Shootings at Virginia Tech

Where does one begin?  The horror is beyond belief, as is the sadness. The facts are beginning to emerge that the shooter in the Virginia Tech massacre was a student who went back to his dorm room between shootings.  I cannot fathom how someone so deranged thinks and plans. I can only think of what happened from the point of view of the students and teachers–and parents.
Of course, one personalizes all such horrifying information, so my first thought was of my son who is a young university instructor, developing a university teaching, researching, and writing career. He’s on the “front line” of a major Canadian university, teaching a full class load. At least three Virginia Tech professors and three or more instructors were killed in this incident, one professor reportedly blocking the door with his body. In my illusions, I thought my gentle Buddhist son was in a relatively safe profession, far from the killing and violence that characterize so much of our society and world.  I think of the six years [compacted, my university studies actually lasted from 1962 to 1980] I sat in university classrooms where one is focused on the lesson and taking notes. A gunman entering the room would have been surreal, something that did not compute. The mind does not easily switch from academic content to diving under a desk for protection. I thought of my niece Elizabeth, studying at a large Midwestern university, my nephew Jon studying education in the southwest, and all of my former students in university classes around the nation. I cannot get my mind around the thought of a peaceful classroom violated by a gunman who comes shooting through the doorway, showering the classroom in a hail of bullets.
The shootings at Kent State flashed through my mind, too.   May 4, 1970—so long ago–the U.S. military [National Guard] vs. protesting students—but so unthinkable to my generation—that a university, the place for open minds, would become a killing field.  I was reminded, too, of the shootings at the University of Texas in 1966, the bombings at the University of Wisconsin, and other events.  This horror is similar in that the shooter was a student, shooting and killing his fellow students, as well as professors, with fierce intensity.
My sympathies also go to the university authorities and police. Monday night CNN and other media were pushing and promoting harsh criticism of the authorities for not realizing the connection between the shootings and failing to notify students. Of course, the logistics of notification are complex and shutting down a major open campus is not exactly easy. Today [Tuesday] the criticism seems modified. How hard it is for the authorities to deal with scathing criticism and commentary as they must continue the duties of dealing with the enormous problems of the aftermath. One of the worst things about our news media is that the lowest thoughts, opinions, and comments of traumatized people are broadcast and magnified, as if they are the final say on an event. The viciousness of our media, Paula Zahn, for example, is just appalling; Monday night she challenged everyone she spoke to, trying to spark dissention and hatred towards the police and university officials.  It was most heartening this afternoon [Tuesday]  to watch the memorial service and see the audience rise to applaud—long and loud–the beleaguered university president. He asked for support and thanks for all of the police services—noting how the local, state, and federal agencies had rushed to their aid. The work of the university administration and all of the police agencies continues non-stop, while the arm chair critics blather in the safety of their homes, not involved in the massive job of assistance, clean-up, and support.
While Americans are horrified at the enormity of this shooting, university shootings and killings continue apace in Iraq. Our media gives the problems of the universities in Iraq scant attention in comparison to entertainment, celebrities, sports, and sometimes shootings in America. What if such shootings and massacres were happening all over the US, day after day, as they are in Iraq? What might our passive and complacent citizens do?
After watching the memorial service Tuesday afternoon at Virginia Tech [April 17] , which had many wonderful speakers, I was irked to note that the evening TV news shows [we were watching NBC] played President Bush’s remarks. Of the speakers, I thought he was the most banal, but he received the most coverage.  Professor Nikki Giovanni, poet and English professor, was absolutely wonderful, giving a spark of hope and spirit in the midst of sadness.  
Richard Cohen, commenting in The Washington Post.
For unconventional thinkers, an “otherworld” point of view which is most apt—and the bitter truth  
In the mean time, I am sad, so sad for the students, parents, faculty, administrators, university staff, Virginia Tech, the state of Virginia where many of my ancestors lived and died, and for our country.

Assembling the Wardrobe

When I was young and slender, it did not matter that I liked clothing styles and colors that do not look quite right on me. As I have aged, and gained, it matters more. Who wants to look like a big muffin? All sorts of problems have emerged with my wardrobe: color, size, fabric texture, fabric design, fit, not to mention, shoes.

An ash blond, now going gray, with green eyes, I look best in the soft summer colors. I know that, having attended a “color” session, where I learned that the oranges, yellows, and reds I wore in my 20’s and 30’s are not my thing. Blues, greens, and violets are my colors. At the moment, red and black are the winter colors that have dominated merchandise offerings in my size—-and beige. I refuse to wear black near my face, though I do wear black slacks and skirts. Beige makes me “disappear,” as if I am not there, while red makes me look, and feel, violent. Whoever designs/selects colors for large sized women ignores the proper color schemes so carefully worked out by color “therapists,” instead providing a endless selection of blacks. I suppose many fat women like black because it makes them feel more slender; it makes me feel ready to attend a funeral.

Cotton is my fabric of choice, followed by linen, silk, and rayon. Polyester makes me uncomfortable–too harsh on the skin–while acrylics cause some breathing problems–all those little loose threads which are inhaled. Cotton knit is my favorite garb. Of course, it is neither elegant nor formal. It is not particularly easy to care for, either, as it must be steam pressed to look decent, though one only looks decent as far as the car before the wrinkling starts. Same problem with linen. Generally, even with my grumbling efforts to press my clothing, I look like I slept in whatever I have on in about five minutes, at best.

Texture is important. I have some polyester slacks that slide all over me and make me slide all over chairs. I hate them. I like the feel of cotton knit; it gives and one does not slide all over furniture. My skin is very tender, part of the Fibromyalgia problem, so soft clothing is a must. My favorite daily clothing is worn out t-shirts and cotton pants, which I wear until they are literally rags. The more ragged, the more comfortable. My family is used to my ragged clothing, which I only wear around my home, but it occasionally shocks visitors. I make an effort, well, a slight effort, to be more presentable in public.

Not much choice in fabric design is available for large ladies. I’ve learned not to wear large prints, which make me look startling. While I like small flowered prints, they are not flattering. What looks best and what I like to wear are slacks and tops in contrasting or blending colors. What is available for fat ladies are tacky printed tops which are not long enough to cover all the offending parts, like hips and pot bellies. 

In an effort to placate large women, merchandisers such as Talbot’s or Land’s End or even Lane Bryant present clothing in the same styles as those for slender women. Of course, slender women are not desperately trying to cover hips, fat arms, and pot bellies with yards of tent-like fabric. Clothing designed for the slender types often looks dreadful on large women. If one has a pot belly, a neat little sweater that boxes off at the waist is NOT just-the-thing. Often, style advisers tell large women to use long lines to “fool the eye.” And, where are these long line garments to be found? Beats me. I have not found many, though Lands End and Junonia sell cotton tunic tops for large ladies, which I purchase by the dozens. 

Shoes present a different problem. Comfortable shoes, like men wear, are not fashionable for women. They are hardly available for women, though I have resorted to purchasing some men’s Rockport’s, which are so-so in comfort level. The trouble with men’s shoes is that they are heavy. High heels, pointed toes, slick soles are the lot of women. When I was slender, I loved wearing fashionable shoes; they did not hurt my feet back then. But, even then, I wondered why modern, well-educated women persist in wearing uncomfortable shoes in which they can neither run nor even walk well. Now, having also given up the hated panty hose, I like to wear open-heel, slip-on shoes, with socks; the kind of shoe that has a running shoe bottom. This style requires slacks, as it looks unbelievably awful with dresses. It does not look “correct” with dress clothing either, but I have discovered that I can walk in these shoes and that they provide a broad, flat base on which to stand—very nice when one is rather unsteady. 

Anyone reading this far, realizes, of course, that my style is called “frumpy.” The problem is that I no longer care. I admire my friends who look elegant and sleek, who can wear exotic clothing with panache, who unerringly select styles that flatter them and look chic at the same time. I am hanging on to “frumpy” because I think “fishwife” is the next step on my way down to the bottom of the fashion cellar.

Women’s dress clothing is a trap. We pride ourselves on being emancipated and we look with horror on past restrictions such as ancient Chinese foot-binding. Fashion dictates that women wear bras, girdles, pointed toe shoes, high heels, panty hose, tight jackets which restrict the arms, clunky jewelry, not to mention hairstyles and make-up that require a lot of fuss. We have not come a long way….baby.

Meeting the Dalai Lama

The first time I became aware of His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, occurred in the early 1980’s when I read Thomas Merton‘s Asian Journal, which describes the series of meetings between the two men shortly before Merton’s death in 1968. I was interested, from a distance; he seemed an exotic holy man, but I began to pay attention when his name appeared in the news. In 1989, when the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, I thought it a much deserved honor and followed his work even more closely. It was not until my son Jim began to study the Tibetan language and culture and then entered a Ph.D program to further his study of Tibetan Buddhism that I became more aware of HH as a spiritual leader and holy man.

Early in the 1990’s, I learned that HH would be speaking at Berea College in southeastern Kentucky, which is about a three hour drive from Salem. Berea, an excellent small regional college in which all students work to earn their room, board, and tuition, had welcomed a number of Tibetans as students, leading to a friendship and exchange of visits between the college president and the Dalai Lama. I invited a former student, Kathy, to attend with me and we arrived early for the inspiring event, which was held in an old hall on the campus with a Shaker-inspired design, including a balcony that made a U around the room. The audience eagerly anticipated the arrive of HH and rose in joyful acclamation when he arrived. Perhaps it was just the lighting, but I saw that he was surrounded by a golden glow as he sat on the stage and then spoke in his high-pitched voice. His command of English is “iffy” and he would break into Tibetan and then look to his translator for help. The audience leaned forward, respectfully silent, grasping each word. In contrast, the governor of Kentucky sat on stage with a bored smirk. One could feel a holy presence when the Dalai Lama was in the room—and the atmosphere was “charged.” It was a profound event and I was exhilarated. It was announced that later that evening HH would helicopter to Our Lady of Gethsemane monastery, Merton’s home monastery, for a visit with the monks.

HH visits occasionally in Bloomington, Indiana, about 60 miles from Salem, as his older brother, Professor Norbu, and his family live there. On one such visit, while Jim was an undergrad, a reception was held for HH at the Tibetan Cultural Center. The tickets were expensive, $250 for two, but I realized this was probably my only chance to be very close to HH. I remember that as we walked up the drive to the reception, I said to Jim, “We don’t have katas,” the ceremonial white scarves exchanged at formal meetings with the Dalai Lama. Jim thought we need not worry, as we would not be very close. After HH had entered the room and given a short talk, he made a progress around the room. I was standing near an older woman, leaning on a walker, who was dressed in a white suit and blouse. A very attractive lady, though frail, she stood out in the crowd; in fact, she glowed with a lovely white light. HH came around near us and, seeing her, he stepped over to greet her. The crowd was pressing closely and I moved slightly to give her some room, but I could not step back. Thus, HH leaned across me to grasp her hand. His face was six inches from mine and his arm and shoulder pressed against me. I hardly dared to breathe. He talked to her for a few moments and then he turned and saw Jim standing a few feet beyond the woman.

Jim is 6’4”–and stands out in a crowd. HH walked over to Jim and greeted him. Jim took his hand, knelt, and spoke, in Tibetan, the ritual Tibetan greeting for when one meets the Dalai Lama. HH, startled and amused, clearly not expecting such a response from an American youth, laughed and responded in kind, placing his hand on Jim’s head in blessing and then speaking briefly with him. A circle formed as this exchange took place, the tall American student and the holy man. As HH finished and walked back across my path, I held out my hand, which he shook warmly. I could see he was exhausted and I lifted a prayer for his strength.

I cannot speak for Jim, but imagine being an American student immersed in studying the language, culture, and religion of an ancient land—and having the holy leader single you out in a crowd for a greeting and blessing. To me, it was a sacred moment and I did not take a picture. I did not dare—the moment was too holy. Later, perhaps as a reward for respecting the sacred, when I had my pictures developed, I was astonished to discover a wonderful shot of HH, taken from two feet, as he reached over to greet someone near me.

On two other occasions in the 1990’s, I heard HH speak. Once when he spoke at the auditorium at IU, we stood in the long line and somehow managed seats on the third row. The other time was at the dedication of the stupa at the Tibetan Cultural Center in Bloomington when he spoke to a large gathering, seated on a platform outdoors under a large tent. That venue, quite common in India and Asian countries, felt very exotic in the US. However, security was rampant–suited guys in sunglasses talking into radios—a reminder that we were in the US and living in dangerous times. Jim attended the 10 day Kalachakra ceremony at Bloomington a few years ago, as did other Salem friends; however, I did not feel that I could endure the early morning trips, the security, the porta potties, the long walks back to the car—so I did not attend.

I had longed for thirty years to meet a Tibetan lama and was rewarded with my audience with Geshe Sopa. I had never considered that I would be a person who was in the presence of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, much less be close enough to touch him or have the privilege of shaking his hand. I keep the photo I took on my desk, a daily reminder of this good and holy man, and the honor of being once so near.

Family Meals

Recently, when my oldest son and his wife came for a visit, I jokingly inquired which of his favorite dishes he would like me to prepare. Not noting the irony in my tone, he said, doubtfully, “favorite?”, causing me, and Max, to roar with laughter. Cooking is not one of my talents. “Adequate” and “average” are terms that come to mind in describing my meals, although “dreadful” and “awful” often fit, too.

According to my Grandfather Parsons, my Grandmother Hazel [Dee Dee] was a wonderful cook. Her bean soup was great, but I have no other memories of a wonderful meal at her home—and I spent a lot of time with her as a child. My grandfather was a positive and optimistic person; since my memories clash with his statements, I wonder how many of his statements were just PR. Dee Dee’s two daughters were not cooks, either. My mother was a dreadful cook. She prepared pancakes that were burned on the outside and runny on the inside; I have never figured out how she did that. She was also famous for making “cottage cheese” from spoiled milk; of course, no one in the family would eat it. Somehow, we always had a lot of spoiled milk. She could fry steak into hockey pucks. Her worst concoction was something made with asparagus and cheese? and covered with cracker crumbs. It looked like vomit and tasted worse; she served it in the dining room on Sunday meal occasions. But, she was brave. She persisted in providing dreadful meals and inviting friends over to eat, year after year. Once their children were grown, she and my father “ate out” the last thirty years of their lives, to everyone’s relief.

My grandmother and I cooked together when I was a child, mostly treats—cookies, pies, and cakes. I do not have any memories of our fixing vegetables or meat dishes together. When I married at 18 and went off to study at Purdue, I had to learn to cook. We were poor and I ruined a lot of food, which we ate anyway. I only had one small cookbook and I faithfully read and tried the recipes. In my junior year, we both had classes near the Union late in the afternoon and were happy to eat our evening meal there. Unfortunately, my cooking never improved much. It certainly got no better as I had children and juggled college classes with raising babies and small boys. Later, when I started teaching, we had many restaurant meals; I just did not have the energy to cook. The truth is that cooking is something I remember about 5:00 in the evening, if then. Oh…..the-kids-are-hungry-and-what-am-I-going-to-do-now? My mind is on other things. Over the years, I have gathered four shelves of cookbooks, boxes of recipes I clipped from newspapers, as well as boxes of recipes my mother, grandmother, and former mother-in-law clipped from newspapers. Nothing helps. I will never rise above the level of adequate. 

Strangely, though, in spite of the mediocre meals, the dining room table has always been a gathering place for my family. Sitting around the table laughing and telling stories was a tradition that encompassed the three generations I know, as well as the ancestral family groups my grandparents remembered. My grandparent’s home was the gathering place for many meals. With my parents, we had many meals over the years in our homes or at restaurants in which we sat and talked on and on. My sons and I have continued the tradition, sitting for hours around the table in my home, telling the old stories and laughing until we cry. This week, as son Jim and wife Shinobu blew in on an Alberta clipper, we once more enjoyed the pleasures of mediocre food and wonderful talk and laughter. One of the aspects of our talks is that we mostly argue about politics and religion—the forbidden topics of polite conversation. Between my husband and me, and my two sons, and my daughter-in-law, we pretty much hit the ends of several spectrums in politics and religion. We argue and discuss—and we laugh. We tell the old stories and the new stories—and laugh until we cannot breathe and tears run down our cheeks. It is often four-five hours later before we leave the table–refreshed and restored from the food of family love—true comfort food.. Family meals—one of life’s most precious treasures.

Breaking the Rules

My mother loved rules. She would say, “I’m going to make a rule.” and she would. She had all sorts of rules, such as how to properly lay a table for a meal, the selection of music for an event, what should be said in a thank-you letter. Perhaps Miss Manners consulted Mother on various rules; they would have liked each other. When she retired, Mother made a rule to arise at 6:00 a.m., as usual. No slacking off and sleeping until noon for her. Since she was an elementary teacher, making rules fit right into her job description. Rules keep Third Grade in order.

She was also a minister’s wife, and a gracious lady; therefore, she had rules about an orderly house, proper behavior in various rooms, suitable times for meals, proper clothing to be worn, how to behave in church, and such. Being a minister’s family required that the living room always be presentable for callers and guests. In practice, that meant we children could only walk through, not sit there, and walk at a suitable pace, no running. It also meant that the family never used the living room. We lived in large old church manses, so we children had rooms of our own to use; occasionally we had homes with dens or family rooms, which we children could use. The kitchen was the room in which the family most often gathered if the house had no den. When I was a teen, we lived in a smallish house in Knoxville, not as big as the larger manses we were used to. My father used the living room as his place to write and no noisy children were allowed. Later, when we lived in a lovely old house in Salem, he claimed the back parlor as his study and we children, by then two of us rambunctious teens, were relegated to the large, enclosed, side porch. I don’t think my mother thought through the ramifications of this “off limits” living room concept until it was too late. A family that has no place to gather, has no place to be a family. Finally, by the time my parents bought the condo in Columbus where they lived for the last thirty years of their lives, the family was allowed to sit in the living room—a little late, but nice.

I carried on the same silly formal living room concept when I had small children. I say silly, because my husband and I did not entertain formally and had no reason to not use the largest room in our home. But, we were both raised on the formal living room concept—and could not let it go. I did let the boys spread their toys out to play in the living room, but they were not allowed to climb or sit on the furniture. I did not realize how this offended my children until one son retaliated by taking that much-loved [by me] furniture to college, where it was soon trashed. We solved that “no place to be” dilemma by building a large family room where we had room to breathe–and enough recliners and sofas for everyone.

Some rules I broke recently, that I can mention in public, include moving the TV into the living room, putting a recliner in the living room, putting pictures [instead of portraits—who has those now days??] into the living room. Obviously, Mother’s rules about a formal living room were straight out of the Victorian era and British manor houses—and straight out of her mother’s home, where the formal living room concept also prevailed. The formal living room, an unused living room, in our house is gone, replaced by family room casual; now I am just trying to find enough seats for all the big men in the family. The six-footers look extremely uncomfortable in Aunt Francie’s dainty apricot velvet occasional chairs which are basically made for people 5’2”—knees on chin sort of thing. Our living room is rather small, but I am looking for some real men chairs somewhere—what with five six+ footers and two other good-sized men to seat.

Mother-the-rule-maker’s children, an uncooperative lot, resisted all the rules, although all three of us succeeded in rule-dominated occupations–teaching and nursing. Even so, learning to break those rules has been difficult. In countless decisions, some daily, others not, I have to think myself over the hurdle of breaking mother’s rules. It’s sixty years later and I am making some progress.