short excerpts...other writings...upon occasion or as prompted...
The tiger in the water? A representation of my life -- spirit and environment!


Monday, August 30, 2010

Heralding Doah

“Lord, another baby?” the angel asked with a bit of incredulity.

“Yes, another,” the Lord replied.

“But, Lord, why this baby?”

“Why not this baby?” the Lord countered.

“Well, you know, Lord. The mother said that she could handle any physical problem. As long as there were no mental defects, she could manage...” The angel stopped, wondering perhaps why more needed to be said.

“She did say that, didn’t she?” The Lord was unperturbed.

“Lord, this one will have a mental deficit.”


“A very serious one.”


“An obviousto-everyone serious one.”


“But, Lord, she said she could not cope with that.”

“She will cope. I will help.”

“But, Lord, she does not know You exist.”

“The baby does.”

God works in mysterious ways, thought the angel and put away the record book after recording: Don & Elizabeth Mahlou…baby son, Doah.

copyright 2010


Excerpted from my work in progress, Raising God's Rainbow Makers.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sabbath Sunday: The Merging

Fr. Christian Mathis (Blessed Is the Kingdom) has made the suggestion that we "rest" on the Sabbath by taking a break from our normal blogging and sharing an older post of which we are particularly fond. Rest? Gladly! I don't get to do that very often, but now, thanks to Fr. Christian, I get to do it at least once a week -- and it gives me more time to spend with God, which is a wonderful gift.

For this week, I went back to the firstpost of this blog, Awe, which was posted almost exactly one year ago. I hope it is enjoyable the second time around for those who have read it before and interesting the first time around for those who have not.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


It was in college that I would first have to fight a seemingly unbeatable foe. At home, in the hands of highly abusive parents, I nonetheless knew I would ultimately win whatever battles befell me. I was small, but I was a “spitfire,” as many of my relatives called me. When I got bigger, I fought back vigorously and physically. When I was a teenager, I saw a light at the end of my tunnel: college. The foe was beatable.

Now, though, there was, indeed, an unbeatable foe: the college financial aid office. When I first applied to colleges, I knew that financing an education would be a problem. Poverty had greeted me at birth and, like a frightened but swaggering Chihuahua attempting to bolster his own self-confidence, had nipped at my heels most of my life. Nonetheless, being an incurable optimist, I assumed that college funding would appear from somewhere. It did. As a result of my SAT scores and my having been selected for Who’s Who Among American High School Students, the University of New Hampshire wrote to me and promised me four years of education, fully covered by scholarship, if I would come there. I considered that possibility, but it would keep me near home. That was not an acceptable option because it would keep me near home. More than anything else in going to college, I was looking for an escape from home. That was the reason why I had applied to Penn State University even though the entrance requirements for out-of-state students were extremely rigorous (top 10% of the incoming student body) and out-of-state tuition way out of reach. Penn State had accepted me but had not yet responded about the possibility of financial aid. At the advice of my high school guidance counselor, I sent Penn State a copy of the letter from the University of New Hampshire. Someone from the Penn State financial aid office wrote back to me and told me not to worry, that all my education would be paid through a combination of scholarships, loans, and work study. Soon thereafter, the financial aid office put together a package that took care of my first year in full, with the indication that subsequent years would be similar—but they weren’t.

From a financial aid point of view, I made the catastrophic error of getting married my sophomore year. The young and probably not highly knowledgeable financial aid officer at Penn State who told me that being married would not make a difference was wrong. It did make a difference. While my marriage has lasted 38 years, my scholarship petered out in far less than 38 weeks. “Giving scholarships to married women,” Mr. Z, the older, male financial officer who had taken over my account, said, “is a waste of money. They just sit at home, doing nothing with their lives but living off men. So, go home and take care of your husband.”

I went home all right but not to take care of Charles. He seemed to be handling that well enough on his own. Rather, I assessed my situation, looking for an out-of-the-box solution to the dilemma of having only a few weeks of financial aid left and two years of courses to complete. The answer came quickly—I have trouble thinking in the box; actually, I have trouble even finding the box!—so it did not take long to figure out that the 78 semester hours I still needed in order to graduate would break easily into 39 semester hours during each of the following two quarters, both of which were paid for by already-granted aid, That meant I had to take triple the maximum course load each quarter. Thanks to an advisor who paid little attention to students with A averages, considering them skilled enough to make their own decisions, a non-computerized course tracking system at the time, and a secretary who was willing to file my 3-page grade reports rather than turn them over to my advisor, I was able to tiptoe under and past the radar and graduate two quarters later.

My mother’s mother (my father’s mother had died when I was only six, so all I remember of her was a photograph with me on her lap as a toddler) gave me a small “loan.” With that and income from cocktail waitressing in the evening and go-go dancing at night, I even had enough money to fund the first quarter of graduate school.

“Don’t pay the loan back,” Gram said. “Pass it on.” I have done that on many occasions in my life, passing along as well the philosophy of not paying back but passing on whatever kindness is shown.

Gram was quite unlike Ma, and sadly Ma did not return Gram’s affection until a few days before Gram died many years later. A woman of hefty proportions and traditional haircut, Gram was a matriarch. There was no doubt about that. When she spoke, one obeyed. The liberating thing for me, though, was that she did not hit. Moreover, she listened, and when she spoke, she had fun ways of expressing herself, like looking for something “all over hell’s kitchen.” Throughout my preschool years, she fascinated me with nursery rhymes that she never tired of telling over and over and, when I was older, with an old gramophone that we wound up to play records that would gradually slow down, turning the singer’s peppy voice into a drawn-out wail, as the winding ran out. The games, songs, and rhymes that Gram taught me are ones that I now find myself teaching to my own grandson. When Ma would call me her “plain Jane,” Gram would respond, “Pretty is as pretty does.” During my penny-starved early college days, Gram would write to me every couple of weeks and include a package of dentyne gum under whose wrapper she had inserted a five-dollar bill. So, it was not surprising to me that Gram was the one who would come to my rescue when I had fallen on the petard of the financial aid officer. Gram came to my rescue years later, too, moving in after Shane was born and doing my housework for a month. “No one should come home from the hospital the day after a baby is born,” she scolded. “You play with the baby; that is your job now. I will take care of the house, the other kids, and your house work.” And she did.

Ironically, I might not have attended graduate school, had I not lost my undergraduate scholarship. Had I taken the slow route through school, Charles, a forestry major, would have finished significantly ahead of me and taken me to Montana from where his first job with the U. S. Forest Service beckoned. By graduating nearly a year and a half early, I had to wait for him for three quarters. During that time, I took all my master’s courses, this time only doubling the course load. My teachers, advisor, and department chair all understood my financial dilemma and did their best to help me by letting me finish as many of the requirements each quarter as I could handle. I passed the German reading exam required of German-Russian comparative literature majors the second quarter and the dreaded-by-all master’s comprehensive exams the third.

As soon as my exams were completed, I left for Montana with Charles, with only my master’s thesis left to complete. Talk about getting the last laugh on the financial aid office! I would end up paying tuition only one more time after that. That was for only one semester hour in order to be enrolled for the quarter in which I graduated. When I received my M.A. diploma, I exulted that the foe had been conquered again!

The Chihuahua had not disappeared, however. Although I did beat it from time to time, I never vanquished it. By the time I became a special needs parent for the third time — this time with Shura, the dying child artist I took in from Siberia — poverty and I had become old friends.

Poverty and I had, in fact, become sputniki (traveling companions) early in life for the 8-pack had been raised in poverty. For us, though, poverty itself was meaningless. It fell very low on the discomfort ladder, with physical beatings far outranking any other potentially significant contribution to our unhappiness. Moreover, while we did not have the brand-name clothes and the fancy “things” that our classmates from the city did, we had everything we truly needed. There was food after the move to the farm, and there was clothing because my grandparents worked at a textile mill. I, too, worked there as a teenager. We girls learned to make our own clothes, and some of our creations even became popular styles at school. Ma taught us the basics, but I especially liked to try new creations, such as patchwork dresses. All of us learned to harvest crops, preserve food, make butter and ice cream, and cook. As soon as we could reach the pedals, we learned to drive a tractor and took turns mowing and raking hay. We also learned how to yoke the oxen and use them to plough the fields in the spring. In the summer and fall, as soon as we were old enough to recognize the difference between a ripe vegetable and berry and an immature one, we were put into the fields, both our own and those of neighbors who hired us to work at three cents a pound of harvested peas, beans, blueberries. Thus, we acquired good skills and a strong work ethic.

In this respect, in spite of gifting us with a generally violent childhood, our parents did well by the 8-pack for they poverty-proofed us. One can never be truly impoverished if one has skills, talents, and diligence—and, as the Russians say, 100 friends.

As a poverty-proofed adult, I have rarely felt an overwhelming need for money. Surprisingly and heartening, however, whenever I have truly needed money, it has fallen into my lap. Even when I did not ask anyone for it, even when I did not know that there was Anyone to whom we could turn, the money to stave off potentially dire consequences has appeared from unexpected sources and often in the nick of time.

Thanks to intervention after intervention, our old foe would grow weary at times and lay down to rest, allowing us to do the same.

This excerpt is adapted from my book, Blest Atheist (MSI Press, copyright 2009).

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Kill Only When You Are Hungry

Okay, I admit it. I cannot resist! Here is another of the goodies that my sister sends to me from the Internet:
The law of the wild says kill only when you are hungry!!!

Photographer Michel Denis-Huot, who captured these amazing pictures on safari in Kenya 's Masai Mara in October last year, said he was astounded by what he saw:
"These three cheetah brothers have been living together since they left their mother at about 18 months old," he said. "On the morning we saw them, they seemed not to be hungry, walking quickly but stopping sometimes to play together. At one point, they met a group of impala who ran away. But one youngster was not quick enough and the brothers caught it easily".

These extraordinary scenes followed.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Complaining Servant

In the days when servants were bought and sold, there once was a servant who had a very kind master. The master would not eat unless his servant sat and ate with him. When he wanted to rest, he would ask his servant to sit and talk to him. If the servant had nothing to say, the master would share his latest jokes and fill the air with the joyful sound of his laughter. When he purchased a new robe or a turban, he always purchased one just like it for his servant. When he asked his servant to carry a heavy object, he helped him carry it. When he asked him to cook for many people, he would take charge of the most difficult task: finding enough logs for the fire.

Nonetheless, the servant was always complaining. "I am so tired of this master," he could be heard repeating. "Sit with me and eat, sit with me and talk … do this and do that … what makes him so sure I want to sit with him? What makes him so confident that I enjoy his company?"

One day the master overheard his servant speak like this and was very hurt, and so he decided he would return him to the servants' market. There the servant was bought by another master. This new master was very different from the previous one. He would never eat with his servants. After he finished eating, the servants ate the leftovers. When his robes and turbans became old and faded, he would give them to his servants to wear. And when he asked his servants to carryout difficult tasks, it was unthinkable for him to help.

With this master, the servant complained day and night. "Eat his leftovers!! Wear his used clothes!! Who does he think he is, the Sultan himself?"

And so the master heard of the complaints of the servant and, once again, the servant found himself in the servants' market. This time, he was purchased by a master who appeared like he never smiled in his life. Not only did this master not feed his servants, not even leftovers, but he didn’t provide shelter, either.

A night arrived when the servant stood under the pouring rain, tired, hungry and cold. Suddenly, a man approached him.

"May I be of help in any way?"

The servant looked up and could not believe his eyes. It was his first master who had treated him so kindly.

"Please take me back, Master. I promise I will never take your special treatment for granted again."

And so the master purchased him again. And whenever he wanted to rest, he would ask his servant to sit with him, drink coffee drenched with cardamom, and listen to his latest jokes.

The above story is excerpted from a book, Metaphors of Islamic Humanism, by my dear friend, Dr. Omar Imady, copyright 2005.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Where the Brave Dare Not Go

With my shoes winged with foreign languages, I have slipped right into the land of the enemy on multiple occasions. I did not fear to run where the brave dare not go for I was well armed. I had clearly been given the gift of words, and ultimately I could speak them in 17 languages. So, it did not matter that over time, the enemy differed. I spent the Cold War with the Russians and Czechs and the more recent hot one with the Arabs on both sides of the Persian (Arabian) Gulf and both sides of the Red Sea. I deftly intertwined myself with the culture and committed myself to helping all of them improve their educational systems. During a ten-year career stint in international educational consulting, I brought the knowledge of the Americans to Russia, the knowledge of the Russians to Brazil, the knowledge of the Brazilians to Bahrain, the knowledge of the Bahraini to Cambodia, the knowledge of the Cambodians to Austria, and so on through 24 nations.

What I brought and how I helped varied by country. In Uzbekistan, for example, I helped build a state-of-the-art English language program in Tashkent. I trained K-12 teachers in Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara, traveling across the country on the old silk route from China, a road lined with winter-bare mulberry trees, their crotches cocooned in silk. The driver assigned to me and I shared the road with camels, donkey carts, 1930-style bicycles, motorcycles, modern cars, and oil tankers. Sometimes we had right-of-way, but more often, they did. In Samarkand, I lectured to the faculties of mathematics and foreign languages at Samarkand State University. In Bukhara, I explained to a teenage tour guide with limited experience in silk processing how silk is woven (I quickly saw the parallels with weaving wool; something I was familiar with from my summers of textile-mill work). During my days in Uzbekistan, I worried along with new-found friends that the further drying up of the Aral Sea, graphically represented by the unused irrigation canals in Samarkand, would reduce the cotton harvest and undermine the Uzbek economy. On the positive side, I shared pride in the poetry of Alisher Navoi, who published his works 300 years before Shakespeare. Among my most interesting work was assisting the Ministry of Education in developing programs that would later facilitate the re-establishing of Uzbek as a national language. At a federal workshop on the topic, attended by the regional ministers of education, I was the workshop leader and, of course, conducted the sessions in Russian, with a translator standing by to translate the comments and questions of the regional ministers from Uzbek into Russian. I was expected to make a few remarks at the opening session, which was broadcast on national television. I had a friend translate my words from Russian into Uzbek, and I practiced saying them until even the Uzbek janitor could understand me. When I had finished speaking at the opening session, Dr. Yoldashev, then Minister of Education and a bear of a man, stepped over a divider, walked over to the podium, and wrapped me in a bear hug.

In Brazil, I conferred with volunteers working to get 50,000 (!) children with lost interest in school off the streets and into learner-centered programs. In this process, I met a living angel, Dagmar, who founded Casa do Zezhino (Little Joe’s House) to give an alternative future to the children of drug dealers in the favellas (Brazilian-style ghettoes). She, though, was unwilling to be called an angel. She said one had to die for that! On one of my many trips to Brazil, I commiserated with friends when they were robbed in their own home at gunpoint, an all-too-frequent occurrence in the cities that boasted millions of residents for they “boasted” a high crime rate as well. My native language served me well throughout Brazil, as did my cross-cultural flexibility, genuine interest in other ways of thinking and doing, and ability to acquire new languages quickly. I provided seminars to English language programs in a dozen cities, from the Amazon in the North to the capital city of Brasilia in the heartland to the high mountains in the South. In Belem, at the northern tip of the Rain Forest, I learned to tell time not by the clock but by minutes and hours after the daily early afternoon deluge. In exotic Bahia in the East, I wandered through the under-the-city catacombs with an interpreter who knew only one language: Portuguese. In the South, I taught Russian at the Universidad de Rio Grande do Sul. In Rio de Janeiro, I participated in discussions in Portuguese to establish a national language policy, and using both English and Portuguese, I brainstormed with the staff of the Saõ Paulo superintendent of schools on ways to reduce violence in the schools.

In most countries, I appeared on radio or television and gave interviews to newspaper reporters to help publicize the work of one local organization or government agency or another. Along the way, I developed networks of people to help each other — and often that help extended into areas unrelated to education, such as putting together a physicist from Samarkand with a White-House-sponsored organization that could help him, asking a vice-rector at a Russian university to serve as evaluator of an American government assessment of Soviet foreign-language teaching, and, of course, there was the child artist from Siberia who became part of my family.

Going where the brave dare not go was not without its disconcerting moments. I was abandoned in more than one country when plans for pick-up fell through. Always, though, an unexpected rescuer appeared, sometimes in the most unforgettable way. For example, on one flight to Sao Paolo, Brazil, I sat beside a young businessman named Eddie from Campinas, a town about an hour outside Sao Paolo and ironically the town to which I was headed. When I arrived, the embassy escort was no where to be seen. A call to the embassy’s weekend duty officer brought no elucidation or assistance. I would have to get to Campinas on my own, figure out what hotel I was supposed to be at, and track down the director of the institute I was supposed to be helping — all on a Sunday afternoon and with no contact information. I had only the office phone number of the embassy officer responsible for my trip — and Eddie’s home phone. A little reconnaissance at the airport turned up a bus service to Campinas. Upon arrival, I called Eddie, who was surprised to hear from me so soon but gamely picked me up at the bus station and brought me to his home for dinner with his wife and daughter, where I spent a more delightful evening than I would have spent alone at a hotel. Later in the evening, we called the information number at the institute where I would be working the next day and got the home phone of the director from the recording. Once we called the director, everything was back on course.

Going where the brave dare not go has also not been without moments of danger. Being mugged in Moscow and Amman and even in quiet Urabana, Illinois, where I was tazered by a purse snatcher, made that evident. Fortunately, in all cases, I was not harmed and I had almost no money in the purse — four cents is all the Illinois purse snatcher earned for his efforts. On the positive side, my traumatic experiences earned me a glimpse at police stations and police processes in Russia and Jordan — cross-cultural information I would not otherwise have learned. Interestingly, the small-town Illinois police were far less successful at tracking down the perpetrator, let alone getting my things back, than were the Moscow militsiya (police force) in a city of 13 million.

(Note: As you read this post, I am working on being prepared for my next risk, to take place in a month or so, the details of which I will share with you after the fact, for reasons of safety.)

This excerpt is adapted from my book, Blest Atheist (MSI Press, copyright 2009).

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

There's a Stranger in Mommy's Bed

Sometimes Mommy gets really tired. She says that working mothers reach proportions of exhaustion that exceed the imagination. In such cases, what they say and do have little resemblance to common sense. I guess that must be right, if I judge by my Mommy.

For example, let me tell you what happened to her one weekend. Friday evening after a long and frustrating, to say nothing of exhausting, week at work, she fell asleep on the living room sofa. (She does that a lot. She says she is going to watch television, but she never does. She just stares at the screen for a few minutes, then topples over. I have never seen her watch a whole television show, like I do.)
Anyway, she did her frequent act of screen staring and toppling over on the Friday evening I am talking about. My Daddy, of course, could not wake her up; he never can when she topples over asleep. So, my sister found her asleep on the couch on Saturday morning.

"Mom, wake up!" she said.

"Huh?" Mommy struggled to bring herself back into the world of the living. It really is not very easy to wake up Mommy.

"Mom, Mom! You're on the couch! Why aren't you in bed?"

Mommy tried groggily to recall where she was and why. "Oh, because when I tried to go to bed, there was someone in my bed," Mommy mumbled and turned over to go back to sleep.

That was a scary thought! My sister crept cautiously into Mommy's bedroom to see who or what was in the bed.

"Mom, Mom!" My sister had come back and was shaking Mommy, trying to get her to wake up. It is very, very hard to wake up Mommy.

"That's Dad in the bed!" my sister told her.

"Oh," Mommy mumbled and turned over to go back to sleep again.

"Mom," my sister asked with a tone of great surprise. "If you thought there was a stranger in your bed, why didn't you call the police, instead of just simply choosing another place to sleep?"

Conclusion: Some Mommies get very, very tired!
This story is excerpted from a collection of vignettes that I helped Doah, my severely mentally challenged youngest son, to write and publish several years ago (copyright 2003). It was my attempt to help him understand literacy and the purpose of writing and reading.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Lost Ticket

Eight years after spending wintry days in Akademgorodok, home to the Soviet (now Russian) Academy of Sciences, where, as a doctoral candidate, I researched Siberian dialects under the tutelage of the director of the Institute of Philology, I found myself in Krasnoyarsk, another Siberian city, lecturing to administrators and teachers at the request of the Siberian Ministry of Education, which hoped to make some radical changes in its educational system. Krasnoyarsk, an industrialized city with a population of one million people, located an hour south of the famous Divnegorsk hydroelectric dam on the Yeneisei River, east of the Ob, and in the northern taiga, contrasted vividly with the 8-block town of Akademgorodok. The people, though, were the same sort of warm, kind, and supportive colleagues, and I was able to establish a working bond that lasted over a period of several years of come-and-go lecturing (and more) there.

At one point, I was given a choice of conducting a seminar in Krasnoyarsk, St. Petersburg, or Moscow. I chose Krasnoyarsk, and when I arrived there in the middle of the winter without gloves, having forgotten about the tens-of-degrees-below-zero temperatures, one of my friends who met me at the airport pulled the mittens of her hands and handed them to me, saying, “We knew you would choose Siberia. Your heart is here.”

Of course, she was right — and why not? Any Siberian I know will hand you the mittens off his or her hands in the middle of the winter!

More frequently than with any other institution in Russia, I worked with Universe School. Headed by Dr. Isak Frumin, now a leader in the Moscow branch of the World Bank and an unusually innovative school principal, Universe School was a K-12 laboratory school for the University of Krasnoyarsk, overseen by the Department of Educational Psychology, where I had upon occasion lectured to the faculty.

Isak turned out to be a lifesaver. On my first trip to Krasnoyarsk, which I made jointly with a colleague, I ended up in Moscow with two huge boxes of books and handouts for the seminars that a colleague and I were to conduct there. At Domodedovo Airport, the domestic airport serving Siberia and the southern cities of the former Soviet Union, I found to my horror that nowhere did I have my ticket to Krasnoyarsk. It had either been left at the counter when I checked in for the Moscow flight in London or I had forgotten it at home. Computerization of ticketing was not a feature of airlines in Moscow at the time. Since I had no way to prove I had a ticket, I would have to purchase a new ticket, as well as pay overweight charges for the books. The total amount was high. My colleague and I put our resources together. It was enough either to purchase a round-trip ticket or to pay for the books and purchase a one-way ticket. My colleague wanted to leave the books behind. I was comfortable with taking my chances on being able to get out of Siberia. I chose the second option. We took the books, and I went to Siberia on a one-way ticket.

(I seemed to make a habit of going to Siberia on one-way tickets. The research stay described above had been the result of my accepting a one-way ticket -- with Lizzie in tow -- to Siberia, confident that I would somehow be able to get a return ticket although I had been told none were available at the time; they weren't available later, either, so, oops!, I had to overstay my visa. A few years after my trip to Krasnoyarsk, I was at a conference in Kemerovo, a Siberian mining town, with Lizzie’s younger brother, Shane, and was quite pleased to have a round-trip ticket for each of us in hand. When we got to the Kemerovo Airport, I bragged to Shane, “This is the first time I have been in Siberia on a round-trip ticket.”

A stickler for details, 15-year-old Shane looked carefully at our tickets, then up at me. “Don’t be so sure, Mom,” he said. “This ticket is for yesterday.”

As usual, Someone watched over us, and we made it out of Kemerovo even though we did not have everything we needed in our possession. In this case, because there was a child involved, the airline waived its rules and let us fly space available on the next plane out. Even officials in Russia make special cases when children are involved.)

In Krasnoyarsk, the only “child” involved was a rather large and rather old one — me. Nonetheless, as anticipated, I was rescued. When Isak learned of the situation, he purchased a return ticket for me with Universe School funds. That was not quite fair in my mind, and so I made a deal. Instead of returning the ruble or dollar amount of the ticket later, I would find an equivalent amount of hard-to-acquire Western books that he needed for the school library and send them to him. This was definitely a win-win situation, especially since I found many of the books at library sales and was able to purchase nearly ten times the value of the ticket in books for an amount equivalent to the cost of the ticket. More than that, when people heard what I was doing, neighbors, colleagues, friends, and even libraries donated books, resulting in a treasure trove for Universe School. Seeing how so many people benefited — the school children from the books and the donors from a sense of contributing to a worthy cause — how lucky I was to have lost that ticket!

This excerpt is adapted from my book, Blest Atheist (MSI Press, copyright 2009).

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Honored Guests

Sometimes people called bigwigs visit Mommy. Usually these are very nice people, and they look just like my friends and me, only bigger. So I know why they are called big. Most, however, have very nice hair. In fact, none of them, as far as I can tell, wear wigs. (At least, I’m pretty sure they don’t because I pulled one’s hair once, and the hair stayed on his head.) Oh, well, maybe they just wear their big wigs on special occasions. I keep hoping to see them sometime, though, since other people seem to think they are pretty special things.

My brother says my mommy is not a very good entertainer because she has not bought much furniture. I guess he thinks that bigwigs need special chairs. Perhaps they do if they have their wigs on, but when they are with us—without their wigs—they seem to fit into our chairs just fine.

I will give you an example. On one occasion, Mommy entertained several bigwigs—all without their wigs. They sat around our dining room table on the fun chairs that my brothers and sisters and I use.

One settled into a desk chair that we rolled in from the office. (Mommy moves furniture from one place to another all the time; she calls it all-purpose furniture.) This bigwig must have been having a fun time with our desk chair because he kept rolling up to and away from the table. Mommy did not say anything to him about this bad behavior. That was unfair. She never lets me play that way.
Bigwig #2 sat in one of our lawn chairs. The chair was low, and the table was high. His chin was at the level of the table. My brother thought he should have some pillows, but our guest said he was okay. Clearly, he was. His mouth was closer to his plate than anyone else’s was. That meant that it would be easier not to spill food so that Mommy would not get mad at him.

Bigwig #3 perched on top of my old, rickety high chair. It’s so old that it is called an “anteek.” It is a neat chair because it wobbles in lots of fun ways. Sometimes if you get it wobbling fast enough, it tips over. Wheee! Mommy does not like that. She does not let me sit on the high chair anymore. I do not think it is fair that she let our guest sit there. Fair or not, I tried to be nice. I pushed the high chair so that he could see how much fun the wobble was. That did not make Mommy happy. I guess my brother is right. She does not know how to entertain guests well.

Conclusion: Bigwigs without their wigs are just like you and me.

This story is excerpted from a collection of vignettes that I helped Doah, my severely mentally challenged youngest son, to write and publish several years ago (copyright 2003). It was my attempt to help him understand literacy and the purpose of writing and reading.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Seventy-Five Kilometers on Nine Rubles

Working at the Siberian Branch of the USSR Academy of Science (SO AN) is one of the most fascinating and rewarding things I have done. The academicians were stellar researchers, and I was in awe of their contributions to the field. When I finished my time there, I had to give a 45-minute report to the collective body of academicians and invited professors from the university. In presenting the research I had completed on their dialect, I found myself in an unnerving position in spite of all their kindnesses to me while I was working there. Their treatment of me like any junior Russian academician, a treatment that has little in common with the manner in which American academics relate to each other, made the awkwardness worse. My presentation was followed by questions from all those in attendance. The questions fell like pelting rain from a cloudburst, one after the other in rapid-fire order, some of them piercing, others insightful, few of them easy. That discussion was followed by a 45-minute very supportive public evaluation of my report by Aleksandr Ilich, who later sent me a written evaluation of my performance to pass along to my supervisor (not that I had a supervisor who could read it since it was written in Russian). If nothing else, the time there did much to help me build a bond with the people and land of Siberia and, equally important, improve my Russian language skills.

The need for speaking Russian saddened Aleksandr Ilich, the elderly and highly intelligent director of the Institute of Philolophy at SO AN. When we went to his home for lunch and dinner, nearly every day, he would spend our walking time chatting in English. He had learned English during WWII from reading technical manuals for the American airplanes he was flying as a navigator. Once at his home, of course, we spoke Russian with his wife, Natalya Timofeevna, herself a highly respected dialectologist and academician. At the Academy, we also spoke Russian even though all the academicians used English books in their research. Aleksandr Ilich would chide them on missing the opportunity of a lifetime: to speak English with a native speaker.

One of the senior academicians put the problem into clear perspective. “One native speaker in our lifetime shows up here, and you think we could possibly speak English to her? No, this is not only beyond my capacity but also beyond importance for once she leaves, we will not hear English again.” Such were the conditions of the Cold War that he was right. It would take the dissolution of the Soviet Union before Americans and other Westerners would begin to show up in Akademgorodok.

Akademgorodok turned out to be a breath of fresh air after constant KGB surveillance in Moscow. There, I often wished that there was some way for academics to play the game that military attachés had played for years, if not decades, with their KGB tails. An attaché would be very careful not to lose his tail—something that Lizzie and I never learned for we were very skilled at losing anyone following us, some of it through scatterbrained approaches to learning our way around the byways of Moscow and some of it through real skill when it was important that we not be followed for fear of getting a friend or a helpful colleague into trouble. In gratitude for always being able to follow the attaché without difficulty, the KGB agent would give the attaché an occasional “day off.” The day was designated by the attaché walking slowly along the street and when no one was looking, placing a bottle of vodka or cognac on the sidewalk. If the KGB agent picked up the bottle, the next day would be the day off. Each departing attaché would tell his replacement, and so the game continued, at least until the end of the Cold War.

So, when Lizzie and I first walked down Morskoi Prospect, the 6-block-long main street in Akademgorodok with which intersected Prospekt Lavrenteva, named after Mikhail Alekseevich Lavrentyev, the first Chairman of the Siberian Division of the USSR Academy of Sciences (called, in short, SO RAN), and location of the Institute of Philology of SO RAN, we immediately felt the influence of Moscow. We saw, for example, the high-rise apartment buildings that were slanting slightly to the left or right, as the concrete slabs they had been built on absorbed the warmth of the typical 70-plus-degree heating of the apartments and melted the permafrost.

We especially quickly spied the elevated militia posts on poles at the beginning and end of the street, but they were unmanned. People talked freely about anything they desired. Surprised, I asked Aleksandr Ilich about this.

“What can the Soviet government do to us here in Akademgorodok?” he asked. “Exile us to Siberia? We are already here!”

Dear Aleksandr Ilich! He had helped us so much. He became our best friend in Siberia — my research advisor, father figure, and teacher. What I learned about Siberian language and culture had come first from his books, which I had read at Lenin Library. Then, in person, he filled in many missing pieces for me, providing a foundation that I would build on for years and am still building on.

He was like most Siberians that way. In a land where everyone has to fight against the harshness of the climate, being one’s brother’s keeper takes on a literal meaning—and action. Even strangers would help us out. One taxi driver, in particular, I remember with intense gratitude.

Lizzie and I had been in Akademgorodok for a while when I realized that we had better go the airport, the only place we could get a return ticket to Moscow. Our visas would run out soon, and we had come on those one-way tickets proffered by Inotdel. With the airport 75 kilometers away, we would have to go by bus. Of the two buses in town, one went to Novosibirsk, originally named Novonikolayevsk after Tsar Nicholas II, the third largest city in the Soviet Union. The other went to the Novosibirsk/Tolmachevo Airport. Both cost 75 kopecks for me and 25 kopecks for Lizzie, exactly one ruble all told. That was good. I had only 10 rubles left to my name. I had traveler’s checks, but the bank in Akademgorodok was unable to cash them. I was hoping that I would be able to do that at the airport since the airlines would take them for ticket purchase. I obtained the departure schedule for the bus and set off with Lizzie for the airport.

At the airport, getting the tickets was not as easy as I thought. All tickets to Moscow were sold out until after our visas expired, and there was no way to extend a visa while in Akademgorodok. Well, what we were to do? Purchase the tickets for the earliest day possible and worry about the visas later. (When we got back Aleksandr Ilich told us not to worry about the visas; no one would be checking—and besides, what would they do? Send us to Siberia? Like everyone else in Akademgorodok, we were already there! And so we overstayed our visas, with no questions ever asked.)

Once we had purchased the tickets, we returned to the bus stop. It was not there. The stand where the bus had pulled up earlier was a drop-off spot only. There was no pick up. I checked out all the other bus stops; at a tiny airport like Novosibirsk/Tolmachevo, there aren’t many. One bus driver noticed my obvious confusion and opened his door,

“Kuda khotite?” (Where are you looking to go?)

“V Akademgorodok.” (To Akademgorodok.)

“Akh, nu, avtobusa netu.” (I see, well, there is no bus.)

“Dolzhen byt’. My syuda na avtobuse iz Akademgorodka priekhali.” (There has to be! We came here by bus from Akademgorodok.)

“Da. Syuda priezhaet, no tuda ne vozvrashchaetsya.” (Yes, the bus comes here from there, but it does not return there.)

Along about that time, the driver of a taxi parked nearby came over and asked if he could help. I explained our dilemma: we had come to the airport on bus from Akademgorodok, never dreaming that there would not be a bus back. He offered to take us. I would have agreed with alacrity. However, all I had to my name was nine rubles. Certainly, a 75-kilometer-trip would cost at least 30. I hesitated, then explained my dilemma to him. He smiled and said that he would take us for nine rubles. (Obviously, I had forgotten about Lizzie being with me; most Russians will do anything to help children.)

Taking us to Akademgorodok along the road between Tolmachevo and Novosibirsk and then along the Ob River was a long trip in and of itself. When we came across unexpectedly derailed cars from the Trans-Siberian Railroad, which crossed the Ob two blocks from our dormitory at Novosibirsk State University then sped eastward across the open steppe, the trip became considerably longer. We had to turn around, go back to the airport, and find back roads to Akademgorodok. The trip wound through the woods and passed a Strategic Rocket Forces airbase that we were not supposed to know about, especially in the days of the Cold War, as we wended our way back to Akademgorodok for more than two hours.

Along the way, Lizzie and I chatted in English. Surprised to hear a foreign language, the taxicab driver asked us, “Are you speaking Czech?”

We said no and admitted that we were Americans, speaking English. The trip immediately became more interesting to him. He had never met an American before and was full of questions — just as many questions as the Soviet media was at that time full of propaganda. The driver’s good deed turned out to be very educational for him. He turned back the meter to its starting point three times, and when we reached our dorm at Novosibirsk State University, he proudly announced that the meter read nine rubles. We handed him nine rubles, along with a pack of American cigarettes that we often carried as a bribe, Russian cigarettes being distasteful and unhealthily unfiltered. To that, we added American coins for his nephew and a few other pieces of Americana that we happened to have on us. He was pleased. We were pleased. The Russian Good Samaritan may have lost 20 rubles, but he gained much that day that he has probably never forgotten.

At the time, I told Lizzie that we were really lucky to come across this particular taxi driver. Now I wonder if we really owed our rescue only to Lady Luck leading us to one kind Siberian Samaritan.

This excerpt is adapted from my book, Blest Atheist (MSI Press, copyright 2009).

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The People of the Valley, Part I

In the earliest days of Abkhazia, known to the locals of the time as Abkhazeti, three millennia before the Common Era, a black-eyed girl of sweet countenance and swift feet lived in the Valley of Ard with her two sisters and their parents. Long before the Kartvelian Rose Revolution, before the existence of the Georgian Democratic Republic, before the appearance of modern-day Sukhumi, before the Russian Civil War, and before the Ottomon Empire; yea, before the Genoans built a trade center there, before the Roman emperor abandoned it as deserted, and even before the Greeks descended upon the Black Sea coast and built the first town, which they named Dioscuri after Castor and Pollux and used for the export of salt and Caucasian timber; indeed, before all of that, the People of the Great Cloud lived peacefully in Ard far from the mixing of the races and the turmoil of the clashes of swords and later, the barrage of bullets. In the old days, Abkhazeti was a quiet land where the Great Cloud united with Its people. Its son Ditya, a dark-complected child of about twelve years, walked on earth as one of the them, and Wispowill broke herself into a zillion pieces and took up residence in the souls of all those who would have her.

Not everyone loved the Great Cloud. Many could not see It or Wispowill, who was always with It and always present even when the Great Cloud seemed far away or emotionally distant. Some argued that there was no Great Cloud. More people in the Valley of Ard claimed to experience the great stillness that they knew as the Great Cloud than did people in the trade cities, who were busy plying their trade, acquiring money, drinking to excess, and worshipping a host of gods who seemed to help them not at all. Some of the people in the cities and even some of the People Not of the Cloud in the Valley of Ard built temples to the Narts, a legendary and magical people who lived in the high Caucasian Mountains. Of course, the People of the Great Cloud did not believe that the Narts existed. They thought that they were legendary gods and had been exposed as figments of local imagination when the Great Cloud came. They were like the angels that everyone talked about but no one had ever really seen, either.

They argued that Ditya was just a foreign child who had been abandoned by parents of unknown origin on the shores of the Black Sea, or perhaps he had wandered away from his parents down from the great mountains of Circassia and found his way to the Krubera Cave (the “Crow’s Cave), the deepest cave in all of the earth, for that is where the People of the Great Cloud found him, walking out of the Krubera Cave. All he ever could, or would, tell them is that the Great Cloud was his father and Wispowill his sister and that the three of them had been one being from before Time walked upon the Earth.

Ditya’s stories were difficult for the People of the Presence to understand and those Not of the Cloud did not try to understand them. Nonetheless, all the peoples of the Valley of Kartveli took care of Ditya for a child to them was always in need of care and a foreigner to them always in need of hospitality. Modern-day legend has it that when God was giving out land, the Abkhazeti missed out because they had guests and were plying them in Abkhazeti fashion with lavish hospitality. So God rewarded them by giving them Abkhazia, the one piece of land that God had reserved for the Godhead.


These are the introductory paragraphs to my first attempt at a spiritual novel. The novel takes place in Abkhazeti, the land that is now known as (Soviet) Georgia. It is a place where I worked off and on for five years, helping the Ministry of Education write its equivalent of our SAT exams. I came to know and love the people, and I fell in love with the Nart legends, the only folklore of the region, as far as I know. Ironically, I was at Lake Pestovo, two hours from Moscow and without any telecommunications, the day the Russians invaded Georgia two years ago, and a Russian friend drove out from Moscow to tell me that our mutual Georgian friends had not been harmed. The story is of a young girl and her relationship with the Great Cloud, Ditya (Russian for child), Wispowill, and the Narts. I hope that readers will give me feedback as I go along. Posts will likely be sporadic since I am trying to finish Raising God's Rainbow Makers in the next couple of months, leaving little time for Angels of Abkhazeti, yet I work better when I multi-task.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


There once was a man named Samir who always pretended that he was well informed about everything.

"What do you know about the theory of gravity, Samir?"

And Samir would speak on and on about the theory of gravity that he knew nothing about.

"What do you know about Antarctica, Samir?"

And Samir would proceed to describe the tropical forest in Antarctica, which was, of course, located in Southeast Asia.

One day Samir's friends got tired of his boastful claims of knowledge and decided that the best way to silence him forever was to humiliate him in public. So, they invented a word that was a combination of the first letters of their names: Kh from Khalid, Sh from Sharif, N from Nabil, A from Ahmad, K from Karim, A from Ayman and R from Riyad–khshnakar!

They all went to meet Samir at the coffee shop he frequently visited. When he arrived, they gathered around him and one of them said, "Knowledgeable Samir, we have a question only you can answer. We heard someone speak of khshnakar, and we have no idea what it could possibly be."

Samir took his water pipe out of his mouth, blew smoke into the air, and with a very serious expression on his face began to speak, "Khshnakar, my brothers, is a very rare plant. Its original home is in the Sub-Saharan Desert. It has been shown to regenerate the growth of hair, improve sexual performance, and even cure the common cold, but it is funny that you would ask me about khshnakar when only last week I started planting it in my backyard."

The above story is excerpted from a book, Metaphors of Islamic Humanism, by my dear friend, Dr. Omar Imady, copyright 2005.

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Burning House

I have written much here and in my other blogs about aspects of my brutal childhood at the hands of parents who should not have had children. My brother-in-law, William Smith, however, has described that childhood much more succinctly and eloquently than I. With his permission, I published his poem below in my book, Blest Atheist, and I have posted it permanently on the Clan of Mahlou blog that I maintain about family members and events. Perhaps readers of Mahlou Musings will enjoy it as well.

The Burning House

I dreamed a dream of a burning house
With brothers and sisters and a cold bitter spouse.
The halls were all crooked, the doors were ajar.
I heard all their cries from the road in my car.

I put on the brakes and came to a stop
While an old jackrabbit went hippity hop.
I looked back again, and the house was ablaze.
The people inside just looked in a daze.

The curtains were tattered, the roof was not straight.
The hinges were knocked off the broken front gate.
The paint was all weathered, and the shutters hung loose.
A shadow on the barn door looked like a noose.

A kid outside shouted, "There's a fire there, you see".
But Mama kept screaming, "Come back here to me".
"No, I cannot, ‘cause your house is on fire".
But nobody listened as the flames grew still higher.

Once in a while a child would run out,
But Mama and Papa would just scream and shout.
The kid in the yard would utter a scream
As a child ran back in as if in a dream.

Soon the house burned right to the ground.
The kid in the yard made not a sound.
I opened the door, and she sat on the seat.
She didn't look back because of the heat.

I stepped on the gas, and we sped away.
I opened my mouth, but what can you say?
"They had to go back," was her soft reply.
All of them chose their way to die.

I turned on the light; she was just seventeen.
She was the prettiest girl I'd ever seen.
I'll never forget the night I stopped there,
‘Cause I married that girl with the long, flowing hair.

- William Smith

About Me

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I am the mother of 4 birth children (plus 3 others who lived with us) and grandmother of 2, all of them exceptional children. Married for 42 years, I grew up in Maine, live in California, and work in many places in education, linguistics, and program management. In my spare time, I rescue and tame feral cats and have the scars to prove it. A long-time ignorantly blissful atheist converted by a theophanic experience to Catholicism, I am now a joyful catechist. Oh, I also authored a dozen books, two under my pen name of Mahlou (Blest Atheist and A Believer-in-Waiting's First Encounters with God).

My Other Blogs

100th Lamb. This is my main blog, the one I keep most updated.

The Clan of Mahlou
. This is background information about various members of the extended Mahlou family. It is very much a work still in progress. Soon I will begin posting excerpts from a new book I am writing, Raising God's Rainbow Makers.

Modern Mysticism. This blog discusses the mystical in our pragmatic, practical, realistic, and rational 21st century world and is to those who spend some or much of their time in an irrational/mystical relationship with God. If such things do not strain your credulity, you are welcome to follow the blog and participate in it.

Recommended Reading List

Because I am blog inept, I don't quite know how to get a reading list to stay at the end of the page and not disappear from sight. Therefore, I entered it as my first post. I suppose that is not all that bad because readers started commenting about the books, even suggesting additional readings. So, you can participate with others in my reading list by clicking here.
I do post additional books as I read them and find them to be meaningful to me, and therefore, hopefully, meaningful to you. One advantage of all the plane traveling I do is that I acquire reading time that I might not otherwise take.