Civics 101

The Hungarian Uprising, 1956 ~ Erich Lessing, Magnum Photos

On October 23, 1956, I celebrated my tenth birthday.  There was cake, ice cream, and a small party with balloons and crepe paper streamers.  On that same day, in a world utterly removed from my cozy Iowa neighborhood, other children watched as friends, parents, and neighbors dared to cheer an occasion first known as the Hungarian Uprising and, somewhat later, as the Hungarian Revolution.

As I headed toward our kitchen for my post-birthday breakfast on October 24, or perhaps on the 25th, the Des Moines Register was lying on the dining room table, where my father always laid it before going upstairs to shave. A huge photograph filled the space above the fold, with the words “Revolution In Hungary” splashed across the top. Continue reading

Laundry Days

My maternal grandmother, c.1920

Every era defines its necessities differently. For my grandmother, a clothesline was as much a necessity as her twin aluminum wash tubs and the assortment of scrub boards that hung in the mud room.

Even my mother, blessed early in marriage with an electric washing machine, found her clothesline a necessity. Laundry fed through wringer bars could be squeezed nearly dry, but nearly dry wasn’t good enough. With no gas or electric clothes dryers to finish the task, the piles of laundry — damp, wrinkled, and still heavy after passing through the wringers — had to be hung on clotheslines before being ironed, or folded into closets and drawers. Continue reading

Feeding Bodies, Sustaining Souls

Many years younger, fairly well-traveled but still impressionable, I arrived in Berkeley during the 1970s: a relatively peaceful decade sandwiched between the tumultuous events of the University of California’s Free Speech Movement and the slightly less shattering Livermore earthquake.

Despite the unfortunate closures of the original Fillmore and Fillmore West prior to my arrival, there were consolations to be had. Afternoons, I lingered at Caffé Espresso, breathing in the scents of eucalyptus and French roast. Weekend trips across the Bay allowed for exploration of San Francisco’s tourist sites (Fisherman’s Wharf, North Beach, Chinatown) as well as increasingly confident forays into neighborhoods filled with fabulous architecture, tiny galleries, and expansive views.

Atop the Berkeley hills, views were as varied and compelling as anything available across the Bay. To the east lay Mt. Diablo, wheat straw dry or dusted with sunlit snow. To the west, San Francisco’s skyline shimmered by day and sparkled by night. In season, tendrils of fog twined their way around and through the Golden Gate, wrapping the Bridge in silence and the easy breath of dreams.
Continue reading

Life in the Land of the Lame Horse Pub


Had it not been for Ian in Hamburg, one of my dependable conduits for news of the quirky, the bizarre and the occasionally unbelievable, I would have missed recent events in Duisburg, an old-fashioned German steel town with the world’s largest inland harbor.

Eager to spiff up his town’s image while taking advantage of music fans’ willingness to part with their Euros, the Mayor of Duisburg, Adolf Sauerland, pursued and won the right to host Love Parade 2010. Originally held in Berlin in 1989, the dance music festival was moved to the Ruhr region in 2007. Concerns about size, safety and security had led to cancellation of the event in some years, and in 2009 the city of Bochum refused to grant permits, fearful they would not be able to cope with the crowds.

It was at that point Mayor Sauerland made his move. “It was Sauerland’s big thing,” said Johannes Pflug, a Social Democrat who represents Duisburg in the federal Parliament, or Bundestag. “He wanted to show that Duisburg could do it, that he could change the image of Duisburg. But now, after the tragedy, he is in a very difficult situation.” Continue reading

Sprinklers and Sparklers and Mayo, O My!

Long ago and far away, when temperatures were measured with metal feed-store thermometers hung next to mops and buckets on the back stoop and heat indices weren’t yet popular, we had our own ways of calculating summer heat.   Summer meant mirages shimmering above the black-topped roads, imaginary pools of water swirling, receding and evaporating before our eyes as we traveled.  In the heavy, breathless night,  sleep became impossible.  As trees murmured and complained, cots were dragged from houses and we lay beneath the stars, lulled into dozing and then on to dreams by the comfortable chirring of crickets.

Eventually the grass – soft, feathery blades that tickled our feet and stained our clothing – began to crispen in the fullness of summer heat.  Here and there, sprinklers appeared,  four revolving metal arms that whirled ribbons of life-giving water across lawns with a soft, rhythmic schlush.   We ran through them, slid past them, then collapsed giggling into them when we miscalculated and collided with a friend.  As the play grew more exhuberant, knees began to skin and the occasional howl of protest rose over our delighted screams.  Just as protests began to overtake delight, doors flew open and a mother, grandparent or  neighbor would yell, “You kids dry off and go find something else to do!”

There always was something more to do.  Sometimes we hopped on our bikes and headed for the little gas station where glass cases overflowed with penny candy: root beer barrels, tiny wax bottles filled with ghastly syrups,  orange slices and soft, pliable circus peanuts. No one liked the licorice bits with hard pink and white coatings, but we always bought candy necklaces, candy cigarettes with tiny pink “flames” and Necco wafers, bargaining for our favorite flavors with all the savvy and ruthless determination of commodities traders.

Twice each week the BookMobile parked in front of the grade school, and we chose new books to read.  One week was set aside for Vacation Bible School (grape Koolaid and graham crackers with chocolate frosting), another was devoted to Camp Hantesha (night-time raids on other cabins and tin-foil dinners) while a third was reserved for Craft Camp, otherwise known as Popsicle Sticks Run Amok.

In short, summer was a time to explore and try new things.  During the summer, we learned to throw a ball, ride a bicycle  or roller skate.   As we grew older, the challenges of summer became tinged with excitement and anxiety as we set ourselves larger goals: walking with a friend to an uptown movie, daring the high dive, or navigating the stacks of the “big” library on our own. 

If we hesitated, it was our own timidity which held us back, and not that of our parents or caretakers.  The rules were general, and common sense prevailed. Wear your shoes on a bicycle. Be home by dark. Don’t eat all your candy at once. Never swim alone. Don’t fight.   Beyond that, we were on our own.

 The pinnacle of summer was July 4th.  It was the High Holy Day of Play, and everyone took part.  In the morning, the community parade circled the town square.  Afterwards,  parents lolled about on porches or busied themselves in kitchens while we ran to the schoolyard to swing or hopscotched our way around the block.  Boys tossed balls to one another while the girls played jacks or helped set the table for the yearly feast.

When the time for the picnic arrived, no one was picking at arugala or chicken grilled with a nice lemon-tarragon glaze.  The traditional menu never varied: hot dogs and hamburgers on white buns, sweet corn, thick-sliced tomatoes, potato salad with celery, egg and mayonnaise, baked beans, brownies and pies.  We ate our fill, and left the rest for late-comers, snackers or Aunt Janet, notorious for needing “just one more spoonful” of beans or potato salad.   After sitting around on an outdoor table for six hours, there probably was a risk attached to the mayonnaise-laden salads,  but we didn’t think of that any more than we thought about the dangers of our evening’s entertainment – boxes of red, white and blue sparklers that we’d burn before we headed off to watch the town’s display of aerial fireworks.

It was a news spot on a local radio station that released this flood of memories.   A representative of a local hospital was urging the usual pre-Fourth of July caution about fireworks. In the course of her remarks, she commented that no child ever should be allowed to hold a sparkler.  As she said, a sparkler could damage an eye, or burn a hand.  As she didn’t say, but perhaps believes and certainly implied, the thoughtlessness of allowing a child a sparkler might well bring down the whole of Western Civilization.  

Listening to her, I was astonished first, and then appalled.   Living in an area of serious drought, I have no quarrel with restrictions on fireworks, or even their ban.  However accidental, burning down an apartment complex or half a subdivision doesn’t fall into the category of celebration.  But fireworks safety in the absence of rain was not her concern.  Her intent was to discourage every parent, in every circumstance, from allowing their child a traditional pleasure of Independence Day celebrations. 

Certainly, we live our lives differently than we did in the 1950s.  Many of the changes are a direct result of increased knowledge, better judgement and the desire for healthier and happier lives.  Other changes seem to be no more than an expression of the “Nannie factor” in our society – the desire of self-appointed experts or general busybodies to control the behavior of those around them.  As C.S. Lewis wrote “In Freedom”,

“Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.  It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busy-bodies.  The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

Lewis’ “omnipotent moral busy-bodies,”  kind, well-meaning, benevolent folk who would control and repress us “for our own good” are nicely pondered by Ian Chadwick in his essay on Conformity.  As he puts it,

Personal agendae do not benefit liberty: they hinder it.  Pretty soon it’s dictatorship by committee – committees peopled with well-meaning, dedicated but unelected members whose goals are to enforce their own personal vision of utopia. They erect increasingly restrictive rules that slowly squeeze the life out of a community and bleed it until it is colourless.
Those laws and bylaws that hamper and constrict businesses, clamp down on dissent, free speech and free expression are often created to further some publicly stated goal like “beautification.” But they really mean “uniformity.” They strip the living skin off democracy in order to pound all the square pegs in the community into the committee’s round holes.


Such concerns may seem far removed from sparklers, sprinklers and over-the-hill potato salad.  On the other hand, as warnings against “this” product or “that” activity increase on a daily basis, I wonder:  are we in fact becoming a nation of Nannies, Lawrence Durrell’s “old women of both sexes” warning one another away not only from legitimate risk but even from the richness of life?   The nation I love always has been a nation willing to allow its citizens to celebrate and live  as they will – worshipping, parading, remembering, reciting and above all participating in rituals that sparkle and sting like the reality of freedom itself.

As the practical philosopher Erma Bombeck said, “You have to love a nation that celebrates its independence every July 4 not with a parade of guns, tanks and soldiers who pass by the White House in a show of strength and muscle, but with family picnics where kids throw frisbees, the potato salad gets iffy, and the flies die of happiness.”

In a world of sprinklers, sparklers and unrefrigerated mayo, can we slip and fall on the water-slicked grass that bends beneath our feet?  Of course.  Can we over-indulge in over-exposed foods and suffer the consequences? Of course.  Can the sun or the sparklers burn, the bicycle tip, the bone break, the puppy nip or the cat scratch?  Yes, and yes, and yes again to everything that “can” happen in a world that doesn’t take “care”. 

But too much of the wrong kind of care can lead to paralysis and disengagement, particularly when what passes for care is little more than fear.  For those who fear what “might happen”, for those who hunger to control what cannot be controlled and prefer to deny that brokenness, contingency and pain of various sorts always will be a part of life, there never can be enough care.  

“Don’t you care about your children?”, they ask.  “Don’t you care about your health?”  “Don’t you care about security and acceptance and the approval of others?”  Yes, yes, and yes again we say – we do care.  But we care as much for life and freedom, for speaking our own word and celebrating the gifts the world holds for those who love her.

In simple fact,  some of us choose to worry less and participate more and most of the time, for most of us, nothing happens at all.  We run through the sprinkler without slipping.  The sparklers light up the night and the last bit of potato salad gets eaten, just because it’s there.  The children fall asleep, and we tend to them in the darkness while the world sighs everyone home: safe, and sound, and free as the birds that cry through the deep summer night, careless and carefree at once.



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And many thanks to Barbara Bieber-Hamby, whose Fourth of July greeting card to me included the quotation from Erma Bombeck and helped to pull this entry together.  As the newest Member of Team Muse, she’ll soon have her very own tee and a link back to this entry on the Team Muse page.