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, February 27, 2014

Still Peace in My Heart

Internet Comes to Youth Health Centre, Mont Fleuri, Mahi, Seychelles, Fall '97
Once again it's Peace Corps Week!

The Peace Corps Mission is to promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals:
  • To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women
  • To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served
  • To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans
 On March 1 1961 John Fitzgerald Kennedy signed Executive Order 10924, establishing the Peace Corps. The first group of  51 Volunteers arrived in Accra, Ghana, to serve as teachers. Since then nearly 225,000 Americans have served overseas. And as the independent federal agency now boasts on its website,, although times have changed since the Peace Corps' founding in 1961, the agency's mission—to promote world peace and friendship—has not.

When I first joined in 1987 some of my family members were mystified. They thought I was being offered an administrative job with the agency itself, and couldn't understand how I'd contribute as a hand-on Volunteer. The early '60s picture of Volunteers digging pit latrines and supervising school construction still predominated the public view. But Peace Corps had expanded beyond basic physical infrastructure programs, or teaching English as a second language. Now Volunteers were involved in youth development, small business enterprises, information and communication technology and public health projects.

Apparently even now not everybody understands this. Some still think Peace Corps is a parachute-in and parachute-back-out up for a few weeks and then be on your way. This kind of misunderstanding is perpetrated even by such novelists as John Grisham, in Skipping Christmas. Here's a review I posted on Amazon on November 29, 2001, not long after that book's debut:

Peace Corps closed its program in Peru in l975, an essential fact that Grisham never bothered to research. Additionally, Peace Corps Volunteers attend stagings in the U.S. and leave as a group for their assigned countries, where they begin a two-to-three month training period, living with host families before beginning their assignments. They aren't escorted to the airport by parents on Thanksgiving weekends nor are they ensconced in grass huts with coworkers immediately upon arrival. These may seem quibbles, but any journalist will attest to the importance of getting the facts straight to lend authenticity to a piece of work. Though I'm enjoying the Kranks as I Metro from Silver Spring to Peace Corps headquarters here in D.C., I have a tough time suspending disbelief.

Similarly, Rita Goldman Gellman, in her memoir, The Female Nomad, alludes to "an American couple just finished with their Peace Corp (sic) duty in Peru." This was in the mid-'80s, again over a decade after Peace Corps had left that country, and years before it reentered.

As an editor myself, I wonder how such inaccuracies can slip by unnoticed. Again, perhaps these are minor errors, but ones I suspect irritate many a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. Some more egregious myths contribute to more persistent misunderstandings about the Peace Corps:
  • that it's a branch of the State Department (it's a freestanding agency), 
  • that it's a kind of a covert program of the CIA (nobody who has worked for that program is eligible for Peace Corps service),
  • that there's an upper age limit (there's none, and many Volunteers serve as seniors),
  • that it's a suitable place to send delinquent adolescents to shape them up (no kidding...I heard this from my hairdresser last year), 
  • that it's a place for recent college grads to waste time until the job market picks up again, 
  • that Volunteers need to pay their own airfare and living expenses in their assigned countries. (Airfare, medical costs, and a living stipend are all provided.).
Here's the current fact sheet on the ever-evolving Peace Corps:

 My personal story about why I joined and what I did can be found here:

Life is far will you go?

Sunday, February 23, 2014

A Role Model for Life

A Facebook friend posted today that she and her sister were named Amy and Beth, after characters in her mother's favorite book. The book, of course, was Little Women. No wonder her mother loved it...her name was Jo! But what surprised me was that Amy had never read it herself, but plans to. I can't imagine surviving childhood without reading this classic. Jo inspired me in so many ways.

Here's a story I wrote several months ago about how Jo shaped my life.

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.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da

Natty and Tsunami, April 2013
This has been a sad week for me, since Tsunami crossed the Rainbow Bridge last Wednesday. Natty gallantly holds forth as an only dog now, but the three cats continually remind me that we're not alone...hopping on the computer desk at the most inopportune times.

Whenever loved ones die, which doesn't seem infrequent these days, I find myself distracted by memories...and I find myself dreaming of them when they were much younger and our friendship had just begun. So it is with Tsunami, when Ken used to call her The Great Who-Nami. I memorialized those moments a couple of years ago...and here's her story on Pawprints on My Heart, including my favorite photo of her as a puppy.

There's another story on my mind, as well. And that one involves my son, Steve, who celebrates his birthday tomorrow. I've been remembering what this day was like for me 56 years ago...culminating in a midnight trek to St. Mary's Hospital in Long Beach, CA. Steve and his wife, Mari Lou, were here for Tsunami's 5th birthday party in 2007. I haven't seen my son on his own birthday in decades, though, since we've lived so far apart, often thousands of miles while I worked overseas for a decade. But I'd written at the beginning of this year that I'm California-bound...if I can sell this house and get moved before the next winter. I plan to celebrate a few holidays with my son once again.
Stephen Paul Elders, age 8 months

Life goes on. For Steve, and for Tsunami, here's the Beatles:

Sunday, February 9, 2014

It Was 50 Years Ago Today!

Where were you? What were you doing? What did you think?

So often such roundups focus on historical events that bring back painful memories. Those of us old enough remember where we were other dates in the '60s on when JFK, Bobby and Martin Luther King were assassinated. I even remember a date from the '40s, when Pearl Harbor was bombed. Most who read this will recall the Challenger disaster, Princess Diana's death and 9/11.

But remembering what happened 50 years ago today brings me joy. Yes...I watched the Ed Sullivan show with son Steve, who, though only six, instantly became a fan. His joy in the Fab Four has lasted a lifetime...and we've shared many memories of those early days of the British Invasion. And thanks to Steve, I am lucky to own the boxed VHS set, "The Four Complete Historic Ed Sullivan shows featuring The Beatles." Yep, that's what it says on the box, bold face included. The set includes not only the February 9 breakthrough, but additionally February 16, February 23 and the following year's September 12 show.

I'm tickled by the legend that follows The Beatles: "And other artists including the original cast from 'Oliver!', Cab Calloway, Cilla Black, Frank Gorshin, Soupy Sales, Gordon & Sheila MacRae and many others..."

Do you remember them? 
  • I saw a revival of Oliver! in London a couple of years ago, but can't recall who was in the original London cast. I'm as big a fan of Charles Dickens as I am of the Beatles, so I've seen this show several times. Who remembers any of the stars of the Broadway original cast, though? Davy Jones is the one people remember, mostly because he later fronted The Monkees, the group loosely based on the Beatles. Those lucky enough to see the first Sullivan Beatles show in person grew impatient with the opening acts. Jones, however, was tolerated because he spoke with an English accent.
  • My dad admired Cab Calloway, a jazz singer from New York's Cotton Club days, whom I suspect might be the inspiration for the black bandleader on this season's Downton Abbey.
  • Just last year English singer Cilla Black celebrated her 50th year in the entertainment industry, which Britain's ITV commemorated with a show, The One and Only Cilla Black. Did you know she was born Priscilla White? She was featured in an article in the first edition of the local music newspaper Mersey Beat; the paper's publisher, Bill Harry, mistakenly referred to her as Cilla Black, rather than White, and she decided she liked the name, and took it as a stage name.
  • Actor and impressionist Frank Gorshin was a frequent flyer on both the Sullivan and Steve Allen shows, and gained greater fame as The Riddler in the live-action TV series, Batman, starring Adam West.
  • Comedian Soupy Sales had a children's television show, Lunch with Soupy Sales, that I enticed Steve, around 4-years-old, to watch. Steve hated it. Sales featured comedy sketches frequently ending with somebody heaving a pie in his face, a trademark that my son abhorred. It scared Steve, for some unknown reason.
  • Gordon MacRae had been one of my favorite movie musical stars of my teen years...especially in Oklahoma! and Carousel. He'd also appeared in a 1958 series I liked, The Polly Bergen Show. Sheila was a British actress who played Alice Kramden on the Gleason show, before Audrey Meadows took over that role. The two may be remembered as the parents of actress Meredith MacRae, who played Sally Ann on My Three Sons (1963–1965) and as Billie Jo on Petticoat Junction (1966–1970).

Fifty years from today, it's my bet that the only names from the historic Sullivan series that will be remembered will be John, Paul, George and Ringo. What do you think?