Sunday, August 30, 2015

Talents and mites

My mother's family contains an extraordinary number of musically-gifted people. My Dutch great-grandfather had a beautiful tenor voice and a clear, strong, melodious whistle. My Swedish great-grandfather was renowned in his little town for his gorgeous singing voice. My great-aunt Nell was a gifted soprano who sang professionally for years. My mother and her sisters sang publicly together in high school and early college; two of my aunts have wonderful pop soprano voices, and another aunt was classically trained as an operatic mezzo-soprano. So I grew up surrounded by marvelous voices -- singing solos in church, blending in harmony at talent shows, and caroling at Christmas.

I have a singing voice best described as "serviceable." It's soft, weak and breathy, and often cracks on the high notes. My solo performance venues are usually limited to the safety of showers and cars with the windows rolled up. While I can harmonize with others and can usually suss out a part from sheet music, I don't sight-read well and could never pass auditions for small choirs -- my vocal quality simply wasn't good enough. Being related to so many superb singers, I was keenly aware of the limitations of my own voice, and at some point in my teens I came to accept the fact that I would never develop the kind of vocal beauty that had been generously bestowed on my relatives. From that point on, I mostly kept my voice down.

The modern definition of the word "talented" originates from a New Testament parable wherein three servants are entrusted with various talents of money to raise a profit (a talent was a sizable weight of gold or silver in Roman times). Although the word's original meaning is now defunct, some of the flavor of it still lingers in the modern meaning of having a prodigious natural skill or aptitude. Some people possess so much talent that they seem almost weighted with it, filled with an ability that seems almost supernatural in its origin and strength. But talents, just as in the parable, are not doled out equally to everyone. And when I perceive that my talents are modest or even meager compared to the gloriously weighted talents of others, I tend to feel ashamed of the little I have been given.

But after thinking about it for a while, I'm not sure this is the proper attitude to have about talents, even small ones. To explain why, I must turn to another New Testament story.

The temple at Jerusalem had a treasury where Jews could make charitable donations. According to the story, people came into the court with money which they threw into the treasury, and "many that were rich cast in much." Their large gifts, perhaps some of them measured in old-style talents, must have been impressive to the many onlookers. And then one day, along comes this poor widow to cast her gift into the treasury. In my mind's eye I always see her as quiet, furtive, perhaps even a little embarrassed. For her gift for the temple treasury is a mere two lepta (translated as "mites" in the KJV), a couple of copper coins of the smallest possible value in the Roman Empire. She stands in a corner of the court, waiting patiently for a time when no one will notice her approach. And when no one appears to be paying attention, she finally sidles up to the treasury and, with trembling hands, drops in her puny gift.
Two lepta.

But someone has noticed her -- an ordinary-looking but unusually observant man, standing across from the treasury with some of his friends and followers. "I tell you the truth," he says to them, "that this poor widow gave more than everyone else who put money into the treasury. For they donated a bit of their abundant wealth -- but she, in her poverty, gave away all the money she had to live on."

The story of the widow's mite, I've realized, aligns remarkably well with the parable of the talents. Yes, if I were heavily invested with grand golden talents, of course I ought to improve on them -- but even if I have nothing more than two measly copper lepta of ability, I should not be afraid to offer them up. Those tiny mites of talent can still work to do remarkable good in the world. As another unusually observant man put it, "My talents may not be great, but I can use them to bless the lives of others. I can be one who does his work with pride in that which comes from his hand and mind."

My singing voice is a mite or two of talent. It's not good enough to provide a solo performance in public, or even to participate in the tightly-blended harmonies of a small choir. But it's perfectly serviceable for singing hymns in a congregation, or jumping into a Messiah sing-along, or just singing "Happy Birthday" to a child. And although I might wish to be more richly gifted than I am, I can be content with the thought that the modest amount I do have is still worth giving.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Miss V goes to college

Once upon a time there was a Little Miss V. And after a while she grew up to be a Big Miss V and was ready for some solo adventures. So she and I and about 300 pounds of V's Stuff got into the Small Silver Car of Errand-Running and went merrily driving across four states (all of which were in various states of smogginess, due to lots of wildfires across the American West *koff koff*). I had warned V about the general scariness of Utah drivers; after observing them up close in their native habitat today, she's a believer.

But eventually we got to where we were going...

...namely, the dormitories of her new university.

After going through check-in, V wasted no time unloading her gobs o' Stuff.

Dorm sweet dorm!

She brought lots of decorations with her (not pictured here) which she will be putting up to make this room more homelike. Her roomie (also not pictured here) hasn't moved in yet.

Please wish Miss V the best of luck as she embarks on her next big adventure!

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Beauty Party Weekend

As I write, the annual Geocaching Block Party is proceeding apace over in Seattle. Many quests to be achieved, many caches to be found, many funtimes to be had, no doubt.

And for the first time since I started geocaching as a hobby, I won't be there.

< Tevye voice >You may ask... why won't you be there, Soozcat?
I'll tell you.< /Tevye voice >

Because today Miss V and I are going to go get manicures together.

When it comes to beauty and fashion, I'm low-maintenance. I wear minimal makeup, I get cheap haircuts, I don't read beauty mags or follow fashion trends, and the last time I got a professional manicure was 22 years ago, in preparation for marriage.

So why am I blowing off the Block Party to participate in a beauty ritual I have shown no interest in for more than two decades?

See this girl here?

She's bound for college next week. Although I expect that she will come to visit us on occasion, this is her official fly-the-coop experience. This Saturday is one of the last days I'll get to spend time with her before she goes. And what she wants today is the shared pampering of a beauty experience.

I have no interest in manicures. But I have plenty of interest in this girl.

There will be other Block Parties. (Or maybe there won't.) But there's only one Miss V.

We'll take pix of our nails later.

Saturday, August 08, 2015


IME to admit what some of you have already guessed: I have not been taking care of myself.

I haven't been sticking to my eating plan or exercising at all. My weight, although not at the all-time-high watermark, has been creeping up. I haven't used my blood glucose monitor in more than a month, because I know it won't have good news for me. I didn't go to the doctor when we had no insurance, but I haven't made the effort to find an endocrinologist now that we're insured again.

So why am I telling you this? Because I've realized that I'm the kind of person whose behavior improves more consistently when I'm held to account for my actions. Putting this information out there, even if -- no, scratch that -- especially if it's embarrassing to admit, forces me to confront and act upon the problem, because if I don't, I know someone else will. And I'd rather take the initiative to care for myself than be pressured into doing it by someone else.

I also have a family who depend on me for a number of things, not the least of which is emotional support. If they're constantly worrying about me and how I don't take care of myself, that's a drag on their emotional health. I can't do that to Captain Midnight and Miss V, especially when they're already stressed from starting a new job and freshman year at college, respectively. So even if I don't feel the need to do this for my own sake, I should be doing it for them.

While I could wait to make changes on some particular future day, I think that's probably just the procrastination talking. So today I'm counting carbohydrates, paying attention to portion sizes and what's in them, cracking open the low-carb cookbooks and planning future grocery purchases, and re-activating my YMCA membership.

Also: any recommendations for a good endocrinologist in the greater Seattle area?

Monday, August 03, 2015

The modern pillory

In the public square of nearly every small town and village throughout medieval Europe, there was an odd device. They called it a pillory. Made of wood or metal, with holes to secure a human head and hands, it was created for a single purpose: public humiliation. If you were a heavy drinker, had stolen a horse, cheated your brother, seduced your neighbor's wife, or had otherwise been accused of an act deemed worthy of public scorn, you would be dragged to the pillory, bent over, forced into its confines and latched down for a period of time lasting from hours to days. During this time you would be subjected to the elements: rain, snow, sleet, hail, wind, or blistering sun. The kinder of your neighbors might merely point and laugh at you. Those with more of a mean streak were free to berate you publicly for your misdeeds, or they could opt to throw old food, mud, feces, rotten fish, dead animals, shoes, stones or bricks at you. You could have your hair shaved off, you could be beaten, you could even be branded. While in the pillory, you were completely at the mercy of your peers. In some cases, when the pilloried person had been accused of a heinous act or when the villagers were feeling especially spiteful, the pillory could become a death sentence.

The worst thing about the pillory was that you couldn't do much to escape it, even if you hadn't actually committed the crime that put you there. A public accusation or two was usually enough to establish your guilt. And most medieval peasants, whether by law or custom, didn't have the option of escape. They were suspicious and fearful of the world outside their village, or they were vassals of a local lord who wouldn't allow them to travel. So whatever the local villagers chose to dish out, you were pretty much going to have to take it -- and to keep taking a social snubbing from them for years to come.

Over generations, however, things began to change. As European explorers discovered a larger world and as more people gained the right to freedom of movement, it became possible for a socially ostracized person to seize a second chance in life. Whether you were in trouble with your neighbors, the law, the Pope or the Queen, you had the option to move away, change your name, set yourself up in a different profession and find a modicum of peace in your new identity. Personal reinvention as a way to escape past misdeeds became relatively commonplace in this era. In the former British colonies of North America, people continued to forge new lives for themselves right into the 20th century.

And then, just as public humiliation as a form of punishment seemed on the verge of dying out entirely, we had to go and invent the modern, electronic pillory: social media.

How does the pillory work in the 21st century? In a word, horribly:
  • Justine Sacco, former Director of Corporate Communications at media company IAC, made what she later claimed was a poorly-worded joke via her Twitter account. Shortly after, she boarded a plane, and while she was in the air her tweet went massively viral. Strangers, who parsed her tweet as callous and deeply racist, started contacting IAC and demanding that she be fired. Sacco was let go from the company, and her public and private life were effectively destroyed because of one ill-advised public comment.
  • On June 17, 2015, a nasty little white-supremacist scorpion of a male walked into a prayer service in an historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina and, in an attempt to start a race war, shot and killed nine parishioners. Even before he was taken into police custody, thousands of people started looking for the suspect in social media. It didn't take long for them to find the Facebook profile of one Dylan Roof, and they promptly began sending him hate mail. But the man accused of the shooting was Dylann Roof (with two Ns). Poor Dylan-with-one-N Roof had to issue a public statement on Facebook indicating he was not the subject of the day's Two Minute Hate.
  • If you're not already aware of the doxxing, death and rape threats, and other forms of online and offline orchestrated harassment associated with the Gamergate controversy... well, suffice to say it's a regular dog's breakfast at this point, and it doesn't seem to be getting any better.
  • In early July 2015, a lion named Cecil was shot and killed by an American dentist on safari in Zimbabwe. Cecil was a featured attraction at Hwange National Park, and was also the subject of a larger study by the University of Oxford. When the news media released the dentist's name and location, he became the focus of intense hatred by anti-hunting groups and individuals who believed he deserved death for killing a member of an endangered species. The dentist was forced to close his practice after people sent him online and offline death threats, publicly trashed his business on Yelp, posted "Rot in Hell" on his office door, and left stuffed lions on the front stoop. As of this writing, his neighborhood is getting an extra police patrol in case his neighbors are attacked; the dentist himself has gone into hiding.

Even if you believe that the targets of these attacks got what they deserved, the methods by which such "justice" was doled out should make you very nervous. Because the ubiquitous nature of social media has turned every location on Earth with Internet access into a virtual version of the same small medieval village, and because any accusation which goes viral -- whether accurate or baseless -- could lead any of you to the electronic pillory to be destroyed by millions of your fellow "villagers," you now live in a very dangerous world.

Think about what it means to be massively publicly shamed online. Anything shameful you did in your past which subsequently comes to light, any stupid joke you make which could be incorrectly parsed by strangers, any public decision you take which has its share of vitriolic detractors -- any of these, and much more, could be what drags you to the modern pillory. The anonymous vigilantism of social media has nothing to do with jurisprudence, leniency or measured response; the kangaroo court of public opinion will viciously, relentlessly strip your life to the bone and gnaw on your defeated remains. And it will not be confined to the Internet. People intent on punishing you will come to your place of business, to your church, to your neighbors, to your extended family members, to your home. You will have no sanctuary and no peace of mind. And, unlike the time preceding the advent of social media, you don't have the option to cut your losses and reinvent yourself. The Internet remembers forever, and it does not forgive easily, if at all. It won't matter that you're sorry, that you "made a regrettable choice" in the words of so many who make public statements during or after a shaming. Your youthful mistakes, words, sins, errors, will follow you to the ends of the earth. To anyone who has even a jot of compassion for others, this fate should be horrifying.

Pillories and other forms of public humiliation gradually died out as people began to realize how inhumanely their fellow humans were being treated. But at least a prisoner who had been latched into the old-style pillory could comfort herself with the thought that her torture would eventually come to an end. That comfort has gone cold in our era of unending social media "justice." I wonder how long it will be before we realize that the modern form of public humiliation, the monster we create anew each time we jump on a social media bandwagon of hatred, is becoming more like a different kind of European public punishment. One a little sharper, a bit more capable of silencing the shamed, a lot more permanent, and hugely popular with the insensate mobs of yesteryear.

They called it a guillotine.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Kung-fu household management! HYAH!

[If posts about housekeeping bore you to tears, feel free to skip this one.]

O, one of the problems with making the leap back to employment is bridging the financial gap -- that critical span of two to three weeks where you no longer qualify for unemployment, but you haven't received your first paycheck yet. After making sure tithing/rent/bills/etc. are paid, I've noted we don't have much left over in our bank account. I choose to see this as an opportunity to sharpen up my slightly-dulled skills in frugality and home management.

How does this work? I'ma tell ya how!

Cooked homemade pancakes for Miss V this morning. The standard pancake batter recipe makes more than she can eat (unless she's ravenous), and ordinarily I just tip the rest of the batter down the sink. But today I discovered you can freeze pancakes and reheat them later... so I made pancakes until the batter was gone, let them cool, stacked them up with waxed paper in between, wrapped and froze them. When Miss V wants pancakes again (and she will), we'll be set up to provide an instant gratification breakfast.

I have this bad habit of buying a whole lot of fresh basil, using individual leaves in a caprese salad and then forgetting the rest of it until eventually I unearth a pile of green slime in the back of the fridge. Not this time. All the rest of the basil has been stripped of its leaves, and now I've got two cups of packed fresh basil to make some pesto. Because you can make all kinds of stuff when you have pesto.

As you might have discerned from the basil story above, my fridge, freezer and pantry are not very well organized at the mo. I'm going through them to find and use up all the languishing (but still useful) food items that have been hiding in forgotten nooks. (Some of these will be more of a challenge than others -- how do I transmogrify a single serving of frozen white fish into a meal for three people? Dunno, but I suspect pesto WILL be involved.)

Spices. Lots of spices. Spices turn plain-Jane food into gourmet fare. And I already have a hefty stock of them on hand, so there are no additional costs.

I pay my bills with an online bill-payer set up through my bank. (Many banks and credit unions offer these free for the use of their members; check with your bank to see what it offers.) I haven't had to remember to write a check to my landlord in years; the bill-payer does it for me automatically. For bills where the total amount varies from month to month, when I receive a bill in the mail, I go into the bill-payer, indicate how much I want to pay and when I want it paid, make a note of it in Quicken and file the bill. Saves on stamps and eliminates late fees.

I'm working to get on top of household chores. Getting laundry and dishes done quickly isn't just efficient, it's also frugal -- if I leave a clean load of laundry sitting in the washer too long, it will start smelling sour and I'll have to wash it again. $$. Putting it into the dryer immediately after the load is finished saves water and electricity. (Yes, I could line-dry my laundry and save even more, but I live in the Land of Rain, folks. Plus my landlord has been doing a lot of earth-moving on the property lately. Dusty sheets and towels are not my idea of fun.)

Bookstores. Mmmm, delicious books. But they're not really in the budget, so I'm going to a) dig into the Teetering Pile and b) spend more quality time with the county library system. The same goes for movies. I want to see the documentary I Am Big Bird, but the closest theatrical showing will be in Tacoma, a month from now. Fortunately I can rent it from Amazon for a price far less than the cost of gas and theater tickets. Also, I can exercise a little patience and wait until money starts coming in again.

Cleaning up. If I have a whatsit but I can't find it in all the flotsam scattered around the house, I end up buying another whatsit, and then losing it in the flotsam... yeah, you get the idea. Cleaning house is frugal; it helps you find and make use of what you already have. (Small example: I just cleaned out the car and discovered we had three bottles of hand cream in there. THREE? WHY EVEN)

There are probably all sorts of frugalistic things I'm forgetting, but at least this is a start.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Want to do some good?

OK, I'm angry about this. For many reasons.

I'm angry because the abusive boors who poured beer on kids' heads and told them to "go back to the Rez" probably live on parcels of land stolen from those same kids' ancestors.

I'm angry because Miss V, while not specifically Oglala Lakota, is part Native American -- and imagining some idiot yelling at her or spattering beer on her at a hockey game just makes me want to bust some heads open.

I'm angry because there have been almost no consequences for the freaking pinheads who did this.

Most of all, I'm angry at the long-term psychological damage done to the kids, who are now very likely to retreat rather than gaining the courage to enter into and participate in a greater world. I quote American Horse School principal Gloria Kitsopolous:
Immediately after [the hockey game] I brought them in and talked to them. These were my top students, rewarded for their academics. The first thing they said to me [was], 'you said that we could go anywhere and be anything, and we can't.' That made me the angriest -- that they took that away from them: that hope.
I can't fix what Trace O'Connell and his drunken racist buddies did. I can't even keep them from getting away with it. But I can do something positive to try to offset it, and if you have the means I warmly encourage you to help too.

The Friends of Pine Ridge Reservation serve the people -- particularly the children -- of Pine Ridge Reservation. They have numerous ongoing donation drives, but the one that spoke right to my heart was the request to buy student backpacks and fill them with school supplies for the Oglala Lakota CASA children and teenagers, who have gone through horrific abuse and neglect.

Stores are starting to run back-to-school sales already, so the school items aren't that expensive. Care to join me? I'd love to see all those slots filled before school starts.


If you're coming late to this post and you'd still like to help, click here to review the other current donation drives -- there are plenty to choose from.