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....

Sunday, October 16, 2016

HW's Got Talent!

"Boating Beauties" prepare for the show.

With Lynn Schell-Milot
 When I first moved to HW Senior Living in Westminster two years ago, I counted my blessings. I'd been trudging upstairs and down, taking care of a huge house, three and a half acres of pastures and lawns, five household pets, and for many years, an ailing husband. Plus I was surrounded by "stuff."
Amazing Grays Sue Burchfiel
When I'd been diagnosed with spinal stenosis and disintegrating disk disease, I worried about my continuing mobility. How long would I be able to negotiate stairs or weed the Asian lilies? I've written before about my desire to return to Southern California. I needed to trade five months of snow and ice for sunny beaches. I needed to hang out with old friends and reminisce. I hoped to have Mother's Day brunch with my son. Though I'd miss my old Colville book groups and AAUW companions, I knew it was time to move on.
So I came home to the Southland, resigned to a quiet old age. Maybe I'd join a new book group. Maybe I'd reconnect with the local Returned Peace Corps Volunteer group. Maybe there'd be a local branch of AAUW. I did all of that...and more.
I began to go to the Amazing Grays yoga and aerobics classes five days a week right here at HW Senior living, and my sciatica symptoms diminished. And I made new friends and began to have new adventures.
Corinne Zavolta emcees.

Last night at HW I participated in the annual talent show. I had the opportunity not only to read one of my published stories, but also for the first time since my high school days, to perform in a choreographed routine!
Our fitness instructor, Sue Burchfiel, lead our yoga group in the opening skit, "Row, Row, Row," to the old Eddie Cantor song.
Jerry and Darlene Steddum played lovebirds.

 Jerry and Darlene Steddum played the parts of Johnny and Flo, as our yoga group vigorously rowed, swayed and wiggled.
The evening's agenda included readings of original poetry and memoir, duets and solos, comedy and even a rousing percussion number. Kathy Hurley, our recreation director, provided refreshments following the show. Many of us lingered by the pool afterwards for an hour or so, beneath a Harvest Moon, basking in the beauty of a balmy Southern California autumn evening. New friends. New adventures. But stay tuned. In two weeks we'll be having a Halloween dance. I've already put together my costume!
L to R, Darlene Steddum, Valerie Ellison and  Corinne Zavolta

George Burchfiel, Musical Production

Mark Lumas, "Jingo"

Corinne closes with "Personality."

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Why Chicken Soup Warms My Heart and Soul

 Several years ago I remarked to a writer friend, who had been hard at work on his first novel, that I'd had a story accepted by the popular series, Chicken Soup for the Soul. He grimaced.
"Why would you want to write schmaltz?"
"Write what?" I asked, not quite certain I'd heard him right.
I had, though. He'd wrinkled his nose and repeated, "Schmaltz. You know...sappy stuff."
I hadn't answered. I felt diminished and disrespected until I'd had a moment to reflect. 
Promoting The Spirit of America
Sappy stuff? Maybe. I write true stories about my life. Yes, I write about being adopted, about getting a divorce, about having double pneumonia as a child. Yes, I write about falling in love, baking apple pies, quitting smoking, and serving in the Peace Corps. All true. And all salient. All about my life, no matter how sappy, silly or sad, or even how sublime those events may seem to others. My friend is still revising the opening chapters of his yet-to-be groundbreaking coming-of-age epic.
Yes, in my teens I, too, dreamed of writing the great American novel. What teen writer doesn't? But then life intervened with my dreams, so instead now and then I'd written book reviews, travel articles, pop psychology, author interviews.
Then one day in 2007, on a whim, I wrote a story about my little brother and a memorable Easter pageant. And Chicken Soup for the Soul published it. I continue to write about my life.
Since then my work has appeared in 110 anthologies, with a few more on the way. My friend still is a struggling would-be novelist. I'm a happily published storyteller. I may not be a household name, but people read my stories. Some even write me fan letters. Some tell me how I inspired them. That certainly warms my heart. 
With Catalina Ortiz at workshop.
Last week in San Bernardino I conducted a brief seminar on how to mine your life's events for story ideas for such publications. A small but enthusiastic group of would-be anthology writers listened attentively, and appeared appreciative. Not a one of them uttered the word "schmaltz."
I've been invited back to do a more in-depth evening session this coming spring. I'm delighted. I'll be covering the basics, beginning, middle and ending. I'll especially concentrate on how to use the elements of fiction in creative nonfiction, including plot, character development, dialogue and the descriptive details that reveal emotions. They constitute the "show, not tell" that you've heard about.
Happy with Amy's new book.
In the meantime, whenever I'm asked what kind of stories Chicken Soup for the Soul is looking for, I recommend that the inquirer carefully read the new book by series publisher Amy Newmark, Simply Happy: A Crash Course in Chicken Soup for the Soul Advice and Wisdom. In it Amy tells us that she seeks stories on how people made changes in their lives that improved their outlook. One of my favorite boxed quotes in the book is, "If you don't like something, change it; if you can't change it, change the way you think about it." When I worked as a psychotherapist, we called this attitude adjustment "reframing." It still works. Sure, it's finding silver linings on dark days. If that's schmaltz...bring it on. It works for me. It could work for you, too.

Friday, October 7, 2016

And They're Better Than a Wall: Bill Staines

George Burchfiel introduces Bill Staines, 10/5/16

"On the Road" never has been Bill Staines' theme's Willie Nelson's, of course. One of the highlights of my music appreciation life had been hearing Wilson sing it live at Radio City Music Hall in 1995. But folksinger Staines, who has logged well over two million miles driving the country roads and blue highways in his circuit travels around the USA, has rolled along steadily for over forty years. He's been on the road almost as long as Willie. In over 25 albums he's chronicled his observations, some wry, some whimsical, some poignant, some heartbreaking.

The other night I delighted in finally hearing Staines perform in person in one of the fabled house concerts he's so beloved for. George and Sue Burchfiel of Orange treated 35 lucky listeners to an evening of Staines reminiscing, singing and strumming on a guitar that he so treasures that he's never risked taking it on an airplane. Its worn case looked as weary as I imagine Staines sometimes might feel, rising before dawn to head for his next gig.

But when he sat down before his mic at the Burchfiels' living room Wednesday night, he sounded as fresh as Sunday morning. My boyfriend, Frank, and I had arrived a little early to get front row chairs. Frank's favorite tune that evening was "Bridges." I've posted the lyrics to "Bridges" at the bottom of this post...and I continually revisit them in these days when I hear so much talk about erecting walls.
 You can hear Stains sing "Bridges" here:

My favorite of Staines' selections that evening was "Song for Tigmissartoq." Here's why, from the liner notes for the album, Looking for the Wind.  Staines wrote: "Song for Tingmissartoq" is my tribute to Charles (and Anne) Lindbergh. Their pioneering flights of the 1930's in the "Tingmissartoq" went a long way toward the establishment of international air routes for then fledgling commercial aviation. By the Way, "Tingmissartoq" is Eskimo for "One That Flies Like a Big Bird." Anne Morrow Lindbergh chronicled these flights in two books that she wrote entitled "North To The Orient" and "Listen, The Wind." It struck me how many of us in our lives look to that very same wind, the same wind that lifted the "Tingmissartoq," to provide us with enough lift to change things or to move on.
What does Anne mean to me? When I got married in l955, Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s eloquent and elegant book, Gift from the Sea, had been on the New York Times Best Seller list for 19 weeks. It went on to remain there for 80 weeks altogether. I read it not long after coming home from my honeymoon on Catalina Island, off the California coast. I had grown up loving the ocean, so I was entranced by the idea of a few quiet weeks in a beach cottage.
 In those '50s days, Charles Lindbergh, the first man to cross the Atlantic
Anne Morrow Lindbergh , 1918
nonstop from New York to Paris in 1927in The Spirit of St. Louis, was still famous, but Anne, a pioneering aviator herself, found herself nearly equaling his fame with this landmark book. In it she addresses issues that remain timeless. Essentially how does a woman fulfill the roles of citizen, artist, wife, partner, mother, career person, friend, family member, and balance all of that with the time and self-commitment for spiritual and emotional nurturing? I’ve returned to this book half a dozen times over the decades, and its words always speak to me in a new way and shed light on how I structure my time.

At the close of the evening I thanked Bill Staines for singing this number...and for honoring Anne..."he had a way for wings, she had a way with words."

Indeed! Here's the song:

Staines invited me and Frank to sit and chat with him for a while, and we talked of Anne, and of Thomas Wolfe. Staines recently had seen "Genius," the Jude Law/Colin Firth film chronicling  Wolfe's relationship with book editor Maxwell Perkins. I mentioned how I'd visited the Wolfe museum last year in Asheville, where I learned that Zelda Fitzgerald had once been a resident of one of the rooms at "The Old Kentucky Home," the boarding house operated by Wolfe's mother and immortalized in Look Homeward, Angel.

Frank told of our first date this past May when we saw "Papa Hemingway in Cuba," because I'd told him that night about Perkins and how I'd met his biographer, A. Scott Berg, who had written the book the film is based on.

Since Staines so obviously appreciated Wolfe, I asked if he'd read the 1962 novel by Herman Wouk, Youngblood Hawke. I added that I had stayed up all night before my 26th birthday, turning the final pages of that book...and how I'd written about its impact on me. That story I titled, "One Fine Day."

Staines had read it, and said,  "You're the only person I've ever met who knows that book." I felt special indeed. And Staines is the only songwriter I've ever met who paid tribute to Anne Morrow Lindbergh, my personal heroine.

 Reluctantly, Frank and I took our leave, me armed with new CDs to play as I drive the freeways of Orange County. It had been only one brief evening, but I felt connected forever to this remarkable artist. Through mutual appreciation of Anne and Thomas...and Youngblood Hawke, we'd built a bridge between us.

Here are the lyrics of "Bridges":
Bill Staines, Terri Elders

Bridges Lyrics

There are bridges, bridges in the sky,
They are shining in the sun,
They are stone and steel and wood and wire,
They can change two things to one.

They are languages and letters,
They are poetry and awe,
They are love and understanding,
And they're better than a wall.

They are languages and letters,
They are poetry and awe,
They are love and understanding,
And they're better than a wall.

There are canyons, there are canyons,
They are yawning in the night,
They are rank and bitter anger,
And they are all devoid of light.

They are fear and blind suspicion,
They are apathy and pride,
They are dark and so foreboding,
And they're oh, so very wide.

They are fear and blind suspicion,
They are apathy and pride,
They are dark and so foreboding,
And they're oh, so very wide.

Let us build a bridge of music,
Let us cross it with a song,
Let us span another canyon,
Let us right another wrong.

Oh, and if someone should ask us,
Where we're off and bound today,
We will tell them, "Building Bridges",
And be off and on our way.

Oh, and if someone should ask us,
Where we're off and bound today,
We will tell them, "Building Bridges",
And be off and on our way.

We will tell them, "Building Bridges",
And be off and on our way.

Bill Staines official website:

One Fine Day

The morning of my seventieth birthday, I sipped some pomegranate tea and reminisced about other landmark birthdays. I’d celebrated my fiftieth with escargot at an award-winning French restaurant in Ensenada, right before I went into the Peace Corps. On my sixtieth I’d hiked over moonlit trails in Seychelles with friends in the Hash House Harriers.

Now I was tucking another decade behind me. Did I fear aging? No. Only one birthday had scared me, my twenty-sixth way back in l963 when I thought I’d have to relinquish my dream of becoming a writer.

I’d just finished a student teaching assignment at a school that subsequently hired me to teach English and journalism. My husband had been jubilant.

“It’s wonderful that you’ll have a steady job,” he’d said. “Teachers get good retirement pensions and solid medical coverage.”

I remember how I’d scowled at his well-meaning comment. I might as well have been turning seventy, instead of merely twenty-six. Goodbye to youth and dreams, bylines and best sellers. They’d be replaced by lesson plans, bulletin board exhibits, and report cards.  Now I’d be a grown-up with a full-time grown-up job. I’d been tackled and wrestled to the ground. I’d turn into a stereotypical respectable middle-class wage earner, abandoning forever the wild-hearted Bohemian writer I’d always intended to be.

All the time I’d been accumulating credits towards my teaching credential, I’d thought of myself as a promising young writer, even though I’d been married since shortly before my eighteenth birthday, and two years later became a mother. But on the eve of my twenty-sixth birthday, I felt the hot breath of middle-age on my shoulder, and I believed then, as Yogi Berra had once remarked, that my future lay behind me. Since I’d written my first poem in seventh grade, I’d seen myself as a budding Edna St. Vincent Millay. Now icy-hearted reality warned me I was destined to become a hair-in-a-bun drudge.

On that eve of my birthday, the night of June 27, 1963, our beloved Dodgers weren’t playing, so my five-year-old, Steve, and I didn’t spend our evening as we usually did, glued to the radio. He went to bed early, and I picked up my novel. For the past week I’d been reading Herman Wouk’s classic Youngblood Hawke, an indelible portrait about staying true to a writer’s dream. I’d been nearing the last chapters, and couldn’t put the book down.

I finished the final page shortly before dawn, crept up the stairs and crawled into bed, tears trickling down my cheeks as I envisioned the parade of gray days that would constitute my future. I shuddered as I pictured myself correcting papers, diagramming sentences, and brushing chalk from my drab schoolmarm clothing.

When I awoke, I turned on my favorite radio station KRLA as The Chiffons burst into their rollicking “One Fine Day,” a song with a message of hope. I brightened. Maybe somehow I’d find a way to continue to write. Maybe I wouldn’t have to give up my dream altogether. That night Warren Spahn finally beat the Dodgers on their home turf, breaking a losing record that stretched back over a decade. Maybe that was a sign. After all, Spahn hadn’t given up hope. Then we all piled into the old Chevy and went to the drive-in to see Bye Bye Birdie.

Any day, I concluded, could be one fine day.

The night I turned seventy, Steve phoned me. I explained how I’d been remembering that earlier birthday.

“Yes!” he exclaimed, “I remember how cute Ann-Margret looked with the credits rolling across her face at the end of that movie. And it’s funny that the Dodgers lost that game to Spahn on your birthday, because that was the year they went on to sweep the Yankees in the World Series.” That certainly proved to be one fine day for the Dodgers!

As it played out, I taught for only three years, and then segued into another career as a social worker. Eventually I joined the Peace Corps and saw more of the world than I’d ever hoped. And as the years passed, I continued to write and to publish.

I never become a novelist, as I’d anticipated. Somehow I’d lacked the discipline to set aside the requisite chunks of time. Nonetheless, I stole evenings here and afternoons there. I wrote and sold articles and essays, book reviews, travel pieces, and author interviews. I never ceased to be delighted when I saw my byline in newspapers and magazines. The thought that somebody might be enjoying something I’d written continued to inspire me. With each submission, I kept my dream alive. It didn’t matter that I’d never written a novel or that my name never made a best-seller list. I had clippings galore.

Now on my seventieth birthday I savored yet another special day, one more fine day. I fed the dogs and cats and transplanted the zinnia seedlings. Every year I’d plant those seeds, and hope they wouldn’t get nipped by a late frost. I paused frequently to marvel at the myriads of butterflies fluttering around the poppies and delphinium in the front garden. The garden teemed with life. So did my spirits.

Later, I lost a game to my husband at cards. “Happy birthday,” Ken chirruped, plunking down his second gin hand. I opened his gift, a crystal unicorn, rampant over a sapphire blue heart. I touched up my pecan-hued hair and sprayed myself with honeysuckle. I donned a navy dress with a splashy flowered border, and coaxed Ken to photograph me in the garden by the scarlet Asian lilies, flowers against flowers.

We drove to town where he treated me to an Early Bird Supper at the Oak Street Grill. I savored every bite of my lemon garlic salmon. In the evening we watched Jeopardy, read the local papers, caught the results show of So You Think You Can Dance, relieved that our favorites had made it through another round.

Then shortly before midnight, I sat down at my computer and finished an essay I’d started earlier, about how writing, like sowing zinnia seeds, calls for an act of faith. You put your words down on paper, just like you plant seeds in the soil, and hope they’ll bloom and that somebody eventually will find them entrancing. I’d seen a call out earlier for stories on gardening for an anthology. I decided to submit mine.

That story so far remains unpublished. But since my seventieth birthday I’ve had over a hundred other stories accepted by a variety of anthologies. So I never doubt that indeed I am a writer. I’m never haunted by the ghost of failure. Bohemian? Perhaps not. Wild-hearted? Certainly…until this very day.

My eightieth birthday now looms on the distant horizon…just one more year. I’m betting it, too, will be one fine day. It's likely I'll write about it.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Sweet Inspiration...Mari Lou and Jo

MLLE, New Mexico, 1992

My daughter-in-law, Mari Lou Laso-Elders, died a year ago this morning. I'll be thinking about her all day. And likely all this next month, since she so loved looking forward to Halloween. Orange was her favorite color, and she loved pumpkins.

Mari Lou's young adult novel, Otherwise Known as Possum, will be published by Scholastic Press and available February 28. It can be pre-ordered now.

Here's a synopsis: Possum Porter has had it with change. First she lost Mama, leaving a hole nothing can fill. And now, instead of trying to return to some kind of normal, Daddy's sending Possum to school. A real school, where you have to wear SHOES. Where some Yankee teacher will try to erase all the useful things Mama taught Possum during their lessons at home.

So Possum comes up with a plan. If she can prove that she already knows everything worth knowing, Daddy will let her quit school and stay where she belongs. She won't have to deal with snooty classmates, or worry about tarnishing Mama's memory.

But unfortunately, Possum doesn't shoot to the top of the class like she expected. Even worse, the unmarried Yankee teacher seems to have her eyes on someone . . . Possum's Daddy. With time running out, Possum decides to do something drastic to get away from school-and get Daddy out of Ms. Arthington's clutches-or risk losing everything that's keeping her broken heart glued together.

Amazon includes this author's note: A former journalist, Maria D. Laso was a beloved creative writing teacher in Orange County, CA, where she helped people from teens to senior citizens find their voices. She completed her debut novel, Otherwise Known as Possum, shortly before her death in 2015.

When I returned to Southern California in late 2014, I began to attend Mari Lou's Poets and Dreamers writing class, the Tuesday Morning Group. That group had outgrown its original home at the Orange Senior Center, graduating to a conference room at Our Saviour's Lutheran Church. Sometimes I'd substitute for her when Mari Lou was too ill to prepare an assignment for the group. Mostly, though, I looked forward to my role of student,
Mari Lou, Orange Senior Center, 2010
welcoming the opportunity to experiment with genres I'd previously shunned, including poetry and mysteries.

Once Mari Lou asked me where I'd found the inspiration to become a writer.  Here's my answer.

I Owe It All to Jo

“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 three 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.
First published 1869

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 that word 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 have 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. 

RIP, Mari, too, always were an inspiration.
Steve and Mari Lou, c. 2000

Thursday, September 15, 2016

What Vexed Vincent?

  Hospital at Saint-Rémy, 1889
In the 1980s I visited the Jeu du Paume museum in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris and stood transfixed on the top floor, staring at half a dozen Van Goghs, including "Starry Night." Then in 2012 I visited Philadelphia, and for the first time walked up those fabled steps of its Museum of Art to see a fantastic exhibit of his paintings on loan from Amsterdam. A couple of weeks ago I saw a few more for the first time, right here, at San Marino's Huntington Library.
Starry Night, 1889, MOMA

When I first saw "Starry Night," I didn't know it depicted the view from the east-facing window of Van Gogh's asylum room at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, just before sunrise. Now that I'm more familiar with his life, each time I see more of his work, I wonder how he kept focused enough to produce such an enormous number of radiant works while struggling with mental illness. The Van Gogh Museum attempts to address that question on its website:

Modern psychiatrists debate what really troubled this brilliant artist. One of the most detailed discussions can be found in the American Journal of Psychiatry article, "The Illness of Vincent Van Gogh."\

Here's an excerpt: The illness of van Gogh has perplexed 20th-century physicians, as is evident from the nearly 30 different diagnoses that have been offered, from lead poisoning or Ménière’s disease to a wide variety of psychiatric disorders. Many writers have acknowledged the epilepsy but considered the psychiatric disorder an independent mental illness. Monroe (7, 8) recognized the unique episodicity of van Gogh’s mental changes, the role of absinthe in his illness, and an underlying epileptoid limbic dysfunction that was associated with his creativity but also, if overly intense, would render him ill. Earlier, in an exceptionally well-documented study, Gastaut (1) reasoned that the artist’s psychiatric changes were based on temporal lobe epilepsy produced by the use of absinthe in the presence of an early limbic lesion.

Here's Vincent, in his own words, writing to his brother, Theo, from the hospital in Arles on January 28, 1889: "I well knew that one could break one’s arms and legs before, and that then afterwards that could get better but I didn’t know that one could break one’s brain and that afterwards that got better too."

Reading his words nearly breaks my heart...what bravery in the face of monstrous troubles.

July 16, 2016 - Jan 02, 2017 Huntington Art Gallery

Van Gogh & Friends: Masterpieces of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism from the Hammer Museum

Henry Huntington and Armand Hammer never met each other, but the two businessmen had at least one thing in common: they both established great art collections that form the core of major museums in Los Angeles. In an exciting “meet-up” of sorts, 15 important works from the Hammer Museum take up temporary residence at The Huntington, offering visitors the unprecedented opportunity to enjoy masterpieces from both collections in one place.  The exhibition contains three haunting works by Vincent van Gogh, including Hospital at Saint-Rémy (1889) and The Sower (ca.1888), as well as Claude Monet’s View of Bordighera (1884), Alfred Sisley’s Timber Yard at Saint-Mammès (1880), and Camille Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmartre, Mardi Gras (1897). Also included are such startling images of modern life and the fin de siècle avant-garde as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s Study for “In the Salon on the Rue des Moulins” (1894), Paul Cezanne’s Boy Resting (ca. 1887), and Paul Gauguin’s Bonjour Monsieur Gauguin (1889). Gustave Moreau’s theatrical Salome Dancing before Herod (1876), a seminal work of French Symbolist painting, joins its compatriots.

The Rectory Garden in Nuenen in the Snow, January 1885

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Be the Change...

Dr. Stern, L, and leaders of Orange County Interfaith Network

This past Friday, August 26,  I attended the Orange County Interfaith Network's Kick-Off Breakfast to learn what is being done right here in my own neighborhood to support victims of violence. This overarching organization, OCIN, coordinates and supports all of the 11 interfaith efforts in Orange County. It defines the work of interfaith as:
  • From dialogue to understanding and respect;
  • From understanding and respect to wisdom and compassion;
  • From wisdom and compassion to civility.
 More about the history of the organization can be found here:
In his opening address, OCIN Founder and President, Rabbi Dr. Frank Stern recounted several horrific acts that lead to the choice of support for victims of violence as the focus for the upcoming year's activities: attacks on a Coptic church in Egypt and on innocent civilians in Paris and Syria; random stabbings of Jews in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv...and in the United States, the 2012 massacre at the gurdwara Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin; the June 2015 murder of nine worshipers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopalian church in Charleston, South Carolina; and, locally, the 2015 Christmas party atrocity in San Bernardino. These violent acts impact all races and religions, Dr. Stern emphasized.

"Consequently," he concluded, "this year we mourn...we pray...we remember...we organize."

Heather Powers
Maria Khani
Subsequent speakers and performers reiterated this theme. At the close of the intense morning, I reflected on what had most impressed me. The heartfelt prayer ceremony lead by Rev. Adelia Sandoval of the Acjachemen Tribe, the inspired singing of "Grateful Girl" Heather Powers,the Blessing of the Bread by Cantor David Reinwald, and the hauntingly beautiful moment of reflection lead by Maria Khani. Equally illuminating were the brief messages delivered by three young women from the Interfaith Youth Council, representing the Sikh, Zoroastrian and Jain faiths.

Keynote speaker Reverand Dr. Gail Stearns, of Chapman University, delivered an address, "Developing an Interfaith Identity Today." She discussed how millennials are more interested in the betterment of lives than preserving an interest in established institutions. Youth, she suggested, don't necessarily adhere to one conviction. They can claim their rituals, their morals, their ethics, yet demonstrate openness and commitment through awareness and respect for differences. In the era of multiculturalism everybody no longer shares the same identity, but rather admit to hybrid identities.
Gail J. Stearns is The Irvin C. and Edy Chapman Dean of the Wallace All Faiths Chapel and Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Chapman University

Though this was the first event sponsored by OCIN that I'd attended,  I've slotted several more on my calendar, beginning with a series of programs taking place on Sunday, September 11, Patriot Day. 

Truth, Love, Compassion, Beauty, Hope: Change
Additionally, I'm drafting a piece on what we all can do locally, nationally and internationally for an upcoming issue of Uncle Jam. It always comes to can we foster peace and understanding among peoples of different ethnicities and belief systems?

As I found in my many years with Peace Corps,both overseas and in Washington, DC, first, we get to know them. It's one thing to claim empathy in the's another to put a name and a face on a potential victim. I'm blessed to live in Orange County, rich in diversity. I'm thrilled to have discovered this organization that sets realistic goals and objectives to carry out its mission, "People of Faith Working for a Better Orange County."

As a result of attending this breakfast I can claim that I now know Laura, from Hawaii, a Latter Day Saint who displays her peace quilt to schoolchildren worldwide. I now know Maria, who was schooled in Damascus, and who, according the Los Angeles Times, even before the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, was active in her community, encouraging fellow Muslims to follow suit. "The best way to counter anti-Muslim stereotypes," she says, "is get out and be a part of American society." I now know Reverend Susan, of the Sacred Seasons Center, and I know Heather, a singer with a touching story, a "Grateful Girl." Consequently, now that I know some of the key players, I'll be looking forward to learning more about the valuable work this group continues to do.

Laura Ava-Testimale 

How many people of different faiths do you know? It might depend on where you live. It could also depend on your level of education. Here's some survey results that might surprise you: