Friday, June 26, 2015

Serendipitous Seas 2015

June 26, 2015

In the last decade or so my husband, Ernie, has become seriously reacquainted with scuba diving, a sport in which he was first certified back when he was 14 years old.  Little by little he's put together an impressive dive resume.  His specialty area is technical diving, and he's considered by other divers to be a quality tech diver.  He's highly regarded as a technical instructor as well.

One of the most challenging technical dives in the world is the shipwreck of the Andrea Doria, an Italian oceanliner that sank 100 miles off Nantucket, Massachusetts in 1956.  I'm told the Doria is considered to be the Mount Everest of wreck dives, and diving on her was a particular goal of my husband.  The only things stopping him from reaching that goal were experience and money.  So he started logging dives.

And then one day five years ago he was invited to stand in as crew on a dive charter to the Andrea Doria.  A dream of a lifetime!  Fame arrived on this date in 2010 when he and his dive buddy discovered a previously unknown bell from the wreck lying in mud on the seafloor at 241 feet.  They wrestled the bell free, sent it to the surface, and became famous in an instant. 

By the time the divers reached the surface 80 minutes later the news of their find had gone around the world and back.  By the time he called to tell me the news, Wikipedia had already been updated.  Over the next few days their story was in newspapers, radio, television, magazines, and all over the internet.  Googling them brought back over 2 million results.  They were local, national, and international celebrities; their adventure captured the imagination of millions of people around the world.   
On his way home from the dive trip he dictated to me on the phone his account of the several dives he did on the Andrea Doria.  It is reproduced here, all very first-personey and fresh, a fun read even for non-divers like me. 

Date: Friday & Saturday, June 25 & 26, 2010
Crew: Capt. Dave Sutton, Mates: Ernest Rookey (author) & Ric Simon
Boat Historian: Gary Gentile
Passengers: Joel Silverstein, Carl Bayer, Chris Gini, Kathy Mallon & Laila Richard
Location: Andrea Doria  
Surface Temps: 56 degrees 
Bottom temps: 41 Degrees 
Visibility: 40 feet 
Max Depth: 246 feet 
Ocean Condition: Calm Seas 
Total Dives: 3 (2 on Friday and 1 on Saturday)

 Dive 1:
We arrived with all intentions of dropping 2 divers down to establish a mooring on the bow of the Andrea Doria but nothing ever comes easy on this wreck.  It was 5:30 a.m. when the sun broke upon a light choppy sea, 1-2 footers, and a fresh breeze.  Divers Gary Gentile and Ric Simon dropped into the cold, dark ocean over the wreck and struggled with the weight and chain weighing over 60 pounds, trying to attach it to a permanent mooring on the Doria.  At 240 feet and with a stiff current, this was not an easy task.  They unclipped the weight and tried to wrestle the chain around the bow but the current took the 300 ft of rope and pulled them off their intended target.  An hour and a half later they made it to the surface with the bad news that we would have to try again.  Standby divers Joel Silverstein and I begin to suit up and the Captain went to Plan B: dropping a grapple onto the Doria to establish a firm connection. 

Joel and I wrestled the chain and 300 feet of mooring line down the anchor line to install the permanent mooring.  Plan B worked and we managed to shackle the mooring chain into place through a porthole near to the bow.  I attempted to release the grapple but the Doria demanded a sacrifice: in exchange for the mooring, she kept the grapple.  So Joel released the chain from the grapple line and I attached and shot a lift bag with the line to alert those on board that the mooring was installed.  It was time for the divers onboard to don their suits as we headed up the newly established mooring.

Dive 2:
I was excited by the opportunity on the second dive to get a tour from expert Doria diver Joel Silverstein whose plan was to evaluate the damaged areas to assess how much further deterioration the Doria has sustained since his last visit.  We quickly dropped down to get as much time on the bottom as we could and again experienced the 41 degree bottom temperature.  Luckily Joel was kind enough to share with me an extra layer of thermals he’d brought, which made this dive a lot more comfortable.  Thanks Joel!

After a tour around the crack where the bow is separating from the rest of the ship, and a tour of the winter garden area that is completely collapsed, we headed back to the mooring where I took one more try to get that stubborn grapple away from the Doria.   I had to dive head down into a damaged section of steel plating until only my fins were sticking out, but I managed to reach the spot where the chain had become stuck in the torn metal.  Working primarily by feel and a little brute strength, I did manage to get that grapple loose, threw a lift bag on it, and sent it up to the Explorer where I was sure Capt. Dave would appreciate the gift.  It turns out I was right, Capt. Dave did appreciate his grapple being returned, but our other Mate, Ric Simon, was not so keen about having to jump in the rubber dingy a hundred miles from shore and recover the lift bag.  One good thing was that the seas by this time had calmed to almost dead flat and the stiff breeze had dropped to almost nonexistent. 

Steaks on the grill that night under a full moon with a bottle of champagne and good cigars have never been more appreciated.  The day ended with a dozen dives safely completed, and the 5 new Doria divers were celebrating.  After dinner, the conversation was all about plans for the next day’s dives mixed with tales of Doria dives from the past.  What a pleasure to be able to listen to the history of the Andrea Doria from the likes of Gary Gentile, Joel Silverstein, and Dave Sutton while suspended over the Doria on a clear, dark sea.
Dive 3:
Day 2 over the Doria broke with the California contingent (Chris, Kathy & Laila) gearing up for the first dives.  After getting them in the water, it was my turn to finally get to do a dive with my friend Carl Bayer.  The plan was to do a long dive and then call it a day.  We had decided on trying to find some more of the small, colored bathroom tiles (pool tile?) that Carl had brought back a sample of the day before, and then continue our search down at the bottom in the debris field for whatever the Andrea Doria may have left for us.  At this point we had hopes of finding a porthole or maybe some promenade windows that we could turn into coffee tables. 

With Carl leading the way to his tile cache and me following hot on his heels laying the line, we headed out into the debris field.  Fifteen minutes into the dive, I heard Carl shrieking as if someone had stuck him with a pin.  Fearing the worst, I quickly swam up to him to see what the noise was all about.  When I saw what he was looking at I started shrieking myself, the two of us sounding on all the helium like little girls.  There in front of us, laying on its side three-quarters buried in the mud, sitting all alone, was the obvious lip of a bell.  Digging like badgers, Carl and I started to try and free it. 

Taking a quick check of our time, I saw that we had to leave in 2 minutes, and it looked like we were never going to be able to pull it out in time.  When I looked back at the bell, Carl had planted both fins on either side of it, had grabbed the exposed lip with both hands, and with an amazing tug the bell started to move.  I jumped in immediately to help him pull it out of that hole, creating an instant mud storm, dropping our visibility from 40 ft to 6 inches, which thankfully the current rapidly blew away.  I attached my liftbag through the eyelet at the top of the bell and inflated it to its full 50-pound capacity, which the bell totally ignored.  Carl then attached his 125 pound liftbag through the eyelet and I start to fill this second liftbag, all the while wondering how much more gas was left in those 108s on my back. 

Finally the bell lifted off from the mud.  I quickly gave Carl the thumbs up, meaning ‘the dive’s over lets get the hell out of here.’  Carl thought I was giving him a thumbs up for “job well done!”  That’s the problem with these rebreather guys--they never think about limited gas supplies.  I started pushing the bell back up the line to the mooring, Carl grabbed the reel, and we were out of there.  Looking at my bottom timer, I saw amazingly that only 2 minutes has passed although it felt like a lifetime.  We headed back up the line and just before we reached the tie-in point the bell finally got pulled out of my hand by the expanding lift bags.  My hope of getting the wreck reel line attached to it faded as our bell floated free, up into the distance over our heads. 

All there was left to do was complete more than an hour-and-a-half worth of deco while praying that the guys on board were looking out for a liftbag.  I was hoping Ric wasn’t going to be too mad at having to use the dingy again.  Meanwhile, 200 feet below the surface, Carl and I were wondering, ‘Did they see it?  Did the bags hold?  Did it make it to the top?  Is it floating to England?’  At each and every stop along the way from 170 feet all the way up to 40 feet, all we could do was high five, fist bump, giggle a little, and then wonder, ‘are we ever going to see it again?’

But mighty Neptune looked on us favorably that day, as the gods tend to do for children and fools, and delivered the bell 30 feet in front of the bow of the R/V Explorer.  Capt. Dave, out on the bow, was the first to spot the liftbag breaking the surface like a missile with a heavy weight dangling beneath it.  Calling for a gaff he watched the stately progress of the liftbag as it made its way along the port side of the boat.  He casually secured the liftbag with the gaff and walked it back to the dive platform, wondering whether he had a porthole or some other brass fittings as the bag looked like it was carrying a heavy load.  I only wish I could have had a camera to show his face when he pulled a bell from the Andrea Doria out of the ocean.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I saw Gary Gentile pulling himself like a madman down the mooring line, grinning so hard I am amazed he didn’t lose his regulator.  The whole way he was giving me the OK and thumbs up signs, and pointing to my buddy Carl who was flying like a flag in the current below me.  I rapped Carl on the head, pointed back up to Gary and then Carl knew as I did -- they got it!

The rest of the deco was one of the longest and most frustrating periods I have ever had to endure.  After what seemed like forever, I climbed on the boat grinning like crazy and basking in the applause, the thumps on the back and the exclamations of ho-ly shit.  Joel was right there with a camera, recording our expressions for posterity. 

Right now, sitting in a long line of traffic trying to get through Connecticut and dictating this saga to my lovely and understating wife, I am wondering how in my life I am ever going to top this dive.  On my first dive on the Andrea Doria I ended up doing the tie-in, and on my third dive on the Doria, I retrieved the bell.  Ho-ly shit.  I guess I am just going to have to give up diving…no that’ll never work.  Hey, does anyone know if the Britannic still has its bells? 

Bayer and Rookey
©RookWoman 2011

The Bell in Car's car
©RookWoman 2011
Epilogue:  By the time the boat docked in Nantucket, Ernie and Carl put into action the plan they had devised for co-owning the bell.  Ultimately, they hoped to put it in a museum.  But before it went to a museum they agreed to share physical custody, “two weeks at your house, two weeks at mine.”  Carl took it first because he had young children. 

Bayer and Rookey
©RookWoman 2011

During Carl’s two weeks with the bell a local television news crew filmed an interview with the intrepid explorers.  They made a joint presentation for Ernie’s dive club, telling the story of their find to a very appreciative audience. 

At the same time, Carl said he had learned the bell was deteriorating from a chemical process that had begun in the mud on the ocean floor.  He and Ernie agreed on a course of action to preserve the bell.  When Ernie’s two weeks were set to begin, Carl became elusive.  Weeks later Carl asked Ernie to meet with him.  At this meeting he said since he had found the bell by himself, he was going to keep it.  And he has.


Sunday, December 14, 2014


A number of years ago I was in charge of the food pantry at Catholic Charities in a rural county in the Diocese of Syracuse, New York. Once just before Christmas we were breathing a sigh of relief as our baskets of food and bags of Christmas gifts for families had been distributed, and last-minute emergency requests for assistance had been filled. It was the end of a busy time of year for us and we were satisfied but tired. God is good.

On December 23rd members of a local church brought in an unexpected, last-minute donation: a large load of wrapped Christmas gifts, all unmarked. Initial dismay faded as I realized it was easy to tell which unmarked package was a soccer ball and baseball bat, a puzzle and a book, a baby toy and perfume. So without unwrapping these items we labelled them and passed them on to the local Salvation Army who were hosting a Christmas day meal and party for families. On Christmas Eve our agency Executive Director said to leave the other unmarked gifts until after Christmas when we would unwrap them and decide how best to distribute them. She closed the office early and we wished each other a Merry Christmas.

And then the Lockwoods came in. Mrs. Lockwood was part of a very large family that had been involved with area social services for many years. She and Mr. Lockwood were in their mid-40s. Both of them were living with cancer, and it was their medical problems that had distanced them from her extended family who didn't want to get involved with any of it.

They were alone in the world, but in love. Mr. Lockwood once told me he had been poor all his life, and when they got married he knew he was marrying up. These two were not unacquainted with poverty and want, and like many people in that part of the world they had trouble making ends meet every month even though they both worked. Now they were asking for help with food. They looked thinner than ever.

He told me Mrs. Lockwood had been in the hospital for two months and had almost died. With tears in his eyes he said how he would have found it hard to go on living without her. She had been discharged that day and they didn't have any food. They were hoping I could give them some groceries or a voucher for food to get them through the next few days. Her extended stay in the hospital had cost them both their jobs and their apartment. They had nothing but the clothes on their backs and a small furnished room that the welfare office helped him get.

Outside it was snowing. They had walked the 2 miles from the hospital to the food pantry because they didn't have money for a taxi. Mr. Lockwood was wearing a soaked sweatshirt, jeans, and work boots. Mrs. Lockwood explained that she was admitted to the hospital in nice weather and now two months later she was discharged in a snowstorm with the wrong kind of clothes. She stood there shivering in a cotton dress wearing her husband's jacket. Her legs and feet were bare. She had a plastic bread bag on each foot and her feet were stuffed into white canvas sneakers that were too small. She was proud to say she fit her size 10 feet into those size 8 sneakers because she had to. They were the only shoes she had. Her sneakers were wet from the slush and snow.

He whispered to me, "I'm not asking for anything for me, I got her back and that's enough of a present. But I wonder if maybe you have a Christmas present someplace here to kind of cheer her up, you know? Something leftover or something you held back for somebody special?" I invited them to make a selection from the pile of unmarked gifts, all that we had left. They were excited and said they didn't want to unwrap every box but were willing to take a chance on selecting something 'blind.' As they took their time carefully evaluating each package, I verified their story, tried to find additional services for them, warm clothes, a ride.

A moment later they made their selection and brought it over to show me. It was a medium-size box wrapped in plain gold paper. Shaking it gently, Mrs. Lockwood thought the box might contain a hand knit scarf and hat. Mr. Lockwood thought it might be a sweater or maybe a bathrobe. The three of us watched as Mrs. Lockwood carefully unwrapped the box and opened it. Then he shouted; she burst into tears. Inside were a pair of ladies fleece-lined brown leather boots. Size 10.

True story.

Merry Christmas

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Chicken Potpie

Some recipes, like "Kale, Kielbasa, and Cannillini Soup," (a recipe originating, I think, from the Food Network) have become my standards.  I have made it so many times I've memorized the recipe. Substitutions are easy to make because I know how the finished product should taste.  I always have the ingredients on hand.

Well, the following recipe has also become a standard.  The ingredients are available year round and it includes our favorite vegetables.  I was first inspired in October 2011 by a Food&Wine recipe called, "Vegetable Potpies with Sweet Potato Biscuits."  It was tasty, 'great without the biscuit' I noted, and after a year and a half of tinkering, it is now an outstanding chicken potpie that we eat regularly.   As the days got colder and the nights get longer, who wouldn't want a nice homemade dish like this? Okay, it may seem a little labor intensive, but believe me you will definitely enjoy it!


RookWoman's Chicken Potpies

Serves: 8                     


1 lb. parsnips, trimmed, cut into bite-size pieces
1 lb. Brussels sprouts, trimmed and cut in quarters
1 medium head cauliflower, cut into bite-size pieces
1 lb. celery root, trimmed and cut into bite-size pieces 
        OR 1 large bunch of celery cleaned and cut into bite-size pieces
1 medium onion, cleaned and cut into bite-size pieces
2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts, cut into bite-size pieces
1/4 cup olive oil
6-8 garlic cloves, still in their papery skins
14 sage leaves
8 sprigs of thyme
salt, pepper to taste
4 cups milk (skim, whole, rice, soy--your choice)
4 Tbsp. butter
1/4 cup flour
2 Tbsp. heavy cream (optional)
pinch of nutmeg
1 pre-made 9-inch pie crust, uncooked and cut into 8 wedges


Cook the vegetables:
Preheat the oven to 425F.  Prepare the vegetables and toss them with the oil in a large roasting pan. Season with salt and pepper and add garlic cloves, 6 sage leaves, and 4 thyme sprigs.  Note: place garlic cloves where you will be able to find them again.  Roast for 30 minutes until vegetables are golden brown.  Remove roasted garlic cloves from their papery skins and discard the skins.  Also discard the sage and thyme.

Cook the chicken:
Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a medium skillet, then saute the chicken pieces on medium high heat until they are white and opaque.  Add cooked chicken pieces to the roasted vegetables and set aside to cool.  

Make the sauce:
In a large saucepan combine the milk with 6 sage leaves and 2 thyme sprigs.  Bring to a simmer, cover, and let stand off the heat for 15 minutes.  Strain the milk and discard the herbs.

In another saucepan melt the butter and then whisk in the flour.  Cook over medium heat, whisking until golden brown, about 2 minutes.  Whisk in the strained milk, reduce heat to low and whisk from time to time until thick, about 10 minutes.  Finely chop the remaining 2 sage leaves and 2 thyme sprigs and stir into the sauce along with the optional heavy cream and nutmeg, taste and season with salt and pepper.  

Put it all together:
Spoon the cooled vegetable-chicken mixture into 8 large ramekins or one casserole dish large enough to hold the mixture.  Pour the sauce over and top each ramekin with a wedge of uncooked pie crust. Bake in a 425F oven for 15 minutes or until the pie crust is golden and the filling is bubbling. Serve immediately.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Things I've Seen in Recent Travels

  • Seven golden bowling trophies sitting on a low stone wall next to a pink suit jacket hanging on a clothes rack by the road in front of a house for sale
  • Two chickadees flying fast, straight up in the air to a tall tree directly above them, like they were being pulled up by magnets
  • Hand painted on a piece of scrap wood in front of a house: "Clean Dirt Wanted"
  • Deer poop on the lawn signaling it is deer who are eating the hosta
  • Sign on a highway overpass in a perennial construction zone: "The Road to Success is Always Under Construction"
  • A tractor trailer on the New Jersey Turnpike with a handmade license plate:

Monday, May 13, 2013

In Good Hands

"Don't forget to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it."
Hebrews 13:2

My mother was in the hospital for eleven weeks one summer.  She had many adventures during that time, building up a lot of goodwill and making many friends among the staff. As a teacher in a teaching hospital she gave the medical students, professors, and staff as much access to her "case" as they wanted.  She wondered about the purpose of human suffering, and often said if her suffering could help another person, then it would all be worthwhile.

Once she had a roommate who had fallen ill while travelling to her grandson's graduation and ended up in the hospital emergency room.  She was told her condition was very grave and they would need to admit her to the hospital for surgery. Unable to reach their son by phone, her husband left her to go to the graduation ceremony to find the rest of the family.

She was wheeled into the room with my mother in a state of great anxiety and confusion. She told us that she'd always been extremely healthy, and now they were saying she had some serious illness.  It was hard for her to understand, all of this had happened so fast. Someone came to get her consent to surgery but she didn't understand and was hesitant to sign.  The surgeon came to talk with her and we heard him say she appeared to have stage 4 cancer.  He urged her to consent to the surgery which would help them understand what was really going on inside her.

Very distressed, the woman asked us what we thought she should do, sign or wait for her family to come.  Should she do this now or wait to get back home. How could she be dying from cancer and not know it.  How could she be dying, she just planted flowers in her garden the day before.  She tried over and over but was not able to reach her son or husband by phone.  She began to cry.

My mother asked if she was a religious person and would she like to pray.  She said she was, and wished she had her rosary but it was in her handbag her husband had taken when he left.  My mother gave the woman her rosary.  The rosary seemed to comfort her but she said she was too upset to pray.  My mother began praying quietly for her, then a nurse came and prayed too, then an aide, then other staff.  The small hospital room filled up with people brought there by compassion for this seriously ill woman who was alone and so very frightened.  

In a while the woman bravely said, "I know what I'll do.  My family isn't here and can't be reached.  Waiting for them to come won't change anything, and in the end I can see that I'm going to need this surgery to figure out where we go from here.  Our son lives here and can be a support to his father.  I'm going to do this now."

I held her hand and walked alongside as they wheeled her down to the surgical area.  The nurses asked, "Are you a relative?"  No, I said, just a family friend.  I had to let go of her hand as she entered the pre-op area.  The woman said worriedly, "Do you have to go? Can you stay with me just a little longer?"  She wept harder.  A nurse took her hand and said, "We'll take good care of you from here.  You're not alone; if you're her friend, then you're a friend of this family too. I know you must be scared.  I heard you say you like to garden.  Tell me what are your favorite flowers..."

We never saw the woman again.  And while I have vivid memories of the dramatic few hours she spent as my mother's roommate, I don't recall the outcome.  I'd like to think she survived the surgery and had a good quality of life.  I'd like to think her family surrounded her with love until the end.  I know for certain she was cared for with dignity and great kindness, which can lift up anyone who suffers.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

My Sister Writes

A Poem for my Kid Sister   by J. Reed 2013

Yes, she has always been a tiger
She never liked that girly stuff

She took one look at my doll collection
And for her that was enough

She ripped and shredded my
beautiful dolls, every single one

Jumping on her bed
She yelled: “hey, this is really fun”

Her next challenge was the lock on my
Diary, when she was only three

She ripped the lock right off of it, she was
Always stronger than me

The toys and books are gone now,
They are enjoying their place in history

I just hope she doesn’t break my valuable antiques and
Do away with me!

(Sister, don’t get mad, it’s just a comedy)

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Snow Day Food


I only make popovers on snow days.  And yesterday when my cellphone signaled yet another emergency announcement from the National Weather Service about bad weather coming, I made sure we had popover ingredients handy because when a snowstorm approaches, I fire up the oven and get busy.

Popovers, related to cream puffs, are a miracle of science.  From a simple batter of eggs, flour, and air they puff up in the oven to become crispy works of art, crunchy on the outside and airy eggy doughy on the inside.  They look a little like a muffin gone wild, a mutation of a dinner roll, a golden brown structure that defies description.  And if you've never eaten a popover you know nothing of the world.  You can eat them with butter and jam, chicken salad, tapenade, or all of the above.  There is only one Rule of Popover Eating: you must eat popovers while they are warm.  As they cool they become less crispy, less magnificent.

Today's bad weather never materialized but I declared this on-and-off-snowy, cold day a snow day anyway in honor of my sister who is visiting from warmer climes.  And we let those magnificent popovers roll!  No photographic evidence of the popovers themselves, just the aftermath.

adapted from the 1997 Joy of Cooking cookbook

2 eggs
1 1/4 cups milk, warmed to room temperature
1 Tbsp. butter, melted
1 c. flour
1/2 tsp. salt

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.  Grease well 8 or 12 popover tins.

Whisk eggs, milk, and butter until thoroughly blended in a medium bowl.  Add flour and salt and mix until just blended.  Small lumps may remain, big lumps should not.  Just don't over mix.

Fill popover tins 2/3 full with batter.  Bake 15 minutes at 450 degrees F, then reduce temperature to 325 degrees F and bake for 20 minutes more.  Do not under any circumstances open the oven door during baking time or the popovers will deflate.

When well-browned and crusty, remove from the oven.  Place popovers on a wire rack and stab each with a small knife to release steam.  Serve immediately.

**This recipe does not double well
** I have successfully used whole milk, skim milk, rice milk, and soy milk in this recipe
**I mix all of this in a 4-cup measuring cup with a spout for ease of pouring into the tins
**You can use ovenproof ramekins, custard cups, muffin tins, or popover tins in this recipe

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Blue House in the Parallel Universe

Oh what interesting things we see when paying close attention!  The folks up the road who seem just like us but with a tidy blue house and raked leaves, about whom I have written before, have had a big fat pumpkin on their front steps since last September.  I glance at their house every day in passing, and have taken note.  This suggests the polarity of our parallel universe is shifting, and that perhaps one day we will have a neat and tidy property and they will have dirty windows and holes in their fence.

What is most remarkable is that the pumpkin remains solid-looking and shows no sign of decay or attack by hungry squirrels or other animals.  This suggests it is a pumpkin decoration and not the real thing, which begs the question: how did that (fake?) pumpkin withstand the hurricane and rain and snowstorms of the last 5 months?  Why didn't it blow away?  What would that pumpkin have to be made of to last all this time seemingly unscathed?  What wizardry is this?

A number of other questions have arisen as, day by day, I drive past their place.  I wonder if there is anything else out of sequence at their house, like maybe Fourth of July decorations in their kitchen, or Easter eggs scattered permanently in their backyard.  I mean, the season for pumpkins is over.  Pumpkins are appropriate from Halloween to Thanksgiving, and then we move on to candy canes and reindeer.  But not Blue House Barb and Ern.  On their front porch time has stopped someplace around the end of November.  How do we account for this?  Maybe they don't use their front door to go in and out and therefore have forgotten about that pumpkin. Maybe there was a sudden turn of events that has distracted them from noticing it. Maybe they like it there.

Maybe they like it there.  If so, this suggests another layer of disymmetry in this matter/anti-matter universe we occupy.  Because if they like their out-of-season pumpkin decoration then I can relax about the Christmas tree still on our front porch that I do not like.  And I would be willing to bet that their interior decorating style, with their Fourth of July kitchen and whatnot, does not include the tasteful addition of a treadmill in their living room like ours does.  So maybe the polarity of our parallel universe is really not shifting and therefore the balance, yet again, is maintained.  Whew.  That was close.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Roots and Wings Part 2: In the DNA

A stranger has co-opted my grandfather.  It's all unfolding over on where some woman has begun posting a lot of information about my paternal grandfather on her family tree.  This woman says my grandfather was her step-grandfather, the grandfather of whom she has loving and warm memories, many photographs and his croquet set.  This is the grandfather formerly mentioned here.

Grandpa's second wife was her grandmother.  This woman was seven years old when grandpa died, and yet she displays pictures of him and other artifacts about his life like any proud granddaughter.  He obviously made a very big, positive impression on her.

I think it all has to do with perception and identity, who you are and who you think you are, genealogy and genetics.  Genealogical research has enabled me to trace my paternal family ancestry back through time and space to Norway.  Along the way I discovered that our ancestors were Scottish as we had always been told, but they were Irish and English too. In fact, recent DNA analysis confirms 49% of my genetic identity is of the British Isles. My paternal grandfather famously defended our Scottishness despite our ancestors leaving Scotland and living for a generation in Ireland.  He is said to have argued, "If a cat had kittens in an oven you wouldn't call them biscuits!"

DNA analysis also confirms that connection to Norway, with 23% of my genetic identity being Scandinavian, defined as Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.  Vikings! Awesome! Determining genetic ethnicity is a developing science, and is generally thought to reveal genetic information that is newer than 10 generations.  The Vikings who rampaged through the British Isles one thousand years ago also managed to pillage their way through Central Europe.  This means ancestors in my family tree from Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and Liechtenstein can be accounted for in this 23%.

Another 22% of my DNA analysis is Eastern European*.  This is news to me and hard to explain. Family legend has it that my maternal Walser ancestors migrated north from Greece into the Alps.  There they came to be called "Walser" and, not willing to stay put, led what history calls the "Walser Migration" over the course of 1000 years or so. There's a cool map here of their settlements and their routes.  As far as I know, there are no family stories about their migrating to Hungary or the Ukraine or anywhere else in Eastern Europe. So this 22% may be accounted for by that Greek connection, making my ancestors from Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and Liechtenstein both Viking and Greek. Epic, fearsome, ambitious.  What a pedigree!  It's going to take some time to get used to this.

The woman who has appropriated my grandfather has no genetic connection to him and yet is proud of the bond they shared.  How can I begrudge her the small shrine she has erected to his memory, her perception of the man we both called "grandfather," when he has given me something so much richer: a genetic connection to thousands of years of human history! How awesome is that!

* includes Poland, Greece, Macedonia, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Romania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Belarus, and Kosovo  

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


We've all been bullied, as far as I can tell.  Every last one of us at one point or another, childhood not being for the faint of heart.  With all the recent talk about bullying and anti-bullying efforts in schools and communities, we've all had a chance to see how damaging bullying is to children and to their self-esteem.  But many of us don't need a reminder because our bullies and their misdeeds live on in our memories, their cruelty echoing through time.

A recent comment led me to think about the times I was bullied as a kid.  Back then my mother said to ignore the bullies and they would go away.  We were told if the bullying escalated, we were to run away.  Do people still give this advice to their children?  

We were targeted by bullies for many years walking to and from school, brother John and I.  Never understood why.  Still don't.  When we could walk away, we did.  But we'd fight too if necessary.  Knocked one guy silly with a blow to the head from my metal lunchbox on Cortland Street by the railroad tracks.  Flipped one guy onto the grass on the corner of Clinton Street and chased the other guy all the way to school.  Got punched repeatedly on Main Street in front of the elementary school.  Got hit by a frozen blueberry pie thrown from a passing car on Copeland Avenue.  Ran away from a hail of snowballs lobbed from the top of a building also on Copeland Avenue.  Twice I was jumped while sledding, once getting snow in my pants and the other time a button was ripped off my jacket.  

I was bullied in college by an internship supervisor who continued to pressure me to go with her to a spa to 'swim and relax' after our supervisory sessions even though I repeatedly declined.  That's more like harassment though, an adult form of bullying.  I was bullied in 2009 by a McDonald's drive thru cashier who refused to give me change for $10, saying I had only given her $5, then saying I had not paid her at all.  The managers backed up her changing story and were verbally abusive.  

Sometimes it's not enough to ignore or run away or fight back.  I have tried a few strategies that, while satisfying in the moment, are overall unequal to the task of addressing bullies.  One strategy I was given  as a child was to think to myself that I am smarter than that bully will ever be.  Famous husband's parents gave that strategy to him too.  But really, has arrogance ever stopped a bully in his/her tracks?  I have tried to bury bullies in a storm of prose, writing my way to safety.  I have tried to kill bullies with kindness.  I have prayed for them, for myself, for a bully-free world.

What to do about bullies?  KidsHealth online says to avoid the bully, ignore the bully, don't show your feelings.  Psychology Today advises to avoid and ignore too.  Maybe my mother was right after all.  What do you think?