Presenting Dr. Barbara Harrington

Dr. Barbara Harrington

Dr. Barbara Harrington, with friends

On Tuesday evening, I drove out to Azusa Pacific University for a reception to celebrate a new-made Ph.D. My friend Barbara Nicolosi Harrington had been working on her dissertation in creative writing for the last couple of years. She’s been a professor it APU for some time in the Honors Department. The pursuit of the doctorate was to comply with the University’s expectation that professors have Ph.D.s.

I was a bit invested in Barbara’s progress, as I had given her dissertation a proofing edit when she’d finished writing it.

 

 

I don’t want to steal her thunder by explaining her thesis, other to note that it involved a writing theory Barbara had about the works of Flannery O’Connor. She had done considerable research on O’Connor, and had incorporated her insights into O’Connor’s work into her thesis about effective storytelling in screenplays.

Because there is a connection between O’Connor and peacocks, the celebration cake was decorated with a peacock feather.

The reception was a pleasant gathering. Barbara gave a brief talk about her pursuit of the doctorate and what her thesis was. I was pleased to be there to help her celebrate this important professional milestone for her.

Congratulations, Dr. Harrington!

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Taking Notice of Spring

I haven’t been very good about taking pictures of the world around me, at least not the last couple of years. When I was in Oregon, of course, the scenery was more remarkable to me. Back here in Los Angeles, even though there are spots of beauty around me, I’m usually in the car driving when I see things. It’s hard to snatch a sunset shot when you’re on the freeway at 65 mph.

But last week on Palm Sunday, I decided to catch some of the beauty around me.

In the church parking lot, there’s a planter with a rose bush. The dark red roses were past their prime, and yet they still showed why the rose is the beauty diva of a garden.

Nearby there were additional bushes, also past the most gorgeous point of their blooming, and yet their colors still caught the eye.

In Los Angeles, there are several types of trees that throw on a flowery garment during spring.

Back at the house where I’ve been staying, there are also a few flowers.

Along the wall of the house, beside the walkway, there are some very happily thriving pansies.

They are quite sturdy and durable (meaning that even a week later, they still look pretty good). So they are a pleasure to encounter when going out or coming in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the other side of the walkway, there’s a white rose. But I think it doesn’t get as much sunlight as the rosebushes at church get. Even so, the bobbing bloom was a pretty thing to meet.

I want to make more of a point in actually recording the beauty I see. Because it is worth it to see and acknowledge what is in the world around us.

 

 

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Rewriting Shakespeare

In 2011 I wrote some verses in response to a review of Orson Scott Card’s book Hamlet’s Father. Card’s revisionist presentation of the Prince of Denmark isn’t quite the traditional sort of Bowdlerization that takes out “offensive” material. In many ways, Card’s retelling increases the offenses, as his King Hamlet is a pedophile.

Derek Jacobi as Hamlet

Of course, given that Shakespeare himself borrowed from other sources and recreated stories from previous works, it’s rather inconsistent of people to become offended at people reworking Shakespeare. I’ll admit to being interested in such reworkings myself, and am quite fond of Akira Kurosawa’s Shakespeare adaptations. I’ve seen Throne of Blood, his version of Macbeth. The Burnham Wood sequence in Kurosawa’s version is a truly awesome moving forest. Also his Ran, a masterly adaptation of King Lear. I haven’t seen his adaptation of Hamlet yet. It is set in modern Japan, with Toshiro Mifune in the Hamlet role.

The thing is, most adaptations and retellings of Shakespeare tend to stay in tune with what the Bard created. His sensibilities about human nature are generally insightful and reliable, which is why we keep returning to them. But from all the descriptions of Card’s handling of the Hamlet material, it would seem that he just doesn’t “get it.”

Card has said that he can’t identify with a waffling character. And many have interpreted that as being the heart of Hamlet’s problems. But I think there’s a larger issue at hand, a metaphysical one.

Hamlet’s dilemma rests upon the conflicts between worldly demands of justice and the spiritual strictures of a Christian faith. Now, Shakespeare’s play is not explicitly preaching a Christian outlook, but it is deeply woven into the fabric of the play. Hamlet finds the world “stale, flat, and unprofitable” to the degree that he wants out of it, having no joy in what he sees around himself after his father’s death. But God has “fixed his canon against self-slaughter.” Suicide would separate the Prince from the presence of God — and this is a serious consideration for Hamlet.

Our modern world has come quite some distance from behaving as if we genuinely believed that the supernatural dimension, the spiritual dimension of the presence of God, was immediately effective (never mind believing that it is real – which it would seem that many do not hold to be true). To me, it seems that for those who do still regard the spiritual dimension and God’s presence as important, the focus is mostly “I am precious to God.” Yes, we give attention to the concept of bringing others into fellowship with the Lord. But do we really consider the connection the way Hamlet does?

When he finds Claudius praying alone, he almost uses the moment to take his revenge. But Hamlet stops himself, because Claudius is praying, and at that moment might indeed be repentant and so within the Grace of God. The Prince’s object is to bring about Claudius’ fall at a moment when the King is in an unrepentant, sinful mode, which would guarantee the departure of Claudius’ soul to Hell, rather than the presence of God.

But none of these considerations seem to have touched Orson Scott Card in his rewrite of the story. He structures it around the idea that the dead King Hamlet was a pedophile who had molested the young men of his court when they were children. Where Card drew this idea from, I have no idea. While it is easy to believe that the sycophants Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are probably a gay couple, and to believe that Horatio may have a fixation of some sort (requited or not) on Hamlet, I have no idea why he thinks Laertes would also be gay (especially since Laertes is looking forward to risqué adventures with loose ladies in Paris when he gets there).

To me, the tenor of Card’s version of the story exemplifies Ophelia’s description of the prince himself: like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh. It’s not somewhere I want to be.

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Challenging Yourself as a Writer

One of the things I’ve discovered as I’ve gone along, training and pushing myself as a writer, is that the best work is done when I have to push myself. If a project intimidates me a little bit, I have to dig deeper to deliver something good. And this is a valuable quality in rising to challenges. If the work comes too easily, you may not be doing your best with it.

Writing should scare you a little

I’ve done this in a big way several times over the course of my life. The first time it really struck me was as an undergraduate, my senior year. I had a heavy course load, and on a Friday was facing the need to deliver a paper for a Shakespeare course come Monday. The problem was that although I’d prepared a general outline for the paper and knew the points I wanted to make, I could not get my brain to focus on actually writing the prose. At the time, I had taken to spending Friday evenings on campus (I commuted from home each day, car pooling), ostensibly to do extra work. Unfortunately, it was frequently the case that by Friday evening I was brain-fried. So it was this particular weekend. I really wanted to get the paper written, but just could not get it to gel.

It just so happened that two words I wanted to use in the introduction rhymed. The words hung there in my brain, chiming together. So I gave in, and composed a couplet to convey the idea I wanted with them. In iambic pentameter. And it turned out to be a pretty good couplet. So then I wondered, “Can I take this further?” I tried another couple of sentences for the introduction in iambic pentameter couplets … and they worked.

Then the scary idea hit me — why not try to write the whole paper (excepting quotes from the play in question) in rhyming couplets? This was a completely insane idea for a college paper. But it seemed the only way I could get my brain to tackle the problem of the paper. So away I went. And I did it. (And when finished, the fact that it was rhymed couplets seemed to beg for something other than plain old typed fonts – so I used my best calligraphy and wrote the thing out on sturdy paper in ink.)

The paper was sound enough in its argument. The professor was a bit floored (and amused) by the presentation of it however. She admitted that there wasn’t much she could say to it, since it was something of a tour de force. She did question a few rather forced phrases I’d used for poetic purposes, but that was more a critique of the poetry than the discussion.

It’s not a solution to writer’s block that I’d recommend to everyone. But the point of this little story is that by making the out-of-the-box decision to write the paper in verse, I both challenged and scared myself into writing a better paper than I might have done otherwise. When you let your writing projects and ambitions scare or alarm you a bit, so long as you don’t run away from them, you may end up producing remarkable and excellent work. Try it!

Photo by Sandra Calderbank – scalderphotography.com
Used by permission

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The Mysteries of Pi

I’d actually meant to write this post in order to upload it on March 14. But I got distracted yesterday, and so missed that boat. But I figured I would go ahead and post it anyway. After all, it’s not like it is anything serious — just a bunch of musing.

I had been idly musing about a number of things: the Holy Trinity and the nature if infinity. And into those thoughts dropped the matter of pi, and its apparently never ending supply of decimal values.

It started as I was thinking about the Holy Trinity and how to explain this nature of God to people outside of Christianity. How to convey the concept of a unity of identity, while also talking about a trinity of persons and yet not meaning a polytheistic gathering?

For me, one of the best descriptions of the Trinity, in terms of helping the reader understand the concept, is in Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker. Although I don’t quite agree with the terminology she chose to use, the structure she explains works quite well. Father, Son, Holy Spirit — Concept, Manifestation, Communication Energy: the three elements work as a single unity.

That led me to consider how the number three has importance in so many belief systems. Some even consider three to be a perfect number.

So, I thought, if three is so significant, why did God create the world so that the value of π isn’t exactly 3? What is with the infinitely long extra fraction value to it? Why is pi rendered 3.14159265359 and on and on into infinity, with no repeating patterns?

As a bit of whimsy, I wondered if it wasn’t God’s sense of humor using it as a description of the relationship of humanity to the divinity. The Trinity is sufficient in itself. But on the other side of the decimal point of pi, there is this infinite string of numbers. The string will never be enough to equal the Three, or change it in any way. The string is something added to the universe, but no matter how long the string is, it will never cross over the decimal point to change the Three. We are God’s creation, but we will never be His equal. We will always be on the other side of the decimal point — included, but not really part of the unity of the Three.

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Libraries: Treasure Boxes – Part One

Jackson Libraries

The Jackson, Michigan Carnegie Library

When I was growing up in Jackson, the city’s Library was housed in a handsome blockish building downtown on Michigan Avenue. I’m not sure what age I was when I was first taken there and introduced to the wonders of libraries. But there was a certain pleasure walking up the steps into the library and then making my way to the Children’s Department.

Jackson Michigan District Library Carnegie Building

The Carnegie Building of the Jackson Michigan District Library

The building is one of the Carnegie libraries built in the early 20th century, funded by a grant from Andrew Carnegie. The Scottish businessman funded 1,689 libraries in the United States between the years 1883 and 1929. The Jackson library received a donation of $70,000 in 1901. When it opened in 1906, the building had been given features that graced most of the Carnegie libraries: entryway stairs that were to symbolize the visitor’s rising through learning, and a lamppost at the front to symbolize enlightenment. The other notable thing about the libraries built by Carnegie donations is that most all of them are architecturally unique.

Of course, the child that I was had no awareness of these historical facts. All I knew was that the library was a beautiful building that had wonderful books in it.

Jackson, MI Carnegie Library front desk

Main reference desk in the Jackson Carnegie Library

On entering the building, straight ahead, you’d find the main reference desk. Enticingly behind the broad counter were library stacks – the adult section that seemed a forbidden kingdom to the child-visitor. On either side of the lobby on the ground floor were the main reading rooms. But the goal for the young me was the Children’s department, which when I was young was upstairs on the west side of the building.

Jackson, MI Carnegie Library lobby and stairs

Lobby and staircase of the Jackson Carnegie Library

The stairs always held an enchantment over me. This old picture shows plants in it, but in “my day” I don’t think they were there. Instead, I remember sunlight pouring in on the white marble of the stairs and banister. Going up that staircase felt like being in some special palace.

It was in the Children’s department of the Jackson Library where my early fascination with world myths expanded. I had read (children’s versions) of Greek & Roman myths, and Norse myths. But it was a book in this library about Hawaiian/Polynesian myths that introduced me to the goddess Pele. The volcano goddess intrigued me then, and still is one of my favorites. It was also in this wide, high-ceilinged chamber where I found the Mushroom Planet books and began many science fiction adventures.

By the time I reached the junior high grades (what are now called “middle school”), I had become more familiar with other areas of the city library. I remember checking out books on handwriting analysis from the “adult” section. There was also the ground floor west reading room, where periodicals were kept. I recall one social studies project where the students were encouraged to include images. This was back in the dark ages, before everyone had a copier/printer in their home. The library’s photocopying machine (an early public model) would provide you with a negative image for twenty-five cents. As I remember, some students just went with the negative image for their reports. I, however, coughed up another twenty-five cents to get the positive image (by photocopying the negative image). Life was hard, working with “bearskins and stone knives.”

The Hunt Junior High School Library

There was another library that affected me in an important way when I was growing up in Jackson. That was the library at Hunt Junior High.

Main entrance to Hunt Elementary School

Entrance to the Hunt school building

Although the building has now been converted to an elementary school, it was built as a junior high school. A very modern design of individual buildings on the hillside, joined by enclosed walkways. The library was situated to the right of the entry lobby. It actually had a pretty good selection of books for a school library.

Interior of the Hunt Elementary library in Jackson

Current staff in the Hunt school library

This photo of the current staff of the school’s library shows the room looking much as I remember it. It was significant to me for a specific treasure I found on those shelves along the wall to the left. The fiction books were arranged there, alphabetically by author. I remember one day strolling along the shelves, idly looking for something interesting to read. My attention was caught by the title of one rather large book. Something Wicked This Way Comes. I was already familiar with some of Shakespeare and knew that the line came from Macbeth. I checked it out, and fell in love with the lyrical prose of one Ray Bradbury. I think it was my first encounter with Bradbury’s work. His prose would have a profound effect on my own writing, though I would not be aware of that for many, many years.

Libraries have the ability to enrich our lives. And these two libraries in Jackson were just the beginning for me.

Libraries: Treasure Boxes – Part Two

(My thanks to librarians Elizabeth Breed and Debby Sears for their help in finding interior images of the Carnegie Building of the Jackson District Library.)

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The Treasury of Words

Roget's Thesaurus cover
A few weeks ago on Facebook, someone commented in passing that they really needed to find a good thesaurus. The commenter was a friend of a friend, and so I don’t recall who it was. The pertinent fact was that she was a writer and was dissatisfied with the thesaurus she’d been using.

I read her comment and thought “I’ll bet that what she’s been using up to now has been a newer styled ‘dictionary’ type thesaurus, where it’s just a word list of synonyms.” But I also understood the challenge that she, as a writer, felt in the face of opening up that imposing hoard of words, Roget’s ORIGINAL Thesaurus.

The Dictionary Style

I seem to recall being taught somewhere around 8th or 9th grade about how to navigate the Roget’s original presentation. But at the time, it seemed awkward and confusing to me. I didn’t need the sophistication of it (although I didn’t realize then that’s what it was). I just needed a list of synonyms.  I suspect a great number of people felt the same way. Roget’s original version got set aside, perhaps as being “old fashioned,” and hence useless.

Indeed, when I searched online in preparing this blog post for “how to use a thesaurus” what I found was the following:

1: Choose a word as a starting point.
2: Like a dictionary, find the word in the alphabetic arrangement.
3: Once you find the word, look at the words that are listed alongside the main word.
4: Choose another word that will work to replace your starting word.

Now the thing about this is that it only really satisfies if you want to keep your original sentence structure, even if that sentence structure doesn’t quite get you to the exact point you want. You can substitute “mansion, bungalow, chalet, residence,  or lodging” for “house” in sales copy, depending on the size of the building (for a mansion is going to be larger than a bungalow). But otherwise, you don’t need to change the structure of your sentence.

But if you are a writer — or even more intensely, if you are a poet — simply replacing one word with a synonym isn’t going to satisfy you. And I really suspect that the complaint I mentioned at the start sprang from that dissatisfaction. A writer who is serious about the craft wants to wield the language with more certain effect. And unfortunately, word lists of synonyms don’t help that desire.

Peter Mark Roget used list-making as a way of dealing with depression. It was from his lists that he built his thesaurus, arranged by topics. It was originally published in 1852. It is the topical arrangement that gives his thesaurus its strength.

I confess that I didn’t have much use for the thesaurus throughout most of my education. I happily had a fairly large vocabulary to start with, so I wasn’t really too much at a loss for the right word most of the time. But the other thing that kept me from using the thesaurus was that I didn’t really understand how to properly use it. Even though I was vaguely introduced to it around 9th grade, apparently that introduction was not particularly effective.

However, when I was in graduate school, one semester I began writing a long narrative poem. It was a creative recreation, a release from the pressures of the heavy course load I had that semester. I had chosen to write in iambic pentameter blank verse. The demands of the prosody made me stretch my verbal constructions. Issues of sound, of rhythm, all combined with the need for precise meaning, meant that I needed to find exactly the right words for the lines. I would check the thesaurus for my options in synonyms and then check the dictionary to make sure the meaning of the selected word was indeed exactly what I meant. Both my thesaurus and dictionary saw more use in the few weeks of composition of that poem than they ever had before.

And along the way, I learned how to use the classic form of Roget’s Thesaurus.

Using the Original Roget’s Thesaurus

The first step in using the classic thesaurus, is checking the index listing in the back of the volume. It resembles the “dictionary style” thesaurus, with an alphabetical listing of words accompanied by a selection of synonyms. Sometimes, just checking this far will give you the word option you need for whatever you are writing.


However, if you need to go further then you have to learn the significance of the section numbers that are given with the alphabetical options.

In the example shown here, you can see the variety of options for the word “intelligence.” That word, the word you are starting with, is printed in boldface. Then follow the variations of significance. I’ve highlighted the various options. You can see that “information” and “news” have different numbers, even though they are similar topically.

That similarity and closeness in meaning also shows in how close their section numbers are to each other (551 and 552), highlighted in red.  The same thing holds true for meanings about smartness and brain power (918 and 919), marked with yellow. The uses that reflect espionage show in the green highlighting. The section numbers will lead you the user to an even wider selection of word options.

When you go to the section number of the option that seems closest to what you want, in the front part of the thesaurus, you will find a wide range of options, presented according to the various parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. This is where the strength of this format of the thesaurus lies. Instead of just finding a substitute word for the sentence structure of your originally composed sentence, you may find that the meaning you want to convey might be better served with a different part of speech.

In the sample shown, you can see the options for “innocence.” As you look through the options for “innocence” as a noun, you can see the gradations of options, from very specific synonyms to casual expressions. The subsections in the entry are further topical divisions.

Sometimes, in the search for the right word with the right meaning, you may find that being too specific does not solve the problem you are wrestling with. That leads to the next option in the arrangement of the original thesaurus. When you pull back and see the sections that are grouped together in a larger sense you may find what you are looking for. In the case of “innocence,” when you pull back you can see additional sections titled “good person,” followed by “bad person.”

This is the wonder of the English language. There is so much coloration to it. It is a language built by borrowing from other languages and making those words carry specific meanings, in addition to the words that grew organically in English from its Anglo-Saxon roots. The arrangement of the original Roget’s Thesaurus opens up the flexibility of the English language for the writer – once you learn how to explore its presentation. It truly is a treasury of words, worthy of its place in your reference books.

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Walking Toward Christmas Now Published!

Cover of Walking Toward ChristmasI spent some time a few years ago, writing an Advent devotional for myself. I had selected verses to take me from the beginning of the Advent season all the way to Epiphany. When I was growing up, in our house, the Christmas season lasted until January 6.

At the time I did the writing, I faced a lot of challenges. So thinking about what the verses meant in terms of how we prepared for Christmas made me stretch my faith – in a very good way.

So now, I have edited those meditations, mostly just to correct the occasional typo or grammatical error, but also to make them slightly less tied to my then-immediate circumstances. I do not pretend to be a trained theologian, just a serious Christian who has worked to study the scriptures throughout her life, always seeking to understand what the Lord might have to say. For now, it is published just on Kindle — but doesn’t that work well for a daily devotional format? I think so.

I hope others will find this a worthy endeavor to explore. Come take this walk with me, this walk toward Christmas, preparing our hearts for the celebration of the advent of our Lord.

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Photography As Art

On Sunday, I went to an exhibition of photos taken by my friend Norris Archer Harrington. It was his first real exhibition, but you wouldn’t know that by the quality of his work. The exhibition was held downtown at LA Artcore in Little Tokyo.

LA Artcore building.
Norris is the husband of Barbara Nicolosi, who I’ve know for a considerable time. Since they got married, I had not really had much occasion to get to know Norris except in passing. Then three years ago, I was going to be house-sitting for them during Thanksgiving, so I went to their place a day or two before their departure.

It was simple courtesy to try and get to know Norris better. I knew that he was a former Navy man. So I asked after his other interests, and he mentioned photography. I grew up with a family of amateur photographers, some pretty good ones. My grandfather loved taking pictures, and my father did also – to the point of doing his own developing frequently. My brother was/is an avid photographer (going to the point of getting himself a Nikon), and his son Justin has really taken to camera work. Me, I have dabbled with photography, almost entirely with “cheap” snapshot cameras. So, I felt I knew at least a little bit about photography.

Vincent Thomas bridge

“Night Bridge” – the Vincent Thomas bridge


Looking at Norris’ photos was … startling. It was like having been out in thick, odoriferous air and stepping into a chamber of fresh, clean, cool air. Breathtaking. Norris has a natural gift for composition. He likes shooting (older) settings that most people would easily overlook. But he makes the viewer see surprising beauty in these settings. Indeed, the title for his exhibition is “Hidden Beauty.”

Many of Norris’ photos are presented in black & white (okay, greyscale). That often highlights the composition of his pieces – like the “Night Bridge” photo above. But when he chooses to feature color, it is usually to let some detail stand out.

The photo he used for the Exhibition invitation does that. The red doors in the midst of the shadow have a satin-like quality in their color.

Red doors

Alas, my photo of the invitation doesn’t capture that effect — that’s the problem with taking photos of photos, or in this case, glossy postcards.

Anyway, it was really a pleasure to see Norris’ work being shown off in a gallery – and getting the appreciation his work deserves. I hope this is just the start for him, and that more exhibitions and opportunities come his way.
 

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Remembering My Parents

afterimage-cover-copyAugust 27th would have been my mother’s 99th birthday. I didn’t post anything anywhere about it, but I thought about it a lot. She died in 2007 a little more than a month after her 90th birthday. Thinking about the time of her passing refreshed my intentions to write a memoir. My parents were not much for telling stories on themselves or about their growing-up, so I had decided to write down as much I could remember of things they’d said, so that I and my siblings and their families would have at least a bit of a record of family history.

I still have a lot to write, but I decided to post the opening of it, since the incident is what prompted me to write the memoir.
***

It was just a sales receipt and I nearly threw it out.

Thanksgiving Week in 2007 marked a gathering of my siblings. We had not been all together in one place since 1991, when my father had died.  I lived in Los Angeles, my brother David lived in the Philadelphia area, my sister Charlotte lived north of Detroit, while my sister Joan lived in Houston.  Indeed, in the recent years, Joan and her family had been living with Mom, taking care of her.

But Mom had passed away at the end of September.  When we had gathered for the funeral, there was no time – and certainly no energy – to tackle the task of clearing Mom’s house.  We decided to return Thanksgiving Week, since David and I could get the extra days off work before the holiday.

We are a family of pack-rats, but Mom’s practice of it had gotten excessive in her later years.  Perhaps that was understandable, as she had reached the age of 90 and toward the end been afflicted with a mild degree of dementia.  It would have been difficult for her to cope with the sudden removal of so much of her surroundings while she was alive.  Thus it was that we were faced with the task of sorting through everything during that holiday week.

And it was necessary to sort through every single pile.  Mom had the habit of making piles which could include junk mail and important documents, even envelopes of cash, all mixed together.  We couldn’t just pick up a pile and toss it out.  We had to look at every piece of paper.

So there I sat, looking at this sales receipt.  I almost threw it out, but looked at it again.  It was from a local jeweler, and had been folded up with a smallish note card.  The receipt was for a necklace of jade beads, costing (if I recall correctly) about $170.

In her later years, Mom liked to wear those beads for special occasions.  They were new to her collection since I had moved to Los Angeles, but I had noticed them during a visit to Houston I had made around 2003 and in photos Joan would send to me from time to time.

I looked at the note card, and suddenly realized that the jade necklace had been an anniversary present from Dad to Mom.  In fact, the last anniversary present he had purchased for her.

That realization was powerful enough, but what really struck me was that in the note card, Dad addressed Mom as my darling.

So simple.  So direct.  After nearly 50 years together, for my father that was still his first choice of addressing his wife.

My darling.

*****

The illustration attached here is the cover I intend for the memoir. The photo is one I took of my parents when we still lived in Michigan. It’s my favorite of the ones I took. And those are the jade beads mentioned in the passage above.

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