Grandma Gertie always said there's not a savory dish that can't be made tastier by just a touch of tarragon.

Tsunami and Me

Tsunami and Me
too big to escape now....

Thursday, May 10, 2018

I Owe it All to Jo

Louisa May Alcott, 1832 - 1888
This Sunday I'll be watching the first installment of the new two-part PBS Masterpiece Theater production of "Little Women." Sure, we all know the story. It's been made into movies several times, with such diverse actresses as Wynona Ryder, June Allyson and Katherine Hepburn starring as Jo. Now PBS, as part of its advance publicity, has a page full of teasers and quizzes.
Even knowing what the answer would be, I took the bait, and checked off my answers to "Which Little Women Sister are You?" Here's my result: "Whether you're a tomboy, a writer, or a rebel, you have a lot to say, and you're certain to say it with creativity and sincerity (though not necessarily with tact or forethought!) Having a strong will and a free spirit can be a blessing and a curse, but with your tremendous moxie, watch out, world! You are Jo March. " I'm working on that forethought thing!

 A few years ago I wrote a piece about Jo as my personal mentor. This morning, thinking about the upcoming TV special, I went through my archives and reread it. This time I managed to inspire myself. Though I protested in this piece (see below) that I never lacked for inspiration, I must admit Ms. Muse has been eluding me recently. I've been preoccupied with concerns about pressing social justice issues, and distracted by the wealth of movies, concerts and plays I've been fortunate enough to attend.

I've even found excuses not to write, when I actually had free time. Come on. I voluntarily cleaned out my refrigerator and sorted out the shoes on the bottom of my closet. If I had a garden, like I did when I lived in Northeast Washington, you can bet I'd be out there fussing with my tomato plants, knowing full well the deer would snap up the fruit before it could ripen.

Thanks again, Jo March. Your very birth date has inspired me to begin a story about my great-great-grandmother who also was born in Pennsylvania, just a year before you.

Here's the post from 2014:

A Role Model for Life

By Terri Elders
“The creative mind plays with the objects it loves.” –Carl Jung
As a child I’d often curl up on the sofa and watch Grandma create pretty dresses for me on her treadle sewing machine. All through elementary school I’d dream of the day when I’d be creating my own wardrobe. I’d clip drawings of countless gowns from her dog-eared Sears and Roebuck catalog, and then flip through its pages in search of matching accessories. I’d imagine designing an outfit for my high school prom. Maybe even my own wedding gown.
Then, when I got to junior high, I nearly flunked my seventh grade sewing class. I couldn’t sew a straight seam, no matter how hard I tried. Stunned, I realized I’d never be clever with a needle like Grandma. I lacked whatever skill that pursuit seemed to require. 
Some dreams, though, die hard. My dreams had always involved succeeding at something that I loved doing. I’d love sewing, just like Grandma. But struggling with unraveling crooked seams began to feel like work, not play. When the school year concluded, I decided I’d spend my summer seeking another endeavor…and another mentor.
Soon, after reading a book about Anna Pavlova, I began to dream anew. I longed for a tutu and ballet slippers. After I stumbled through half a dozen lessons, I realized I couldn’t hold an arabesque without toppling over. Next I raced through a book about women athletes, and stared, fascinated, at a photo of Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim the English Channel. It took nearly the entire summer for me to accept that if I couldn’t manage ten laps across the Harvard playground pool without becoming winded, I’d never churn my way across the English Channel. It didn’t matter how cute I thought I’d look in swim goggles. It wasn’t going to happen. 
So…if I couldn’t be like Anna Pavlova or Gertrude Ederle, not to mention my own grandmother, who could I emulate? Where could I find someone to model my life on? Then, one afternoon as I reread my favorite book, Little Women, it became clear. I caught my breath when read Jo March’s ringing affirmation in Chapter 14. She’d just sent off some stories to a potential publisher.
 "There,” she proclaimed, “I've done my best! If this won't suit, I shall have to wait till I can do better."
I smiled. Maybe a role model didn’t have to be an actual living person. Maybe a fictional character would do. I certainly could identify with Jo’s initial hesitation and subsequent bravery. I, too, had attempted to write stories, but aside from a letter on the children’s page of the Portland Oregonian, I’d never been published.
But it might not be too late, I decided. When school began again in September, I asked my counselor if I could take journalism as an elective. I’d always enjoyed writing essays in my English classes. Maybe I could become a reporter for the school paper, The Naturalist.
This time I met with success. I appeared to have the aptitude to pair with the attitude. I particularly relished taking my turn at writing the continuing column, “Silhouettes.” These were profiles of teachers and student leaders. I’d try to flesh my stories out, to make my subjects appear to dazzle, like the characters Jo and her sisters admired in Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers. If my teacher or fellow students criticized my stories, Jo’s words would echo in my mind…”If this won’t suit, I shall have to wait till I can do better.”
I never had to wait long. If I reread my own work a few days later with a critical eye, I’d almost always be able to do better. That’s when I realized that the secret to good writing, as Jo knew, lay in rewriting.
In high school and college I continued to write, never failing to delight in playing with words…like Jo. When I transferred from a community college to a state university, somebody scribbled in the upper right hand corner of my transcript in a space for comments, “Said to be creative.”
Over the years I’ve wondered who it was that wrote that cryptic comment. It’s always been a mystery. Nobody ever used those words to my face, not a teacher or a counselor. I wonder if that anonymous annotator realized that all I’d ever wanted to do was to succeed at something I loved, while I played. Like Jo, I’m convinced that writing involves play, playing with ideas, playing with words, playing until I can play better, arranging...and then rearranging.
Unlike Jo, I’ve never written a play or even a novel. I’ve stuck to shorter pieces, essays, commentary, reviews, and true stories for anthologies. Writing remained my lifetime avocation, my source of joy, with a blank page always my playground.
When friends inquire about “writer’s block,” I claim I’ve never really encountered it. Jo’s spirit always remains with me…she never thought of writing as work, as something to suffer through, as something to be endured. Oh, no! For her it was always play.
Jo never doubted her ability. She never hesitated to retreat to her attic, assemble her words, and enjoy herself. She remains my inspiration. Her playful spirit never deserts me.
So early on I’d been forced to set aside the dreams of sewing my own prom dress, dancing in the chorus of Swan Lake, and coating myself with oil to cross the English Channel. Nonetheless, I’d never allowed defeat to discourage me from trying something else. Through trial and error, I’d finally found where my talents lay…in persistently playing with words.
Oh, sure, there’s been times when I’m trying to write a story and the patterns fail to form, or the message remains elusive, or I begin to feel too frazzled to dazzle. When it doesn’t feel like play, I put the piece away. I owe myself a break. I take that tip from Jo. I wait until I can do better. It’s the best advice I ever came across.
It’s never a very long wait. And when inspiration strikes again, I remind myself that I owe it all to Jo.
Aunt March in the upcoming PBS broadcast is played by Angela Lansbury. Here's my favorite fun fact: Asked about her greatest achievement by The Telegraph (UK), Lansbury said, “Staying alive!” She attributes her longevity in part to genetics, her mother’s energy, and to her grandfather, George, a founder of the Labour Party, who was once jailed for supporting women’s right to vote.
The preview of Sunday's special, including this update on Angela Lansbury, as well as the sisters quiz, appears here:

Monday, May 7, 2018

Homelessness: A New Take on NIMBY?

“Is homelessness my problem? Yes, it is and it’s coming to a neighborhood near me.” --Heather Stratman
Yesterday I attended a panel discussion on homelessness in Orange County, sponsored by the Orange County Alliance for Just Change. The four-sided approach to ending homelessness here was to include speakers representing the county, its cities, the business sector and faith communities. County Supervisor Andrew Do had to cancel, but the other three covered the basics.
Heather Stratman
Heather Stratman, the chief executive officer of the Association of California Cities-Orange County since February 2016, led with some salient facts. Though each of Orange County's 34 cities has different perspective, depending on the visibility of homelessness in their communities, none of them are free of the homeless. Though the city councils of Santa Ana, Costa Mesa, Tustin and Anaheim were early in recognizing the urgency, more  councils now recognize that they, too, must be involved in long-range planning. Their communities are asking for solutions.

Stratman discussed the University of California Irvine's "Cost Study of Homelessness in Orange County, and its findings. The #1 cause of homelessness, according the study's respondents? "I lost a job." Yes, there are chronic homeless people who suffer from addictions and other mental health issues. But loss of jobs and lack of affordable housing lead the list of factors. And, as I mentioned on this blog a few weeks back, more than 30,000 young people are without an address in this county.

The executive summary can be found here:

Dan Young
Dan Young of Camino Enterprises, a former mayor of Santa Ana and long time #2 man at Irvine Company, emphasized the need for a system to end homelessness. Using the 911 system, which began in 1967, as a model, he suggested that the solution is for different agencies to form themselves into a system of care.
 "We don't have a broken system for dealing with the homeless with mental health issues," Young said, "we have NO system." He outlined the need for the right treatment of underlying causes of homelessness, address people on the streets in a humane way and the needs to double homeless space and for transitional housing. A comprehensive system must be patient-center, not program-centered.

If the N that begins NIMBY (not in my backyard) is going to become "neighbors" rather than "not," why not do the neighborly thing? Get involved. Pastor John Begin of Costa Mesa's Church of Christ, enumerated many ways everybody can all help. His church, located at 287 West Wilson, Costa Mesa, provides weekly “Caring Kitchen” dinners for Costa Mesa’s homeless residents. They also maintain an active community garden made up of 80 4’x4’ foot gardening of sustainability. If you would like to volunteer at the Church of Christ, please contact Pastor John Begin at (949) 645-3191 or
Begin and volunteers

 Here's the charming history of Caring Kitchen's beginnings:

More ways to volunteer can be found through Trellis: We're Better Together.

Finally, if you find yourself  believing that there's nothing that can be done, Hope 4 Restoration asks you to reconsider the wide-spread myths about homelessness, many based on anecdotes about individual encounters. Yes, we have all heard most of these: most homeless people have mental illness; most are addicts; most come here for the handouts; most are lazy; most are dangerous; most are older, single men; and most are "undeserving."

This research-based document gave me pause. "Top 30 Myths About Homelessness and the Realities." You, too, might be surprised at these statistics:

And, to close, here's my favorite myth..."it could never happen to me." Remember the movie, "Blue Jasmine," where Cate Blanchett played the formerly rich wife of a Bernie Madoff-type grifter who fell on hard times and had to move into her working-class sister's apartment? It happened to her. It happens to others. How do people become homeless? Here's how:
The two biggest factors driving homelessness are poverty and the lack of affordable housing. In 2004, 37 million people, or 12.7 percent of the American population was living in poverty, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Many of these people live from paycheck to paycheck with nothing saved in the bank. The loss of a job, an illness, or another catastrophic event can quickly lead to missed rent or mortgage payments and ultimately, to eviction or foreclosure.

Believe in working together for compassionate change? Keep posted on upcoming events by signing up on the Orange County Alliance for Just Change mailing list:

“Its a beautiful day in the neighborhood, A beautiful day for a neighbor . . . Won’t you be my neighbor?” --Fred M. Rogers

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Embracing the Random

RIP, Barbara, on the left

One of my favorite actors, Sydney Poitier, once observed that much of life is determined by pure randomness.

About a decade ago I noticed a change in the way English-speaking people use the word "random." I'd always adhered to its primary meaning: a haphazard course, without definite aim, direction, rule or method. If you don't shy away from profanity or indelicacy, you can check out Urban Dictionary to see how "random" has morphed to mean something else.

Here's a printable extract from that source:  Supposedly meaning spontaneous and off the wall by ignorant people.

Wiktionary includes this, as well: An undefined, unknown or unimportant person; a person of no consequence. [from 20thc.] I don't think I like this dismissive meaning. The party was boring. It was full of randoms. So far as I'm concerned, we're all persons of consequence, subject to the random interventions of fate.

My thoughts this week already had been preoccupied with how much of our lives end up being determined by random events or choices.

Some examples: I started watching Call the Midwife when it first debuted a few years ago on KOCE, my local TV station. This past Sunday, one of the heroines, Barbara, died, suddenly and unexpectedly...she'd just been married a few episodes back. For the second time that day I bawled my eyes out. I went to bed distraught, smacked in the face with how the lives of any of us could end in similar ways. Random ways.

When I lived in Belize, I knew of a man who had been sitting by his open window and had been struck by a lightning bolt.
In one of the remote Dominican Republic rural villages I regularly visited, I knew a woman whose boyfriend, when she was still a teen, had been rounded up and murdered by Rafael Trujillo's henchmen, because the dictator, on one of his tours of the countryside, had spotted her and wanted her for himself.

This morning, driving home from Orange on the Garden Grove Freeway, I spotted an array of women's clothing cluttering the two left lanes. For several hundred yards I passed skirts and dresses, sweaters and blouses, panties, bras, and socks. When I'd approached the first item, black bikini underpants, I wondered if somebody had simply tossed it out the window as a prank. But then as I progressed, I saw dozens and dozens more pieces of clothing dotting the freeway, like ice cream sundae sprinkles.

I realized a fairly substantial suitcase or box must have flown from the rear of a pickup truck. I imagined that the vehicle had been taking a woman to a place where she could start her life anew. Perhaps she had a new job and was moving to a new apartment closer to work. Or maybe she'd been  traveling through Orange County only on an extended vacation trip. Still, the size of the lost wardrobe dumbfounded me. I wondered if she'd lost everything but the clothes on her back.

I tried to picture other, less dire, circumstances. Perhaps somebody simply was transporting a load of no-longer-wanted clothes to a charity shop...Habitat or Goodwill. Even so, though, customers of such shops now would be deprived of additional choices. Through some random oversight, a suitcase or a box hadn't been sufficiently secured.

All this afternoon I've reflected on how this loss might affect the owner of that collection of clothes.

Random circumstances.

More random events of this week. This past Sunday my beau, Frank, and I went to a CalJas house jazz concert for a tribute to the George Shearing Quintet. During the late afternoon
Becky Gonzales-Hughes sang two of my favorite songs. These two were standards that my sister,
Patti, used to sing...and hearing them again brought tears to my eyes: "The Nearness of You" and "Green Dolphin Street." I teared up, remembering my sister when she was a high school sophomore, and how I loved to hear her sing.
Later that evening, I listed to Nancy Wilson sing the two songs, and bawled some more. Then I watched "Call the Midwife," and cried in its aftermath until my eyes were swollen. I hadn't cried in months. Random. Melancholy reactions to random events.
 Here's Nancy Wilson singing those two songs with the George Shearing Quintet:

Tonight I'm going to the dress rehearsal of the Westminster Community Playhouse production of "You Can't Take it With You." That Moss Hart/George Kaufman play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama the year I was born, 1937. How random is that?

The family in that play, the Vanderhof-Sycamore-Carmichael clan, seemed able to accept, even embrace, the random...from snakes to taxes to fireworks. Maybe it's the perfect play for me to see while I'm still distracted by fretting over those lavender skirts and sweaters being mashed on the freeway.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Yes, Here in My Back Yard

I learned last night that there are 32,510 homeless kids in Orange County. 

You read that correctly. In Orange County, California, with a 3.2 million population, there are 32,510 homeless children.

About a dozen AAUW members from our Westminster-Fountain Valley-Huntington Beach branch were present last night at the Huntington Beach Central Library Theater to hear Regina Calcaterra recount what it felt like to be a homeless child.  Our evening book discussion group had discussed Etched in Sand, and its sequel, Girl Unbroken, in February.
Regina Calcaterra, photo by  SUNY New Paltz

Etched in Sand had been selected as the community read for Huntington Beach Reads One Book 2018. It had been distributed to eight area high schools where it has been used for reading assignments, book reports, art projects and classroom discussion.  It has also been read by Huntington Beach Library Community Read participants.

The Huntington Beach Reads One Book project's mission is to encourage youth and the community to read, think, discuss and act. Its annual selections provide "a contemporary message of promoting diversity and eliminating prejudice, be it prejudice against race, ethnicity, disability, gender, sexual orientation, weight, age, or class." The committee chooses books with fewer than 300 pages to fulfill its first purpose...promoting literacy. The selections are appropriate for ages 15 and up, so adolescents and adults can exchange ideas.

This was the third consecutive year I've attended the speaker event. I've previously heard Conor Grenan talk about his "orphan" project in Nepal, recounted in Little Princes, and Jamie Ford discuss his novel, The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, about Japanese families sent to internment camps during WWII.

Calcaterra's mother had been herself an abused child with mental illness who, beginning in adolescence, self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. She produced five children with five different men, and lived in the Hamptons, a string of communities in eastern Long Island's South Fork, often thought of as an affluent area. But, just as in Orange County, Long Island features pockets of poverty, as well as neighborhoods of great wealth.

Her mom got evicted from place after place, and often the family was homeless, living out of a car or on the street. Calcaterra said by the time she was five, she already knew she and her siblings were different. They were scrawny, dirty, and disheveled, and other adults would not allow their children to play with them when they ventured to playgrounds or libraries. The only place they managed to fit in was at the beach, where they could strip off their clothing and bathe in the sea.

Calcaterra provided some sad statistics about the percentage of adolescents who shared her plight who are able to escape the cycle of poverty by getting an education.. She'd been told in the '80s by her child welfare worker that she had no future, because foster kids didn't go to college. She disclosed that even today less than three percent of homeless and foster kids have the social skills to navigate through the formal learning structure. 

She detailed why access to public schools and public libraries is so vital for these children. Though she and her siblings learned to steal food from supermarkets and farms in order to eat, these facilities provided basic elements such as a controlled temperature, bathrooms with running water and working toilets, and electricity. Libraries also provided reading materials, and schools provided lunches, often the only meal that she and her siblings could depend on. 
Calcaterra credits having access to books about Amelia Earhart, a woman of tenacity and persistence, as well as Landmark Series books about Pocohantas, Betsy Ross and Dolley Madison, as providing inspiration for her. She also thanks the teachers who encouraged her for planting seeds in her mind that she could have a different future. Indeed, when she finally began college, she took an early morning political science course, international politicos, where she learned of how children in many developing countries either starve to death, are abandoned on the streets, or are sold into the sex trade. She began to realize that as horrific her childhood was, with the beatings and neglect, she actually had been lucky in at least living in an area where there were a few resources that she and her siblings could access, meager as they might be.

Calceterra wrote her books to draw awareness to how youth can be encouraged to congratulate themselves on their endurance and to adopt attitudes of optimism, persistence and tenacity. She also wanted to encourage adults to assist such youth in trying to find the resources that could help them become productive adults, by being role models and mentors.

Again, we learned last night that there are 32,510 homeless kids in Orange County.

A few days ago in the Orange County Register I read about a homeless family of four, including a young boy and girl, who had been sleeping inside a van at a Garden Grove shopping center’s parking lot. They had been discovered inside, possibly victims of carbon monoxide poisoning, according to authorities.

On the front page of today's Los Angeles Times, I read this: Orange County's homeless plan is now in serious jeopardy after those three communities vowed to do whatever it takes to keep the shelters out. Leaders in Irvine and Laguna Niguel voted to sue the county to block the shelter plan, and local officials want to drop the Huntington Beach location. 

 Yes, everybody agrees to want to help the homeless. Just not in my backyard, though. 

Some spokespersons criticize the plan to house the homeless in tents adjacent to areas where "innocent children" wait to take school buses or use public libraries. I'd like to suggest that many of these homeless are innocent children themselves. Again, there are 32510 homeless kids in Orange County. 

 What We Can Do To Help Right Here in Orange County

One woman works tirelessly to do what she can. Robyne Wood, a Huntington Beach housewife and mother of two, works with nearly three dozen adolescents, badly in need of adult role models and mentors.

Here's more about Robyne's Nest:

The mission of Robyne’s Nest is to ensure identified at-risk & homeless students in the Huntington Beach community get the academic, financial, and life skills to complete high school and look to college, trade school or military options.
Robyne’s Nest was created by Robyne Wood, an HB wife and mother of two children, to help provide funds and resources for HB school administrators to take care of these students and create a path to successful completion of high school. This is a proactive approach to keep our youth away from drugs, crime, homelessness, human trafficking and early parenthood. We want to re-write their story for a better future.
There is increased awareness of students struggling when it comes to basic support from their parents for such needs as food, housing, academics and even safety. The answer is not as simple as calling the police or CPS. Many of these students want help and that is why they continue to go to school looking for some security, routine and a place to belong.
We have the opportunity and responsibility, as a community, to take care of these students and not leave them behind!

Please read about Robyne's Nest, and see what you can do to help address the heartbreaking issue of homelessness and what happens to children who age out of the foster care system.  Here's the website for Robyne's Nest:

If you live in Orange County, Robyne's most needed items include gift cards for WalMart and Target so her teens can purchase basics such as socks and underwear. She also can use school supplies, bus passes and ge boxes of granola/breakfast bars, tuna/chicken salad kits, fruit cups, beef jerky, pretzel and nut bags, individual peanut butter/crackers, ramen noodle cups/bowls. View Grocery List OR visit our Amazon Student Pantry List for convenient donating!

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Three Voices, One Message...Follow Your Muse

Anne Perry and Abbi Waxman

This past St. Patrick's Day I got lucky, indeed, at the Old Ranch Country Club in Seal Beach. The Westminster-Fountain Valley-Huntington Beach AAUW branch staged its annual fundraiser Authors Luncheon, so I got to listen as three women novelists revealed what inspired them to write. All three definitely inspired me to continue to explore what I need to write next. I've always known that "waiting for the Muse," doesn't work. Waiting isn't the answer. Writing the first paragraph...and perhaps later eliminating it...opens the door for Ms. Muse. 

Aline Ohanesian
line Ohanesian described talking about her debut novel, Orhan's Inheritance, as "like talking about an ex-husband," because she's in a "new relationship," rewriting Homer's Odyssey from the viewpoint of the women, Penelope, Circe and Calypso. Nonetheless, she revisited the precipitating incident that inspired her to write about the Armenian genocide. When she was eight, she'd been obsessed with Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) in The Sound of Music. One day while watching it on TV, Ohanesian's grandmother lead her away to a bedroom. There she horrified the child by relating how she had survived exportation by the Turks. 
The memory of the event resurfaced in the author's adulthood. Because she'd worked on a Ph.D. dissertation, she knew how to research and began the task of shaping her novel.
"Orhan’s Inheritance skillfully plays on the tension between voice and perspective in its references to art, photography, and oral history... At turns both subtle and transcendent, [it] will speak to those familiar with this dark chapter of history, and will be equally appealing readers who want to linger quietly in unfamiliar places and hidden stories of love and family."--Los Angeles Review of Books

Anne Perry's first Victorian mystery, The Cater Street Hangman, riveted my attention when it first appeared in 1979. Perry's inspiration came from a suggestion from her stepfather as to whom Jack the Ripper might have been. Subsequently, Perry has written dozens of the William Pitt and Thomas Monk novels. The societal scope of her books has been compared to the works of Trollope and Thackeray.  Perry has said she loved that particular era because "in a way it is the end of history and the beginning of the modern world."

Perry recounted how she saw herself as a magician who uses little squiggles, scribbling marks to convey to anybody in the world a story she wants to tell. John Man's Alpha Beta, which details how the invention of the alphabet shaped the western world, is one of the 50 books she chose to bring with her when she came to the United States to live. "We all have to come to terms with the idea that we will all die," she continued. "So if you're going to put your heart on paper, it's important that you write what you really mean to say, that you create something you really care about." 

The book she is working on now will be about a heroine who in 1933d stood up and tried to prevent an assassination. The character is a photographer, modeled on Margaret Bourke White. "We admire those who stand up, no matter what the cost," Perry concluded.

Final speaker for the afternoon, Abbi Waxman described how she began her writing career at only 14 years of age, in her father's advertising agency. Now working on her third novel, Waxman is from southwest England. Her inspiration for The Garden of Small Beginnings, came one day when she felt vexed with her husband. "I'll kill him," she said to herself. Then she speculated at what that would really look like, a young mother, and what she would actually do without him. I felt privileged to thank Waxman for writing a book about grief and mourning that is laugh-out-loud hilarious. I mentioned that it reminded me in a way of Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club, where a group of very different people gather on a regular basis, and through their interrelationships  grow and change.
 “A quirky, funny, and deeply thoughtful book…We’re already dying to know if there will be a sequel.”—HelloGiggles

Yes, there indeed is a sequel, and it's set in the same locale as the first poignant and hilarious book, with some of the same characters, Other People's Houses. Waxman contributed a box of the second book, and I received a copy. I can't wait to begin to read it...and to be inspired. And I'm assured to know there's a third in the works, to continue the series.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Kisses for Mr. Castle

 In Orange County I've served two terms as secretary for the Westminster-Fountain Valley-Huntington Beach Branch of AAUW (American Association of University Women. Our annual fundraiser luncheon comes up on March 17. We support Tech Trek, summer camps for girls middle-school girls to support their interest in, technology, engineering and math. I recall how I struggled when I was that age with the mere concept that girls could achieve in this area.

My story here originally was published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Life Lessons for Mastering the Law of Attraction.

Kisses for Mr. Castle

“Give me a kiss to build a dream on, and my imagination will thrive upon that kiss.”  -- Louis Armstrong

By eighth grade, at age twelve, I’d pretty much bought into the common credo that girls couldn’t succeed at math or science.

“Girls don’t become scientists,” Mama said, totally ignoring Madame Curie. “Take typing and shorthand. If your future husband dies, you can always get a job as a secretary.”

Such was the common wisdom in working class families back in 1950. Girls could become nurses, teachers, librarians and secretaries. Those were the choices for those unlucky enough to remain single or to become widowed. So I gave up even before I started, and still have my junior high school report cards to prove it, sprinkled with dismal C’s in science and math.

Daddy also reinforced the myths that girls could not grasp the subtleties of algebra or geometry, or succeed in scientific endeavors.  In early l950, we’d received a letter suggesting that my scores on the Iowa Standardized Tests were high enough to qualify me for a career in engineering.

“It’s a mistake,” he’d said with a chuckle, tossing the letter into the wastebasket. “They must have thought you were a Terry, a boy.”

By the last semester of eighth grade, though, I had a goal.  My English teacher, Miss Laird, had written in my autograph book: “Good, better, best. Never let it rest, ‘til your good is better, and your better’s best.”  Since then I’d longed for a straight A report card to please her.  But how could I get it, with my mandatory science class?  And this year I had Mr. Castle with his famous formidable projects.

All of his science students had to conduct research, prepare a visual exhibit, and give an oral report.  Though we could be creative in choosing a topic, it had to relate to science.  Science to me meant engines! Test tubes! Electricity!  I still viewed the new television sets I saw in store windows with awe.  Pure magic.  And my father, a mechanic, sighed as he wiped his greasy hands, after trying to interest me in how our sedan’s motor worked.

“Some students do chemical experiments,” Mr. Castle suggested, when we asked for examples.  I envisioned explosions that would hurtle us through the windows, with no “drop drill” exercise to protect us from the impact.

“Some like botany, and have collected and categorized various leaves into scientific classifications.”  I couldn’t tell an oak from a maple, let alone a phylum from a species.

After class I stopped by his desk.

“I don’t know what to do,” I began, “I get stage fright when I have to speak, and my parents say girls aren’t good at science. So how can…”

Mr. Castle threw up a hand to stop me mid-sentence.

“No!  Anybody can be good at science,” he said.  “All you have to do is be curious.  Curious!  Just think of something that you love, and research that.  No matter what it is, you’ll find it’s related to science.  Forget the stage fright.  If you love something, and it’s evident, so will your audience.”

Besides family and Miss Laird, what I loved most were acrobatics, baton twirling, and tap dance, but I couldn’t see how I could relate any of that to science.  I also loved reading Ray Bradbury, but that was science fiction, not science.

Then I thought of Hershey Kisses, in their glittery little silver wraps.  Though I later learned that Kisses dated back to 1907, during my childhood they were no longer around, since foil had been rationed for the war effort.  Kisses returned on the market just as I started junior high, and I was an immediate fan.

I doted on them, but nibbled them sparingly to avoid the dreaded zits that allegedly could dot my face.  At mid-century we still believed that chocolate caused pimples, but Kisses seemed safe, not as much chocolate as in a full scale candy bar, but a bit more than in one of the chips my mom used for baking cookies. 

In pre-Internet days, research meant heading for the encyclopedias.  Luckily, I had library science as an elective, so whenever I had a spare moment between shelving books, I read up on the history of chocolate, and how the Maya and Aztecs extracted it from cacao beans.  I learned that chemistry showed that the principal alkaloid is similar in structure to caffeine, providing that little lift.  I could also chart out details of how chemists and biologists over the years had worked to improve the quality of chocolate by breeding a better cacao bean. 

For botany, I tracked chocolate from Kingdom Plantae to Species Cacao.  For physiology, I outlined the nutritional content of chocolate, fats, sugars, carbohydrates and proteins, and demonstrated how the body converts food into energy.

Still needing color, I decided to write to the company in Hershey, PA, to plead for materials.  They responded, sending posters and photographs that arrived just days before my presentation.  I fashioned a portable bulletin board from an old cardboard box, and then did a mental review.

“Appeal to our senses,” Miss Laird had stressed, teaching us about creative writing.   I had sight down and sound, since I’d be talking.  But what about taste, touch, smell?  The answer came immediately.  I needed the Kisses themselves!

Three hours of babysitting would cover the cost of two bags, so I hustled next door to ask Mrs. Kimble if she needed a babysitter since she liked to go to the Saturday matinees.  Cinderella is playing up on Vermont,” she frowned.  “And the kids want to see that.”

I jumped in fast.  “Why don’t I take Bobby and Biddy to Cinderella, and you can go to see All About Eve at the Arden?”  I asked for a dollar to cover my admission and three hours of babysitting.  Just enough to buy two bags of Kisses so everybody in the class could have seconds.

“Bette Davis is my favorite,” Mrs. Kimble agreed, “It’s a deal.”

The day of my presentation I marched confidently into science class, tossing a smile towards Mr. Castle.  After a lackluster procession of reports from others, I strode to the front of the class, unfurled my posters and propped up my bulletin board.

I dug a bag of Kisses from my purse, and began to pass them around, as I began to explain the science of chocolate.  Nobody heckled me with “Kissy,” which had been my biggest fear.  Instead, eyes remained glued to me as I produced a second bag.  “Just taste them, smell them, feel the tin foil,” I urged.  “It’s all science.  You just need to be curious!”  Mr. Castle looked away, choking back a chuckle.

I got the straight A report card I had yearned for, and Miss Laird hugged me.  My parents shook their heads and agreed that somehow a mistake must have been made with that A in science.

Though I did not pursue a career in chemistry or biology, I overcame my fear of science, public speaking and even of math.  My curiosity remains, and has helped me in work as a journalist and a social worker.  I’m able to speak before groups with no trace of stage fright.  I did a statistical analysis of data for my master’s degree and annually do my own income taxes.   

In January 2007 the United States Postal Service issued a stamp to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Hershey Kiss, its special Love and Kisses, just in time for Valentine’s Day.  I was at the post office early to buy several books.  Even today, no matter how stringent my current diet, I can never turn down a Hershey Kiss.

And I still attribute my unabashed curiosity, which has led me to the some of the most exotic ends of the earth, to Mr. Castle.