of notice. And I always feel lucky if the birds cooperate at all and let me glimpse them in their daily routines.

Here are a few of the birds I have noticed over the years.

Canada Goose Family

Canada Goose Family



Mallard Ducklings

Mallard Ducklings

American Kestrel

American Kestrel

Black Swans

Black Swans

White Pelicans

White Pelicans

California Brown Pelican

California Brown Pelican

Gambel Qualis

Gambel Quails

American Robin

American Robin

Robin Singing on a Log

Robin Singing on a Log

Western Grebe

Western Grebe

Yellow Headed Blackbird

Yellow Headed Blackbird

Acorn Woodpecker

Acorn Woodpecker



California Gull

California Gull

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“I don’t spend that much time being introspective, believe it or not.  All I know is that I grew up not questioning God because that’s how you are.  God was there like the birds and the wind.”  Jane Goodall

“Birds sing after a storm, why shouldn’t people feel as free to delight in whatever sunlight remains to them?”  Rose Kennedy

“Use those talents you have.  You will make it.  You will give joy to the world.  Take this tip from nature.  The woods would be a very silent place if no birds sang except those who sang best.”  Bernard Meltzer

Singing Gambel Quail

Singing Gambel Quail

“I realized that if I had to choose, I would rather have birds than airplanes.”  Charles Lindbergh

“Birds are a miracle because they prove to us there is a finer, simpler state of being which we may strive to attain.”  Douglas Coupland

“Birds are indicators of the environment.  If they are in trouble, we know we’ll soon be in trouble.”  Roger Tory Peterson

“The best thing you can do when you’re not feeling funny is go out and get more stimuli from the world, get out and walk around, read a book, go talk to some birds or a dog and replenish the well, as it were.”  Rob Delaney

“I think people who don’t believe in God are crazy.  How can you say there is no God when you hear the birds singing these beautiful songs you didn’t make?”  Little Richard

“When the moon covers the sun, we have a solar eclipse.  What do you call it when birds do that?”  Kim Young-ha

“I hope you love birds too.  It is economical.  It saves going to heaven.”  Emily Dickinson

“I never for a day gave up listening to the songs of our birds, or watching their peculiar habits, or delineating them in the best way I could.”  John James Audubon

“There is nothing in which the birds differ more from man than the way in which they can build and yet leave a landscape as it was before.”  Robert Lynd

“Did St. Francis preach to the birds?  Whatever for?  If he really liked birds he would have done better to preach to the cats.”  Rebeca West

“No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings.”  William Blake

“In order to see birds it is necessary to become part of the silence.”  Robert Lynd

“A bird does not sing because it has an answer; it sings because it has a song.”  Maya Angelou

“Keep a green tree in your heart, and perhaps the singing bird will come.”  Chinese Proverb

“We have flown the air like birds and swum the seas like fishes, but we have yet to learn the simple act of walking the earth like brothers.”  Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly.”  Langston Hughes

“Did you ever see an unhappy horse?  Did you ever see a bird that had the blues?  One reason why birds and horses are not unhappy is because they are not trying to impress other birds and horses.”  Dale Carnegie

“Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings.”  Salvador Dali

“You have to believe in happiness, or happiness never comes.  Ah, that’s the reason a bird can sing.  On his darkest day he believes in spring.”  Douglas Malloch

“It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird; it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg.  We are like eggs at present.  And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg.  We much be hatched or go bad.”  C. S. Lewis

“I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself.  A small bird will drop frozen from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.”  D. H. Lawrence

“Accept that some days you are the pigeon, and some days you are the statue.”  David Brent

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.  They don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.  That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”  Harper Lee

“To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and the flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of years, to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly thing can be.”  Rachel Carson

“God gives every bird its food, but He does not throw it into the nest.”  J. G. Holland

“It’s a good thing we have gravity, or else when birds died they’d just stay right up there.  Hunters would be all confused.”  Steven Wright

This post is my contribution to the WordPress Photo a Week Challege: Birds.

Soaring Red Tail Hawk

Soaring Red Tail Hawk

Topic Z: A Day at the ZOO

Some Opening Comments: antelopeI know that not everyone is enamored of zoos.  In fact, the very existence and actual operation of zoos is frequently criticized. In many ways, I agree with the complaints.  Ideally, wild animals would stay in the wild.  But, unfortunately, many animals are now endangered. Habitats are routinely diminished by encroaching farm lands and road construction, and some animals are being plundered by hunters and smugglers.  Some preservation efforts are underway, such as creating nature preserves to protect the animals in their native environments, but there are no guarantees about their success.  I would love to be able to visit such places to see animals in the wild, but such travel is not likely for me (and many others)*. 

Thus zoos have become a way to showcase wild animals while also learning about them in order to help preserve those at the zoo as well as in the wild.  Unfortunately, over the years, not all zoos have been run as humanely as they should be.  I remember once years and years ago visiting a zoo where the big cats were confined in small indoor cages, where all they could do was pace—it was a sad disheartening experience.  Many complain that the lack of space and natural habitats available via zoos is unfair to the animals, so limiting in fact that reproduction is not even possible.  This latter complaint is especially raised regarding elephants.  Other complaints look to the mistreatment of the animals behind closed doors when they are not in front of the crowds, whether having to perform or not.  These concerns are compounded when “zoos” are small or privately owned, where the animals are often seen as being exploited to simply make a buck.

betty white bookFortunately, more and more zoos are providing open spaces and natural habitats as the norm when animal exhibits are being constructed.  And more and more organizations and individuals are committed to monitoring and improving the overall living conditions for the animals.  These public zoological gardens and aquariums have been in existence since roughly 1870.  In 2013, there were 223 North American zoos accredited through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.   As Betty White explains in her book Betty & Friends: My Life at the Zoo (2011), “Increasingly, the good zoos find themselves taking on the role of ‘protectors’—or better yet ‘conservers’—rather than merely ‘collectors’ of wildlife.” 

Given this broader context, even though I understand the problems associated with the confinement and treatment of animals, I share Betty White’s appreciation for “the positive changes that have taken place in the whole zoo community over the past few decades, and the critical role they play today in perpetuating endangered species.”  


Dad taking photoselephant walkingEven though I understand the problems and controversy surrounding the operation of zoos, I love visiting them.  A day at the zoo is always great, even in the rain.  Over the years, I have spent many fun days with my dad wandering various zoos to capture pictures of the animals or visiting special exhibits with family and friends.  

Zoo i n the rain

pandaSome exhibits stand out:  I visited the Panda Exhibit at the San Diego Zoo and saw Ruby, the painting elephant, at the Phoenix Zoo.  Although it closed in 1987 (bought by Sea World), Marineland of the Pacific on Palos Verdes Peninsula, California, was a great place to get up close and personal with sea life.  A visit to Wolf Haven International in Tenino, Washington, provided some glimpses of wolves but also included evening stories around a campfire culminating with some howling from the wolves on site.  Terrific!  


wolf sleeping

wolf 2

mba bird 4For years I was a member of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  The aviary there lets visitors see shore birds up close.  But you can also interact with starfish and sting rays and catch some great views of sea otters, both in an indoor exhibit as well as outside in the bay.  One year (1992) there was a great jellyfish exhibit too, and another year Dad and I enjoyed a catered outing to see local wildflowers.  I love the Monterey Bay Aquarium!  

mba bird 1

mba bird 2

mba bird 3

otter swimming

otter close

Exhibit Program Cover

Exhibit Program Cover

feeding llama 2feeding llamaOver the years, I also have fond memories of the Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch in Texas.  There, animals were viewed from the car as we drove through the park—and even fed some animals—llamas, zebras and ostriches—through the car windows.  I especially liked seeing the Rhea and its baby following behind and the start of a Crested Crane’s courtship dance.  

feeding zebra



crested crane dance 1

mc elephantmc parrotFor about ten years, I worked at Moorpark College, a mid-sized two-year college within the California Community College System.  It is the only community college in the country that offers an onsite teaching zoo**, where students learn to care for and train animals in preparation for jobs at zoos and preserves as well as in the entertainment and conservation industries.  The Exotic Animal Training and Management Program (EATM)—affectionately dubbed America’s Teaching Zoo—operates an on-campus zoo that covers more than 9 acres.  An elephant would occasionally visit the campus, but one never lived permanently as the zoo.  There were plenty of other animals, however, from birds of prey to sea lions and from wolves to tigers.   mc camel

barn owl

mc lion in officeA documentary was made, showing the hard work and dedication involved with participating in this impressive program.  This unique EATM program offered many challenges and surprises for everyone on campus.  For example, Moorpark College was undoubtedly the only campus where the President would be called by a community member and asked to keep the students from walking the Water Buffalo in the neighborhood park.  Or where the sun rose to the bellowing whoo-whoo-whooping of some very vocal Gibbons.  Also, once the aged lion—a long-time mascot for the zoo—died, a new lion cub was donated from a sanctioned breeding program.  It was great getting to welcome this new little guy to campus!  

mc lion cub


donotSpecial exhibits and specific memories are great.  Technology even makes it possible to view some animal exhibits without ever leaving home.  For example, some days I watch the Elephant Cam from the San Diego Zoo and see elephants in real time, including the two youngest–both under 4 years old. But the best days at the zoo are still ordinary typical days, when you can wander leisurely from exhibit to exhibit, seeing a wide range of animals.

Each day will be a bit different from the next depending on what zoo you are visiting, what special exhibits are open, and even the mood of you and the animals.  But if you pause to really watch a minute, to try to communicate and understand, to appreciate what you see, any walk through the zoo is bound to be a glorious adventure.  Of course, you better make sure you show care and respect to the animals!

The following photos are pulled from trips to various zoos including The Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens, Chaffee Zoo (Fresno, CA), Woodland Park Zoo (Seattle, WA), Arizona-Sonora Desert (Living) Museum (Tucson, AZ), and the San Diego Zoo.  Let’s get started!

lion yawnLions & Tigers & Bears, oh my! lion nap

lions two

tiger walking

tiger face

bear side view

polar bear walking

bear grizzly

chimpanzeeorangutanChimps, Orangutans, and Gorillas

gorilla relaxing

gorilla mom and baby

gorilla standing

Flamingos & Other Birds

flamingo loneflamingo standing

flamingo flock

crested crane in aviary

night heron

rosette spoonbill

giraffe facecamel close upA Range of Animals that Run, Swim & Fly

turtles on log



bats 2

Bat rosalie

killer whale 1killer whales twoSome Sea Life

sea turtle



hippos and duckshippo surfacingHippos & Rhinos

hippos two

rhino face

rhinos two

lynxcoyoteSome Desert Dwellers

big horn sheep

elephant closeThere Must Always Be a Visit with the Elephants!

elephants mom and baby

If you have not visited a zoo in awhile, take Paul Simon’s advice and see “what’s happening at the zoo”!  (Just don’t believe his assessment of elephants.)   

 What zoos have you visited?

Do you have favorite animals you always visit?

elephants four

*It would not be the same as seeing animals in the wild, but you can visit a great blog–de Wets Wild–to see photographers of animals in the wilds of South Africa.
**The other college in the States that offers animal management training works with dolphins and such, so it brings the students to the ocean; that campus does not have a zoo on its own campus.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“The quizzical expression of the monkey at the zoo comes from his wondering whether he is his brother’s keeper or his keeper’s brother.”   Evan Esar

“Zoo:  An excellent place to study the habits of human beings.”  Evan Esar

“I am personally not against keeping animals at zoos, as they serve a huge educational purpose, but treating them well and with respect seems the least we could do, and with ‘we’ I mean not just zoo staff, but most certainly also the public.”  Frans de Waal

“Zoo animals are ambassadors for their cousins in the wild.”   Jack Hanna

“Zoos are becoming facsimiles—or perhaps caricatures—of how animals once were in their natural habitat.  If the right policies toward nature were pursued, we would need no zoos at all.”   Michael J. Fox

“It could be said now that all animals live in zoos, whether it is a zoo in Regent’s Park, London or a Nigerian Game Reserve. Perhaps what’s left to argue is only the zoo’s quality.”    Peter Greenaway

“All zoos, even the most enlightened, are built upon the idea both beguiling and repellent—the notion that we can seek out the wildness of the world and behold its beauty, but that we must first contain that wildness. Zoos argue that they are fighting for the conservation of the Earth, that they educate the public and provide refuge and support for vanishing species. And they are right. Animal-rights groups argue that zoos traffic in living creatures, exploiting them for financial gain and amusement. And they are right. Caught inside this contradiction are the animals themselves, and the humans charged with their well-being.”    Thomas French, Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives

“In zoos, along with the animals, the humanity of man is also prisoned! No cage is humane!”    Mehmet Murat ildan “The zoo kills the ‘wild’ in wild animal.”   Mokokoma Mokhonoana

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”   Mahatma Gandhi

If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to the man.  All things are connected.”  Chief Seattle, Suwamish Tribe

“Only animals were not expelled from Paradise.”   Milan Kundera

“If a man aspires towards a righteous life, his first art of abstinence is from injury to animals.”  Leo Tolstoy

“We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.”  Immanuel Kant

“Man is the only animal who blushes—or needs to.”   Mark Twain

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”   Anatole France

Topic Y: A Brand New YEAR


Well, it is a little over a week into 2014.  For most of us, the past several weeks have been a time of celebration and reflection as well as a time of expectation and planning.  Did you make New Year’s Resolutions?  Have you broken them yet?  Many people have and are already discouraged. Hopefully, they are revising their plans or are starting over with ways to make things better in their lives.

Some of us (like me) have not settled on our plans for the new year yet.  I prepare my goals each year for my birthday, which comes up this weekend.  As I make my plans this year, I am aware of how challenging this whole new-year-resolutions-business is.  Much harder than remembering to write 2014 on my checks—and I have not developed that habit yet either!

As I struggle with finalizing my goals, I know what I should be doing.  For one thing, I need a theme of some sort to help me stay focused with my plans throughout the year. One blog I follow is by Holly Gerth. She suggests finding a theme in her post What’s Your One Word for 2014?  I like this idea to find the one word that is just right for this year and to keep it with you all year long.  This one word can become the filter used to help make day-to-day decisions that invariably impact your overall goals.  It is the talisman in your pocket that gives you comfort in moments of doubt or anxiety.  It is the guiding light that keeps you on course throughout the year.

My problem is I have not settled on my word yet.  I have been considering several recently, but they change a bit each day.  I first thought of “Retirement,” but that is a decision I may be making this year, not a theme or guiding principle.  Right now, I am considering these words:  Risk, Bold, Adventure, you get the idea.  I also am looking to Happiness, Love, Honesty since they are my usual guides.  I will make my decision by Sunday, when I finalize my plans for the new year.

Even once I settle on a word, I want to make some goals, so I have something specific to devote my energies to.  In this regard, I have to remember the advice I often give faculty when they are setting goals for their upcoming year of evaluation.  Goals need to be specific, but not limiting.  In essay writing terms, goals need to be more like thesis statements (opinions) rather than details or facts.  For example, attending a specific technology conference to learn some new classroom strategies is not a great goal.  What happens if you for some reason cannot attend or you do not learn anything that interests you?  You are left with not meeting your goal.  Instead, the goal should be exploring new technologies to enhance classroom teaching.  Then, yes, if you get to that conference, you can accomplish the goal.  But you leave yourself open to other pathways as well.

Another tidbit I share with others but need to remember to follow for myself is to limit the total number of goals.  If you have too many goals, you will undoubtedly fail—or at least get off schedule—when life’s interruptions surface.  And they will surface.  Life is messy.  There are accidents and unexpected visitors, new friends and relationships, sicknesses, new jobs, winning the lottery—the list can go on and on.  The point is to remember that these as yet unknown challenges and surprises will surface, so keep your goals to a manageable few, so you won’t drop them while you juggle everything else.

The final bit of advice I give others but often forget to follow myself is the need to be as forgiving of myself as we are of others.  If someone else slips up—does not get to the gym one day, overeats on a weekend, forgoes a walk—we often tell them, “It’s okay, you will get back to that new routine.”  Often, to ourselves, we are much harder, focusing on the misstep or lapse of activity rather than on the chance to get started again.  If you have not yet completed your goal or activity, that does not mean, you will not.  Focus on getting started again, on applauding when things go right, and remembering that persistence is a success.  This need to stay encouraged and focused is another reason to carefully craft goals.  It is easier to build momentum with small steps that can be applauded.

If I can remember these tips, when I finally settle on my word and follow-up goals, I am confident I will find success throughout 2014.  It will be a great year.  If any one week or month seems to be holding me back from succeeding, I need to remind myself that even though I have not accomplished my goal YET, I will.  That YET is a great little word to remember.  It holds all the hope and expectation of the new year, every day!  [Hey, YET is another word that meets Topic Y.  Imagine that.]

Happy New Year!

What advice helps you stay focused on your plans for making 2014 the best year ever?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * **

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”   Ernest Hemingway

“Aim higher in case you fall short.”   Suzanne Collins

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Not put the foundations under them.”   Henry David Thoreau

“Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations.  I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.”   Louisa May Alcott

“If you were born without wings, do nothing to prevent them from growing.”   Coco Chanel

“Happiness is not a goal—it’s a by-product of a life well lived.”   Eleanor Roosevelt

“If you want a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or things.”   Albert Einstein

“You never know what’s around the corner.  It could be everything.  Or it could be nothing.  You keep putting one foot in front of the other, and then one day you look back and you’ve climbed a mountain.”    Tom Hiddleston

“We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal and then leap in the dark to our success.”   Henry David Thoreau

“Setting a goal is not the main thing.  It is deciding how you will go about achieving it and staying with that plan.”   Tom Landry

“The most important key to achieving great success is to decide upon your goal and launch, get started, take action, move.”   Brian Tracy

“The most important thing about motivation is goal setting.  You should always have a goal.”  Francie Larrieu Smith

“The person who makes a success of living is the one who sees his goal steadily and aims for it unswervingly.  That is dedication.”   Cecil B. De Mille

“The important thing is to strive towards a goal which is not immediately visible.  That goal is not the concern of the mind, but of the spirit.”   Antoine de Saint-Exupery

“One half of knowing what you want is knowing what you must give up before you get it.”   Sidney Howard

“If you don’t know where you are going, you will probably end up somewhere else.”   Lawrence J. Peter

“It is a most mortifying reflection for a man to consider what he has done compared to what he might have done.”   Samuel Johnson

“Goals are dreams with deadlines.”   Diana Scharf Hunt

“Only those who will risk going too far can possible find out how far one can go.”                  T. S. Eliot

“The road leading to a goal does not separate you from the destination; it is essentially a part of it.”   Charles DeLint

“Success isn’t a result of spontaneous combustion.  You must set yourself on fire.”   Arnold H. Glasow

“A deadline is negative inspiration.  Still, it’s better than no inspiration at all.”  Rita Mae Brown

“I love deadlines.  I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”   Douglas Adams

Topic X: Xenophobia

Topic X:  Xenophobia*

We all know about phobias.  As a psychological term, phobia means an irrational fear of something specific, but that something is usually innocuous as well as something that others maybe do not welcome but accept as part of life.  I bet you recognize at least some of these fears, even if you did not know what to call them:  

  • Acrophobia (Fear of Heights)
  • Agoraphobia (Fear of Open Spaces or Crowds)
  • Arachnophobia (Fear of Spiders)—and a fun movie!
  • Chionophobia (Fear of Snow)—even without calling it a Polar Vortex
  • Claustrophobia (Fear of Confined Spaces)
  • Nyctophobia (Fear of the Dark)
  • Dentophobia (Fear of Dentists)
  • Ophidiophobia (Fear of Snakes)—not just those on a plane
  • Cynophobia (Fear of Dogs)—not just pitbulls
  • Zoophobia (Fear of Animals)—for animals, might this be a fear of zoos?
  • Phobophobia (Fear of Phobias)

If afflicted with one of these or the dozens of other phobias that are out there, most people seek help.  At least they do if the fear is taking over their lives.  A mild case of acrophobia may mean that you will never walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, but you can probably live with that.  The same with never taking elevators, if you have claustrophobia.  But if you are an agoraphobic and you never leave your apartment, you may seek some help.  Certainly, I would think, if you are afflicted to some degree with any of these phobias, you would not typically showcase it in society if you can help it, and you do not encourage your children and loved ones to practice your fearful behavior as well. 

But then we have to consider the worst fear of all:  XENOPHOBIA.  At first, this word typically makes me think of science fiction, makes me imagine worlds where there are literal aliens of which to be fearful. Ripley’s hatred for the alien that destroyed her ship and was trying to take over her body did not seem irrational.  Nor does the fear or hatred of the Borg in Star Trek in both the Alpha and Delta Quadrants.  In fact, this fear of literal aliens is at the heart of many of the early science fiction movies, such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  (I’ve written about that fear of invasion before.) But how apt is this view of xenophobia to our everyday life, to the other phobias that are part of modern society?

The literal definition of xenophobia makes this irrational fear sound like all the other phobias.  The basic definition says xenophobia is a fear or hatred of foreigners or strangers or of anything foreign, strange, or alien.  At first this does not sound so bad, until you notice the word hatred.   That’s a charged word that links xenophobia to its synonyms:  racism and prejudice.  Thus xenophobia must be the most generic version of the phobias listed under the sub-heading “Prejudice and Discrimination,” like homophobia and Islamophobia.

Unlike experiencing other phobias, people afflicted with xenophobia do not often seek help to rid themselves of this irrational fear.  No, they convince themselves that their fear is the norm, and—worse yet—their words and deeds teach by example, thus perpetuating this fear to their children and loved ones.  From my view, it is xenophobia that is at the root of such society problems as hatred, discrimination, prejudice, racial profiling and hate crimes.  It seems that some level of xenophobia is what makes people cross the street to avoid the homeless, complain when people of different colors or cultures move into their neighborhoods, or bully others for their appearance or gender or some other silly superficial thing.  Instead of the love of money being the root of all evil, my bet is on xenophobia taking on that role.

As we enter 2014, my hope for the world is that xenophobia would be abolished.  That those afflicted with hate and fear of anything that is strange or different from themselves would realize that those feelings are irrational and counter-productive, that they would overcome that fear and live a life dictated by the antonyms of xenophobia:  tolerance, acceptance, patience, forbearance, and open-mindedness. The words and deeds associated with these qualities would be worthy of teaching to our children, of perpetuating throughout the world.  It is not a new idea that we should be teaching tolerance and acceptance.  Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. shared this goal in his “Afterword” to the original edition of Free to Be. . . You and Me (1974):

“I’ve often thought there ought to be a manual to hand to little kids, telling them what kind of planet they’re on, why they don’t fall off, how much time they’ve probably got here, how to avoid poison ivy, and so on.  I tried to write one once.  It was called Welcome to Earth.  But I got stuck on explaining why we don’t fall off the planet.  Gravity is just a word.  It does not explain anything.  If I could get past gravity, I would tell them how we reproduce, how long we’ve been here, apparently, and a little bit about evolution.  And one thing I would really like to tell them about is cultural relativity.  I didn’t learn until I was in college about all the other cultures, and I should have learned that in the first grade.  A first grader should understand that his or her culture isn’t a rational invention; that there are thousands of other cultures and they all work pretty well; that all cultures function on faith rather than truth; that there are lots of alternatives to our society. Cultural relativity is defensible and attractive.  It’s also a source of hope. It means we don’t have to continue this way if we don’t like it.” 

Creating a world of love, caring, understanding, kindness, tolerance, a world devoid of xenophobia, is up to us.  We need to imagine and then create such a world, starting with our homes and neighborhoods.  Let’s help everyone have a happy new year.


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity toward those who are not regarded as members of the herd.”   Bertrand Russell

“I do not believe, from what I have been told about this people, that there is anything barbarous orsavage about them, except that we all call barbarous anything that is contrary to our own habits.”   Michel de Montaigne

“Our love of lockstep is our greatest curse, the source of all that devils us.  It is the source of homophobia, xenophobia, racism, sexism, terrorism, bigotry of every variety and hue, because it tells us there is one right way to do things, to look, to behave, to feel, when the only right way is to feel your heart hammering inside you and to listen ti what its timpani is saying.”   Anna Quindlen

“I was raised to believe that excellence is the best deterrent to racism or sexism.  And that’s how I operate my life.”   Oprah Winfrey

“The test of courage comes when we are in the minority.  The test of tolerance comes when we are in the majority.”  Ralph W. Sockman

“I have learned silence from the talkative, tolerance from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet strangely, I am ungrateful to these teachers.”   Kahlil Gibran

“The highest result of education is tolerance.”   Helen Keller

“Tolerance is giving to every other human being every right that you claim for yourself.”   Robert Green Ingersoll

“Tolerance is the oil which takes the friction out of life.”   Wilbert E. Scheer

We need to promote greater tolerance and understanding among the peoples of the world. Nothing can be more dangerous to our efforts to build peace and development than a world divided along religious, ethnic or cultural lines. In each nation, and among all nations, we must work to promote unity based on our shared humanity.”  Kofi Annan

“Tolerance is the positive and cordial effort to understand another’s beliefs, practices, and habits without necessarily sharing or accepting them.”   Joshua Liebman

“Toleration is the greatest gift of the mind; it requires the same effort of the brain that it takes to balance oneself on a bicycle.”   Helen Keller

BTW:  It was a challenge to decide upon a subject to discuss for the letter X.  What would you have written about?  I know very little about X-rays and xylophones.

Topic W: WarGames

220px-WargamesI am not typically a fan of War Films.  Oh, there are some good ones, including From Here to Eternity (1953), Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Red Badge of Courage (1951 & 1974 on TV), Victory (1981), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Saving Private Ryan (1998), and Taking Chance (2009).  The War Films I enjoy typically do not focus on the killing and brutality of war; they more typically look at war’s effect on those involved and/or raise questions about the nature of war itself.

Given its subject matter and moral stance, the movie WarGames (1983) could be called a War Film.  In reality, however, it is more a coming of age film that happens to be about the possibility of war.  I was 28 when this film first aired, teaching writing classes in Texas.  My college students liked the film, so I watched it as well, and we had several good discussions on its themes.  Overall, the move was good, fun in fact—and it had a good message about the futility of war.  I had not thought of this movie in years, but I stumbled onto it over the holidays when I was scouring late night channels for something non-Christmasy to watch.

Even though WarGames is 30 years old, it still holds up as a good movie worth watching.  When first released, it earned general acclaim as well as commercial success.  Roger Ebert labeled it “an amazingly entertaining thriller.”  Rotten Tomatoes gave the movie a 92% rating and described it as “part delightfully tense techno-thriller, part refreshingly un-patronizing teen drama, WarGames is one of the more inventive—and genuinely suspenseful—Cold War movies of the 1980s.” During its first five weeks of being shown in American theaters, it earned over 85 million dollars.  It won the Academy Scientific and Technical Award, and was nominated for three other Academy Awards:  Cinematography, Sound, and Writing Directly for the Screen.

John Badham—already known for directing Saturday Night Fever (1977), Whose Life Is It Anyway? (1981) and Blue Thunder (1983)—directed WarGames and brought his social commentary about war to the big screen.  The main stars in the film are Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy, John Wood, and Dabney Coleman. The stars play their scenes with a quiet nonchalance, making each new action and the ongoing dialog seem possible, acceptable.  As typical in coming of age films, parents and teachers are a bit generic and aloof, but those characterizations do not detract from the basic story line. Although minor military personnel are occasionally seen as predictable and robotic, the main military characters are as well-rounded and thoughtful as the two teenagers and the disgruntled scientist. 

The basic ideas within the story—computer games seeming real, exploration of computers and artificial intelligence, computer or theoretical problems and mistakes generating real-world problems—all still seem plausible.  The items that date the movie are noticed but can be easily overlooked:  drinking Tab, pull tops from soda cans being used to make a phone call from a phone booth, computer links being generated over land lines, and data being saved on floppy disks.  A world without cell phones is an oddity, but the story moves on!  There is action, suspense, humor, and a little teenage romance to keep everyone happy. As an English teacher, I especially love that the teen resorts to library research to aid his critical thinking and problem solving skills. 

The general story line is surprisingly compelling, especially since the audience had to guess that the world would not really be blown up in this movie.  The basic narrative builds on a teen’s ability to hack into a computer searching for as-yet-unpublished-but-hyped-in-the-media computer games.  From that premise, the action builds slowly, moving quicker and quicker as the pending catastrophe becomes apparent.  The kid accidentally engages a military computer to play “Global Thermonuclear War.” Since the computer also runs the military assessment tool WORP (War Operation Planned Response), the computer’s game moves generate real world actions and progress NORAD’s war status successively from DEFCON 5 (peace) to DEFCON 1 (war).  By the end of the movie, the audience is sitting on the edge of its seat waiting to see how all this will be resolved as the clock ticks down and the launch codes are decrypted. 

The lingering power of the film comes from the questions it raises and themes it explores.  These questions and themes stay relevant even today.  Three basic thematic threads are interwoven throughout the film.  One is the possibility of nuclear war altogether and whether nuclear warheads are a deterrent to an actual war or an accident waiting to happen.  Another is the role of computer technology and artificial intelligence in monitoring and analyzing data regarding world powers and possible attacks. The final thread is about the people involved:  a scientist who is grieving over the loss of his family and who regrets his role in developing technology used for war, the military personnel who argue over the extent computers should be involved in making decisions, and the teens who are trying to grow up and get pulled into the game of war.

The final message is clear:  War is futile.  The computer eventually learns this lesson, and real war—along with the game—is aborted.  Too bad I am not convinced that all the military and political leaders today understand what the computer eventually learned.  In stopping his playing of “Global Thermonuclear War,” Joshua (the computer) says:  “Strange game.  The only winning move is not to play.  How about a nice game of chess?”

Do you have a favorite “War Film” or two that you can recommend?

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“The release of atomic energy has not created a new problem.  It has merely made more urgent the necessity of solving an existing one.”   Albert Einstein

“Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind.”   John F. Kennedy

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”   Dwight D. Eisenhower

“The basic problems facing the world today are not susceptible to a military solution.”  John F. Kennedy

“War does not determine who is right—only who is left.”   Bertrand Russell

“Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime.”  Ernest Hemingway

“There was never a good war, or a bad peace.”   Benjamin Franklin

“If we don’t end war, war will end us.”   H. G. Wells

“Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.  We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.”   Omar N. Bradley

“Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.”   Carl Sandburg

“War is a defeat for humanity.”  Pope John Paul II

“You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.”   Jeannette Rankin

“War may sometimes be a necessary evil.  But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good.  We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other’s children.”   Jimmy Carter

“It’ll be a great day when education gets all the money it wants and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy bombers.”  Author Unknown, quoted in You Said a Mouthful edited by Ronald D. Fuchs

“I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, ‘Mother, what was war?’”   Eve Merriam
“The release of atom power has changed everything except our way of thinking. . . . The solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind.  If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.”  
Albert Einstein

“’There are no atheists in foxholes’ isn’t an argument against atheism, it’s an argument against foxholes.”   James Morrow
“Sometimes I think it should be a rule of war that you have to see somebody up close and get to know him before you can shoot him.” 
M*A*S*H, Colonel Potter

Topic V: Valley of Fire



Barbara at Valley of FireMy sister Barbara moved to Las Vegas last year, giving me a new travel destination.  On my visit there in November 2013, we took a trek to Valley of Fire State Park.  It is a gorgeous place, lots of red rock canyons and impressive rock formations.  While area rocks include shale, limestone and conglomerates, the park’s name comes from the massive red sandstone formations that dominate the area.  The “fire” aspect comes from the glow said to bounce off the formations when the sun is just right during sunrise and sunset.  I need to plan another trip and make sure I visit at those times.  But no matter what time of day, the place is remarkable.  



Details about Valley of Fire State Park further demonstrate how impressive the area is—and has been for years and years: 

  • Part of the Mojave Desert
  • Covers an area of nearly 42,000 acres
  • Rock formations indicate the area is 150 million years old
  • Believed to have been occupied from 300 BC to 1150 AD
  • Home to petroglyphs from about 3,000 years ago
  • Some petrified logs have lodged in the area from a long ago storm or flash flood
  • The area is relatively temperate with mild winters, about 4 inches of annual rainfall and a (deceptive)  average temperature of 75 degrees





















There is even a formation named Elephant Rock.  How great is that?  Can you see the quiet giant in the rocks?

elephant rock

elephant rock cropped

100_1110100_1115Dedicated in 1935, Valley of Fire is the oldest state park in Nevada.  It was named a National Landmark in 1968.  There is an informative visitor’s center and a range of hiking trails.  I especially love any chance to see petroglyphs up close; they are such a reminder of those who lived and loved and hunted in this area long ago.  Their stamina and courage are always a good reminder that our lives—by comparison—are never that bad.  These petroglyphs are in a natural basin named Mouse’s Tank after a renegade in the 1890’s who used the basin as a hideout.  


petroglyphs close

If you ever get to Las Vegas, forgo the casinos and visit this magnificent state park.  It is easy to reach, being only 55 miles from the city and 6 miles from Lake Mead.  You will not be disappointed.  In fact, you may have seen parts of Valley of Fire without realizing it.  Many car companies have used the locale as a setting for their car commercials.  The television show Airwolf (1984-1987) used Valley of Fire as the secret hiding place for the show’s super helicopter; the show just called the area Valley of God.  Some of the movies that were shot at this state park include The Professionals (1966) with Burt Lancaster, an odd sci-fi film Cherry 2000 (1987) with Melanie Griffith, the Mars scenes from Total Recall (1990) with Arnold Schwarzenegger, a scene from Tranformers (2007) with Shia LeBeouf., and the scene of an RV crash in Domino (2005) with Keira Knightley.  Of course, my favorite is its use in Star Trek Generations (1994) when Picard and Kirk head to Veridian III to stop Soran.  In Kirk’s death scene, there are some fleeting vistas of Valley of Fire.  

What places in Nature do you like to visit?

What thoughts about life come to mind when you are experiencing Nature, enjoying its beauty and silence?




* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced.  Live your life so that when you die the world cries and you rejoice.”    White Elk

“Humankind has not woven the web of life.  We are but one thread within it.  Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.  All things are bound together.  All things connect.”    Chief Seattle, 1854

“What is life?  It is the flash of a firefly in the night.  It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime.  It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”   Crowfoot, Blackfoot Warrior & Orator

“And while I stood there, I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of things in the spirit and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.”   Black Elk

“O Great Spirit, help me always to speak the truth quietly, to listen with an open mind when others speak, and to remember the peace that may be found in silence.”   Cherokee Prayer

“I do not think the measure of a civilization is how tall its building of concrete are, but rather how well its people have learned to relate to their environment and fellow man.”  Sun Bear, Chippewa

“There is a road in the hearts of all of us, hidden and seldom traveled, which leads to an unknown secret place.  The old people come literally to love the soil, and they sat or reclined on the ground with a feeling of being close to a mothering power. Their teepees were built upon the earth and their altars were made of earth. The soul was soothing, strengthening, cleansing and healing. That is why the old Indian still sits upon the earth instead of propping himself up and away from its life giving forces. For him, to sit or lie upon the ground is to be able to think more deeply and to feel more keenly.  He can see more clearly the mysteries of life and come closer in kinship to other lives about him.”   Chief Luther Standing Bear


Topic U: UNTIL


It is such a nice little word.  The dictionary definition explains that until works as both a preposition and a conjunction. Both basically look to time:  before, continuance to a specific time, and up to a certain point or time.  Simple. Nuetral. But this dictionary definition does nothing to capture the magic of this little word.

Until captures the mood, the feeling of any situation with which it is associated.  It helps accentuate the connotation being implied.  Consider these examples:  A young boy has gotten into trouble and hears from his mother, “Just wait until your father gets home!”  The dread, the anticipation, the worry take over as the time ticks away.  Now, same boy, but he is waiting for a dad returning from military, a dad bringing home his favorite dinner—pizza!—or waiting to head out on vacation.  Now, there is hope, anticipation, excitement.  The situation provokes the emotion, but it comes forward because of the great little word until and a fairly quick resolution of the wait-time involved.    

Sometimes the mood is merely persistence or endurance, putting in the time, especially when there is not a quick resolution in sight.  Consider these phrases:  until you grow up, until you’re older (not quite the same as maturity!), until you get a job, until there is enough money, until you understand or make a commitment.  Extending this sense of time to suggest that things will never change or will rather always stay the same is another job for the word until.   This feel is captured by phrases such as until the cows come home, until I die, until the end of time. The best phrase of all showing this ongoing sense of time is, “I will love you until the twelfth of never.”

Do you have a favorite until phrase?

BTW:  I will keep working on my A-Z Topics until I have completed them.  Fortunately, I have until my birthday to really be done.  Until then, I will keep moving on!  Besides, I would never finish until I figured out a Topic U.  Wonder where my topic idea came from?!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“I have found the paradox, that if you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love.”   Mother Teresa

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.”   Martin Luther King, Jr.

“A woman is like a tea bag. You never know how strong she is until she is in hot water.”   Eleanor Roosevelt

“We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.”   Dalai Lama

“A person with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds.”   Mark Twain

“The brain is a wonderful organ; it starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office.”   Robert Frost

“I believe in everything until it’s disproved.  So I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it’s in your mind. Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now?”   John Lennon

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”   Nelson Mandela

“Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”   Theodore Roosevelt

“War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.”   John F. Kennedy

“I love a Hebrew National hot dog with an ice-cold Corona—no lime.  If the phone rings, I won’t answer until I’m done.”   Maya Angelou

“Some people die at 25 and aren’t buried until 75.”   Benjamin Franklin

“Until justice is bling to color, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the color of men’s skins, emancipation will be a proclamation but not a fact.”   Lyndon B. Johnson

“Make sure you never, never argue at night. You just lose a good night’s sleep, and you can’t settle anything until morning anyway.”   Rose Kennedy

“We don’t believe in rheumatism and true love until after the first attack.”   Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach

“You can’t be truly rude until you understand good manners.”   Rita Mae Brown

“An optimist stays up until midnight to see the new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.”  Bill Vaughn

“The truth is, no one of us can be free until everybody is free.”  Maya Angelou

Topic T: The Wonder of Trees

 “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago.  The next best time is now.”   Chinese Proverb


Trees are incredible.  Really.  That’s all there is to it. 

I internalized the above truth at a young age because Mom appreciated trees. Grandma’s house had pear trees in the back yard.  The tree in our back yard sheltered squirrels and birds that we always fed.  The one in the front was good for climbing.  The picture above the couch was of a trail through some trees.  Oh, it always looked so peaceful and welcoming.  Mom’s favorite poem was even “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer, written in 1914.  I was quite young when I committed that poem to memory.  I have memories of Mom reciting it too!  

kilmer poem

aspen trunks blue skyYes, I always saw trees as special.  It was a given that trees were friends, symbols of life and hope, and eventually a connection to the spiritual.  As I got older, it became clear there is even more to know about these marvelous living organisms.  The facts show how integral trees are to life on earth, to our very existence.  Trees live just about everywhere.  They give us food, shelter and shade.  Without trees, we would not have fruits and nuts to eat, a fire burning in the hearth, or buildings to live in and paper to write on.  And we would run out of oxygen pretty quickly too.  

path thru oaks

one tall redwoodThe actual details are pretty impressive:

  • There are over 23,000 different kinds of trees in the world.
  • About one third of the United States of America is covered by forests.
  • According to a recent forest inventory, there are almost 247 billion trees over one inch in diameter in the U.S.
  • A tree can absorb as much as 48 pounds of carbon dioxide per year and can sequester 1 ton of carbon dioxide by the time it reaches 40 years old.
  • One large tree can provide a day’s supply of oxygen for up to four people.
  • Each year, one person uses wood and paper products equivalent to a 100 foot tree 18 inches in diameter.
  • Over 5,000 products are made from trees.
  • In one year, an acre of trees can absorb as much carbon as is produced by a car driven up to 8700 miles.
  • Trees provide shade and shelter, reducing yearly heating and cooling costs by 2.1 billion dollars.
  • The tallest species of trees in the world include the Coast Redwood, Giant Sequoia, Coast Douglas Fir, Sitka Spruce and Australian Mountain Ash.
  • Trees are some of the oldest living organism on earth.  Live Oaks can live to be over 500 years, many giant sequoia trees are 2,500 years old, and some bristlecone pines are thought to be over 5,000 years old.

reflection 2

pink tree along I-5pink fruit buds close upBut what truly impresses me about trees is their beauty and variety.  The many shades of green in the leaves are remarkable, and—by contrast—they showcase the white and pink blossoms of spring and the red and yellow leaves of autumn. Then there are the evergreens that demonstrate perseverance and constancy.  One tree can stand alone in a field or overlook a cliff, or it can crowd together with others in a forest dense with growth. Even when they die, they decompose and help new life spring forth.  Following a path through the trees as sunlight filters through the boughs is magical.  Standing next to a Giant Redwood or Sequoia reminds us just small we are in the scheme of things.

Bishop 1

New Growth

green leaves 1

one varigated leaf



palm trees

sitting in the shade

fallen log with robin

fallen log and new growth

Lone pIne monterey

Lone pine tree

pine trees

mid tree trunk

path thru redwoods

redwood trunks

Fallen Log, Petrified Wood, Petrified Forest, AZ

Fallen Log, Petrified Wood, Petrified Forest, AZ

Yes.  Trees are incredible.  Really.  That’s all there is to it.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


“You can live for years next door to a big pine tree, honored to have so venerable a neighbor, even when it sheds its needles all over your flowers or wakes you, dropping big cones onto your deck at still of night.”   Denise Levertov

 I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech-tree, or a yellow birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines.    Henry David Thoreau

“Us sing and dance, make faces and give flower bouquets, trying to be loved. You ever notice that trees do everything to git attention we do, except walk?”   Alice Walker in The Color Purple

“I never saw a discontented tree.  They grip the ground as though they liked it, and though fast rooted they travel about as far as we do.  They go wandering forth in all directions with every wind, going and coming like ourselves, traveling with us around the sun two million miles a day, and through space heaven knows how fast and far!”    John Muir

“The groves were God’s first temples.”    William Cullen Bryant

“God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods.  But he cannot save them from fools.”   John Muir

“For in the true nature of things, if we rightly consider, every green tree is far more glorious than if it were made of gold and silver.”    Martin Luther

“There is always Music amongst the trees in the Garden, but out hearts must be very quiet to hear it.”   Minnie Aumonier

“The tree is more than first a seed, then a stem, then a living trunk, and then dead timber.  The tree is a slow, enduring force straining to win the sky.”   Antoine de Saint-Exupery

“It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air, that emanation for old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.”   Robert Louis Stevenson

“He who plans a tree plants a hope.”  Lucy Larcom

“The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”   Nelson Henderson

“Trees are the earth’s endless effort to speak to the listening heaven.”  Rabindranath Tagore

“If you would know strength and patience, welcome the company of trees.”   Hal Borland

“A tree never hits an automobile except in self defense.”   American Proverb

“Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish has been caught will we realize we cannot eat money.”   Cree Proverb

“God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees and in the flowers and clouds and stars.”   Martin Luther

“I thank you God for this most amazing day, for the leaping greenly spirits of trees, and for the blue dream of sky and for everything which is natural, which is infinite, which is yes.”   e. e. cummings

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”   John Muir

“A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.  Forests are the lungs of our land, purifying the air and giving fresh strength to our people.”   Franklin D. Roosevelt

“The trees are God’s great alphabet:  With them He writes in shining green across the world His thoughts serene.”   Leonora Speyer


(Pun intended, sorry!)

 Science Kids

North Carolina State University

Trees Are Good

TOPIC S Santa: One of the True Spirits of the Season

santa kneelingDon’t get me wrong.  I am not saying that Santa is the reason for the season.  The birth of Jesus Christ and the love, hope and forgiveness that brings is the reason for Christmas.  That glorious birth is why we celebrate.  If the love and hope of the season could be shared and experienced every day, this world would be a better place.  Merry Christmas!

Still, Santa is associated with Christmas.  He is a secular symbol that helps spread the good cheer of this holiday.  Santa’s roots stretch back to a 4th century Greek priest, St. Nicholas, who was known for giving secret gifts.  But today, when the image of Santa comes to mind, most westerners see a big guy in a red suit with a hearty laugh and big belly.  He is cheerful, friendly and generous.       

One of Rockwell's Views of Santa

One of Rockwell’s Views of Santa

Coco Cola's Santa

Coco Cola’s Santa

This view of Santa has evolved over time.  Washington Irving mentions St. Nicholas in print in 1812.  Clement Moore wrote “Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1822.  Norman Rockwell started drawing his various views of Santa about 1920.  In 1931, Hanlon Sundblom was commissioned by Coca Cola to present Santa in its holiday advertising.  Some variation of this view of Santa—as a real person not someone in a costume—has become the norm since then.  

What bothered me this year was the claim by some news commentators that Santa must be a white man.  There is even a report that a teacher told a student to take off a Santa hat because the kid was black and thus could not be Santa.  Come again?!  People making such judgments have got to be crazy. Santa is not somehow exclusive to only a few.  Santa is goodness, kindness, generosity and hope. That he is often dressed in a red suit is not really the point.  Santa represents the magic and wonder of the season—and is not limited to any one literal person.  This view is not a new revelation.  The New York Sun Editorial shared the truth about Santa in the now famous “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus” back in 1897.  Just the other day, A Frank Angle did a great job adding to the commentary.  

For me, the truth is that Santa exists!  No, not as a literal person. And no, not as the guy dressed in a red suit and playing Santa at parties and street corners throughout December.  Santa is the secular image of Christmas, but he is also so much more than that.  Santa is a symbol of love and hope, an encouragement of generosity and kindness, a belief in magic and tradition and sharing.  As a kid, it is fun to believe in Santa and to watch expectantly for his arrival.  Slouching towards Thatcham offers a great post on what this expectation looks like in the 21st century.

Once the truth about the presents being delivered all over the world in one night becomes known, Santa still exists.  At that point, the older kids get to help keep the secret for their younger siblings and friends.  That is fun too.  And eventually, as adults, many of us take on the role of Santa. For me, the most fun of Christmas has always been playing Santa for my parents and other special people in my life.  But the manifestation of Santa is not just at Christmas.  There is a little bit of Santa in every donation to Salvation Army, in every helpful hand offered by the Red Cross, in every comfort provided via churches and synagogues and mosques across the land, in every random act of kindness perpetrated to friends and strangers.

The Spirit of Santa is in all of us, or at least could be if we choose to embrace love and hope and magic.  Santa is not limited by race or nationality.  Santa can be young or old, male or female, and any color of the rainbow.  Santa does not even have to wear a red suit and say, “Ho, Ho, Ho!”  All Santa has to do is be loving and caring and generous. Santa encourages all of us to be good all year long.  Santa reminds us there is wonder and love in the world.  If more of us would believe in Santa and act accordingly, the world would be a better place. 

Besides, as one sign I’ve seen advertised states:  

santa underwear

I believe!  I believe!  How about you?

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 Merry Christmas!  May Santa live through you throughout the new year!

TOPIC R: The Power & Magic of READING

Topic R:  The Power & Magic of Reading in 3 Parts

 Part 1:  Reading Is a Way of Life

“We read to know we are not alone.”   C. S. Lewis

“When you sell a man a book you don’t sell him just 12 ounces of paper and ink and glue—you sell him a whole new life.”  Christopher Morley

“When I get a little money, I buy books.  And if there is any left over, I buy food.”  Erasmus

“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read.”  Mark Twain

“A man is known by the books he reads.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Let us read and let us dance—two amusements that will never do any harm to the world.”  Voltaire

Flight Behavior book coverI love reading.  Most days, I am working on reading several books.  Right now, my bed stand holds Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.  She is one of my favorite authors.  The next book up is The Book Thief by Zusak.  I have recently purchased a Kindle and have downloaded several free or cheap murder mysteries, just in case.  I would never want to be anywhere without a book to read! Right now, on Kindle, I am reading Higashida’s The Reason I Jump to learn about autism from an inside perspective.

I also follow hundreds of WordPress blogs, reading some every day.  One—The Classroom as Microcosm—has recently been discussing the role of reading fiction in the development of creative and critical thinking.  Most comments are praising reading—fact or fiction—because it expands what is possible and explores different perspectives; these skills carryover to all over facets of life.  Two other blogs—Autism Speaks: Blog and Daily Good: News That Inspires—often lead me to entertaining and educational articles about many aspects of life.  I just always have to be reading something!  Heck, doesn’t everyone read the back of cereal boxes if nothing else is at hand to read?

Part 2:  Reading Is an Essential Skill

“You’re the same today as you’ll be in five years except for the people you meet and the books you read.”  Charlie Jones

“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”  Frederick Douglass

“A book is the most effective weapon against intolerance and ignorance.”  Lyndon Baines Johnson

“Literacy is not a luxury, it is a right and a responsibility. If our world is to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century we must harness the energy and creativity of our citizens.”  President Clinton on International Literacy Day, September 8, 1994

“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture.  Just get people to stop reading them.”  Ray Bradbury

“People don’t realize how a man’s whole life can be changed by one book.”  Malcolm X

Given my love of reading, it is difficult for me to imagine that others not only do not read vociferously but that many cannot read well enough to see reading as a friend, an escape, a path to new learning, simply a fun activity.  I know reading is taking place since millions seem to be scouring social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter to read and often loudly respond to so many silly messages. But real reading—reading for learning and understanding, for expanding perspectives and seeking new ideas, even for fun and escape—might not be that prevalent.  I do not have any real statistics to support my worry.

Heck, general reports indicate that CIA’s World Factbook gives the literacy rate in the United States of America as close to 99%.  But I am not really convinced.  Back in 1985, Jonathon Kozol wrote Illiterate America, calling into question some of the methodology used by the Census Bureau when it determines literacy rates.  Back then, the U.S. literacy rate was reportedly 86%.  Some of the methodology used to generate that number were simply asking people if they were literate and assuming if someone had been in school through the fifth grade that they must be literate.  Well, at least functionally literate. But functional literacy means meeting the bare basics of reading; it says a person can read basic instructions, know what a stop sign says, stuff like that.  Maybe the methodology has improved, but I am doubtful.

In 2002, the U.S. Department of Education conducted a study called NAAL (National Assessment of Adult Literacy).  Since then, some follow-up studies have completed research on smaller groups, noting minor shifts in the initial numbers reported.  The NAAL study looked at prose, document, and quantitative literacy, and it used various measures to test literacy levels.  Some of the factors this study used to assess literacy included being able to locate information in text, making low-level inferences using printed materials, and integrating easily identifiable pieces of information into communication.

These factors seem to basically assess if a person can complete such activities as deciphering a train or bus schedule, determining a politician’s stance from reading a speech or editorial, or pulling information from sources to use in support of his/her own arguments.  I am not certain that these low-level factors would even assess if a person can judge whether an internet source is credible or not—that is a higher level skill.  Using these factors, NAAL concluded that 21% to 23% of adult Americans were not literate.  On the flip side, only about 25% of American adults reach the highest levels of literacy.  I am not certain which statistic is sadder.

Earlier this year, Cinthia Coletti published Blueprint for a Literate Nation:  How You Can Help.  Her work sounds intriguing, and I am definitely adding her book to my list of must-reads. One news article about her publication shares this detail:  Apparently, 67% of American children are struggling with attaining literacy.  That statistic does not surprise me.  As a teacher, I have always been aware that if students do not master reading by about third grade, then school becomes a greater challenge.  It is that year that more text than pictures fill the pages and that students are expected to read on their own for directions and basics of the assignment.  If they are not reading well, then everything else starts getting harder too.

Donald J. Hernandez, sociology professor at Hunter College, shared this conclusion in his 2011 research:  “Third grade is a kind of pivot point.  We teach reading for the first three grades and then after that children are not so much learning to read but using their reading skills to learn other topics. In that sense if you haven’t succeeded by 3rd grade it’s more difficult to [remediate] than it would have been if you started before then.” His study predicts that students who are not reading on grade level by the third grade are four times more likely to not graduate high school by age 19.

But what does reading well for a young student mean?  Well, for one thing, it means much more than the ability to sound out words touted by teaching phonetics.  Yes, students need to be able to sight read or sound out words.  Those are important skills.  But mastering them does not make little Janey or Johnny a reader.  Doug Adams, Institute of Reading Development, offers this analogy to explain the connection between reading speed and comprehension:  “A film is made up of still images flashed in rapid succession to simulate movement.  Slow down the film, and the movement and meaning slows and the film’s impact is diminished.  Viewers won’t learn as much about the film as if it were shown at normal speed. With reading the same thing can happen. When a person reads word by word, like frame by frame, they are not reading at the level of ideas. You need to read on some level that’s more conversational and allows things to coalesce into ideas themselves.”

To be a reader, then, students must have a certain proficiency with knowing the words, so they can move on to comprehension and reflection.  Reading well means liking to read, reading fast enough to capture meaning, and reading frequently to improve skills.  Think of when you first learned to drive a stick shift.  In the beginning, you had to focus intently on releasing the clutch, just so, to move forward without grinding gears—that was not driving.  When you could finally stop focusing on those details and just do them, then you could really say you were driving and eventually enjoying the ride.  But to be a good driver, you need to keep driving.  It is the same process for young readers as they develop their reading skills.

Part 3:  Reading Is the Best Gift Ever

 “The more you read, the more things you will know.  The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”  Dr. Seuss

“Children are made readers on the laps of their parents.”  Emillie Buchwald

“There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all.”  Jacqueline Kennedy

“Reading aloud with children is known to be the single most important activity for building the knowledge and skills they will eventually require for learning to read.”  Marilyn Japer Adams

“There is no substitute for books in the life of a child.”  May Ellen Chase

“So please, oh PLEASE, we beg, we pray, go throw your TV set away, and in its place you can install, a lovely bookshelf on the wall.”  Roald Dahl, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory

“One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years.  To read is to voyage through time.”  Carl Sagan

The question then becomes, “How can we help?”  How can caring adults help the special children in their lives develop reading skills, master a love of reading that will help them throughout life?  Fortunately, helping kids learn to love reading is not that hard. Coletti’s book promises to share ideas that will help foster literacy in local neighborhoods, but I’ve not read her work yet.  It just makes common sense to me that the adults simply need to share their love of reading with the special children in their lives.

Me about 5 Reading in My Favorite Chair--Still A Great Place for Reading

Me about 5 Reading in My Favorite Chair–Still A Great Place for Reading

Here are some basics that typically help encourage a love of reading:

animaliaStart reading to your kids when they are very young, infants even.  There are the classics like Good Night Moon and any book from Dr. Seuss.  It is the storytelling and the time together that are the draw.  One of my favorite books to give as a gift is Animalia.  It is as much for the parents as for the kids—they need to explore its pages together. And browsing the pages encourages observational skills and creativity.  As the book jacket explains, “Animalia is much more than A is for Apple.  The letters of the alphabet explode into images that delight the eye and words that thrill the ear: A is for An Armoured Armadillo Avoiding An Angry Alligator. [This book provides] an incredible imaginary world. . . . “

Establish a set time to read with your kids on a regular basis.  Every day is best such as at bedtime.  But any schedule works:  after dinner, every Sunday after church, Friday nights to start the weekend, after school.  Set and keep a schedule.  I am not meaning tell the kid to go read by herself.  The time together is part of the process!  My favorite class in sixth grade was Reading.  Every day after lunch the teacher read us a chapter of the class book, and then we moved into the class assignments.  My favorite book that year was Flowers for Algernon.  My adult nephews have fond memories of reading the Wizard of Oz series together as kids with their mom.  And now, even as adults, there are some Christmas stories they like to re-read together—it’s tradition!  A friend’s older grandkids are going to start reading the Harry Potter series with younger siblings, now that the younger kids are old enough.

Have books and magazines around the house, okay kindles and nooks too.  Maybe even a collection of books that is special for those who are good readers or old enough to understand—a goal to reach for!  Something forbidden always attracts attention.

Read on your own time to demonstrate reading is a skill you practice and value—and encourage kids to read on their own with you!  Telling each other what you are reading or reading a book together is great time for adult and child.  If you encourage reading, at some point you will share the delight of your young child demanding to be read a story, as presented by a great blog Slouching towards Thatcham.

Photo from Clip Art Photos

Photo from Clip Art Photos

Take trips together to the library and check out books together.  This gives you a great opportunity to explore areas of interest with your kids:  dinosaurs, princesses, trucks, space exploration, elephants or other favorite animals, whatever—there are books with great pictures and words to entice the child into reading.  Comic books are often a great place to start as well.

Give gifts that encourage reading or at least of love of words.  Of course, this includes books.  There is something about owning your own book!  But also consider games such as Scrabble or Boggle, even download Words with Friends—then actually play with the kids.  Even a set of magnetic alphabet letters for the refrigerator is good. New words can magically appear on the refrigerator every morning!  Or get one of those magnetic poetry sets for more extensive sharing of words and ideas.  Cookbooks might be a fun read that produces good eats as well and builds living skills and confidence in kids, when they are allowed to do the cooking.


The holidays are just around the corner.  Get creative and figure out a way to share a love of reading with those you love.  WHAT DO YOU THINK?  What are your ideas for helping kids develop their reading skills?  What are some books you would recommend as gifts for kids or adults?  What books are you reading right now?

Some Final Quotes on the Power & Magic of Reading

“Whenever you read a good book, somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light.”   Vera Nazarian

“Learning to read is probably the most difficult and revolutionary things that happens to the human brain and if you don’t believe that, watch an illiterate adult try to do it.”  John Steinbeck

“When writing the constitution for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, John Adams wrote:  “I must judge for myself, but how can I judge, how can any man judge, unless his mind has been opened and enlarged by reading.”

 “Just a thought.  What sets us above all other life on this planet is our ability to read.  What we read can determine our relationship with all other life on this planet.”  M. J. Croan

“All that mankind has done, thought, gained, or been; it is lying as in magic preservation in the pages of books.”   Thomas Carlyle

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