The New Colossus

The New Colossus
By Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

This, of course, is the poem inscribed on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty. It is a stirring, moving testament to the ideal of and belief in the United States as a haven for newcomers. The last few lines are quoted frequently; they come up in almost any discussion of immigration.

Yet today, terrorism and wars and natural disasters are creating not only a crisis of refugees, but also a climate of fear. In that climate, some Americans seem to think Lady Liberty ought to lay down her “torch of world-wide welcome” in favor of laying bricks to build a wall. In that climate, I’m not sure that glibly repeating Emma Lazarus’s words is all that helpful.

When she wrote this poem in 1883, Miss Lazarus was helping desperate Jewish refugees who were fleeing Russian pogroms. They had seen family members killed, their homes burned, their way of life destroyed. They truly were tired, poor, and homeless. And in the eyes of the nation driving them out, they truly were “wretched refuse.”

But focusing on these familiar phrases from “The New Colossus” makes it sound as if the only people coming here are those that no one else wants. It encourages us to see, not only refugees, but all immigrants only as people who need our help. Only as victims. Only as desperate. Only as homeless. Only as recipients of our charity. From there it’s just a short step to seeing them as ignorant, incapable, and pitiful. From there it’s just another short step to seeing them as unworthy, other, and unacceptable.

This perspective asks only half of what has to be a two-part question: “What can this country do for these immigrants?” It misses the other essential side: “What can these immigrants do for this country?”

And immigrants who have something to give the United States are not limited to those with professional degrees, high-tech knowledge, or other in-demand-now skills.

They might be like my great-grandfather, Christopf Emme, who came to the United States in 1904. He was a German peasant, a widower with six children. When they landed in Baltimore after 13 days at sea in steerage class, grubby and bewildered, they may well have looked like “wretched refuse.” They certainly were “tired and poor”—Christopf had $17.25 to his name. He couldn’t even afford to pay for his family’s steamship tickets.

Who bought those tickets? Christopf’s older brother William. Another poor German peasant who had come to the United States 20 years earlier. In just one short generation, he had prospered enough to not only support his own six children, but to fund the immigration of his brother’s family.

Like his brother before him, Christopf became a landowner—something he could not have achieved in Germany at that time—by proving up on a homestead. He and his children became self-sufficient American citizens. Their children, many with college degrees, became teachers, farmers, engineers, professionals, and business owners. By now Christopf has several hundred prosperous, thriving—and taxpaying—descendants all over the country.

Immigration, legal and illegal, is not a simple issue with a simple solution. I certainly don’t have one. I do know that I’m baffled by a system under which millions of people can come in and stay illegally for decades. Pew Research estimates the number of illegal immigrants at 11 million. That’s over 3% of our population and 5% of our workforce. Those numbers strongly suggest we have space for these people, jobs for these people, and a need for these people. So why are we not working together to find ways to let them be here legally?

I also know I don’t want to live in a country surrounded by walls to keep the rest of the world out. I don’t want to see us become so inward-looking, suspicious, and hostile to new people and new ideas that nobody even wants to come here. That’s not a country represented by the welcoming ideals enshrined at the Statue of Liberty. We’ve never fully lived up to those ideals, of course, but they still are an important part of our identity. We call ourselves with pride a “nation of immigrants” because immigration has shaped our culture.

The third thing I know is this: We can’t arrive at any reasonable solutions to the problems of immigration by considering only people’s needs or circumstances at the time they want to come here. We have to look at least one generation, or even more, into the future.

To help us do that, it might be good to focus on another of Emma Lazarus’s phrases. One that doesn’t get the same attention as the tired, poor, homeless, wretched masses. That phrase is “tempest-tossed.” When people come here in need and desperation, it’s because their lives have been overtaken by storms. Storms like political upheavals, terrorism, natural disasters, war, and violence. Storms that have brutally disrupted their lives.

Storms that, ultimately, are temporary. Throughout our country’s history, many people have arrived here as desperate refugees. Many others, like my ancestors, were not fleeing from disaster but simply looking for better opportunities. If we could trace their descendants, my belief is that by the second generation, it would be hard to tell which families were which.

I’m not suggesting at all that we throw our doors open wide to anyone and everyone who cares to show up. That makes no sense. But when we discuss who and whether and how to let people in, let’s not only consider their immediate circumstances. Let’s also consider their future children and grandchildren, whose ability to thrive and prosper can help the United States continue to thrive and prosper.

It would weaken and harm this country if we allowed Lady Liberty’s torch to become a warning beacon or a stop light behind a looming wall. Instead, let’s keep it as that lamp beside a welcoming door.

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Write This Way

We were traveling, so I almost missed it. Yesterday, January 23, was National Handwriting Day. Given the current trend away from teaching cursive writing in schools, it would be easy to assume this is a new observance, started by concerned calligraphers, Palmer Method purists, and letter-writing grandparents who are afraid their grandkids won’t be able to read anything sent to them except the numbers on their birthday checks.

Nope. National Handwriting Day has been around since 1977. It is observed, not by accident, on the birthday of John Hancock. (You remember him, right? He’s the Founding Father whose elegant, oversized signature is front and center on the Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately, the story that he said something like, “King George will be able to read that without his spectacles” turns out not to be true. But his name is still used as a synonym for “signature”—as in “Put your John Hancock right here on this line.”)

Appropriately, then, I wrote the first draft of this post with a pen, on the wide-lined notebook paper that I stock up on every fall during back-to-school sales. I can’t say I did so in honor of John Hancock or National Handwriting Day. Nor as some sort of statement in favor of cursive writing. I just prefer to write that way.

It’s not because I can’t type well, or because I’m a Luddite who is terrified of technology. Quite the contrary: I routinely did 75 words a minute on an IBM Selectric typewriter back when I worked as a secretary, and if the house caught on fire today my laptop is the very first thing I would grab. (Unless a grandchild happened to be in the house, of course. In that case, I would have the kid grab my Kindle while I took care of the laptop.)

I write by hand because I like to. Something about the pen forming words on the page helps me focus and discover what I’m thinking.

Maybe my enjoyment of handwriting stems from my pleasant memories of learning cursive, which the teacher in our tiny rural school allowed me to do in first grade instead of making me wait until it was officially taught in second or third. I remember writing exercises on lined paper, repeating row after row of careful capital letters meant to be the same width and to evenly touch the top and bottom lines.

But my favorites were the slanted up-and-down lines with little flourishes at the beginning and end, which looked somewhat like bunches of grass. If I do say so myself, I was quite good at these, and they are still my doodle of choice if I’m stuck on hold or in a meeting that doesn’t seem to require my full attention.

Possibly my fondness for cursive was related to the fact that no one in my school was ever made to write “I will not something-or-other” over and over, which still strikes me as a barbaric and counter-productive form of punishment. Or maybe I just had no idea that there was anything strange about finding it fun to practice penmanship. The word “nerd,” after all, was not in my vocabulary back then.

Despite all that practice, I don’t have particularly beautiful handwriting. The best you can say for it is that it’s reasonably neat and mostly legible. But I still find pleasure in forming letters and words on a piece of paper. And calligraphy is one of my favorite art forms. The elegant sweep and swirl of curves and flourishes across the page is satisfying to my soul.

But what if my technologically advanced descendants never learn to write or even read cursive? Oh, well. I hope some of them will still appreciate calligraphy. And if I’ve shared any shocking secrets in my handwritten journals, they will never know.

Categories: Odds and Ends, Remembering When, Words for Nerds | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Yarn Yoda and the Force

“Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

I don’t know whether my grandson Henry, at age five, can quote Yoda’s advice to Luke Skywalker from The Empire Strikes Back. Chances are he can.

I assume this because long, long ago, in a theatre far, far away, I remember watching Henry’s father watching the original Star Wars movie when he was about a year younger than Henry is now. He didn’t fidget; he didn’t talk; he didn’t get drowsy even though he had just finished a huge Thanksgiving dinner. He sat enraptured through the whole film, meanwhile munching his way steadily through a big bag of popcorn that he should not possibly have had room for.

Here and now, in this galaxy, Star Wars has come around again. This means a whole new universe of toy light sabers, action figures, and other galactic merchandise.

Including Yarn Yoda. He appeared at our family Christmas gathering this year. One of our traditions is exchanging small anonymous gag gifts, which this year had to begin with “Y”. Henry was the one who got stuck with—er, who was delighted to receive Yarn Yoda. He also pointed out that his gift started with two “Y’s”. Actually, it was more like three “Y’s”, if you cared to count the one in “Do It Yourself.”

Because this Yoda was a kit, complete with green and brown yarn, a little bag of stuffing, black plastic safety eyes, and detailed instructions to create a three-inch version of the venerable Jedi knight in crochet.

Henry might wield a mean light saber, but he doesn’t know how to crochet. Neither, despite a formidable array of other skills, do his parents. Both of them did express their willingness to try, and with the Force and YouTube videos with them I’m sure they could have figured it out. Still, a tiny three-dimensional figure isn’t the best project for someone just learning to crochet. Especially when—cliché or not—there’s a grandma around who already knows how.

Given the rustiness of my skills, I didn’t quite share Henry’s confidence when he assured me that turning a handful of yarn into a Jedi “would only take a couple of seconds. You just have to make a ball.” Or as it might have been phrased in another galaxy: “Do. There is no try.”

He was eventually persuaded that I would crochet Yoda and send him, if not quite at warp speed at least by priority mail. So Yarn Yoda, or at least his potential, went home with me.

Never mind the details. Let’s just stipulate for the record that it takes a little longer than a couple of seconds to crochet a Yoda. However—in a new personal best speed record for the actual completion of a craft project—I finished him, right down to his toenails, on New Year’s Eve. (What that says about my exciting social life is not something we need to go into here.)

Admittedly, critical observers might point out that his ears are askew. Even non-critical observers might notice that his smile is more uneven than enigmatic. But he does stand up. He even bears a gratifying, if surprising, resemblance to the pattern.

Whether the Force can be with a tiny Yoda made crookedly out of yarn might be open to debate. Or maybe not. After all, what Yarn Yoda really is—and what he would also have been if Henry’s parents had made him—is a perfect example of something that we wouldn’t even consider doing for money or for fun, but that we’re glad to do for love. The Force doesn’t get much stronger than that.

Though I do hope Henry has forgotten two little details: That the booklet in Yoda’s kit also included instructions to crochet Luke, Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, and a Stormtrooper. And that my other “Y” gift was a bag of yarn.

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The Perfect Christmas Tree

Because our neck of the woods includes actual woods, it’s a tradition for many people to cut their own Christmas trees. (And where did that expression come from, anyway? Why isn’t it the “head of the woods” or the “heart of the woods” or even the “left elbow of the woods”? According to informed sources, aka Google, this phrase apparently came to be used for a small local area because “neck” was a term for a narrow strip of woods. Which, really, could just as well be called an “elbow.”)

But never mind that. In this part of the world, for a mere ten bucks, you can get a permit from the Forest Service to go out to the Black Hills National Forest and get a tree. This involves finding the perfect tree, cutting it down (unless you’re Paul Bunyan, a tree saw is probably safer than an ax), and hauling it home. (Don’t forget the rope or straps to tie it to the top of the car or secure it in the back of the pickup. Trees have been known to escape.)

These tree-cutting expeditions, of course, are perfect opportunities for spirited family discussions about exactly what constitutes the “perfect” tree. Should it be spruce or pine? Slender or wide? Tall enough to touch the ceiling, or short enough for a kindergartener to put the star on the top?

For some people, little details like symmetry of the branches and uprightness of the trunk seem to matter a great deal. Others (yes, family and friends, you know who I am) just take a quick look and decide, “if it’s good enough for Charlie Brown, it’s good enough for me.”

Not naming any names here, but it’s been my observation over the years that there are two ways to prevail when it comes to picking out the perfect tree. One is to be in possession of the saw, which gives you the opportunity to say, “This one, right?” and start cutting it down before anyone has a chance to disagree. The other is to be the person who cares the most. The rest of the family will eventually realize that letting you choose the tree is the easiest and fastest way to get back to the hot cocoa and cookies waiting in the car.

Then, of course, there is the matter of putting up the tree once you get it home. This is when you discover bare spots, bent branches, delicate skunk-evoking aromas, and other little flaws that weren’t obvious out there in the woods. And nobody has ever satisfactorily explained why a tree looks so much bigger in the living room than it does in the forest.

For some people, apparently, a Christmas tree is an opportunity to create a perfect display of color-coordinated and carefully placed ornaments that complement the rest of the home’s seasonal decor. For decorating-challenged observers like me, the result can inspire awe. What it does not inspire is a wish to go and do likewise. Even if I’m tempted for a moment, I know better than to try the same thing at home.

For others, decorating the tree is about digging out ornaments that are valuable for emotional rather than esthetic reasons. About the years when most of the decorations hang in erratic clusters at a two-year-old’s eye level, or the times when a teenager is suddenly so tall he doesn’t need a stepstool to put the star on top of the tree.

Over the years, in our family, tree-cutting experiences have ranged from multi-vehicle expeditions with friends, to snowy family picnics, to quick grab-the-closest-tree trips in freezing weather. We’ve gotten stuck in the snow, hiked through the woods on mild fall-like days, and chosen trees that ranged from beautiful to downright scrawny.

This year, for example, I voted for a tabletop sized tree. The one we brought home was petite enough that we briefly considered asking for a rebate of half the cost of our Christmas tree permit. It now stands—all 33 inches of it—upright and very nearly straight in a flower pot filled with rocks. It is decorated with nothing but one string of lights.

And it’s perfect. Just like all the other trees we’ve cut over the years. Because, of course, the perfect Christmas tree isn’t really about the tree.

Categories: Family, Living Consciously | Tags: , | 2 Comments

Leaving the Lights On

Even by the standards of an early-morning person like me, 8:30 p.m. isn’t really late. But in the short days of late November, when you’ve just staggered off of an airplane at the end of a day that started 20 hours earlier on a different continent, 8:30 p.m. can feel like the deep, dark middle of a very long night.

But the plane landed promptly, my friends were at the airport to pick me up, and when we turned from the dark street into the dark driveway of what I expected to be our dark house—there was light. My daughter had stopped by to turn up the thermostat, and she had left the porch light on for me. Plus the light inside the entryway, plus a lamp shining warmly through the front window.

The impact of this simple gesture went far beyond the practical kindness of making it easier to lug my bag up the steps and unlock the door. The light allowed me to walk into a warm, bright haven instead of a cold, dark house. It made me feel safe and welcomed me home.

And I was reminded of one of the stories my father told. The winter that I was a baby and my older sister turned three was harsh. One blizzard after another howled across the South Dakota prairies, sometimes leaving farm families like ours snowed in for days or even weeks at a time. Shortly before Christmas, a neighbor called to say that the gravel road past his farm had been plowed, so he could make a trip to town before the next storm. My father rode horseback through perhaps three miles of drifted snow to get to the neighbor’s house and go along.

It was dark, of course, by the time they got back from town. My father saddled his horse, tied on two gunny sacks filled with groceries, mail, and Christmas gifts, and headed home. Many years later, telling the story, he remembered coming over the crest of a long hill. Far across the frozen prairie, where home was, he could see a tiny light. “It was a lonely feeling,” he said, “like I was the only person in the world.”

But even though he still had a long way to go in the cold and solitary darkness, he could see where home and wife and children were waiting for him. They were where the light was.

It’s a simple thing, really, to make such a difference. Leaving the lights on for each other.

Categories: Family, Living Consciously | 4 Comments

If Only Miss Muffet Had Known This

A few days before Halloween, eeriness is in the air. Even on NPR. Driving across the state last week, I heard some very scary things.

The most frightening was a “Science Friday” interview with two arachnologists who were terrifyingly enthusiastic about spiders. I had never before heard anyone use “spider” and “adorable” in the same sentence. They were especially excited about the peacock spider, named for the bright colors and pattern on its body, which according to them is not only adorable but is also gorgeous.

Given the season, the interview focused on scarier critters, the black widow and the brown recluse. The scientists were quick to explain that, even though their bites can be dangerous, these spiders are still adorable because they don’t really want to bite you. The reason? Energy conservation. It takes a lot of body energy to create venom, which of course is intended to paralyze prey so the spiders can eat. Efficient little critters that they are, they’d rather save the precious stuff for their next meal than waste it repelling enormous and inedible humans. They will only bite if they believe their lives to be in acute danger.

If you see a brown recluse spider, it probably isn’t. They weren’t named “recluses” because they run around in public. They prefer their privacy and will be happy to leave you alone if you leave them alone. Their brown violin-shaped body markings are also shared by many other harmless spiders, like the wolf spider. You can easily tell the difference, because wolf spiders have spiky little thorns on their legs and brown recluses have fine little hairs. Also, wolf spiders have eight eyes and brown recluses have six eyes, arranged by twos in a tidy symmetrical pattern.

So if you see what you think is a brown recluse spider, there’s no need to panic. All you have to do is sneak up on it until you’re close enough to count its eyes and see the tiny hairs on its legs. About, oh, an inch away from the end of your nose ought to be close enough. Just be careful not to appear threatening, so it won’t bite you.

Actually, all of this information about the harmlessness and general adorability of spiders was quite useful the morning after I heard it. I was about to step into the motel shower when I realized I was sharing the bath mat with a fuzzy brown spider the size of a Shetland pony. Okay, okay, that’s an exaggeration—it was only the size of a Chihuahua. Just with longer legs.

Well, maybe not quite that big. But big enough that, even without my glasses, I could clearly recognize it as a spider. Big enough that I really didn’t want to share my bathroom with it. And definitely big enough that I wasn’t going to stomp on it with my bare foot or whack it with my hairbrush. Besides being a reasonably live-and-let-live kind of person, I didn’t want to deal with the yuck factor of spider innards all over the bath mat.

So arachnicide was not the answer. Instead, I flapped a hand towel at it, herding it out of the bathroom. It disappeared around the corner. Out of sight, out of mind: problem solved. I enjoyed my shower in privacy.

But when I came out of the bathroom, the spider was just a few feet away from the door. Not moving. It was staying camouflaged against the brown carpet while it caught its breath, I decided.

I detoured around it as I went across the room to get dressed. I detoured around it again when I went back to the bathroom to dry my hair. I detoured around it again when I went over to the desk to check my email. I went to breakfast. I came back half an hour later.

The spider was still in the same spot, looking smaller somehow and not at all threatening. Because it was dead. I swear, I never touched it. I never even got close enough to count its eyes.

The arachnologists forgot to mention one thing. Apparently, it’s possible to frighten a spider to death.

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“Have you vertigo?”

Oh, the crystals in your ears can have you leaning on the wall.
The only way you can get out of your bedroom is to crawl.
It’s like an awful morning after, but you had no wine at all,
And it’s all because of the crystals in your ears.

It’s a pain to call the doctor, as upon the floor you sprawl.
And when you finally see her, she’s not much help at all.
“You will have to wait till the pangs abate—and try not to fall.
This is just a glitch with the crystals in your ears.”

You can let it overcome you and just sit right down and bawl,
Or try to see the humor though you cannot stand up tall.
Have you vertigo?” “No, I don’t think so, it’s just down the hall.
It just seems too far with these crystals in my ears.”

Oh, your friends may laugh and tease you if upon their help you call.
As they joke about your weakness they might have a ball.
But the heartless crowd that is laughing now will be left in tears
When their balance fails from the crystals in their ears.

With apologies to songwriter Ted Harris, all the musicians who have recorded “Crystal Chandeliers,” and anyone who has experienced benign paroxysmal positional vertigo, which while it lasts is not the least bit amusing.

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Person to Person

Way, way back in the olden days, when telephones had rotary dials, making a call meant putting one finger (or, for those with thick fingers or manicured nails, the end of a pencil) into the hole by the appropriate number, rotating the dial all the way to the right, letting it spin back to the left, and repeating for each number. Which is why we still often say we “dial” phone numbers, even though touch-tone phones with buttons started replacing rotary phones in the 1960’s.

Back when long-distance phone calls were expensive and not to be made thoughtlessly, you could dial “O,” get an operator, and place a person-to-person call. Not just to a given number, but to a specific person at that number: Mr. Jones in the purchasing department, or Uncle Albert, or your mother. Such a call cost more than a talk-to-anyone call you placed yourself, but if the person you asked for wasn’t in, the call wasn’t completed and there was no charge. A whole generation of college students found this useful. After a holiday or weekend visit home, placing a person-to-person call to themselves at the home number was a free way to let Mom and Dad know they had arrived safely back at school.

Today, the Internet allows us to communicate freely, easily, and almost instantaneously with vast numbers of people all over the world. The very idea of placing a phone call with the help of a human operator—and paying by the minute for it—seems almost as cumbersome and outdated as sending a telegram or writing a letter with a quill pen dipped in ink.

But one thing hasn’t changed. Every electronic communication we send out—an email, a text, a tweet, a blog post, a shared photo or video, a comment on social media—every single one is still a person-to-person message. Thousands of people might see or read or share it, but each one is a separate human being responding in an individual way. Even an automated robo-call or bot that targets huge numbers of random recipients originates from some real live person somewhere. And all that spam is received by separate people whose irritation and inconvenience is downright personal.

So, on the outgoing side, before you post or text or send any other kind of communication, it might be helpful to stop and consider whether it’s worth sending. I doubt that many of us would go to the trouble and expense of placing an expensive person-to-person long-distance call just to yell at someone or call them an idiot. Maybe it’s not a good idea to do essentially the same thing just because the Internet makes it easy.

And on the incoming side, we can take advantage of one very useful feature of the person-to-person call: If you are the one it comes to, you don’t have to accept it. You don’t have to participate in divisive or insulting messages, crude jokes, drama-stirring incitements to indignation, pseudo-sentimental appeals, unsolicited ads, or anything else you don’t want in your life. Every incoming communication comes with a choice to take it in or ignore it. You can read or view it or not, respond to it or not, disconnect from its sender as much as possible, make liberal use of spam filters, and choose not to waste time and energy on junk. No person-to-person message can be completed unless you say yes to it. You don’t have to be “in” to every piece of spam that comes your way.

Categories: Living Consciously, Remembering When | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Twinkie Pyrotechnics

You have to heat a Twinkie in the microwave for 45 seconds, on average, before it will explode.

Or so I read in the newspaper this morning. No source was cited for this intriguing and slightly disturbing little bit of information, but since it was in the paper, of course it must be true.

Still, an inquiring mind fueled by a wholesome breakfast and a second cup of coffee would like to know more. Such as:

How many trials did it take before researchers came up with the 45-second average? Three? Ten? One hundred? This is important; the more repetitions, the greater the scientific validity.

Was the microwave set on full power? And did the researchers experiment with microwaves of different wattages? After all, as anyone who has ever burned a bag of microwave popcorn knows first-hand, cooking times in different ovens may vary.

Who came up with the idea of exploding Twinkies in the first place? I can imagine two likely possibilities. One involves a college-dorm microwave and a certain amount of beer. The second involves a couple of bored 12-year-olds left unattended in a kitchen.

After the experiment was complete and the results duly logged, who cleaned up the mess in the microwave?

Is exploding a Twinkie properly categorized as scientific research at all? Or should it be considered performance art?

And perhaps most important, who funded this research? A weapons lab? A competing snack food company? A dental school? Or is there some sort of center for the discovery of alternative uses for junk food? (Someone somewhere, after all, had to come up with the idea of deep-frying a Twinkie.)

Perhaps it was the makers of Twinkies themselves. As a marketing strategy, it’s not a bad idea. Admit it: reading this has given at least half of you the impulse to go buy a package of Twinkies and do your own experiment.

Maybe it was NASA. Researchers there certainly have an interest in food that can remain edible throughout long space voyages. Suppose the Cassini space probe had left Earth in 1997 with a couple of Twinkies tucked in beside its scientific instruments. It’s possible the preservative-enhanced treats would have still been in their original condition when, in September 2017, Cassini plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere and disintegrated.

Now that would be a spectacular way to blow up a Twinkie.

Categories: Food and Drink | Tags: , | Leave a comment

The Barefoot Princess

It has been pointed out that everything Fred Astaire did on the dance floor, Ginger Rogers did too—backwards and in high heels.

I was reminded of this recently, watching one of my granddaughters not long before her third birthday. In a pretty pink dress, she was riding her little pink princessy scooter. Not in high heels, of course. In bare feet, with nail polish on each rather grubby toe.

Starting in the driveway, she would charge uphill on the sidewalk—more a slight slope than a steep rise, but uphill nevertheless—driving the scooter as hard as one hard-working little foot could make it go. At the end of the street she would turn, perch on the scooter, and hurtle back downhill. Grinning with glee, her hair and skirt flying, she would go faster and faster, then swerve at the last minute and screech to a halt just before she ran into the mailbox. More Evel Knievel, perhaps, than Ginger Rogers.

Being dressed like a little lady only proved to be a problem once. When she crouched low on the scooter on one of her runs, no doubt trying for maximum acceleration, the back of her skirt wound itself up in the back wheel. She couldn’t stand up until she was untangled by the combined efforts of Mom and Dad.

Who didn’t tell her to slow down, to be careful, to not be so wild, or in any other way to “play like a girl.” They merely suggested that, if she wanted to sit down on the scooter, shorts might be more practical than a skirt. As soon as she was extricated, she took off up the hill to make another run—standing up that time.

It is gratifying to see little girls like my granddaughters growing up in a world where being “girly”—enjoying prettiness and dressing up and all the femininity those things imply—is completely compatible with being strong, playing hard, and taking risks. As well as dealing with and learning from the scrapes and bruises that sometimes result.

What Ginger Rogers did in high heels was certainly impressive. Just think what she might have been able to do in bare feet. With or without nail polish.

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